Nightmare House was a pleasant surprise. Pleasurable, one might even say charming, because it’s an old-fashioned gothic ghost story filled with many elements I know and love—family secrets, hidden rooms, eerie apparitions, and hints of occult influence—all delivered in a smooth, accessible narrative. Surprising because this is the first novel in The Haunted reading list that was entirely new to me. I’d never heard of the Harrow House series and never read any other works by Douglass Clegg prior to diving into this book. The title made me wary, afraid this would be another Hell House debacle. Thank goodness that fear proved unfounded.
This opening passage is an obvious but delightful homage to Rebecca:
My dreams are there, now. You can go in any room, any secret chamber, and you will find them—shadows of dreams, like smoke from a fire that has only just died.
They are no longer with me—I do not dream. I live in stark reality.
In a harsh sun.
Harrow took my dreams away.”
Chapter 1, Section 1
Wow! Right there, I’m hooked. I might as well lay down and show the author my belly. Or perhaps it’s better to curl up in a chair with a cozy blanket and a cup of something warm in order to lose myself in the fictive dream.
The year is 1926. (Cue squeals of delight because I’m currently writing a supernatural mystery set in the summer of 1925 and it’s not easy to find ghost stories set this period.) Ethan (Esteban) Gravesend inherits his grandfather’s sprawling Hudson River estate. Despite its cursed reputation, Ethan harbors happy memories of Harrow House and deep affection for his paternal grandfather. And can you blame him?
… what I remember now is the warmth of his hand, the musty smell of the ill-fitting suit that must’ve lived most of the year within a mothballed closet, and the way he could not stop looking at me as if I were the most important child in the world even with my lies and games and pouts and stolen gingerbread men from the kitchen. It was the only time I felt this in my childhood. ”
Of course, Harrow House is not exactly the halcyon oasis of Ethan’s memory. What fun would that be? Of course, there must be a taciturn housekeeper. Instead of modern electrical convenience. the house requires gas lamps and year-round fires on the hearths. Shadows and bad dreams plague Ethan from his first night. In a moment of weakness, Ethan imagines burning the ruined garden, chasing away the feral cats, selling the whole property, and buying a modern house closer to New York City. Then moonlight bathes the countryside and Ethan’s resolve returns … just in time for another unexpected encounter.
The chill of October began to seep into my bones, and I even heard a mockingbird—an early riser—in a nearby tree. I felt sleepy and somewhat happy and ready to take ownership of this estate and all that went with it.
Cats and angels and moonlight, as well.
And then one of the statues moved. ”
Chapter 1, Section 10
It’s not a statue or a ghost, it’s Maggie. She’s the sort of bewitching instantaneous love interest so common in gothic fiction written during the Victorian era. Like Ethan, I was instantly drawn to her. The discovery of Alf, her little boy, and the fact that they lived together in the abandoned caretaker’s cottage was an intriguing revelation.
My favorite scene in this book doesn’t involve Maggie or Harrow House or twisted family secrets. It’s the only scene where Ethan leaves the shadows of Harrow House to visit the Watch Point pub and it’s the only scene that firmly places the story within the prohibition era. Locals gather around an unmarked crate, drinking its contents out of coffee mugs, and declaring it “The best sassyfrass tea yet!” Of course, it’s a dark amber ale and this little vignette is enacted for the sake of the local constable, known only as Pocket.
Pocket later returns as a key character when Ethan discovers a sealed room in his house with an actual family skeleton entombed inside. As it turns out, Pocket knows more about Ethan’s family than the young Gravesend heir ever wanted to know and the old constable shares his tale over a cigar during the long and tortuous ascent to view the unspeakable horror revealed in a locked room.
From there, everything goes to hell.
Am I going to hold this novel up as great and glorious perfection of the literary variety? No. Am I going to claim it will chill modern readers to the core and stir up your worst nightmares (as the title suggests)? No. There are absolutely no new “never before seen” elements in this story. And that’s kind of the point. It’s one part M.R. James, one part Wilkie Collins, one part Edgar Allen Poe with a dash of du Maurier, stirred (not shaken). The result is 100% entertaining diversion.
Note: This book contains another unfortunate example of an ill-conceived Prologue. The text itself was well-written and contained important information for the story. But it really needed to be slotted into the first paragraph, preferably after Section 2. The Epilogue, which appears to be a bridge and a teaser to the subsequent Harrow House novels, could have been Chapter 12.