"I blame Charles Dickens for the death of my father," our narrator sternly informs us at the beginning of John Boyne's This House is Haunted. The reader who believes the publisher's boilerplate and expects the novel to rework one or more of Dickens' own tales, however, will be sorely puzzled; although there are occasional Dickensian allusions, like the clerk named Cratchett (who turns out to be unacquainted with A Christmas Carol), the novel in fact yokes Jane Eyre to The Turn of the Screw. As in Jane Eyre, our heroine is a plain governess summoned to undertake a job at an isolated country mansion--a mansion that comes complete with a secret in the attic, no less. And as in The Turn of the Screw, the governess' charges are two slightly preternatural children, Eustace and Isabella (whose parents are, strangely enough, nowhere in sight), and the house is, as the title cheerfully says, haunted. Whereas most revisions of The Turn of the Screw--e.g., Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger, A. N. Wilson's A Jealous Ghost, John Harding's Florence and Giles--go the "unreliable narrator" instead of the "actually existing ghosts" route, This House is Haunted is all about the poltergeists. And an endless run of Gothic cliches.
Spoilers ahoy, so I'll put the rest below the fold.
The Turn of the Screw succeeds not because there are endless terrifying happenings, but because the narrative builds up an ever-increasing dread, punctuated by moments that are frightening (the sudden appearance of Peter Quint at the window) in part because they are so very mundane. The odd gaps and ambiguities in the unnamed governess' tale--for example, the first appearance of Miss Jessell, which actually happens "offstage"--only add to the effect: is she lying, or is she not? By contrast, Boyne's Eliza Caine, while certainly capable of withholding information (her attraction to the child-molesting fellow teacher Arthur Covan, for example) generally tells us what happens when it happens. (Besides the Covan story, the only real exception to this rule is her first meeting with Mr. Westerley, whose horrifically ruined face she describes in detail only later; the strategy here is very similar to James'.) Moreover, despite initial skepticism from the locals, her own ghastly encounters with the resident ghost(s) are confirmed by the previous governness, Mr. Westerley, and eventually the village lawyer, Mr. Raisin. There's no ambiguity here, in other words: the house is haunted. But by what?
To the extent that the novel ever does take on Dickens, it is by openly subverting Rule #7: Santina, the late Mrs. Westerley--late because she has been hanged for the murder of Governess #1 and the attempted murder of her husband--was molested by her "father and uncle," who "took the most despicable liberties" (136). As a result, she obsessively seeks to protect her children from all adults, her husband included, even after her own death. By the same token, Eliza and Mr. Raisin worry anxiously about Eustace, suffering from "the traumas of childhood" (206). A life of abuse and suffering does not, in other words, produce an angelic Dickens heroine or hero. Somewhat disconcertingly, to say the least, it instead generates the ultimate Murderous Mother, Devil in the House instead of Angel, whose nurturing instincts turn all-devouring. Mr. Westerley, at the top of the house, may well be Bertha Mason's structural parallel, but what's left of him remains perfectly sane; Santina, the foreigner and outsider, is a Madwoman in the Attic whose maternity, not her sexuality, is to blame. By contrast, the other ghost turns out to be Eliza Caine's loving father, "watching over" (261) his endangered child; having exploded Santina into "a million fragments of light" (278), the good, nurturing Daddy dissipates, leaving his child to become a surrogate and appropriately unpossessive mother to the orphaned Eustace. (Alas, as the novel concludes, it appears that Daddy may have dissipated just a trifle too soon.) Notably, it's left to the fathers to restore order: Mr. Westerley requests death because he knows that it will weaken his wife's ghost, while the ghost of Mr. Caine comes back from the next world rather than let his daughter be murdered by a wayward woman. Eliza Caine, our Gothic heroine, is fundamentally helpless in the face of both Santina and her father; for all her bluster and perseverance, she can only provoke the final conflict between the warring supernatural forces, not do anything about the haunting herself.
Gender politics aside, the novel could have been a bit more meta--and not just in the sledgehammer sense of "She behaved as if she was a character in a ghost story" (210). Boyne ornaments his novel with all sorts of standard-issue Gothic bric-a-brac: the locals are suspicious of anyone associated with the mansion; the professional men are skeptics; the narrator undergoes the usual run of spooky assaults (dogs, wind, boiling water, sealed windows that mysteriously open, strange hands...); the children, especially Isabella, are creepy; the house implodes at the end like something out of "The Fall of the House of Usher." But...the special effects are so familiar as to be rather uninteresting. And when we're informed that the narrator is the "sixth governess in a year" (109)--the other four having died and the fifth narrowly escaped--it's hard not to laugh at the sheer overkill, if you'll excuse the pun. I kept waiting for some kind of self-reflexive moment to justify the Gothic cliches; alas, it never arrived. It was Crippen all over again.