A great escape from small-town Nebraska. Admission to Bryn Mawr. And finally, by seeming luck, a summer job that will cover all the bills to make her first year of college a reality. Sounds like a modern fantasy life for Daffodil Franklin, but from the first pages readers are warned that it will turn out to be a nightmare.
This YA novel from Andrea Portes (whose work spans a panoply of genres and age categories) has strong horror DNA. Hints of Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson exist alongside American Horror Story and Ancient Aliens, contributing to the tense tale of Daffodil’s stay in an empty Pennsylvania mansion. What seems like a sinecure turns into a sanity- and survival-testing exercise in dodging both her own past and the house’s.
Portes’ style is clipped and contemporary, directly addressing the reader, using sentence fragments to convey urgency and jokes to demonstrate Daffodil’s attempt to maintain her emotional distance from the situation. When this works, it creates an effective portrait of a girl who was hanging on by her fingernails before she even got into this definitely-not-haunted-house mess, an insider’s look at the psychological moments when it seems like anxiety and depression might be slipping into something even more chaotic. When it doesn’t land, it can leave the pacing choppy and make Daffodil sound outright jaded.
There’s a similar tension in the plot. Daffodil tells us early and often that she’s using repression to deal with something horrifying back in Nebraska. The nature of this something, as much or more than the nature of the house, drives reader curiosity and the sense of looming dread that powers the novel. But the concealment and the decision to end on a big twist mean that there are some things the novel simply can’t fit within the scope of its pages, things like the true nature of Daffodil’s rose-tinted relationship with Zander and whether there will ever be a reckoning with what he did, or what might lie beneath her reaction to Mike. The twist itself will probably be most enjoyable to readers new to the genre – horror habitués might guess it, or at least consider the possibility, early on.
Where the book delivers most strongly is not in that ending, but in the emotion it doles out along the way. Not, as it says right on the cover, a ghost story, this is also not a gross-out story. There are scenes of violence, but they are more cinematic than visceral, and much of the fear is derived from implication. Some of the most effective moments seem less like a traditional haunting and more like the modern stories of ‘glitches in the Matrix’ that underpin Internet arguments about whether we live in a simulation or at the heart of some great alien conspiracy.
Readers will know within a few pages whether Daffodil Franklin’s voice suits them. If it does, this is a book worth checking out, especially for readers in the intended YA audience or those just getting their feet wet with horror.