The Secret Skin by Wendy N. Wagner
There are so many scary things in Wendy N. Wagner’s short 2021 novella, The Secret Skin. There is the nasty housekeeper who gives the nasty housekeeper in Rebecca a run for her money. There is the leering, unpleasant overseer of the Vogel family sawmill. There is Abigail, a deeply disturbed little girl who may be telekinetic. There is the “community meeting” of the white men in the nearby town of Coos Bay, Oregon, and their white robes and hoods. There is June Vogel herself, the prodigal daughter, returning home at her brother’s request. June isn’t scary, but she carries her secrets. And there is Storm Break, the family house, built the same year she was born, with all its moods, mysteries, and strangeness.
The Secret Skin is under 100 pages, but I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say there is a scare or a mystery on nearly every page. It’s set in the 1920s, where June’s flight from the house years earlier, and her choice to take a job as an art teacher in Portland labels her as rebellious, not merely eccentric. When she returns reluctantly to take care of her niece Abigail while her brother Frederick is on his honeymoon with his new wife — Abigail’s mother died — she meets a strange, defiant child, and almost immediately is practically scalded to death as she runs a bath. The servants won’t meet her eyes, and the house is filled with slamming doors and footsteps when no one is there. A portrait of June’s beautiful mother, who also died, hangs in a place of honor, and June senses her mother’s eyes watching her with disapproval.
In short order, Frederick and his new bride return home unexpectedly, old memories and new temptations emerge. June is forced to grapple with the recollection of her mother’s cruelty and how much Maman hated the scaly skin condition that both Frederick and June share. She stops trying to resist her feelings for Frederick’s new wife Lillian, and in spite of the forces trying to keep them apart, grows closer to Abigail, who knows better than anyone what is truly happening in the house.
The ending is movie-style dramatic. Not every element in the story plays out; the racism and the threat of the Klan appears but never plays a big part in the story. Still, there is plenty of tension and high drama that comes to a satisfying conclusion.
A fast, satisfying read with plenty of creepy fear and enough jump-scares to change things up, The Secret Skin is another solid entry in the Neon Hemlock Novella series.