The Spite House, by Johnny Compton

Eric and his two daughters are on the run. From what? We don’t know. All we know is that they need safety and off-the-books money, and they think they’ve found that by applying to become caretakers of a supposedly-haunted house in the Texas hill country. The eccentric old lady employing Eric for this task is holding back crucial information, though, and combined with the secrets Eric’s family are keeping, the house might be more dangerous than any of them realize.

On paper, this book seemed to be everything I could want in a book: a gothic supernatural thriller about a haunted house, laced with deeper thematic elements. Unfortunately, the description was a bit off the mark. I mean, yeah, it was a supernatural book about a haunted house with deeper themes, but the atmospheric tone that really makes a good gothic tale was completely missing, and the book was far more literary than thriller. The literary pace and writing kept it from creeping into true horror, despite horrific things happening.

There was just something off about the book. It seemed to be written out of order, because we would get names or (fictional) historical references casually mentioned before the person mentioning them had learned about them. Some of the past mysteries – like why the spite house was built, and what Eric’s family was running from – were dragged out way too long. There’s a fine line between teasing readers and annoying them, and for me at least, this crossed that line. Finally, about 150 pages in, the book started to pick up the pace. The story got really interesting, the supernatural bits started to really show how crazy they were, and the writing tightened and streamlined. Unfortunately, past the climax, the story just kind of dwindled into an ambiguous disappointment with no real answers or conclusions.

Looking back, it felt to me like the author had three sources of focus and couldn’t decide which was the most important – Eric’s narrative, Eunice’s family curse, and the spite house’s history. The book started with Eric, and even though it technically ended with him, it really ended with the house. I’m not sure if that was intentional – a literary metaphor for the house’s all-consuming hunger – but if it was, the metaphor was too subtle. Instead, the book felt like it veered off course and didn’t really have any answers, so it gave a half-hearted semi-explanation that let the reader fill in their own conclusions. With no building blocks on which to build those conclusions.

I appreciate ambiguity and metaphor in literature and classics, and I love when genre fiction brings in more literary elements to give depth to a story. What I’m less appreciative of is a book that waffles between literary and genre, or one that uses genre elements primarily as a marketing tool for a book that may get passed over otherwise. Others may feel differently, and enjoy the literary feel to this, a refreshing take on horror not so bogged down in genre tropes. Every reader has different viewpoints. I’m just sad this one didn’t work for me.


About Amanda

Agender empty-nester filling my time with cats, books, fitness, and photography. She/they.
This entry was posted in 2023, Adult, Prose and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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