I have always been sort of obsessed with the idea that a house can be a character. Judging from the number of people who watched The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix, I’m far from alone. I remember reading Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and becoming entranced with the idea of Manderley, the foggy moor, the gray sea beyond the estate’s gates. The idea that a house can embody the mood of a whole novel, how large it looms in the background, influenced much of my writing. In Shirley Jackson’s original version of The Haunting of Hill House, the house itself was both sentient and positively insane. Having spent the last decade living in a 200 year old home, this concept was—and is—terrifying.
My last two novels, Girls of Brackenhill (2020) and The Spires (2021) both take place in houses that have taken on a central role in the story. In Brackenhill, the castle is haunted by past inhabitants but more than that, it wreaks havoc with the minds of the current inhabitants. In The Spires, the house is more subtly destructive. A renovated church, it provides a home and a refuge to five lost wayward friends. The friendships turn toxic and the Church House ignites—both figuratively and literally.
Aside from the obvious classics, here are five modern novels with a house at their center—a looming character that cannot (and will not) be ignored.
Lock Every Door, Riley Sager
Admittedly, the Bartholomew, the apartment building central to Riley’s 2019 hit, is not a house per se. It’s a huge, wild, old apartment building with a decades old mystique (I could only think about the Dakota while reading this book!) and wallpaper that maybe moves? Throw in an old dumbwaiter, some rich and famous inhabitants, and a set of completely off the wall rules? You have the makings of a classic horror book.
Mexican Gothic, Silvia Moreno-Garcia
High Place sits next to a cemetery shrouded in fog and mystery. The Victorian mansion in the remote Mexican countryside is the gothic setting for this Doyle family drama. As our main character, Noemi, tries to determine whether her cousin Catalina is losing her mind or is indeed in grave danger from her husband Virgil, the house grows more and more suffocating. The reader is never without a growing sense of dread as our heroine seems to be coming under the same spell as the afflicted Catalina. Is it the house? Virgil? Or does something truly evil lurk between the crumbling walls of High Place?
The Invited, Jennifer McMahon
The house in McMahon’s latest novel is kind of ground-breaking because it isn’t a century old, decrepit money pit. It’s… brand new. And absolutely beautiful. Gleaming. Shining. However, it sits on a haunted lot and it’s new owner Helen, seems obsessed with filling it with old things that may or may not come with some ghostly baggage. Loved this twist on the “haunted old house” genre and there’s an utter heart stopper of a scene right smack in the middle. Read with the lights on!
The Family Upstairs, Lisa Jewell
When Libby Jones inherits a million dollar home on the bank of the Thames river in London, she knows her life is about to change. But why was she abandoned on the steps of the mansion 25 years earlier? And what happened to her family — both the three members found dead on the kitchen floor and the other children who escaped? Everything about the house at Cheyne Walk screams gothic mystery, but the true genius behind this book is the flashbacks, the buildup to the murders and the relatable and gradual devolution into madness.
Catherine House, Elisabeth Thomas
Catherine House is an unusual institute of higher learning—all the students are expected to forgo their previous lives including family, friends, even clothing—and in return, they will graduate from one of the most exclusive universities of the century and be listed among literary geniuses and Nobel Prize winners. It’s an alluring prospect for Innes, a lost soul without much of a home to give up. The prose is hypnotic, almost lyrical until the reader feels as though they, too, are under Catherine’s spell.
The Family Plot, Megan Collins
Collins writes a self-aware novel: the eccentric Lighthouse family that inhabits the old mansion on Blackburn Island is obsessed with true crime. Instead of math, science and reading, the children are homeschooled about serial killers and their victims, including the Mrs. Lighthouse’s parents, murdered years earlier. When the family is called back to the mansion because Mr. Lighthouse as passed away, they are shocked to find their missing brother Andy in their father’s plot, his head split with an ax. Is it the Blackburn killer? Or a real life murderer among them?
The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Stuart Turton
At Blackheath Manor, Evelyn Hardcastle has been murdered. Aiden Bishop wakes up every day in the body of a different suspect — over and over again he must attempt to solve Evelyn’s murder. Blackheath is in a state of disrepair during the late 1800s — the furniture is falling apart, the paintings seem alive, there are mysterious inhabitants like the footman and the plague doctor. Only Aiden can solve the mystery but until then, Blackheath holds him in it’s grip, doomed to repeat the days over and over.