The Good House by Tananarive Due
Middle-class, ordinary-people horror fiction is an intriguing breed. You know those horror novels that seem more concerned with the day-to-day lives of their protagonists, sidestepping it with scares only on occasion? That is what I’m talking about here.
Molded into its shape by a million Stephen King novels, this type of horror seems almost more slice-of-life than actual fright fest. King’s own It is oftentimes more a chronicle of small time living than an epic battle with a powerful ubiquitous clown-giant-spider monster-thing. These novels dedicate so much time to laying out the land—the outer activities and inner thoughts our protagonists, the realism of the setting, the personal conflicts—that they overwhelm whatever eldritch monstrosity is about to start wreaking havoc.
I believe that Tananarive Due’s The Good House epitomizes this style of horror. Due’s narrative is about the characters lives first, and the supernatural being that threatens them second.
The first few chapters create the flow that the rest of the book smoothly follows—supernatural or otherwise shocking events do occur, yet the acts themselves are less important than the ensuing ripples. The opening “shocker,” in which our main character Angela’s son abruptly commits suicide on one fateful Fourth of July, is full of foreboding, the sense of an evil presence that maintains itself throughout the book, even at its most subdued moments. Yet The Good House is only colored by the horror genre—it reads more so as a grief narrative. The first act deals with Angela’s coping—how being a suicide survivor affects her love life, her career, her personality, etc. Horror and the supernatural suggest themselves during this time, but it is far, far in the background. Horror is there to spice up what might otherwise be a perfectly good literary fiction theme.
Now I can see this being a divisive point for horror fans. We picked up this book to get scared, after all. It may appear like a failing when a horror novel simply isn’t scary for most of its text, emphasizing instead the thoughts and feelings of a rather ordinary group of people—a journalist, a talent agent, a teen boy, an up-and-coming actress—without much paranormal added to the mix.
And one might be justified in this criticism if its done badly. But that’s just the thing: It’s not by a long shot.
The Good House is amazingly well-thought out. I’ve rarely identified so deeply with so many different kinds of characters, but Due made it possible. She has crafted an amazingly detailed world with believable and dynamic characters. Her small town Pacific Northwest paralleled perhaps only by Stephen King’s Maine (and only then because he writes about it so darn much).
The eponymous Good House is rich in atmosphere and history, a central setting that works well as a hook in such a large story. Character and setting are indeed given equal footing in this novel, and the dynamics between them are one of the most interesting aspects of the book. Los Angeles Angela is much different from small town Washington Angela—the development seen as the character shifts from one to the other is satisfying to experience as a reader.
The Good House is great at giving its characters voice and its setting life. Well, the horror fan says “So what if I’m not scared?” And, to be fair, The Good House is not a cut-and-dry fright fest. Nor does it ever seem to want to be one. The horror here manifests itself slowly, in little details and in gradual shifts into the uncanny, before, in the last fourth of the novel, it explodes in several terrific bursts. Many passages near the end of the novel have stuck with me, not quite shocking so much as under-the-skin creepy.
The horror here works as a stark contrast to all that well-built normalcy. For some horror fans it might not be enough, as the scares are, admittedly, used sparingly, but I still managed to enjoy it. I see The Good House as a classy work in the horror genre—not reducing its scope and intelligence to make way for more pulpy shock. It is thoughtful, well-written, and spiced with fright here and there. Not consistently heart-pounding, but consistently good fiction.