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The House of Ashes


The House of Ashes

Irish author Stuart Neville has been called the “king of Belfast noir.” That said, I am pleased to report that his latest novel, THE HOUSE OF ASHES, is a completely different type of story. Featuring supernatural and even gothic elements in a book fueled by female resilience, this is a huge departure for Neville, a risk that pays off quite handsomely.

It begins with a fire. An elderly woman wakes up in the middle of the night and steps into the hallway outside her bedroom. She witnesses a conflagration of bright flames and is overpowered by the smell of burning wood. Even with her own life in danger, her singular concern is for her children, whom only she can see. There are the howls of the many cats from her home that are perishing in the flames, and it all ends with her prying open her bedroom window and tumbling two stories to the ground. The last thing she claims to see is a young girl dressed in white who is seemingly untouched by the flames that surround her.

"THE HOUSE OF ASHES...relies heavily on Stuart Neville’s background as a writer of crime fiction to tell a story that is as moving and inspiring as it is terrifying."

These events all took place in the recent past, and the house has been rebuilt and purchased by new owners. Sara Keane, originally from England, has been brought there by her overly possessive husband, Damien. Not long after they have moved in, the couple is accosted at their doorstep by a crazed old woman who claims that the house belongs to her.  Her name is Mary, and they send her back to the retirement home where she now resides.

The book then jumps back and forth between a small group of narrators and within a timeline that spans the present day and all the way back almost half a century. One day, a Mr. Buchanan meets Sara and tells her the dark history of her house, which he refers to as the old Jackson place. He informs her that murders were committed on the farm nearly 60 years earlier, and the village still lives under the ominous shadow of those horrific events.

The chapters that take us back in time are from the point of view of three young women, all of whom are prisoners of the trio of evil men who have them trapped within the “House of Ashes,” where Sara and Damien now reside. These narrators are Mary --- the younger version of our elderly lady from the prologue --- Esther and Joy. Their story is a harsh one, and the physical and mental abuse they suffer at the hands of these men who call themselves “their family” is unconscionable.

In the present day, Sara has begun seeing specters of the past --- young girls around the banks of the marshy lake on their property. When she chases after them, they submerge into the water, leaving behind what appears to be red ribbons floating on the top skin of the murky water. Sara also is seeking to get out from under the thumb of her overbearing husband, who went so far as to imitate her on a WhatsApp chat with her best friend, Amanda, to learn more about her old boyfriends. Sara ends up befriending Rossi, an electrician who is doing work on their rebuilt home. He witnesses the mental abuse to which she is subjected and gives her his business card if she should ever require help.

Sara becomes so interested in the property that she begins doing heavy research into its history and starts visiting Mary at the retirement home for firsthand information. Mary tells Sara, “The house doesn’t matter…. It never mattered. It’s the land. Those children, they’re like the trees all around and the grass in the fields. Those men planted the children there, like seeds. They’re in the ground and they’ll always be there. They’ve always been there. Like me. Always.”

This is really creepy stuff but also very telling. THE HOUSE OF ASHES definitely goes there and relies heavily on Stuart Neville’s background as a writer of crime fiction to tell a story that is as moving and inspiring as it is terrifying. Sara and Mary are forever connected by that property and the bad men who have them in their clutches. Their resilience is remarkable and something to truly admire.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on September 11, 2021

The House of Ashes
by Stuart Neville