Title: Starter House
Author: Sonja Condit
No. of Pages: 400
Origins: William Morrow Paperbacks
Release Date: 31 December 2013
Bottom Line: Decent but too many missed opportunities
“Her dream home is about to become a house of nightmares…
From the moment Lacey glimpses the dusty-rose colonial cottage with its angled dormer windows and quaint wooden shutters, she knows she’s found her dream house. Walking through its cozy rooms, the expectant mother can see her future children sitting on the round bottom step of the house’s beautifully carved staircase, and she imagines them playing beneath the giant maple tree in the warm South Carolina sun. It doesn’t matter to Lacey and her husband, Eric, that people had died there years before.
But soon their warm and welcoming house turns cold. There is something malevolent within the walls—a disturbing presence that only Lacey can sense. And there is Drew, a demanding and jealous little boy who mysteriously appears when Lacey is alone. Protective of this enigmatic child who reminds her of the troubled students she used to teach, Lacey bakes cookies and plays games to amuse him. Yet, as she quickly discovers, Drew is unpredictable—and dangerous.
Fearing for her baby’s safety, Lacey sets out to uncover the truth about Drew and her dream house—a search for answers that takes her into the past, into the lives of a long-dead family whose tragic secrets could destroy her. To save her loved ones, Lacey must find a way to lay a terrifying evil to rest…before she, Eric, and their child become its next victims.”
Thoughts: Starter House is more sad than terrifying. This is due to the tragedy that occurred within the house as much as it is to Lacey’s overwhelming desire for her own idea of the perfect marriage. That she has lasting issues from her nomadic childhood is obvious from the very beginning and tinge a reader’s compassion for her. All this means is that a reader feels less impact by the events occurring within the house than they probably should feel.
The tragedy Lacey eventually uncovers is horrifying and yet profoundly upsetting in that one can easily imagine something similar occurring every single day. Its ordinariness is the most shocking aspect, and therein lies the terror. Unfortunately, by the time readers discover the tragedy, the story is already rushing at a frantic pace. One does not get the chance to adequately absorb the truth but is swept along to the story’s frenetic conclusion. The rushed ending is a tremendous disappointment given the slowly-building tension that occurs during the first two-thirds of the novel.
Any good horror story hinges on a reader’s connection to the main character. Sympathy with him or her makes the unexplained happenings more powerful and the terror more real. Unfortunately, Lacey is not the most likable of characters. She professes a strong backbone due to her refusal to subject her child to something like her own childhood, and yet that strong backbone does not exist through much of the novel. She capitulates to her husband’s and to her mother’s whims so easily that it is difficult to not describe her as weak. Her compassion feels misplaced at times, as she devotes almost all of her attention to the mysterious Drew, something that inexplicably occurs from the very first time she sees him. Then there is her almost narcissistic attitude about her teaching abilities. Her inward focus on her ability to calm her “noisy boys” and her view that Drew is just another one of those boys is a bit self-congratulatory and egotistical, not endearing traits of any sort.
While the truth behind Drew’s appearance is horrifying, one cannot help but feel that Ms. Condit missed the true terror of the book. There are psychological implications behind Lacey’s marriage, her relationship with her mother, her teaching – basically her entire adulthood – that Ms. Condit ignores in favor of a murder mystery with ghostly implications. Sadly, the manufactured ghosts are not as powerful as those that already exist in Lacey’s past, highlighting yet another of the story’s weaknesses.
The lack of sympathetic characters, the rushed ending, and the missed opportunity to explore more of the psychology of the story and less of the supernatural elements makes Starter House mostly a disappointment. One cannot help but identify the missed opportunities as well as the potential the story has had it gone in a different arc. The fact that it does show potential makes one hope that as Ms. Condit matures as a writer, she will recognize the same opportunities and improve upon her current weaknesses. If she does, one can expect great things from her. Whether she does remains to be seen.