What’s the point of horror? Teenager Kendra – one of the four characters through whose viewpoints this novel is told – thinks it’s all about romance that can survive supernatural adversity. Her friend Shawn, the only other black nerd at their Washington DC high school, is unconvinced, especially when she tries to sell him on her theory that Clive Barker’s BDSM gorefest Hellraiser is a love story (it’s the 1990s, so Hellraiser on VHS is the ultimate in transgressive entertainment).
For him, horror is about testing limits. In a speech to the horror society he and Kendra co-found, he explains his creed. “Horror shows who we are,” he says. “When we’re faced with a monster, or a ghost, or a serial killer, what we’re actually made of comes forth. I like to see what people are made of. Therefore, I like horror.”
There’s a double meaning to the idea of “what people are made of” in a horror context, of course. If one of the cenobites from Hellraiser takes an interest in what’s under your skin, the next step is likely to involve dissection. And, true to genre – because Reprieve is a horror novel, albeit one that twists up the form in delightful ways – James Han Mattson starts his story by letting us know that someone is going to find themselves on the wrong end of a knife.
Through scraps of testimony and evidence scattered through the novel, we rapidly learn the following details. The victim is called Bryan. The man who killed him is called Leonard. The setting for all this is a place called Quigley House in Nebraska, which is a “full contact haunt”: an attraction where visitors are assaulted by actors in grisly costumes, and may win a prize if they make it through.
The majority of the novel is told in flashbacks, which gradually explain how everyone involved in Bryan’s death is drawn together – not just Kendra and Leonard, but also the other three members of Bryan’s team and John Forrester, the owner of Quigley. It’s a skilful and gripping piece of storytelling that jumps from Thailand to the US, and shifts between courtroom drama and wistful domestic scenes.
The most disturbing sections, though, are those that take place in the haunt itself, as Bryan and his team fight their way through. There’s a genuine sense of terror, and lots of brilliantly described unpleasantness. Things go squelch, bodies are consumed with pain, and the knowledge that all this is going to end very badly in no way impedes your desire to see them progress.
But there’s an insistent sense here that true horror lies somewhere away from the shocks of Quigley. When Kendra is a little girl, her father shows her a video of the Rodney King beating until she cries out for him to stop. The violence of a bigoted society is where the real nightmares dwell, suggests Mattson, in a story that picks and probes at the tensions of race, sexuality and identity.
People in this novel are constantly judged by, or judging others on, the colour of their skin. Jaidee, a young Thai man on Bryan’s team, has long been obsessed with his American English teacher, who represents everything desirable about whiteness. Conversely, Leonard is a white man fixated on a Thai woman he met in a brothel, who he idealises as the kind of perfectly docile woman America could never offer. Mattson drills down to the grotesque core of fetishisation - dehumanising somebody and calling it love. And what could be better suited to the horror genre than that?
The only frustration here is that Mattson is a very good horror writer who doesn’t seem entirely to approve of horror. The more the novel disaffiliates itself from the genre, the less satisfying it becomes, although the heady plotting means the holes don’t show till very late on. A surprising number of “whys” and “hows” remain at the end, and thematic questions get left dangling too. I’m not sure the novel ever does disclose Mattson’s own views on the point of horror, but you will have a grippingly unpleasant time trying to find out.
• Reprieve is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.