UPDATED INFORMATION AT THE END
I have spent the entire afternoon on this, both reading (finishing) the book and then this review. I've delayed supper, and BF is not really happy about that, but he knows better than to complain. Now, however, I feel better for having both this book and the review out of the way.
This is another of those freebies** I sampled last week in preparation for the start of Bingo. I had it marked for any of several squares including Ghost, Haunted House, Gothic. Over the week-end I picked it up several times and read a little bit more, but I just couldn't really get into it, so I didn't put it up as a "currently reading" title. I wasn't sure it would ever grab my interest enough to fit into the game. (**See update at end.)
And the usual disclosure: I obtained the book when it was offered free on Kindle. I do not know the author nor have I ever communicated with her about this book or any other matter. I am an author.
I had reached about the 15% mark when I decided to give up on it and switch to something else. Ashburn House had too many anomalies already that I didn't want to deal with. Unfortunately, I chose instead Terror in Tower Grove, which turned out to be a complete disaster.
There was a temptation, after Terror, to just post a DNF on Ashburn House, but I didn't want to do that unless and until I was certain I wouldn't go back to it. Though it had problems, it wasn't overly terrible, and I had one strong suspicion as to why I wasn't enjoying it more. So I left it on the back burner, just in case I changed my mind and gave it another try.
Which of course, is exactly what happened. I took a break with The City of Falling Angels, which I have no pressure to read quickly for any deadline Bingo square. Then I read some more of Ashburn House. It still didn't completely pull me in, so I swung away again for a while to read The Ghost of Castle Ravenswych. With my palate cleansed, so to speak, I returned to Ashburn House.
And I started taking notes.
The background to the story is simple: Adrienne (I'm not sure of her last name) inherits Ashburn House from a great-aunt-once-removed or something like that, Edith Ashburn. Ashburn House sits on the top of a hill outside the small town of Ipson. The hill is covered with dark, creepy woods, and is connected to a mountain.
Adrienne arrives, via taxi, with her cat Wolfgang, two suitcases/bags, her laptop, and a $20 bill in her purse. (I'm not sure how she pays for the taxi; I'm not going to look it up.) She is 21 years old and makes her living, such as it is, as a freelance writer. She had a job at one time but had to give it up to take care of her dying mother.
So here I was with all these questions already:
WHERE is Ashburn House? If Adrienne has a $20 bill, she's not in the UK. But she received the notice of her inheritance from a solicitor, and the woods are some metres from the house, so she's not in the US either. Canada? Australia? Don't know. Atmosphere has a lot to do with location, and I just could never place myself in this story. That was one of the main issues I had that kept me from sliding into it.
Time frame is much clearer, since Adrienne has her laptop with its built-in WiFi. She doesn't have a cell phone, however. So, how did the solicitor get in touch with her? Solely by mail? Were there no phone conversations regarding the transfer of ownership? Even if all done by email, this still seemed odd that she didn't have a phone. I'm not entirely sure how Edith Ashburn was able to give the solicitors contact information for Adrienne either.
Later, when another character shows up who does have a cell phone, reception is almost nil around Ashburn House. Yet the village of Ipson is only a 15-minute walk away, via a path down the hill and through the woods. If there is cell phone service in town, how can there not be any just a mile or less away?
As Adrienne settles into Ashburn House, she is welcomed to the area by four young women from Ipson: Jayne, Beth, Marion, and Sarah. They become friends, and the four begin helping Adrienne with various services around town and so on. And they bring her food.
It was at that point that I realized the second major issue I had with the book: It felt awkward being told in third-person, and even more so when POV slipped into other characters.
Edith Ashburn has been dead for three weeks, so when Adrienne arrives on the scene, there is virtually no food in the house. She finds rotting food in the fridge, some staples in the pantry, and a couple cans of sardines. But she has brought food for the cat! And when she finally gets some cash, she spends most of it on cat food! And I'm wondering, didn't the "solicitors" do anything about this? Didn't they make sure the taxes were paid? And if so, how was Edith paying them? Did she have investments that provided her with income? Where is that money, and why isn't Adrienne using it to . . . do anything? Did she even clean out the fridge so she could use it?
The utilities are on because one of the four young women works for the city/county/utilities commission and left them on for Adrienne. This reminded me of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. Authors need to understand how the real world works when it comes to inheriting property. Barbara Michaels knew better. Even Josephine Tey knew better -- there were issues of death duties in Brat Farrar. If the characters don't know any better, the readers just might, and the lawyers/solicitors damn well should. Taxes don't just go unpaid because. Utilities don't get turned on just because. Often there are issues with inhabitability -- is it safe to transfer this deed and allow someone to move into this dwelling if it's not actually habitable?
I did a little bit of quick and very unscientific research on my own collection of gothic novels, and I came away with a theory that may or may not stand up to further scrutiny.
In historical gothics, the heroines are generally poor orphans who end up going to live in someone else's house because they have nowhere else to go. The house is haunted, or at least sinister, but the heroine is trapped.
In contemporary gothics, the heroines are generally poor, but they are or become the owners of the haunted, sinister, menacing mansions. Barbara Michaels offered some variations on this theme, but even in books like Houses of Stone and Be Buried in the Rain, the issue of actual ownership is openly dealt with in a practical, realistic way.
Not so in The Haunting of Ashburn House. That lack of verisimilitude further distanced me from the story. I felt more and more as though I were reading a manuscript and less and less as though I were experiencing what Adrienne was.
Adrienne had to sell virtually all her possessions to pay for her mother's final expenses, but she kept the cat. Her meager luggage contains three changes of clothes, one book, bed sheets, cat food and dishes. She has some toiletries, but when she acquires some more funds, she forgoes shampoo and other necessities, buys instant noodles for herself, and expensive cat food for Wolfgang.
I'm not sure what she does with her time all day long. Much like Connie Goodwin in Deliverance Dane, she seems to waste a lot of time doing nothing. She could clean or write -- she's trying to be a freelance writer, after all -- or do something other than sit around and wait in dread for the fall of night.
No season is given, no month, so it's impossible to tell if the nights are long or short. There are references to cold weather, but there is no snow or frost or anything.
Edith has left cryptic messages literally carved into the walls and furniture. She has also left lots of antiques that could provide some income for Adrienne. She never seems to think of this.
Then the creepy things start happening. What Adrienne first takes to be a ghost is in fact something different, and now it's time for the spoiler.
Edith, who was apparently around 100 years old when she died, was in fact a twin. When she and her sister Eleanor were eight years old, Eleanor savagely murdered four adult members of their family. According to a letter Edith had left behind for Adrienne, Eleanor had dabbled in some dark arts (at age eight!) and gained supernatural power. For everyone she killed, the remaining years of their lives were added to hers. Somehow or other, however, eight-year-old Edith without extra power was able to kill her evil twin Eleanor, at least for the time being.
No explanation is given for how she was able to do this. Eleanor had overpowered and literally torn apart four adults, but another eight-year-old did her in?
Edith, as the sole survivor of this gruesome mass murder, was sent off to be raised by grandparents. Ten years later, she returned to Ashburn House as its owner and learned the truth about Eleanor -- that she was a zombie/ghoul/undead/whatever. But Edith was able to keep her under control (and under ground) for eighty-odd years, and now she was passing the secret along to Adrienne.
Well, fine, but did that mean Adrienne was going to have to live there and continue to burn a candle every Friday to keep Eleanor in her "grave" until Eleanor ran out of the extra lives she'd gained by killing her family? Don't know.
And if not, if Eleanor came back, would she come back as a rotting 100-year-old corpse (which is what she was when she stalked Adrienne until Adrienne "killed" her again) or as something else? Don't know.
Adrienne had managed to defeat zombie/undead Eleanor by burning her, as if she knew that was the only way to do it, but there's nothing that states how Adrienne figured this out either.
The more I read and the more notes I took, the more distant I became from the story. I felt like a teacher grading a paper. And the less believable Adrienne became. Page by page, she became more TSTL. (There are crates and crates and crates of candles in the attic, but she never thinks of using any of them for light. Never mind that in almost any temperate climate, they would have melted into shapeless blobs during summer heat.)
I realized, too, that I was starting to skim rather than read. But when I went back to really read what I had previously skimmed, there wasn't anything there. I hadn't missed anything other than more repetition of how dark the woods were or how close to sundown it was. So what???
What it all came down to, ultimately, was that I not only didn't, but I couldn't believe Adrienne would act like this. The haunting might be supernatural, but the main character had to behave like a normal, rational human being. She didn't. Nothing she did made sense. From arriving at this house without proper supplies and resources, to ignoring the various warnings, to failing to research, to . . . to everything. Nothing about Adrienne was normal.
Nor her friends. And I think that was the kicker for me -- Five young women, all in their early 20s, and not one of them had a boyfriend or even expressed any interest in the opposite sex. Not one. Totally unbelievable.
UPDATE: I did some research, not only on the author's background but on my own history with this book.
I did NOT, as I originally thought, obtain this for free. I paid 99 cents for it last April. This happened to be the week author Coates dropped the price, and that was also the week The Haunting of Ashburn House landed on a USA Today bestseller list, placing 99th out of 150 "most bought" titles for that week.