Anna (_ocelott_) wrote in genrereviews,

The Unseen by Alexandra Sokoloff

Publisher: St. Martin's, 2009
Genre: Horror
Sub-genre: Occult
Rating: 4 pints of blood

I'll be honest and say that while there's nothing horribly horribly wrong with this cover and in fact the muted tones of the gorgeous building are lovely, nothing about this would really grab my attention were I to see it sitting on the bookshelf. I like the dramatic lettering and the gentle obscuring fog, and while it sits here on my desk beside me it's quite lovely. But would it stand out surrounded by all the other books shouting "MEMEME PICK MEEEEEE!"? Probably not. I would be losing out to overlook it, though, so fortunately for me, it's sitting here and not still waiting in a bookstore.

I have to admit, I really like occult-themed stories, and The Unseen centres around the scientific study of inexplicable forces. Which, of course, meant I had to get my paws on this one through means fair or foul. (I kid. I might rough someone up to make sure they don't take the last copy off the bookshelf, but I wouldn't go so far as to steal a book. Support the authors, folks.)

After a prescient dream leads her to discover her fiancé's affair, Laurel moves halfway across the country for a fresh start. She gets a job as a psychology professor at North Carolina's Duke University, which she discovers is the birthplace of the famous Rhine parapsychology lab experiments. From the late '30s to the early '60s, Dr Joseph Banks Rhine led the parapsychology department in his efforts to prove the existence of ESP.

Fascinated by the implications of his study, especially given her recent life-changing dream, Lauren becomes fascinated with the Rhine studies, the files of which were only recently released to the public after being locked away for more than 40 years. The more Lauren finds out about the sudden shut down of the department in 1965, the more questions she has about it. There's something hidden in there, some secret that might answer the questions in her own mind.

Teaming up with the handsome professor Brendan, Lauren digs deeper and deeper into the past, growing more obsessed with the mystery. Something bad happened, something that may have caused at least one death, and she's driven by a need to know. She and Brendan decide to recreate the ambitious project from 1965, hoping both to succeed and to find out what happened to shut down an entire department. Too late, they start to find out they may have taken on more than they'd initially realized, and they may not escape intact.

Dark, moody, and utterly compelling, The Unseen sucked me in and I could not put the thing down. I went to bed hours after I'd planned to because "just one more chapter" meant "MUST FINISH BOOK." I was sucked into the mystery every bit as hard as the protagonist and had to find out what happened next, and if sleep had to suffer, so be it.

Since Dr Joseph Banks Rhine was a real person, and really conducted the Rhine experiments at Duke, I loved the afterword separating fact from fiction. Sokoloff has done plenty of research, which I always appreciate, and as a result the setup had a very real feel to it.

I did occasionally want to bash Lauren in the head for her blatant disregard for her own safety, since although she believed she was putting herself in dangerous situations, she didn't often seem to stop and consider that the smartest alternative might have been to stick with the books and interviews rather than trying to recreate an experiment that clearly went horribly wrong the first time. She does at one point (perhaps too late) make a decision to leave, but gives up the idea far too easily when Brendan says "please." I can appreciate her driving need to solve the mystery, but considering most of the information came from more traditional sources, mostly research and talking to people who were around at the time, that she'd keep herself and the students she was responsible for in what she knows is a potentially dangerous place seemed awfully foolhardy for a character who knew better.

Some readers may be frustrated by Lauren's resistance to believe, attempting to explain everything in a rational way time after time after time in a manner reminiscent of The X Files's Scully. Considering where she came from, though, and what it would mean for her and her life if she had to accept the existence of the paranormal, I found her reluctance understandable and believable. And someone had to balance out the enthusiasm of the others.

In the end, the mood and the increasingly complex story sucked me in so hard that by the time I'd finished, I was ready to re-read. And really, doesn't that say it all?

The Unseen will be available tomorrow in hardcover.
Tags: 4 pints of blood, genre: horror, occult

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