Titan, 6 July 2021
Available as: PB, 352pp, e
Source: Advance copy from publisher
I'm grateful to Titan Books for an advance copy of What Big Teeth to consider for review.
Titles can misdirect, and the suggestion from this one that Szabo's horror-novel-with-feelings is a modern take on a fairytale rather undersells what the book actually does. It is I think rather more complicated. Yes, there are wolfish creatures here, and a grandmother (in fact, two). Yes, those creatures can and will eat you, and yes, in a sense Eleanor Zarrin is an innocent when she returns to her family home after years of exile, and she does risk ending up a morsel.
I found myself comparing the setup here with other, perhaps less likely, forerunners. What Big Teeth is in some respect I think also a clever twist on - of all things Cold Comfort Farm (and of course the breathy rural romances it was parodying). Young Eleanor, who has been out in the wider world, arrives home without a role or place in the family and the one she eventually adopts is of taking on responsibilities, offering help, and putting things right. She has a real sense of duty, impressive given she was sent away to a Roman Catholic boarding school her time at which has washed her memory of most of what she knew about her family. The separation was, it emerges, not accidental but engineered - a puzzle and cause of guilt to Eleanor.
One might actually think that Eleanor is very ill-suited to manage, and in her eyes save, the ragged family she encounters when she arrives home, and indeed things don't work out well at all. The family is a collection of grotesques, inhabiting a tumbledown house above Winterport, on the coast of Maine. Grandma Persephone, who earns the family's living growing poisonous bulbs in her greenhouse. Older sister Luma. Cousin Rhys and Grandpa Miklos. Eleanor's mother, who spends most of her time submerged in a variety of tubs and baths, lest her skin dry out. And close family friend Arthur, who comes and goes as he wishes but seems under some kind of constraint or control (there are things he literally can't talk about).
It is from one perspective, a family of monsters, a real Addams Family, feared by the town, living in a big spooky house full of hidden passages and apt to go howling through the woods on a whim. From another perspective, they're a big, slightly dysfunctional, combative group of eccentrics with many secrets who have to hold their ground against a hostile modern world.
As she tries to come to terms with what, and who, she is, and to discover how the family works, so she can save them, Eleanor finds that she actually knows very little - even taking account of what she forgot. Feeling obliged to take on a central role after an untoward death, she reaches out for help, but may just have made things worse...
I loved this book. A mystery wrapped in a horror story inside a coming-of-age novel, and exploring themes of being different, of responsibility and of confronting guilt for what those who came before us did, it delicately paints a whole world. There are hints and references to wider genre themes - those townsfolk are perfectly capable of breaking out the pitchforks and torches, right? And Grandpa Miklos's origin story back in the silent Old Country has distinct echoes of classic horror. But Szabo doesn't let themself be tied down by fussiness over types of monster or that urban fantasy thing where there is an established and known order to magic and mystery. Everything here is vague, raw, dangerous and an untamed.
In What Big Teeth, some characters know things. But they don't know as much as they think, and some of it is wrong. Any broader supernatural society is mysterious, and likely as much a threat as the townsfolk. There's a reason for the Zarrins being hidden away in a remote settingt, far from the world. Even the year is unclear - there was been a War in Europe but I'm not sure if it was the First or the Second - we are in a cultural space which could fit almost any year from 1920 to 1955. The vagueness reinforces the feeling of isolation, of having nothing and nobody to resort to or trust, leaving Eleanor very much on her own in trying to put right what's happened.
An entertaining, creepy and satisfying slice of horror, genuinely different and great fund to read.
For more information about What Big Teeth, see the publisher's website here.