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The Bell Chime by Mona Kabbani3 stars
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Even by the usual standards of psychological horror, The Bell Chime can be incredibly bleak and depressing. The hopeful note on which it ends comes only after its protagonist effectively admits defeat. Mona Kabbani’s self-published debut novella is a very rough-hewn little beast, but it’s redeemed by some searing emotions. I’ve always said that the best horror fiction is all about empathy, and The Bell Chime resonates with an empathy so powerful it’s almost physically uncomfortable, in the way it investigates its protagonist’s mental health — or her lack thereof — without lapsing into the usual exploitive horror cliches about madness.

Inspired (as I suppose any horror writer should be) by a nightmare the author had, the story introduces us to Lauren, a young woman living in New York who is an absolute mess of anxiety disorders and paranoid delusions. The narrative, which does not play out sequentially, relates what happens when she meets a new boyfriend, Dylan, who accepts her eccentricities at face value, only to lose him when she overreacts to a protective gesture he makes to prevent her from inflicting either self-harm or harm to anyone else. (She has, after all, already shown a propensity for reactive violence.) Dylan doesn’t just leave, he vanishes without trace, and Kabbani intriguingly keeps exactly what happened to him a mystery. Lauren’s emotional devastation at losing him is absolute, until she stumbles upon something that may, at last, bring happiness back into her life — but at what cost?

In the story’s opening chapter, evidently written well before the rest of the book, you can see that Kabbani hasn’t yet mastered her voice as a writer. Like a lot of newbies, her prose has moments that are awkward and pretentious, full of the kind of forced metaphors and similes I’m used to seeing in student manuscripts from writers’ workshops. So we get to read cringe sentences like “Tears vomit out of her soul and pour down her cheeks.” But once we’re past this, Kabbani’s writing becomes a little more assured, and she’s able to convey the depth of her clearly very personal emotional investment in Lauren’s story in ways that are often disarming, including breaking the fourth wall on occasion to address us directly like a Greek chorus. Some of you will no doubt find The Bell Chime’s sheer anguish a bit too much to take, but for readers willing to go there, there’s a fearlessness in what Mona Kabbani is doing here that merits respect.