For those of us who live in areas that boast below freezing temperatures in the winter, January is not a very fun month. It actually hurt my skin when I went outside today. Earlier this month, I learned what a squall was. Look it up, it’s not very fun. I bring up my winter blues because one of the precious few cold-weather activities that helps to allay this doldrum season is the joy of reading a horror novel set during a particularly stormy autumn while concealed beneath a heavy blanket and drinking a hefty mug of hot chocolate. This was my experience reading Abbie Frost’s thrilling debut novel The Guest House.
Sounds of rumbling thunder, screaming wind, and crackling fires, as well as the threat of dense fog and rain pervade this novel’s pages. Reading it while hearing the wind outside of my own window (unfortunately, I didn’t get to hear any sounds of crackling fire besides the ones provided by The Guest House) made reading an exciting, multi-sensory experience. Abbie Frost does a particularly fantastic job creating the auditory aspects of her fictional world, not only through her various descriptions of the sounds outside the titular guest house, but also creaky floor-boards, scraping dinner plates, and most frightening of all, spectral sounds of crying children.
The Guest House joins multiple traditions within horror fiction, containing such familiar features as the haunted house and a mysterious serial killer. The novel follows Hannah, a woman in her mid-twenties who chooses to not give up her vacation, plans to stay in a spacious estate known as The Guest House in County Mayo, Ireland after her fiance, Ben, dies. Ben had just broken up with Hannah after he discovered that she had cheated on him before he fell off his bike and died. Because of the circumstances surrounding his death, many of Ben’s friends and family blame Hannah for his death, harassing her on Facebook, and ignoring her at the funeral. Hannah, too, feels a lot of guilt for what happened to Ben, and takes to heavy and constant drinking. Hannah’s mother insists that she go on the vacation which Hannah originally planned with Ben, and Hannah acquiesces, hoping the time away will help her to heal.
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Hannah arrives at the location after a flight and taxi ride, but quickly learns that the Guest House is situated in the middle of a large sloping field with only a muddy path as guidance. Cars can’t reach the front of the house, and so, Hannah must walk through the mud with her suitcase in tow to reach her isolated destination. Once at the house, she meets the six other guests: the handsome Mo and his father, ex-policeman Sandeep; Liam, a medical doctor, his wife Rosa, and their child, Chloe; and, finally, Lucy, a hip rock singer with cool hair about the same age as Hannah. Unfortunately for these vacationers, what was meant to be a cozy stay in a lofty historical estate quickly turns into a waking nightmare. The wifi is lost, the heater turns off, the gardener winds up dead, a ghostly child is heard crying in the middle of the night, and the guests are being killed one by one. Without any means of escaping the Guest House once a huge storm hits the area, Hannah and the remaining survivors must not only survive, but they must work together to uncover the clues that lead to the novel’s climactic finale.
With a story so focused on determining who – or what – is responsible for the mounting death-toll, it is extremely important that Frost created a diverse set of suspicious yet sympathetic characters. Each of the Guest House’s temporary denizens are somehow connected to the estate’s past, and seem likely to at least be involved in the killing. While reading through the novel, you’ll find yourself stepping into the role of detective, collecting clues as they appear, and analysing the characters’ behaviours. I continuously second-guessed my own deductions, first pinning the blame on one character, then the next, and at one point concluding that there must be some sort of supernatural explanation for the killings. Even though I was suspicious of everyone, I also felt for each of the characters, as they all reacted to the variously depressing and terrifying events placed before them in relatable ways. Rosa, despite the fact that she spends most of the novel openly despising Hannah, is rendered sympathetic through her knowledge of her husband Liam’s adultery.
Just as the most antagonistic character was written to evoke some sympathy, Hannah, who is The Guest House’s main character, isn’t safe from suspicion. I spent an unanticipated amount of time convinced that Hannah was the killer. I surprised myself coming to this conclusion, as the novel is told through the third person limited, thereby telling the story from Hannah’s perspective. Frost’s skill for creating mystery and believable characters is really apparent here. Although the reader’s sympathies lie with Hannah, both the reader (and Hannah herself) are made to not totally trust or believe in Hannah. Her claims of seeing a dark figure in her bathroom and hearing the cries of a young girl in the middle of the night are called into question because of the fact that, for the first few nights at the Guest House, Hannah was either drowning herself in her secret bottle of vodka or detoxing. Hannah wonders after one particularly horrifying night, “Could she have drunk the whole thing? If she couldn’t remember finishing a whole bloody bottle in one day and disposing of the evidence, there was something seriously wrong”.
Hannah is a mess of a human being – dealing with both grief and guilt, repressing a deeply traumatic memory, using alcohol as a crutch, and negatively comparing herself to Lucy, the only other woman near her age staying at The Guest House:
“Thought about everything Lucy had already accomplished, about what it must be like to stand on stage as a sea of people cheered your name. Then she pictured her own messy bedroom back in her mum’s house, her own messy life”.
Hannah describes Lucy as “gorgeous,” but mixes this with jealousy and disdain at the musician’s cool fashion and attitude as opposed to her own slovenly laziness. This – sometimes overwhelming – self-hatred from the main character is something I don’t often come across. While the pauses in action to focus on Hannah’s self-loathing occasionally made the narrative move a bit slow, I overall appreciated the fact that this novel centres on an imperfect – and, at times, downright annoying – heroine. It felt refreshing to immerse myself within a horror fiction that didn’t have the typical final girl at the helm. Rather than be pure, kind, loyal, brave, and resourceful, Hannah is messy, jealous, terrified, lonely, and lost. These characteristics all add up to a far more realistic character, as well as one that is often brutally relatable. While I cringed when she panics after locking herself in an empty room and calling out for help, I also felt that this would be exactly how I’d behave in the situation: noisy, anxious, and pretty clueless.
I was also surprised by The Guest House’s fairly sustained interest in the digital world. Hannah and the other guests discover the Guest House through a search on an app called “Cloud BNB,” clearly a play on Airbnb. The use of an app modelled on Airbnb in a horror novel serves to further the mystery of the house itself. None of the guests ever see Harry Laughton, the host, and instead only communicate with him via the app and email. As the guests start dying gruesome deaths, Harry’s anonymity becomes more disconcerting. Which reminds me, since this facelessness is not so different from the reality of booking on Airbnb, this book may be particularly terrifying if you’re using their services any time soon. Beyond this obvious use of the digital to create horror, Frost also infuses the narrative with key characters who are able to keep an eye on people from their past using social media, as well as create new identities for themselves. The reader is also witness to Hannah’s own digital torment from Facebook harassment, as well as from her own inability to step away from social media. Despite this focus on the digital, Frost also impressively found a way to concoct a haunted house / murder mystery plot with cell phones involved. The information provided online often proves false, plus the culprit behind all of the deaths within the Guest House wisely shut off the wifi before the terrors could even begin.
Finally, I enjoyed Frost’s clear awareness of the gothic tradition. The Guest House is full of classic gothic elements, from a spooky isolated house to doppelgangers. Frost’s novel also features a sub-plot concerning a confined woman, a character who frequently inhabits the pages of gothic literature. You might recognise her as Bertha Mason in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre or the anonymous narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Much like her literary ancestors, The Guest House’s confined woman is made to either appear or become insane as a result of her imprisonment by a patriarchal figure. This novel, however, makes an important change to the tradition and allows this character to eventually gain her own freedom.
Although The Guest House feels a little slow at times, it’s absolutely worth a read. Frost’s knowledge of and love for the genre is blindingly clear through her refreshing cast of characters, digital horror, and deployment of the gothic. Because of the murder mystery at its core, The Guest House also provides its readers with the delightful experience of playing detective.
The Guest House written by Abbie Frost is published by HarperCollins Publishers. Buy the book.