Riley Sager takes Maggie to the Horror House
Haunted houses have always maintained a certain level of fascination with the general public, to the point where many old homes are only still standing for their value as tourist attractions. I think even those of us who don’t believe in ghosts or paranormal elements are still drawn to these houses, if only for the countless lost secrets from days past they still hold within.
Perhaps thankfully, most of us will never have the opportunity to live in a haunted house, but for Maggie Holt in Home Before Dark by Riley Sager, it’s a common fact of her life she has to deal with constantly.
Twenty-five years ago, Maggie and her parents, Ewan and Jess, moved into an old Victorian estate in the Vermont woods, Baneberry Hall, and fled in the midst of night only three weeks later. Her father, Ewan, eventually recounted the ordeals he went through during those three weeks in his non-fiction horror memoir, which eventually turned into a bestseller.
Today, Maggie remembers nothing of what she and her parents went through two decades and a half ago, happily earning her living as a restorer of old homes. When her father passes away and she inherits Baneberry Hall, she decides to renovate the place and put it up for sale; ghosts and hauntings are, after all, surely products of pure fantasy.
However, Maggie’s homecoming is a far cry from how she expected, with the locals bearing ill will toward her family for drawing their small town into infamy. What’s more, she finds Baneberry Hall to be filled with relics from different times, hinting at a very real darkness festering in the forgotten corners and behind the old walls of the estate.
The Skeptical Narrative of Home Before Dark
Whenever I begin reading a novel with supernatural or ghost-centred elements, I feel a sense of tension is always automatically lost when I know for a fact whether or not the supernatural is real. In other words, if I am informed the paranormal is part of the world I am exploring in a book, then I am no longer surprised or even affected by it for its normalcy.
What initially attracted me to this novel is how Sager played up the idea of not knowing whether the supernatural actually has a reasonable explanation or not, and I was quite glad to see he delivered on this initial promise throughout the rest of the story.
Naturally, I’m not going to come out here and spoil the whole thing for you, but I will say the author hit the perfect stride in keeping us skeptical of the supernatural elements. On one hand, they do have an otherworldly quality about them, but on the other, I couldn’t help but feel reasonable explanations were indeed possible for them.
This approach actually helped to create a tension I admit I haven’t felt in a while with ghost thrillers, and it carried on through from start to finish. As a matter of fact, thinking back on it now, the author is quite adept at creating an almost all-encompassing and everlasting type of suspense, on which has us constantly worried for the main character.
It was Lovecraft who once said “…the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”, and I was pleasantly surprised to see Sager stick to this adage, whether on purpose or accidentally. I am a firm believer few things, if any, can be more terrifying and thought-provoking than the unknown and the uncertain, the two things we deal with quite a lot here.
The Familiar Setup
Now, I think we can all agree the horror genre has quite a lot of well-trodden ground at this point, and it feels nigh-impossible to get through a whole novel without running into tropes, cliches or ideas we’ve encountered before. For this reason (and another which I’ll explain a bit later), I think Home Before Dark deserves to be cut some slack for the first third or so.
The way this story begins feels somewhat familiar, and I think this goes double for anyone who reads ghost thrillers on a consistent basis. The idea of family members returning to their old supposedly-haunted childhood homes isn’t new by any stretch of the imagination, and to be frank, I was a little worried the story would end up feeling too familiar in the end.
Thankfully, once the stage is set and the story starts to pick up, we are introduced to more and more twists which, apart from being genuinely good surprises, also make us question the validity of the cliches and tropes we’ve been seeing up until now.
In other words, Sager begins by placing us into a world which feels rather familiar and even predictable to a certain point, only to flip the script on its head down the line and thrust us deep into the realm of uncertainty. This is the second reason for which I feel the novel’s beginning deserves a bit of patience on the reader’s part.
As far as the ending goes, I think concluding a horror novel might be one of the hardest literary feats, simply because one must strike the perfect balance between revelations and still keeping certain elements unknown for the fear they can still generate. While this novel doesn’t have the best ending I’ve ever seen, it really does wrap the whole thing up nicely, and my only gripe is it reveals a tad too much.
The Final Verdict
Home Before Dark by Riley Sager is a top-notch psychological thriller with ghost elements which excels at keeping us guessing about whether the paranormal is real or not, while telling an excellently-written story with plenty of twists down the line after a relatively slow start.
If you too believe the fear of the unknown to be the most palatable kind and are looking for a quality thriller centred on a potentially-haunted house, then I believe you will thoroughly enjoy this book from start to finish.
Riley Sager is a writing pseudonym used by the former journalist, editor and graphic designer now turned author. His first novel, Final Girls, became an international bestseller and was translated into over twenty-five languages.
Two of his novels also made the New York Times bestsellers list: The Last time I Lied and Lock Every Door.