Take a plucky but downtrodden scullery maid, a tyrannical housekeeper, the Lord of the House teetering on the brink of madness, a very insistent ghost, and what do you get? “The Poisoned House: A Ghost Story” (Albert Whitman & Co., 2011), a deliciously creepy new gothic horror story by Michael Ford.
That plucky scullery maid is fifteen year-old Abigail Tamper—Abi, to her friends. As the book opens in 1850s London, Abi is attempting to escape her miserable life in Greave Hall, an elegant but increasingly troubled household. The chief architect of her misery is the tyrannical housekeeper, Mrs. Cotton, who punishes Abi for the slightest infraction. The return of Lord Greave’s son Samuel, injured in the Crimean War, seems to have only worsened his Lordship’s mental condition. And the ghost is none other than Abi’s mother, who had been Samuel’s childhood nurse before her death a year earlier.
After Abi’s foiled escape from Greave Hall, strange things start to occur. There is a mysteriously closed bolt that should be been left open. A handprint appears on both the inside and outside of the library window. Lord Greave’s drinking glass is shattered—but by whom? At first, Abi feels comforted by her mother’s ethereal presence, until she realizes that the ghost is trying to warn her of something. She is no longer safe at Greave Hall—if she ever was.
Although the plot of “The Poisoned House” is somewhat predictable (it does, after all, follow the conventions of the gothic novel), its many twists and turns provide plenty of suspense. And Ford has a real knack for creating terrific characters. Abi makes for a wonderful companion; she is resourceful and sympathetic, a young woman still trying to find her way in a world that seems not to love her. Mrs. Cotton is a villain in the finest Gothic tradition: cruel, petty, and domineering. I suspect Ford had the most fun creating her character, because aren’t villains always the most interesting?
Teens who enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline” as younger readers will like “The Poisoned House.” And if gothic novels are your cup of tea, you really must read Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre,” one of the greatest gothic novels of all time. Preferably (with apologies to Miss Brontë) when the cold autumn wind brings with it “clouds so somber, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise is now out of the question.”
Advance review copy provided by the publisher. This review originally published in The News-Gazette, Sunday, September 18, 2011.