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The House That Horror Built coverA staple of the Gothic is the horror of the domestic sphere and how women are confined within it. That certainly fits Harry Adams, the protagonist of Christina Henry’s The House that Horror Built: she is a woman who, through a domineering man’s sinister machinations, slowly becomes entrapped in a possibly haunted mansion. But, while the lead character of these stories is often the lady of the house, that’s not the case with Harry. She’s not Bluebeard’s wife, but Bluebeard’s cleaning lady.

Harry works as a cleaner for Javier Castillo, a famous, award-winning horror film director (his filmography is analogous to Guillermo del Toro’s in that he makes artful, fantastical horror films). Castillo was widely respected until a scandal involving his son made the news: a young woman was killed and Castillo’s teenage son Michael was the prime suspect. Shortly afterwards, Castillo’s wife, Lena, and Michael went missing. It’s presumed that Lena took her son on the run to avoid jail time, leaving Javier Castillo behind, alone.

As the novel begins, it has been five years since the woman’s murder and Lena and Michael’s disappearances. Since then, Castillo has moved from LA to Chicago, ostensibly to escape approaching wildfires but also to get away from the prying eyes of the press and the public. He might be living like a hermit, but he’s still living large: he bought a grand historic mansion so noteworthy it even has a name, Bright Horses. As far as Harry can tell, she is the only person who visits the mansion. A few times a week she comes to clean the house and, under Castillo’s supervision, clean the many movie props he has in his mansion.

Harry is actually a big horror movie buff and a fan of Castillo’s works (being the discreet soul that she is, she wisely decides not to mention this to Castillo at first). Horror films are what got her through an abusive childhood. Eventually she escaped and became a teenage runaway, later on becoming a single mother at a young age. Now her son, Gabe, is 14, and Harry is determined that he never has to live on the street like she did. But it’s tough paying the bills when you’re a single mother without even a high school diploma. Harry had been getting by as a waitress, but then the COVID hit and restaurants closed. At the point of time when the story is set, it’s still the early days of the pandemic and most restaurants have yet to re-open. Harry was lucky enough to score the gig cleaning house for Mr. Castillo, and she will do anything to hang onto it, even if that means ignoring the locked room on the top floor. And the thuds on the wall.

And the sound of someone inside saying “Help me.”  

Harry first heard the noise a few weeks after she started working at Bright Horses. She was cleaning the upstairs guest bedroom—even though Mr. Castillo never has any guests come to visit, he’s adamant that the sheets be changed every week and the room cleaned. She was undertaking this task when she heard a knock on the wall separating the guest room from the mysterious locked room next door. Even when the knock is replaced by an audible “Help me,” she barely considers that perhaps Castillo has a living, breathing person locked up in his house: she is adamant that the thumping on the wall must be water rushing through the pipes, or the house settling, or some other rational explanation. Only later on, as more strange events began to happen, Harry changes tack and starts believing that Bright Horses must be haunted.

It’s hard not to hold this tunnel vision against her. Henry does show why Harry would be so ready to stick her head in the sand: she needs the job to provide for Gabe, full stop. And to be fair, there’s something low-key chilling about a Bluebeard story in which his newest wife simply never opens the forbidden door, a tale of banal evil in which a usually good-hearted person merely does nothing. But by not acting on the thuds or pleas for help, Harry becomes not just borderline unlikeable to the reader but rather inactive as a main character. “The door was always locked,” we read, “and it wasn’t her job to be curious about it.” (p. 29)

Fortunately for the novel, outside events make it hard for Harry to stay inert: the owner of her apartment building is selling the property and has given its tenants two months to clear out. Mr. Castillo is quick to pick up on how stressed his cleaning lady is, and asks Harry and Gabe over for dinner. Much to Harry’s dismay, Javier and her son hit it off, with Gabe getting to meet one of his heroes and Javier seeing in Gabe the son he always wanted, a boy much more polite and well-mannered than wild child Michael. Harry grows more and more distressed as Javier manages to insinuate himself deeper and deeper into her life.

The psychological drama of The House the Horror Built is its shining feature. Often the tensest moments are not derived from any supernatural happenings but from the characters interacting over dinner. Javier is believable as a micro-managing megalomaniac but also as a kindly, lonely creative who just wishes to connect with other people. Harry likewise is fully fleshed out, with almost the opposite character to Javier: she is hard-working and will follow orders, but is closed off and fiercely private, protective not just of her well-being but her son’s. Gabe, meanwhile, is a kid who clearly loves his mom even when he is giving her a hard time. He rings true as a teen, though his main value in the story is his importance to Harry and Javier: the more Javier tries to take Gabe under his wing, the more Harry bristles at it. As much as Harry would love to put distance between her employer and her child, however, she can’t do so for the same reason she ignores the sounds upstairs: she needs the job.

At this point, a bit of repetitiveness creeps into the narrative: Harry will go to Bright Horses, something odd will happen, she’ll return to her home or her rooms and talk with Gabe (all the while reflecting in her POV that she will reiterate how she thinks the world of Gabe, will do anything for him). Harry soon has a second haunting beyond the mysterious sounds from the locked room to deal with, too: one of Castillo’s props has started moving on its own. The prop is question is a prosthetic monster costume used in Castillo’s film Messenger from Hell. But the introduction of the haunted film prop only really diffuses the novel’s focus. Noises from a locked room? Great hook. A haunted film prop? Not bad, but it distracts from the more serious mystery of the locked room and who or what is inside. While creepy, the prop rarely seems like a threat to Harry: she is generally able to tell it off with a stern word and then go about her day.

The inevitable tightening of the screw comes when Harry fails to find an affordable place where herself and Gabe might live. Castillo is only too willing to step in and offer a solution: as Harry knows, there’s plenty of space at Bright Horses. Why don’t she and Gabe just move in until she can find somewhere to live?

There’s an intrinsic question posed by haunted house stories: why don’t the main characters just leave? It’s such an obvious question that there’s even a recent anthology using that as a theme, aptly titled Why Didn’t You Just Leave (2024). It’s a credit to The House the Horror Built that there’s no real question about why Harry would willingly live in a haunted house: she’s vowed that her son will never be homeless, and a haunted house is still a house. If anything, the more pressing concern are not ghosts but the mansion’s living resident, Javier. With Harry and her son now living in Javier’s home, the battle for Gabe’s love, respect, and even his soul comes to a head.

It’s only near the end of the book that Harry finally approaches the locked room. By then I had a dozen theories about what/who might be in there, and I was actually taken by surprise by just what exactly Castillo had hidden in the room. Though I enjoyed the reveal, it felt, however, as if the novel had taken a long time to get there. The inciting incident is the knock on the wall, the whispered plea for help. Early on it’s clear that the explanation to whatever is going on at Bright Horses is behind that door, and few things we learn between then and the end feel like they add all that much to the eventual reveal.

As a ghost story, then, The House That Horror Built spins its wheels a bit. But as a psychological drama it’s really tense and well done. Sometimes servants get to be the lead in Gothic stories, such as the governess in The Turn of the Screw (1898), but more often they are bit players within a larger family drama. As hired help in a haunted house, Harry must assert herself again and again while at the same time walking a careful line, maintaining her independence even as others try to use their money and power to force her hand. Throughout this book you desperately want her to get away from Castillo and Bright Horses, while also understanding why she stays as long as she does.

Shannon Fay is a manga editor by day, fiction writer by night. Her debut novel, Innate Magic, was published in December 2021. Its sequel, External Forces, was published in 2022.
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