I have to begin this review by saying that I was quite nervous starting this book as the previous two ghost stories I had tried to read I had DNF’d, so I was really hoping that third time was the charm. And to be honest I wasn’t impressed to begin with and thought … oh no not again. However I stuck with it and have to say it did get better as it went along but it wasn’t without its issues.
Home Before Dark is Riley Sager’s forth book and is told using the two time streams narrative – present day via main character interior designer Maggie Holt, and 25 years ago, via a book written by her father, Ewan Holt. When Maggie was a child (5 years old) her family (Mum, Dad and herself) moved into Baneberry Hall, a substantial Victorian house and grounds in Vermont that comes with a troubled past. They only last 20 days living there before fleeing in fear in the middle of the night, saying that the house is haunted and they cannot remain. Maggie’s father writes a book on the experience which becomes a nationwide bestseller and leads to TV interviews and fame. This book and the notoriety associated with it follows Maggie through her life as she grows up and causes great distress to her, both in terms of the reaction of people toward her AND concerning her relationship with her parents. She remembers things very differently and therefore believes they lied in the book. She is resentful at how these lies affected her whole life but is also bothered by the fact that her parents refuse to tell her the truth. Many years later her parents are divorced and Maggie (to her surprise) inherits Baneberry Hall from her father on his death. She travels there against the advice of her mother and departed father, intending to renovate the house for sale but history starts to repeat itself …
I am going to be very honest and say that it took me a while to grow into this book and even then I don’t think I ever truly connected with it on any deep level. I didn’t love it or even strongly like it – I was curious about it to see where it ended up but I wasn’t gripped by it.
I will admit that it was an interesting experience reading it as at first parts of it appear to be poorly written, namely Ewan Holt’s section told via a novel he wrote – House of Horrors or ‘The Book’ as Maggie refers to it. And it took probably too long to realise that that is, in fact, the point and is very purposeful. The author (Riley Sager) has deliberately constructed these sections to read that way. Ewan Holt is an amatuer writer, only having published shorter pieces via his freelance work so it is natural that ‘the book’ would read as such and this is even woven into the story itself. Critics of Ewan Holt’s account of the haunting call ‘the writing pedestrian and the plot derivative’ which to be honest is just what I thought too! However I think Sager is being quite skillful with his tone and style to help convey plot which becomes more obvious as you read further into the book, and when you compare the passages from the present day to those chronicling past events.
As I was reading I got quite a lot of Stephen King vibes from this book. It’s hard to say how and what in particular made me feel that exactly but they are very definitely there. And Maggie (within the book) even comments along those lines saying something like she feels like the situation she’s in is straight out of a King novel, which acts as a reinforcement to this feeling.
And if you have already read Home Before Dark you’ll know what I ‘m referring to when I say that this book has the single most stomach churning sequence I have read in a VERY VERY long time … perhaps ever. I was at work reading during my lunch break and when this event happened the hand that was holding my sandwich stopped and was frozen in midair for quite some time as I pondered whether I wanted to continue consuming it. And then I almost brought back up all that I had eaten at that point. In saying this, it was probably the only sequence that got any kind of visceral emotional reaction out of me from the whole book. So be warned. I won’t give too much away except to say … snakes.
A problem I experienced was that I formed no real bond with any of the characters. And I can’t explain why. Sometimes you take to people in books and sometimes you don’t and I didn’t. And the book also felt a bit over long. I wondered if it could have been a bit shorter and tighter in certain places. I think this excess was a result of the Ewan Holt sections. They just weren’t as interesting and a little repetitive to be honest. So much time was spent on establishing the haunted house plot, two thirds of the book in fact, that the last third was rushed in my opinion. The story meandered a bit then all of a sudden it accelerated with plot points and twists thrown in left, right and centre. Which brings me onto something else. Like his previous book, Last Time I Lied, Sager uses the triple reveal when bringing the book to its conclusion. Three scenarios are fired at you, one after the other, that are a possible solution and as a result I think the narrative got a little confused and dense. I wonder if they could have been spaced out a bit to heighten the tension.
So what do I want to say in closing? I guess a plus has got to be that I finished this ghost story which is a thumbs up considering the way others of that genre have gone recently. Seriously though this is the third Riley Sager book I have read and it sits somewhere in the middle. Not the best but not the worst. Solid but nothing spectacular and there was nothing original to be added to the genre by its publication (is that too much to expect from a haunted house story?).
Rating: 3 Stars
(Header Image: Sarah Kreig)