Holy crap. This was the scariest book I’ve ever read, hands down! This past fall, I was frantically searching for things to read that would truly frighten me, similar to how horror films have the ability to give me nightmares for days. I compiled a list of stories I’d heard would fit into this category. Sadly, I never found the perfect horror story to read during the Halloween season. But…I did get to read one during Christmas! It wasn’t exactly perfect timing, but it was exactly the type of thriller I was desperately hoping to find. I cannot recommend The Ward enough if you love horror, mystery, and true crime. I’m as much a Stephen King fan as the next, but I can honestly confess that the level of terror S.L. Grey whips up is unlike anything I’ve come across in the past. If you’re like me and are craving a work of literature that will give you real, 3-D goosebumps, you need to add this to your collection.
A young, handsome, and successful photographer wakes up in the hospital with no memory of how he ended up there. He quickly discovers he’s also lost the ability to see. The nurses seem friendly and accommodating and he’s confident he’ll be able to get home and see his beautiful girlfriend in no time. Meanwhile, a young woman down the hall is waiting to undergo yet another cosmetic surgery to hopefully eliminate her overwhelming insecurities. Unlike the young man in the other room, she senses something unsettling about the ward. When the two pair up in an attempt to discover what is with the hospital, an endless series of odd and disturbing occurrences unfold, testing their sanity with every step. Questionable medical procedures, deformed patients, and robotic hospital staff dominate this thriller and will leave your stomach in knots from beginning to end.
What I Liked
***SPOILERS AHEAD*** If you’ve been with me for any amount of time you’ll know the importance of pace to me when reading a piece of literature. I have a good feeling that I’m not the only reader out there who needs a nicely (or even, quickly) paced flow of narration in order to remain invested in a plot. It’s one of those things a book truly needs to be deemed “read-worthy” in this day and age. Of course, there’s intrinsic value in perusing the unfurling, highly-detailed musings of, say, Tolkien or Kerouac…but we are a generation of instant gratification and we like our stories to mimic a roller-coaster ride the entire way through. If any of that speaks to you on a personal level; The Ward is the high-paced thriller that’s been missing from your life. The first line: “I can’t see.” plunges you into a state of concern and wonder, and the story only gets progressively exciting from there. Just when you think the story-line has plateaued and nothing else crazy can possibly occur, S.L. Grey hits you with plot twist after plot twist until your head is absolutely aching in an attempt to solve the mystery. This novel is everything I’ve ever wanted in a horror story and the incredible, addictive voice of the author makes it that much easier to indulge in it without pause.
Lately, I’ve been exploring novels with mysterious or frightening content that usually gravitates toward supernatural elements. There’s nothing wrong with a little magic to really pad a good story, but I think we all (perhaps unknowingly) crave a good scary story that is rightfully so, because there’s a possibility it could happen in real life. For the same reason people are fascinated with true crime and series such as The Hunger Games, I think we’re all most heavily impacted by stories that scare us silly because they’re so stunningly realistic. I remember when the first Hunger Games novel came out, people were disgusted with the fact that a book could be about children faced with the dilemma of killing each other off in a sadistic competition. Yet, it was a phenomenon for a reason. Similarly, The Ward poses a set of circumstances that are so incredibly horrifying but also have a possibility of happening. Of course, I’m not implying there are hospitals out there that torture patients for fun and harvest their organs but, the lack of anything supernatural naturally implies that in some twisted version of our world, this scenario really could happen…and I don’t know what could be much scarier than that!
Lastly, I want to mention the characters, specifically, the protagonists who have their attributes as well as their flaws in terms of literary development. The two main characters/victims in this story are unique…especially when thinking of stereotypical “good guys”. Farrell is egotistical, entitled, profane, and abusive to those around him. Lisa is unstable, self-loathing, and weak. When the two pair up in an attempt to escape the ward, their personalities clash terribly. Farrell constantly demeans Lisa and has no trust in her until it benefits him, personally. Meanwhile, Lisa feeds off a Farrell’s hate in order to feed her own and somehow develops a crush on this toxic man. In any other genre, this couple would be an utter disaster. However, their incompatibility only adds to the disturbing nature of the book and you’re left wondering if you should root in favor of the protagonists…or hope they meet a grim fate in the end.
What I Didn’t
Now, there were some actual flaws with these characters that I grew repeatedly frustrated with. I keep mentioning how this book gave me the same chills that horror films do. Unfortunately, that involved characters that make really, really dumb, unrealistic choices that get them into endless cycles of trouble. There were moments I stared at the page in disbelief because there was no way these characters would have made such unrealistic decisions. A lot of it just didn’t add up. For example, Farrell wakes up in a spotty hospital with no eyesight and no memories of how he got there. You would think that would be grounds for concern right then and there. However, he continues to endure horrifying and inappropriate conduct on behalf of the staff, yet, repeatedly believes the hospital has good intentions. Even halfway through the novel when he discovers photos of himself naked and covered in permanent marker, he still manages to convince himself that everything is fine and dandy. Similarly, a good majority of the story consists of the two main characters attempting to escape the hospital. With every escape route they try, they encounter someone who works at the hospital and they barely ever get more than a concerned glance. You would think that if you were running a facility that illegally mutilated healthy individuals, you’d show a bit more concern if your victims were attempting to escape. I just wasn’t happy with the amount of times a character made a choice that would and should never have been made. If S.L. Grey had a choice of picking a single or a hundred dollar bill off the ground, apparently they would reach for the one.
My final critique is mostly my fault but I want to talk about it anyways since I’m recommending a novel that’s technically a sequel. Once you’ve finished a good chunk of the book, you begin to encounter a group of people that talk, look, and act in odd ways. They repeatedly mention sending “shoppers” to the “mall” and I couldn’t fathom how that had anything to do with this particular story. I assumed it would all be clarified in the end, and when it wasn’t, I was pretty bummed. I initially assumed there were just a few plot-holes that were meant to be left up for interpretation, since there was no sign of a prequel anywhere on the cover, back of the book, etc. However, after some digging I found a novel entitled The Mall that supposedly leads into The Ward and explains the origins of the strange, alien-like group of antagonists. Admittedly, I wish I had read The Mall first, but this novel performs wonderfully as a stand-alone horror story and I recommend it five times over to anyone who wishes to accept this spooky challenge.