How does Laura Kasischke’s eighth novel, The Raising, throw so many darts at the dartboard of horror clichés and still wring out a shiver? By cross-breeding thrills with a commonplace college romance, producing above-average suspense from a too-familiar cast.
Because he was behind the wheel for the car accident that killed his girlfriend Nicole, Craig returns for his sophomore year a pariah. Kicked out of the honors dorm and listlessly drifting through his classes, Craig is told to expect “frightening recall” due to the head injury he sustained in the accident, but he can’t remember anything about the wreck. He can barely bring himself to open up to his roommate Perry—Nicole’s high-school classmate, who carries his own set of misgivings about the event into a seminar about death and dying, taught by a professor who seems to relish her students’ morbid connections to the afterlife. As the anniversary of Nicole’s death approaches, a witness to the accident comes forward to contradict the image of the patient, sweet sorority girl with the violent, careless boyfriend—the image Nicole’s former roommate Josie believes is the only way to honor her memory.
In one of The Raising’s longest chapters, Perry drives through his old neighborhood in the idyllic Midwestern town of Bad Axe, narrating the small tragedies that have befallen every home on the block, from pet loss to business failure. The chapter’s success hinges on timing: Having tended to her disparate characters, Kasischke has the patience to suspend them unbearably in suspicion and doubt before the plot kicks in. That frustration feeds the central mystery more than the largely stereotyped, uninspired people—Nicole being the worst—through which the narrative is threaded.
Kasischke’s evocation of the college-campus rumor mill and the distance between students and administrators—raised over the decision to readmit Craig to school after the accident—provides an intriguing but underdeveloped counterpoint to the things that go bump in the night. The college’s failure to cope with its “student problem” flowers into believable conflict that doesn’t detract from the search for the dead girl, though it can’t overcome the weaknesses embedded in the long buildup to the final revelation. When it comes time to empty the pockets of secret knowledge Nicole’s friends were hiding from each other, those old clichés serve as a return to form, not an annoyance.