When Paige moves from LA to Idaho with her mom and little brother after her parents’ high-profile divorce, she expects to completely hate her new life, and the small town doesn’t disappoint. Worse yet, the drafty old mansion they’ve rented is infested with flies, spiders, and other pests Paige doesn’t want to think about.It’s been a ~roller coaster of expectations~ with this one, you guys. I saw this sitting on the shelf at work and was like, that cover, UNF. DO WANT. The premise seemed solid, no immediate red flags, and the Blair Witch-esque presentation with the whole M. Verano thing was charming. I was all set for this one to maybe potentially possibly actually be good, and then I saw the GoodReads rating. A hair over 3 stars is tellingly low for that site, and though my hopes were dashed, I decided to read it anyway, for the lulz if nothing else.
She chalks it up to her rural surroundings, but it’s harder to ignore the strange things happening around the house, from one can of ravioli becoming a dozen, to unreadable words appearing in the walls. Soon Paige’s little brother begins roaming the house at all hours of the night, and there’s something not right about the downstairs neighbor, who knows a lot more than he’s letting on.
Things only get creepier when she learns about the sinister cult that conducted experimental rituals in the house almost a hundred years earlier.
The more Paige investigates, and the deeper she digs, the clearer it all becomes: whatever is in the house, whatever is causing all the strange occurrences, has no intention of backing down without a fight.
Found in the aftermath, Diary of a Haunting collects the journal entries, letters, and photographs Paige left behind.
Then I started reading the book and it was actually?? not?? bad??? What?!? I spent like three hundred and some-odd pages being thoroughly baffled by the relatively terrible rating…
…and then I read the last ten pages.
That’s what everyone was so upset about.
Yeahhhhhhhh, they’re not wrong.
So I’m gonna get spoilery. Most of my issues are with the ending, and there’s no way to talk about that without completely ruining the ruinous “twist”. BUT we won’t get spoilery right off the bat, because there are things that I enjoyed, and we can talk about those first.
So the idea behind Diary of a Haunting is that it is an actual 100% legit diary…of a haunting. I mean, obviously, right, that’s the whole premise of the story, Cyna you dumbass, but no, when I say 100% legit I mean it’s presented as being 100% legit in the real-world, too, a’la The Blair Witch Project, the first Paranormal Activity, any given Slenderman series on YouTube, etc, etc. M. Verano is presented not as an author, but as an editor and participant in the events chronicled in the diary. He has an in-character forward and afterword, and even an adorable fictional bio on the back flap that implies there are more “diaries” on the way.
M. Verano is an associate professor of history and curator of the North Idaho historical text collection. His research interests include new religious movements, occult and magical societies, and supernatural folk histories of Eastern Europe and America. His scholarship has appeared in Archiv fur Altreligionsgeschichte, Transactions of the Continental Society for Hermetic Studies, and Memoirs of the Frances Yates Academy, and his most recent work is a monograph on Uqbarian catoptromancy. He is currently editing a series of first person narratives documenting parapsychological activity.He even has a tumblr.
It’s wonderful and I totally dug it. I’m a big fan of horror stories that present themselves as Things That Have Actually Happened, so the dedication to the presentation of Diary of a Haunting as such makes me smile.
The Haunting Stuff
The premise, on the other hand, is generic as fuck, so when I saw that the book had such a low rating, I kind of assumed it was because it was just…tropey? And boring. I expected the usual blood-on-the-walls Amityville shenanigans, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that Diary of a Haunting actually does a pretty good job of creating its own mythology. The symptoms of the haunting were totally atypical, and I liked that.
A bunch of weird things happen, so I won’t list all of them, but the primary “supernatural” manifestation was a sort of…displacement of time and matter? Things would disappear and then reappear later, in greater number. For example, the heroine’s mother accuses her of borrowing a sweater, which she denies, but when they look in the heroine’s closet, they find not just the missing sweater, but four or five identical copies.
This keeps happening off and on, and as the book progresses, the effect intensifies and manifests in different ways. The heroine’s blog posts – through which the story is told, and we’ll get to that – double-post days after their initial publishing date. Text messages double-send or show up on the wrong phone. The heroine’s brother writes a word-for-word copy of a letter he’d sent days before without thinking anything of it. Eventually the heroine receives an entire phone call hours after it was supposedly made, while the person calling her sits in the same room, totally phone-less.
It’s a neat “effect”. It’s unusual, often undeniably supernatural, not overtly threatening or sinister, but still weird and creepy, especially that last phone call. It’s the sort of thing you could see working well on film, and best of all, it’s totally unique. I’ve never seen anything quite like this in a horror book, and it gives the story so much potential, you know? Like maybe it’s not ghosts, maybe they’re not haunted, maybe they’re reliving things without knowing it, maybe it’s not even supernatural at all, maybe it’s some kind of futuristic sci-fi thing! So many possibilities, so many places the book could end up!
Plus, with things being undeniably supernatural, the characters don’t spend half the book in supernatural denial. The mother is pointedly a new-age-y mysticism-loving type herself, so though the more skeptically-minded heroine resists for a while, when the inexplicable shit starts happening, nobody ever denies that it’s ghosts. It actually becomes an uneasy sort of running joke, but because the majority of the haunting seems so benign, the mother, subscribing passionately to the whole live-and-let-live thing, doesn’t really worry about it.
It’s refreshing, basically. Ghost house stories can get so goddamn tropey, I appreciated and truly enjoyed most of what Diary of a Haunting did with its haunting.
This is where we start getting in to cons. So I get that the whole premise of the presentation that I liked so much kind of required that this be a told in journal form, but ughhhhh way to take the potential creep factor and chuck it out the window. I didn’t necessarily mind Paige’s voice or even Paige as a character, but with the story being recounted diary-style in said voice, the odds were completely stacked against it conjuring any sort of atmosphere at all, and it never quite overcame them. While I did find some of the ideas creepy (hello, hours-late phone call), the narration was just not up to the task…despite allowing itself to be distinctly more narrative-y than you’d expect from a teenage girl’s diary.
Sad to say the spookiest thing about the book is its cover.
But damn, that cover, right?
Here’s where we cross completely into spoiler territory. You’ve been warned!
The core explanation for the haunting isn’t terrible, but it is just about what you’d expect, and also kind of…dumb. Basically a hippy-dippy cult operated out of the house back in the ’50s, and while apparently their whole “ask-and-the-universe-shall-grant” schtick worked, it also came with a pretty hefty price – if I’m understanding any of this correctly, anyway. Thanks to equivalent exchange/the laws of metaphysics/whatever, for all the good karma the cultists asked for and were given, they racked up an equal amount of bad karma. People were getting sick and losing family members, and the cult leader, not wanting to deal with or publicize it, took all of the evidence of all of the bad shit that happened to his followers – angry letters, basically – and stuck them in a room. The same room that he also stuck his epileptic daughter in when her existence became bad for business.
Why he didn’t just destroy the letters is beyond me, but hey, who knows. Maybe the point is that they weren’t REAL letters, maybe they were just the metaphorical psychic manifestation of all of the bad shit the guy ignored and repressed.
Because that’s the key to the twist right there – repression. It comes up once or twice while the heroine’s in therapy, but just before we hit the reveal, M. Verano shows up to really hammer it home. REPRESSING THINGS IS BAD, YOU SHOULDN’T REPRESS BAD THINGS. FORESHADOWING, THIS IS HOW YOU DO IT, RIGHT?
Unrelated, but I’d also like to throw in that somehow there was an ENTIRE SECRET FLOOR to the house that none of the characters knew about or could find until the very end, despite there being literal windows on the outside that didn’t correspond to any of the rooms they knew of inside.
Anyway, shock of all shocks, turns out the heroine is ~cuh-ray-zee~! LOLOLOLOL TROLLED U!
You guys that is right up there with “they were dead all along” and “it was all in her head” for laziest fucking twist ever, right? UGH I HATE IT. It’s not like the unreliable narrator thing can never be done well, but you have to work REALLY hard to make it not seem like a total ass-pull twist for the sake of a twist, and Diary of a Haunting just didn’t pull that off.
I mean it’s not even as simple as “the protagonist was just ~crazy~”, because from what I understand, all of the ghostly stuff still happened. Unless I didn’t put it together correctly, there was still a haunting, the heroine’s brother, who appeared all along to be the one most affected by the restless spirits in the house, still had his weird experiences, still got psychically-transmitted epilepsy (I think???), still spent the book zonked out saying and doing creepy things to his mother and sister. The only difference is that Paige was the one who activated the house, and who was actually the most influenced by it. The climax has her attacking her mother’s new boyfriend, and murdering her brother and the downstairs neighbor, in a ghost-y blackout rage.
In a lot of ways, the twist doesn’t really feel significant. It doesn’t change the nature of the haunting, it doesn’t undo the weird things that happened, or make them Paige’s delusions, or make her actively responsible for them (I don’t think???). It just pops in to say “Hey, here’s a few circumstances you didn’t know about and OH BY THE WAY THE HEROINE IS A MURDERER NOW K BAI.”
Worse, it makes the book even dumber and more incredulous in retrospect. Here:
“It’s not Raph,” she said slowly. “It’s you. It’s been you all along. You’re the one who disturbed the spirits… They had always been here, resting fitfully, waiting for someone to come along and awaken them. Someone whose cryptic power had been concentrated through many generations. Someone with a force that resonated with theirs. A conductor of dark energy.” […]And I’m just sitting there like
“You never guessed? I knew… almost since I met you. I couldn’t believe that you didn’t know yourself. And your mom…” Chloe turned toward her. “You must have seen the signs. But then, a mother’s love. You wouldn’t let yourself acknowledge it.”
IF EVERYONE KNEW THAT ALL OF THIS SHIT WAS HAPPENING BECAUSE OF THE HEROINE, WHY DID NOBODY TELL HER? If they knew that she was possessed or a mystical lightning rod or whatever the fuck, if they thought, as the book asserts, that she was a danger to herself and potentially others, WHY DID NOBODY DO ANYTHING TO HELP OR STOP HER? Why did they not remove her from the premises, or have her exorcised, or at least try to give her some kind of active knowledge to prepare herself with? The mother sends her to therapy about halfway through the book, but the therapist does nothing except tell her to stay away from the downstairs neighbor, which Paige assumes is because HE is a threat to HER.
A+ job, you guys. The characters instantly turn on Paige after she becomes a threat to them, but I don’t know how they can possibly justify that when not only did they know that she was capable of this, but they also know that it’s not her fault. We’re meant to believe that they believe, at least, that she’s being influenced by the house, but they still immediately toss her in the evil secret room that a girl DIED in without any discernible plan for the future. It doesn’t take long before the heroine opts to run face-first into a forest fire to “purify” herself and stop the haunting, and that’s the end we’re supposed to be satisfied with.
It’s just a shit reveal, man. It’s not well foreshadowed, it doesn’t really change anything, it makes the characters’ actions, before and after, seem incomprehensibly stupid, and it single-handedly knocks the book down at least a star.
Such a disappointment.