Starter House

starterThe Short Version: Lacey and Eric have just bought a lovely house – a fixer-upper, sure, but the sort of house that you make your own and you grow into with a family.  It’ll be perfect to raise their expectant child – but the house, it seems, comes with a child of its own already: a ferocious young boy named Drew, who may or may not be responsible for several murders in the house over many years…

The Review:  You know that trope about horror movies, where you want to shout at the screen because the characters are doing something stupid? You know: “Don’t go in there!”, “Did you not just see that?!” – that sort of thing.  You yell at them because they’re being painfully stupid, because they’re doing things that no one in their right minds would ever freaking do.  Well…. I mention this because I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book, a horror novel, where I was shouting at the characters in this same way.  Because they would just willfully do incredibly stupid things or disregard something right in front of them in order to… I don’t know.  To move the plot along?  To pad the length of the book to over 350 pages when it easily could’ve wrapped up in half that?

I’ll admit that I didn’t expect too much from this one – it looked like it was going to be a pretty typical riff on a haunted house story, but the creepy ghost kid’s name is Drew and, ha ha, that’s my name too, so, what a fun coincidence!  And when a haunted house story is done well, you can’t really go wrong.  But when it isn’t done well – and let me be frank, it was not done well here – it can be a painful experience.  But let’s start with the good.

What’s good?  The setting, although it’s wildly underplayed, is South Carolina and the image of a big old house in the late summer heat is instant atmosphere.  Coupled with a batty mother character who clearly believes in ghosts and spiritual things, you’re on the right track.  And some of the moments between Drew and Lacey are interesting.  It’s a somewhat more unusual story development to see the ‘victim’ – that is, Lacey, the one being haunted – working with the ghost in such a mentoring/parenting sort of way.  She’s a grade school teacher, as we’re oh so often reminded, and she knows how to deal with rambunctious young boys. A couple of the moments between them get close to being oddly touching in spite of the creep factor and so the reader begins to wonder if, hey, this might be something interesting developing.

Unfortunately, Lacey (and, again, pretty much every character in the book) is so mind-numbingly stupid that you never get to enjoy the possibilities.  Instead, every time she or anyone else seems to be coming around to some kind of conclusion – even a simple one, like “hey I think this is a ghost” – they veer off, as though distracted by a shiny object, and the whole thing has to go round again.  There is a fine line between not-believing and just being an idiot in the face of clearly weird shit – and they blow right over the line every time.  It’s actually downright infuriating.  Eric, the put-upon lawyer husband, just sounds like kind of a schmuck – it’s unclear what, exactly, is terribly winning about him and he does contradictory things within the space of pages, like yelling at Lacey about their money problems and then ordering her a bunch of furniture to surprise her.  And when characters make strange pronouncements about the house and the history of death… they take forever to, you know, do a quick google search.  Ask a follow-up question.  Do really anything at all.

There’s also a strange sideplot regarding one of Eric’s clients – a somewhat developmentally stunted man being sued for divorce and custody.  It comes out (and this is a spoiler, I guess, but also intensely predictable) that Lex, this man, is somehow connected to the house that Eric and Lacey bought.  Quel surprise!  Except the connections, once they’re revealed, barely make a lick of sense.  The final showdown and conclusion actually make even less sense, although I could see how the concept could be salvaged in the hands of a truly deft horror author.  Although, maybe not even then: it just feels headshaking and odd and an attempt to “do something new” when all that was needed was the old thing done well.

Rating: 2 out of 5.  I’ll give a little bit of credit: the whole teacher/child thing, underused and half-baked as it comes off here, was a refreshing idea for a twist on a haunting.  For that reason alone, I give it more than a bottom mark.  But if you’re going to allow your book to be blurbed as “for fans of Heart-Shaped Box“, you better bring the juju – and Condit doesn’t even come close.  I’m not even sure she brought the final draft.  It’s just an unpleasant mess full of stupid people – nobody should have to shout at the book they’re reading as often as I did.


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