This House Is Haunted has spooky allure
This House Is Haunted
By John Boyne. Doubleday Canada, 304 pp, softcover
Like comedy, ghost stories are much harder than they look. They run on conventions and yet they’re meant to deliver the unexpected in the form of scares. So the game is all about tweaking the formula without changing its basic chemistry.
Dublin author John Boyne’s latest novel, This House Is Haunted, is a return to the genre’s traditional recipe, set in the creaky, fog-shrouded England of 1867. Admittedly, the title is a clanging one, the equivalent of Snakes on a Plane when it comes to truth in packaging, leaving us to wonder why The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Boyne’s 2004 bestseller, wasn’t called The Boy Who Lived Next to Auschwitz Without Realizing It. But its tale of a rural mansion stalked by a violent spirit delivers chills often enough that we’re lured in.
Grieving the death of her father, young schoolteacher Eliza Caine decides on impulse to answer a newspaper ad requesting a governess for two children in a rambling country house in Norfolk, far from her native London. What she doesn’t know until she arrives—and runs into the previous governess fleeing across the train-station platform, never a good sign—is that the 12-year-old girl, Isabella, and her eight-year-old brother, Eustace, appear to be roaming the shadowy chambers and corridors of Gaudlin Hall without a parent or supervising adult of any kind. Eliza’s alarm only grows when she learns that five governesses have come and gone before her in the space of a year.
The children are being watched over, however—not by any human, but by an icy, hostile presence that means to show Eliza she is not welcome. To go into detail would be to spoil, even though some of the elements are standard in the damned-souls-and-dark-wood-panelling school of storytelling. As ever, a hideous crime in the house’s past acts as a kind of energy source for the floating evil. (“There is cruelty in the world, Eliza, you can see that, can’t you?” a friend says to our heroine. “It surrounds us. It breathes on us.”) And Isabella’s stony gaze and ominous pronouncements are those of countless other stony, ominous children in horror stories and films.
Still, this is what we come for, as if it were comfort food. What’s more, Boyne gives us convincing period detail and a main character whose inner life shifts and evolves. You may feel by the end that some of the momentum has evaporated, particularly in a climactic scene that has instants bordering on poltergeist slapstick. But there are far worse ways to spend a Halloween night, especially if you’re lucky enough to have a seat next to a window scratched by falling leaves—or by something else.