Gus Moreno's This Thing Between Us is the kind of horror novel that makes you uncomfortable in the best way possible. Some of the discomfort comes from the book's unrelenting creepiness; apparitions, a resurrected dog, mysterious rituals, a mouth full of shattered teeth. But some of it comes from the way Moreno explores grief and how it can be so strong it changes the way we interpret reality.
Vera and Thiago move into a Chicago condo where strange things happen: They hear steps at night, experience cold spots throughout the house, and hear scratching on the walls. They take it all in stride, but when Vera buys a smart speaker, things get worse. Packages nobody ordered, containing everything from sex toys to industrial strength lye start showing up, and the speaker turns itself on at odd times, talks to someone who isn't there, and plays random music.
It gets bad enough that they start looking into it — turns out a witch lived there before them, and performed some kind of terrible ritual when she was forced to move out. But before they can investigate more, a young man fleeing the scene of a crime he committed accidentally pushes Vera down some stairs, and she falls into a coma and dies. In the aftermath, a devastated Thiago escapes the political and media frenzy surrounding Vera's death — the young man was undocumented — by using Vera's life insurance money to leave Chicago and move to an isolated cabin in the cold Colorado wilderness. But he can't escape: The thing that haunted their condo becomes more powerful as it feeds on Thiago's pain and guilt, turning his life into a spiraling nightmare.
This Thing Between Us is more than a horror novel about loss and grief. This is a political book about culture, migration, and identity. Thiago struggles his family's history and his inability to speak Spanish with them; they had "slithered across the border" from Mexico, had no education, and for a while, Thiago's father wouldn't even recognize him as a son. That history follows him and affects his relationship with Vera's mother, who thinks her daughter deserves better. Also, Vera's death puts him in the epicenter of the ongoing discussion about undocumented migrants, which plays a huge role in making him want to vanish from society:
I had to figure out how to deactivate my social media accounts because complete strangers were telling me either how sorry they felt or how angry they would be if it was their wife, and what the country should do about illegals, or how I shouldn't blame an underrepresented population for a freak accident.
Sometimes you can see a kid's parents in their face — but also see them as a unique person. The same happens here. This Thing Between Us kicks things off by killing (pun intended) the Final Girl trope and then moves on to use some well-known genre clichés and tips of the hat. For example, the dog Thiago adopts in Colorado is a Saint Bernard. After he dies and Thiago buries him, the dog comes back and attacks him in the house and then outside in a car — shades of Stephen King's Pet Sematary and Cujo, respectively. Thiago also spends a lot of the last third of the novel in a series of dark dreams that feature a shape shifting cook he met on his drive to Colorado. The dreams are reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft's Dream Cycle and are tinged with the same dreadful cosmic horror:
I was overcome with the knowledge that we were standing at the end of the universe. We were on the edge of everything known, the veil drawn thin here — even the light that flared over the horizon and met my eyes, its constituent particles barely held together.
Despite those echoes, This Thing Between Us is not a pastiche of other horror novels; it's a fresh take on the genre that celebrates and pays tribute to its elements, from the gore to the cerebral stuff. Moreno loves horror, and here, he proves he understands the genre's DNA and how it can morph into new monsters from which recognizable features emerge.
While the scary parts are fun to read, the emotional grittiness of this novel is what makes a lasting impact. Thiago is overcome with remorse and heartache, and the narrative — written for Vera and constantly addressing her — drives that home on almost every page. Thiago's descent into a nightmare where space isn't real and time is meaningless is somehow understandable, because while his case is unique, death haunts us all.
This Thing Between Us is a superb debut from an author who understands that horror fails in the absence of empathy. More than just scare us, Moreno wants to hurt readers with this book, and I strongly suggest you let him — even if you end up turning off your smart speaker forever.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.