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Mormama by Kit Reed1.5 stars

Buy from IndieBoundThe death of Kit Reed in September 2018, at the age of 85, brought to a close the brilliant, over-half-century career of a veteran author best known for dark, often satirical speculative fiction. While she was never what you might call a fan favorite or major bestseller, she was universally admired by her peers, and a genuinely kind lady from what I could gather. Only months before she passed, she tweeted me a very nice thank you for my review of her dystopian novel The Baby Merchant. And her very first published short story, “The Wait,” dating all the way back to 1958, remains one of the most chilling works of early feminist horror you’re likely to read anywhere.

And so I was really looking forward to Reed’s final novel, the Southern Gothic Mormama, flush with the hopes that it would prove to be a proud valedictory capstone to a fine writing life. Heartbreakingly, it’s not the case. While Mormama has moments that shine, the novel is simply far from representative of her work at its finest.

To put it bluntly, it’s dull, repetitive, weak on character and totally lacking in suspense or, for that matter, any kind of strong narrative engine to carry us through to the finish. Seriously, if a novel could be composed entirely of wisps of ectoplasm, this is that novel. It’s essentially a story about buried family secrets, told from multiple viewpoint perspectives in the way so many books are written today. This ought to be the perfect formula for, if nothing else, wonderfully salacious trash, but Reed can’t even get invested in that angle of it.

It starts promisingly enough. A man calling himself Dell Duval, suffering from amnesia, arrives at the decrepit Jacksonville, Florida, plantation home of the Ellis family. He has no idea who he is, and has come to the home only because a calling card with its address was in his pocket when he woke up from whatever happened to him. The house is run down in the way that all old run-down southern mansions are meant to represent the faded wealth and prestige of a bygone era that fewer and fewer people each generation can be bothered to miss. It’s inhabited by three elderly sisters — Ivy, Iris and Rose — and some distant relations, Lane and her 13-year-old son Theo. There’s one more tenant: the ghost of of Charlotte Robichaux — how’s that for a southern name? — whom everyone calls “Mormama,” because she was one more mama than the family needed.

The narrative bounces between everyone’s perspectives, including Mormama’s. But with the exception of the ghost’s remembrances of her own life, we never get any real insight into anyone’s character. And no one seems to go through much of a developmental arc. Charlotte grew up the hated daughter of Manette Ware, an old-money society mother who was so domineering, she overtook Charlotte’s role as mother when Charlotte had a daughter of her own, even naming the girl Manette after herself. The young Manette develops her grandmother’s arrogance and contempt for her mother, and the family line follows on down through her three daughters, Ivy, Iris & Rose.

If you’re here for some Southern Gothic haunted mansion spookiness, look elsewhere. Mormama does little other than manifest, warn Lane and Theo to get out while the getting is good, and not much else. We are informed that the house is built upon some kind of supernatural anomaly that, for some reason, has killed off all the men in the family, but this is never anything in the plot that’s presented in a way to create terror or suspense, nor it is all that well explained. Ultimately, the book becomes a treadmill of different voices — many of whom, particularly young Theo, simply never sound convincing — spinning out a patchwork narrative about lives we aren’t given many reasons to care about. Exposition rules the day. And with everything that could work to the benefit of a story like this failing to work, it comes as little surprise that the ending is abrupt and unsatisfying.

Kit Reed was a fine and important writer in SFF. But even the very best writers aren’t always at the top of their game. I encourage you to skip Mormama, and seek out the earlier work that serves as a far more worthy legacy.