Have you ever gotten a strong feeling about a place? I’m not talking here about places being haunted – well, not literally. But sometimes, houses do have what some people call vibes. In fact, real estate professionals count on their properties to have a positive feeling, so that potential buyers will be drawn in. If I can give just one personal example, when my family and I sold our home in the Midwest to move to California, our agent suggested having a roast or fresh bread in the oven shortly before people were to come and see the house. The whole point was to add to the ‘happy’ aura of the place with an irresistible if subtle aroma.
Houses can give off a sense of ‘warm and happy,’ or ‘terribly sad and bleak,’ or even ‘dangerous.’ And that can add a lot to a crime novel. A house with a certain personality can make for a very effective setting for a story. And the history of the place can add to character development and more.
Fans of Edgar Allan Poe will know that The Fall of the House of Usher features a house with a very strong aura. In it, we are introduced to Roderick Usher and his sister Madeleine, both of whom seem to be suffering from severe anxiety and other disorders. Usher writes to a friend (the story’s narrator) asking for help. The narrator arrives and is almost immediately struck by the grim atmosphere of the house. But he settles in as best he can. Soon, some strange things begin to happen, and the narrator begins to wonder if his host is right that the house is sentient. It’s a chilling story with a house that really does seem to have its own personality.
For instance, more than one of Daphne du Maurier’s stories are set in a place that has a lot of personality. Rebecca, for instance, takes place at Manderley, the home of Maxim de Winter. The novel is written from the viewpoint of de Winter’s second wife. Almost from the moment she arrives, she is overwhelmed by the personality of de Winter’s dead first wife, Rebecca. In many ways, the house has taken on its owner’s personality, and the second Mrs. de Winter soon feels uncomfortable there. As the story goes on, we learn little bits and pieces about Rebecca’s life and death, and we see how that history impacts the feel of the house. I know, I know, fans of Jamaica Inn.
Agatha Christie made use of a house’s atmosphere in a few of her stories. In Five Little Pigs, for instance, Hercule Poirot is hired to investigate the sixteen-year-old murder of famous painter Amyas Crale, who was poisoned at his home, Alderbury. It’s always been believed that Crale’s wife, Caroline, killed her husband because of his affair with Elsa Greer. In fact, Caroline Crale was tried and convicted in the matter, and died in prison. But Crale’s daughter, Carla, has always believed that her mother was innocent, and wants her name cleared. As a part of solving the murder, Poirot interviews the five people who were present at the time of the murder. He also gets written accounts from them. At one point, he also visits Alderbury. The house has been converted to a hostel, but it still carries its history. One of the people involved in the case is Meredith Blake, who lives on the property next to Alderbury. As he’s showing Poirot around, he says,
‘It – it all comes back to me, you know. Ghosts. Ghosts everywhere!’
That’s the sort of effect a house can have. I see you, fans of Sleeping Murder. That’s a great example of a house with a lot of personality, too.
So is the house in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. In this case, the house is owned by the Blackwoods, who live in a small New England town. Eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine ‘Merricat’ Blackwood lives with her sister Constance and their Uncle Julian. They’re outcasts in the town, because everyone believes that one of them is responsible for the murders of three other members of the Blackwood family. Still, the Blackwoods get on with their lives. Then a family cousin, Charles Blackwood, comes to pay a visit. His visit touches off a set of events that ends in terrible tragedy. The house carries the story of the family in, as you might say, and it has its own personality that adds to the suspense and atmosphere in the story.
Much of Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series takes place in the small Québec town of Three Pines. Some of the families in town have been there for a very long time, and so have some of the houses. The Hadley House, for instance, has been in the same family for many years, and it plays an important role in the first Gamache novel, Still Life. In that novel, Gamache, who is with the Sûreté du Québec, is sent to Three Pines to investigate the sudden death of a beloved former teacher. In A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold), the Hadley House has been purchased by lifestyle guru Cecilia ‘CC’ de Poitiers. She settles in with her husband and fifteen-year-old daughter, and soon manages to alienate just about everyone. She is, as it turns out, malicious and thoroughly self-involved. So, when she is murdered during a curling match, Gamache has plenty of suspects to investigate. The Hadley House comes up at other times in the series, too. It’s got its own sad history and plenty of stories to tell.
Houses really can have unique personalities, especially if they have histories. And that can make for a powerful setting for a story. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Madness’ Our House.