There is a house in Maine, you see. Called Spindrift House on the shore. It’s been the ruin of many an investigator. Oh my, here comes some more . . .
IN THE SHADOW OF SPINDRIFT HOUSE is the latest novella from Mira Grant, made available as a limited edition hardcover edition as well as an easily available eBook from Subterranean Press. Like her previous releases through that specialty house (see our reviews for FINAL GIRLS, ROLLING IN THE DEEP, and THE KINGDOM OF NEEDLE AND BONE) it is a standalone work exploring a horror staple. Like her longer novels (e.g., the NEWSFLESH series), these slender volumes tend to blend the horror genre with a worldview that is not afraid to be downright comic at times and macabrely humorous at others. However, when the need for bloodshed arises, the author is not afraid to take it to the max.
Her previous novella, THE KINGDOM OF NEEDLE AND BONE, ravaged the world with a disease apocalypse. The events in this current novel are much smaller scale. There’s a gang of sleuth kids, you see, who have discovered that what was fun and socially acceptable when they were young is not received in quite the same way now that they are entering adulthood. In the face of college and that dread adversary The Future, well, the merry band is about to scatter.
Ghosts? Sure. Robots and mummies and kids who thought it was funny to kill one of Kevin’s chickens, draw weird glyphs with its blood, and try their best to raise the dead? Absolutely? Growing up? Nah. Never going to happen, not to us. Adulthood was the final mystery, and as long as we never opened our doors and announced our intention to unravel it, it would wait its turn.
Life didn’t quite work out that way, of course. Life does what it wants, and damn the consequences. And here we all still were, stuck in a dead-end town whose only selling points were a remarkable tendency to attract the supernatural, the semi-supernatural, and the just plain weird. We were far enough outside Chicago to miss the exciting parts of life in the big city, and too close to it to be truly rural. Stuck in the middle, again and always. (28-29)
This is an unwelcome turn of events for orphaned Harlowe “Harley” Upton. The gang rescued her from a cycle of self-destruction and loneliness that kicked off with the mysterious death of her parents. Raised by her grandparents in a small Midwest town, she found purpose in solving mysteries. She has historically been the Velma to the group’s Shaggy, Fred, and Daphne: Kevin is a pothead and generally sweet dude who has a love for the chickens in his life (no, not THAT kind of love), Andy Tanaka is the quiet Japanese-American rock who can cook, and Addison Tanaka is Andy’s butt-kicking and charming-when-she-wants-to-be twin. Pursuing and solving these seemingly-supernatural mysteries allows Harley to find order her own life.
In the beginning, I was the mystery and the detective at the same time, and that’s the sort of thing that can give a precocious nine-year-old girl a headache that baffles doctors and makes teachers worry. No one thought I was faking: my distress at being unable to do ordinary things like “take math tests” and “read the encyclopedia” was too real, and okay, I was a nerd, which made my migraines even more believable—but no one really had the resources to deal with me, either. My teachers were preoccupied with trying to make sure my peers didn’t jab each other with thumbtacks or eat too much paste. My grandparents were still, after five years, trying to adjust to being parents again when they thought that part of their lives had mercifully finished. (30-31)
Here is where she reveals a bit of the details about her parents’ fate, murdered by people with knives who may have been aided and abetted by an unnatural fog. However, what is real and what is the mind’s attempt to cope with the impossible? As a third grader, Harley describes herself as obsessed with solving the deaths of her parents.
After her grandparent support system comes to an abrupt end, Harley’s connection to her mystery solving friends intensifies. Kevin’s family agrees to let her live out on their farm. So, when the years pass and the band is in danger of splitting up, Harley takes the news hard.
However, what better way to go out than with one final adventure? Enter Spindrift House, an historic house squatting on two thousand acres of Maine woodland. The place’s ownership is disputed by three families, and each of them is willing to pony up a reward for finding a deed hidden somewhere on the property. The house is also renowned for its hauntings, which have resulted in numerous deaths over the years.
Basically, the spine of the story is simple: The Scooby Gang heads to Shirley Jackson’s Hill House (or Richard Matheson’s HELL HOUSE, take your pick), agrees to be locked inside for a week, and some freaky-scary things happen to them. In fact, the house is tied to some primal forces, and the book moves from comic to chilling and on to downright cosmic in short order.
By now, most readers know that Mira Grant is not a real person, but Seanan McGuire is. McGuire is the brains behind both names, penning fantasy under her own byline and dark fantasy/horror under the Grant name. IN THE SHADOW OF SPINDRIFT HOUSE is a horror story through and through. Following a couple of moody chapters kicking it off that perform double duty establishing the haunted house as well as foreshadowing tragedy, the story gets its feet firmly in Situation-Normal territory, which is doomed to be All Fouled Up, of course.
They are jaded teens, though not quite in the same way poseur Goths are; these meddling kids are used to unmasking “horrors” to see the real human evils hiding beneath. Before their trip to Maine, Harley seems to be the only one of the group who has really been impacted by the ineffable. For all the lip service to supernatural forces in their small town, I don’t get the impression the others have seen Seriously Screwed Up Shit. Spindrift House will change all that.
The writing style is engaging. Moody. Filled with nautical images. The sea is ever present, here. Visible from the windows and the widow’s walk. However, even interpersonal relationships ebb and flow like the tides. The rush of sentences is not quite as breathless as are prone to be found in Mira Grant’s works. Instead, they compound on one another, building mood akin to the way Catherynne Valente builds her complex worlds. It might come as no surprise that this novella is dedicated to Valente, and I imagine Grant had a bit of fun paying homage to her style in the moodier sequences.
I joked in my review of THE KINGDOM OF NEEDLE AND BONE that you could play a potent drinking game of sorts, reading that book, about the word “children” or certain pet turns of phrase. There’s a bit of a drinking game aspect at work here, as well. “Mystery” is the word of the day with this particular work; however, it is not as intrusive in the specific sentences as “children” was before. Instead, the quality of mystery is infused into just about every aspect of this book. To take a look at a few: At a personal level, these four kids who have been working and living with each other for over a decade know one another, but how well? From a bigger level, there are logical events occurring in the house that need to be teased out (e.g., the widow’s walk is tied to plenty of tragedies and folklore, so it seems to play a role here; but what role is that?). There are also bigger mysteries than these, cosmic forces seemed to have been pulling Harley to this place (ala Hill House calling Eleanor in Shirley Jackson’s seminal work), but to what end?
The novella is also pleasantly LGBTQA+ friendly. Unlike Jackson’s novel, this angle is more openly stated. Harley is a lesbian and deeply in love with Addison Tanaka; alas, those emotions are unrequited. Part of Harley’s need to hold her group together is to keep the object of her affections close. This adds several emotional layers to the proceedings, including sweetness, heartbreak, and tension. When the gang gets themselves in dangerous waters, the stakes are higher than they might otherwise have been for four routine pals.
Told from a first person perspective, readers may have expectations about the conclusion of the novel. The narrator must make it out alive, right? Well, Grant has a few surprises along the way, and while aspects of the conclusion are just as tragic as we have been led to believe from the opening mood and foreshadowing, there is a surprisingly hopeful aspect as well. Cosmic horror typically does not get to have it both ways (it’s usually either DOOM! or doom averted!), and I for one am quite pleased with how the book grapples with its horrors and still manages to find some room for humor, darkness and a wee bit of hopefulness.
In general, the novel is a pleasant excursion into one of those remote haunted locales by one of today’s hip, cool folks. Thus IN THE SHADOW OF SPINDRIFT HOUSE falls in line with Richard and Billy Chizmar’s WIDOW’S POINT (which we reviewed recently). The two novellas would make a great “double bill” read. Of them, I have a bit of a preference for Grant’s work because it is told from a perspective I can empathize with a bit more easily.
Mira Grant has the ability to tap into my own loves from childhood and younger days. She seems to have an uncanny awareness of the nostalgia that I enjoy wallowing in. She brings a modern sensibility that I can appreciate. Scooby Doo? Hill House/Hell House? Lovecraftian horror? Personal apocalypses? MOBY DICK quotes as chapter titles? Complex teen relationships with characters who would be equally comfortable rubbing elbows with those from BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER or VERONICA MARS? Seemingly random mathematical philosophy that then becomes crucial to understanding the mystery? You got me, Mira. I’m on board.
Mira Grant scores a win with this book. It is as entertaining, chilling, and involving read as anyone could ask for. A perfect summertime scary story. Further, I would not say no to seeing some of the earlier cases these characters mentioned, either. The group could occupy a ton of slim YA-type novels (ala The Three Investigators, which is yet ANOTHER love from my younger days) . . .
If that does not materialize (and i expect it won’t; Seanan/Mira is already busy as hell), then at least we have this lovely example of hope, heartache and spiritual terror.
IN THE SHADOW OF SPINDRIFT HOUSE is available in eBook editions. Some copies of the limited hardcover release from Subterranean Press might be lurking in the wild. I thought it was sold out on publication, but it looks like that might not be the case after all.
Next up, we will return to our Considering Westlake reading series with his 1989 novel SACRED MONSTER. Subtitled “a comedy of madness” it tells a twisty tale with at least twenty flashback chapters. Another unique novel in a high mark career filled with unique novels (as well as a couple of beloved series). Alas, there are no eBook editions yet; likewise the book is out of print in paper copies. However, artifact editions can be found with a wee bit of digging (mine was sold by a library in Burlington, Mass.) for those willing to go the extra mile to round out their Westlake collecitons.
Grant, Mira. IN THE SHADOW OF SPINDRIFT HOUSE. Subterranean Press: 2019.
“Jinkies!: Mira Grant’s In the Shadow of Spindrift House” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Cover image by Julie Dillon and quotes taken from the Subterranean Press edition, copyright © 2019.