Do you ever have the sudden impulse to scare the ever-loving shit out of yourself? Me too. One night recently I felt such a way and decided to look online for a list of the most psychologically-tormenting reads. Among the littering of apparent heart-stoppers, I picked ‘I’m thinking of ending things’ to whet my horror appetite. Mostly because – by the time I’d read the title – I already had questions.
The closest description I can give to the feeling that this novel gave me was the joyful uncertainty of IBS (and I’m sure that Reid will be psyched to know that I’ve made that comparison). But hear me out. You know something’s wrong. You don’t know what’s causing it, you don’t know how it’s going to manifest itself – only that it will, and soon. You ain’t gonna have any control, and you can’t stop it. You feel a bit sick. This novel feels like a slow descent into that same feeling as it begins to spin uncontrollably away from you.
Right, over-convoluted metaphor over. I was pretty staggered to learn that this is a debut novel. Iain Reid has crawled out of the shadow of prolific horror writers to offer something that is new, edgy and uniquely upsetting. At a couple of particularly well written points I could imagine the author strutting off into the night and dropping his mic into the snow.
Reid doesn’t rely on scary imagery or an obviously insidious theme to make you feel uneasy. Instead he works from the start to establish a feeling of precarious security – felt by the narrator as she experiences the induced end of a slowly splintering relationship, but for the reader as ‘reality’ begins to unravel. The average, day-to-day conversations of this couple are interrupted regularly by another ghostly conversation that slices between ‘reality’ and details of a gruesome discovery, begging the question: Who are they talking about?
Our nameless narrator starts the book on a road trip with her boyfriend, Jake, to meet his parents. Jake is an incredibly intelligent man, interested in philosophy, logic while also having unfortunate habits that drive her mad. We find out very quickly that the immediate reason for the title is that she is struggling with the idea of ending the relationship with him. But this is no surface-level romance – Reid uses the intelligence of both characters to explore deep and meaningful questions, ones which both scare the narrator and place an emphasis on the couples similarities and differences.
Occasionally Reid pipettes odd, choice phrases into descriptive paragraphs to make the reader stop and assess whether it is a clue, or a simple expression (with Reid, it always seems to be the former): “The way our clothes left in messy heaps around the bed made the room look like a crime scene.”
The narrator addresses the banality of a raised cereal spoon to the mouth with the detail that only a lover obsessed with finding flaws, or secret hidden meanings behind another’s distracted behavior would notice: “There was a faint white film or residue under his bottom lip, concentrated in the corners of his mouth, in the valley where the top and bottom lips meet. This happened most mornings, this white lip film. After he showered, it was usually gone.”
He also takes the time to include elements that aren’t vital to moving on the story. In most writing circles this is seen as a big no-no, but in a psychological thriller, some red herrings are necessary. And all this detail helps us to relate more to the character – one of my favorite parts is when Jake storms out of the car, leaving our narrator alone. Instead of continuing with her internal monologue, her frustration provokes her to speak aloud: ““What? So stupid,” I say to the empty, quiet car. “God.”” It’s exactly the kind of reaction a real human would have, and it’s great to see that so well mirrored in this character-focused text.
Reid is particularly gifted with dialogue, as he can hold attention and accurately depict the nuances of different personalities within a long and involved conversation. Some of my favorite raised questions are philosophical – the nature of truth (how two things can be true at the same time) and existence, whether relationships dilute or bolster your identity, whether pain continues to be felt even after death, whether secrets can be good or bad; a kindness or a disservice. These conversations are laid out in front of the reader to enjoy and digest, but pay close attention as they all offer further questions about the reality we uncover at the end.
On reaching Jake’s parents house, things become more confusing. Our narrator finds a photo of Jake as a child, but he looks identical to her younger self. She has a strange metallic taste in her mouth. His mum somehow seems to know about the anonymous caller who keeps ringing our narrator’s phone, from her number, to leave strange voicemails.
A particularly unique couple of pages by Reid towards the end this book truly wasn’t expected and isn’t something I’ve yet seen in a novel. It made me question my own sanity so immediately that I had a cold flash run from tip to toe as I tried to understand what I was reading. Page 194-7. You’ll get it (but don’t skip as you need the build up to understand why it’s so affecting)!
I must be careful not to reveal any spoilers here, so that the twist remains a surprise. But ‘I’m thinking of ending things’ is likely to leave a metallic taste in your mouth too, as you may (like me) be biting the inside of your cheek with anxiety by the end.
The reason I’ve given ‘I’m thinking of ending things’ 4 out of 5 stars is because I could still turn my lights off at night. It’s not the scariest novel I’ve ever read, though if you like puzzles and riddles, you’ll like the challenge. I still feel a little weathered by it, and every so often I’ll remember parts which, in hindsight, had double meanings – but I wasn’t calling friends and families asking if I could stay with them so if I had a heart attack someone would know. And that’s what I’m looking for.
So can anyone recommend me a real, terrifying thriller? A heart-racing, blood pumping terror-fest? Please give me your suggestions in the comments!