Gay author John Boyne plays it straight in a page-turning, Dickensian chiller

We’ve all had the feeling: It’s bedtime, you make a sweep of the house, you locked the door … or did you? When you’re jolted awake at 3 o’dark in the morning, are you hearing something that isn’t there? Are you alone? In John Boyne’s This House Is Haunted, you’ll forever wonder if you have unseen company.

Eliza Caine blamed Charles Dickens for her father’s death. Father had a bad cough, but he insisted he was well enough to go listen to Mr. Dickens read from his latest novel. Eliza relented and they walked to the speaker’s hall on a chilly night. But between illness and London weather, her father was dead within days.

Knowing that she had inherited neither parents’ good looks, Eliza accepted her spinsterhood, though she loved children and had loved working as at a nearby school for girls. So when she saw the advert, she made an impulsive decision.

One H. Bennet from Gaudlin Hall was looking for a governess. Gaudlin Hall was in the county of Norfolk, and though Eliza had never been outside London, the job seemed to be just the change she needed.
She had scarcely gotten to the depot when odd things began to happen. Strong hands tried to push her in front of a train, but no one was standing nearby.

Friendly townspeople turned away in fright when she told them where she’d be employed. And while her charges (8-year-old Eustace and 12-year-old Isabella) were little dears, Eliza thought it strange that adults were missing from Gaudlin Hall.

This House is Haunted possesses all the ingredients for a classic ghost story: a musty castle, gloomy weather, an evil presence, a proper governess and creepy little kids. The twist is in the details that Boyne offers. Pay attention and you’ll see tiny dashes of modern-type scandal. There’s a strong female character who dares to go against the expectations of her day. Boyne even hides bits of humor inside this story, all of which makes this novel one that Dickens himself might envy.

Readers who favor the classics will count this among their new favorites. Novel lovers will love it for its seasonal creepiness. If you crave both fright and delight this week, This House is Haunted is spooktacular.

— Terri Schlichenmeyer

Four-and-a-half stars.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 25, 2013.