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The Supernatural Enhancements

By Edgar Cantero

Doubleday; $26.95, 372 pages

By Dan Murphy

News book reviewer

The setup is pure Lovecraft: a young European man inherits a mysterious estate in Virginia from a heretofore unknown relative. He moves and discovers a series of riddles and mysteries involving mysterious suicides, arcane tomes of forbidden knowledge, hellish nightmares and restless ghosts.

What sets “The Supernatural Enhancements” apart from the pack of Lovecraft imitators and typical haunted house stories is that he smartly toys with the reader’s expectations and the conventional tropes of the genre, without sacrificing the sense of suspense and foreboding that permeates the novel. The result is a clever and engrossing horror-thriller mash-up that delivers genuine scares.

Told in a series of journal entries, transcripts of audio and video recordings, and snippets from dusty library books, the structure of the story is a nod to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” which allows the story to move quickly, utilizing multiple voices filtered through an unnamed third-party editor, who makes his presence known only in occasional footnotes and clarifications.

A. is a 20-something man who arrives in Point Bless, Va., to claim his inheritance from a “second cousin, twice removed” who had committed suicide in the mysterious old Axton House. A. brings a “protector,” a mute teenage punk-rock girl from Ireland with him, and the pair find themselves on the receiving end of strange stares and whispers from the locals.

Cantero updates the set, placing the story in 1995. His characters aren’t naïve European aristocrats fumbling through a strange house in a strange land. A. and his mute companion, Niamh, are worldly and technologically savvy. They watch “The X-Files.” When they notice strange events occurring in the house, they don’t begin the Lovecraftian long spiral into madness; they simply determine there’s a ghost in the house and buy some video and audio recording equipment, going into full Ghost Hunters mode, seeking EVP (electronic voice phenomenon) evidence.

When they’re not busy ghost-busting, A. and Niamh work to decode a series of communiqués from the deceased former owner of Axton House. It quickly becomes apparent that the previous owner was more than an eccentric academic, and that there may be more to his suicidal dive out his bedroom window than appeared in the police reports.

“The Supernatural Enhancements” is a genre-bending work of meta-horror turned thriller that also works very well as a traditional horror story. Cantero weaves together elements of a Victorian detective novel with ancient supernatural elements and thoroughly modern characters. His main characters have a complex and interesting dynamic, which carries the reader through the looking glass into an increasingly bizarre and mysterious plane. Without their unique chemistry as a backbone, the story could crumble under its own ambitious plot.

Every time the plot settles into a predictable pattern, Cantero shifts gears and shatters expectations. Things are not always as they seem, but there’s a guiding force at the center of all the mysteries and secrets that pulls everything together in the end. It’s a well-crafted, self-aware reimagining of the classical horror story that updates the classical form for contemporary times, where ghosts can be less frightening than the secrets people keep.

Dan Murphy is a local freelance writer.