The Short Version: When Richard Walker dies, his ex-wife Caroline and their two children (late twentysomething Minna and teenager Trenton) return to the sprawling mansion where they’d once lived and where he died. But they’re not the only people in the house – two spirits, of those who died in the house long ago, are there too. And when a third spirit arrives and makes contact with Trenton, worlds begin to collide…
The Review: This is one of those books where the cover image has transfixed me from the very first time I saw it, walking into the Javits Center for BEA two summers ago. It was plastered across all the doors and while I didn’t come away with one of the coveted ARCs, I never forgot the fiery orange of the cover with its spooky old house/tree going up in flames. This October, I finally said “let’s read the thing already” and now here we are.
Feeling… well, kind of ordinary, to be honest. I don’t mean this as a negative, it must be said – but the book didn’t light me up in any particular way. It was a pleasurable but ultimately forgettable read, one that’s already begun to fade from my mind as other haunted house novels reassert themselves. But before it goes away, let’s talk about its pleasures.
At this time of year, one of the best things you can ask for as a reader is a spooky novel that doesn’t take too much out of you. You can’t read tremendously scary works too many in a row or you’ll get burned out – but, similarly, you also come to realize that not all books need to be scary in order to still capture the spirit of the season. There’s nothing all that scary about the ghosts in Rooms and the house isn’t so much scary as it is sad – it’s falling apart, quite literally. So, too, are the main characters, each in their own way: Caroline has become an overweight drunk, Minna a nymphomaniac, and Trenton has suicidal plans. The overwhelming sensation of these ghosts and this story, in fact, is sadness. Both ghosts lived relatively ordinary lives and died tragic deaths – tragic not in the operatic sense but in the far simpler loneliness of the event. And this family is pretty much torn apart from the start. You get the sense that no one is happy and that’s its own kind of horror, really.
Ms. Oliver picks up some classic Bradburyian tropes here and there, especially with Trenton and his connection with a mysterious teenage girl who drops in on him with almost supernatural good timing. It can be hard to be a teenager and Trenton’s scenes often capture that. I wish that Oliver had brought the same potency to her depiction of Minna – which is not bad, but it just lacks some of the subtler nuances of her younger sibling. One cliché in particular regarding Minna’s sexual rapaciousness felt particularly reductive and it undercut some of the work that had gone into making Minna a really screwed up but authentically screwed up young woman.
The ghosts have one particular quirk that I did love: they have begun to become part of the house. Sometimes this means that they can pop lightbulbs with a burst of energy… but more often, it means that they are everywhere. Hear everything. See everything. Feel everything. It’s an inspired touch, if ultimately an underused one. But the ghosts are all caught up in their own tragedies – and the saying about ghosts needing to stick around due to unfinished business is absolutely true here.
Anyway, as these characters rattled around this big old house and deal with surprises in the will and feel vaguely haunted, I found myself grinning – not because of any particular thing, but because of the whole thing, if that makes sense. I could, in my mind, place this book in the continuum with works like The Supernatural Enhancements and Something Wicked This Way Comes, even though those are two superior novels. The ending is telegraphed from the first page and it comes without much surprise, although the context brings it all home in an uplifting way… and as the book ended, sitting at my parents’ house on a chill October evening, I thought “well, okay, lovely” and moved on.
And sometimes, that’s exactly what you want at the halfway(ish) point through the October Country.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. Nothing all that special, just a good quick read featuring a haunted house that’s less SCARY and more melancholic. Lauren Oliver’s passion is clearly for depicting the complex and often weary lives of people who’ve perhaps fallen a bit and are struggling to get back up – and while she uses ghosts to help display a set of such stories here, they’re only a sort of set-dressing in many ways. The live ones are where her heart lies, as well it should.