John Boyne applies his dependably fluid writing style to this eerie Victorian ghost story, which offers an unsettling—in a good way—blend of the conventional and the unexpected. Having enjoyed The House of Special Purpose earlier this year, I couldn't resist the opportunity to read his newest, This House is Haunted.
"I blame Charles Dickens for the death of my father," Eliza Caine begins. In London in 1867, after her ailing father dies following a rainy excursion to hear Dickens read his spine-tingling new ghost story, Eliza is left alone and bereft. Overcome by grief and short on cash for the rent, she grabs the first opportunity she sees.
An "H Bennet" has advertised in the newspaper for a governess at Gaudlin Hall in Norfolk. Even knowing little about the environment or her employer, Eliza quits her job as a teacher for "small girls" and boards a train to the country.
In this and in other circumstances, Eliza presents an occasionally frustrating combination of determination and naiveté, one not uncommon to Gothic heroines. Her loyalty and inner strength make her a compassionate, sympathetic protagonist.
Compared to the smoke-filled, crowded city, the Norfolk countryside has plenty of fresh air and open space, but Gaudlin Hall is an imposing old mansion that would give anyone the creeps. The children of the house, the oddly precocious Isabella and her sweet but peculiar younger brother Eustace, have no adult supervision other than Eliza. Their family lawyer refuses to speak with her, local townspeople avoid her once they learn where she works, and the one servant she can find isn't talking. The mysterious “H Bennet” isn’t anywhere around, either.
On Eliza's first night at the house, a malevolent presence makes itself known. Whatever (or whoever) it is wants her gone. Even though she clings to rational explanations for her violent "accidents" past the point of plausibility, she's made of stern stuff and knows she must stay and protect her charges. As the hauntings continue and she meets with more woes, she musters up the courage to solve the mystery of Gaudlin Hall's past.
The archetypal setting and premise will be familiar ground to anyone who reads Gothics, and there are nods to several well-known novels within—I won’t say which. Maybe due to Eliza's confident narration, the novel never flat-out terrified me, but I appreciated the dramatic plotting and found myself startled by a few revelations. Boyne knows the precise moment to shake things up with a sudden, sharp surprise.
This House is Haunted was published by Doubleday UK in late April at £14.99 (hb, 304pp). American readers can find it in bookstores this October (Other Press, $14.95, trade pb), and Doubleday Canada publishes it the same month ($24.95). Thanks to Doubleday UK for sending me a review copy.