|Hi ChrisDaltro-Chasing Moonbeams !
I am a member of the Paper Doll Gang (feel free to visit "Rockin' Reviewers - Award Page " for more information), undertaking their review course for newbies. One of our lessons is to review work by a ‘yellow case’ or higher, somewhat daunting for a newbie reviewer! I chose "The House on Black Brook Road" because horror/scary is not something I generally write, let alone read so I believe reviewing out of my comfort zone will help my skills. But I also hope that, in relation to the topics in the Horror/Scary newsletter you were mentioned in, my comments might help you garner some tricks to capture the interest of non-horror/scary readers like me.
Your opening sentence is a great hook. It’s a simple statement but it carries power; it is the event that creates your story and it’s all the more powerful because it’s first person. I expect to be really carried deep into Abigail's mind. The second hook is the house – for the character, obviously, and the reader. Love at first sight doesn’t have to be between two people! (I can relate, my house was the first I looked at too!) In fact the opening section reminded me of Susanna Kearsley’s Mariana; the lead character is hooked by a house as a young child and buys it as an adult. It is a ghost/spiritual story too, though a romance rather than horror.
So I prepared myself to be unnerved by the house or by something in it. The fact it was run-down, hadn’t been lived in for years and was a stunningly quick sale helped build the tension.
The Nuts and Bolts
The story starts in 1994 and appears to follow a time-frame of a couple of months, before it jumps well forward in time going by the line “I remember I had to scare my son and his family away from here but this was a very long time ago.” It made me a little bit confused. Are we dealing in years? In fact are we dealing in centuries? Is the story-teller now dead and a ghost too? The present tense “I still don’t understand…” at the start of the ending doesn’t make it clear. Even as a ghost Abigail could still be this way. I wanted a little more ‘closure’ on the ending.
You started with the great opening hook of time and place, I think ending with something of the same would have added a bit more clout. It is clear Abigail has suffered and still suffers but how long? Perhaps the opposite of giving a precise time-frame (for linear folk like me) you could have added into that final paragraph something about Abigail not knowing how long things had been going on for, how long she’d been hiding in her room. To my mind that would add a bit more scary into it.
I’ve already said I’m not so hot on horror/scary. I can do ghost but not really in the evil, psycho kind of way. I am the kind of person who has to watch/read this genre in the daylight and then easily scare myself at night. Being a house owner, the idea of a house being possessed is very unpleasant and uncomfortable. It’s just like Abigail says: it’s her house, how dare someone else try to claim it, how dare she feel unsafe in it. A house is your asset, your bolt-hole, your place of rest. So, I think you’ve got a great plot here and I like the fact that Abigail is all rose-tinted glasses about the house and even soldiers on when things start to be a little bit odd.
Conflict (aka Plot Fuel)
There were some places, though, where I didn’t feel as scared as I was perhaps supposed too. Doors opening on their own, footsteps and other odd sounds are classic scary stuff, almost a cliché, so they weren’t anything I didn’t expect. And when you had Abigail witness these things you described them in a fairly minimal manner, missing the opportunity to really freak me out (the active-imagination side of me is grateful).
The breathing and running in the walls was a different matter. Hearing creaking floorboards behind you would be nothing to hearing something scuttling about within the walls, perhaps following you as you moved through the house, shadows appearing occasionally. That really made me feel like I wanted to run a mile so I would like to have seen that come into play more – was it just a possum or rat, could it have been a bird stuck somehow, how could there be a shadow when there’s no light… Yes, I think you could have played this out more and heightened the tension. Is it the house or is there really someone else in the house?
I like the fact that Abigail kept her rose-tinted glasses on through various odd happenings, even after she’d encountered breathing and movement in the walls, cold air, and the presence of something evil. She is determined to win whatever battle is taking place. But other than this, and the fact she is clearly handy at renovation, I didn’t really get a sense of what type of person she is (besides impulsive in buying house at first sight). You mention she had a bad divorce; a little bit of background on that might have given more clues to what type of woman she is. By the end she sounds rather a bit like she’s stepped to the ‘crazy’ side (understandable) and it would have been nice to get a more in-depth look at that happening. Again, I think a little step-by-step would have heightened the scary feeling – especially if part of her knew something was giving way.
I thought it was interesting that I only got a 'visual' of the ghostly shadow right at the end, in two last paragraphs. It was a bit startling to read about the burning eyes and animal smile right at the end, as if I was only just being 'introduced' to the character. Giving away little hints throughout the story would have kept the reader engaged and would have increased the opportunity for creating shivers down their back. For example, when Abigail goes into the room on the third floor a hand touches her face but there is no description of the hand. Even if Abigail didn’t see it, surely she could tell if it was bony or clawed. Later Eve tells her about a stench; it could have been in this earlier instance too since a hand on a face would have been close to the nose – smell of death, smell of must. Aromas can be just as scary out of the blue as noises or shadows.
I'm not sure if you intended to have a motif here. I certainly don't start out with one in mind when I write. However, in reading the story again and my own comments above I'd say determination/courage might be such a motif. Abigail sticks to her guns, no matter what the ghost or the house throw at her. It shows strength of character. Her life might be going to hell in a hand-basket but she won't give in, will fight for what is hers even if the consequence is being reduced to acting much like the old woman.
I mentioned under Setting that the ending seemed to be positioned long after the previous events. I felt a bit disconnected by that; the previous paragraph was Abigail meeting the ghost face to face but nothing seemed to come of it and then suddenly we were at the end. How long is the time gap between both events? Abigail still has the strong sense of ‘my house’ but then you also say that she was never herself after the last meeting with the woman (presumably the paragraph before). She hides (I love that sentence) and the following final sentences made me wonder if 1 she is now a ghost and/or 2 she is totally crazy.
The final quarter of the ending, while you don't end with the 'precise timing' I mentioned above, is still strong. A challenge directly to the reader and I like that kind of writing; it draws the reader in and makes us part of the story. Not sure I liked imagining a bony finger beckoning me though!
The Technical Side
There were a couple of things that caused some pauses in my reading that I'd like to mention. They are just my opinion so feel free to ignore them.
In your first paragraph you give two distinct descriptions of the house, split by "You could tell that nobody had live there for many years." I think this sentence would have fitted better either at the beginning of the description or after it. In the middle as it is I feel it makes one or other of the descriptions a bit extraneous.
In the paragraph starting "The next day was Saturday." I was confused about the floors. You start by saying the rays lit the stairs that led to the first floor and then you went up them to the second floor. I presumed the floors were one and the same but it was a bit jarring. I had to read the paragraph twice to make sure I hadn't just skipped something. The same sort of disconnect happened a few paragraphs down. You ended one with "It was then that I knew that there was something wrong with my home." yet at the end of the following paragraph had Abigail saying "I still thought it was all part of my imagination running wild." This may just have been Abigail in denial but again it disrupted my flow and I had to go back and check what I'd previously read.
Finally, the paragraph with Eve was proof that Abigail wasn't just imagining things but because it wasn't written in the past perfect tense it turned the point of view to an omnipresent narrator, upsetting my flow. It is Eve telling Abigail what she'd witnessed but in using just the past tense it reads as if Abigail was both a fly on the wall to events and was in Eve's head to know what she was thinking and feeling. It's a pretty easy thing to mix up PoV, and sometimes hard to pick up!
As I mentioned at the beginning, your opening paragraph was a great hook, and I related quite closely with Abigail about being drawn to a house without much preamble. And the first night I spent alone in my house I had an odd experience too. As I lay in bed I heard a door unlatch and footsteps tapping down the hall. None of my doors were closed and I don't have wooden floors. I opened my eyes and saw a tall dark shape by the bed. I told it to go away, that I was alright and then slept like a log. I prefer to think it was my deceased grandmother just checking on me. That was six years ago now and I've never had it since but Abigail is definitely a character I can relate to and wanted to read about.
I am confused about the ending, the time-frame of it and just what sort of state Abigail is in. But that is also a good thing, since it makes me question why she is like this or that, makes me read over again to see if I can spot anything secreted in the story that will illuminate her situation. It also starts me imagining how I might handle such situations. It's a bit of an odd feeling, really; I'm not sure the story itself really scared me but you've given my imagination some good prompts so I can scare myself later on!
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to read and review your work! Please don't hesitate to contact me if you have any queries about anything I have written. I'd also love some feedback on the kinds of things Preferred Authors would like to see in reviews so I can tailor my review 'themes' appropriately.
Many kind wishes,