Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas was sold to me as gothic-horror, and that may be part of why I was disappointed. For me, it never got creepy enough or weird enough or really came to any sharp point that drew blood or emotion the way you’d expect in a haunted house story.
Ines is running from a traumatic moment that happened to her as a teenager, and from an apparent lack of any adults, other than a teacher who steers her toward the most elite college in the land: Catherine House, from which high society hails but never spills any secrets or gossip – a mystery of education.
Once there, the young adults are not allowed any contact with the outside world until graduation. And graduation promises so much. The world at their fingertips. While inside Catherine House, the students take part in a cult-like ritual based on a denounced (and handwavium) science. Ines gets curious, but not curious enough to really effect any changes, and then she’s given an ultimatum.
My biggest sadness about this story was that the reason for all of this is not really explained or realized. The villains never get their moment, so I never cared. And Ines just keeps running. There’s no revelation for her, no moment of bildungsromanesque enlightenment. Only glimpses as seen through a gauzy (kinda dull) curtain. I was actually mad at the ending.
The House itself, meanwhile, had so much potential! The start of the book is exactly what I wanted – dreamlike, surreal, lost and winding, dark corners and strange gardens. That lost feeling kids that age have when they’re trying to figure out what the hell anything means in life…that cusp liminality. The chant of the ritual promises a House that owns the occupants, but Thomas never brings this to climax. Instead, sending the House’s troubled occupants outside of itself. Frustrating.
I found what I was looking for, however, in The Gray House by Mariam Petrosyan (translated by Yuri Machkasov). This Russian author presents a meandering mansion of a book about disabled schoolkids who are more than denizens, but rather citizens of possessive Gray House. Smoker, like Ines, doesn’t quite fit in and is running from his problems.
The kids in Petrosyan’s house form careful cliques of personality – gangs with rituals and rules, talismans and concoctions. There’s as much drinking and drugging in The Gray House as there was on the college campus of Catherine House, but this imbibing comes with a purpose. It leads them deeper into the transitional spaces of the haunting. It helps them find their futures.
Whereas adults are villains in both books, The Gray House’s adults are bumbling and petty, and somewhat lost themselves. There’s no grand plan on their part to change the children into something they can use, but rather they seem jealous of the children and their ability to live fully in the house and its potentialities.
One of the best parts of The Gray House is that the disabilities of the kids are completely neutral. There’s no able-centric observations or discussions. They just are. I’ve NEVER read a book with this before. Ever. I loved it so much. It’s breathtaking in how well done it is. And the children themselves are fascinating in their personalities, quirks, and sorrows.
Both books make being put back Outside the houses as the worst thing that can happen. In Catherine House, you get discharged for poor grades or depression, all your future spent poorly. In The Gray House, the threat of the Outsides comes with graduation, and it slowly builds to an absolute surreal and magical resolution.
When I say magical here, I mean like Pan’s Labyrinth magical – we’re talking the hard magic. The kind that costs. The kind that requires you to say your wishes carefully and be sure you understand the bargain.
The hardest part of The Gray House was its length. While I don’t mind long books, this particular story truly needs to be read twice to fully grasp everything. You could read The Gray House over and over and over and still probably find new things you missed. It’s a lot like the Gray House and the magic it gives.
Two books with an ambiguously haunted house and kids trying to find their way. Happy Hauntings!