book review: This House is Haunted by John Boyne

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THIS HOUSE IS HAUNTED by John Boyne
★★★★☆
Other Press, 2013

 

This House is Haunted is essentially a love letter to Victorian and Gothic literature – it’s like if you put The Turn of the ScrewJane Eyre, and the complete works of Charles Dickens into a blender, with an occasionally tongue in cheek contemporary spin. It’s also a reminder of why John Boyne is one of my favorite authors; there’s such a compulsively readable quality to his prose, where it’s witty and compelling and tense all at once.

I feel like a very common pitfall of the ghost story horror genre is phenomenal buildup to a sort of anticlimactic conclusion, and I’m sorry to say that this isn’t really an exception. This is filled to the brim with delightful ghost story tropes that fans of this genre will adore (a spooky Gothic mansion, creepy children, a standoffish caretaker, a harrowing family history), and I loved the experience of reading this novel, but as we got closer to the end, I became more confident that I was going to be disappointed, and sure enough, the climactic scene and denouement left me pretty cold. There’s also an entire element of the resolution that didn’t totally work for me (the presence and identity of the second spirit I thought took away a lot of the tension).

But, all that said, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy this book. I loved the way Boyne played into certain familiar tropes while subverting others. I loved our heroine Eliza, who’s both vulnerable and strong-willed. And, to give credit where it’s due, creating a compelling ghost story as a contemporary author is hard. How on earth do you write a conclusion that’s fresh, devoid of cliches, and appropriately scary for your modern reader? I still haven’t found a ghost story that totally works for me in this regard, so I’ll have to keep looking. But for its wonderful buildup, vivid characters, and clever prose, I’m rounding up my 3.5 stars.