Tuesday, September 2, 2014

This House is Haunted by John Boyne #review

Title: This House is Haunted
Author: John Boyne
Publisher: Transworld Publishers, 2013

In This House is Haunted, a plain-Jane schoolteacher responds to an urgent advertisement to take up a post in Norfolk as a governess to two children from an obviously wealthy family. At first this career opportunity seems like the answers to Eliza Caine’s prayers, as she’s just lost her father and doesn’t have any other prospects.

For some reason, at the age of 21, she’s still unmarried, and whether this is due to a low self-image or whether she’s genuinely hideous, remains for the reader to decide. Personally, I prefer to think that Eliza’s sheltered upbringing has led to her introversion, and living with her elderly father has not helped her cause.

Of course once Eliza arrives at Gaudlin Hall, she is immediately thrust into a supernatural mystery (starting with a pair of ghostly hands trying to shove her under a train on the platform upon her arrival). Being the rational sort, this young woman is not immediately inclined to run screaming, nor does she at first believe that her problems are of a paranormal nature.

Eliza is chiefly concerned that her two charges – the young Isabella and Eustace Westerley – have absent parents, and are growing up isolated in the nearly derelict residence which conveniently has gargoyles on the roof to add to the Gothic mood.

It’s at this point that the story’s wheels come off for me. If you’ve grown up on a steady diet of period dramas and horror films (especially all those cheesy Hammer horrors from the previous century) you’ll quickly pick out nearly every single trope the genre can throw at readers, such as the crumbling mansion with the inexplicable events; suspicious villagers who’re all in on some dreadful secret they won’t share; peculiar children who see dead people; and of course the prerequisite, scary surly groundskeeper.

My feeling is that the author raided those old horror classics for all the scary bits we’ve come to know and expect, and that though these are suited eminently for horror on film, they are not particularly scary when employed in the written word. At least not in the same way that the likes of Stephen King gives me sleepless nights.

Eliza experiences phenomena, and I kept waiting to be scared, but our main character takes things in her stride, and I gained a growing sense, especially when it came to the behaviour of others “in the know” that the author had written other characters to be deliberately mysterious in order to heighten tension. So, to me, this aspect of the book feels contrived.

These things considered, I still enjoyed This House is Haunted, for the same reason that I’m entertained by old-school horror (and here I’m thinking specifically of Guillermo del Torro’s Mama and Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, as well as The Woman in Black, a novel by Susan Hill that was made into a film starring Daniel Radcliffe). None of these offerings are perfect, but they’re still enjoyable.

If you go into This House is Haunted with moments of tongue-in-cheek humour, references to Charles Dickens and typical Gothic novels in mind, then the story might provide perfectly adequate entertainment. Scary, however, it is not, and if you know your tropes well, you’ll see the final outcome arriving from miles away.

John Boyne drops piles of hints from early on that are simple to add together. This results in a story that is to a large extent formulaic, and made me think along the lines of Jane Eyre meets Paranormal Activity.

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