Book Review: THE INVITED by Jennifer McMahon

Title: The Invited

Author: Jennifer McMahon

Genre: Horror

Publisher: Doubleday
Publication Date: May 2019
Hardcover: 353 pages

A chilling ghost story with a twist: the New York Times bestselling author of The Winter People returns to the woods of Vermont to tell the story of a husband and wife who don’t simply move into a haunted house, they start building one from scratch, without knowing it, until it’s too late . . . 

In a quest for a simpler life, Helen and Nate abandon the comforts of suburbia and their teaching jobs to take up residence on forty-four acres of rural land where they will begin the ultimate, aspirational do-it-yourself project: building the house of their dreams. When they discover that this charming property has a dark and violent past, Helen, a former history teacher, becomes consumed by the legend of Hattie Breckenridge, a woman who lived and died there a century ago. As Helen starts carefully sourcing decorative building materials for her home–wooden beams, mantles, historic bricks–she starts to unearth, and literally conjure, the tragic lives of Hattie’s descendants, three generations of “Breckenridge women,” each of whom died amidst suspicion, and who seem to still be seeking something precious and elusive in the present day.

Stand alone or series: Standalone novel

How did I get this book: Bought

Format (e- or p-): Print

Review

Helen and Nate have had a safe, cookie-cutter kind of life. The young, married couple have sensible teaching jobs at a cushy private school in Connecticut, share a nice apartment, and enjoy the company of other stable, sensible friends. When Helen’s father dies, though, she reexamines her life and discovers a simple truth: she is not happy. When Nate asks her–earnestly, without a shred of irony or judgment–what would make her happy, she ponders the question carefully and decides that she wants to return to her roots. Having grown up on a farm with her dad, a return to the land, restoring a house, leaving the city and its trappings and schedules behind, sounds like just the ticket. After many failed house hunts, the couple discovers a 10 acre plot of land being sold at an incredible rate in rural Vermont. Even better, the land comes with a local legend–supposedly, it is haunted by the ghost of Hattie Breckenridge, a bog witch who was hanged by the local villagers in the early 1900s. For history teacher Helen, the property is irresistible–she’s always loved a good story, and Nate has always loved a good project.

The couple decides to quit their jobs and using the money inherited from Helen’s father’s passing, will build the house of their dreams together, from scratch.

At first, everything seems to be going smoothly. The foundation is poured smoothly without incident, and the pair turn to building the frame for their home. But then things start to go awry. Things start disappearing–money, tools, cell phones, trivial but infuriating things. Then there are the screams in the night–visceral, terrifying sounds of a creature being flayed alive–and apparitions of a white doe, a shrouded woman, that appear to Nate and to Helen around their land and in their home. Helen becomes obsessed with the history of Hattie Breckenridge and the town that killed her, and in the course of her research learns that it isn’t just Hattie but all of the Breckenridge women who share a grim and violent birthright. The more Helen learns about Hattie, the more questions she has–so when she comes across a beam of wood that came from Hattie’s hanging tree, or some bricks that were part of a factory fire claiming the lives of several women, Helen decides to use them in the construction of her home.

Hattie Breckenridge has a story–and Helen will stop at nothing to hear it.

I love a good haunted house novel, and The Invited unfolds in a very familiar, traditional haunted house fashion. There’s an eager young couple who buys some property for a steal, eager to build a new life together… only to discover the source of the “bargain” is a violent, belligerent haunting. Where The Invited deviates from the standard archetype, however, is in its twisted premise: in the words of Shirley Jackson, some houses are born bad. Helen, the protagonist of this particular ghost story, makes sure of that.

There are two things necessary to make a good haunted house novel, in my completely biased, wholeheartedly subjective opinion:

  1. A solid reason for the haunt, and
  2. At least one character you care about enough to root for in said haunt.

The Invited does a good job with both of these tenets. For the first, we have a piece of land on which a supposed witch was hanged because she warned the town of a vision of a fire in the schoolhouse–which no one took seriously, but when the schoolhouse burned down with a bunch of kids inside of course they blamed the woman who warned them in the first place. There are haunted artifacts that Helen collects as she learns more about Hattie and her past, and then builds them into her house, which is just about as solid as reasons go for hauntings.

For the second, see main character Helen. I don’t think I’ve read a horror novel that has its hero character willingly create a haunted house, and the exercise in The Invited is brilliant and irresistible, adding a whole new layer of “WHAT ARE YOU DOING DEFINITELY DON’T DO THAT!” mental expletives to the experience. There are more twists to this little horror novel, though, that make Helen’s choices integral to the overall mystery (instead of seeming monumentally stupid). This, coupled with the manifestation of her grief/existential uncertainty following her father’s death, make her actions if not excusable at least understandable. (Though when her husband Nate discovers the lengths that Helen has gone to in order to imbue the macabre into their home, his WTF reaction was pretty aligned with my own internalized thoughts while reading this book.)

Now, beyond the delightful twist of a haunted house being consciously built from the ground up, so far as ghost stories go, The Invited doesn’t really break any new ground–but it doesn’t really have to. This is the story of a line of women who have faced violent ends and tragic circumstances–not because of a curse, or because of witchcraft, but because the society that each of these Breckenridge women has lived in is patriarchal and shitty and fearful of these different, defiant women. And here is where McMahon’s work truly has its heart: in the story of women who will stop at nothing to speak the truth, to warn their family of danger, to protect their descendants in any way that they can. Sure, there are loose ends and things that don’t quite add up–the doe leading men and women to their boggy deaths, for example–but all in all, The Invited delivers as a spooky, self-contained, traditional horror story with an irresistible twist.

Recommended spooky summer reading.

Rating: 6 – Good

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