The Spite House, by Johnny Compton

I’ve seen plenty of characters contemplate the price they’re willing to pay to achieve their ends, going all the way back to Odin plucking out his own eye for wisdom. Characters who pay these kinds of prices are heroes or legends; they do what we often can’t bring ourselves to do. Before I read Johnny Compton’s terrifying novel, The Spite House, I don’t think I’d ever seen a story that asked the corollary question: what price are we willing to make others pay so that we can have what we want? This book is full of selfish characters. Some are flat-out evil. Others (possibly even scarier ones) are convinced that their selfishness is justified by whatever “good” they want to achieve. Oh, and all of this takes place in a house so haunted that I couldn’t help but compare it to the one in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

We don’t know why Eric Ross and his two daughters have fled their previous lives in Maryland for an under-the-radar existence on the road. All we know is that the stakes are high enough that they have to keep their profiles so low that Eric has trouble making enough money to keep them fed and sheltered on their way back to his grandfather’s home in Odessa, Texas. That pressure leads Eric to answer an absolutely bonkers job offer, to stay in a potentially haunted house in Degener, Texas and report back any signs of the supernatural to its owner. The payout is big enough to tempt Eric to ignore the red flags and apply.

Meeting with Eunice Houghton, the owner of the Masson House and a good chunk of the town of Degener, reassures Eric and his oldest daughter, Des, enough that they agree to the job. We readers know, however, that Eunice isn’t being honest about the Masson House’s full history. She certainly doesn’t tell Eric what happened to the last two people who stayed in the house. Instead, she tells Eric a bit about how the strange spite house came to be built and a little about her family’s curse, which has roots back in the American Civil War. Unfortunately, the supernatural shenanigans start the very first night the Ross family stays in the spite house. The only character who isn’t frightened out of their wits for most of the book is Eric’s youngest daughter, Stacy—but then, she has a very good reason not to fear death.

At first, The Spite House keeps its cards close to its metaphorical chest. I actually thought it waited a little too long to start revealing what was really motivating Eric and Eunice. But once the secrets start to spill, the pace really picks up. And what secrets they are! I thought I had a good handle on what to expect but The Spite House defied every one of my expectations. Aside from my quibble about its initially slow pace, I was completely hooked by this novel. I blazed through the last third of the novel because I had to know who would survive the big climax and what price the characters would have to pay for their survival. Also, a big part of what kept me reading was a kind of horrified fascination with how far the characters would go to achieve their goals. Rational behavior goes straight out the window for most of the major characters, especially Eric, in part because everyone has justified their own actions so well that they never stop to really consider the harm they might be doing to the people caught in their wake. I just couldn’t look away from this big, haunted car wreck.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

1912 postcard featuring a spite house in Massachusetts (Image via Wikicommons)


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