I just finished Darcy Coates’ The Haunting of Ashburn House and I have thoughts. This is the first book of hers that I have actually read. I have sampled several and each time sort of said, eh, not for me. I am picky.
This one sounded up my alley–sudden inheritance at a perfect time, deep, dark family secrets–and the protagonist Adrienne is sympathetic. I expected to love this book like crazy. In the end, though, not so much.
I loved so many elements here: her great-aunt Edith’s creepy messages to herself carved into the walls, the tables, even her bedframe. I loved that the locals were actually kind! Coates didn’t go for the easy “isolate the heroine by making everyone dislike or distrust her”. I think that worked really well, because it makes the horror feel more powerful if there are allies and they can’t actually help. Coates did a good job of explaining away the usual accoutrements of modern life: no car for Addy, no cell phone–she’s too broke to own them. And not just the usual novel-excuse broke: actual broke. $3.47 in her bank account and a $20 bill in her purse. She’s homeless except for Ashburn House.
My absolute favorite element kicked in early when as twilight descends, the entire forest around her house (because of course Ashburn House is isolated in a forest) goes eerily silent. What’s worse than a forest falling silent all around you? When it erupts with terror–all the wild animals shrieking, her house cat Wolfgang shrieking, her own panic rising. I loved it.
I think this wonderful element, which plays out over three nights, is actually the strongest, most creepy, aspect, and that’s why I didn’t love the rest. Sounds contradictory, but all this amazing terror and the natural world shrieking in panic and outrage, and then…. everything that comes after is just less for me. Oh, it’s an evil ghost/zombie thing. I’ve seen you before.
And once the evil revenant makes the scene, matters narrow down from this enormous world-shaking event to the usual story line of “will the heroine survive?”. At that point, all the carved words that Addy has been ignoring start to feel like an exercise in is this heroine too stupid to live?
A carved message in the kitchen table that says IS IT FRIDAY LIGHT THE CANDLE is understandably ignored when the ominous factor is some unseeable force in the woods. It’s a lot less so when there is an actual evil intruder trying to get inside. Have some common sense, Addy! But no.
There are a couple of issues that really sort of splatted the ending for me. First, that the haunting starts to get more scattershot. The forest erupting in panic is wonderful. The revenant is… horror movie creepy. But then we start getting bleeding paintings and ghosts in the mirrors and it all just sort of becomes horror movie 101. I kept sort of mentally comparing Coates to Kingfisher. I find T. Kingfisher’s horror novels more effective because she really keeps her focus on a specific horror and the way it affects her heroine/the world. There are no distractions from the main thrust of the horror.
The second issue that weakens the ending for me is that Addy–just after the climactic moment–finds the letter her great-aunt left her explaining every single thing in detail. The fact that she didn’t find the letter until late in the game makes sense, but it was just too much explaining all at once: history of the family, the revenant’s identity, the source of its powers, its weaknesses, and so forth. It’s like an entire short story of its own and I really would have loved to see more of it slipped in throughout the book. Coates has Addy research the house and her family, but hit nothing but dead ends. She survives through sheer grit and dumb luck.
So, while I enjoyed reading it; my interest started out stronger than it ended. I turned the pages more eagerly in the beginning than at the climax. Would I read another of her books? Yes. I have my eye on From Below.