Title: Home Before Dark
Author: Riley Sager
Genre: Horror, Mystery
Every house has a story to tell.
Maggie Holt has lived all her life in the shadows of her father’s book, an account of the twenty days they spent in the Victorian estate called Baneberry Hall, before fleeing in the dead of night and swearing never to come back. House of Horrors, that’s the title of the book, is an allegedly true account of the haunted house and the spirits that tried to kill five-year-old Maggie during their stay. She has no recollection of the events, but the success of the book has shaped all of her relationships: from the kids asking her about ghosts, to the teenagers inviting her to seances, to the hundreds of people who, at the mention of her name, ask her: What was it like? Living in that house.
Maggie doesn’t believe in ghosts, but every time she tried asking for the truth she has been met with silence by her parents. Now, twenty-five years later, Maggie’s father is dead and Baneberry Hall is hers, even though she always believed the house had been sold after their flight. Determined to finally find out the truth about what really happened in those fateful days, she goes back to the place with the excuse of renovating it to prepare it for sale and starts looking out for clues.
With the help of not-so-willing locals, Maggie starts putting the pieces together, while strange occurrences start to take place inside the house, mirroring the ones narrated in her father’s book. But is it really the work of ghosts, or is there something else behind what’s happening?
A closer look
The book alternates between chapters in Maggie’s point of view and chapters taken out of her father’s book. The idea is extremely clever – plus I have a weak spot for stories inside stories – and allows us to follow her first interactions with the house and its mysteries, while also seeing the way it mirrors her father’s recollection. At first, it feels like a lot of the strange things going on could be explained by simple logic, but as we follow along, events become stranger and stranger, and a feeling of dread takes over as we struggle to make sense of it.
The protagonist is not brilliant, sadly: Maggie is believable in her effort to convince herself that the supernatural events she’s witnessing have real explanations – who hasn’t heard a noise while home alone and tried to talk themselves into believing it was the pipes, or just he house creaking? – but not so believable when she trusts perfect strangers and just tells them all about her past with little to no prompting. Especially when those strangers turn out to have pretty important secrets of their own, but just decided to keep quiet because we needed a bit of drama.
I feel like the parts told in her father’s perspective were far more interesting. Not only I felt more connected to him as a character with higher stakes – his child, his marriage – but somehow the mystery made way more sense. The events in Maggie’s point of view are much more disjointed, and even if some of the explanations overlap between the two, I just found her pretty flat. I mean, her father didn’t have many options when things took a turn for the weird: he didn’t have enough money to move out again after spending all that they had for the house, and had reasons to try and make it work. Maggie… yes, sure, she wants to know the truth and all that, but she can leave the place any moment without any real loss. It takes her mother’s explanation anyway to clear up the mystery in the end.
The other characters are pretty forgettable: the police officer who first took the declaration from Maggie’s father, the previous owner who was scarred by her family dying in the house, the town journalist who is just a nosy guy trying to get more details from Maggie, and the neighbours who are descendants of the families that took care of the house maintenance for generations and hide some mysteries of their own; they all kind of fade in the background every time they’re not specifically talking to the protagonist.
On the contrary, the atmosphere is well realised and manages to convey Maggie’s distress at the strange stuff that’s going on. The house is creepy in itself, and even more so when things start happening without apparent reason. Especially when paired with the events in her father’s book, it reaches levels of pure creepy. Personally, I am really susceptible to this kind of horror stories: I’m the kind of person that rushes to bed after switching off the light, and avoids looking into mirrors when it’s dark and quiet for fear of glimpsing something that shouldn’t be there. My trips to the kitchen for water in the middle of the night are a lot of fun, let me tell you.
But the ending is where the novel lost it for me. I could guess who was responsible, but the how feels forced because we are never given that bit of information. I understand that this is not exactly a mystery, but while the reason why they left the house twenty-five years earlier makes total sense, some of the other explanations just feel like a stretch.
If you want to know more details, feel free to select the paragraph below to read it – but be warned, there are mild spoilers that you might want to avoid if you plan on reading the book.
First of all, I find it ridiculous that no one, no one, told Maggie’s father about the other entrance – or that he didn’t check the house plans or something, since he was buying it. I can still get over this, but what I can’t let go is the explanation of Maggie’s ghosts. I mean, how disturbed do you have to be to enter a five-year-old room in the middle of the night just to watch her sleep? And how incredibly deranged do you have to be to whisper to her in the dark that she’s going to die? COME ON! Talk about childhood trauma!
All in all this was a gripping and quick read. I even had to stop reading at some point during the evening because I was getting seriously spooked, and I would totally recommend it to someone who is looking for a haunted house kind of story, especially if you like wondering how much of it is supernatural and how much isn’t.
About the author
Riley Sager is the author of four mystery/thriller/horror novels: Final Girls (2017), The Last Time I Lied (2018), Lock Every Door (2019), and Home Before Dark (2020). This is the only book of his I have read, but Lock Every Door is on my list, and if I enjoy as much as (or more) than Home Before Dark, I might consider reading the other ones as well.