This post is part of class requirements for a “Readings in the Genre” (RIG) course I’m taking toward my MFA from Seton Hill University. This RIG is subtitled “The Haunted,” taught by Scott A. Johnson, MFA.
I was excited to see a Douglas Clegg title included in our class reading. Years ago, I’d read Goat Dance, The Halloween Man, and Isis, a creepy novelette I especially love. When I saw that Isis was a prequel to the Harrow series, I was intrigued to dig into Nightmare House (1999, 2017), the first installment.
I admire Clegg as a gay writer (I considered him an early role model) and appreciate his accomplishments. He won the 1999 Bram Stoker Award and International Horror Guild Award for his collection The Nightmare Chronicles. More at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douglas_Clegg#Writing_career. Clegg is great at characterization, dialogue, and action. And in Nightmare House, his gothic/romantic voice fits the book. But for someone so skilled at developing and sustaining mood and atmosphere, Nightmare House proved to be a disappointment for me.
In the first scene of the prologue, Esteban (yet unnamed) shares in first person a memory of his loving grandfather, who built Harrow house. The remembrance is so warm, I was puzzled by the penultimate paragraph, which came out of the blue and fell flat:
Some believed that a great treasure was buried within its walls; that screams came from Harrow more than once; that a madman built it for his own tomb; that no one willingly remained overnight in the house; that a child could still be heard keening from within on damp October nights.(Clegg, 6–7)
Likewise for the second scene, about his naming. And the third, of his coming of age and being disowned. The paragraph at the bottom of page 9—“I felt I should be pursuing my dreams and ambitions. I went to live in New York, and my life as an adult began.”—provides no examples, like many other passages. If the opening pages should set the tone off the book, the prologue failed.
Chapter 1, section 1 failed to draw me in. Section 2 provided such a brief history of Ethan’s early life that I didn’t connect or care. In section 3, the writing is understandable enough but comes off as under-seasoned summary that barely scratches the surface of the statements it makes: “…my grandfather… collected ancient things and did not much of anything for the rest of his entire life” (15). This says so little to characterize the man.
In section 6, Clegg takes almost no opportunity to show or describe such a magnificent old house, for example: “…in the grand kitchen that seemed made to serve banquets” (21). That’s it. No more. The same for Wentworth: “Wentworth was a round woman whose eyes never seemed to close as she spoke of missing the old man and of the days when he was his usual self” (21).
Chapter 2, section 1: “I… am writing this as a warning to you…” (39). But I felt no sense of foreboding before or after this. Nothing had happened so far to instill a drop of dread. “And then, something happened, and the land where the house would be built acquired a sense of being unclean” (42). Something happened. Such vagueness neither inspires nor moves me. “Harrow… taught him much. Harrow changed him” (44). What? How? This is more bland, indefinite summary unsupported by examples.
In section 2 the POV changes to third, narrated by Ethan, with much filtering (felt, seemed, knew, imagined, heard) (45). But it never comes off as omniscient. It’s close, limited third with filtering.
Section 10 (62–64), Ethan encounters the apparition of a girl on the stairs and whiteness. While odd, it wasn’t frightening to me. In chapter 3, section 2, the strange phenomena continue, but Ethan has little emotional response except the urge to scream at the end. Maggie admits in section 7 that Harrow is haunted: “‘Everyone in the village knows it’” (74). Yet the statement tastes flat as week-old soda pop.
Chapter 4, section 2 – “Pocket Tells a Story Between Puffs of a Cigar.” Here, Clegg switches gears and has Officer Pocket tell a story in first person, revealing his philosophy and sagacity through comment. Pocket’s character (narrator) voice is individualized but becomes tedious despite the third-person/Ethan interludes in sections 3, 5, and 7. In chapter 7, Ethan reverts to first person “to tell you more about myself” (159). We’re back to third person in chapter 8. The change in POV lends variety, but I was never sure why Clegg was doing so.
Toward the end of chapter 8, random oddities happen in the house, but so what? Chapter 9, section 1, Pocket and Ethan shout at each other. This behavior is unmotivated and nonsensical. Maggie calls on the phone for help in section 3, where Ethan says, “The Devil is in this house.” Again, so what? Lake of detail, lack of example, lack of characterization make such statements ineffective. The characters have become puppets enacting a crude script.
By chapter 10, the book disintegrates into a quagmire of more nonsense—Isis Claviger and relics and a séance and Mathilde, who killed people. The brief investment in the story and characters I had gained by the middle I now lost altogether. Ethan says of the basement: “‘It’s a complete world beneath the house’” (198). But since so little of it is shown, it’s not believable or interesting. Pocket and Ethan find the symbol of the “Chymera Magick” (200), the mark of the spiritualists. I laughed. If you’re going to toss tropes in willy nilly, they should make some sense.
Ethan reverts to first-person narration in chapter 11, where he passes through an Egyptian pharaoh’s tomb. Then he forgets Maggie due to a drug mist in the air. Huh? Finally, Ethan encounters Mathilde, who is—gasp!—his mother (210). Mother possesses him, and he kills Pocket.
Epilogue: “…the house itself… has a will, endowed by the magic my grandfather practiced…” (234). Justin Gravesend wasn’t well-characterized as either a wicked or occult man. The mentioned visits from Crowley and Borden? (235) Unconvincing, which is one word that describes the whole book.
Although I’m disappointed in this one, Clegg has other terrific books. Bad Karma (originally published under the pen name Andrew Harper) is a favorite thriller I heartily recommend.
Clegg, Douglas. Nightmare House. Alkemara Press, 2017.
3 replies on “Nightmare House Falls Short”
“Toward the end of chapter 8, random oddities happen in the house, but so what?” I laughed out loud at your observation.
There was a lot of telling in this book that this house is scary and chock full of the devil, but not a lot of showing us the scares. Ominous warnings mostly about…nothing. It has a good spooky vibe but it doesn’t go anywhere…like sitting in the car for a haunted house ride and never getting to go inside, just hearing all the spooky sounds from a distance.
I completely agree with your analysis. I think the author missed the opportunity to “show” the reader how evil and scary the grandfather was. I slept like a baby after reading this book.
It was fascinating to read this analysis from someone with far more experience reading in this genre.
I felt as though I intuitively knew stuff was missing but I didn’t spend the time considering what it was because I was completely preoccupied by the old-timey conceits that the author used (I talk about them extensively in my blog post.)
Overall I enjoyed the book–though I agree with you that it could have had more impact.