The novelist, Alexandra Sokoloff, details on her blog, Screenwriting Tricks, about the process of using screenwriting elements and film structure to develop and create riveting stories that capture the reader’s attention. After reading any one of her novels, it is easy to see why her methods are so successful. Sokoloff has built a career on supernatural thrillers (her debut novel, The Harrowing, won the Bram Stoker Award) and she relies on her screenwriting expertise and background to craft together novels that the reader can imagine watching as a film. They are thrilling and well-plotted, combining suspense, humor and romance. There is a clear sensuality that permeates her prose, which is exhibited once again in The Unseen.
It is a tale based on the paranormal studies that took place at Duke University during the 1960s and an ill-fated present day attempt to recreate those studies by two professors and students. Dr. Laurel MacDonald is a psychology professor, damaged by a failed relationship in California. She escapes by moving to the east coast and accepts a job at the distinguished Duke University, “a Gothic castle of a school,” nestled deep in the Piedmont regions of North Carolina. There she discovers one night in the rare books library an old parapsychology study by the Rhine Lab that ran for thirty-eight years before closing in 1965. The Rhine Lab studied the possibilities of ESP, which is of notable interest to Laurel. But what captures her attention more is the seven hundred boxes of original research material available and no one seems to be studying them.
She meets Tyler, a young male student who instantly picks up on Laurel’s interest in the paranormal. He speaks with a southern drawl and his cat-like watch over her is dangerously seductive. Also joining them in the investigation is co-professor, Dr. Brendan Cody, and another student, Katrina. Answers are sought behind the reasons for Dr. Alaistar Leish’s death, the last person to head the Rhine Lab studies, and why the lab was shut down shortly after. The four attempt to re-create the original parapsychology study, which takes them to rural North Carolina to the Folger House past “horse pastures and patchwork fields bordered by split-rail fences.” This house was researched before which is allegedly haunted by a poltergeist and Laurel notes the wall of tall green trees surrounding the house that “gave an otherworldliness to the place that was awesome and unnerving.” The activation of the experiment in the spooky estate soon turns dangerous as they each become vulnerable and fall prey to menacing paranormal encounters. Like “rats in a maze” they must rely on their wits and physical strength to escape from the presence that threatens to trap them in that house.
Sokoloff sets up her characters nicely and builds the novel steadily, propelling the reader to its exciting finality. The use of Duke University offers the perfect setting – a campus adorned with Gothic stone arches and gargoyles, which seem to watch Laurel’s every move – heightening the spooky effect that Sokoloff is after here. And the Folger House is a classic haunted house. The Unseen recalls Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting of Hill House, or even Tobe Hooper’s film, Poltergeist, but it stands solidly alone as a modern take on the paranormal suspense. The novel delivers what it promises: a fast paced, well executed thriller that keeps the reader on the edge of their seat.