Book review and synopsis for Home Before Dark by Riley Sager, A satisfying, well-constructed and suspenseful haunted house mystery.
SynopsisIn Home Before Dark, Maggie Holt is a 30-year-old woman who has inherited a mansion, Baneberry Hall, from her late father, Ewan. 25 years ago, Ewan wrote a non-fictional bestselling novel called House of Horrors about the Holt family's experiences living in the house he claims was haunted for 20 days, before they fled in terror. It's a book that came to define Maggie's life. Maggie has no recollection of that time, but she has always regarded the book as being full of lies. Against her father's wishes, Maggie goes back to Baneberry Hall to uncover the truth about what really happened in those twenty fateful and horrific days.
(The Detailed Plot Summary is also available, below)
Detailed Plot SummarySection-by-Section SummarySee the Section-by-Section Summary of Home Before DarkQuick Plot Summary
The novel switches back and forth from a) parts book written by Ewan Holt, and b) narration from Maggie Holt, his daughter, many years after its publication. Maggie's life has been defined by her father's worldwide bestselling book, House of Horrors. Ewan's book is a non-fictional account of the Holt family's time at Baneberry Hall, a mansion they moved into 25 years ago for 20 days before fleeing.
In the book, Ewan and his wife Jess move into Baneberry Hall with their 5-year-old daughter Maggie. The previous owners were the Carvers. The father, Curtis Carver, hung himself and then suffocated his daughter, Katie. The wife Martha found them both. Ewan later finds out that the house's original owner, William Garson, had a daughter, Indigo Garson, who was murdered as well. As he researches the house's horrific history, Ewan learns of other deaths, all involving daughters killed when their fathers were present.
At the house, Walt Hibbets is the caretaker and Elsa is their housekeeper. Elsa is a superstitious woman with two daughters. Each morning Ewan hears a mysterious "thud" at 4:45 AM and the sound of tapping. A record player often turns on as well, playing When You're Sixteen Going on Seventeen from The Sound of Music. Meanwhile, a 5-year-old Maggie claims to see ghosts -- Mister Shadow (a dark figure), a young girl and Miss Pennyface (a woman with pennies on her eyes). Ewan and Jess dismiss this as an overactive imagination and night terrors.
In present day, 30-year-old Maggie inherits the house (Ewan is recently deceased). Maggie has no recollection of the events of the book and has always considered it to be full of lies. She moves in to her old room. She plans to renovate and sell the house, but also to find out the truth. She meets Dane (Walt's grandson) and Hannah (Elsa's daughter). Walt is deceased and Elsa has Alzheimer's. Hannah's older sister Petra went missing around the time the Holts left Baneberry. Petra was 16 at the time, while Hannah was 6.
As Maggie stays there, objects go missing and she hears the same music and tapping her father heard, all of which she attributes to intruders (the house is a tourist destination because of the fame of the book). Maggie offers Dane work, helping with the renovation, and he accepts. Maggie also tries to verify the facts of the book. She finds old photographs that correspond with many scenes in the book. But other details don't match up.
In the book, Ewan described a day where the kitchen ceiling collapsed, revealing a nest of snakes in the space between the floors. He also found letters writen to Indigo Garson. She had wanted to elope with a boy, but her father had been determined to prevent it. She died mysteriously soon after. Ewan suspects it was William who killed her. In the present, Maggie and Dane are inspecting the house when the same spot breaks open and a human skeleton falls down. It's Petra's body. Petra had started sneaking out around the time the Holts moved in, and Maggie suspects her father may be implicated in Petra's death.
In his book, Ewan claims that they used a Ouija board and other means to contact the house's spirit(s). The spirit identifies itself as Curtis Carver, and he/it claims that he didn't kill Katie. Instead, the spirit directs Ewan to some old photos and a painting of Indigo Garson. The painting contains hint (a snake painted over), and in the photos Ewan sees an image of the Miss Pennyface ghost that Maggie had described. It looks exactly like Indigo. Ewan realizes that Indigo must've been angry about her father. Indigo's spirit has been punishing other fathers by killing their daughters and blaming them. The spirit attacks, but eventually Ewan, Maggie and Jess are able to flee the house.
In present day, Maggie talks to Martha Carver, who still lives in town, who denies parts of Ewan's story. Martha also mentions items from Baneberry being sold online. Maggie figures it's Hannah, who has a key to the house. Hannah admits that she's the intruder who has been stealing stuff, making noises and playing music. She needed the money and wanted Maggie to leave. Hannah also tells Maggie about the hidden back door to the house.
Maggie finds the hidden door that leads to the armoire in her room. She also notices a page in Ewan's book, describing how Walt had asked a boy from town to help patch up the ceiling after it broke. Maggie recalls how Hannah had believed Petra had a secret boyfriend. She wonders if that boy was the boyfriend and one who killed Petra and hid her body in the ceiling. Maggie looks at the old photos and realizes the teenager who came to help was Dane. When Maggie confronts Dane, he admits to teenage fling with Petra but denies killing her. After a scuffle, Dane is injured and taken away on a stretcher.
In the aftermath, Maggie's mom (who was out of the country) arrives. She tells Maggie that it wasn't Dane. She says that Maggie was the one who killed Petra. Petra was babysitting and when they came home, there were signs of a physical altercation and she had clearly been pushed down the stairs. Ewan made up most of the stuff about ghosts in the book (he wrote it to capitalize off the house's spooky history because they needed the money), though the night terrors were real. Afterwards, Maggie is alone when Martha emerges from the armoire. With the moonlight glinting off her spectacles, Maggie realizes Martha is Miss Pennyface.
When Maggie was young, Martha would sneak in to watch her sleep, because she reminded her of Katie. When Petra was babysitting, Petra walked in, saw Martha and flipped out. This resulted in Martha accidentally pushing Petra down the stairs. Now that Maggie is back, Martha knows that the truth will eventually come out, so she has poisoned Maggie and is going to kill her. Maggie gets pushed down the stairs, but survives. She sees what looks like Petra's spirit (which turns out to be Elsa) then shove Martha down the stairs. Martha dies. (Maggie doesn't know if Elsa just wandered in there or if Petra's spirit really helped propel Elsa to save her. It also turns out that Elsa was Mister Shadow. She was superstitious about the house's history and wanted to warn her family away from the house.)
In the epilogue, Maggie starts writing the sequel to her father's book.
For more detail, see the full Section-by-Section Summary.