- Laura Benedict
- Pegasus Crime
- 446 pp.
- Reviewed by Ellen Prentiss Campbell
- August 5, 2014
Looking for a fresh start in a crumbling Victorian mansion, a mother and her daughter find tragedy and a secret from the past that continues to haunt the present.
Laura Benedict’s latest novel, Bliss House, combines elements of crime thriller, ghost story, and psychodrama. Many dark events, including murders, rapes, and kidnappings, have occurred over the past century at Bliss House, a crumbling Victorian mansion near Charlottesville, Virginia. Adhering to a traditional plot device — as did Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw —the ominous house itself plays a role as container and catalyst of past and present dire happenings.
Rainey, the brand-new owner of Bliss House, is a distant descendant of Randolph Hasbrouck Bliss, who built the place in 1878. She has moved from the Midwest back to her family roots in the Shenandoah Valley and purchased her ancestors’ once-elegant, currently rundown property in hope of achieving a new home and a new start.
The misfortunate Bliss family and their house are ill-named and, alas, Rainey proves no exception to what readers learn is an apparent family curse: being tragedy-prone. Her beloved husband has died in a recent fire. Her daughter, Ariel, survived, but the once-beautiful teenager (an aspiring ballerina) is scarred, crippled, and traumatized. Rainey believes restoring Bliss House will provide mother and daughter with recovery and healing.
Although Rainey is vaguely aware that the house has a dubious past, she envisions bringing “love and sunshine” into the blighted mansion — and expects it will be an ideal setting for continuing her successful online interior-design business.
The plot thickens during Rainey’s housewarming party, when a guest falls — or is pushed — to her death from the balcony. Ariel witnesses the accident. To further complicate matters, what Ariel believes she saw bears eerie connections to one of the house’s most sinister secrets. (Benedict has already revealed this grotesque secret to the reader at the very beginning of the book, but Ariel and Rainey remain ignorant for almost all of the ensuing 400+ pages. The author has a fine premise and, ultimately, a satisfying resolution, but the ride could have been shorter and more dramatic.)
The secret readers are privy to? A generation ago, a teenage girl named Allison was held captive by her boyfriend, raped, and abandoned in a hidden wing of Bliss House. Speaking as a voice from the recent past, Allison herself tells her horrific story as the chapters and narrative alternate between then and now.
The investigation of the death of Rainey’s party guest proceeds, and the cold case of Allison’s disappearance and her abductor’s identity is re-investigated. Although the bulk of the novel features present events, the most compelling voice — and the grimmest storyline — belongs to Allison. Her plight will remind the reader of other chilling stories of captivity, such as Joyce Carol Oates’ brief, terrifying novella The Corn Maiden, Emma Donoghue’s Room, and John Fowles’ The Collector.
Benedict does not choose to restrict her story to Allison’s tale. She takes on the ambitious challenges of combining multiple related storylines, time periods, and viewpoints. To achieve such a feat — while also employing elements of realistic narrative, crime thriller, and the supernatural — requires a complicated balance of theme, tone, and event. Two recent novels which integrate similar multifaceted narrative demands to effect (and with economy) are Valerie Martin’s The Ghost of the Mary Celeste and Susan Scarf Merrell’s Shirley.
Benedict, unfortunately, does not always consistently achieve a balance of elements and, at times, the lengthy book approaches melodrama. For greatest effect, thrillers and psychodramas usually require a certain taut structure and insistent pace. Here, multiple storylines and the sheer size of the work dilute the suspense of the author’s intricately plotted and somewhat surprising resolution.
Still, the melodrama may represent intentional authorial choice. Benedict is the originator and editor of the Surreal South short-fiction anthology series and “writes from the dark side.” She is an avowed fan of Edgar Allan Poe; readers will recognize his influence.
Benedict’s deft selection of the telling details of physical appearance paints such a vivid picture of Bliss House, the family, and the Southern community that many scenes seem tailor-made for adaptation to screenplay. Bliss House is, indeed, a dark place, and one the author uses as the setting for her contemporary spin on a classic Gothic situation.
Ellen Prentiss Campbell is a frequent contributor to the Washington Independent Review of Books. Her short fiction has appeared in journals including the Massachusetts Review and the Potomac Review. A collection of her stories will be published by Broadkill Press in 2015. Recipient of an MFA from Bennington and a past fellow of the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Campbell is at work on a novel set on the grounds of a former psychiatric asylum near her home. She writes and practices psychotherapy in Maryland.