May 29, 2023

The Horror Begins at Home: The Haunting New Chapter of Domestic Noir

Ohen Dee walks through the front door in Catriona Ward’s recent thriller The Last House on Needless Street, readers of gothic fiction find themselves in a familiar place. The house is “an underground world; a deep cave where lone rays of light fall on strange mounds, jagged broken things. Plywood is nailed to all the windows,” and “the whole place smells of death; no rot or blood but dry bones and dust; like an old, long-forgotten grave.

Dee investigates the disappearance of her younger sister Lulu 11 years earlier, and the lead leads her to Ted Bannerman, a strange loner who lives at the edge of the woods with his cat Olivia, and the occasional daughter, Lauren. Hiding nearby, Dee hears scratching and scratching through the walls; late at night, she sees a face at her window, “eyes shining like lamps, filled with the light of death”; the undergrowth of her terrifying neighbor seems to be writhing with serpents: “she sees them everywhere, their shaded rings”. But are these visions real or are they the product of Dee’s troubled mind – and what exactly are the horrors that haunt Ted’s house?

Ward is one of many novelists to explore new territory in gothic fiction, although the haunted house has long been a source of fascination and fear. From Henry James’ governess in The Turn of the Screw (1898) to Shirley Jackson’s timid Eleanor Vance in her 1959 classic The Haunting of Hill House, recently adapted for Netflix, these stories have often relied on unreliable narrators. , usually women, whose psychological issues and struggles with loneliness color their perceptions of the danger around them. Stephen King called these works “the only two great supernatural novels of the last hundred years”, but it was his son, fellow horror novelist Joe Hill, who pinpointed the reason: because “the houses are not haunted”. – people are”.

Tuppence Middleton and Martin Compston in the TV adaptation of Louise Candlish's novel Our House
Tuppence Middleton and Martin Compston in the TV adaptation of Louise Candlish’s novel Our House. Photography: Jon Ford (Specials) Laurence Cendowicz/ITV

Hill House appears to Eleanor “vile”, “sick”; guests gathered to witness the supernatural powers of the ancient mansion are tormented by the nightly pounding, deadly cold, and wild laughter in the hallways. Yet when Eleanor’s name appears on the walls – a chilling device echoed in Sarah Waters’ 2009 gothic novel The Little Stranger – Eleanor is accused of writing it herself. Increasingly, readers — and even Eleanor herself — are beginning to wonder how much of the action is “in her head as much as in the room.” As in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story The Yellow Wallpaper, whose narrator is confined to a single room with walls that seem to move, twist and come to life at night, Eleanor’s mental state intertwines with that of the house, until she feels that “whatever he wants from me, he can have it”.

Gilman’s narrator suffers from what we would now call postnatal depression, and her physician husband prescribes bed rest and no stimuli, which means no reading or writing, and hours of staring. the peeling wallpaper of the old nursery until she is convinced that she is possessed. : “And the worst in the moonlight, it becomes bars! The outer pattern, I mean, and the woman behind it, it’s as simple as it gets. Imprisoned in the domestic realm, as Eleanor was also when caring for her elderly mother, it’s no surprise that these female protagonists see danger in the buildings around them. As Erin Kelly, author of the recent gothic thriller The Skeleton Key, puts it, “natural reactions to coercive or abusive behavior can easily be called ‘madness.’ And the home has traditionally been a place – often the only place – of female agency.

Henry James Turn of the Nut

In my novel, The People Before, gallery fundraiser Jess finds herself locked in an old, dilapidated house when she quits her job and moves with her young family to rural Suffolk. Cut off from her former colleagues and friends, and isolated from neighbors who are suspicious of the London family who have taken over this notorious local property, Jess feels nervous, watched – at night she is convinced that a stranger is hiding, just out of sight. Are these premonitions or is his mind playing tricks? In The Skeleton Key, Nell is convinced that her return to the family home in London, to celebrate the anniversary of her father’s legendary treasure hunt book, is fraught with difficulty. The house holds secrets, and the tension of the novel lies in whether Nell will discover their true source in time.

Catriona Ward's last home on Useless Street

Homes have played a central role in many recent thrillers, as a new genre of domestic noir has emerged over the past decade as writers explore fears of ownership, the breakdown of family and marital discord. Louise Candlish’s recently televised 2018 novel Our House asked readers to put themselves in a nightmarish situation – returning from a trip to discover strangers moving into your beloved family home. Meanwhile, last year’s Abigail Dean thriller Girl A raised darker questions about how a home can hold the legacy of childhood trauma.

With echoes of Lisa Jewell’s 2019 hit The Family Upstairs, Dean’s novel explores what happens to a group of siblings who flee their abusive parents and upbringing in a “house of horrors.” In both novels, the childhood home functions as a lasting reminder of mental and physical pain. Dean’s protagonist, Lexie, must decide what to do with the home in the moors that she and her siblings have been bequeathed. The horror is all too real, and yet Lexie’s quest to reconcile with the youth she spent years trying to escape from is haunted by the ghosts of her past.

Ward’s protagonist is also haunted by memories of the day her sister disappeared, and as the author guides us through the stories of Dee and her neighbor Ted, we discover that the real horror lingers not in the house. scary part of Needless Street, but inside the psyche of its inhabitants. The supernatural takes precedence over the psychological, and by the time the bigger twists are revealed, the reader might be more preoccupied with the things racing through the mind.

Charlotte Northedge is Co-Head of Books at The Guardian. Her second novel, The People Before, is published by HarperCollins. . To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy from Delivery charges may apply.

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