The Widow's House by Carol Goodman is a chilling Gothic novel and a harrowing tale of psychological suspense set in New York’s Hudson Valley.
I have always enjoyed Carol Goodman’s elegant, literary Gothic tales of murder and madness, so keep that in mind when I say that her latest novel The Widow’s House is far and away the best thing she’s written to date. It’s the kind of book that’s so good it inspires you to want to write as well. It’s the kind of book that, at the risk of sounding not quite sane myself, you feel loves you. From its complex plot, sophisticated emotional and psychological examinations, and copious literary references, you can tell that it appreciates its readers, whom it assumes love books and writing and good storytelling as much as its unreliable narrator Clare Martin does.
And, oh, what a wonderful storyteller Clare is! As an unhappy teenager, she harbored dreams of becoming a famous novelist, and towards this end won a scholarship to the local college near her family’s apple farm in upstate New York. She worked her way into the prestigious writing seminar of the prickly, perceptive Professor Alden Montague, where she met fellow student and rising star Jess Martin, whom she married soon after. Jess published a critically acclaimed bestseller only a year after graduation, allowing them to live the literary life of their dreams in New York City.
Only Clare stopped writing. She had to look after Jess’s career as he struggled to write his second novel, so she took jobs copyediting instead. Her storytelling talents only emerge at dinner parties, where she tells tales from the past of her hometown, like this one of a young beauty queen whose life is derailed by pregnancy:
“She had the baby in the middle of an ice storm. The midwife wasn’t able to come because the roads were impassable. All through the night she could hear the apple branches breaking and falling on her roof. She thought the whole house would come crashing down around her. She thought she would break in two…”
I could almost feel the cold and the terror and the aloneness. I felt the ice under the girl’s bare feet as she walked through the storm-wrecked world to her lover’s house and laid the baby on his doorstep wrapped in a pale pink blanket, the same color as the apple blossoms she’d worn in her hair when he crowned her queen and carried her away. She’d embroidered the blanket with apple blossoms so he would remember. She wore a nightgown with the same pattern embroidered on the hem, which trailed over the ice as she walked out onto the frozen pond. When the ice cracked beneath her she thought it was her heart breaking.
When the money from Jess’s advance finally runs out, the Martins—now in their mid-thirties—are forced to move back upstate. To save on rent, they become caretakers to Professor Montague’s crumbling estate, known to the locals as The Widow’s House for the series of tragedies that have given it a reputation for being haunted.
Jess thinks that he’ll finally be able to complete his second novel here, and Clare hopes this means that their marriage—which has been strained by their poor finances—will strengthen alongside her own creative pursuits and rocky health. Though, none of that will happen if she insists on plunging out into the grounds in awful weather after fighting with Jess, leading to one of the novel’s first scenes of horror:
The ground gave way beneath my feet and I slid in mud so slick it felt like ice. When I put my hand down to brace myself I felt that it was ice. The rain had turned to sleet—a freak hail storm—and I had wandered off course into a bog.
I looked up and saw that I was standing at the edge of the pond. Tall reeds and cattails rimmed the dark rain-dimpled surface. Across the water stood a figure, watching me.
The ice on the ground seemed to have crept up my arm into my heart. I was sure I hadn’t seen anyone when I started across the field. Where had she come from?
Yet, even as Clare begins to see and hear the ghosts of The Widow’s House, even as she realizes that her life is in danger, it’s hard for us—the readers—to shake the thought that perhaps Clare isn’t quite as sane as she’d have us believe. She readily admits to editing her own life to make it palatable, of eliding and overlooking facts and emotions to us and to herself in order to be in possession of a life worth having—yet, who of us is entirely innocent of the same with our own lives? But as people begin to die at The Widow’s House, as Clare’s grip on reality begins to waver, we have to decide who and what to believe in up to the final, haunting passage.
Which isn’t to say that this is one of those annoying books that refuses to explain what happened. As with all good horror stories, The Widow’s House merges all-too-human impulses towards evil with supernatural tendencies to create an experience at once unsettling for being both fantastic and a little too close to home.
Carol Goodman has written what is perhaps the perfect modern novel of psychological horror, combining aspects of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and a host of other literary influences to create a masterwork that deserves its place among that pantheon of classics.
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
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