The conceit behind Diary of a Haunting is that M. Verano is an associate professor at a university in Idaho who has devoted his life to “editing a series of first-person narratives” which demonstrate instances of occult or paranormal incidents. “Montague Verano” is a pseudonym used to lend authenticity to the framing device for this narrative, which purports to be a collection of journal entries from a turbulent six-month period in the life of a teenaged girl. Naturally, the reader is assured that pertinent details like names have been changed to protect affected individuals.
Paige, her scientifically-minded younger brother Logan, and their mother have just relocated from sunny L.A. to dreary small-town Idaho following a much-publicized divorce. Mom, a modern-day hippie, will be studying “natural resource conservation” at the local university. The house she’s rented (sight unseen) is a huge, old, creepy Victorian that used to be the town’s hospital/morgue, and possibly the locus of a cult. Paige can’t seem to decide whether Idaho is a punishment or a chance to start over with a new high school crowd. The primary outlet for her frustrations is a private online journal where she documents events and conversations from January to June of an unspecified year. As time goes on, the entries become increasingly strange — both in their execution and in terms of what Paige describes — and it becomes clear to her that something is very wrong, even if her family won’t take her seriously.
The strangeness starts out benignly enough: several cans of spaghetti sauce in the pantry, though only a few were purchased at the grocery store. A missing sweater turns up in the wrong closet beside two identical sweaters that couldn’t have been picked up locally. A bag of groceries appears suddenly on the kitchen floor. Cell phones send or receive duplicate texts, and Paige’s journal repeats posts without her knowledge. Gradually, more oddities are layered in as their TV goes on the fritz, the Internet won’t work, and an infestation of both flies and spiders inexplicably increases. Logan stops sleeping and spends his nights in front of the television, convinced that he’s playing video games when there’s nothing but static on the screen. Though Logan and her mom laugh everything off as the interference of friendly spirits, Paige isn’t convinced, and neither was I.
One of my least favorite horror tropes is when characters don’t react to extra-ordinary circumstances, in order to allow the author draw out tension and delay the reveal of whatever is lurking behind a corner or within the shadows. I understand that it’s being used in Diary of a Haunting to prove that Paige is “normal” and her mother is “flighty,” but I found it bothersome and unrealistic. If a person in the real world opened up a pantry door and discovered outlandishly increased quantities of food, they’d ask a few questions about where it all came from, or at least feel a measure of confusion. Since the reader only has Paige’s perspective, it’s impossible to get a sense for more to her mother’s behavior and rationale. Limiting the perspective to Paige didn’t allow for the kind of character development I would have liked to see, especially when an entire family is supposedly being affected by bumps in the night. By the time any other characters question Paige’s account of events, so much time had been spent establishing the singular validity of her narrative that I had no context for their objections. A narrator’s unreliability only counts if the reader has something or someone to judge it against; otherwise we have no reason not to accept it as fact.
The format of the novel itself isn’t consistent, which is distracting, because when the journal entries are just Paige’s thoughts and reactions to events or people, the voice is convincing. She sounds like a teenaged girl whose life has been upended and whose family seems to be suddenly full of strangers. When she’s recounting events and long conversations word-for-word, to the point of adding dialogue tags and seeming to know what other characters are feeling, it becomes very obvious that Diary of a Haunting is a novel. It was impossible for me to maintain immersion in the text or suspend my disbelief for longer than a few pages at a time, which negated any of the creepy atmosphere that the novel is aiming at. The inclusion of “artsy” photographs also detracted from the mood because they’re out of context or have undergone obvious digital alteration. Perspective lines don’t match up between walls and doors, fabric patterns are oddly placed, and the photos end up looking more like collages than representative slices-of-life.
The house itself was well-described, and the disturbances to the family’s domestic life were genuinely creepy. It seemed near the end like there was a solid, credible answer for the odd events, one I would have been happy to accept, but it was jettisoned in favor of a big twist and over-reaching drama. In order for the twist to be plausible, the reader has to believe in mystical conduits and spiritual inheritance, and the plot just didn’t hang together well enough for me to think it was the right choice.
Ultimately, Diary of a Haunting is supposed to be a horror novel, but didn’t provide enough chills to satisfy me. The diary conceit isn’t well-executed or consistent, the narrator isn’t unreliable enough to make her plotline or character arc plausible, and the explanation for the supernatural occurrences seemed tacked on. The pseudo-academia angle and persona of “M. Verano” could have been played to good effect, but wasn’t utilized enough or effectively. Instead of likening this novel to The Blair Witch Project, a better match might be that movie’s poorly-received and gimmicky sequel, Book of Shadows.