Book Review: The Poisoned House by Michael Ford

7795293Title: The Poisoned House
Author: Michael Ford
Genre: Gothic Horror, Victorian, Ghosts, Haunting, Young Adult
Publisher: Albert Whitman & Company
Publishing Date: August 1st 2011
Pages: 328
Rating: 3,5 stars
Review copy provided by the pubilsher through Netgalley.

The year is 1856, and orphan Abigail Tamper lives below stairs in Greave Hall, a crumbling manor house in London. Lord Greave is plagued by madness, and with his son Samuel away fighting in the Crimea, the running of Greave Hall is left to Mrs Cotton, the tyrannical housekeeper. The only solace for the beleaguered staff is to frighten Mrs Cotton by pretending the house is haunted.

So when a real ghost makes an appearance – that of her beloved mother – no one is more surprised than Abi. But the spirit has a revelation that threatens to destroy Abi’s already fragile existence: she was murdered, and by someone under their very own roof. With Samuel returned to England badly wounded, it’s up to Abi to nurse him back to health, while trying to discover the identity of the killer in their midst. As the chilling truth dawns, Abi’s world is turned upside down.

The Poisoned House is your typical gothic horror story with the haunted house, the archetypical gothic villains, the Lord of the house on the verge of madness and our own tagic heroine. Combine all these elements with Michael Ford’s excellent writing, and the result is an enjoyable, entertaining and sometimes even downright scary read, excellent for during a thunder storm or late at night bedtime-reading.

Abigail Tamper, or Abi as we get to call her, is the youngest servant working in Greave Hall, an impressing but cold and empty house. The tyrannical housekeeper, Mrs. Cotton, is always out to get her and punish her, mostly for crimes she hardly even committed. Every little mistake she makes is punished severely. In her despair, Abigail even tries to run away – which eventually costs her dearly, as she is returned to the manor. With the Lord of the house gradually falling into madness, the servants afraid of the abusive housekeeper, there is only one more thing needed to turn this novel into a true Victorian ghost story. A ghost.

We meet the ghost in the form of Abigail’s mother, who passed away just about a year ago. While at first, Abi feels both terrified and rejoiced over having her mother’s ghost around to watch over her, she soon realises there must be a reason why her mother is back. That’s when Abi realises that she might be in danger. And she might not be the only one.

Although the story is predictable (I could predict the ending by page 30 or so), it is very enjoyable, and it does offer a few nice surprises along the way. I did like Abi as a character. She is a typical young adult in the Victorian era: not all that confident with herself, willing to settle for the role she has in the world, and a reluctant hero. Like a lot of people in that era, she immediately jumps to the conclusion of ghosts when weird things start to happen, which is downright awesome and saves us a lot of time we would otherwise spend reading about the protagonists’s debates whether or not their house is haunted, like we find all too often in nowadays ghost literature. She is a relatable charachter, well-portrayed through-out this novel, and I felt very sympathetic towards her, especially when I got to know her a little better.

The character of Mrs. Cotton offers an excellent portrayal of the archetypical Victorian villain. She is cruel, mean, and deadly afraid of the ghosts that have come to haunt Greave Hall. She is cold, self-righteous and a pleasure to read about. The fact that she might not be the only villain in this story, only adds to the suspense. Talking about suspense, The Poisoned House really got this spot-on. From the first page I read I was wondering why a young girl like Abi would want to escape from the only safe home she has, and as I turned page after page, more and more mysteries began to unfold in front of me and I felt the undeniable urge to continue reading. Putting this book away is simply not an option.

If you’re a fan of gothic novels like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, you will be delighted to read The Poisoned House, as it really follows in line with all the classics in the genre. It has all the elements to make an interesting and scary ghost story, and it does so in a most unique fashion. Aimed at young adults, it isn’t as frightening as it could have been, but it does make for a nice way to pass the time during a rainy afternoon or late at night. The mystery grows thicker with every page and for some, the revelation at the end, might be quite shocking. If you’re familiar with gothic novels, you might have it all figured out by then though, which isn’t always that pleasant (and which is the reason why I didn’t rate this book higher). On another note, the historical setting is anything but accurate, which often annoyed me. The characters don’t even speak the way they did in Victorian England…This might be because the novel was aimed at young adults and even younger children, but that doesn’t mean it’s not annoying for the somewhat older people under us who’d like to read things that are at least somewhat accurate.

The plot is, as I already said, decent, but it’s also predictable and not-all-that-surprising, especially when you’ve read gothic horror before. The ending is rushed, and I feel like they’re quite some loose ties the author should have wrapped up. It’s like he builds up the tension slowly, and keeps us all excited for more, and then ends it all in a page or ten. It isn’t all that believable and convincing either, which bothered me as well.

All in all, The Poisoned House is an entertaining read with interesting characters, some nice plot twists, and your typical Victorian haunted house setting. The atmosphere is gothic, creepy and tense. The suspense builds gradually, and keeps you turning page after page after page. The novel is aimed at teens, and that really shows. But all in all, if you’re a fan of the genre, or just love a nice ghost story, you shouldn’t leave this one out.

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