I have to admit that when I accept a request for a review, I usually find myself reading an excellent horror story – but rarely the kind that I would naturally gravitate to. This is not a big problem for me, because I think it stretches, adapts, and challenges my literary instincts, but sometimes I get to eat chocolate cake, and Matt Powers’ “Ghosts of Manor House” are my chocolate cake.
Intelligent, witty, unapologetically gothic, and delicious to read, his debut novel is a wonderful example of the haunted house trope – written with a modern audience in mind, but with the traditions of the past ever at hand. It follows the psychological trauma of Mary and Edmund – a married couple whose lives devolve into a sinkhole of grief when their son Tommy is accidentally drowned and their world seems topsy-turvy.
Tortured by the loss, she finds herself compelled to journey to Manor House – a bed and breakfast that she thinks might hold to key to reuniting her with her lost child. Edmund, who deals with his grief more stoically, agrees to the vacation, and they begin a journey into a Freudian maze of defense mechanism, guilt, rage, despair, and hope. Along with their surviving daughter, they embark for Manor House with decidedly different motives: Mary hopes to recover the past while Edmund hopes to charge into the future. Mary looks for reconciliation and recovery while Edmund seeks reconstruction and transformation.
Their journey into the unknown is a classic story of haunting, one founded in the classics but sharp enough to hold its own alongside contemporary supernatural fiction. Not unlike his protagonists, Powers seems to be equally attuned to the lessons of the past and the momentum of the future. It is a fascinating story of psychology and the supernatural, a gothic work written in the model of “The Turn of the Screw,” “Fall of the House of Usher,” and “House of the Seven Gables,” but with the forward-thinking ethos of films like “The Shining,” “The Others,” and “The Innocents.”
As I mentioned earlier, I had no trouble settling into “Ghosts of Manor House” – to me it was a fun and savory dessert, but I must be clear: it is also a powerful, troubling tale, and has a tremendously serious grasp of the mixed emotions of grief. In its opening pages, Powers quotes Dean Koontz: “Houses are not haunted. We are haunted, and regardless of the architecture with which we surround ourselves, our ghosts stay with us until we ourselves are ghosts.” I cannot possibly imagine a more perfect and fitting thesis statement for this haunted novel.