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'The Crooked House' Is Haunted, In A World That Denies Ghosts

On a freezing June night, fourteen-year-old Esme Grace huddles in her upper-floor bedroom as a shotgun's blast reverberates over and over in the bowels of her family's lopsided, isolated house. Afterwards, her three siblings and mother lie dead; her father alive but damaged beyond speech and thought by a seemingly self-imposed gunshot wound; Esme herself is physically unharmed but covered in her family's blood. Soon after, her estranged aunt flies to her side, bundles her up, and takes her away from the tiny marsh village where her world has come apart.

Thirteen years later, Esme goes by the name Alison, and lives a simple, nondescript life in London, far away from that hamlet that used to be her home and its strange, unhappy people. The only flame of pleasure in her life is a boyfriend, Paul, though she keeps him at arm's length. But when Paul is invited to his ex-girlfriend's wedding in her old hometown — and insists on bringing her along — Alison finds herself returning to a place she never thought she'd see again.

Relocated, she begins a strange, unspooling effort to probe for the truth. Not just what happened to her family, but the organizing intelligence behind the death and sorrow that seems to permeate every local life — her father's old drinking buddy, her former best friend, the police officer who questioned her after the murders, the older man she kissed as a young woman. With the wedding looming, the specters of the past and the broken people of the present are converging on Alison, reminding her that Esme has never really gone away.

The Crooked House is a weird, excellent literary thriller, equal parts psychological profile and twisty, nasty plot. Its first two-thirds are subtle, heartbreaking, and grim; the last third descends into the sort of suspenseful page-turner that puts in the physical integrity of the novel's spine at risk. The estuary where the majority of the novel is set is a moody and atmospheric place, and every sentence jangles with unspent violence.

What, this novel asks, does it mean for a place to be haunted, in a world where there's no such thing as ghosts?

The nature of trauma even soaks into the prose structure: Alison often skips forward in time and then relates past details in fragments, a style that can be jarring and strange, but is effective and absolutely on-purpose. The novel is an exploration of the nature of tragedy; how people try to find patterns in its randomness. "Cells mutate; accidents happen," Alison tries to reason with herself. "Every place had those tragedies, London must have a hundred million of them, people die wherever you go, for reasons just like this. No such thing as a cursed place."

And this is the ultimate question: if curses don't really exist, why does tragedy pool and collect in certain places, among certain people? The cloistered community of Saltleigh and her almost-living childhood home ache with dread and pain ("And for a moment the house looked like a crooked ugly lightening rod out on the marsh, hatred narrowing and finding its way like electricity to the battered boarded front door."), equal parts Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. What, this novel asks, does it mean for a place to be haunted, in a world where there's no such thing as ghosts?

Carmen Maria Machado's debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, will be released in 2017. She has written for The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Granta and elsewhere.

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Carmen Maria Machado