Capsule review of Nightmare House: if you like ghost stories, give this a try. It’s short and the author quotes Tennyson. I will admit that this book was not my cup of tea, but maybe you will like it. And if you do enjoy Nightmare House, there are a number of sequels and prequels available.
Okay, that’s the short version. The longer review is below. If you don’t like spoilers, don’t read any further.
You know, one of the things that always cracks me up is when assorted writer folk/agents/the peanut gallery say that Stephen King can’t write endings. I recall one instance at a now-defunct convention in Westchester, New York, where an agent informed a panel full of enthralled listeners of this very fact. He then told us that if Mr. King worked with him, he’d straighten him out! The thing that makes this memory so beloved is that the agent gave out pens inscribed with his agency’s name, and when I put said pen into my pocket it burst and ruined a perfectly decent pair of khaki trousers.
((Side-note: Mr. King’s endings can be summarized thusly, people live, people die and the world keeps on turning.))
Whilst wiping blue ink from my leg, I starting thinking about Mr. King’s plots, the best of which spring from his characters. This is a long-winded way of saying that if I hadn’t been reading Nightmare House for an assignment, I would have put the book down after the first twenty-five pages.
Why? Because the book’s main character, Ethan/Esteban, has no desire line at all. He inherits a house from his wackadoodle grandpa in the late 1920’s, and travels to a small town in upstate New York to check it out. That isn’t a plot, it’s a situation.
That’s fine, because plots can spring from situations. Unfortunately Ethan isn’t a character, he’s a puppet of the plot. None of his actions even advance the plot. Ah, you say, what about unveiling the hidden room? Yeah, that did nothing, because the spirit of Aunt/Mommy/Crazy Matilde was already roaming the house freely.
The characters in Nightmare House are so paper thin I didn’t care if they lived or died. The garrulous housekeeper vanishes early in the book, never to return. Grandpa’s a loon, pure and simple. Ethan falls madly in love with a woman at first sight, because – well, I don’t know why. Because she’s pretty and makes him clean the bathroom? Pockets, the garrulous constable, only exists to unveil the backstory and give out cigars, which he does with great vigor.
There are a number of plot twists that don’t mean anything because they aren’t properly foreshadowed. The house’s history is hinted at, but not gone into in any detail. The ghosts say all sorts of stuff I didn’t understand, and I got the sneaking feeling I didn’t get it because I hadn’t read any of the other books.
In fact, Nightmare House reads more like a treatment that hasn’t fully been converted into a novel. It needs to have at least 50 more pages to be interesting. If Nightmare House reminded me of anything, it would be H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Rats in the Wall.” Both have that vibe of family rot/predestination, but Lovecraft’s narrator was batshit crazy, and Ethan/Esteban isn’t crazy. If the author really wanted me to believe Ethaneban was crazy, he shouldn’t have written four more books in the series.