A single topic column today, and a book review at that. I’m not using our review format, but this was a four-star book for me.
Home Before Dark (2020) is a haunted house story written by Riley Sager, a pseudonym of a Princeton, New Jersey writer. If you like atmospheric, unsettling haunted-house stories and strong female protagonists, you’ll probably enjoy this. I did.
Maggie has grown up with the ugly effects of fame—or infamy—her whole life. Her father’s book House of Horrors, a supposedly true story of twenty days spent with her parents in a haunted house, Baneberry Hall, culminating in them fleeing with only the clothes on their backs, continues to be a best-seller twenty-five years later. Little Maggie, five years old, was the star of the book in many ways, even though adult Maggie remembers none of it.
With her father’s death, she discovers to her shock that he never sold Baneberry Hall, and it’s now hers. Maggie is a contractor who restores and flips houses, and that’s her intention for the spooky Victorian mansion she now owns. When she visits it though, she discovers that history doesn’t fade, and some secrets won’t stay hidden.
The book alternates point of view, shifting between Maggie’s present-tense third-person and the past-tense, first-person narration of her father’s book. While House of Horrors was written for melodramatic effect, Maggie’s early sections are practical. She assesses the house and navigates her way through the small town that still hasn’t forgotten or forgiven her family. Along the way, she uncovers another mystery. A local teenaged girl, Petra, who even babysat for Maggie, disappeared the same night her family fled the house.
Pretty soon we meet the locals, many of whom have a connection to Baneberry Hall. Of course there is the possibility of a “curse,” one played up heavily in House of Horrors. Maggie is mostly a rational person, but for the plot to work there are one or two places where she obviously acts against her character. A seasoned carpenter and house-flipper, once she realizes there’s been an intruder in the house, she thinks she should connect motion-sensor lights on the mansion’s exterior… but she never does. Similarly, she finds a convenient gap in the stone wall surrounding the property and does nothing about it. Least plausibly, at least to me… the woman wakes up the first morning to find there is no coffee in the house, only a twenty-year-old box of teabags, and does not immediately go to the village and procure coffee! I’m sorry, I can’t suspend belief this much.
Seriously, though, these are nits, and it was a pleasure to watch Maggie pick through the secrets and lies the house embraces. Her father’s book makes much of a graveyard on the estate—Maggie quickly uncovers the facts. The shocking incident of an infestation of snakes in the kitchen turns out to be verifiable—as is the terrible murder-suicide with the family who owned the house before Maggie’s parents. Maggie’s mother is convincingly over-controlling and elusive, refusing to answer basic questions about what really happened, or why she and Maggie’s father divorced so soon after they left the house.
An added bonus, or curse, take your pick, is that the book delivers its own earworm in the form of “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” from the Sound of Music.
Sager does a stellar job of confounding and confusing the reader (and Maggie), with possible truths, half-truths, embellishments and the outright lies of her father’s book—and the townsfolk. It’s believable that nearly everyone in the village has an agenda, a reason to manipulate Maggie, or something to hide… the way the disappearance of teenager Petra was successfully hidden, or even worse, ignored.
Haunted house stories almost always need a twist, and Sager manages to pull off a double-twist. Many of the small details, as noted above, do not hold up to close scrutiny in the bright sunlight of an autumn morning, but I read haunted house stories for the prickling of the back of my neck, the sense of atmosphere, and the creeping dread that makes me afraid to go down the hall in my own house unless I turn on the lights, and Home Before Dark delivered that 100%.