A review by encounterswiththemoon
The House of Drought by Dennis Mombauer


When German documentarians, Bernhard & Julie make their way into the Kandy province of Sri Lanka with the intent to film clips of the devastating effects of climate change on local farmlands, they come across a local folktale whispered amongst farmers. The legend of an entity that floats through the jungle with seeds for eyes & lures children with tenderness; always keeping an eye on the health & wealth of the lands, seeking to protect the nourishment that it requires to prosper. Throughout this novella, a multitude of characters, each with their own dramatic backstories, find their way to the house only to become lost in the horror that befalls the property. 

There is always room on my library shelf for a book that requires me to research topics. Though I enjoy stories that lead me down familiar roads, there is something to be said for those that leave me seeking to learn more. This is one such book. Riddled to the brim with folktales & lore, the Sap Mother is an entity that was sprinkled into the story just enough to leave me feeling intrigued yet, I did not feel that enough dedicated detail was given to her or any of the characters to leave me feeling fearful. I wonder if this is due to the length of the book or if it is because the story is being presented in book format, that the intensity of the lore is lost upon me. Should I find myself watching this story unfold, I should think that I would enjoy the film very much. 

I am not one to comment on something that I have no knowledge about. I will always do my due diligence in terms of research materials that were previously outside my realm of understanding. When it came to seeking to understand who the Sap Mother was for locals, especially those in the farmlands of Kandy, I came up empty-handed. It was incessantly difficult to find any information about a Sap Mother, an Anik Amma, or a White Lady in local lore which made the author’s note a bit confusing. There are ample texts dedicated to explaining the phenomenon of The White Lady for different nationalities of people; the concept appears to be quite common among humanity. However, I could not find anything specific outside of a couple of quick mentions of general descriptions. 

The White Lady is a woman who wanders around luring men to their deaths, essentially. However, after coming up short in terms of specific information regarding this entity I relied heavily on the descriptors given to us in the book. I acknowledge that the author is recounting some of the stories that he has been told & am in no way seeking to claim falsehood when stating that I, personally, could not find information about this entity. Rather, I wonder, why were are given so little. 

In the context of the story, the Sap Mother is said to be a protector of the land. Given the level of reliance that the local people have on a generous rain season to ensure that their crops grow, the Sap Mother wanders around taking seeds as payment for guardianship. My first moment of confusion arose when we are being told that the Sap Mother gets her strength from the young, feeding on their life force to sustain her. Does this mean that she kills them or does this mean that she finds joy & sustenance for her tasks, in the presence of children? What leads me to question this is that—perhaps this was the point—the Sap Mother is simultaneously presented as good & evil. She kept a child captive with her during the entirety of his life in the jungle after he ran away from the house that was being barged by mob members. Yet, we are also meant to believe that she is simply angry at the house for rotting the land & sucking it dry from water. 

What is the link between the Sap Mother & the House of Drought other than they both inhabit the same place? Why were the children captive within the walls of the house? Who made it so this house held secret rooms? Are we to believe that the Englishman who built the establishment had directed it to be built as such? If not, where do the supernatural aspects of the story come into play when it comes to leading people to be imprisoned within the walls of the House of Drought? Wouldn’t the Sap Mother want to set the children free from a house that was ruining the land she sought to protect? 

I understand that this story relies fully on the make-believe aspect of storytelling. For example, everyone who was trapped inside the Drought House would have died within three (3) days, especially if the house was sucking them dry of any/all moisture. I appreciate that not every aspect of an entity of local lore may be completely understood or accurately translated. However, this story would have benefited from more elaboration. Rather than hearing a villager recount some of the stories & experiences that she had, more than twice, we could have seen the characters of the documentarians do personal research. Perhaps they were in the early stages of their project but, seeing as we read about them gathering final clips of the house for the film I think not. 

Bernhard & Julie would have added more than a disjointed link to the history of the house had they participated in the research. Seeing them be told by third parties what happened in the house felt a bit boring & I know that’s not a great descriptor but, every flashback to the present time saw me waiting for the next section of explanation about the actual people that lived in the house. With that being said, some editing could have been done to have these pieces of the story flow with more ease. I do not think it necessary to read about every group of people’s impressions of the ‘palace’ especially when each of these was exactly the same, one from the other. 

The dialogue grew to feel increasingly disjointed & I cannot pinpoint if this was intended in an attempt to write the English text how someone who spoke another language would speak—utilizing intonations, emphasis, etc.—or if the author could have benefited from another editor. As well, I had no reason to believe that the characters held the nationalities that they did. There could have been further German employed to reinforce where the characters were meant to be from. I originally thought that the employment of ‘ja’ in place of ‘yes’ was due to spelling errors & it wasn’t until a German word was used that I understood why this was being done. In cases such as this, it would be positive to have the English book be written in authentic English speech & not adopt the speech patterns of another language. Words can be utilized within the text to confirm who is speaking & what language they are speaking but, to do both feel disjointed. 

Ambiguity is generally fine, I actually enjoy it in Horror but, in this case, I was waiting for something catastrophic to happen to lead me to feel enthused about the book. When Hemantha is probably killed by the Sap Mother I can’t help but wonder, why. This is meant to be a peaceful being & yet she murders a random person for being inside the house she hates? Is she single-minded or can she intone that these people walked through the forest in which she lives to seek shelter in the house? Did anyone find his body? This leads me to question, again, what the connection between the House of Drought & the Sap Mother is. Is the house evil or is it simply haunted? Is it haunted because of the Sap Mother or is it haunted because the Englishman gave less than 2 cents for the land & the people? 

When all is said & done, I enjoyed the thought & motivation behind this story more than I enjoyed the story itself. When Bernhard is captured by the house I didn’t care, I was eager to be done reading. Jasmit’s side quest to release the person who saved her after 20 years felt ridiculous; I’m sure it was difficult for her to return to the house but come on…this person sacrificed themselves in coming to save you, please be better. With some editing, this story would flow very smoothly & ultimately that should be the goal; to have a horror story transition in an effortless fashion through terrors & fears, with bumps in the night & strange light, into the solitary confinement of a man without willpower. 

Thank you to NetGalley, Stelliform Press, & Dennis Mombauer for the free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!