I’m the kind of horror reader who craves the oft-condemned jump scares: slamming doors, cheap thrills, and gaudy, hackneyed plot devices that’ll make you want to call for an exorcist or the Winchesters (or both). If you’ve been following my work for a while, this probably won’t come to you as much of a surprise. If you’re new here, hi 🙂 I’m weird. Welcome to my page.
I read Riley Sager’s Home Before Dark as part of my Halloween reading list this year, and as it turns out, it’s just the kind of novel that will appeal to both fiendish horror nerds and sophisticated thriller readers alike!
Here’s the gist of it:
When Maggie Holt was five years old, her parents purchased Baneberry Hall: a sprawling Victorian mansion nestled in the Vermont woods. Twenty days later, the family fled from the house with nothing but the clothes on their backs and a crazy ghost story for the police — a story that Ewan Holt turned into a bestselling novel called House of Horrors. Now, 25 years later, Maggie returns to Baneberry Hall on a restoration job. Given that her parents have always refused to talk to her about what really happened at Baneberry Hall, Maggie also hopes that returning to the house will help her uncover the truth about Ewan Holt’s motivations for selling what she believes is a bogus ghost story. And thus begins a ridiculously entertaining series of jump scares and horror fiction stereotypes that kept me at the edge of my seat.
Granted, I was a little skeptical when I first picked up Home Before Dark: a novel whose synopsis clearly indicates this is going to be one of those “is it a vengeful spirit or is it just a crazy serial killer in the woods?” kind of tale. I was pleased to find that Sager toes the line between reality and the supernatural rather well.
Although the pacing stutters and lags for the first forty pages or so while we learn about Maggie and her singular, all-encompassing hatred of her father’s ‘memoir’, from the moment she steps foot in Baneberry Hall, things pick up by about a hundred miles a minute. Riley Sager wields the ‘book-within-a-book’ style particularly well, weaving converging events and plot devices through a split narrative. Chapters alternate between Ewan Holt’s House of Horrors, which sheds light on what really happened at Baneberry Hall 25 years ago, while present-day Maggie Holt proceeds to dissect and utterly wreck her father’s book with endless sarcasm and the echoes of a disturbing past. There were definitely moments I could’ve done without — inconsistent character descriptions and motivations, and awkward (unrealistic) dialogue, for instance. I would’ve really appreciated a map at the beginning of the book to help readers make sense of this maddeningly labyrinthine old mansion, where 90% of the story takes place. Another thing I could have seriously done without? Sentences. Like. This.
Or sometimes, sentences that sound like they were kidnapped straight off the pages of a movie trailer script: lazy cliffhanger-esque questions that dangle just beyond reach, hinting at spooky goodness in future chapters and yet never.
… or do they?
After about 200 pages of this, the only thing that kept me going was the incredible pacing and occasional jump scares — if it weren’t for the sad little horror addict in me, I would’ve likely DNF’d this one (and maybe flung a few things. One of them may or may not have been a book).
In many ways, the plot almost reads like The Haunting of Hill House fused with The Amityville Horror, peppered with (a soft echo of) the small-town charm and ‘madness versus mystery’ undercurrents of a Stephen King novel. One thing that got me to chuckle appreciatively was the fact that Ewan Holt’s House of Horrors reads like a particularly cringeworthy ’80s horror novel, almost as if to justify Maggie’s derision. It helped make an otherwise one-dimensional protagonist more relatable. Haunted house stories thrive on atmosphere and setting, and Riley Sager does do the old house justice. Every time I thought I had figured things out, this story proved me wrong — right until the final ten pages.
That being said, it would’ve been nice to have had a slightly more fleshed-out ending. When a tragic event is revealed, it’s almost as if Sager was so eager to hit THE END already that he spares very little time towards addressing the logical flaws within this unexpected turn of events. It felt as if the sheer rush of the pacing had set this story barrelling towards a point of no-return, like a speeding locomotive that has completely lost control — and yet, despite all these little inconsistencies, I for one was happy to ride.
Despite the sometimes-cringeworthy writing and predictable scares, I ended up devouring this book in a single night — so clearly, something about this worked! And yes, I most definitely had to leave the lights on. Whether you’re rooting for a supernatural ending or a more realistic one, either way, I think Home Before Dark will have delivered a rather satisfying conclusion.
… or will it?
This was a 3.9 star-read for me; I’d definitely recommend it if you’re looking for a fast-paced haunted house thriller for ‘Spooktober’.
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