Stephen King, in his seminal work on horror Danse Macabre, talked about two different kinds of house horror novels–the haunted house, and the bad place. The primary difference between the two is that a haunted house story is about the actual spirits and what they do; what must be done to put the spirit to rest (Barbara Michaels’ brilliant Ammie Come Home fits into this category), and the bad place where you don’t really know what is causing whatever it is that is going on in the place; it’s just a bad, bad place. Examples of the bad place are of course Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Stephen King’s The Shining, and Michael MacDowell’s The Elementals.
While I was traveling to and from Toronto, I read two short novels about ‘bad places’; Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings and Christopher Rice’s The Vines.
I remember Burnt Offerings from when I was a kid, and we used to go to the Zayre’s department store every Saturday. I would spend the entire time my mother was shopping looking at every book in the book racks, and I picked it up numerous times only to always set it back and pick something else; I’m not sure why. I remember it was also made into a movie with Bette Davis that I’ve also never seen, and periodically it appears on lists of ‘best haunted house’ novels. Vaillancourt Books recently reissued it, and I bought a copy. It’s good, even if it subscribes to one of those horror tropes that always requires the suspension of belief–if something seems too good to be true, it usually is. A family from the city–Queens, i believe–take a summer rental out on Long Island that, of course, is too good to be true; a dilapidated but once stately manor. Husband, wife, young son, and the husband’s aunt–despite the husband’s misgivings–move out there for the summer; the only requirement of them (other than the rent) is that three times a day the wife must take a tray of food up to the owners’ mother’s suite of rooms and never knock–just leave the tray outside. The wife soon becomes obsessed with the house and cleaning it, putting it into order; finding treasures in closets and cupboards and bringing them out…and ignoring the distance growing between her and her husband, his aunt, and her son. Strange things start to happen, and occasionally she is aware that something’s terribly amiss…and then goes back to cleaning. The story is told very simply, the setting is perfect, and the descriptions of the treasures she finds are lovingly written–and the sense of growing impending doom and claustrophobia are perfect.
The Vines is Christopher Rice’s second horror novel (The Heavens Rise is the first; it’s still in my TBR pile) and it, too, is a variation of the bad place horror convention; Spring House is a gorgeously restored house outside of New Orleans with a horrifying history of its own. The night of owner Caitlin Chaisson’s birthday party, she sees her husband having sex with a beautiful young woman who works for the catering company; emotionally distraught, she leaves the house intent on slashing her wrists and killing herself in the estate’s gazebo. But as she cuts at her wrists, her husband and his one-nighter come outside to the gardening shed, and something monstrous grows up out of the ground to drink her blood and avenge her betrayal. The one-nighter loses her mind and the husband disappears; none of this makes any sense to the police who arrive and are not willing to upset the wealthiest woman in the parish. There are two other primary characters–Nova, the African-American daughter of Caitlin’s groundskeeper and a student at LSU who is there that night, and Caitlin’s former best friend, a gay nurse who has been estranged from her since he told her the truth about her husband’s infidelities–and years earlier, Blake and his teenaged boyfriend were attacked in a hate crime, the boyfriend dying…the true story of the attack has never come out, and it’s a lot more complicated than anyone ever knew. It’s a terrific tale of vengeance from the past and vengeance for the present, with the tension building as it hurries to its climax. I was also impressed with how Christopher handled the bloody, slave-owning history of Spring House–something I’ve wondered about how to handle without being too heavy-handed with a ghost story I’ve been wanting to write with its origins in the Civil War period in rural Alabama.
And now, back to the spice mines.