The fumbling, short-sighted protagonists of horror stories are often the subjects of our collective mockery. “How stupid do you have to be?” we ask when a character plows forward down a darkened hallway or when a group decides to split up in the overgrown woods.
It’s understandable, of course. If I were to inherit a decaying ancestral home, for example, I would simply sell it without ever visiting. Likewise, if I were to buy a home with a cellar, I would light it up like a Christmas tree 24 hours a day.
Which brings me to my point: we need foolhardy main characters. Without them, we would not have creepy thrillers like C.J. Cooke’s latest, The Nesting. Without them, we would not be able to live vicariously through someone who makes an unending series of poor choices—from the safety of our own unhaunted homes.
The Gothic atmosphere will be what draws people to The Nesting, but its true strength is Lexi Ellis, a main character with spectacularly flawed decision-making skills and, moreover, a main character who recognizes those faults and plows ahead anyway.
The foreboding cover tells you much about The Nesting’s setting. It’s the classic remote cliffside manor of Gothic stories past, with some interesting modern updates. As has always been the case, no one ends up in a Gothic story by making the right decisions. You just don’t usually stumble upon a grand haunted house. And neither does Lexi, a British woman sucked into this tense, twisty Norway-set horror story.
At the start of this story, Lexi’s life is falling apart. Recovering from a suicide attempt and battling mental illness, she’s been dumped by her boyfriend and been made homeless in the process. A stroke of luck and more than an ounce of opportunism lets her lie her way into a nanny job for which she has zero qualifications. This is but the first in a series of terrible plans.
But get the job she does and off to Norway she goes. Her charges are the two young daughters of a well-known widower architect, Tom Faraday. Gaia and Coco’s mother Aurelia has only recently died under mysterious circumstances—though the party line is that she died by suicide—and Lexi proves surprisingly adept at connecting with the kids. (Adept at their respective homeschooling studies? Less so.)
While the girls’ father throws himself into the task of finishing a high-concept cliffside eco-home (creepily and awkwardly at the site of his wife’s death), strange and spooky occurrences plague Lexi and the girls. Gaia speaks constantly of a “Sad Lady” and other ill-tidings soon follow, as Lexi digs further into the circumstances of Aurelia’s death.
Cooke reveals this story in alternating timelines, jumping between Aurelia’s final months and Lexi’s current reality. The result is a puzzle in which the last few pieces truly are unexpected, veering hard and decidedly into the realm of thriller. The Nesting is not a flawlessly constructed puzzle: the pacing is sometimes rushed, and the action often stretches the bounds of belief. Neither of those flaws, however, diminish the novel’s enjoyability.
What holds everything together is Lexi, who is self-aware, self-deprecating, and always ready to admit when she knows she’s making a mistake. Lexi feels real, even as events seem unreal; she feels authentic, even as she hides her own identity from the family she grows closer to by the day.
It’s rare that we get Gothic stories narrated in the first person. More often than not, we see events happen to hapless protagonists. We see them engulfed in dark and seedy plots—locked in terrifying houses—at a remove. It’s easy to criticize them then, easier still to second-guess their terrible choices. But because we go on the ride that is The Nesting alongside Lexi, we’re forced to confront how easy it might be to find ourselves in our own horror story.
So I say, all hail the foolish horror protagonist. Without them, we might just be them.