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Following the explosive release of BABY TEETH, Zoje Stage returns with WONDERLAND, a Shirley Jackson-esque horror novel set in the wilderness of the Adirondacks where the forest has come to life.

Orla and Shaw Bennett are finally doing what all New Yorkers claim they will do “someday”: they are leaving New York City for upstate New York, a place where they believe that Shaw, who has always been a bit aimless, can finally pursue his passion. They have been together for two decades and have two children: quiet, stoic Eleanor Queen, age nine, and joy-filled Tycho, a baby at only four. For years, Orla has supported the family as a performing ballerina, but now, at 41, it is time for her to retire and stay at home with the children while her husband focuses on his dream of painting. For weeks they have been preparing their new home --- a slightly rundown old farmhouse --- for their arrival, but no one is quite as excited as Shaw, who has become enamored of a 500-year-old tree on the property that he claims is his muse.

"This is a book about wish fulfillment, fear and faith, and I appreciated the Wonderland-esque ways that the setting responded to the characters’ thoughts and fears."

Let’s face it, even the most beautiful farmhouse is still creepy, and the Bennetts’ new place definitely lives up to the lore surrounding old, remote houses. But as Orla unpacks and Shaw retreats to his new studio, they begin to sense that they are not quite as alone as they once thought. There is something in the woods, calling to them, teasing them, surrounding them and toying with them. But as It begins to close in, they realize that they will not be able to leave their new home easily, no matter what happens to them.

The unnatural occurrences are slow at first, like a sudden snowstorm that easily can be explained as a squall (or can it?), and a series of minor hallucinations that the Bennetts hope can be attributed to toxic well water. But as the forest lays claim to Orla and Shaw’s minds, they each begin to withdraw and push one another away --- afraid of revealing that something is not right, but just as fearful of being called insane. Finally, on a night when the Aurora Borealis appears only on their property, miles and miles away from the lowest point it can scientifically occur, they begin to work together and share the strange happenings that have been plaguing them. Just as they start to feel in control again, It takes hold of Shaw’s mind --- and their daughter’s. With the forest trapping her in their home, it is up to Orla to defend her children, discover what the forest wants from them and get them all to safety.

Stage knows how to set a scene, ramp up the suspense and make you feel so trapped in it that the horror becomes palpable. This is a downright creepy and eerie book, and I often found myself jumping at even the slightest sound or shift of the light as I read. That said, as someone who devoured BABY TEETH, I have to say that WONDERLAND fell a bit flat for me. Early on, I struggled to connect with the characters, even Orla, with whom we spend the most time. Their fears felt real most of the time, but their everyday personalities did not. And although Stage is thoroughly talented and adept at writing horror, without the characters providing the necessary support, even the terror felt empty at times.

One highlight of the book is Stage’s exploration of the Bennetts’ marriage and the ways that they are desperate to remain lovable and respectable to one another. The emotional stress and agony sometimes felt more crushing than the actual horror, and it was these moments, ultimately, that kept me reading. In one poignant example, Orla offers up what she feels is a good, solid, scientific explanation for what is happening. Although she believes that Shaw has missed or ignored the strange occurrences, the instant relief on his face reveals that he, too, has been suffering --- not just from fear, but from his unwillingness to confide in his wife. This, for me, was one of those “wow” moments, when you realize just how astute a writer has to be to make relationships feel real, complicated and layered.

Although WONDERLAND ambles a bit at times, it is still undeniably creepy, and I was intrigued by the way Stage created her “monster.” This is a book about wish fulfillment, fear and faith, and I appreciated the Wonderland-esque ways that the setting responded to the characters’ thoughts and fears. This is an atmospheric read, and even if you don’t end up reading this book in the middle of a New England farmhouse like I did (too real!), you won’t be able to deny the way Stage sets the scene, almost like a set builder building it around you while you sleep.

The novel feels incredibly cinematic, and I often found myself envisioning scenes from A Quiet Place or Bird Box as I read. I have no doubt that WONDERLAND would make a tremendous film. Those who enjoyed THE GRIP OF IT or THE CABIN IN THE WOODS will find plenty to appreciate here, but I just wish that Stage had spent a little more time with her characters to make them feel as layered and nuanced as her masterful horror.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on July 17, 2020

by Zoje Stage