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Book Review: Motherthing by Ainslie Hogarth

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Book Review: Motherthing by Ainslie Hogarth

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Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews Motherthing by Ainslie Hogarth. (Vintage)

For my son’s ninth birthday, I took him to see the 40th anniversary showing of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. He’s grown up watching shows and movies that are full of CGI, immediate action, and, well, a lot of noise. I was curious to see how he would handle the way movies used to be made (not to make myself sound too much like an old man shaking his fist at a cloud).

After about twenty minutes, he wanted to leave, but I told him we’d give it a little bit longer and if he still didn’t like it, then we could leave. Ten minutes later, I don’t think I could have dragged him out of the auditorium. He loved it. I think a big part of this is how the story slowly unfolds and gets us closer to the characters on a human level. We’re not just watching fantastic things happen on the silver screen; we’re watching fantastic things happening to people we care about.

The successful movies from yesteryear, and especially Spielberg, put character in the forefront of the story. We care about what is happening to them on an emotional level and that’s why we’re still going to the movie theater to watch them forty years later. I couldn’t help but think about this structure as I read Motherthing, Ainslie Hogarth’s new book. This is a story concerned with the people in it, and all the wild, fantastical elements that make us squirm come secondary.

Motherthing starts with a suicide, or at least the aftermath of one. Abby and her husband Ralph have moved into his mom’s house because she needs help, and we quickly realize it’s not of the physical persuasion, but that she has been dealt a heavy mental hand. Based on the opening of the book, it’s clear that she has lost this battle. The story, from the first page, is draped in grief.

Ralph, we quickly realize, was codependent of his mother and is broken, and it’s up to Abby to pick up the pieces. She must assume the role of both wife and mother. Then we find out that Ralph’s mom, Laura, isn’t necessarily gone, she’s haunting the house and the darkness that drove her to suicide now has Ralph as its target. Can Abby figure out how to save her husband before he succumbs to the darkness? She tries, but her own demons make it difficult.

When I first started this novel, I assumed the motherthing was going to be a monster of some sort, but it’s barely even connected to Laura’s death and certainly isn’t a supernatural beast lurking in the shadows. Motherthing is simply a couch.

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We learn that Abby’s upbringing was less than ideal. In a word, it was shitty. Her mom was so self-absorbed and cared far more for the short-term boyfriends she brought home than her own flesh-and-blood daughter. This emotional abandonment drove Abby to look for comfort in other ways, and one way was to attach motherly qualities to the things around her—the main object being the couch.

As a little girl, Abby would nuzzle into the fabric, bonding with the inanimate object as her mom drank too much and ignored her. This led Abby to taking the mother role extremely seriously. Basically, she comforted herself throughout her life and now fancies herself the perfect mother. So perfect, in fact, she constantly believes herself to be pregnant with little Cal. Abby takes on the mother role through her husband, clients, and strangers, but it’s all in preparation for when it becomes a reality.

We know Ralph is existing in a pit of despair. He’s stopped eating, showering, and going to work. He even believes he’s conversing with his deceased mom for most of the book. He’s self-harming and we’re led to think he’s on the verge of following his mother’s lead. This is why Abby takes the same knife Laura used and stashes it in her purse indefinitely.

Abby is the sane one in this story. She’s the reliable narrator pulling us through this spooky-ass ghost story. Until she isn’t. The more we learn about her past, the more we understand Abby’s longstanding mental damage that skews her outlook on the world. She’s been masquerading herself in his life, and the traumatic event at the start of the story was all it took for those lingering demons to wake up.

The death in the first chapter gets Motherthing kicked off with a bang, but after that it’s a slow burn reminiscent of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby or Friedkin’s The Exorcist.

In the same way we see Jack Torrance slowly lose himself to the ghosts in Kubrick’s version of The Shining, we’re now left to witness Abby spiral into a pit of madness. There are moments when we shift and change our opinions (as in, who’s really the one losing their mind?) but that’s part of the point. Hogarth writes in such a way that we’re constantly questioning motivations and character elements all the way up until the end. We can’t fully commit to a reality because this book continually shifts and moves the goalposts, and that’s why its horror is so damn effective.

The death in the first chapter gets Motherthing kicked off with a bang, but after that it’s a slow burn reminiscent of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby or Friedkin’s The Exorcist. It’s a classic structure of ratcheting up the pressure steadily. Hogarth is testing us, seeing how much we can boil before we hit our breaking point.

This is the kind of slow burn I can get behind because, as it ramps up, it quickens and amps up the grotesque. The end is spectacular. Sometimes books like this will crumble under the weight of themselves, but Hogarth never missteps. As spooky season gets underway, this was the perfect book to get into the spirit.

Buy now from VintageBookshopIndieboundPowell’sAmazon, or Barnes & Noble.


Joseph Edwin Haeger is the author of Learn to Swim, a memoir published by University of Hell Press.


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Joseph Edwin Haeger

Joseph Edwin Haeger is the author of Learn to Swim (University of Hell Press, 2015). His writing has appeared in The Pacific NW Inlander, RiverLit, Hippocampus Magazine, and others. He lives in Spokane, Washington with his wife and son.