At this point, you know when you’re being told a Sarah Gailey story. There will be familial relationships fractured along fault lines, often involving one member shut out of another’s world (Magic for Liars). A house often figures prominently, either a childhood home or one that never got the chance to house a family but has instead been filled with blood and trauma (“Haunted”). And even before the blood, there is the equally impactful trauma of adolescence shaped by an unyielding and unforgiving parent so determined to remake the child in their image that they don’t care if doing so breaks them (The Echo Wife).
Over the past several years, it’s been fascinating to watch Gailey refine the blueprint for a domestic thriller with a supernatural twist, culminating in their latest horror novel that gets beneath your skin before you even realize how deep it’s gone. Examining a serial killer’s legacy through his widowed wife, estranged daughter, and abandoned house, Just Like Home interrogates the bloodlust of the true crime genre alongside a good old-fashioned haunting.
Killings send Vera Crowder away from Crowder House when she’s barely out of adolescence—specifically, her father Francis Crowder’s salacious murders that took place beneath the floorboards where she and her suburban-with-a-sharp-edge mother Daphne slept. Death brings Vera back in adulthood, but it’s Daphne who is wasting away before her eyes; her final request is that Vera pack up the house and take care of things once she’s gone like a good daughter. Never mind that Vera has never considered herself a good daughter, nor a good person.
Crowder House is not the home that Vera left when she was a teenager: In the intervening twelve years, Daphne has cashed in on their unfortunate infamy by opening up the doors to all manner of strangers who feel entitled to witness Francis’ crimes, and to the writers and artists who would scavenge upon whatever creative morsels are left. Crowder House has become part museum and part artists’ residency, so trod upon and carved out as to be almost unrecognizable.
Almost. As Vera settles in for her grim duty as only daughter, she discovers that her childhood fears of something scraping and scratching beneath the bed are alive and well. And now that she knows how awful other people can be, she may be more open to investigating whether there is actually a monster in her room, or whether Vera is filled with the same greasy, choking darkness that’s in her bloodline…and if her superstitious habit of snapping four times won’t succeed in driving that darkness away.
Other writers would stay in their lane between true crime or haunted house story, but Gailey grabs both plots by the throat and binds them together in an unsettling, deliberately related tale. From the first, thorough tour through Crowder House, they establish the repetitive, almost sing-song language of the house that her father built, in all its literal and figurative applications; even though Francis exists only in Vera’s memories, he’s never not present.
Such a claustrophobic setting is extremely effective in making sure the reader never forgets who exactly orbits throughout Crowder House. There’s the awful mundanity of Daphne’s hospital bed taking up the dining room (a detail that will reveal its layered brilliance as the mystery unfolds), and a different sort of haunting in the form of James Duvall, the self-obsessed sculptor who has taken over Francis’ beloved shed as his artistic Airbnb, yet walks through Crowder House as if he owns it. The son of the true crime writer who immortalized a particular version of the Crowder family history, James has wormed his way into Daphne’s final weeks and seeks to do the same with Vera—a greasy parasite who feeds on the lurid facts of the lives lost in that basement.
Yet Gailey resists the temptation to give up too many juicy specifics about Francis’ killings—to the point that, were this a true crime podcast, you’d be leaving two-star reviews demanding more, more, more. But that’s the point: Even that knee-jerk reaction reveals how entitled we readers (and listeners) have become to the gory particulars of the worst day of someone else’s life. At our basest impulses, the way we consume this form of entertainment is not unlike James believing that he, a secondhand source at best, has more of a personal claim to, say, Vera’s father’s unearthed letters than she does.
(But that doesn’t mean that Gailey shies away on very purposely chosen visuals, either. Like the holes. Shudder.)
For what Gailey holds back in grisly murder details, they pull no punches in erecting the true crime framework around Francis’ legacy. Daphne’s decision to open up the house to fans is rendered in straightforward yet disturbing reminders like the layer of plexiglass laid over everything from the family photos on the refrigerator to the paths leading up- and downstairs, to his bedroom and to his basement. Granting outsiders the opportunity to literally walk in Francis’ footsteps both preserves and feeds upon his darkness.
Here’s what’s most incredible: the Francis of Vera’s flashbacks sounds like an absolute sweetheart. Not in the “but Ted Bundy seemed so charming” way, but like an attentive husband (even if he rarely got it right with his grim, tense wife) and a doting father. From what child Vera glimpses and overhears, Francis is more concerned with life than with death; all of his actions are for the sake of letting in light, not succumbing to darkness. This is the cleverest element of Just Like Home: It seems clear, beyond even Vera’s bias, that Francis was, at least where she was concerned, a good man.
But that doesn’t change what he did. And just because Daphne is nearing the end of her natural life doesn’t mean that she gets exonerated for how she condoned Francis and punished Vera. Gailey weighs these uncomfortable truths side by side, and the scales never quite balance as Vera catalogs what’s left of her childhood home and exhumes new mysteries: Is the house actually haunted, or is this Vera’s childhood imagination and traumas resurfacing in an old familiar space? Did Francis intentionally nudge her toward unearthing his work, or was he trying to keep an eye on the same tendencies he recognized in his daughter? How much did Daphne know, and what is she still keeping from Vera?
The repetitive language can at times feel as if it’s obscuring the actual plot revelations, with the effect of a seasoned reader of the subgenre able to guess at some conclusions before Vera reaches them. But that doesn’t mean there’s some neat explanation for everything going on within the walls of Crowder House—on the contrary, there are multiple overlapping issues that raise more questions than they answer by the time you close the book. Trained as we are to crave the clear narrative arc of a true crime tale (even an unsolved one), it’s a refreshingly messy resolution.
Just Like Home is available now Tor Books.
Natalie Zutter is a Brooklyn-based playwright and pop culture critic whose work has appeared on Tor.com, NPR Books, Den of Geek, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @nataliezutter.