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.
She couldn’t remember the first book she had eaten.
Jane North-Robinson is moving across country with her mother Ruth, after her father died and left them with no money. With no other option on the horizon, her mother decided to sell their house and go back to her childhood home, a place she hates and had promised never to go back to. North Manor is big, dark, full of broken windows and strange noises, and in the backyard there are huge rosebushes blooming out of season.
Jane is grieving for her father, but she does her best to adjust to her new life. She makes new friends at school, while at the same time becoming the target for the town bully and struggling to cope with her rising anger. Only her father and her books can calm her down, and now he’s gone. Whenever she’s upset, she picks up one of her childhood books and starts eating a page, slowly, feeling her anger fading as the paper settles in her stomach.
But anger is not her only issue. The house is getting to her: the strange noises, like steps on the upper floor; the lights flickering on and off in one of the empty rooms; the roses growing back wild and black after her mother cut down the bushes. She starts blacking out from time to time, and comes back to consciousness to find messages she doesn’t remember ever sending. Her mother feels far away, buried in her new job and evading Jane’s questions about the house and her past. It all seems to point to the “storage room” her mother keeps locked, and when Jane finally finds the courage to open the door, she doesn’t find piles of boxes inside, but instead a little girl’s room left untouched for years.
How to keep a fire burning. How to stitch a fight up until it’s only a scar. That’s the kind of thing you learn with a mother like mine. Mostly, though, you learn how to be loved without proof.
Margot Nielsen doesn’t know anything about her family. She lives with a mother that feels absent, and their relationship is strained at best. There are moments of tenderness, but they are rare and fleeting, and Margot has learned that the wrong word can destroy them in the blink of an eye.
But she wants something more. She wants a past and family to belong to, and when she finds an old picture that points her to a city called Phalene, she knows what to do.
In Phalene, it takes the locals only a look to guess her last name, and that wins her wary looks all around. Her grandmother is well known and not exactly loved, and the corn fields belonging to her look sickly. Despite everything, when she steps in the old family house, Margot feels like she can finally fill the void left by her mother’s secrets. She has no idea of just how many more are waiting for her within those walls.