Content warnings: Sexual content, Child death, Death, Drug abuse, Emotional abuse, Racism, Rape, Self harm, Death of parent
- Dream house turned horror story is the best trope
- Accurately portrays how little your neighbours would give a shit about your house being haunted.
- Honestly a ghost shambling about would liven up many a house warming party.
And in the background, behind everything he did or said or thought, like a low hum, was an unyielding sadness, an emotional blackness that threatened to bloom into depression should he pause to examine it.
This book was chosen as part of my Books In The Freezer 2021 reading challenge for the prompt ‘A horror book that came out when you were 17’. Turns out it is really difficult to find a horror book I’d want to read for that specific year, but it also conveniently turned out I already owned one – success! The Haunted is, as you can probably guess, about a haunted house. Julian and Claire find what seems like the perfect home for their family, in a country recovering from recession, it seems almost too good to be true. Of course, it’s a horror novel, so it is. I love the whole ‘this house is suspiciously perfect but let’s buy it anyway oh no ghosts’ trope, so I was buckled up for the ride.
There were some really promising and creepy elements of this book. I loved the figure in the basement, slowly creeping up the stairs into the house, James’s bizarre urge to eat dirt, the threatening message that if Megan and James speak a word even to their own parents, they will die. However, this book seemed to miss the mark for me. From a ghost just wandering through a housewarming party and the guests just…leaving quietly and doing nothing, to the seemingly pointless discovery of Claire’s work friend masturbating in the basement that never comes to anything, teen girls playing with a ouija board at a sleepover, the awkward explanatory segue of ‘local teacher fired for teaching ‘the real history’ of the town who happens to be represented by the woman living in the house where it all happened’, a lot of the narrative elements seemed disjointed, predictable or in some cases just a bit boring. In particular Little’s characterisation of teenage girl Megan just rubbed me the wrong way. She’s clearly a teenage girl written by a fifty-plus-year-old man in many ways, sarcastic, mean to her little brother, attached to her phone. Also it’s 2012 when this book is published, I know we’re a few years away from the new Animal Crossing here but teenage girls have so many more things to do at sleepovers than play with ouija boards. Maybe it’s an American thing? American readers – is this common? We just ate sweets until we could see sounds when the sugar rush hit and played video games until 2am.
What I, and possibly other female horror readers, find uncomfortable is the tendency for horror to slip into sexual violence – and The Haunted is no exception. Men and women are shown being subjected to mental and physical violence, the fear of death and injury, the mental strain of the situation they’ve found themselves in. Women alone, however, like Claire and Megan, also have to face the fear of their bodies being invaded and attacked in a much more intimate manner, Megan is subjected to such an intense fear of what might happen if she is found attractive that she mutilates herself to make herself unappealing, she receives sexual texts, she sees the figures of shadowy men standing over her bed and resorts to sponge baths and covering herself with a towel when she uses the bathroom to spend as little time naked as possible. Claire is subject to sexual violence even at the hands of her own husband, when sexual encounters result in injury and bleeding, where her husband – under the influence of the house – doesn’t care if her noises are of pleasure or pain during sex. Believe it or not, it is possible to write a horror story that scares women without using sexual assault or the threat of it as a plot device. It’s unoriginal, unpleasant and shock value does not equal horror, nor does it enhance it.
I really wanted to like this book, and it was creepy between periods of historical violence and increasingly less subtle ghostly occurrences, shoddy police investigations and scenes of a family failing critically to communicate in any way even before a ghost is threatening to murder them.