This House is Haunted by John Boyne Review

I have always been one to enjoy scary stories. I am immediately drawn to dark, faded covers in bookshops, and I always hope that the story inside is as captivating as the cover. I am especially inclined to pick up some of my old favourites at this time of this year, as I adore curling up on a dark autumn evening with an appropriately disconcerting read.

Eliza Caine begins the novel by asserting that ‘I blame Charles Dickens for the death of my father.’ The year is 1867, and she attends an autumn reading by the author who is favoured by her father and by Eliza herself. She watches him read a ghost story, noting how he easily manipulates the emotions of the audience to induce fear, and watches the audience transgress from interested to intrigued, and eventually, to disturbed and unsettled. This beginning not only leads to Eliza debating the nature of the afterlife and our perceptions of horror, but ensures that the reader is going through the same measures. What truly inspires fear? As Eliza notes, the way the story is told is equally as important as the story itself. Boyne is attempting to achieve both fear and eloquence throughout This House is Haunted.

On a dark and misty night, Eliza Caine arrives at Gaudlin Hall after she answers a hastily composed advertisement for a governess. Seeking to escape her grief and to find a way to sustain herself, she accepts the position despite the vague letter of employment. She is met by two evidently troubled children who have been placed in her care, and with no adult supervision in sight, Eliza begins to doubt her choice in accepting her new position. Unsettled by the lack of parents, Eliza searches for answers in the local village, but discovers that its residents shudder at the name of Gaudlin Hall, and are reluctant to discuss any of the adult inhabitants. She is further disturbed by the discovery that all but one of the previous governesses has survived their employment at Gaudlin.

This House is Haunted had the potential to be excellent. It has a wonderful atmosphere, the narrative is composed with elegance and the setting is ideal for a dark and disturbing read. The first part of the novel in particular was intriguing, with frequent allusions to Dickens and a quick pace. However, I cannot help but feel that this book fell short of my expectations. In its attempts to cover numerous aspects of the horror genre, I felt that the novel as a whole was diminished. While I was curious about the twists of the plot and looked forward to the story coming together, I could not help but feel rather distanced from the narrator. Eliza is likeable enough, but I struggled to feel any empathy or even sympathy for her plight. I did not feel the fear that I should have felt when she was frightened or in danger. I never truly felt that she was in any kind of danger at all; I was of the belief from the beginning of the novel that she would triumph over what awaited her. I believe that doubt should always be a factor in the horror and thriller genre, but I had no doubt at all that she would succeed, which diminished any attempts to frighten me into believing otherwise.

I originally studied creative writing at university before switching to English with Philosophy and I can vividly remember a seminar during which we were asked to compose a list of factors that we thought were typical of certain genres. I feel like Boyne went through a similar exercise and checked them off as he was writing. It felt a little forced at times, and I think the novel would have been much more enjoyable (and disconcerting) without all of these cliché elements thrown in, which made the novel feel somewhat cluttered. We are thrown into a world plagued by mist, spectral figures and a desolate country house boasting of secret passageways and windows sealed shut. The story had potential, but this devotion to cliché rendered it predictable. The ending, whilst satisfying, felt remarkably rushed and not at all surprising. Strangely, I do think that the story and the atmosphere would be superior in a film adaptation, as the novel fails to capture fear.

Despite its themes, I consider this novel to be more reminiscent of the Victorian Sensation novel. It is still an intriguing and enjoyable read, but if you are searching for a novel to keep you awake at night, I unfortunately do not think that this one will suffice. The story is interesting enough, and I did enjoy reading it, but whilst being strikingly similar to The Turn in the Screw I cannot help but feel that it is inferior in this comparison. It really is not a bad read, but it is certainly a comfortable one. I would recommend it to those of you searching an enjoyable, comfortable autumn read, but only if you do not expect anything spectacularly eerie and unsettling.

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