CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 37 . . . . May 25, 2018
Gothic Victorian supernatural thriller meets twenty-first century angst and realism in this stylish novel. In 1894, 17-year-old Mila has a feeling of doom when she meets her prospective stepfather. There is something sadistic about Andrew Deemus, but her mother is dead set on the match with the wealthy man. Mila, knowing she has to keep it together to protect her younger sister, Wynn, tries to make the best of moving from England to a small town in Ontario. In the present day, Curtis is also protecting a younger sibling from a menacing parent, in his case a father who has spiraled into mental illness. But without a mother, Curtis needs to make sure his dad is somewhat functional in order to keep the family from being broken up. And he's terrified that mental illness runs in the family, especially when he hears a whispering voice in an eerie copse of trees. But the voice is Mila, desperate for help after Deemus kills her mother and sister and plans to marry her. She is able to use a pair of mirrors as a conduit to Curtis while trying to understand the source of her stepfather's magic. Curtis turns sleuth and soon discovers that she was killed in a fire which razed the mansion of Gravehearst to the ground. He must uncover the secrets of his entire town in order to reverse Mila's fate.
House of Ash, like most paranormal books, films and television shows of the past two decades, is heavily indebted to Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer where the metaphors of teen issues become literalized in a magical universe, i.e. when a group of bullies literally becomes a pack of hyenas, a bad boyfriend is, in actual fact, a bloodsucking creature of the night or your high school is literally a portal to hell. In this scenario, the literary trope of the malevolent stepfather is literally an evil sorcerer who uses black magic and supernatural powers to make a teen girl's life a living hell. Deemus, the embodiment of predatory male sexuality, is able to execute the male fantasy of isolating a vulnerable girl from her friends and relatives, leaving her alone and vulnerable. The novel neatly ties issues like teen angst, being misunderstood by adults, the danger of sexual predators and the increasing responsibilities of adolescence to the supernatural world that it creates. These many connections provide plenty of opportunities for analysis and conversation.
Underneath this supernatural yarn are multiple threads relevant to teen identity. Throughout the book, we have to guess whether Curtis's father's madness is related to the magic of the Victorian ghost story, but this remains a question until the end. Teens often deal with parents who are ineffective or abusive, adults whom they desperately do not want to emulate. In Curtis' case, the stakes are epic in proportion as he must reject his family legacy in order to keep his very sanity. As the story progresses, Curtis's friends and family believe he is losing his mind, and he is not always sure that they are wrong. This feels like a very real reflection of the period in adolescence when it is very easy to be misunderstood, to be pressured to take on alternate personas and to second-guess yourself. Curtis has to find a way to save Mila without going crazy like his own father, literally carving a new path for himself in the world and a new family identity.
Another theme of the novel is the difficulty of maintaining multiple identities when dealing with family abuse, illness or trauma. The story also suggests the ways in which cycles of abuse or mental illness continue and the extraordinary lengths that are necessary to break them. The story is an excellent example of cooperation as each character is an essential part of the team working towards a positive outcome - the weak save the strong and vice versa, the boys save the girls and vice versa. Almost without exception, the adults in this novel are evil or insane. Obviously, this is great metaphor for adults who simply don't understand what teens are going through or are actively trying to crush their spirits. All of these points might be laboured in a realistic contemporary novel, but they are deployed very well through the lens of the supernatural.
House of Ash deals with the nature of power and power structures of society. It is a timely portrayal of a powerful man who has taken what he wanted without repercussions due to wealth and influence. The characters who do not believe in magic or curses maintain that men like Deemus are figures as old as time, powerful man taking what they want while society looks the other way out of fear, greed and apathy. Deemus is responsible for the disappearance of dozens of women, and his crimes have never been investigated. This echoes the fate of the many missing and murdered women and children in recent history of Canadian crime. In this case, the missing women have been absorbed into the house to feed it, but again, this is a literalized metaphor. Deemus is an evil magician who kills women by sucking their energy to feed his dark power, but he is only an exaggeration of widespread male privilege. Cook also addresses the politics and power dynamics of high school. In the few sections of the book which are set in school, Curtis is a sort of cool, moody outsider, so he observes the social structure from the outside. It is important to the overall universe of the novel that power is at play everywhere.
While House of Ash is mostly a story of mystery, magic and romance, it has its moments of humour. These are essential to keep the book from just becoming a melodrama, a soup of angsty teen issues. The saviour on this front is Curtis's best friend and sidekick, Avi, a mild-mannered nerd who is perhaps the best character in the book. He not only provides one-liners and cultural references, but he is central to achieving a happy ending. He is also there to reference some of the worlds which House of Ash is drawing upon in the genre of time travel, and his commentary on how the plot compares to The Terminator is very clever.
House of Ash suffers from some uneven pacing. The opening few chapters are a little flat and don't pull readers into the story quite as much as they might, even though they do establish high stakes. In other sections, Cook finds it necessary to exhaustively explain elements of intricate magic instead of concentrating on dialogue, building relationships and creating dramatic tension. The book picks up and becomes a lot of fun when Curtis and Avi are in mystery-solving mode and when Curtis is falling for Mila, a girl he only knows from a faded newspaper article. There is a tension between laboured plot and high drama with a dose of humour, and when over-reliance on plot is resisted, the story progresses in an entertaining fashion. Cook is an excellent prose stylist, always evocative and with a good ear for dialogue.
I applaud Cook for braving the genre novel, which seems under-represented in Canadian writing for teens. Cook is also clever to employ dual narrators so that she has a male and female hero, each trying to combat parental figures and look after younger siblings. They both have all the pressures of the world on their shoulders, and the added problem of black magic. Curtis and Mila are dealing with loss and abandonment in situations where they are forced to be the grown- ups, a very common theme in books for teens, both realistic and fantastic. This novel is very good at making those issues feel real.
House of Ash has a lot of gripping elements – a Victorian damsel in distress, an angry teen in need of redemption, a cursed mansion – that make for a compelling read.
Kris Rothstein is a children's book agent, editor and cultural critic in Vancouver, BC.
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