Spoilers throughout. Trigger warnings for gruesome violence mentioned and one animal death.
Disclosure: I'm not sure how I acquired this book, but the paperback edition as pictured was in a large box of gothic romances stored in my workshop. I do not know the author nor have I ever communicated with him about this book or any other matter. I am an author of romantic fiction.
As I suspected from the beginning, this is a novel I first read probably a half century or more ago, either as a book club edition or a Reader's Digest Condensed version. The more I read of it, the more I remembered from that initial reading, though I did not recall the ending at all. That may have been what kept me reading through to the end.
I rated it only 1.5 stars for a number of reasons, and I can't say I would recommend it to other readers. It's not a bad book, but neither is it a particularly good one.
And it's definitely not a gothic romance.
Plot, such as it is: Thirty-year-old Kimball Watts is an editor for a New York publishing house. He and his wife Josephine have two small daughters. Jo's adoptive parents have recently died and she has inherited their estate, a small farm in upstate New York. With the cash proceeds from the sale of the farm, Jo and Kim purchase an old house just over the state line in New Jersey. Kim commutes to Manhattan; Jo stays at home with the two girls.
The house is huge -- they aren't even sure just how many rooms it has -- and consists of two smaller pre-Revolution houses joined by a later 19th century central structure. There's also a barn and some acreage. The house is in some disrepair but more or less livable.
There are few neighbors. The Stauffers -- George, Helen, their son Bert, and George's parents -- struck me at first as being just too weird, but they're actually "normal," by whatever standards. They have a live-in maid, Verna, who is about 16 and is an orphan from the local Catholic girls' home.
Clarissa Cutler lives next door to the Wattses with her husband and two young children. Clarissa is an albino African American; both of the children are also albinos. Her husband Vincent is a handsome black man.
A few miles away there are some other neighbors who live in a small cluster of old cabins, apparently without running water or electricity or . . . anything. They are the descendants of servants and other retainers of the huge and vacant estate across the road from the Wattses. Among them is Benji Potter, the elderly and somewhat mysterious black man who has attached himself to the Watts home as caretaker and guardian.
Though written in third person, this is almost entirely Kim Watts's story. He likes the house and wants to stay there, but Jo is superstitious and wants out. Legally, though I'm not sure why, the house belongs to her. Kim goes through some financial negotiations to acquire the house as community property, but that doesn't seem to help Jo accept the house.
Eventually Kim learns about the house's history when a weird elderly lady -- I don't even remember her name now or her connection to the house -- stops by one night unannounced and tells him about it. There are settler massacres by Native Americans, rapes and murders and mutilations of enslaved people, family murders, and so on. Kim tells Jo none of this.
But Jo just can't deal with her superstitious fear of the house, so she packs up and leaves. Kim doesn't know what to do.
And then they all lived happily ever after.
Well, that's how the ending felt to me. There was no build up for the way everything was resolved. It wasn't as though a whole bunch of puzzle pieces slowly, inexorably, and logically fell into place. Instead, the various characters did things that as a reader I expected would have some significant impact and move the story along in a specific direction, but they really didn't.
Clarissa is beautiful, but weird. She wears weird clothes, wanders around outdoors in the middle of the night in diaphanous gowns and a long blonde wig. She drives her Pontiac convertible like a bat out of hell. Her midnight rambles are described in such a way that you think they must have some significance. They don't. Is she spying on the Wattses? Is she trying to seduce Kim? Maybe yes to both, but neither is made clear. Is she trying to scare them out of the house? Maybe that, too, but again it's all vague and just weird.
What about George Stauffer's parents? His mother is a harridan, complaining, dominating all conversation with her rants, just a horrible person. The father is apparently an alcoholic, since he's restricted to ginger ale while everyone else has cocktails and wine. Are her harangues supposed to illustrate how out of touch with the middle of the 20th century she is? Is she supposed to provide a contrast to Kim's more contemporary view of life and the world? I don't know, because Kim doesn't really react.
In fact, Kim never really grows through the whole story. There's a hint of his having had to deal with his own experience of racism and some confrontation with his guilt over his inaction, but I never saw any change in him as a result.
In fact, the only character who does change is Jo, and there's never any explanation for how or why she changed. She just . . . does. There's never any explanation for why she was so superstitious or why she took all these little omens so seriously. I see omens in everything, too, but I don't take them seriously. Why did she? And why did she stop?
What I realized when I finished the book last night was that none of the characters had any depth. They were almost caricatures, set on the stage of The Spooky Old House with a Tragic Past, and then once the story of the spooky house had been told, it was all over. The millionaire who owned the property across the road sold out to a developer and the 20th century was being rudely imposed on all the history and spookiness. The End.
The writing is fine, with a lot of description of the weather and the scenery and the moods, but the structure and characterization were flawed. And it's too late to fix it.