We know from the opening chapter of Ania Ahlborn’s The Bird Eater that something dangerous lives in Edie Holbrook’s house along with her and her 14-year-old nephew Aaron, for whom she is the sole caretaker. As she is working pizza dough in anticipation of a movie night with Aaron, Edie hears a triple thud in the living room. It’s only the latest in a series of oddities over the past few months: closed doors that she had left open, or the creak of stairs when no one was climbing them, for instance. But there’s no such thing as ghosts. If Edie had believed in ghosts, she wouldn’t be living in this house, which has a reputation for being haunted by the ghost of a teenage boy who had done something terrible. Because she doesn’t believe in ghosts, she pulls her hands from the dough and goes after the sound. It’s a decision for which both she and her nephew pay dearly.
Twenty-one years later, Aaron returns to the Arkansas home in which he did most of his growing up, having just learned that he inherited it from his Aunt Edie. It’s been lying vacant for all these years, and he plans to fix it up and sell it. When he arrives from his home in Portland, Oregon, he finds that both the house and his hometown are in much worse shape than he had expected. But fixing up the house will be good therapy for his broken heart; in the wake of his son’s death, his marriage is disintegrating, and the double loss has sent him skidding into alcoholism, addiction to prescription medication, depression and anxiety.
Whatever the force is that lives in that house, it bedevils Aaron almost from the moment he arrives. His fragile psyche is torn to shreds by piles of dead birds that appear inside the house, even after he has removed them; by visions of a boy who seems inexplicably hostile to Aaron; by terrifying dreams of attacking birds; by one oddity after another. The only person Aaron can really call on for any sort of help is Eric, the guy who used to be his best friend when they were kids, and who now manages the dying town’s grocery store. The two of them used to be inseparable, and the third in their trio was Cheri Miller, the girl who was Eric’s first girlfriend. Cheri is more of a complication than a help, because she has never stopped loving Aaron. Even though she is now married to someone else (as is Aaron), she doesn’t intend to let him get away again.
The pressure on Aaron increases relentlessly from all directions, with all too predictable consequences. What one could not predict, however, is that there would never be any explanation behind any of the tragedies that the novel details. Who is the boy who haunts the house? What is he after? Why is he so filled with hatred? One of the best parts of horror novels is that there is always a reason for what happens, some explanation that tells us either why the ghosts have been laid to rest or why they will continue to haunt places and people. Ahlborn offers none of that, instead closing the novel by setting up the perfect situation for the horrors to repeat, and no hope that they will ever end.
Ahlborn’s writing is competent, but her plotting is repetitive; after Aaron suffers the fourth or fifth inexplicable visitation by birds, we’ve more than got the idea. There is never any question in our minds that Aaron is genuinely experiencing visitations from the beyond, so there is no suspense about whether he will simply prove to be insane instead of actually haunted. The tension doesn’t build, because the horror-meter is turned up to 11 in the first chapter, and doesn’t ever let up, so that additional horrors are not shocking but just replays. It’s too bad, because the fundamental premise is intriguing: a Midwestern town dying in the aftermath of the Great Recession, and a man who comes back to find himself after a tragedy. But with nothing to tie the agency of the horror to the people who are its victims, with no explanation for why this particular house and this particular family are haunted, the gore is nothing but gore.