The gold rush in American houses crashed and burned a couple years ago, and now amazing homes are going cheap. The catch: there might be ghosts, melting walls, and hallways that go nowhere, according to a spate of new novels.
We've been noticing for a while that novels about old homes with scary paranormal secrets were all the rage — but once we started looking, we were amazed by the volume of them. Three notable books about houses with alarming pasts came out in just the past month or so — House Of Windows by John Langan, Audrey's Door by Sarah Langan (no relation), and No Doors, No Windows by Joe Schreiber. Interestingly, all three books are about houses that are ridiculously inexpensive — and two out of three of them comment on that fact pretty explicitly.
Three recent novels: Langan, Langan and Schreiber:
John Langan's House Of Windows tells the story of Veronica, who has an affair with her college professor, Roger, who leaves his wife to be with her, and they move into her cramped apartment together. Then Roger convinces Veronica to move with him into Belvedere House — you can tell it's ominous just from the name — a house crammed with memories of Roger's first marriage, and of his estranged, dead son. But who cares if the house is full of ghosts, both figurative and literal? It's a bargain, as Roger explains:
Roger had sufficient funds to purchase Belvedere House if [his ex-wife] would be willing to part with it. He'd lost some money when the dot com bubble burst, but he'd recovered it in relatively short order and made more on top of that. ("The benefits of a Republican financial advisor," he said.) He was sure he'd be able to convince Joanne to sell. It seemed increasingly important — urgent, even — that he take possession of the place again. He called his lawyer and instructed him to contact Joanne's lawyer and start talking.
I was caught completely offguard — shocked, really. ...
"Oh please, Veronica," Roger said. "How often have you complained about our lack of space? This apartment was too small for you on your own. With two of us sharing it, it's positively cramped."
The apartment was too small. When I'd moved in, I hadn't cared. Actually, its size had been one of its charms. Living room, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom: I was like Emily Dickinson with my tiny, ordered place. I'd had to be inventive, make maximum use of the space I had, but I could look out my living room window onto a garden — Tom and Jack, the landlords, kept this enormous flower garden in the backyard — and beyond the garden was the river, with farmland on the other shore. There is something to be said for living somewhere nice; the aesthetics of place are underrated. After Roger moved in, though, what had been too little room to begin with shrank to the point of no return. He put most of his stuff in storage, but even so, every square inch of the apartment was piled high with books, CDs, and videotapes, not to mention Roger's clothes, which had a habit of displacing mine onto the bed and couch. If we'd had our baby, there would have been no way we could have stayed there.
All the same, who wants to move into the house your husband lived most of his last marriage in? That was the first thing I thought of, not Ted [the dead son], but Joanne. Roger intended to take me to her house. Hers, because she'd decorated it. She'd picked the furniture, the wallpaper, the drapes, the color scheme, everything. Living there, I'd be surrounded by a hundred little reminders of her and her starched personality. I was more insecure than I should have been, I know. It's — you can stand the thought that the person you're with now was with someone before you, as long as you don't have to confront that fact daily. I said, "Okay, fair enough. The apartment is too small. Why there? Why couldn't we move somewhere else?"
"Because," Roger said, "for the amount I paid Joanne, we couldn't get one-half the house."
Such a bargain! And of course, because this is a horror novel, the bargain doesn't turn out to be a particularly good one — Belvedere House, itself, is sinister and twisted — at one point, Veronica feels connected to the house at the lowest level of her perception, and feels as though "the house's space was failing" and "losing its integrity" — parts of it stretch into endless tunnels. She's haunted by a weird gas mask, and then by more literal manifestations of Ted, the dead son. But at least the house was cheap — you're left wondering why they didn't flip it.
Joe Schreiber published two novels recently: the Star Wars zombie novel Death Troopers and No Doors, No Windows, the tale of a sinister house in the middle of the woods. In No Doors, Scott Mast returns to his hometown in New England for his father's funeral, and discovers that his dad was working on a horror novel about terrible goings-on at Round House, a sprawling mansion in the middle of the woods with no corners. And then Scott discovers that Round House really exists, and his dad went there to write. For some reason, Scott feels the need to finish his father's book, and to move into Round House — which is for rent for only $600 per month, not bad for a huge mansion. The most distinguishing feature in Round House is the long hallway full of doors that don't open, that leads nowhere:
He followed the flight of stairs to the second floor. Here was the sinuous hallway that ran the entire length of the house, with closed doors that had stared blankly at one another like frozen corpses for the last hundred and forty years.
Frozen corpses? Where did that come from?
Schreiber does a great job of tossing in little descriptions of the house that make it feel extra sinister, from the unearthly frozen draft whose source Scott can never find to the mildew on the shower curtain. It feels lonesome and desolate. There is a mysterious sewer pipe. The longer Scott spends there, the more he is being overtaken by some kind of family madness. Until he finds a note from his mother, which includes this horrifying explanation of the family curse, and of the house. Including this bit:
Your father's great-grandfather was a human disease, a walking affliction. There are no words to describe what was wrong with him. He built Round House as a place where he could indulge his very worst desires and urges without fear of being caught. I don't know how many women and girls died within its walls, but their voices still speak to me, so perhaps I am less stable than I initially supposed.
Then there's Audrey's Door by Sarah Langan, in which Audrey Lucas moves into what the back-cover blurb describes as "a shockingly affordable apartment building in Manhattan." No, seriously — its' a co-op on 110th. street on the Upper West Side, and the apartment has a Jacuzzi and oak and brass fittings, and is in a lovely 1861 building, the Breviary, built in the Chaotic Naturalist style: "Ten thousand tons of cement and steel, and not a single right angle." And it's only $999 per month. The only catch: The previous tenant drowned all four of her children in the bathtub, and then climbed in there with them and slit her own throat. (But that deadly bathtub has been replaced with a Jacuzzi, as I mentioned.)
Across the hall was the renovated bath. The copper fixtures remained, but the antique yellow wall tiles had been ripped in places to make room for the new Jacuzzi, Home Depot vanity, and pressed-wood cabinets. She closed her eyes, and imagined a claw-foot tub. Deep enough to stack all five of them. After a few hours, the tops of their bodies would have turned pale, and their bottoms would have purpled with jellied blood.
There's a "master bedroom" and a kitchen with old built-in cupboards and oak floors. "The chandelier threw rainbow shards of light along the walls. Small details like Guilloche molding and the handblown Mercury glass doorknob made her heart pitter-patter."
Yes, she actually falls in love with the house. Way more than No Doors, No Windows and House Of Windows, Audrey's Door is crammed with real-estate fetishism, and small details that make your heart "pitter-patter." Too bad the neighbors are all crazy old people who spy on you. And doors that close by themselves. And cable TV bills that pay themselves.
And then Audrey discovers the apartment has a long history of madness, including another past tenant who smashed all her belongings and made a pile of them in the middle of the living room, then hurled herself to her death. There are weird infestations, like red ants, and every woman, before going crazy, is compelled to build a door at night — Audrey, too, is making a door. (Hence the book's title.)
Other recent scary-house books:
The Birthing House by Christopher Ransom. (August 2009) This was the book that started us thinking about the spooky house book trend — in Ransom's debut novel, failed L.A. screenwriter Conrad Harrison takes a wrong turn out of Chicago and stumbles on an old birthing house in Wisconsin, which is going cheap — so he buys it, to get out of L.A. Then his wife takes off for a long training course, and Harrison is left in the birthing house alone, with the weird shadows, and sounds of screaming newborn babies, and dark figures lurking. And then he finds an old photo album that seems to include his wife (as she is now) in the old photos. Is he going nuts, or is the house... haunted? (Both, pretty much.)
The Girl On Legare Street by Karen White. (November 2009) Melanie, a house renovator, hasn't seen her mom since she abandoned her 35 years ago. But now her mom's had an ominous premonition about her, and wants to protect her. So they decide to buy back their old home. They both have psychic abilities, so they're prepared to find some ghosts in the old house as they fix it up together. But instead, they meet a vengeful dark spirit whose strength has grown for decades. This is the latest in White's series that began with The House On Tradd Street.
Elsewhere by William Peter Blatty. (May 2009) This book actually features a real-estate agent, Joan Freeboard, who's desperate to remove the "haunted house" stigma from an old mansion, so she can sell it. She convinces a psychic, a parapsychologist and a famous author to move into the house and declare it spirit-free, but in the end Elsewhere makes the three house guests confront their own individual realities.
Indigo Springs by A.M. Dellamonica. (October 2009) Astrid moves into her father's old house in Indigo Springs, and discovers that her dad was tapping a source of magic water, Vitagua, which runs behind the house — and you can use it to enchant everyday objects, turning them into magic tokens. But then the availability of magic charming water turns out to have some unexpected downsides.
House Of Reckoning by John Saul. (October 2009) Sarah Crane's mom dies, and then her dad is jailed after killing another man in a barroom brawl, plus injuring Sarah in a car accident. Good thing her new art instructor, Bettina Phillips, is keen to nurture Sarah's gift for painting. But Bettina's house is full of vengeful spirits, who come out in Sarah's paintings of monstrous events from the house's long history. The angry spirits seize their chance to break out of their long confinement and wreak revenge upon the living — and Sarah sees a chance to be in control for a change.
The House Of Lost Souls by F.G. Cottam. (July 2009) There's a notoriously haunted house in the Isle of Wight, and ten years ago, psychically sensitive journalist Paul Seaton encountered an entity summoned in the 1920s by Aleister Crowley. And now four philosophy students ventured into Fischer House and met something so terrible, it killed one of them and drove the other three to the brink of madness. So Seaton has to go back to the house and deal with the lurking spectre there.
The Darkest Room by Johan Theorin. (September 2009) In this Scandinavian thriller, there's a house at Eel Point, made from wood from a shipwreck, and the locals think it's cursed. But a family moves in there, and, well, scary stuff happens. There's a seemingly impossible murder, and the family's daughter keeps thinking she hears her dead mom calling her.
The Unseen by Alexandra Sokoloff. (May 2009) More like a typical haunted house novel — two Duke students with paranormal sensitivity are coerced into camping out at the spooky Folger House, where Duke's parapsychology lab did an experiment nearly 50 years early. And it's spooky!
Tribute by Nora Roberts. (March 2009) Another book about someone fixing up an old house — Cilla McGowan is all about buying houses, fixing them up, and flipping them, but then she takes on the project of renovating her famous grandmother's old farmhouse. Her grandma was a Marilyn Monroe-esque starlet who died by suicide or foul play, and as Cilla fixes up the house, she finds buried secrets that people in the town will do anything to cover up. There's demolition, sheet-rocking and terror — plus a hunky neighbor.
The Little Stranger by Sarah Watters. (April 2009) The British upper classes are in decline after World War II — Doctor Faraday, whose mother was a chamber maid at Hundreds Hall, and he returns decades later to treat a servant. He becomes fascinated by the family, with their fading gentility and money troubles, and the house, which is full of stopped clocks, fluttering shapes, weird sounds, demonically possessed cigars and objects coming to life.
Daemon by Daniel Suarez. (January 2009) This is more of a cyber-haunting than a regular one — computer/gaming genius Matthew Sobol dies of brain cancer, but his death doesn't stop him launching a war against the human race via the Internet. And when the police investigate Sobol's old house, it comes to life, thanks to a computer "Daemon" that animates a Hummer and various other items into ferocious attack.
So what does it all mean?
So yes, the "scary house" novel is a classic, and Shirley Jackson's The Haunting Of Hill House and Mark Z. Danielewski's House Of Leaves, among others, have spawned a whole genre of books about tangles with alarming real estate. But it does seem like there's been a regular flood of these in 2009 — after relatively few in 2008, that we could find, anyway. And a lot of them do seem to talk about the fact that the houses are cheap, or feature realtors as characters, or involve people trying to fix up houses so they can sell them.
The big question, of couse, is when were these books written? Given the long development process of book publishing, it's likely a lot of them were written, or at least started, during the housing boom, when the idea of a cheap house was a fantasy akin to discovering a bottomless pot of gold. Especially Sarah Langan's super-fancy co-op apartment in Manhattan — with a Jacuzzi! — feels like a real-estate speculator's wet dream.
Here's a chart of U.S. house prices (which I found at this site):
So yeah, it's possible that these books all attach horror to the ultimate wish fulfillment — the lovely, cheap house — because clearly, you must pay some terrible price if you manage to win at the rigged game of real estate.
Or maybe these authors are actually showing that real-estate fetishism, like all fetishes, has a scary underside. The more you desire something, the more power it has over you, and yet the more you project stuff onto it and deny its true nature.
But I prefer to think that these authors either finished their books after the housing-bubble writing was on the wall — or they were prescient about how things would turn out. In almost every case, these houses are appealing and available because of some tragedy in the past (which is a staple of the haunted-house novel, to be sure) and there's some human loss attached to the miracle of available housing. It's like the spiritual version of foreclosure sales and mass evictions.
In any case, it's fascinating that such a flood of novels about terrible houses is coming out just as we're slowly picking ourselves up from the implosion. It's like a million homeowners cried out in psychic pain at once — and here's their after-echo.
Additional reporting by Mary Ratliff.