Gabino Iglesias Reviews The Spite House by Johnny Compton

The Spite House, Johnny Compton (Nightfire 978-1-25084-141-4, $27.99, 272pp, hc) February 2023.

Johnny Compton’s The Spite House is a rare haunted house novel that manages to subvert some of the most common plots associated with this kind of story. It’s also a novel that stays close to horror and the elements of a haunted house narrative while also exploring history, racism, and what it means to protect your family at all cost.

Eric Ross is on the run with his two daughters, Stacy and Dess. They left home in a hurry after something happened that made them go on the lam. Their family, house, Eric’s wife and the girls’ mother, friends, school, job, and most of their pos­sessions were left behind in Maryland. Now, Eric and Dess are doing anything they can to come up with money while living out of suitcases and stay­ing in cheap motels in Texas. When Eric finds an ad for a gig at the Masson House in Degener, Texas, he thinks it might just give them the break, and the money, they so desperately need. But the job isn’t normal. The Masson property where Eric might be working needs someone who will take care of the place… and someone who will write down and talk about any paranormal events they witness. The Masson house, known as the spite house because of its history, is one of most haunted places in Texas, and its owner, an older rich tech tycoon, wants undeniable proof of what she already knows inhabits the place. Eric gets the job, but in order to get the money, he’ll have to survive what the house throws at him and protect his daughters, and the house has already claimed some victims. Desper­ate and trying to understand the secret that made them go on the run, Eric decides to stay despite the danger, but what the spite house has in store is more than he could have ever thought possible.

The Spite House has a relatively simple setup, but then it blooms into something much more complex and multilayered. As the narrative pro­gresses, Compton slowly reveals the history of the spite house and its current owner, the secret that made Eric hit the road with his daughters, and the way the house pretty much destroyed the couple who took the job before Eric. As things get more complicated, the narratives of all the char.acters, which we get from their own perspective in al­ternating chapters, become inextricably woven together and tied to the house in many ways. The result is a story in which tension seems to grow with every chapter, in which every new develop­ment seems to uncover just a bit more of each of the many secrets at the core of the story.

The Spite House is Compton’s debut, and if the novel’s complexity and depth are any indication, he’s an author to watch because he does a lot right. For starters, the familial drama is handled well, the historical bits are well researched and add a lot of context to the story, and racism is present in a way that makes us sit up an take notice. Also, Compton’s character development is solid. While there are several characters that play major roles here, and none of them get too much space (the novel is less than 300 pages, and there are at least seven characters you need to pay attention to), all of them have unique voices and, in the case of the older woman who owns the house, they are very nuanced and, in some cases, hard to like. Last, if the classic haunted house story begins with a happy white family moving into a place with a dark his­tory, this book shatters everything from the start by having a broken Black family move into a place out of necessity and hot on the heels of spending time in places that were hostile to people of color.

While there is a lot to enjoy in this novel, Comp­ton’s greatest achievement is the way he show readers the plethora of things that can haunt us. Sure, the spite house is haunted, complete with apparitions, nightmares, and cold spots, but the hauntings don’t stop there, and the characters are haunted by the past, their secrets, their desires, and every decision they’ve made. In that regard, The Spite House is one of the smartest, most mul­tifaceted haunted house stories in recent memory, and that makes Compton an exciting new voice in horror fiction

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, professor, and book reviewer living in Austin TX. He is the author of Zero Saints and Coyote Songs and the editor of Both Sides. His work has been nominated to the Bram Stoker and Locus Awards and won the Wonderland Book Award for Best Novel in 2019. His short stories have appeared in a plethora of anthologies and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and CrimeReads. His work has been published in five languages, optioned for film, and praised by authors as diverse as Roxane Gay, David Joy, Jerry Stahl, and Meg Gardiner. His reviews appear regularly in places like NPR, Publishers Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, Criminal Element, Mystery Tribune, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other print and online venues. He’s been a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards twice and has judged the PANK Big Book Contest, the Splatterpunk Awards, and the Newfound Prose Prize. He teaches creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University’s online MFA program. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

This review and more like it in the April 2023 issue of Locus.

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