We’re deep in the throes of winter now with the mercury hugging the bottom of the temperature gauge and snow depth being measured in feet. Everyone I know is huddled up, snuggled down, wrapped in layers and beseeching God for a little Global Warming to thaw out the frozen ground. During these long, frozen nights a house almost becomes a living thing, cradling and caring for the creatures within. Our slippered feet scuffle across its floors and we sink into chairs by the fireside content, with our books and our layers, to let winter rage outdoors because it can’t touch us in here. Winter is the time to cherish your home.
So this may not be the best night to read The House Next Door, the second novel by Anne Rivers Siddons. It’s a great story, set in Atlanta in the 1970’s and it’s the kind of book that will keep you wound up in its pages, but imaginative people may want to leave this till summer. During these months we need to believe we are safe when we’re home and the house in these pages is wicked.
No one in the neighborhood wants to see the new house go up. This is a settled, nice block of people with comfortable lives and the new home threatens their pattern. The small forest between lots will be gone, the new neighbors may not fit in and the house design is modern, at odds with the brick and mortar homes that fill their tree-lined street. So the success of the finished house is astounding. With muted steel, wood and glass it harmonizes with the earth on its pie-wedge shaped lot and appears so organic one visitor whispers it looks like it grew there instead of being constructed. It’s a fantastic house to look at and it’s brand-spanking new. So why does it seem to be haunted?
In literature, most houses become haunts for a reason. Somebody died there, someone was tortured there, it was the site of a terrible conflict. All of those hauntings make sense. The House Next Door changes the formula a bit and suggests (like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House) that some houses are born bad. No rationale or reason but a cold determined intelligence in the walls that discovers what is dearest to every human and destroys what they care for in a way that will hurt them the most. At least that’s what Colquitt Kennedy thinks.
Colquitt is the narrator in The House Next Door and prime witness as the unwilling next-door neighbor. Colquitt knows she and her husband have been (until now) luckier than they deserve: they’ve fought no wars nor sacrificed for the good life they have and their prosperity comes from being in the right place at the right time. She and her husband, Walter, both work for what they have and they appreciate their life but she’s keenly aware that they haven’t really earned the good they’ve known. Part of The House Next Door is what happens when middle-class-to-affluent Americans come face-to-face with a crisis and how they earn the lives they’ve enjoyed.
Since the book is almost forty years old, the tale is a bit dated (some situations would not have developed if these characters had cell phones) but the central ideas transcend. In Danse Macabre (a fine critical book on the horror genre) Stephen King explains why the concept of haunted houses gets to us so. Home is the one place we can be vulnerable, where we can shed the protective persona we show to the outside world. When home isn’t safe or sane, then no place is safe anymore.
As for me, the book is a great read for a long winter’s night but I know when to put it down. Like Colquitt and her husband, I love my home and my life and if I pass a certain point in this story, I will have to finish the novel and then read something wholesome for a few hours before I can shut my eyes. So read the book with my blessing but do it in easy stages, or when you’re away from home. If you imagine houses have feelings, leave one for spring. You need to find comfort where you live when the world is cold.