Suburban Hell by Maureen Kilmer 🎃

A brand-new novel, Suburban Hell by Maureen Kilmer (she/her) was just released in time for the Halloween season. The novel is set in the Midwest (a suburb of Chicago, Illinois) in a neighborhood development. While there are plenty of moms striving to be top-dog PTA queens, and lots of dads to argue over the best grills and craft beer, there are some who don’t give a crap about any of that. Meet Melissa, Liz, Jess, and Amy — four neighborhood moms with very different personalities who have bonded over being themselves.

The first sentence of the novel reads, “None of this would have happened if it weren’t for the She Shed.” Immediately, readers can picture that Midwestern novelty, the She Shed, where women have a space of their own away from spouses and children. Picturing boxed wine. Picture cheese dip. As the quartet christen the groundbreaking of the She Shed with a hearty cheers, the wind whips around them, and things feel . . . off . . . as meek Liz takes on a lavish aura and develops homicidal tendencies.

Amy is our narrator, so we experience the demonic events through her eyes. She was a social worker before she got pregnant, and now that her children are school-age, she wants to get back out there. Nothing develops, so she feels chained to the house and motherhood, unfulfilled but endlessly busy, especially when she is forced to volunteer (yes, this is a thing in the Midwest) to organize the school carnival.

Slowly, we learn that Amy’s sister was a drug addict who, despite interventions and treatment, overdosed. This past propels Amy to save her friend Liz: “I had some many regrets when it came to my sister. There were so many times when I should have reached out and didn’t; my guilt propelled me to ignore my anxiety and put on my shoes. Never again.” Kilmer’s choice to add in a drug-addicted sibling will hit home with Midwestern readers, where the opioid crisis looms large in both the news and families. It gives Amy a believable reason for standing up to whatever has possessed Liz.

Melissa is a corporate type, commanding meetings and letting her stay-at-home husband, formerly a fancy chef, manage the household. And yet Melissa grew up with fundamentalist Christian parents, so despite her bravado, she is terrified and stubborn every step of the journey. She doesn’t want to use a Ouija board, doesn’t want to read books about demons, doesn’t want to confront Liz. Kilmer expertly writes a strong character whose vulnerability stems from a subset of American culture: the televangelist religious types. Despite being a naysayer when I want her to move forward, I’m always rooting for Melissa because she’s visibly bored by competitive consumerism rampant in suburban life:

Melissa leaned back and closed her eyes again. “Heather had her kitchen redone and wants to show everyone. The invitation called it an ‘unveiling.'”

“So it’s like a gender reveal party, but for appliances?”

Jess is the youngest, in her late twenties and an energetic personality. She does CrossFit and has zero qualms about her clothing style compared to the fancy moms like Heather with the remodeled kitchen. Sometimes Jess is barefoot, and other times she has on workout gear or no bra. She’s a step-mom who loves engaging with her step-daughter and building obstacle courses in the backyard for playtime. Her bravery and energy inject humor into the novel, lightening the darker passes about Amy’s dead sister or Melissa’s controlling parents.

And Liz, our possessed fourth member. A pediatric nurse, Liz loves children and caring for others. However, after she possessed, her distant, email-obsessed husband barely notices everything that involves care is falling apart around him. He’s too happy to send his children over to Amy, which allows our narrator to reflect on the ways that the culture of caring ingrained in Midwesterners can easily be overlooked, or even taken advantage of:

Normally [Liz] would have sent [her children over] with a full meal and a backpack full of crafting activities that she had found on Pinterest. I felt a longing in my chest for my friend. Before all this happened, I had never stopped to think about Liz before. She was someone whom I didn’t think about, who was always in the background. She was the constant, the one we all took for granted. The one who quietly folded the blankets at the end of the night and took out the recycling.

Despite Liz being the least present on the page, because she’s often tucked in her house, being possessed, I related to Liz. It’s easy to feel like you give and give and no one notices.

The novel isn’t graphic, and there are a few spooky parts during which Liz’s face looks like it’s melting for a moment, but mostly it’s atmospheric. Basically, it’s recognizable a possession story, complete with research into who lived on the land before it was made into a subdivision (and here the characters pause and wonder if there is some omen from the movie Poltergeist), but it’s also a look at how friendships are psychologically necessary to the female experience, particularly as they apply to raising (or avoiding) children together and uplifting each other in whatever activities they find meaningful.

Highly recommended, both fun and spooky while being a thinker.

31 comments

  1. Gender reveal party but for appliances! That cracked me up. Also, the forced volunteering thing is real and when I first heard about it I was shocked. So glad I never had kids or live in the burbs. But ya know, the city is starting to take on some of the same stupid things, but at least in the city there are more people who can’t be bothered than there are in the burbs. Sounds like a fun read.

    Like

  2. Given that most Americans , unlike most Australians or Europeans, believe in God and the Devil and all that stuff, is this novel like just general fiction, or fantasy? Love the idea of She Sheds. Women aren’t allowed in sheds in Oz. And country towns all have Men’s Sheds where guys do stuff and bond. Even if I was dead you wouldn’t get me in a Men’s Shed.

    Like

    • I’m not surprised that the number of religious people in the U.S. is dropping dramatically, but I think you hear about them more because the white nationalist christians are getting louder. The women in this story are not religious, but one was raised by fundamentalist christians, so even though she doesn’t believe, she has a deep-lingering fear because it was such a big part of her upbringing. Also, there is a huge rise in demonic possession stories in the U.S. in both movies and books, and while many of them use religion to fight the possessing spirit, this one does not.

      I’m glad you aren’t hanging out in what we would call a “Man Cave.” There’s a lot of “boys will be boys” toxic nonsense in that culture. The She Shed is more about getting away from spouses and kids for a hot second. An updated version of “A Room of One’s Own.”

      Like

  3. This sounds really good – a lot more thoughtful than I might have expected. I’ve been getting more involved with our school’s equivalent of the PTA and the thing I notice is that contrary to movies and TV, no one here wants to be in charge of stuff! The current chair took the position because no one else wanted it. Moms are a lot less competitive than media would have us believe, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you are right Karissa . I’m past that mums stage now, but my experience was that most mums want to cooperate and work together, not boss each other around. I have a lot of time for women, and feel that female friendships are pretty darn special.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I do wonder if the media would stop showing competitive moms, something in the culture would change. My mom talks about how a group of moms would take turns watching all the kids so the other moms could go out and do stuff, and then next time it was someone else’s turn. That “it takes a village” mindset.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Yeah, I think this is (yet another) example of media highlighting drama that is actually not very common in real life. Admittedly, my sample size is small and, as you point out in your comment below, power struggles are different in different communities. I can also acknowledge that it’s not hard for me to fit in with the demographics that these sort of groups often cater to.

          I love that your mom had a group of moms like that! That’s totally the sort of community I want to cultivate. Just the other week I had to pick the girls up at 2 different locations at the same time after school and was thankful to have other moms to call on to help me out. I’m often walking other kids home in the afternoons along with mine. And just yesterday a friend brought us dinner unprompted because I’ve been sick all week. It really does take a village!

          Like

    • I think there may be a difference in private-school moms vs. public, and in wealthy school districts, where power is a real thing. You may like this one, Karissa, and I will say it’s not gory that I remember in any way, and the scary entity (possessed Liz) is often off the page.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m not sure what I can add since the previous comments have all mentioned the things I was going to say:

    – “Gender reveal party but for appliances!” – cracked me up too
    – Cover is gorgeous
    – She Sheds is inspired. (BTW Bill, we are in the process of downsizing and I’ve been wondering what Mr Gums will do when he no longer has a workshop. Friends have suggested Men’s Sheds, but no, that’s not really his thing he says (as I expected him to say)

    How do you force people to volunteer? Sounds awful.

    Anyhow, beyond all this, I do like the sound of this book, except for the demonic possession bit. You discussion about its psychological understanding interested me, and its commentary on suburban life which might be specifically midwest but clearly has its universals too.

    Like

    • In the Midwest we do this fun thing where we politely guilt someone into doing what we want them to do — forced volunteering. Something like, “Oh, I’ve been organizing the school event for aaaaages, and I’m just so worn out!” or “I haven’t seen you around lately” to make the person feel like they’re avoiding everyone. Etc. It’s very, very real here, and I’ve come to learn that “No” is a complete sentence.

      I wonder if the Men’s Shed is just a workshop or a place where men hand nudie calendars and have a kegerator and get into shenanigans with their friends, or if it’s just a workspace? What we call a “man cave” is what I described just above.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ah, thanks. I wondered if that’t how it went – the volunteering thing I mean.

        And yes, I have heard of the man cave idea too … you are right, there is probably a cross over, but the formal intentions are a bit different, the way I see it.

        Liked by 1 person

      • In the UK there are various Men in Sheds initiatives that function as public/social health interventions for older men, and I believe they’ve got a very good success rate for reducing loneliness (and therefore improving health outcomes) especially among men who have been widowed. Stuff like gardening, woodworking etc – one of my colleagues researched them for his PhD. Though it sounds quite different from what you’re describing!

        Like

        • In the U.S. a man shed is described as either toxic masculinity in four walls, or a place for dudes to “tinker” around away from their family, because they need a break.

          I love the idea of a shed turning into a club and hearing about the social benefits of them.

          Like

  5. See, I LOVE female friendships where they all raise each other up no matter what road they choose in life. I have that with you, Moth and my friend Erin and those are my 3 favorite friendships.
    This doesn’t sound like too shabby of a book! I’ll have to check my library. 🙂

    Like

  6. This appeals to me – for the both the spooky elements, and the ways it examines motherhood and female friendships . Both are things that really zoom into focus when you have kids of your own, especially because it has such a huge affect on your own social life.

    I also love the idea of a ‘she shed’ LOL

    Like

Insert 2 Cents Here:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s