A literary haunted house tale? I was drawn to this book for many reasons, not the least of which being haunted houses have always intrigued me. And maybe houses don’t even have to always be haunted, but rather just look that way, or emit a certain aura or feeling. And they don’t have to be houses either.
The haunted house genre certainly leaves big shoes to fill. There is of course the pinnacle, Shirley Jackson's Haunting of Hill House, but there are so many other great ones, with varying degrees of horror, suspense, and gothic influences: The House Next Door, Burnt Offerings, The Fall of the House of Usher, House of Leaves, The Woman in Black, The Turn of the Screw, and of course The Shining, are just a few of my favorites.
How to reinvent this genre? How to make it still scare us, or at least keep us reading, when we've potentially read everything on this list (and a bunch of others too)?
Jemc's new novel pays obvious homage to several lines of haunted house tradition, but it searches for new ways to unpack what really scares us about domestic life, isolation, and the things that go bump in the night—or perhaps just go bump inside our own minds.
The story centers around a couple, James and Julie, who are hoping for a fresh start. They move out of the city and buy a house in a secluded area, but almost immediately, strange things begin to happen that they can't explain and that no one would believe. The house is expanding, weird rooms appearing behind the walls. Water turns bad in their cups and strange markings appear on the walls. Should they leave? Or are they just seeing things?
Do we define our home? Or does where we live define us? How do you really take possession of a place, of a set of walls and doors and appliances? What of the people who inhabited those walls before you—do they leave a mark? And what might even be more interesting is what you bring to that place and how it might manifest.
I think the main strength of this book lay in the atmosphere it evoked. There was a building dread emanating from the pages that was very palpable. I was never sure what was coming next and that propelled me through the book.
The book alternates perspectives between James and Julie and it was very telling to watch them discover certain things or have chilling moments in the house, and then see exactly what they decided to tell their partner (or not) about their experience.
The book was as much about the breakdown of James' and Julie's relationship, about the tensions that develop between them when they don't communicate, as it was about the house being haunted. In fact, I began to read the haunting itself as a physical manifestation of their self-doubts and relationship troubles. It’s the classic “chicken and egg” problem. Is the haunting coming from house, or from them?
The first half of the novel was much stronger than the second half for me. It might be a stylistic choice, but as each of their mental states deteriorated, the plot seemed to fizzle away in deference to vivid imagery and an unresolved side plot with the elderly next-door neighbor.
I wished that the book had delivered more on the promise of the first half, building into the creative imagining of the house, holding onto the suspense of the fantastic, and offering a solid climax. While I appreciate ambiguity in books, I think in this case a tighter plot with less side narratives and some kind of resolution on the haunting would have been more fulfilling.
Overall, this is an atmospheric, quick read that would be great for a dark and spooky night in October. Perhaps you are just moving into a new house. . . One that has been around for a while—it has some history in its walls. Perhaps you’ll look at it differently, walking through the halls late at night. It’s almost as if it’s watching you.
My thanks to FSG Originals for my copy of this book.
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Find out more about the author, Jac Jemc
There is an art to the short story. It is not as simple as most people would think. People are daunted and awed by the novel—that long, arduous journey of pages, which of course, is no cake walk itself.
But in those pages, there is room to grow and splinter off in any sort of direction the characters take you, feeling free to meander down any trail the plot draws you down.
A short story has to be tight, has a word limit, has to create all of those feelings and momentums and arcs within the character and the reader in a much tighter scope.
That takes skill. A writer that has a handle on how to craft a great short story really has something.
These stories burn brightly, with a fierce determination, by turns dark and by others comedic, and it all keeps turning like those merry-go-rounds we used to play on as kids until it’s one swirl of nausea-inducing color that makes more sense than the painful world outside.
Behr captures that sense of unrestrained wildness, that captive clarity, the moment of crazed hilarity breaking through the horror.
The stories here, sometimes intertwining, with a consistent tone and dark eye turned toward the world, are narrated by characters lost, broken, set to repeat, and caught up in the uncertain fears we all force on ourselves.
I’ve been ruminating on children in fiction a lot, what with the huge release of It in theaters (and I’ve seen it three times, so sue me, it’s great), and the kids on the page here are hard as nails. They have that bright, intuitive sense of the world that kids so easily grasp and are dealing with so much more than they should have to carry. Brilliantly rendered.
The stories do tend to drop off at their conclusions like that step you forgot in the dark, leaving a bewildered sense of incompleteness. Perhaps stylistic and purposeful, but when overused, one tends to not feel as deeply for the characters, sensing no real conclusion for them will be achieved.
I found the standout stories in the collection to be the ones that center on darkness in more permanent ways, but ways that were only glancing for the narrators, like “A Reasonable Person,” where a juror reflects on her own life and the grisly case she has been assigned to assess, and “Afterword,” where a character reminisces about a young boy she knew growing up who was brutally murdered and how it still affects her.
Stories like these have a deeper resonance, a darkness that sinks to the bones and sits there, chilling and spreading, a real feeling that there is true evil in the world. They show the sparks of a true talent developing in these pages and I’d be glad to see where they go in the author’s work in years to come.
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Assistant editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.