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the stranger next door

review by rob gonsalves

Amélie Nothomb

Henry Holt
December 1997
152 pages

Buy the hardcover at

Remember Stephen King's famous plug "I have seen the future of horror, and his name is Clive Barker"? Well, I, too, have seen the future of horror, and she kicks Clive Barker's ass. Her name is Amélie Nothomb, she's 30, her six novels are massively popular (and fiercely controversial) in France, and she sounds like a female David Lynch. Consider the following statements:

"I'm attracted by extreme beauty and extreme ugliness. But it's easier to describe extreme ugliness." Or this: "I think all human relationships are driven by sado-masochism. I don't think it's me personally. It's just how I see the world." Or this, regarding her daily diet of black tea: "It makes me throw up. But it gives me the energy I need to write. The tea, together with the disgusting things I write about, means I have to stop often to vomit." Or this: "I like rotten fruit, for example, when it starts to grow little green hairs."

This innocuous-looking young woman, who resembles a French Christina Ricci and has posed for a photo in pigtails while blowing out birthday candles, has now made her American debut with Henry Holt and Company's publication of The Stranger Next Door (first published as Les Catilinaires in 1995 and elegantly translated by Carol Volk). The book is small (152 pages), quiet, and deadly. Nothomb's bread and butter may be murder and madness, but she doesn't go in for the rote slashers and monsters that mar the work of Koontz and (sometimes) King. She's solidly in the psychological-horror tradition of Poe and Bloch, with a strong streak of empathy that makes the perversity that much more perverse.

The Stranger Next Door (the American title echoes both Camus and Anne River Siddons' fine horror neo-gothic The House Next Door) is about an elderly couple, Emile (the narrator) and Juliette, who have settled into an isolated little house to enjoy their last years together. Soon, there's a knock at the door: a neighbor -- Palamedes Bernardin, a doctor who arrives uninvited and sits down without a word, waiting to be served coffee. Emile and Juliette don't know what to make of their rudely silent neighbor, who begins to show up every day at four and stay until six. They try everything to drive him away, but nothing works -- they begin to feel trapped by Bernardin's clockwork visits.

The novel goes on like this for about 60 pages, and then Nothomb plays her most vivid card of horror. Bernardin has a wife, and ... Well, let's just recall Nothomb's statement about extreme ugliness and leave it at that. At first disgusted, Emile and Juliette come to pity and then care about the wife, and Nothomb moves from physical horror to rhetorical horror -- a long monologue as shocking (considering its source) and brutal as any knife slash in a shower.

The impact of The Stranger Next Door depends on its smooth, quiet unfolding and inexorable progress towards the final macabre event; it also depends a bit on surprise, so I won't say much more about it. I will say that Nothomb, at her young age, is already a master of mood and nuance. Her characters live and breathe; her prose is simple and evocative, distanced yet intimate, and also very witty -- like many works of horror, this is at heart a black comedy of manners (how do you respond to evil without becoming evil? You can't, and therein lies the horror). Amélie Nothomb has published five other novels, and I can only pray (no, demand!) that Henry Holt gives us Americans the books we've been missing for the last five years.

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