It’s Thrift Store Finds time! We’re throwing back the curtains and turning on the party lights because today we’re celebrating one of the best haunted house novels ever written. But leave your EVP recorders and night vision cameras at home, because this house doesn’t need some stinking spirits to scare you to death.
We all know those people who have it “figured out.” I’m not talking about lucky people, or pretty people, or popular people, per say. I’m talking about the ones who seem to have acquired the life they wanted and now are perfectly content to just live it.
These are the people who have a not-completely-boring job and travel regularly. They always come to your parties, but they’re also always some of the first to leave. They like doing yard work and going to bed by ten. They might have a dog, but they definitely have a cat; and while they’re happy to admit they’re civically engaged, they’re excellent at biting their tongues when the conversation turns political. And while they might not be particularly exciting, there is something comforting in their assured existence.
Anne Rivers Siddons understood this idea when she set out to write The House Next Door, and the use of this type of character is exactly why it’s one of the best haunted house stories around. Because if there is comfort in regularity, then its deterioration is utter terror.
Colquitt and Walter Kennedy are a young professional couple living in the suburbs of Georgia. They have a nice house (probably nicer than they really deserve, but thankfully Colquitt’s parents paid the down payment). They have good jobs (in fact after graduating from Vanderbilt, Colquitt snapped up a job in PR, but now that she’s established she works for herself). And they even have a beach house for summer getaways (which they share with Walter’s business partner). They are, in Colquitt’s estimation, “fairly ordinary people.”
But the Kennedy’s ordinary life takes a defining turn when a newly married couple begin building a house on the vacant lot next door. Things start out well enough. Aside from the young owners going by the painful nicknames “Buddy” and “Pie,” there’s no hint that something horrible is growing in the neighborhood’s newest architectural masterpiece. Unfortunately, it’s only a matter of time before this blissful suburban world begins to change.
In the best haunting stories, the horror starts slowly. At first, the terrible things that happen are all easily explained. When the pregnant Pie loses her baby after falling down the basement stairs, it’s a tragedy, but not unexpected. After all, Pie had nearly fallen a dozen times doing reckless things during construction. But as more and more people’s lives are destroyed by the house, it gets harder for Colquitt to reason these events away.
What’s so clever about Siddon’s novel is that death is not the ultimate signifier of horror. Social ruin is the main terror at the center of The House Next Door. The malignant evil inside the house is as likely to exploit secret homosexuality, sickness, and mental health issues as it is to kill you.
You see, this isn’t any old haunted house. There are no ghosts of ancient relatives in the attic, no burial ground under the earth. This haunted house is reading you. It smells your best traits and your worst, and once it has discovered them, it uses your weaknesses to destroy you.
In this way, Siddons draws out her uneasy narrative while slyly passing judgement on the privileged class she’s writing about. In this upper class neighborhood, a compromised status is as damning as a death sentence.
When the second residents of the house reveal their past struggles with mental health, alcoholism, and adultery, their neighbors are sympathetic, but uneasy. “We were silent again,” Colquitt tells the reader. “This sort of shattering disclosure makes most of us unbearably uncomfortable. It is harder to live with than almost anything I know. Our set shrinks from it. In distance there is dignity.”
The problem for Colquitt and Walter is that there is no distance. The house is next door, and the evil inside is reaching out. The only options are to succumb or fight. But how do you fight an evil with no center in a house that isn’t yours?
Like her contemporaries, Shirley Jackson and Ken Greenhall, Anne Rivers Siddons is a master of the quiet, reserved horror beloved by so many. But Siddons isn’t just style. Her balance of character, description, supernatural, and every day is so natural it’s easy to eat up every scene. Of course, the big splashy horror set pieces are wonderful, but so are the small moments of humanity. While at their beach house, Colquitt tells us that she and Walter tried to have sex in a hammock and ended up a giggling mess on the floor. It’s a nice touch, and it gives the characters the humanity needed to care about their plight.
But while horror is a journey, it’s nothing without a good ending. The House Next Door doesn’t disappoint. Siddons keeps the final climatic revelation hidden without fully shrouding it from view. It’s always been right there for the reader to see; Siddons just keeps your focus elsewhere. It’s not until right before it happens that you suddenly put the mystery together, but it’s too late. There is no escaping the house next door.
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