Hope in Horror

Author: Carissa Orlando

If it’s too good to be true . . . it probably is. Recent empty-nesters Katherine and Hal, after dreaming of having their own home for decades, have finally found the perfect house. A gothic house, nestled far in the country, with a bloody backstory . . . but a decidedly low-price tag. What’s not to love? Bad things have happened everywhere, after all, and a house that old is certain to have seen a few ominous moments in history.

But, of course, nothing is that simple. At first, it’s a dream come true, but when September comes around each year, the walls start bleeding, the blood gushes down the stairs, and murdered children start popping out of nowhere to point at the basement door and whisper, “He’s down there.” It’s a bit much, honestly. Katherine, however, is determined to stay. This is her dream house, and for the first time in her life, following the rules and silently accepting the inevitable horror is working in her favor. Hal, however, has other plans, and after four years, leaves the house, never to be seen or heard from again.

Everything is fine. Margaret has settled into living on her own – with a few grisly spectral companions – but her estranged daughter, Katherine, is having none of it. She comes to the house to find out why her father left, to file a missing person’s report, and to blast her parents’ secrets wide open. To make everything just that much more complicated . . . September has just begun and the paranormal is settling into the usual, horrifying routine.

When I first started The September House, I was disappointed. It was altogether too quirky for me. Who would continue to live in a house such as this, routinely scrubbing blood off the walls and interacting with a deceased housekeeper who still organizes things, makes dinner, and brews tea? The mix of horror and humor is one that rarely pans out, and it is usually not an approach that I enjoy. I want my scary to be scary and my funny non-morbid. Yet . . . somehow . . . I was intrigued and kept reading. I’d already paid for the audiobook after all.

Image by MV-Fotos from Pixabay

September House has depths. What appears first to be a horror/comedy is deeper than it lets on, and the quirkiness belies darker secrets than those of death and ghost boys who like to bite. This is really a story about family. About hurt. About abuse, loss of autonomy, and standing up for oneself. Why Margaret really stays is far deeper than holding on to a house; it’s an internal need, a result of surviving so long in a bad marriage with an abusive husband. It is, in a way, a rebellion. If Margaret must follow the rules to stay alive, must be isolated, must accept cruelty, then perhaps she can turn that formula on its own head. Perhaps broken things, either physically or emotionally dead, can find a new, weird life filled with vengeance, secrecy, and some tea breaks. It’s bizarre. Written down it sounds at best quirky, at worst stupid. But it works. It really, really works, and before we know it, we’re involved in this horror/comedy that is also a mystery, and a thriller, and a domestic violence survival story.

The secondary characters here, namely the ghosts, bring a certain poignancy to the story as well. Through them, the narrative addresses finding groups of survivors and highlights Margert’s forced loneliness, creative escape, and way back to herself. Of course, the story is not just a moral (although said moral is clear and effecting), but just a darn good story that draws us in and makes us care and accept this upside-down world.

The conclusion keeps the switches coming, doing a brilliant shift, and then going in another direction, before finally pivoting to a satisfying, gut wrenching finale. I started reading this book reluctantly, determined not to like it, and ended up falling in love and feeling both moved and thoughtful at the end. This is a dark horror story with some bite and some brutal imagery and ideas, but it also has an uplifting side, a stolid message, and a good twist. Highly recommended.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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