Few things intrigue me more than an interesting-sounding supernatural horror story. For whatever reason, I’ve always been both fascinated and worried by the unknown, including ghosts and what happens after we die. This doesn’t mean that I’m someone who necessarily thinks ghosts are real; I’m just intrigued, and don’t really know what to think. They likely don’t, but stories about them — both ‘real’ and fictional — never fail to be of great interest.
This is one of the main reasons why I asked to review Beneath the Stairs by Jennifer Fawcett when I saw it appear on NetGalley. It had an interesting, attention grabbing, title, and its premise could be described the same way.
When I first started reading this debut novel from a fellow Canadian, I hoped for an incredible ghost story. After all, it had all of the trappings: a haunted house, troubled women who’d entered that house as teens, and something that keeps making at least some of them want to return. I really looked forward to reading it, but didn’t get around to doing that until the finished version became available at my local library, so that’s the version I read. Once it was available for pick-up, I made it a priority.
In the end, this story wasn’t everything I was hoping or expecting it to be, but I liked it nonetheless. Just not as much as I’d thought I would at the onset, or after devouring the first part very early one morning when I should’ve been sleeping.
Beneath the Stairs by Jennifer Fawcett is the story of Clare, who rushes home to the village of Sumner’s Mills in Upstate New York after receiving an unsettling email from a former family friend. The person who wrote and sent said message isn’t someone forgettable, either, as she happens to be the mother of Clare’s childhood best friend, Abby. The two were inseparable after Abby moved to the small village, after becoming quick friends when Abby joined the same class despite being a year younger. The thing is that Clare hasn’t seen Abby in twenty years, and hasn’t spoken to her either. Not since one troubling summer, when they both entered the ‘haunted’ Octagon House.
During the summer of 1998, which happened to fall between the end of their last year of middle school and the beginning of their first year in high school, Clare, Abby and two other friends made a poor decision. After hearing a tale about an abandoned home nestled deep in the woods, they decided to venture there and explore the place as many kids would. Unfortunately for them, a childhood curiosity and a hint of anger led to Abby’s life spiraling out of control, or so it seems. After going inside the strangely shaped house one time, Abby found herself drawn to it, and its dark and rotten basement in particular. Clare feels guilty about this, because she played a prank on her bestie and slammed the basement door on her in order to get a little revenge.
According to Abby, there was something or someone down there, and that’s why she was so intrigued. Clare thinks that she saw something too, but isn’t sure what.
You may have guessed already, but the reason for Abby’s mom’s email isn’t an invitation to a birthday party or wedding. It’s much, much worse. You see, Abby decided to go back to the Octagon House, and wasn’t seen or heard from for three days before being found in its basement. In that time, she’d swallowed a bunch of pills, and was then placed into an induced coma within the local hospital. The doctors and nurses aren’t sure if she’ll ever regain consciousness.
As far as hooks and interesting premises go, this is up there, right? It’s not just me?
Of course, this is yet another book that takes place in more than one time period. In fact, it actually covers more than two, although the majority of it is told from both the summer of 1998 and modern day. The other period(s) delve into the history of the Octagon House, including its construction, the man who built it and the mysterious happenings there. You see, the place hasn’t been lived in since the later 1960s, when a family who had just moved to Sumner’s Mills was found dead inside. Well, that’s not entirely true. The husband was charged with murder for killing his wife and two daughters, despite his claims of innocence.
If it sounds confusing, please know that’s just because of me. Truth be told, Beneath the Stairs is very easy to follow, even though it obviously has twists and turns. I had no problem following the story, and appreciated that only two time periods were predominantly used. Clare was also a good main character and (primary) narrator, with a nice amount of depth and a relatively interesting back story including a lost parent, wanting to belong and childhood ignorance.
The result is a solid horror novel that is part haunted house story and part coming of age tale, as a girl and her best friend enter one of the most chaotic times of their lives. It has themes of friendship, love, loss, puberty and the rest of teenage-hood. In all honesty, that’s one of the things I enjoyed most about it, because it wasn’t as scary, unique or dark as expected.
Don’t get me wrong — there were some scary scenes, and the opening truly hooked me. It’s just that the house was referenced more than it was used as a setting, and the big reveal (regarding its haunting and its pull on people) was somewhat underwhelming. More often than not, it was just referenced, and past experiences there were brought up. Despite this, it was still effectively creepy until its end.
As mentioned above, I waited until this book was published before reading it. I would never take points off for issues with an uncorrected Advanced Reader’s Copy or digital version, but I do sometimes worry that things will be changed before publication. As such, it was nice to read the edited, printed and published first edition, although I feel bad for having taken so long to complete this review.
There are usually spelling errors in first editions, despite editors’ best efforts. We’re all human and things somehow always slip by. I know that happens with me. However, Beneath the Stairs didn’t have much in the way of spelling or grammatical errors. It was well written and edited, and I have nothing to complain about there, which I’m happy about.
At the end of the day, Beneath the Stairs by Jennifer Fawcett is worth your time and energy, but isn’t the standout classic or absolute must read that I was hoping it’d be. Although its ending was somewhat predictable and slightly disappointing, I still enjoyed my time spent reading it, but must admit that its first half was my favourite of the two.
I look forward to reading more from this new voice in horror, as she’s a talented writer.
This review is based on a copy of the book that we were provided. Receiving it for free did not sway our opinion.
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