A Stranger's House, by Brett Lott. Viking: 256 pages; $17.95.
If I could descibe this novel in the proverbial one word, it would be dark. The chapters are named for the progressive seasons from September to December, and Brett Lott's landscape descriptions vary from grey to black. Not only is the season grey, but people work in dreary, dark buildings and shadows are everywhere. The protagonist, Claire Templeton thinks, "I began to feel as if my life were happening in dark rooms, that that was where I lived, where I talked, where I slept and ate."
Claire works in a dark laboratory. She conditions white rabbits, then kills them and removes their brains for examination. And of course, befitting a gothic novel, Claire and her husband, Tom, are approaching a dark period of their lives. After failing to conceive any children, their dreams are shattered. And the story is more than simply a gothic novel. We follow Claire's loneliness and doubt about her future, walk with her through days of winter depression and her realization that she must give life to herself, somehow give birth to herself and begin to feel for others.
Claire and Tom try to begin their lives again by buying an old house in the country.
The remote place is in the middle of the woods and needs some fixing up. The house comes with its own shadows, a teenage deliquent named Grady and and his middle-aged, retarded companion, Martin. Supposedly, the two of them are caretakers, having been sent to the place three times a year to clean it. Martin, an expert on repairing houses, refuses to enter the barn or one of the bedrooms. No one knows why.
Claire and her husband Tom appreciate the help offered by the two, but they seem to be lying about their background. They seem overly attached to the house. Moreover, no one from the town (which boasts its own coffin factory) will say why the century-old house is being sold.
Pretty scary. There are only a couple of problems with the book. Some of the language is a bit stilted; maybe Lott was too engaged with the setting and the props of his story. Which brings us to the other problem: the story with the dying animals, the retarded hero, the dark, mysterious house, the nighmares and foreboding intuition has been done before. I kept thinking of "Rebecca." I also thought of "The Yellow Wallpaper," but then, I can't give the ending completely away.
I admit it. These stories get me every time. I read the book in a flash. Then, of course, I wipe the sweat off my brow, look around the room to make sure it is still daylight, still summer, tell myself what a silly contrived book it was, and write my review.