[The Manor by Scott Nicholson. Pinnacle Books, 2004. 320 pp. ISBN 0-7860-1580-2.]
Haunted-house tales have a rich tradition in stories of the extra-natural, and haunted houses have long been perceived as places of power. The benevolent kind is most often found in nonfiction: books on haunted houses with spirits who only appear and disappear, apparently uninterested in, or unable to affect, the lives of breathing humans. The malevolent version is much more dramatically charged and therefore more suitable to fiction. The latter can be further subdivided in fiction into two groups: houses powered by indirect evil (with a past not directly connected to any living humans) and houses where the evil depends on specific persons connected to previous inhabitants. A good example of indirect malevolence is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House: Eleanor is susceptible to the house’s indirect malevolence and becomes its focus for re-enacting the signal event that caused the spirit of the house’s original owner to become evil (despite the fact that a direct descendant is part of the investigative team). The more direct version involves such things as a previous owner’s malevolence targeting its descendants, and this is the kind of house that The Manor portrays.
Scott Nicholson’s third novel, again set in the Appalachian region where he lives, is a haunted-house book where the spirits doing the haunting have a visceral impact on their guests, not all of whom are their relatives. (Giving too many details would spoil a major part of the story.)
A gathering of artistic types at a reputed retreat house is the setting for the novel, which focuses on the house’s deceased owner, Ephram Korban, and his last living relative, Mamie Goldfeld. The house is rented out by Ms. Goldfeld to allow guests time and quietude to invoke their Muses, but of course it’s much more than that. Korban invested the structure as his seat of power after he had it built, and he’s determined that death will not stop him from continuing to build that power. But in order to do that, he needs the living as well as the dead, and as he captures what he needs from them all, his power grows. As each artist is shown pursuing a project, the reader learns more about why each came to the manor and what they hope to accomplish while there. One expects the weak to be taken out early in a horror novel, and Nicholson doesn’t disappoint. In fact, there are some characters one might be glad to see gone; they’re not necessarily evil, but they certainly aren’t likeable.
The foils in Korban’s plan are Anna Galloway, cancer-ridden and searching for clues to her own past among the ghosts who speak to her, and sculptor Mason Jackson, who’s trying to find out whether he actually has the talent to become a “real” artist. Mason’s urge to carve a particular statue from wood while at the house, and the depiction of his carving sessions, is a prominent feature of the events in The Manor. However, one character is both foil and co-conspirator: the mountain witch Sylva Hartley. Her role in the story is the spider’s silk that binds all the other characters together, and in many ways the story of the Korban estate is her story as well.
Nicholson based the Korban house on Cone Manor in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, but unlike The Amityville Horror, the inspiration is not explicit, and while there are some parallels between the two stories (both owners died at relatively young ages, both houses’ guests are visited by ghosts), Nicholson has used the Cone Manor story as a jumping-off point for a much darker and despicable tale, well-rooted in the traditions and stories for which Appalachian folklore and songs are well-known (adultery, murder, revenge, and hopeless love). His use of folklore beliefs from the Southern Appalachian region adds depth to the sense of place the setting evokes, making the reader’s journey into the house’s noncorporeal as well as its physical world quite believable. Set anywhere else, this story wouldn’t work as well as it does here; there’s something about the Appalachian Mountains and the Europeans who settled there (many of Scots and Irish descent) which evokes a deep loneliness and a rich history unique to those mountains. Sharyn McCrumb’s novels set in Appalachia have the same atmosphere.
The book’s major themes are common to horror: the dark side of creativity (embodied in Ephram Korban’s lust for power and control over others), romance (between Anna and Mason in this case), the consequences of sex without love (something bad always happens to those who engage in it).
Horror-film fans are well aware than any characters in a horror film who lust after each other without any emotional attachments are going to get the chop (often literally) well before the story’s over. Horror film and horror fiction both show a sadistic morality in this area: consummating sexual covetousness is just plain wrong. But why? I think it’s the lack of group support inherent in lust itself — in horror, there is usually a group of people involved in trying to attain a goal (sleeping overnight in a reputedly haunted house, getting locked into a wax museum and trying to escape, living in a small town where really odd things start happening [a Stephen King favorite], etc.). Any action in the story that depletes the group’s energy which is needed to attain that goal (going off alone, and specifically having sex with a casual partner while the rest of the group goes elsewhere) is paid with severe consequences (the aforementioned chop). The suspense-building technique of having one character killed off at a time has to have a foundation, and this one fits very neatly without resorting to specific religious or spiritual beliefs. In horror, the needs of the many do outweigh the needs of the one (or two, or sometimes three).
The creative impulse, the energy that sparks the construction of something, is perverted by Ephram Korban’s lust for the power to create himself anew. While he lived, Korban collected folk art from the local people for its outer appeal only as a cover for his true purpose: to steal the life energy from those around him. The folk-magic practices of the southern Appalachians, rooted in elemental magic (using plants, earth, and likenesses [poppets] of people to work spells) and fed by the beliefs of those who used them, are what powered Korban’s acquisition of energy beyond death. Because of this, Sylva Hartley is a pivotal character in two important ways. She has a close connection to the titular abode, and her spells and charms are the source of the magical powers employed by both benevolent and malevolent beings. Her chant of “Go out frost, come in fire” or its reverse, said three times, has a magical essence; three time’s a charm, in this story, is literally true.
In The Manor, Nicholson doesn’t consign many characters to doom, choosing instead to depict people on the edge of giving in or giving up. The characters who do meet fate in the shape of Ephram Korban have already surrendered in some form. A hired hand succumbs to fear and depression, thus weakening himself enough for Korban to move in; one of the guests, a photographer, follows his lust and pays for it. Indeed, weakness is the key which Korban uses to snare each of his victims.
Amidst all the nastiness in a horror story, there has to be something to offset its seemingly unrelenting drumbeat. Anna and Mason are the other side of Korban’s unsated lust, because they spend almost the entire novel apart from each other. Anna wants no emotional entanglements to sap the energy she needs to find and communicate with the ghosts that keep appearing to her. Mason, so uncertain of his gift, has no interest in pursuing any relationships at Korban Manor because of his preoccupation with his sculpting. In the end, they find they have to rely on each other to survive, and they each discover that the hard shells they’d built to keep others out weren’t as sturdy as they’d thought.
Nicholson uses multiple viewpoint characters and the tactic works well, as there’s a great deal of interweaving between the characters and the reasons they’ve come to Korban’s house. Mason the sculptor and Anna the parapsychologist represent the search for creativity and the letting go of life, respectively, the two major thematic explorations of this novel. Playing against them are the themes of the dangers of power (both seeking and holding it) and the lack of self-control.
One of the cleverest bits of writerly legerdemain I’ve seen in quite a while involves the Abramovs, a husband and wife musical duo. I’d rather not give this elegant little trick away, so the reader is only advised to pay attention to them. Perhaps others will realize what Nicholson is doing with them sooner than I did, but it’s still a neat turn.
Refreshing the haunted house in a horror novel is no easy trick, but Nicholson never lets the reader see the effort that went into this example and the results are a thought-provoking trip into the darkness inside us all. Don’t forget your flashlight.