Astoria is the third book in S.P. Miskowski's Skillute Cycle. A novella that acts as a sequel to her powerful debut novel, Knock Knock. The story focuses on Ethel Sanders and her abrupt departure from Skillute, following the tragic events that took place in Knock Knock. Ethel was my favorite character in Knock Knock, so I particularly enjoyed this exploration of her character, further developing her and giving us a rather revealing look at her thoughts, her emotions, and what makes her tick. Ethel finds, however, that Skillute casts a large shadow, and no matter where she goes, she'll never truly be able to escape.
Ethel leaves Skillute with the hopes of starting over, giving herself a clean slate. She intends on changing every aspect of herself, attempting to completely erase her past in Skillute. This is both exciting and terrifying for her. Her whole life, all she knew was Skillute, and nothing else. Despite her hatred for Skillute, it was familiar to her, and actually acted as a safe haven. She felt the pull of Skillute, it was calling out to her to come back. If she didn't act fast, she would have turned around and drove back.
Ethel thought of Long Beach, a place she often went to as a child, and could provide her with the safety she was needing, and, most important, it wasn't Skillute. The ocean tides of Long Beach conjure a lot of memories for Ethel, reminding her of times in Skillute and certain events she experienced during her childhood. When it comes to atmosphere, Miskowski truly shines. Her description of Long Beach creates an atmosphere that comes off, for Ethel, as haunting.
The pearl gray sand and the lilac haze from the sky merged here, throughout the summers of her childhood. A diffuse light had woven the colors of sky and beach. It made her heart ache to remember it. She would have loved to be here in July, with all the kites in the air. She wondered if she would ever see that sight again. As she strolled along the sidewalk in the brisk, cold breeze another memory came to her unbidden.
It's this kind of masterful writing and detailed imagery that whisked me away from my sofa. I was there, with Ethel, at Long Beach, sharing in her memories.
Ethel knew she couldn't stay at Long Beach. She needed to keep going, to escape even further. She decides she is going to completely change her identity, and be the opposite of everything she was while living in Skillute. Identity is an important theme in Astoria. Miskowski often writes of reflections and body doubles. Several times Ethel thought she saw someone who resembled her, and often saw her reflection in mirrors and windows. I feel these scenes serve to emphasize the important role of identity. The entire book is Ethel attempting to completely reshape who she is. She wants to be someone else. She changes her wardrobe, dyes her hair, and even gives herself a different name. All of this is to erase her old self, her old identity.
Ethel decides to look at want ads, and finds something that catches her eye: a house sitting job in Astoria. She contacts James Bevin, the owner of the house, and sets up a meeting with him. She gives herself her makeover, and sets off for Astoria. When Ethel arrives in Astoria, things begin to take a turn for the truly strange. Astoria is a sad, haunting, and strange place. The street the house is located on is marked by old Victorian houses and overgrown vegetation and rusting lawn furniture, except for the house she was staying in. Among the historical Victorian houses, it was truly modern. Astoria as whole, though, was odd. Houses stood at odd angles, creating the image of a "play set," a "jumble of buildings arranged in no order, ruled by whimsy." To say anymore about the story would be to spoil it. All I can say is that, in Astoria, reality is truly subjective, and things only get stranger, culminating in Ethel's past finally catching up with her. Ethel's time in Astoria plays out like a David Lynch film. Again, Miskowski shows us why she is the queen of atmosphere.
The mist in the atmosphere shifted and swayed. The damp, the mist, the very air made a sighing sound. As she walked, it rose until she felt it at her back, mocking her. When she reached the wooden arch, she bolted. She didn't stop to glance back and read the sign painted on the arch.
Every aspect of Astoria was almost palpable. I forgot where I was because I was deeply immersed in Miskowki's world. There is still one more book in the Skillute Cycle, but I think it's safe for me to say that Astoria is, without a doubt, my favorite book in the series. Starting with Knock Knock, you can clearly see the progression in Miskowski's writing; you can see that she is honing her craft as a weaver of haunting and poignant tales that will assuredly leave an indelible mark on you. Astoria is Miskowski showing us what she is capable of; why she is a powerhouse of Horror. It's a perfect blend of psychology and horror, both real and supernatural. All those elements come together so smoothly, it's hard to tell if many of things Ethel experiences are real, or something otherworldly. Miskowski knows every nook and cranny of human nature, and is not afraid to explore some of the more darker aspects of our nature; aspects we must acknowledge.