The first time I brought home a—uh, we’ll call it a “home assistant,” my partner scoffed and said we didn’t need anything like that and we’d never use it. The next morning, he told it to play Gregorian chants, and then interrupted the Gregorian chants to ask about the weather. Now, she’s so engrained in our lives that I sometimes find myself opening my mouth to ask it a question when I’m away from home. Sure, there are all those stories about it repeating back creepy things to people. Sure, the way it keeps asking me what my name is feels a little invasive. But in the grand scheme of things, what could go wrong?
Gus Moreno answers that question, in great detail, in This Thing Between Us, in which a curse, a demonic possession, and an off-brand Alexa lead to a series of cascading tragedies that’ll make you want to re-examine the way you look at—well, a lot of things, but especially that handy home assistant.
Thiago and Vera live in domestic bliss, Thiago tells us through memories. The good times are all memories by now, because this second-person narration of his is a lengthy epistle to his wife, who is super dead. She was killed in a purse-snatch gone wrong, and now Thiago is all alone. Except for the oh-so-helpful home assistant Itza, whose failure to ring an alarm set off the dominos that led to Vera’s death. That’s not the first weird thing Itza did, nor the last, and when Thiago realizes he’s either losing his mind or is dealing with some demonic force, he tracks down the previous owner of the condo, who, Thiago manages to piece together with his terrible Spanish, opened a “doorway” between planes to invite a demon through to terrorize the people who kicked her out of her home. And it worked. Hope she’s proud.
Hoping to make a fresh start, Thiago leaves Chicago and heads for a remote corner of Colorado, where the profit from the possessed condo has allowed him to buy a quaint little cabin set in the woods and mountains. Solitude to heal, he thinks, but already he’s got a sneaking suspicion that the darkness has followed him. Alone but for a stray St. Bernard he brings home with him, Thiago tries to reconcile his grief—and keep his mind from unraveling. When Vera’s mom, Diane, visits, she can at least give credence to some of the stranger events happening. But just as Thiago thinks he’s lost everything, he finds there’s more to take, and to stop the evil that’s following him will require it all.
This is a slender novel that doesn’t have time to beat around the bush, so it doesn’t. The pacing and structure at times make This Thing Between Us feel like a compressed Stephen King novel (but with less weird sexism) even before Moreno pays homage to Cujo, The Shining, and Pet Semetery. There are other purposeful nods, too, to 2001: A Space Odessey, urban legends and folktales, and other things that go bump in the night. Rather than technology chasing away the ghosts lurking in the darkened corners, he tells us, it simply gives them more ways to haunt us. The result is a twisting tale that gets creepy fast and only gets darker from there, with a few moments so frightening I actually jumped.
With that, though, does come some disturbing material. There’s a lengthy debate around some literary circles about whether trigger/content warnings should become standard practice at the start of a book. On the one hand, so the argument goes, such warnings can prepare readers for what they’re about to take in and let those who might not be up for that kind of story put the book down early; on the other, those same warnings can give away crucial plot points, and could lead to readers not challenging themselves with uncomfortable ideas. I won’t try to weigh in on that debate, except to say that The Things Between Us could be used as an example for the former.
The moment Brimley, the St. Bernard, shows up, I thought, This dog better not die at the end. Here’s the good news: he doesn’t die at the end. He dies horribly in the middle—twice. Which I guess I should have expected because of all the Stephen King nodding, and that’s not exactly a novel convention in the genre. If you’re someone who regularly reads horror, I’m not sure the whole demonic presence thing is a valid content warning, either. Grisly human deaths are also pretty par of the course. But the level of suicidal thought and ideation throughout, you know, could maybe be stamped on one of those first pages. Narratively, it makes sense with Thiago’s grief, and art should plumb the dark corners of humanity. But art also doesn’t necessarily stay contained, so maybe it should tell humanity the corners it’s considering plumbing sometimes.
That said, Moreno weaves his dark tale with some truly exquisite lines. The condo’s former owner’s “Spanish was a ribbon trailing behind her as she moved into the kitchen … Fidelia, she sounded grandmotherly, a singsong rhythm in her voice.” Meanwhile, as Thiago drives west, the horizon opens up: “The sky somehow doubled itself, able to stretch out once the buildings and skyscrapers fell back. The whole sky was that floor-model TV with top-of-the-line clarity, so sharp and vibrant that it felt like I could reach up and switch the equilibrium of the earth, fall into the sky and swim in that ocean of Downy. … The herd of clouds moving over the road took the spotlight off me. In the city, around humans, I was someone. But out here, I was an ant.” And in Colorado, in the calm immediately before the storm, Thiago notices that “[t]he snow had absorbed some of the indigo dying out of the sky as the sun disappeared behind the mountains. The field looked like the top of a glacier, blue-white.”
I loved reading This Thing Between Us. It also made it hard to sleep, in a good way. And I’ve learned never to trust my home assistant to set my alarm for me. All in all, a quality read.