It’s clear from the outset of “This House Is Haunted” that John Boyne understands the power of story. No postmodern irony or obfuscating layers of symbolism here. He understands the thing that keeps readers turning the pages is the story itself, well-drawn characters caught up in an ever-more-exciting sequence of events. And although that may sound simple, it’s far more difficult than it looks. This novel is clearly indebted to Charles Dickens and his peers, the writers of serial novels and ghost stories that appeared in London periodicals in the mid-19th century.
“This House Is Haunted” begins in murky 1867 London. The story is told by Eliza Caine, a young schoolteacher who has lived most of her short, sheltered life with her father, head of the entomology collection at the British Museum. Boyne shows his literary hand from the start, with Eliza blaming Charles Dickens for her father’s death — after father and daughter have unwisely ventured out on a dark and stormy night (what else?) to hear Dickens regale an audience with one of his ghost stories.
When her father succumbs to illness shortly thereafter, Eliza is bereft, and she decides to make a clean break and apply for a position as governess to a family in Norfolk, far from her London home. She arrives at Gaudlin Hall, a crumbling Gothic monstrosity, to find herself the only adult in charge, and the fate of her employer and her predecessors shrouded in mystery. A series of near-accidents escalates until Eliza begins to fear for her life, and she makes it her business to get to the bottom of the eerie proceedings. Along the way, she meets a troupe of Dickensian characters — a lawyer called Alfred Raisin, with a clerk named Cratchett, if you don’t mind — and eventually persuades her new acquaintances to reveal what they know.
Boyne creates in Eliza a striking character — plain of face, intelligent, curious and kind-hearted, much like a Dickens heroine. There is something of a modern sensibility in her as well, a curiosity about becoming the sort of woman who might break out of roles prescribed by gender — she rides a bicycle, imagines becoming a scientist and refuses to be dismissed as hysterical for describing her otherworldly experiences. In short, she is a young woman who grows in determination and confidence as the story progresses.
Like the writers of Victorian ghost tales to which he pays homage, Boyne is a master at creating an unsettling presence. “This House Is Haunted” gathers momentum right up to the stunning denouement, and ends with one word that serves as an icy finger down the spine.
Erin Hart’s fourth crime novel, “The Book of Killowen,” was published by Scribner in March. She lives in St. Paul.