Smithy is the debut novel by Inkshares author and paranormal connoisseur Amanda Desiree. The novel is an epistolary record of an animal language acquisition study centered on the titular chimpanzee Smithy (or Webster, if you’re feeling formal) and the students who are teaching him American Sign Language. The researchers and their ward have taken up residence in a storied Rhode Island mansion that seems prone to strange phenomena and unexplainable happenings. Is Smithy using his newfound powers of language to describe a supernatural entity invisible to the other residents of Trevor Hall, or are clashing personalities and interpersonal friction to blame for the disintegration of the study?
What immediately stands out about Smithy is the format– the epistolary format is no stranger to the horror genre (cough, Dracula, cough), but it’s still novel enough to set the book apart and give it a uniquely realistic atmosphere. This was my biggest takeaway from the book: the utmost care has been put into realism and making the reader feel as though the events at Trevor Hall could absolutely be featured on a paranormal documentary series. The inclusion of snippets from later documentaries, interviews, and post mortem analysis of the study amidst more personal letters and diary entries is expertly handled, and it’s easy to forget that what you’re reading isn’t actually based on a true story.
Unfortunately, this is at times a double-edged sword. Because the book is entirely centered on academia, the bulk of the proceedings are about the study itself. This won’t be a problem for anyone familiar with higher education and scientific rigor, but it occasionally bogs things down to a glacial pace that will not suit all readers. To describe the novel as a slow burn seems to be nearly an understatement, as the true stakes and peril of the novel don’t escalate all that much until near the 65% mark, and that’s quite a ways into a book surpassing 500 pages. Granted, were it not for the format itself the book would likely be around 150 pages shorter, but all the same, the book feels just a bit overwritten in places, especially when describing the social lives of the students.
The climax and ending also leave a bit to be desired. This comes down to two major points– first, that it feels like the book is building to a much bigger payoff than what we actually get, and secondly, that Smithy wants equally to play with the idea of ambiguity and also completely disallow it from the reader’s perspective. To the former, I’ll avoid actual spoilers but will point out that the cynical, downcast tone of the “modern” sections that reflect on the study seem to be hinting at a much grimmer outcome than what’s presented. The ultimate fate of the researchers feels a lot more plausible than any other would, but it’s less than satisfying based on the buildup.
On ambiguity, I’d say Smithy has a bit of an identity crisis. The book absolutely wants you to believe there’s a ghost in Trevor Hall based on otherwise impossible occurrences, but it feels like Amanda Desiree never wants to buy entirely into the haunting for fear of breaching the line of realism and speculation. What results is the feeling that an opportunity has been missed, either to lay it on a bit thicker and give the reader a few more direct supernatural scares or to write a story that plays more with the idea of there being no ghost at all. It seems like an attempt was made toward the latter in places, but the impossibility of certain events without supernatural intervention supersedes that effort.
I can imagine Smithy being a bit divisive. Those who prefer real-life hauntings and supernatural study will probably love the care that has been taken to believably recreate that format, and for those people, I think the book will be a slam dunk. Personally, I found it a bit too slow and lacking in punch.
Rating 6 out of 10 Signing Chimps