The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons

  1. Toby Frost

    Toby Frost Well-Known Member

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    Some while ago I reviewed The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, as recommended by Stephen King in Danse Macabre, and pretty much slated it. Having read another of King’s favourite ghost stories, I can say that he’s chosen a really good one this time.

    The book in question is The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons, first published in the late 1970s. It’s an unusually modern ghost story, in that there’s almost nothing paranormal at all in it: no spectres, no ominous mansions, and only one incident that has to be supernatural rather than the product of a disturbed mind. But it’s still a ghost story, and a very unsettling one.

    Colquitt and Walter Kennedy are successful professionals in a suburb of very similar people. They’re vaguely progressive and liberal without really being left-wing: in Britain, they would read The Guardian; in modern America, perhaps The Huffington Post. A young architect designs a state-of-the-art home on land next to theirs, and then the trouble begins. Anyone who moves into the new house is systematically humiliated, driven mad or killed. And, slowly, the house begins to spread its influence.

    I have said that there are no traditional ghosts here, and there are no traditional ghost story deaths, either. Most of the horrors come from accidents or dreadful co-incidences, and although people do die (horribly), the ghastly events are often social in nature, revealing the hidden lusts and hatreds under the neighbourhood’s placid exterior. Everyone gets exactly what they didn't want. A bereaved mother starts seeing her dead son on the house’s television; a doting housewife throws a party for her neighbours, only for them to stumble on her husband and his best mate having gay sex on the pile of coats; a social climber is driven half-mad with disgust when a power cut showers him in – well, I don’t want to spoil the fun.

    And fun it is, in a terrible way. As I read The House Next Door, I felt both dread for the characters and a kind of sick glee at seeing what the house would do next, as if I was watching a sadist playing The Sims. In a way, this is a horror story for grown-ups, which plays on the fear of getting violent diarrhoea in public as much as being dismembered by some unstoppable loon in a hockey mask. That sounds like something from a Ben Stiller film, but be honest here – which is more likely to happen to you in your lifetime? Quite.

    Eventually, Colquitt and Walter realise that in order to fight the house, they will have to lose their friends and their status – and in doing so, lose almost everything they’ve worked to achieve. If they seemed vain and empty to begin with, by the end their struggle to protect other people from the house comes across as genuinely heroic.

    I often feel that ghost stories lose their punch when the reason for the haunting is revealed. Only re-bury the wronged servant’s bones, and she’ll disappear for ever, perhaps appearing to say thanks before she goes. Siddons avoids this very simply. The house is totally malignant, and, although theories are advanced, nobody ever quite gets to the root of the problem. This seems so much more chilling than having a problem to be solved to make everything better, or name-dropping the Necronomicon to explain it all.

    So I would strongly recommend this book. It ditches the gothic trappings of old ghost stories, the kitschy, Addams-Family stuff, and pushes the ghost story into the modern day whilst keeping the elements that genuinely do disturb. I’d like to say that The House Next Door shows that the ghost story is alive and kicking, but that doesn’t sound quite right. Dead, then, and cunning, and hungry.

    8/10
     
    Last edited: Feb 21, 2013
  2. Randy M.

    Randy M. Well-Known Member

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    Hi, Toby.

    Since you and I disagree greatly about The Haunting of Hill House (and, probably not surprisingly, Ghost Story), I thought I'd pass along this, part of a review of The House Next Door. I read the novel last year for pretty much the same reason you did, King's discussion of it in Danse Macabre and I think I felt much as you did, that it was a very modern, updated take on the haunted house story.


    The House Next Door
    is a novel in four parts as the house has four owners over the course of the story with Colquitt and Walter as witnesses of the gradual destruction of each.


    I believe I first heard of Siddons’ novel when reading Danse Macabre by Stephen King (1981) which, among other things, is a discussion of the history of horror in literature and film. In chapter nine King discusses ten novels representative of “the horror story as both literature and entertainment, a living part of twentieth-century literature …” and their impact on the genre. The House Next Door is one of the novels and he pairs it with Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

    Like many before and since, King praises Jackson’s novel. Concerning Siddons’ novel, he expresses reservations about Siddons’ characters, finding Colquitt vain and too class- and money-conscious for him to empathize with, which in the case of this novel he feels muddies character development. But he has some enthusiasm for Siddons’ handling of the historical context needed to make a haunted house work. In most haunted house novels the house is already present, it has a reputation the person entering either knows from the start or learns as the story continues. In The House Next Door the reader gets to see the haunted house built, to watch the events that lead to a reputation, to discover the beginnings of the nature and character of the haunted house. And, for me, that still makes for some powerful reading.

    As for King’s reservations on character development, I understand his view (based to some extent on discussion and correspondence with Siddons), but I think there’s an ambiguity in the ending that might undermine his argument: Whatever haunts the house next door preys on the weaknesses of its owners and those who spend time there, and by the end, I’m not sure the Kennedys are the same people they were at the beginning or even exactly who they think they are.


    King is critical of the novel, and his reaction to Colquitt and Walter is tepid at best, making his a reserved, even somewhat ambivalent recommendation. I agree with you that it's well worth reading, but I think King's tracking of the social conventions and norms underlying some of the story are pretty well founded, but like you I find Colquitt and Walter's final actions heroic though with one reservation:
    I think there's enough in the lead up to their actions to suspect that the house next door has extended its influence, found their weak spots and may be exploiting that weakness, risking sacrificing itself to destroy them.


    Randy M.
     
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  3. Phyrebrat

    Phyrebrat ba-Ba-ba-brat

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    Hmmm, Interesting take. I did not think of that. I enjoyed the novel, and in fact bought on recommendation from Toby a couple of years ago. I am fond of books set or written in this time period, and in fact I think most of my all time favourites were writting in the late 70s and 80s. There is something 'homely' (no pun intended) about them but I suspect that is more about my growing up in the 80s rather than anything about the styles/authors themselves.

    @Toby Frost where is your review of Hill House? I'd like to read it.

    pH
     
  4. Victoria Silverwolf

    Victoria Silverwolf Vegetarian Werewolf

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    I read this many years ago, when the author was not very well known. Now she's a famous author of mainstream novels that get made into movies. I think this is her only genre novel.
     
  5. Toby Frost

    Toby Frost Well-Known Member

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    Phyrebrat: my review of Hill House is here: The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson However, I would warn you that almost everyone disagrees with me. As with films, I think the late 70s was a bit of a golden era for this sort of novel.

    I agree with you, Randy M. I didn't dislike the Kennedys as much as King. Although I didn't especially warm to Colquitt, I felt that she was a perfectly good narrator to the story, and that was all that was needed until the later acts. In fact, making her a slightly smug, over-contented character at first makes her fall from grace all the more startling. Not only does she have to deal with the physical danger of the house, but she has the loss of face and position that comes with admitting that the house is haunted. If I was going to generalise hugely, I didn't like the refusal to engage with scaring the reader in Hill House, and I didn't like the way that Ghost Story turned into a sprawling adventure tale. For me, part of the appeal of The House Next Door is that it jettisons pretty much everything that is cliched or ironic and just goes for the throat. I'm very glad that people are reading this book, which I think deserves to be better known.
     
  6. Phyrebrat

    Phyrebrat ba-Ba-ba-brat

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    Actually I pretty much agree with everything you said, apart from when his wife shows up. I think you've hit the nail on the head with the dialogue and also the feeling of unease we get from being in Eleanor's mind. I'm not fond of Theodora at all and wonder if she was a material counterpoint to wrong foot Eleanor in the way the house did so spiritually.

    I enjoyed the book more as a curio than a ghost story. I'm not into gore btw - that's a turn-off and I don't want to be grossed out throughout a book. But when I think of HHH it brings to mind a tone more than a creeping narrative.

    pH
     
  7. Randy M.

    Randy M. Well-Known Member

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    All good points, and I think that does work.

    Well, if history is any indication, for an many writers what was considered their major work while they were alive fades away while their genre work gains popularity. And I think THND is still in print, or was just a short time ago; I recall seeing it in a bookstore.

    Victoria: I think it is her only genre work.

    Randy M.
     
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