The Women in the Walls
by Amy Lukavics
Harlequin Books, 2016
“Lucy Acosta’s mother died when she was three. Growing up in a Victorian mansion in the middle of the woods with her cold, distant father, she explored the dark hallways of the estate with her cousin, Margaret. They’re inseparable– a family.”
Horror by Harlequin? This thriller turns out to be a modern gothic with classic elements for those who loved Crimson Peak or basked in the atmosphere of Netflix’s I am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. Deep in isolation, a mansion that is somehow alive with spirits, and secrets galore… but not romance. Sheer horror. This is no slow burn, either. It’s a compelling page-turner that elicits binge-reading into the dark hours (leaving you… Awake at Midnight!)
It relates with its target audience of goth teen readers, reaching out by touching on themes of cutting and alienation from one’s family.
Lucy’s mother Eva, the true heir of the Acosta lineage, is long dead, and Aunt Penelope has moved into the mansion having fallen in love with Lucy’s father. But then Penelope disappears.
The mother sings a hungry song, of blood and cracking teeth…
The family’s country club is all important to Lucy’s emotionally withdrawn father, who chose to take his wife’s name to “honor the family” (and its money and lifestyle, to be sure). No police ever show up to comb the countryside for the missing Penelope, and Lucy wonders if her father ever even called them.
Cousin Margaret, Penelope’s daughter and a close companion to Lucy, begins to cope strangely. She says she hears her mother’s voice in the walls, but she’s obviously gone mad from the loss of her mother. Did anyone else even know she was gone? (I began to wonder if maybe Dad had something to do with the disappearance.) She talks about a cemetery in the woods that she goes to visit, that her mother just told her about. (Is that where he locked her away?)
Lucy’s father Felix speaks of some kind of “leverage” that a few members of the country club may have against him now that his blood ties to the estate are gone. “I have a sobering thought: Is my father being blackmailed? For what?” Mysteries abound…
The mood thickens as Margaret moves into the attic obsessed with the voices that whisper dark secrets to her. Then a hidden memory: Aunt Penelope was a witch; Lucy had witnessed a strange and frightening ritual in the attic when she was younger– and watched her aunt devouring human teeth.
Although Lucy confesses this to Margaret, and her cousin feels some slight bit not as much alone, it’s not enough to prevent Margaret from jumping out a high window. Now she speaks to Lucy from the walls… and she is not alone there.
What if it’s not stress? My mind whispers, and my heart leaps at the thought. What if it’s a ghost brought here by witchcraft? What if it really is Margaret?
With Margaret gone, Vanessa, the daughter of Miranda, the cook, begins helping Lucy look for clues as to what is going on. They discover the house and grounds were once used as a home for abandoned youth owned by Clara Owens, but they never get any further. The pressure of all the country club’s parties is starting to get to Miranda without Penelope’s planning help. It’s starting to get… inside her head…
Then, the night before the holiday dinner party, Penelope returns.
And just as we are thoroughly soaked in the quiet tension that feels quite like the build-up of The Shining, with its endless, empty, haunted corridors, the climax marks a serious change in pacing. The slow revelation of the sinister history of the House of Acosta suddenly reaches the top of the roller coaster.
Gory insanity blows the victorian Turn of the Screw -style ghost story into a kind of sci-fi weirdness with insects and endless caverns deep into the mantle of the earth. It has the distinct flavour of Hammer Films’ Quatermass and the Pit.
I imagine Penelope digging up the graves, pulling the teeth from the corpses.
We are enrapt in a maze of secrets and deception, then struck hard by the climax. I was not expecting the shocking ending. And as it has stewed in my thoughts, unforgettably, for days… I have to say it was really nicely done. (I devoured the last third of the book in about an hour.) Realizing this was published by Harlequin, I went into the narrative with the expectation of the thick 1960s gothic-novel atmosphere of Marilyn Ross, Mary Stewart, or Dorothy Daniels. I was not disappointed. The familial murder blood bath at the end was an added bonus.