Every time I read a haunted house mystery, I think of the night I became a character in one — at least, inside my head. It was during my brief career as a teenage babysitter, and I had somehow gotten three squirrelly grade-school-age kids to sleep on a dreary November night, which meant that I could go back to reading the serialized story I’d been following in the newspaper about a big old house where awful things happened. Except that there I was, alone in a big old house that was dark and creaky and where surely something awful was about to happen.
It was the kind of house that’s beautiful by daylight but creepy at night; the lights never seemed bright enough, and the main floor was a succession of vast, gloomy rooms full of shadows — were those shadows moving? Or was it just my imagination? Every strange noise from somewhere deep in the house seemed to hit me like a black-velvet lightning bolt as I sat frozen on the couch that night, watching the minutes on the clock tick slowly by and wondering if some ghost was lurking in the dim light to get me, and whether there wasn’t some easier way to earn a bit of spending money. Spoiler alert: I survived the night, but became conveniently busy whenever that family needed a sitter in the future.
Not too long afterward, I first read Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” and embarked on a lifetime love of gothic haunted house mysteries — stories that take place in a very old house, probably somewhere remote, where it always seems to be nighttime (the “cold, faint twilight” as James so elegantly puts it) and the buildings themselves take on a personality. The houses in novels like Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Mexican Gothic” or Sarah Waters’ “The Little Stranger” — two books I’m constantly recommending these days to those in need of a creepy-old-house fix — are characters in the story; they talk, they transform, they have a distinct fragrance and texture and music. You might not want to babysit alone in them, but they’re a treat to visit.
In honor of Halloween, I recently went digging for more such stories. An obvious choice was Ruth Ware’s “The Turn of the Key” from 2019, whose very title calls out to James and whose book is a delicious homage: A nanny travels to a remote house to care for small children who seem connected to some supernatural visitors. The kicker here is that the house in question, while old, is remodeled as a 21st-century smart house; wired and programmed to think for itself. Imagine being in the darkness and not knowing how to turn the lights on — but the house knows, and won’t tell you. Rowan, the nanny — who has secrets of her own — finds the house’s blend of old and new disconcerting: “Here there was a strange impression of oil and water — everything was either self-consciously original or glaringly modern, with no attempt to integrate the two.” Alone in the house with small children, she’s soon driven to fear and panic — but what’s real and what’s a product of her florid imagination? I suspect James, if he could wrap his head around the idea of a smart house, would approve.
The British author Laura Purcell makes a specialty of skillful gothic period thrillers — I was haunted by her “The Silent Companions” not long ago — and her 2019 novel “The House of Whispers” has an irresistible setting: seaside Cornwall, where the winds and the waves howl around Morvoren House, built on the crest of a cliff and “braving the elements with stern indifference.” A maid with a secret arrives there, only to find more secrets: a strange, silent mistress of the house who sits motionless in icy-cold rooms; a housemaid obsessed with malevolent fairies; a strange history slowly unfolded. All this is wrapped in atmosphere to spare — I found myself shivering reading it, feeling the clammy chill of the rooms — and written with expert pace.
A crumbling boarding school is always a promising location for a haunted house tale, and 2018’s “The Broken Girls” by Simone St. James, has a vivid one: Idlewild Hall, a place in 1950s Vermont where girls with nowhere else to go ended up. Sixty years later, journalist Fiona Sheridan is investigating the now-closed school, the site of her own sister’s murder — when another body turns up. There’s a ghost at the school, with the creepy name of Mary Hand, who haunts both past and present, and I love how St. James’ characters face the ghost, frightened but accepting it as part of the landscape. “I have no doubt she was a real person at some point,” says one character of Mary, “but now she’s an echo.” An echo — very nice description of something going bump in the night.
And finally, on a less-haunted note, I’d like to acknowledge and thank Adam Woog for so many years of reviewing crime fiction for The Seattle Times. As his accompanying note states, he’s decided to retire his column, which dates back to the 1990s and which has led countless readers to sit up late at night, lost in a mystery recommended by Adam. We all wish him well. As we move forward, I’d love to hear from readers who have thoughts about our crime fiction coverage (do you want more? Less? Reviews? Essays? Interviews?) — or who just want share their own favorite haunted house novel. Happy Halloween, everyone!
Twenty-odd years ago, then-Times books editor Donn Fry asked me to write a monthly column on crime fiction, and I eagerly accepted.
And boy, was it fun.
All along, I was a little surprised that I continued to enjoy reading about so much murder, mayhem and seriously evil doings.
Then, at some point, it started becoming less fun. And so, with very mixed feelings, I’ve decided to retire the column. Time to move on.
My deepest thanks for all the support and help — not to mention the rejection of clichés and the catching of countless embarrassing mistakes — to my smart and able editors: Donn Fry, Mary Ann Gwinn, Moira Macdonald and Trevor Lenzmeier.
And, of course, my thanks also to anyone who’s read the column.
I’ve heard from a number of those readers over the years, expressing their appreciation, and I hope that I’ve suggested more than a few books that otherwise might have been overlooked. Believe me, it’s been a long and wonderfully entertaining trip. I’m a lucky guy.
— Adam Woog