The House of a Hundred Whispers
CP Hunter reviews The House of a Hundred Whispers, author Graham Masterton's return to the horror genre...
The House of a Hundred Whispers is a truly gothic tale that deftly interweaves the traditional with the modern.
The tension builds in a thrilling and patient manner with an explosive climax. Graham Masterton has become a staunch figure of the UK literary scene and this horror novel demonstrates how well he has honed his craft – even after several years’ break from the genre.
Set in rural Dartmoor, we are brought to the scene by the main characters – carrying the baggage of their 21st-century lives into the quiet countryside. The rolling misty moors are home to a wealth of folklore and age-old supernatural tales but the freelance illustrator, lesbian couple, and London banker are thoroughly modern sceptics, ready to draw the reader in with the comfort of the known. Their beginnings as sceptics invading the house in which whispers abound are reliable ground for the reader to connect and to mirror their arcs as the story progresses. They track a brilliantly subtle journey from non-believers to sceptics, to aghast in the face of an unimaginable reality.
The centrepiece of the whole novel is undoubtedly the titular house itself. It is imposing and ancient, the tropes of Gothicism abound within its construction and its legacy. The reader is introduced to it by Rob (the aforementioned illustrator) and Vicky – Rob having been brought up there with the creaking building as his childhood home; Vicky, his wife, shuddering at the thought of even spending daylit hours under its roof. They are there for a will reading and are met by Rob’s sister Grace (one half of the lesbian couple) and his brother Martin, the aforementioned banker, whose dependence on his career becomes an interestingly key plot point. They become prisoners of the house, although physically able to leave, they are emotionally bound there, which heightens the tension both narratively and between the characters themselves.
The tense atmosphere that crackles between them is realistic and the main characters are robust. Rob feels like a friend by the time we are barely a third of the way through, the reader absorbs his worries and, subsequently, his understanding too. The secondary characters do waiver, with clunky backstories wedged into monologues over cups of tea, but their presence is merely to root us there. They are ancillary to the house’s needs and to the winding of the plot itself so Masterton’s clumsiness can easily be forgiven. Their determination to live a normal life while in the confines of the whispering house emits a chill through the pages. They pick up on the same clues as the reader is fed, but we are the ones desperate to tap on their shoulders; the literary equivalent of shouting “don’t go into the basement!”
This sense of unease and dread that is thrust upon us from the opening lines never leaves, although it waivers as the characters do. The supernatural elements of the plot become stronger but the strangeness and the tension are not left behind; as every clue is uncovered and placed within the puzzle, the reader is left questioning if it has fully answered all concerns. The heavy twists that Masterton has placed deep within the novel throw us off-balance so quickly that the reader feels as unstable as the characters must, fighting the forces of a historic building.
A key point to note is the unnecessary rape scene that plays out halfway through. From the moment she is introduced, the woman in question is constantly objectified, seemingly in ways for us to judge the characters although they continue without reprimand. The assault itself is spearheaded by a character for whom we were beginning to feel sympathy. The narrative arc around the whole scene is jumbled: he is introduced as an antagonist, he attempts to commit a heinous crime for which he openly feels no remorse, and is finally handed to us as a caregiver. Conflicts within character are forgivable and realistic, but the extremities between which he swings leave the reader hovering on the edge of disbelief.
The duality of characters and the tipping point between life and death has been a key feature of horror for centuries, and within the confines of this house’s walls, Masterton has breathed new life into these concepts. The assault scene missed the mark, but the remainder of the novel ramps up the terror and the anticipation into a gloriously gory climax.
The scenes are horrifying and wholly original, fitting neatly into the narrative and leaving the reader on the edge of their seat. It is a truly skilled writer to describe an impossible and unseen sequence of events so well that the reader is left with a vivid image of the exact scene, of every speck of blood left on every surface. The ending is delicious in its openness: the reader will want to skim back and dig out every clue dropped through the novel and attempt to piece them all together numerous times.
The pace with which Masterton has skilfully developed this novel is excellent. The reader and the characters tumble into an unlikely situation and, once immersed, find themselves much deeper than imagined. The setting is so well described that the house and the moors become living, breathing characters; the human characters are diverse and interesting, and the plot is unexpected and enjoyable. The legacy of the horror tradition is alive and well within Masterton’s writing and within The House of A Hundred Whispers.