Every residential area in the Philippines has its own “haunted house”: the focus of some morbid combination of scandal and crime (often murder), blended together by the local rumour mill into a story subsequently used to explain mysterious noises and strange sightings around and within the house. In many cases the house in question is a relatively modern structure: the genuinely old houses of Manila were levelled (along with a great deal of the rest of the city) by American bombs during World War II. But outside Manila, particularly in the outlying provinces, there are still a great many old houses standing, some dating back to the Spanish colonial period. These houses are considered the archetypal haunted house in the Philippines, and form the centrepiece for many a horror movie (most famously—or infamously—the Shake, Rattle, and Roll series).
However, for all that haunted house stories are prevalent, there aren’t very many “good” ones. I suppose this is because, after a while, every haunted house story starts to sound like the one before it: people die under horrific or tragic circumstances; their spirits are trapped in the house for any number of reasons (“unfinished business” is a favourite); and there they will remain for the rest of eternity, or at least until someone figures out a way to get them to move on.
When I decided to pick up Sarah Rayne’s Property of a Lady, the first in the Nell West/Michael Flint series, I had high hopes it would be a good haunted house story. I’d seen the buzz around the latest book in the series, Deadlight Hall, and when I found out it was part of a series, I decided that I might as well begin at the beginning.
Unfortunately, Property of a Lady is not exactly an auspicious beginning to a series. It starts out with Oxford professor Michael Flint receiving an email from his friend Jack, asking him for a favour: to look into an old house out in Shropshire, which Jack’s wife inherited when one of her relatives passed away. Jack also mentions that he’s been in contact with an antiques dealer in the nearby town, a woman named Nell West, and if Michael has the time he might want to check in with her as well.
In the meantime, darker things are happening: Nell’s daughter, Beth, is having nightmares, as is Jack’s daughter Ellie, who is also Michael’s goddaughter. Both girls talk about seeing a man with no eyes, while Ellie keeps mentioning the name “Elvira”, whom her parents think is an imaginary friend. But when Beth suddenly disappears, and when Ellie’s nightmares start getting very bad, Michael and Nell’s paths cross as they try to figure out just what, precisely, happened at the property Jack’s wife has inherited: a place ominously named Charect House.
The thing about horror is that my engagement with it is always about more than just the scare. I’m sure a lot of readers go into the genre solely for the purpose of being scared, and are content if the medium in question (whether it’s a book or a movie or a video game) manages to do so, but I think that horror can (and should) accomplish more than that. It should explore themes that other genres don’t delve into very often, explore ideas that would otherwise be considered too “disturbing” for anything else. After all, just because something is “dark” or “troubling”, doesn’t mean it no longer deserves to be explored for the purpose of gaining insight. If the exploration involves being scared out of one’s wits, then that’s a good thing too, since finding out what scares oneself can be a revealing process for the reader, viewer, or player.
In the case of the haunted house story, there are plenty of potential angles a writer could delve into: history, family, and the darker aspects of human psychology can come together in interesting ways in a haunted house story. This is in top of everything else a writer may draw from to create creepy scenes: common household objects, local folklore, and architecture are all potential resources.
In terms of creating creepiness using the latter, Rayne actually succeeds. Take, for example, the first description of Charect House:
Charect House was larger than he had expected. It was a red-brick, four-square building with the tall flat windows of the Regency and crumbling stone pillars on each side of the front door. The brick had long since mellowed into a dark, soft red, and some kind of creeper covered the lower portions. Even with the rain it was possible to see the dereliction. The upper windows had shutters, half falling away, and all the window frames looked rotten. The roofline dipped ominously.
I’ll admit there’s something about that sagging roof that sent a chill down my spine, and in broad daylight, at that. This description of Charect House is repeated (worded differently, but still more or less the same in the important details) at various crucial times throughout the novel, reinforcing the idea of the house itself being frozen in time. The idea of the house being trapped in time, like a fly in amber, is a nice touch; it gives the house the character of a revenant, instead of a graceful ruin.
Rayne also does well with turning ordinary objects into things to be feared. One of the most important items in the novel is a long-case clock, described thusly:
It was described as a moon-phase clock – the face of the moon was set in its own secondary arch-dial above the main, conventional one. … Nell supposed it was intended to look a little like illustrations in children’s books of the Man in the Moon smiling benignly down from the night sky, but seen from this angle it did not look at all benign. The face was half-visible, which presumably meant it was midway between moons when it stopped, and although it was probably a trick of the light or dust on the surface, it looked exactly like a full-faced man peering slyly over a wall. A Peeping Tom, thought Nell, studying it.
Like the description of the house, this description of the clock—in particular, of the moon’s face—is repeated at other points throughout the novel, giving it the same revenant feel as Charect House: except the clock does, in fact, come to life, as described in this eerie scene from the letters of Alice Wilson, a character who is important to the story but never appears outside of the documents she leaves behind:
The old clock’s ticking quietly away to itself in the corner, and I’m not sure that it’s quite as companionable as I thought. In fact, a couple of times I’ve felt like hurling something at its smug, swollen face to shut it up. But here’s a curious thing – twenty minutes ago I approached it with the intention of stuffing my scarf into the works to stop the mechanism, but when it came to it I couldn’t. I can’t explain it – but when I bent down and unlatched the door and saw the pendulum swinging to and fro, I was seized by such a violent aversion that I couldn’t even touch it.
Later on Alice adds the following commentary, which just cements the clock as the locus for something dreadful indeed:
What I will admit is that there can sometimes be a vague eeriness about the crossing of one day to the next, or one year to the next, as if something invisible’s being handed from one pair of hands to another. And I have to say that when the old clock in here chimed twelve a short time ago, it startled me considerably. (It’s somehow not a very nice chime either, although that’s probably due to rust in the mechanism.)
It was shortly after the chiming of the clock that something happened.
If one is not tempted to eliminate all ticking clocks from one’s household and switch to digital clocks after reading that, then one has a stronger stomach than I do.
There are other instances, of course, that chilled me even when I was sitting in a pool of strong summer sunshine: mysterious banging sounds from behind walls; eerie figures appearing in windows; strange singing heard at the oddest times. It’s clear that Rayne knows how to use plot and setting to create scenes that are bound to scare the living daylights out of the reader.
But does Rayne engage with the deeper ideas I mentioned previously? I don’t think so. Charect House has a lot of character to it, but it does not become a character in its own right. Instead, it functions as a shell for the events that happened within it—events that, while dark and rather terrifying, feel rather tawdry as explanations for the dark shadows that haunt the house and the people who’ve become involved in its history. This is nothing new about haunted house stories: the house might be the setting for some rather terrifying vents, but when it’s all said and done it’s just that: a setting, and nothing more than that.
It doesn’t help that the events that happen in Charect House aren’t all that interesting, either. Oh, to be sure, venomous hatred and murder are all an excellent base for something interesting, but Rayne does not use them to talk about deeper, darker things: not about class (which could have been done); nor about madness (which should have been done); nor about women (which really ought to have been done better). I also think that the clock wasn’t used to its fullest potential as a plot element, nor as a launching point for tackling darker ideas about the line between love and obsession. There was plenty of buildup around it in the first half of the novel, and for it to be shoved aside in the second half was rather disappointing.
And I think that’s what really disappoints me about this novel: the fact that it doesn’t do anything really new with the haunted house story. It’s just the same old pattern, repeated over again: dark and deadly things happen in the house; those events haunt the house just as surely as its ghosts do; and only by bringing the truth behind those events to light does the horror dissipate and, finally, come to an end. All is sunshine and roses afterwards—though not entirely, as this novel ends with a small indication that, maybe, not all the shadows have been chased out of Charect House after all. Still, that ending is the sort of flourish I would have appreciated more had the story actually been worthy of it.
Overall, Property of a Lady may appear to be a promising haunted house story, but it doesn’t quite live up to that promise. If one is only looking for scares, then I suppose it does an adequate job: Rayne is great at using plot and setting to create creepy scenes that are sure to chill the reader to the bone (and maybe have them look askance at certain items around the household). But for readers who are looking for a novel that does something different with the haunted house story, and for readers who are looking for horror that goes beyond the scares and the creepiness, then this novel is certainly not what they are looking for.