A paper tiger is something that appears threatening but is actually weak in the long-run. A clever title for Damien Angelica Walters’ book, as most of the main character’s threats come from her own mind’s making. We meet Allison Reese at 3 a.m., her favorite time of day for shielding the world from her scarred face and body, the result of a terrible apartment fire. In these wee morning hours Allison happens upon an intriguing photo album in a messy antique shop. Unaware of the chaos she’s about to invite into her life, she buys it.
Pasted in the album is a photo of George, a wealthy man from the turn of the century who has trapped members of his family into his own delusional world. When Allison enters George’s time capsule of a world, she risks being trapped too; she’s tempted with the promise of her old life. But George’s universe has its own conditions, and Allison has to decide if a return to normalcy is worth it. Paper Tigers is haunting if nothing else. Besides being haunted by what’s left of her body, Allison is haunted by memories of an old fiance, a once-promising future in teaching, and other flashes of her life before the fire.
A few secondary characters are scattered throughout, mainly Allison’s ever-worried mother. Aside from that Paper Tigers is a one-woman show. In fact, it’s really towards the last chunk of the book that readers meet Allison’s deadbeat fiance, who jumped ship when he saw her mutilated body at the hospital after the fire. Unfortunately, those cameos come a little too sparse and a little too late for readers to get a true sense of Allison’s former life.
Paper Tigers’ vivid imagery is strong enough to hook an audience, even those of us who don’t fall into the “horror buff” category. The end of the novel feels hurried, though, as Walters ties up the all the loose ends that emerge over 288 pages. Not only does Allison have to resolve the George situation, she also has to navigate her fraught relationship with her mother, struggle with going out publicly, come to terms with her failed relationship’s aftermath and tackle the personal demons that tell her she’s a monster. Makes me tired just thinking about it. A more focused story would make for a more satisfying read, but if you love the dark and gore-y indiscriminately, Paper Tigers as is will do the trick.
Damien Angelica Walters
Dark House Press, 2016