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book review

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  • Title: The Residence
  • Author: Andrew Pyper
  • Genre: Horror
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Pages: 340

As a train cuts through the deep January cold, carrying the most important person in the United States, president-elect Franklin Pierce, the unthinkable happens: The train derails, throwing passengers into chaos. But the accident takes only one life – that of his young son, Benjamin.

Thus begins Andrew Pyper’s new horror novel, The Residence, loosely based on events that took place in the White House during Pierce’s mid-19th century presidency. Drawing on both historical narrative and urban myth, Pyper adeptly navigates the nuances of the genre, using the complexities of the form to move beyond shocks and thrills. Pyper’s ability to make one question truths, what they witness, and even their own existence, is horror in the tradition of Henry James’s Turn of the Screw and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. As in his novels The Homecoming, The Other Child and The Guardians, Pyper’s particular skill at isolating his characters and drawing on their weaknesses creates a backdrop from which ghosts of one’s past push them to commit the unthinkable. And he’s done it again with The Residence.

After the death of their son and upon their arrival at the White House, Franklin’s wife, Jane Pierce, plummets into grief, a state which manifests in her physical appearance, mirroring Pyper’s corporeal characterizations of the ghosts that haunt them. What was once intended to be Bennie’s room becomes a place of mourning – the Grief Room – where Jane’s sadness is orchestrated by a presence, a malevolence released from beyond a veil many years ago. And it has a name: Sir.

Now rooted in the White House, Sir visits Jane, allowing her precious moments tucked away in the Grief Room with her deceased son, Bennie. Despite knowing that the little boy is not truly Bennie but an uncanny and eerily perfect mirror of her son created by Sir, Jane withdraws behind the Grief Room’s doors, day by day floating further from her husband and her life, drawing closer to becoming a ghost of her former self.

Meanwhile, as Franklin is settling into his new position as leader of the American people, he starts to witness the ghosts upon whose backs the foundations of his new home have been built, both literally and metaphorically. Whispers from the boiler room, visitations in the dark hours of the night, and a strange toy all show Franklin the truth that will come to the American people, if he and Jane don’t stop it. And to stop it, they must stop Sir.

Jane turns to Kate Fox, one of the real-life infamous Fox sisters known for reaching beyond the veil and communing with the deceased. With the help of Kate, Franklin and Jane seek to not only open the barrier holding Sir at bay, but to enter his world, silencing him once and for all.

In The Residence, Pyper retells a historical narrative, weaving it with imagined possibilities and a thick layer of creepy. But underneath the bumps in the night and the ghostly apparitions, Pyper is also telling us something else: The moral behind the genesis of the American Dream. Through his ghostly allegory, Pyper presents a way for a wider audience to digest the indigestible.

While Pyper is adept at tapping into his readers’ primal fears, his gift is in anchoring those fears in truths that are intangible and near irreconcilable. The Residence does both, as Pyper uses Pierce’s factual presidency preceding the American Civil War to uncover a side of American history that resides as a ghost on the periphery of discourse. He dovetails this with an intimate window into the unfathomable grief that envelops a parent after the loss of a child.

Pyper’s lessons are not exactly delicate, though. The Residence is a fictional reminder of a past that has lived on the periphery of conversations yet is screaming to be heard. Through Pyper’s use of Pierce’s presidency, he reminds the reader that slavery and genocide have not truly been abolished, but rather haunt the halls of those who would turn away from these horrors, both in the past and present. He gives this history a name, a form, a texture and sets it loose.

Although the slow pace and not-so-subtle message of The Residence might be off-putting for those looking for immediate thrills and quick entertainment, Pyper satisfies in his prose and ability to capture the almost imperceptible. He remains a true storyteller of gothic horror, consistent with his previous works. He weaves a character arc of spouses drifting apart, separated by the invisible wall of unfathomable loss, and builds tension through dialogue and simple, crisp and oftentimes visceral prose. Leaving Franklin and Jane with a difficult choice, Pyper alludes to the inaction of American leaders, keeping his characters horrified as much by their own minds as the presence of the spirits that haunt them, caught in a psychological maze from which both the First Family and the ghosts may never emerge.

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