Reviewed by Olivia Kozlevcar
This article was first published in Washington Independent Review of Books here.
It’s chilling enough being the sole woman trapped in the woods with a group of men and no phone reception. But in Catherine Ryan Howard’s Run Time, the men are also producing a low-budget horror film — one that only shoots in the dead of night.
Relying on psychological manipulation rather than gore, Run Time follows last-minute fill-in Adele Rafferty, a former soap star, as she returns home to Ireland from Los Angeles to play the movie’s lead, Kate. She carries a failing career in one hand and an NDA in the other. When she arrives on the set of “Final Draft,” Adele notices eerie details that start to become unsettling. But are they merely strange or something more sinister?
The novel is a quick read made possible by the quality of its plot development. Adele is a solid everywoman, capturing readers’ attention by inviting us into her head and embracing her own shortcomings. Her travails offer an unpolished look at the complexities of being a young woman in a sometimes-vicious industry and trying to withstand the emotional and physical toll — and fear — that comes along with it.
Howard breaks up the text by inserting sections of the “Final Draft” script between chapters. It’s a bold, innovative move that helps build suspense from one plot point to the next. Even better, the parallels between the script and the main narrative allow readers to take a stab at guessing what’s coming next in the story:
You’re okay. You’re okay.
You’ll be okay.
And then –
A pinprick of white light appears in the distance.
Kate stops. She blinks, squints.
We see the light from her POV, her vision blurred by tears and rain, and watch as the light comes into focus, splits into two, each orb growing brighter, bigger –
Kate, lit now by the approaching white light, raises a hand to shield her eyes from it.
And now we hear something too: an ENGINE. A car is coming up the road. Kate runs toward it, into the middle of the road, waving her arms.
Dramatic interludes aside, Run Time is flawed. Coming on the heels of the author’s critically acclaimed 56 Days, it has large shoes to fill. While both novels are set during the pandemic, covid-19 is integral to 56 Days but is merely a plot device here. Howard’s frequent heavy-handed one-liners on the subject detract from Run Time because the pandemic is unrelated to the story at hand.
To her credit, the author evidently conducted a great deal of research on the entertainment industry prior to writing this book (she cites her brother, an actor, as part of her inspiration). Unfortunately, her allusions to things like #MeToo vis-à-vis the film business often feel clumsy and draw the reader away from the action. She might’ve done better by focusing more on Adele’s particular underlying fears and allowing them to speak broadly for the trials endured by women in the trade.
Moreover, while the ending isn’t obvious, the story’s main twist is predicted early on by Adele. It left me wondering why the author would choose to reveal the novel’s most interesting development before it’s had time to grow. In addition to this self-inflicted wound, some of the book’s other turns are predictable, as when the only “nice guy” on the set turns out to have his own malicious motives (à la “Promising Young Woman,” a film whose writer/director, Emerald Fennell, is alluded to early on).
Overall, Howard’s novel is an entertaining read. The twists and turns of Adele’s sordid tale are interesting, and the narrative is well written. If you’re just dipping your toe into horror, Run Time is a good place to start. Avid fans of the genre, however, may feel let down. So, proceed with caution.