3) The Death of Mrs. Westaway, Ruth Ware
This novel is shelved in the mystery/thriller section of your local bookstore, not the horror one, but when we consider the tarot card readings, an overly devoted housekeeper à la Mrs. Danvers, a flock of ever-present magpies, and a narrowly avoided murder at the hands of someone only recently established as a long-lost family member, The Death of Mrs. Westaway is horrific enough for me.
Of Ware’s fourth novel, the Washington Post said, “Among other Gothic delights, there’s a crumbling old mansion, a disputed inheritance, an orphaned heroine and a grim housekeeper whose signature supper dish is gristle stew.” Reviewer Maureen Corrigan even goes so far as to say that Westaway is, “…straight from the “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night” playbook.” I would argue that its most delicious element of Gothic horror is its steadfast insistence on immersing the reader in the deception of its characters and the deterioration of its near-locked-room setting. Harriet “Hal” Westaway is isolated by the lies she feels forced to tell, and by having to stay in the attic bedroom that had once been her mother’s prison—a bedroom featuring the word, ‘help,’ carved into the windowpane, and a door that refuses to open in the middle of the night due to what the housekeeper would like Hal to believe is old wood and swollen bolts.
And old wood and swollen bolts are Trepassen House. Ware presents us with this iron-gated Gothic mansion, in steep decline from its former greatness, as well as a family unit that consists of numerous fractured and strained relationships. We know that, for at least a single moment in time, members of the Westaway family were happy, but this moment, forever captured by a fortuitous photograph, is the key to a multi-layered mystery: what happened to Maude, and how did Hal’s mother, Maggie, really die?
I find it strange but fitting that the plots of both The Death of Mrs. Westaway and Wylding Hall hinge on a single photograph; these photographs initiate profound changes in the lives of those within them. Also interesting is that, for Wylding Hall, questions arise from who is present in the photograph but shouldn’t be, and for The Death of Mrs. Westaway, the trouble stems from that individual who obscured himself from the camera’s flash, but should have been included in the image.
It is no mystery as to why Ruth Ware is called the modern-day Agatha Christie. Hal’s journey through the intricacies of Trepassen House’s past, through what ultimately becomes her own past, is as enjoyable as a hot cup of tea on, well, on a dark and stormy night.
Dungeons, Doom, & Decay Meter:
- Protagonist isolated—physically or emotionally—from those around her: 9
- Setting is old & rundown (bonus points for a dungeon, secret room, etc.): 9
- Atmosphere is one of mystery, horror, & dread: 10
- High emotion reigns: 8
- Supernatural elements abound: 3 (Hal’s reliance on her tarot cards lends the story a patina of the supernatural)