Family Business Isn’t Always Outright Scary
I had to wait a long time to get Family Business in hardcover—and I was a little disappointed when I did. Though it still contains some of the stronger elements that drew me to The Magnus Archives, including much-appreciated diversity in its characters, very creepy monsters, and a strong human understanding of its subject matter, Family Business never achieved the same level of scares as even the previous book, Thirteen Storeys.
And the reason might be an issue of length. The Magnus Archives had every episode at only twenty minutes or so. Each story had to hit hard and hit fast, and because of the wide variety inherent to the premise, the scares could attack from every angle. If you have a phobia, The Magnus Archives slammed down on it. Thirteen Storeys had a similar approach, spreading the plot across thirteen people/families living in a hotel. A story about a digital assistant slowly taking over someone’s life only needed to be a chapter in the greater whole and, thus, could be as succinctly poignant as possible. But Family Business kept almost entirely to one character, in one setting, albeit with ample flashbacks, and we didn’t get nearly enough time with most victims before their inevitable demise.
This doesn’t mean that Family Business didn’t manage to be extremely creepy. It’s that and further, but more often, it’s frightening in concepts, implications, and connections to reality. It’s not so much a slow build as a potent story premise taken to many of the clear potential places you could take it. Once you get the rhythm of the murder scenes, you just get it, and it’s not narratively surprising, even if the violence itself is as inherently shocking as this sort of violence always is. A person is pushed into a horrible life situation by (usually) systemic forces, isolated socially, and then rapidly murdered. Often the thing to latch onto in the scenes, probably intentionally, is how depressingly real the circumstances leading up to the deaths were—as well as the aftermaths. What I’m saying is that Family Business reads less like a supernatural horror novel and more like a tragic story with high levels of social commentary. I’m reminded more of the non-game moments of Squid Game or the gut-punch narrative twists of Dark Harvest than the almost portal fantasy monster locations of Rules for Vanishing.
This Book Is Quite Dour And Emotionally Effecting
It might also be that the antagonist, Mr. Bill, when acting like a human, is one of the less original monsters I’ve encountered in a while. I think it’s the overuse of laughing and smiling that soured me on it. Monsters creepily laughing is almost overused in modern fiction, and an “evil smile” now is the domain of The Joker as much as any horror monster. Mr. Bill’s smile does get one truly gory crescendo that might make it all worth it for a certain type of horror fan (of which I am among the ranks), but I was much more interested when Mr. Bill leaned into almost being a specter. A looming threat that isn’t seen much but is clearly around. Mr. Bill is absolutely a metaphor of a monster, and I think he worked much better when he stayed that way.
Going more on highlighting strong aspects, and piggybacking off a previous point, the emotion that Family Business evokes constantly and skillfully is loss—which certainly easily goes hand-in-hand with the already highlighted commentaries on being relegated to the margins. Grief is treated, in itself, as something that the world almost doesn’t want to acknowledge or linger on. Setting this story around a company that does cleanup after people die in their homes is thus inspired. How has it not been a go-to trope before now? It takes all the creepiness and body horror of a morgue and marries it with the inherent sadness of many haunted house stories. And Family Business doesn’t even rest on those laurels—even if it probably could have and still delivered a lot of the narrative impact it manages. Despite being in horror media all the time, death (and grief) isn’t usually treated with the sheer banality and yet humanity that Family Business evokes, which made all the difference in scenes. People rot when they die—and it takes bleach and more to clean it up. That’s a simple fact. It’s also hard to think about. I can’t speak for the accuracy of this book’s depiction of real-world events, nor its level of respectfulness toward the myriad subjects it tackles in connection with this premise, but it felt real. People lose people all the time, but how often does anyone not directly connected think about the stuff left behind? Who thinks about the people who don’t have connections left when they go? And when those people, when anyone dies, there’s still food in their fridges. Their clothing, books, and photos don’t evaporate. There’s inherent morbidity and a sad horror irrevocably tied to any attempt to explore the routine and the bureaucratic nature of loss of life.
Family Business Shows Death As It More Often Is
And this isn’t presented as a factor around the story. It’s pertinent. It’s everywhere. Family Business is emotionally affecting in the same down-to-Earth style when it examines its characters. Our main character lost someone before the story started, and I’ve rarely seen any other book communicate the emotional pain of loss—and, as is so often the case, the numbness that comes with it—to this degree. Family Business is not an escapist horror book. It’s not fun or pulpy, and the parts where it doesn’t work as well are when it tries to be more over the top. The necessary tension breaks for any narrative are easily and effectively met in the wonderful character interactions, and they could’ve stayed there.
Speaking of the characters, they were well-realized, and their dialog was excellently done. While I can’t speak about how well the trans or bisexual representation was, I loved the dynamic between the family and the new member of the cleanup business. They all feel very much like a family. They care about one another, protect one another, and get into arguments and fights without easily breaking everything apart. You could argue this is a rare instance of the found family trope being folded into horror tropes without losing the appeal of either. Though I realize it would sort of contradict some of my complaints about this book, I’d gladly have a longer page count (i.e., more exposition) if I could get more of each family member’s history, interests, and personality. Some scenes hint at their connections to the lost mother and brother. We get a few scenes clarifying what their social lives (or lack of) are like. The main character has an interesting relationship with her parents, and that would’ve been nice to see more of. There are enough hints and implications to get some of the picture of what I’m asking, certainly enough to start thinking beyond the page, which is impressive, but I still want more from Family Business.
Perhaps, like many books where I’ve said similar things about character information, that’s just a testament to skill. In fact, the thing most impressive about Family Business is how it doles out the horror information in a way that keeps things interesting and then fits together at the end. The structure of the story allows this to happen at an organic pace. Horror, especially cosmic and ghost horror, are often structured like a mystery, even if the focus isn’t on solving one, because horror is constantly battling withholding information and unveiling spooky information. Only after reading the entire book did I realize how many open questions the beginning and middle of Family Business left me with and how effectively answered so many had been by the end. There are still missing pieces and some emotionally sensible moments with the “magic system” that don’t quite hold up to ironclad logic, but it’s still a compact, well-considered plot.
This Ending Has Some Deus Ex Machina Moments
To be a little personal in this wrap-up, giving this book a medium review feels odd. And I think that might be because of expectations. If any fandom could be considered “my” fandom, it would be The Magnus Archives. Despite liking properties like Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, The Owl House, etc., I consider myself fairly fandom agnostic. You can only read/watch/listen to so much media before you think of stories as a pile of tropes, patterns, and stylistic choices. Make no mistake, though: Family Business is effective as a horror novel, as a story, and as a piece of social commentary. The plot is almost air-tight, the horror concepts are unique and relevant, and the emotional aspects of the story are so good they might be hard for some to read. But it’s brought down by an ending battle that swerves hard into a different esthetic and, arguably, different internal rules, has overlong sections of exposition and backstory, and a monster that isn’t as scary as it could be. Family Business feels slightly at war with itself, wanting to tell a lot of connected horror vignettes but also seemingly not wanting to be patterned off its predecessors. And that perceived indecision turns what could’ve been a great novel into simply quite a good one. I still give it a recommendation, but more tempered than I’d hoped.
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