A House with Good Bones: A Sly, Wry Southern Gothic NightmareBooks Reviews T. Kingfisher
These days in the world of publishing, more is often more. Doorstopper-sized tomes are all the rage in virtually every genre, which is what makes the continued success of a writer like T. Kingfisher all the more impressive. Kingfisher, for those who don’t know, is the pen name of children’s author Ursula Vernon, the identity under which she regularly churns out delicate, heartrending fantasy stories and sharp-edged horror tales. Each of her books generally clocks in at under 300 pages, and each is a masterclass in deliberate, focused storytelling.
Her latest book, A House with Good Bones, sees Kingfisher return to the world of contemporary horror in a story about the complex bonds of family, the secrets we keep, and the occasionally literal monsters that lurk in our proverbial closets. The story follows Sam Montgomery, an archaeoentomologist—a person who studies insects and other arthropods from archeological sites—who goes home to her rural North Carolina small town to stay with her mother when a dig she’s scheduled to take part in is delayed. But although Sam’s excited to spend some time with her mom drinking box wine and watching cozy British mysteries, it seems apparent almost immediately that all is not well at the family home.
Her mother has lost weight. She’s nervous and skittish, constantly looking over her shoulder for something Sam can’t see. She jumps at the smallest sounds. And she censors her language, putting a rosy spin on the lean years of Sam’s childhood and pretending everything was idyllic. Oh, and there are no insects in the garden, and a black vulture has taken up residence on the family mailbox.
The house once belonged to Sam’s Gran Mae, a severe woman she primarily remembers as strange and cruel, whose decorative tastes tended to run to nondescript color palettes and Confederate portraiture. And despite having redecorated after she passed, Sam’s mother—who prefers warm accents, quirky knickknacks, and bright, colorful artwork—has returned it to its original state, complete with the aforementioned racist art. Sam’s more than a little taken aback, and determined to figure out what’s wrong with her mother—she’s a scientist at heart, after all, and that means every problem, no matter how strange, has both an explanation and a solution.
Or does it? As Sam herself starts experiencing increasingly strange events—-disturbing episodes of sleep paralysis, swarms of bugs that come up through the drainpipes, the quite almost menace of her grandmother’s prize rosebushes in the garden that sting with roses so sharp they might actually be weapons. And. Kingfisher’s skills as a writer shine brightest in this first half of the novel, which uses the bizarre and unsettling events Sam experiences to build an almost unbearable level of tension through creepy happenings that defy easy explanations. And as she keeps digging (both literally and figuratively, Sam may learn to her sorrow that some family secrets are definitely best left buried.
But it is ultimately because she is a scientist and researcher that Sam makes for such a compelling narrator. As someone who thrives in a…let’s just say strange field, she’s deeply weird, but her lengthy asides about bugs and other creepy crawlies really aren’t as offputting as you might expect. She’s used to solving problems, answering questions, and finding the right names and classifications for unknown creatures and phenomena. Therefore, it makes sense that her method of dealing with things she doesn’t understand is to attempt to scientifically explain them, rather than assume that stories of spirits or hauntings might have merit.
Her wry humor and offbeat attitude are charming, her quippy dialogue is fun to read, and she’s an easy character to root for, no matter how outlandish her circumstances (or family history) get. Plus, her barbed complaints about how generally impossible academia is as a field for anyone who wants to actually make a living are so true to life to anyone who has ever considered a career in any sort of research.
The more serious horror elements of A House with Good Bones kick in toward the final fifth of the novel, a dark tonal shift that can seem fairly jarring when contrasted with the rest of the book’s more lighthearted, humorous tone. It’s also pretty easy to spot the story’s main plot twist from fairly early on in the novel, which may leave readers feeling frustrated with Sam—who is after all a Ph.D.!—and her continued inability to put the most obvious pieces of her family history together. (That said, if I were suddenly concerned that my grandmother’s rosebushes were possibly eating people, I might attempt to avoid thinking about that too closely, as well.)
The final segment, in which the formerly domestic tale becomes something much more overtly supernatural is impressive both in its discomfort and its utter refusal to really explain how what you’re seeing unfold is possible. (Sam’s family history, which is fascinating is…well, a lot.) And although you may find that the ending of A House with Good Bones ties things up a little too neatly, Kingfisher’s startlingly well-written prose is always worth the price of admission, and the deft mix of whimsical elements alongside shocking violence and disturbing supernatural imagery helps this tale stand out from the pack.
A House with Good Bones is available now from Tor Nightfire.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB