Published by Other Press
Combine elements of Jane Eyre with bits of The Turn of the Screw, and you have Irish author John Boyne’s This House Is Haunted. Written in Dickensian prose and told in the first person, this tale of Eliza Caine and the horrors that befall her when she answers an ad seeking a governess at Gaudlin Hall will appeal to fans of The Woman in Black as well as the aforementioned classics.
Readers are first introduced to Eliza as she lives a quiet, cozy life with her widowed father in London. As with so many Dickens era novels, though, tragedy befalls Eliza very quickly as her father succumbs to an illness brought on by, ironically, attending a reading by Charles Dickens (her father’s favorite author) on a cold, rainy night.
Having little inheritance to live on and making only a small income as a teacher to “the small girls” at a local school, Eliza jumps at the opportunity to be a governess to two small children at a country house outside of smoky, smog-filled London. She has only a perfunctory correspondence with “H. Bennet,” who she is led to believe is the master of Gaudlin Hall, before she accepts the position and leaves her city life behind.
Her arrival at Thorpe Station in Norwich begins with a near-death experience which leaves our heroine quite shaken up. And things don’t improve from there When she mentions her destination to a friendly couple at the station who come to her aid, she is met with guarded looks and silence. The same thing happens when she visits the nearby village after settling in at the Hall (and enduring a first night straight out of The Grudge!). As with so many Victorian “thrillers” (which This House Is Haunted does an excellent job at mimicking), there is an awful secret hovering over the house, and it is up to Eliza to solve it.
Things at the Hall are decidedly peculiar as there are no adults other than Eliza in residence. Just her two young charges, Isabella and Eustace. And “H. Bennet” turns out to be the previous governess, who placed the ad and vacated the Hall in order to save her own life. Apparently the life expectancy of governesses at Gaudlin Hall is not good, and this is part of the mystery Eliza is given to decipher or die herself. For there is something evil haunting the house. Something that wants the children to be left alone.
The first half of This House Is Haunted is excellent in its ability to both scare the reader and have him or her wondering what on earth happened at the Hall to have an entire village afraid and to cause the deaths of four governesses in less than a year’s time. There are horrifying secrets that are resolved, whether for good is debatable, and Eliza comes to know who or what it is that is haunting her. But in the last half of the book, it is too obvious what the secret actually is and how it will resolve itself. Readers can easily guess for themselves who is who and what is what, and for a book with such a strong opening, this brings the whole story down. It is almost as if the author was tired of the novel and was hurrying to finish it.
I recommend This House Is Haunted for its effective beginning, but when you start to see where the plot is going, just wrap it up and sell it to Half Price Books or some place like that. It’s that obvious!
2 1/2 out of 5