Behind the Door, by Mary SanGionvanni, is a tale that hearkens back to the archetypal theme posed in stories such as The Monkey’s Paw.
Be careful what you wish for.
In the forest near the town of Zarephath, there stands a mysterious door. It is an unassuming, aged wooden door that does not appear to lead anywhere. However, this door turns out to be a magical portal to an unknowable dimension. For generations, citizens of Zarephath would walk alone into the woods at night to slip a letter under the door. The letters would contain heartfelt requests that are fulfilled in three days. Each person is allotted only one wish. Some wish for understandable favors such as an end to illness, pain, sadness, or addiction. On the other hand, some ask that their heartless sins and vile crimes will remain hidden, thus protecting them from retribution. What could go possibly wrong?
SanGionvanni’s writing style is a strong point. Her prose is easy to read, clear, and intelligent. It does include a heavy dose of tell, but this can be said to fit nature of this genre.
Characterization is arguably the strongest element in the tale. The players are varied, real, flawed, multidimensional, and clearly drawn. Some elicit pity; some elicit visceral disgust. Almost all of them have crept into the forest to slip letters under the door. Readers will have no problem finding characters to root for and characters to hate. Some may even wish their town had its own door in the forest.
The plot kicks into motion when a mother who has lost a child wishes to forget the pain of her loss. She carefully writes and delivers her own letter. In three days, the pain is forgotten, but so are the love and good memories. She soon realizes her mistake and is overcome with regret. How will she deal? An intelligent aspect of the plot is the fact that the characters’ lives and letters turn out to be intrinsically intertwined by hidden connections. These connections ultimately increase tension and keep readers guessing what will happen if or when the truth is revealed. When the inevitable complications occur, the outcome is deadly . Occult specialist Kathy Ryan is called in to save the town.
By the time Ryan arrives, the entire town is at war with supernatural entities. At first the entities are recognizable, believable, fearful, and even strangely worthy of pity. Soon, they morph into quasi Lovecraftian creatures that loose their individuality and thus become less interesting. In addition, Ryan lacks complexity and would be a much more believable and interesting character if she offered information more rooted in any actual magical tradition. That lack of complexity extends to and effects the conclusion which ends up as rather lack-luster and too easily accomplished
Overall, the author does a great job of creating a complex, surprisingly believable story. It will be easy for readers to suspend disbelief and buy into the possibility of a magic door.
Although Behind the Door is a part of the Kathy Ryan series, it can be understood and enjoyed by those who have not read any of the other Kathy Ryan novels. Followers of the series will no doubt enjoy this tale, and newbies will most likely dive into the rest of the collection after reading this edition to the series.