Something’s up at Catherine House. Everyone knows that, even if they don’t know exactly what is up. On paper, the house is an accredited college, but really it is a “tiny, pioneering, fanatically private place that by some miracle of chemistry [has] produced some of the world’s best minds: prizewinning authors, artists and inventors, diplomats, senators, Supreme Court justices, two presidents of the United States” (p. 8). But all these notable luminaries are very coy about their time at Catherine House. And don’t expect to hear anything from the school’s current students: while there, students must cut themselves off from the outside world. No phone calls, letters, visits, no jaunts off campus or trips home (also no cell phones or internet, but that’s more from the book being set in the mid-nineties than because of school rules). In return for free tuition and lodging, for three years the students must give themselves over to the house.
For Ines, this is a feature, not a bug. Unlike her classmates, who are attending Catherine House because it’s their lifelong dream, Ines applied on a whim after her favourite high school teacher told her she’d be a good fit. But between applying and getting in, Ines’s life went off the rails:
By the time all my materials were in, it was the winter of my senior year. I was spending very little time in school and hadn’t spoken to my mother in months. I’d swung loose from all that. I was staying out late, swallowing magic pills, and laughing so hard I threw up. I was following teachers down hallways and slipping notes into strangers’ pockets. I was still good sometimes. But mostly, I was bad. And it wasn’t long before neon highs lurched into gruesome black lows. (p. 27)
So now Ines is at Catherine House, not because of its prestige or mystique but because she’s adrift with nowhere else to go. Ines and the rest of the first-year students soon discover that getting into the school was the easy part. The workload is intense, rivalled only by how hard the students party (like everything else the students may need—clothes, toiletries—the school provides alcohol if you put in an order at tea time). Ines spends most of her first semester at this mysterious school drinking and crawling into bed with anyone who can help her forget the past for an hour or two.
Her roommate, the earnest and overworked Barbara/“Baby,” can’t understand why Ines is throwing away her time at Catherine House, but having Ines as a rather passive protagonist is key to the whole book. In the first act of the novel, it helps the reader identify with her—we don’t know much about Catherine House, and neither does Ines. Ines is able to provide us, at the very least, with some general knowledge. She remembers vaguely Newsweek and Time magazine articles about strange experiments, 60 Minutes segments with a now long-gone professor showing off his discoveries. She, like everyone else, knows that some kind of weird science had gone down, but it’s only once she’s at the school that she sees that it’s still going on (“I thought it was all a hoax. And Catherine was supposed to stop experimenting” [p. 25]).
It’s interesting that the book jacket summary for Catherine House shies away from this speculative element even though it is the lynchpin for the novel’s plot. Instead, the marketing puts an emphasis on the book’s literary suspense elements, calling it “gothic-infused,” which in itself is oddly genre-shy. This is a book set in a decaying, decadent old house, featuring a troubled but beautiful young woman who seemingly can’t escape even as others urge her to do so. Also, there are ghosts wandering the halls, even if they aren’t the typical bedsheets-and-chain types. This isn’t “gothic-infused,” it’s straight-up gothic.
For the first half of the book, it’s somewhat ambiguous as to whether there are in fact groundbreaking discoveries going on at the school, or if the strange things the students experience are psychological rather than supernatural. Catherine House’s big claim to fame (or infamy) is its plasm program. This program, “the study of new materials,” is truly the reason the school exists. Sure, there are other departments and fields like art history or botany, but the “new materials concentration” (as the plasm studies program is called) is the most elite and secretive department and seemingly the cash cow that allows the school to keep operating. By using “plasm pins” (little devices that look somewhat like thermometers) the new materials students claim they can mend matter, fixing physical items like a broken vase as well as helping people get over past trauma.
The look and usage of the plasm pin are extremely culty, bringing to mind Scientology’s E-meters and their intense exercises meant to create bonds between participants. But as Ines looks more deeply into the plasm program, she discovers that there might actually be some power to plasm after all.
A school with a dark secret is always enticing—Catherine House even has its own chamber of secrets in the form of the new materials lab. Catherine House reminded me a lot of one of my favourite books from when I was a teen, Down a Dark Hall by Lois Duncan, YA thriller writer and author of other classics like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Killing Mr. Griffin. Down a Dark Hall likewise featured an exclusive, remote school, staffed by people who may not have the students' best interests at heart. Catherine House also has echoes of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and other stories featuring a clique of university students studying a niche subject. Catherine House combines the suspect staff and cliquey school kids into one force. Not only does the school exist for the plasm studies program, but seemingly the rest of the student body does as well. In year two of her studies, Ines and the other students in her year undergo a ritual that causes them to lose hours of time. Afterwards, while everyone is blissfully eating a meal in the grand hall, Ines notices the new materials students on a dais, watching them. “They’re not just pinning tennis rackets, they’re pinning animals and people,” one of Ines’s classmates tells her. “They’re pinning us” (p. 165).
After that, Ines decides she wants to uncover exactly what is going on (“I didn’t understand. But I wanted to” (p. 221). Ines’s investigation into the new materials concentration is thrilling, and, even as it leads her into danger, it feels healing to see Ines actually have desires and a goal. But don’t go into the book expecting bombshell after bombshell: Ines’s investigation comes after a couple hundred pages of slow-burn tension. The book jacket summary compares Catherine House to Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which is an apt comparison, partly because of how both books dwell upon small, seemingly mundane details to show the character’s attachment to life. For Catherine House, the attachment is focused on a specific, exclusive period: the college years. While there is something spooky going on, there are also exams, parties, and special events where the school brings in cotton candy machines and a bouncy house. Ines and her friends bemoan the fact that they will graduate and grow old and boring. Wouldn’t it be great if they could just stay at Catherine House forever?
Anyone who picks up this book is going to assume that the faculty at Catherine House have sinister intentions. That’s a given. So, as the slow burn turns to a boil, it’s not a surprise when the house’s true nature is revealed, or when a character’s sudden but inevitable betrayal comes to pass. But it is gripping nonetheless, because while reading it I was never sure if Ines was going to make it out or if the house would win. The uncertainty lies in Ines’s character: can she do what’s needed to escape, or will she decide that she is already home?
Catherine House is a very deft modern sci-fi ghost story. It shows just enough to let the readers imagine the true horror in the foundations of the house. 2020 was a notable year for gothic fiction, thanks to the success of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic. If you are looking for another gripping, unsettling novel, leave your normal life behind for a weekend and take a trip to Catherine House.