Title: The Apartment
Author: S.L. Grey
Publisher: Blumhouse Books
Recovering from a traumatic home invasion, a troubled couple enters another haunting nightmare while vacationing in Paris.
Mark and Stephanie’s relationship has been seized by unspoken issues of an age gap, career gap, and a problematic previous marriage. Steph perceives a coldness from Mark toward their two-year-old daughter Hayden, suggesting Mark doesn’t see her the same way he did his dead daughter Zoe. Mark’s complacent catatonia also inspires an impotent failure to react during a psychologically traumatizing home invasion. Still the couple remains non-confrontational, silently stewing in individual uncertainties about who they even are to one another.
Mark’s longtime friend Carla proposes therapy by way of a Paris vacation. On his salary as a university teacher and her hope of becoming a published novelist, Mark and Steph could never afford such a luxury. Once they find an economic alternative by way of an online house-swapping website, the idea seems even more like exactly the remedy they require.
Mark and Steph trade South Africa for France, but quickly discover their accommodations are not as advertised. Instead of a happy holiday, their getaway is gloomily gothic.
Mark and Steph’s temporary apartment belongs to a bleak building with only one reclusive resident. Windows won’t open. Strange smells and stranger sounds hint at hidden secrets they aren’t sure they should uncover. Seemingly no one even knows the Petits, the French family whose place they are renting. Mark and Steph try talking to their house-swapping partners directly, except the unseen Petits oddly never arrived in Cape Town.
Steph sallies forth to salvage a smidgen of the Parisian paradise she initially envisioned. Mark plays along, but the pall hanging over their apartment haunts him in a very unusual way. Already uncomfortable, Mark is shocked further when he comes face-to-face with someone who could not possibly have followed him to another country.
Steph seeks answers from the lone woman living upstairs only to end up with more questions. What starts as a mystery becomes a waking nightmare as Mark and Steph delve deeper into details surrounding the apartment. By the time they head home, the atmosphere comes with them, forcing husband and wife to finally face truths about themselves and their family that may be more frightening than what they found in France.
Told in two first-person accounts alternating between Mark and Steph’s minds, “The Apartment” is a collaboration between Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg writing under their tandem nom de plume S.L. Grey. Gender bias might guess Lotz wrote Steph’s chapters while Greenberg tackled Mark’s, though there is no way to know by reading alone. Their seamlessly integrated style combines parallel narratives through a distinctively singular author’s voice to create an impressively compelling chiller.
For much of the novel, the plot plays coy about outing itself as a strictly psychological, supernatural, or viscerally grounded thriller. Uncertainty over potential themes instills alertness in the reader that heightens this sensation of cerebral unsettlement, while the fiction itself is never uncertain about direction. Uneasiness exists in not knowing what the ultimate threat to Mark and Steph even is, but being desperately anxious to identify it.
Scenes set in the Paris apartment have a particularly Lovecraftian tone to their terror. On top of the foreign locale, an additionally alien feel comes from immersion into Mark and Steph’s unfamiliar surroundings, as though the couple has subtly sidestepped into a displaced dimension or era. They remain in our time, in our reality, though something feels acutely “off.”
The gradual build of early acts isn’t so much a stall for suspense or momentum misdirect as an introspective look into a different subset of these people’s psyches. Mark’s middle-aged characterization and Steph’s insecurities speak to relatable concerns about being more passive, less aggressive over trivial posturing in a challenging relationship. Drama fires from all sides in “The Apartment,” not just from fears of what lurks in the shadows of a Parisian courtyard or fractured memory.
Only with hindsight do detailed descriptions read retroactively as superfluous distractions. Grey excels at establishing environments such as a tourist-filled wax museum or streets cloistered with unusual storefronts without feeling swayed to impress through verboseness or vocabulary. More debatable is whether such scenery is ever useful at all. Several pages are spent chewing over an office’s bric-a-brac and resident canine companions for a character seen just once, for instance.
Grey’s focus usually returns to form quickly, snapping back to multilayered prose that is accessible for horror hungry audiences enticed by either bite-sized bits before bed or a full feast to be downed in one or two sittings. An all-of-a-sudden conclusion inspires a hint of a “that’s all?” reaction, though this is a story where satisfaction comes from the eerie journey rather than its final destination.
In that regard, quiet reflections combined with intelligent frights from two unique perspectives make “The Apartment” an ideal choice for late nights alone or a red eye flight. Particularly if that plane is headed overseas. If the destination is a suspiciously unfamiliar Airbnb? Even better.
Review Score: 80