“I feel very alone. But then, I always have.”
Religious occultism collides with the color yellow in Gemma Amor’s latest horror novel, The Once Yellow House. The Bram Stoker Award-nominated author adopts an entirely epistolary format for The Once Yellow House, with the story told through a combination of diary entries, newspaper clippings, and transcripts of audio recordings.
The plot of The Once Yellow House focuses on the events leading up to the Yellow Massacre of 2020, in which 347 members of a cult known as “The Retinue” were brutally killed on a property in upstate New York called the Once Yellow House. The Once Yellow House was owned by a married couple, Thomas and Hope Gloucester. Thomas is presumed dead from the Yellow Massacre, while Hope is now missing and needed for questioning.
Thomas originally started The Retinue online, gaining a following that somehow expanded exponentially after he and Hope moved into the Once Yellow House. Before long, cult members gathered to camp out in their yard, treating Thomas as a divine figure.
This epistolary style of The Once Yellow House is especially effective at revealing bits of information, allowing readers the chance to put together pieces of the puzzle. Gemma Amor also makes brilliant use of this format to delve into the minds of her two main protagonists: the presumably widowed Hope and one of the few cult survivors, known only as Once Yellow Kate. Hope and Kate are both murky about the events leading up to the Yellow Massacre and must rely on each other’s perspectives to piece together the full story.
I particularly enjoyed the discussions between Hope and Kate comparing art and religion. As an artist, Hope interprets many of the occultist practices in terms of artforms, noting how both art and religion embrace symbolism. Moreover, both famous artists and religious leaders earn followers who fervently await their every word.
I also appreciated Gemma Amor’s incorporation of artwork throughout the book, which provides another dimension of disquiet as we try to grasp the true nature of Hope’s situation. All of the artwork in The Once Yellow House, including the cover, were made by the author herself.
Through her believable and somehow relatable characters, Gemma Amor explores themes of emotional abuse and the corruption of love. The unsettling elements of The Once Yellow House span a range of psychological and cosmic horror, as well as truly grotesque body horror. This book is definitely not for the squeamish.
The Once Yellow House also serves as Gemma Amor’s love letter to the color yellow. Yellow is the color of happiness, light, energy, and friendship, but also the color of caution, cowardice, and deceit. I enjoyed reading Hope’s musings on these multifaceted meanings of yellow in art. Hope is particularly attracted by Vincent van Gogh’s prolific use of yellow in his paintings, reflecting on how his choice of color scheme mirrored his evolving mental state.
Gemma Amor’s writing is perfect, as usual, with a keen attention to detail. As an upstate New York native, I was pleasantly surprised to see that she even used our correct telephone area code in the novel.
Gemma Amor is one of my favorite horror authors, and The Once Yellow House only reinforces that view. The Once Yellow House is both a brilliantly constructed puzzle and a first-rate work of art.
Review originally published here.