A debut author’s blockbuster-in-waiting uses a literary split-screen to double the fun—and the blood.
In 1973, MGM released a curious film called Wicked, Wicked. Shot entirely in what the movie posters touted as “Duo-Vision” (better known as split-screen), it followed, in simultaneous halves, a string of brutal murders at a swanky California hotel. Loud, jazzy, and splashed with blood, it was an American take on the giallo slasher films popularized by Italian directors like Dario Argento and Mario Bava. But unlike cult classics like Suspiria or Kill, Baby . . . Kill!, Wicked, Wicked quickly faded away.
Still, one has to wonder if debut author Wohlsdorf, staying up too late as a child, managed to catch it, and it made an impact. If so, her trauma is our gain: Security, her debut, is a flawless literary refresh of giallo devices, completed with a masked-and-gloved killer; long, sharp knives; screaming; lingerie-clad victims; and twists aplenty—oh, get ready for the twists.
The setting is another California hotel: Manderley Resort. (Du Maurier is only the first genre nod: the killer wears the same mask seen in John Carpenter’s Halloween, and critical action takes place in Room 1408, a number made notorious by Stephen King.) Tessa is a chief-of-staff of sorts, leading a skeleton crew through final preparations for Manderley’s big opening as the choice getaway of the rich and famous out for both opulence and unparalleled privacy.
The point-of-view is third-person omniscient, or so it seems for 11 pages, at which point Tessa looks into a security camera—at us; at least that’s what it feels like—and speaks. It’s the first shock of many: we do have a narrator, it turns out, and he’s sitting at a bank of security cams that, unbeknownst to staff, probe into every single room of the hotel. Discovering who this affectless security officer is and why he doesn’t do anything as the body count increases is one of the supreme pleasures of the book. Wohlsdorf draws out revelations with treacherous patience, altering our perception of events each time we think we know the score.
Here comes the gimmick, but as in Wicked, Wicked, it’s a good one. When concurrent action happens, Wohlsdorf splits the page into two, three, or four columns (some necessitating holding the book sideways), each one representing a camera. The stunt is never overused, instead providing a periodic strangling of tension before the next jump, and slash, and gush.
Just like that, Wohlsdorf’s peculiar prose choices make sense, from the stumpy declarative sentences (the security officer is only doing his job, reporting what he sees) to the jarring lack of line breaks between intercut locations (the officer is flicking his eyes back and forth, too quick for the book to bother with traditional spacing).
Most of these side characters, however delightful,
are going to end up as meat piled in bathtubs.
These are, of course, stylistic choices, though the novel has, in a way, an anti-style—it’s a poker-faced account of some unpleasant goings-on. This would fall flat without strong characters and plotting, and Wohlsdorf brings both. Tessa is a self-made success, a cement wall laced with cracks that don’t show until the 11-years-late return of her former foster-brother—and, weirdly, longtime crush—Brian, who might be ready to give up his dangerous life on the motocross circuit if they can both admit their illicit feelings.
The rest of the cast? They are just colorful enough that we wince when the killer steps out of his blood-drenched secret elevator, universal key-card in hand, and slips into their rooms. It’s spoiling nothing to say that most of these side characters, however delightful, are going to end up as meat piled in bathtubs.
That is, after all, the game we’re playing, and Wohlsdorf, though a rookie, knows how to play. Unlike the aforementioned obscure horror flick, Security is perfectly tuned for blockbuster status: scary, gory, kinky, and experimental enough to push readers’ envelopes without going so far as to lose mainstream appeal. They don’t make a hotel big enough to house all the people who will want to read this, and soon, as in Manderley, all eyes will be on Wohlsdorf.
This review first appeared in the February 1, 2016, issue of Booklist.