By Lauren Oliver
Ghosts tend to be location specific. Haunted houses are possessed by the troubled spirits of those who came to unfortunate ends within their walls. In America it’s a tradition that runs from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables through Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, all the way up to the cable show American Horror Story.
Houses also express the personality of their owners, and haunted houses are no exception. Indeed, in many cases the identity of a ghost may be so closely bonded to their former home that after death the two become inextricable. They are codependents, experiencing mutual release only in the fall of the House of Usher, or whatever their address happens to be.
Lauren Oliver’s Rooms is a novel solidly within this tradition. The novel begins with the passing of Richard Walker, who has the good fortune not to die at home. This is fortunate because those who die at the Walker home, an old country house that is now getting to be a bit run down, have a thing for hanging around. Two deceased former residents – Alice and Sandra – are the main narrators.
Not having bodies of their own, Alice and Sandra take a great deal of interest in the bodies of others. When the rest of the Walker clan arrive to set Richard’s estate in order their physical frailties are dissected by the ethereal voyeurs: ex-wife Caroline has gotten fat, daughter Minna is a fragile, oversexed mental case, and teenage son Trenton is a limping, pimpled, masturbating wreck.
Then there is the house itself, which is another body. The front door is likened to a mouth, the basement to “stopped-up bowels,” the staircase to a spine, the furnace to a mechanical heart, the plumbing to a circulatory system, and the attic to a spleen: “Ignored, forgotten, useless.”
All of the Walkers, and the ghosts, have secrets. Naturally, the house does too. There are skeletons in several closets. But this isn’t really a mystery novel, or even much of a horror story. If there is anything scary going on it’s the train wreck of the Walker family as it descends into alcoholism, neurosis, and breakdown. The ghosts are mere observers, with only the slightest physical connection to the real world.
What the house needs is not a rite of exorcism so much as a therapist. The ghosts are metaphors for the various issues and baggage we’ve accumulated through our lives, baggage that has made our personal relationships diseased and dysfunctional. As Sandra puts it, “life’s the sum total of all our small mistakes, little tragedies, bad choices.” They pile up like snow on the roof until the weight is too much and things collapse.
But while Rooms may be psychologically realistic, it doesn’t have a contemporary feel. It’s telling that a children’s story written by Alice in the 1940s that is discovered in manuscript by the Walkers is judged by a Harvard professor to date from the mid-nineteenth century, and that Minna has to caution Trenton to not “be Victorian” on the occasion of the reading of their father’s will. There is a musty feel to such proceedings.
Like the Walker home itself, the family structure of the mid-twentieth century is, in the early twenty-first, a shambles. The message to just “let things go” doesn’t mean as much when serial monogamy has become a social norm. Even in Hawthorne’s day the family homestead of Seven Gables seemed an anachronism, something set apart from the nomadic spirit of the age. In our own day homes have become even more temporary, if not disposable. Ghosts will have to adapt. Whoever heard of a haunted condo?
But if Oliver’s novel is a throwback, it’s still an honest and effective one that makes interesting and imaginative use of its traditional genre elements. A pulpy page-turner that only comes undone a bit at the end, it makes the reader feel a touch of nostalgia for the anxious dreads of yesteryear.
Review first published in the Toronto Star March 5, 2015.