TITLE: Thirteen Storeys
AUTHOR: Jonathan Sims
PUBLISHED: November 26, 2020
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
Real life is often more terrifying than fiction. This is something I’ve come to understand in light of everything that has happened and is still happening this year, during which I have read very few books, and most of what I’ve read has been either romance, or horror. Both make the perfect brain-candy, albeit for different reasons. In the case of romance, it’s nice to escape into a world where love is indeed true and happily-ever-after does exist, even if it hurts to get there in some stories (though the heartache is also what makes that ending so sweet). As for horror, it’s because of the catharsis. The current state of the world is such that it can often feel like there’s no end in sight; in a horror novel, there’s always an ending. It might not be a happy ending, and it might not be an absolutely conclusive ending, but it is still an ending.
But one thing I’ve never stopped looking for in my reading, both before the pandemic and during it, are themes that speak to me of broader issues. If this pandemic can be said to have done anything helpful for humanity, it’s to expose the web of injustice that pervades our society, in such a way that many people will remember it long after the pandemic has ended – and move towards ensuring that those injustices are resolved for the better. And Thirteen Storeys by Jonathan Sims most certainly does just that.
Readers who have heard about Sims before probably know him for his work as the creator of the horror podcast The Magnus Archives, and will likely find that Thirteen Storeys feels very similar to the aforementioned podcast series. Like The Magnus Archives, Thirteen Storeys is a set of standalone short stories, connected to each other by the setting and the occasional cameos some characters make in the stories the others tell, with the final chapter acting as the climax that brings all the characters, and their stories, together. Also like The Magnus Archives, there is a larger, overarching plot that brings the stories together, which is hinted at across the chapters and revealed in its entirety at the novel’s climax.
As a fan of Sims’ podcast, Thirteen Storeys is a delight because of how familiar it feels: like a text version of The Magnus Archives, but still different enough to be its own creature. It shares plenty of its DNA with its podcast sibling, but Thirteen Storeys’ storytelling feels sharper, more focused. Sims uses the confines of Banyan Court to best advantage, with the building providing a metaphorical sort of structure to the stories even as it stands as an actual, physical structure in the novel itself.
Even with that more narrowed focus, though, the individual stories are still interesting and diverse, offering different flavours of fear to appeal to (or creep out) the individual reader. The stories show the wide range of influences Sims draws upon, with nods from Mary Shelley and Shirley Jackson to H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. The characters, too, are diverse – not just in terms of their demographics, but in their personalities as well. What they do share in common, though, is that none of them can be considered genuinely “good” people. Some are more reprehensible than others, of course, and I admit to feeling some schadenfreude when certain characters were made to suffer, but even the most sympathetic of the characters presented in this novel is hardly a saint. Take, for example, the following quote, which comes from the second chapter/story:
… He understood poverty and degradation without having to actually experience it. You don’t need to actually touch art.
This is from one of the more reprehensible characters I mentioned earlier: an art dealer who has some rather shady dealings and, as the above excerpt makes clear, some disgusting prejudices of his own. He is one of the most memorable characters: partially because of his portrayal, but also because his tale is genuinely scary, with nods to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”. It also helps that by the end of the chapter/story it might be argued that he gets what he deserves.
But as I have also mentioned, not all of the characters are terrible people, as the following excerpt shows:
… A burning need to find the heart of this place, to push her way through a fog of history to the pure essence of greed and dispassionate cruelty; a world where people are allowed to suffer out of sight simply because it is easier. She’d seen glimpses of it since she was a child. Could she be better or was it her fate too? Perhaps tonight she would find out.
The above comes from the seventh chapter/story, and the protagonist of this chapter/story is focused on unearthing the mystery that lies at the heart of Banyan Court itself. She gets close, but not quite close enough – that reveal is saved for the climax.
While this structure is interesting and has allowed Sims to tell a story that’s different from more traditional haunted house tales, it does mean the reader will have to keep track of quite a few characters – which might be a bit of an issue even for readers who are accustomed to reading genres like fantasy and science fiction, where tracking multiple characters across multiple chapters and even multiple books is commonplace. This might be because each character has only one chapter in which to make themselves memorable to the reader, which works in the case of some characters, but maybe not in others.
But if there is one thing that truly makes this novel stand out, it’s the central theme. “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is a statement that many people have encountered at one point or another – and it is, sadly, one that all too often turns out to be true. Except in very rare cases, anyone who gets even a scrap of power is likely to abuse that power: a tendency that escalates the more power someone is given. And since money is the easiest path to, and source of, power, it should come as no surprise that the wealthiest people are also the ones most prone to abusing their power. Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk: just googling these names will lead to many stories showing how so much of their wealth is built on the abuse and exploitation of the less fortunate. And they are not the only ones who have done so: a quick peek through history will show that, all too often, the acquisition and maintenance of great wealth tends to come at the expense of those who are most vulnerable to exploitation.
This notion of exploitation and abuse in order to serve the greed of a few (or of one) is the novel’s thematic core. To explain how that works would be difficult, since it would mean spoiling the entire story, but suffice to say that Sims does not attempt to hide this theme at all, instead using it as the spine around which everything else is built, the thread that binds it all together.
Overall, Thirteen Storeys is an exceptional read. While some readers may have trouble keeping track of all the characters, each of those characters is fascinating on their own, though readers will certainly have their favourites. The structure might not be typical of haunted house stories, but it lends itself well to the tale (or tales?) that Sims weaves, offering the reader glimpses of the monster at the heart of the tale before finally revealing all in the final, thirteenth chapter. Fans of The Magnus Archives are sure to enjoy this novel, but I also believe that it makes an excellent introduction to readers who have never encountered Sims’ podcast before, giving said readers a taste of the brand of fiction he does so well. I also recommend the audiobook version of this novel, which is read by a full voice cast, including Sims himself, and is quite the treat even for those who have not encountered Sims’ podcast.