Review: Riley Sager chills with haunted-house thriller 'Home Before Dark'
What if a few weeks from a summer during your childhood had overshadowed your entire life? And what if any details you've been given about it might all be lies?
"Home Before Dark" (Dutton, 384 pp., ★★★★ out of four), the latest thriller from bestselling author Riley Sager (out Tuesday), starts off by telling us that "every house has a story to tell and a secret to share." Could revisiting an old house reveal the truth?
We meet Maggie Holt, one of two protagonists, soon after her dad, Ewan, dies. Maggie restores old homes, and she just found out she has inherited from her father the one house she'd like to forget forever: Baneberry Hall.
When she was a child, her family lived in the house for just 20 days before seemingly being chased away by malevolent spirits in the middle of the night. Ewan wrote a memoir recounting their brief time in the home, "House of Horrors: A True Story" (a la "The Amityville Horror"), which would become a sensation, making Baneberry Hall and the Holt family reluctantly famous.
But what really happened all those years ago? Maggie thinks the story her family told is fake, and that her memories of that summer are slim at best, but neither her mother nor father would ever tell her what happened, nor renounce the contradictory content of the memoir. So, despite her misgivings, Maggie returns to Baneberry Hall to do some digging as she restores the old Vermont estate to sell it and be rid of it and its hold on her life.
"Home Before Dark" is no straightforward novel from the Stephen King-approved writer of "Final Girls," "The Last Time I Lied" and "Lock Every Door." Instead, it takes on the form of a book within a book. Each chapter with Maggie and the small-town characters she meets along the way is followed by a chapter from Ewan's first-person "House of Horrors" tome 25 years prior, effectively making him our second protagonist.
And as Maggie reconstructs both the house and the events of that summer, she must consider: Are the ghosts who might haunt us as dangerous as the secrets kept from us?
While Baneberry Hall is certainly central to "Home Before Dark," in that nearly locked-room-mystery form familiar to Sager's writing, this story isn't really a haunted house story, but a ghost story, a story of the legacy of a family's pain, of the wispy memories of abandoned things.
Sager's novel is packed with the expected horror-trope-tinged suspense, literary jump-scares and more than one twist, but its best moments are the quiet ones exploring the history of the house, comparing the truths Maggie learns with what her father wrote and coming to terms with what it all means anyway for Maggie and her family.
"Home Before Dark" starts more slowly than Sager's previous thrillers, but all the best ghost stories do.