“It is no wonder children tell ghost stories about this place. I may be living in one.”
Any good Gothic horror novel understands one thing clearly: its setting — whatever the secluded manse du jour may be — is as much a character in the story as any of its inhabitants.
It Will Just Be Us, the new novel from Jo Kaplan (the pseudonym for horror writer Joanna Parypinski), understands this. The book understands this truth to such a degree that it introduces the house first, before even its narrator: “In Wakefield Manor, a decaying ancestral mansion, brooding on the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia, there is a locked room.”
The scene is set, and from there, Kaplan gives a grand tour, imbuing every description with perverse life. The locked room is a “dormant womb.” The staircase is a “twisted spine” running through the center of the house. A wood-beamed room on another floor is “inhabited” by draped furniture.
All of this, before we meet Wakefield Manor’s current human residents. This Gothic, ghastly, ghoulish introduction to the story sets the tone for the rest of the novel, blurring the lines between what and who is alive and what and who is not.
Among the ranks of the definitely alive are sisters Sam and Liz, both of whom have returned to the isolated home of their childhood to live with their mother, due to various personal troubles. These are not happy homecomings; that would be hard to accomplish in Wakefield Manor, where ghostly visions of the house’s history play out in infinite loops. In one moment, Sam may observe a moment from her childhood; in another, she may watch the gruesome death of an ancestral relative. The house is time refracted, its own warped, immersive scrapbook.
So no, neither sister is thrilled to return. Sam is plagued by her own memories and the house’s ethereal reminder. Liz, meanwhile, is pregnant, having fallen out with her husband, Donovan, and she is focused on more earthly concerns than the house’s or her family’s eccentricities.
I have a soft spot for stories of sisters fighting back the darkness, standing against those who would harm them. And the Wakefield sisters read to me as if Sally and Gillian Owens in Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic swapped lives with Merricat and Constance Blackwood in We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
To that point, Shirley Jackson’s fingerprints are all over this modern haunted house. The claustrophobia, the sense of decay, the constant questions about the evidence of your own eyes — they’re all here. While a simple homage to Jackson-esque horror would have been creepily pleasurable, Kaplan brings something new to the mix: the heart-pounding intensity of a supernatural thriller.
There are terrors of this world and the next in Wakefield Manor. Elizabeth’s cruel erstwhile-husband, Donovan, provides the former, barreling into the final part of the novel with the hetero male self-assurance that he is destined to be an integral part of this story.
The house itself supplies the latter. Never once in the course of this novel will you become used to Wakefield Manor’s brand of haunting — the house’s brief loops of tragic memory played like ghostly pantomimes through each of its 27 rooms. These memories never grow less jarring, and there is one in particular — replayed in the same room where Liz goes into labor — that haunts me as a reader still.
But none of these occurrences are as chilling as the faceless boy. Sam first sees the faceless boy soon after Liz’s arrival. He is a new apparition, which is unusual in and of itself. But he doesn’t behave like the other ghosts either. He can see and touch and hurt. Sam becomes convinced he is the future vision of her unborn nephew. But how and why is he there? Can she change his path?
The answer, as it turns out, may hide in that “dormant womb” of a locked room, just one of Wakefield Manor’s secrets to discover. In this complex, intricately plotted, and stunningly suspenseful story, the most interesting character of them all is that house, perched on the edge of the swamp and playing back the fractal patterns of its own life.