Virginia Hamilton died in 2002 from breast cancer, but her career was spent as renowned African American children’s books author. That right there should give you some hint as to what the House of Dies Drear will entail. How I actually came to reading this is unclear. After listening to a panel discussing black women authors, I searched for talented black women horror writers as Halloween is upon us. I came across Hamilton in one list, and I am not sure why she stood out. Perhaps it was the fact that her work has been classified as “Classic” (this was published in 1968). I read a few articles suggesting this was a horror book and thought it sounded interesting.
The story follows a young boy who moves into a house in Ohio that was once a part of the underground railroad. Strange things begin to happen as it seems the place is haunted. Goodreads marks this book as Mystery, but Rotten Tomatoes marks the film as horror. Whether this is horror exactly is unclear. Although, my first impressions (~40% through) are on the creepy side. Like the Haunting of Hill House, it is unclear whether the horrors we are observing are real or just the imaginations of our narrator. All that really matters here is that the boy believes it, and his horror is ours.
Knowing this is mystery makes me think there is more to it, but my first reactions are good. It is an interesting story that a non horror buff will likely enjoy (at least so far). If you are a parent looking to get your kid into horror, this might be a good place to start! That said, my unspoiled self expects it to turn into a more real story, like Nancy Drew or Scooby Doo. That isn’t what I enjoy most as a form of a horror, but so far the book works as an effective form of story telling that is captivating even to an adult.
I’m 90% through the novel, and this point forward I am going to talk candidly in a way that will indicate if this is a ghost story or not. I won’t be giving away hard details. That isn’t to say ghosts have to be real for something to be a horror story or that there even need be ghosts present. The Haunting of Hill House is the perfect example of horror even with the possibility of it being all mental. All in all, I am enjoying the book. It is fine to good. It is not great, but it isn’t bad either. I think the best thing it has going for it is its ability to tell a children’s story in a tone that doesn’t feel like the author is talking to children. That said, I am not sure if I love this book as a choice. It is interesting, and even mildly unnerving at first, but it lies within the realm of the natural. It works great as a lesson in skepticism as well as judging people at first glance. It also is an interesting glimpse at what it is like to be a black family in the late 1960s, even up north. Although, I don’t think the bad things that are happening are meant to be strictly related to race. That is a great lesson for kids to learn, but if you are an adult, I can’t help but feel there are better stories that can be both evocative and convey the same lesson.
In the end, the book was fine. I can’t help but feel this story would work better for children. That isn’t to say kids books can’t be enjoyable; I enjoyed A Wrinkle in Time. That was was even a book that was overtly child like. There was just something about this story that felt anti-climatic. If you want to read it for a young child, I think it has a nice touch of horror and mystery, but beyond that, I find it hard to recommend above others. I may return to this and check out the movie. Perhaps it will give me a different perspective. For now, it gets a rating 3.5/5 stars, rounding down.