After sparing no expense and enduring numerous treatments, George and his husband, Jason, brace for the final verdict on the tumor growing in George’s brain. At first, Jason isn’t willing to accept that nothing more can be done for his husband; George, on the other hand, is done. By this point, George wants to spend whatever time he has left living rather than suffering side effects from more unproven treatments. With only months for George to live, the couple decide to take a trip from Texas to Vermont. If nothing else, George can show Jason where he grew up—and maybe even reconnect with his estranged family.
Before Jason and George get anywhere in Vermont, however, they are beset upon by a freak summer storm. Their rental car blows a tire in the middle of seemingly nowhere and it’s a small comfort that Jason discovers a tiny, very old-fashioned bed and breakfast tucked away amidst the vast emptiness of Vermont country: the Borderland Hotel. Not only does the hotel look like it’s right out of a period drama, the staff dress and act like it as well—right down to being suspicious of two men being married. But Jason and George don’t dwell on the staff’s reaction as much as they contemplate the other guests. Clusters of people all parade through the hotel at odd times, all looking like they stepped right out of films or magazines for bygone eras.
Even more bizarre, the hotel staff seem completely aloof to just how many people are staying at the hotel—and where they came from. Without any form of public transport and only a sparsely traveled road nearby, Jason and George wonder where all these people have come from. Things take a turn for the worse when Jason, who used to be the picture of health, takes seriously ill and George has no way of contacting anyone outside the hotel for help…and someone inside the hotel is actively working to keep both of them trapped.
As someone who has recently stumbled into the wealth of horror podcasts, Borderland hit very near that mark with the creepy Victorian/Edwardian-era hotel, the hotel staff who look like they’re extras on Downton Abbey, and a parade of guests from different periods in time. For me, one of the best elements of the story is how these dissimilar people react and interact with each other. Initially, the blurred lines about who knows what about the mysterious hotel help create tension, but this tension ultimately clears up along more discrete lines of “good” and “bad.” You know, for those of us who enjoy having a clear and present bad guy to root against.
The balance between George’s and Jason’s health also figures prominently into the story. From a plot perspective, I thought this helped kick up the sense of impending doom very well. It is also sort of sneaky insofar as George just perks up and Jason is coming down with a cold or the flu. When the true implications of these changes are revealed, I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more discussion between George and Jason about it. This was sort of a blanket feeling I had about George and Jason overall—that they are clearly an established, committed couple and that that fact is just a given. I thought this was taken for granted a bit too often and, as a result, I only really identified with George and Jason as a generic “heroes” in the story, rather than a complex character I could lose myself in. I think this was sort of odd considering they have been married for a decade and a couple for longer. I guess I was expecting more…depth, but maybe this is replaced with the very present preoccupation with George’s physical condition.
Aside from the somewhat bland main characters, there is a wide variety of side/supporting characters. I liked how carefully these characters and/or their avatars are built into the story. For example, there is a WWI-era soldier who appears/disappears before George, and then reappears towards the end, and it is here that the soldier’s connection to the hotel and the main cast becomes clear. There are also a few scenes that involve some props that seem non sequitur, like a crib and a music box, but get pulled into the back story of one of the supporting characters in the story. This attention to detail helped build the history of the hotel and the characters very well.
Finally, despite the fact that George has a terminal diagnosis, the way the story plays out overall, readers can still get a sense of both “happy for now” and “happily ever after” for the main couple. There are some leaps and bounds the reader has to make, but given the supernatural nature of the book in general, it wasn’t jarring beyond the timeline being necessarily compressed to fit a lifetime into a couple pages.
Overall, this is a plot-driven horror/supernatural thriller story. It stars an unassuming established couple who are trying to cope with a life-altering illness and who happen to fall into the schemes of a bad, well, ghost. The story that unfolds includes plenty of doubt as to who is actually bad and how things could possibly resolve well for anyone. Despite the struggle to escape a paranormal trap, our main characters do get a happy ending. I would recommend this to anyone who is interested in horror, and paranormal stories, especially ones that include themes of good/evil and elements of historical fiction.