John Boyne's This House is Haunted gives a very definite nod in the direction of Charles Dickens in style, language, and setting. As a matter of fact you might even say that it's Dickens himself who causes all the mischief that takes place in the story. Had Eliza Caine's father not been so determined to hear the great man speak he might not have taken ill and died and Eliza could have stayed in London with her classroom of little girls and never set eyes on Gaudlin Hall. Once Gaudlin Hall set eyes on Eliza Caine, its intentions were to do away with her as it had with all the previous governesses (save one). Note the plural.
I'll say straight out that for best appreciation of this story, a willing sense of disbelief is called for as there is more than a touch of the supernatural in the telling. Too much scrutiny might cause the affair to pale in contrast to other ghost story classics (am thinking of my own favorites--the bar being set fairly high by the likes of Susan Hill). For autumnal rainy day atmospheric pleasure, you can't beat this story, however.
Before you begin blaming Dickens now, let me explain how Eliza ends up in Norfolk. It's 1867. Eliza's father has read about a lecture Charles Dickens is giving in a nearby venue. Eliza's father, an entomologist at the British Museum is a great fan of the man and can't possibly miss hearing him read from his work. Despite his ill health, and the filthy weather the two set out (walking in the rain!) for the hall which is overcrowded with people in their soggy, steaming woolens. How fitting on such a drizzly cold evening that Dickens decides to read from a ghost story only recently completed. A real treat for the crowd of Londoners--he tells the audience:
"It is a most terrifying tale, ladies and gentlemen, designed to stir the blood and unsettle the senses. It speaks of the paranormal, of the undead, of those pitiful creatures who wander the afterlife in search of eternal reconciliation. It contains a character who is neither alive not deceased, neither sentient spirit. I wrote it to chill the blood of my readers and despatch ghouls into the beating heart of their dreams."
That quote serves to both set the tone of the story and lay out the plot. Eliza prefers the author's realistic tales to his ghost stories--prescient thinking I'd say. All those damp listeners coughing and sneezing do little to ruin the pleasure Eliza's father has in hearing Dickens speak even as they ruin what's left of his health. Sadly, it's all too much for him and within days he's on his deathbed--a high price for an hour's worth of entertainment.
At the ripe old age of twenty-one Eliza is not only left an orphan but she discovers that no arrangements had been made for her well being. No father. No home. No money. Almost Dickensian, wouldn't you say? She does have a job teaching small girls but the sadness of her life now without her beloved father weighs down on her heavily. In the same illustrated London weekly that announced Dickens' lecture, Eliza comes across an ad for the position of governess. She applies and is hired. So simple. She is to take the train to Thorpe Station in Norfolk where she will be met and taken to Gaudlin Hall where she will take up her governess duties.
It's all vague and she should have caught on earlier that not all is right with this particular situation. As a matter of fact, as she is getting off her train, another young woman comes flying through the station to catch the same train on its reverse journey. The two bump, lock eyes, and then the woman is gone. The refrain heard for the rest of the story is "Why didn't you warn me?" No one in this town will explain anything at all to Eliza. She must pin down even the family lawyer to get some answers--where are the parents of her two young charges? Why has she been left to her own devices with no guidance at all for how she is to care for the children? And what happened to the other governesses? And then there is the small matter of the strange presence she feels in the house. A strange and malicious presence that has grabbed her ankles and pushed her towards open windows and . . .
This isn't just a ghost story, but a haunted house story (that happens to have a very malevolent spirit residing there). Eliza--poor, plain, unmarriagable but thoroughly likable, Eliza tells the story in first person and unravels the mysteries lurking in Gaudlin Hall. It's quite a ride of a story all the way to the twisty-turny ending. This House is Haunted is perfect RIP reading. It might not be the scariest story I've ever read, but not for lack of trying--still all quite effective in terms of creepiness. I quite enjoyed myself--an entertaining immersion into Dickens' territory with a good story and easy reading. I will be picking up more of John Boyne's books for certain.
And, oh . . . if there is a lesson to be learned here, I'd say it is to stay away from London's illustrated weekly magazines!