I’m currently sitting in a house built in the 1940’s where I refuse to go in the attic, the room under the stairs, and the small “spare” room in the basement that has the original door (tarnished doorknob, creaky hinges, hard-to-budge and all). Our house is pretty small, so this rules out a lot of space for me to go into for fear of my soul being sucked out. (Okay, more likely it’s just spiders and other creepy crawlies that I’m actually afraid of, but I’m not pissing off any evil energy simply because I want to look brave and believe that soul-sucking is out of the question for whatever lurks in the cobwebs and shadows. Nope.) All of that being said, I loves me a haunted house story, and am already bugging my husband about buying an older, creepier house if we ever have to move.
Queue Cherie Priest, Queen of Home Renovation Horror. I read her book The Family Plot awhile back and absolutely devoured it. The Family Plot follows a group of “pickers” tearing apart an old house looking for some great antique items to save their failing family business. The Agony House is a perfect pairing for Family Plot loving adults who want to share their love of the haunted house sub-genre with their kids, students, (in my case) easily-spooked nieces and nephews, or just spooky-loving readers looking for something that leans a little more into fun than fear.
But, don’t let that small change in tone-percentages turn you away from The Agony House—this is no Scooby Doo meets a wrecking crew. It’s a great, still genuinely creepy story that incorporates mystery and both current issues and history to create a story that would satisfy both the Ghost Adventures and Fixer Upper crowds. (Wait, why isn’t there a reality show about home renovators that explore haunted houses? That HAS to already be a thing. Put spirits to rest AND get a new deck. Somebody get on this and then pay me for it, stat.)
Denise and her family have come back to New Orleans to turn an old eye-sore into a bed and breakfast. All home renovations have their issues, but Denise’s family never expected strange voices, mysterious sounds, and multiple dangerous accidents. After discovering an old comic book tucked away in the attic, Denise starts to unravel what might be causing all the chaos. She and her friends decide to dig up more than just old drywall in their quest to figure out what happened to the comic’s missing author and how it all relates to the odd happenings in house. Along the way, Priest shows how the past can affect the present in more ways than one as seemingly-old themes of race and feminism haunt the present and still demand fixing as well.
Much in the same way that The Agony House perfectly weaves together past and present issues to show readers that not much has changed, it also combines the old-fashioned book reading experience with the slightly younger graphic novel. I’m going to be honest and say that this is the one detail that put me off reading the book for so long. I love graphic novels, but any time I’ve encountered them being blended into a regular book before it has always come off clunky or out of place. But, I think Priest (and illustrator Tara O’Connor) manage to pull it off beautifully. Instead of trying to make the pictures carry on the main story line, they tell the story of the old comic book found in the house. The only thing I didn’t like about the comic-book element was that I couldn’t believe Denise didn’t tear through the comic book to find out what happened and how it all might be related to the bumps in the night, and instead was perfectly fine waiting until her friends were around to read more. I get why it was this way—Priest needed to draw it out to be the story moving along--but it just didn’t come off as very believable.
This was a great book that combined fairly realistic young characters (hello to not-quite-crush curiosity, sass, and memorable side characters, and goodbye unbearable YA-tropes) with a sense of dread and mystery without being fluffy or too-cute. The horrors and problems that Denise, her friends, and her family face work so well since they are so layered. Fix a house, sure, but how do you fix the gentrification that can happen when a white family renovates a home in a black neighborhood? Try to fight an evil ghost, but how do you fight the patriarchy? Priest trusts her readers (young and old) with a horror story that can handle both the real and unreal terrors, the fun and the fear, and delivers a satisfyingly even-handed spooky story.