The haunted house is one of horror’s classic tropes; “Beneath the Stairs: A Novel” by Jennifer Fawcett reminds us why it endures. The novel follows a woman, Clare, who rushes back to her hometown after a miscarriage and a messy breakup to find her childhood best friend in a coma in the hospital. Her friend, Abby, had gone back to the Octagon House, a deteriorated specter over their childhood with a long history of terror and violence within its walls. Fawcett takes a risk by writing a haunted house tale — adding to a formidable canon of both classic novels like Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” and campy takes such as the movie “Monster House” — but she does it with style and ease.
Fawcett’s debut novel stays true to its horror roots, including other beloved tropes like a creepy doll, a dark basement, whispering voices and a healthy dose of people getting a “bad feeling” they can’t quite explain. But Fawcett uses these efficiently — not as crutches, but as a way to propel the story forward and invoke extra creepiness. After all, tropes are tropes for a reason, and horror tropes are no different.
Despite (or perhaps because of) these classic haunted-house horror nods, “Beneath the Stairs” remains exciting and engaging to the end. The perspective shifts from a third-person young Clare to present-day first-person Clare, as well as to several of the house’s past owners from the ʼ30s and ʼ60s. These rotating narrations add dimensions of understanding for the reader as the past comes alive, while still focusing on the main storyline as most of the narration is Clare in the present. The result is a mystery the reader gets to piece together themselves in a way that is satisfying and keeps the narrative moving forward.
Under most horror runs a current of sadness; this book is no different. Clare struggles with the death of her mother when she was a child, the near-death of Abby, the breakup with her boyfriend and a miscarriage, among other things. A lot of the characters are haunted, not always by the supernatural. The Octagon House serves as a focal point around which feelings of guilt, paranoia, trauma, hurt, confusion and despair are centered. It is the rotting, barely-beating heart at the center of the story, and like most haunted houses, it is a symbol as much as it is a building.
This is a book I would easily recommend, not because it is life-changing or particularly beautifully written, but simply because it is monstrously engaging. I would describe it as a “beach read” for fans of horror — good to pick up and set back down, draws you back and makes you care, but doesn’t linger in the way some really disturbing horror does. Perhaps a reason for that is its relatively sunny ending, something rare in its genre.
“Beneath the Stairs” is a dark and moody book, but it is punctuated by moments of levity; it doesn’t feel oppressively sad. Maybe this is why the ‘happy’ ending was more acceptable. Usually, cynicism dismisses happy endings as unrealistic — when everything is tied up in a neat little bow, it doesn’t feel right. That holds for this book too. It is suspicious that after all this pain, the characters get a neat little epilogue. But here’s the thing: Although a happy ending is, paradoxically, less satisfying in this case than a more destructive ending, maybe it’s what we need. After several hundred pages of guilt and sadness wrapped up in mystery, adventure and intrigue, a relatively happy ending is what the characters deserve.
My horror-brain craves a loose end, an undiscovered clue, a gut feeling of wrongness at the end. But part of the reason this book is so engaging is because its characters really do feel, so we feel for them — and so, we feel that they deserve a break by the end. Most characters, especially in horror, don’t get that; we keep them suspended in fear or sadness or longing even after we close the back cover. Ultimately, Fawcett creates a novel that encapsulates its horror perfectly between its pages, keeping it safe and contained. It doesn’t spill out into our lives or the lives of the characters. They move on, so we can too.
Not all horror does this, nor should it — even just in the realm of haunted house narratives, “The Haunting of Hill House” by author Shirley Jackson stays with me because its horror curls around you as you read and gets inside you, just a little. The “Hill House” ending doesn’t allow you to just walk away when you finish. But “Beneath the Stairs” is a different kind of horror novel — not one that is disturbing, but one that ends with catharsis and closure. It hurts you and scares you and holds you, but then lets you go. And sometimes, that is just the kind of novel you need.
Daily Senior Arts Editor Emilia Ferrante can be reached at email@example.com.