By Riley Sager, A satisfying, well-constructed and suspenseful haunted house mystery
Home Before Dark is Riley Sager’s newest novel, released on June 30, 2020. I previously reviewed his prior novel, Lock Every Door, which I thought was a solid mystery, but I actually liked this one even more. Home Before Dark is a suspenseful and satisfying haunted house story all the way through.
(Note that the last section of this review contains spoilers. I’ll warn you before they start.)
See the Explanation, Plot Synopsis & Book Summary for Home Before Dark (spoilers). Or, for the spoiler-free version:
In 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.
See Home Before Dark on Amazon.
I had a blast reading this book.
The first half is solidly written, but pretty standard mystery-set-in-an-old-house fare. A potentially haunted house. Someone who decides to move in for whatever reason. Mysterious occurrences ensue which may or may not be paranormal in nature, etc. If you read mystery novels, especially ones involving potentially haunted houses, you’re probably well acquainted with this plot progression.
I liked the first half, but didn’t feel strongly about it at that point. But about halfway through, things get more complicated. There are discoveries in both the present and the past that shed light — and prompt thorny new questions — about the houses’s haunted and dark history, which possibly involve a number of potential murders.
By the last quarter of the book, my head was spinning with possible theories on what could have happened. For me, this is when I have the most fun with mystery novels. There are characters with reasons to lie, characters with histories with one another, and new developments happening in each chapter.
Having read two of his books now, it’s obvious that Sager outlines his books in advance (as opposed to being a discovery writer who starts off with a premise and just goes from there). I know this because his books feel meticulously planned in terms of pacing, reveals of information and how the plot points end up coming together.
Book Review: Some Minor Criticisms
There’s a couple inconsistencies that don’t ruin the book, but are worth mentioning. Mostly Maggie’s decision-making is a little contrived in parts for the purposes of making the book work. For example, Maggie is clueless in the beginning of the book as to why her parents might not want her to go back to the house, but some facts (which the character definitely would have already been aware of) are later revealed that make it pretty obvious why (see the spoiler-ish thoughts below for details).
Other things like Maggie ignoring her father’s dying wish or not taking the chance to at least discuss with her mother why she’d doing what she’s doing are all a bit contrived for the purpose of pushing the plot forward and strategically withholding information.
All of these things are pretty inconsequential, nit-picky things points though. This probably ranks as one of the mystery novels I’ve read in recent history with the least plot holes, honestly.
Home Before Dark Film / Movie / TV Series Adaptation
Shawn Levy’s 21 Laps has picked up the film rights to Home Before Dark. It’s unknown what the planned format is for the adaptation. For updates and more details, see Everything We Know About the Home Before Dark Adaptation.
Read it or Skip it?
I really enjoyed this book. It had a few slight imperfections, but by and large, it’s a really well thought out and well put together plot. The writing is solid, the story is interesting and the end comes together very neatly. All good stuff.
I was a fan of Lock Every Door, but I actually like this one better. They’re both pretty fast reads though, so if in doubt, why not read both? I would recommend this to any mystery fans (especially if you like paranormal mysteries) and to people who only occasionally read mysteries.
See Home Before Dark on Amazon.
Spoiler-ish Thoughts on (Very Minor) Plot Holes
SPOILERS START HERE. You’ve been warned.
Okay, this section is just a few things I didn’t say above about plot inconsistencies since I didn’t want to give any spoilers. None of this ruined or even dampened my enthusiasm for the book, but these are just the things I noticed. I’m only noting them here because I figure other people noticed too and are wondering if others caught them as well.
This first one is minor, but Maggie acting clueless about why her parents didn’t want her to go back doesn’t make a ton of sense to me. We find out that Ewan wrote about a whole slew of murders and deaths that occurred at house, all of which involved the deaths of girls / daughters. Maggie was well-acquainted with the book and would have known that she’d be the obvious person in danger. Even if she didn’t think ghosts were real, it wouldn’t be a mystery why they specifically didn’t want her to return if her father described it as some sort of death trap for girls.
Also, when the book said the mother was going away for a month and then later Maggie is unable to contact her, it was sort of a glaring red flag that her mother was going to swoop back in eventually and reveal something important. Maggie being hell-bent on moving into the house and renovating it without chatting with her mother seems weird. Why wouldn’t she just put it on hold and wait? Especially after things got weird. Also, her mother was on vacation not in a coma, why wouldn’t she call her daughter back?
Finally, it kind of seems like a lot of this pain and suffering could have been avoided by some proper Wills & Estates planning. I mean, why does Ewan even leave Maggie the house? He could have at least granted Jess a life estate in the house (since he knew he had cancer) if he wanted to at least delay Maggie from going back.
Here’s what Ewan should have done. He should have placed the house in a trust for the duration of Maggie’s life. Jess would be named the trustee (and she would name someone else to manage it in the event of her death, with instructions for it to remain vacant) and Maggie the beneficiary. Ewan should have additionally stipulated that upon Maggie’s death, the house would go to Maggie’s issue/children/heirs. That way, by the time someone got their hands on it, all involved parties would be deceased (Maggie, Jess and Ewan). Problem solved. Clearly, Arthur Rosenfield (the lawyer in the book) didn’t give Ewan proper legal guidance.
Detailed Book Summary (Spoilers)
Quick (ish) SummaryThe 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 wriiten 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. 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, 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. See the Explanations and Full Chapter by Chapter Summary of Home Before Dark by Riley Sager
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