Ever since I started getting back into reading horror fiction over the past couple of years, I kept noticing the name Darcy Coates popping up all over the place. I don’t know a great deal about her, other than the fact that she’s Australian and seems to write a shit-ton of books in the gothic and haunted house subgenres. I do love a good haunted house novel, so I decided to start with one of Darcy Coates’s more recent works, The Haunting of Leigh Harker, which was published back in October of 2021.
As this was the first Darcy Coates book I read, I’m not entirely sure how this one stacks up against her other novels, though I noted that several reviews of this book stated that this one was a bit different in tone and style to her usual tales. It’s still a haunted house story, but it has something of a different angle to it which comes into play about a third of the way through.
I enjoyed this book quite a bit, though I will admit that the first third of the novel—the part that’s still very much like a traditional haunted house story—got a bit repetitive, to the point where I was wondering where the whole thing was going to go from there. However, just when I was starting to wonder that, there’s actually a pretty big reveal, and the story goes off in another direction which I was way more into. It’s not the most original twist, and I’ll concede I sort of saw it coming, but afterwards I was a lot more invested in what was going on.
This book is actually really difficult to discuss without spoiling the big reveal, so I will warn you before I tell you what it is, so you can go read the book for yourself if you’d rather go into it blind.
As the title implies, the novel follows a woman by the name of Leigh Harker, who seems to be in her 30s or 40s, works at a museum as an archivist, and lives alone in a large, rambling old house that she loves more than anything. She has a quiet life, keeping to the same routine over and over every day, but this appears to be the way she desires it. She has a few acquaintances at work, and she has a sister named Meg who she is estranged from, but she interacts with very few people on a day to day basis, and this doesn’t seem to bother her one bit.
Unlike in many haunted house stories, the protagonist doesn’t move to a new place and have spooky shit happen; Leigh has actually been living in this house for the past fifteen years, and has never had anything weird occur there at all. In fact, because she is such an introverted person who enjoys spending time by herself and is very set in her ways, her home has always been her sanctuary.
So imagine her chagrin when the home she has loved for more than a decade suddenly starts to seem no longer so welcoming. Leigh begins to experience terrifying manifestations, including things moving around by themselves and creepy noises. The closet under the stairs, which she never even paid attention to before, becomes one of the focal points for the haunting, with the doorknob rattling frequently. Worst of all, she even begins to see some kind of horrifying apparition creeping around the house at night: a tall, shadowy specter with scraggly hair and perfectly round, glowing eyes. Leigh tries to go about her daily life as usual, but the haunting seems to be escalating, and she’s beginning to dread coming home to the house she once loved so much.
This unfolding of the haunting comprises the first third of the book, which is told in the present tense. It’s essentially just Leigh talking in real time about whatever is going on with the haunting that night. As I mentioned earlier, this part of the book did start to wear on me a bit, as it started to seem a little like just a repetitive catalogue of the intensifying phenomena, and I wasn’t really sure if the whole book was going to be like that, or where exactly the story was going. I was never going to not finish the novel, but a few times I did think to myself, “Okay, let’s get moving along now.”
And then, about thirty percent of the way in, there’s a twist that careens the story off in a different direction. After this twist, I was way more on board, although at that point it became less like a haunted house story and more like a murder mystery. There’s really nothing wrong with that, though, is there?
So here is your spoiler alert if you don’t want to know what the big reveal is, though as I said, it isn’t a hugely original twist, so you may just be able to guess it. But it turns out that Leigh’s house didn’t suddenly become haunted at all; on the contrary, Leigh died without realizing it, and has actually been haunting her own house. The things moving around by themselves and the apparition she’s been seeing are simply the product of the elderly woman, Sarah, who moved into the house after Leigh died. Leigh was only seeing her as a monster because Leigh wasn’t aware she was dead.
It also turns out that Sarah can actually see Leigh, as she’s been gifted with second sight her whole life. She had been attempting to communicate with Leigh’s ghost, but Leigh was too frightened to respond. Sarah also explains that Leigh isn’t always around; sometimes there will be weeks that go by without Leigh being there, so we’re led to assume that she goes into some type of limbo. Because Leigh didn’t really realize she was dead, and is still having some problems grasping her new state of existence, she still sometimes perceives things the way they were when she was alive: for example, she usually sees the house as it was when she lived in it, even though Sarah has actually redecorated, and she still perceives that she can move objects and leave the house, even though she really can’t.
The final two-thirds of the book is basically a mystery story, with Sarah and Leigh trying to figure out how Leigh died, since she doesn’t remember it happening. Although the police dismissed her death as accidental, as there was no sign of foul play, Leigh begins to suspect that she was actually murdered, so Sarah begins to try to pinpoint when Leigh was last seen alive, and investigates any lead she can get her hands on.
Once the pivot to murder mystery occurred, I was all in; though the haunting stuff early in the book was super creepy and atmospheric, it went on a bit too long. But after that, I just flew through it, investigating the murder right alongside these two women, one dead, one alive. There was also something really poignant and sad about the whole story, as Leigh realized that she’d been murdered and nobody cared all that much because she never really interacted with anyone who would know to look for her when she went missing. The friendship that developed between the two women was absolutely a highlight of the story, very bittersweet and heartbreaking. Sarah, it turns out, also has a connection to this particular house, so there are all kinds of plot tendrils that come together near the end in a really satisfying way.
All in all, I enjoyed this novel quite a lot; it’s beautifully written and genuinely scary in parts, and although the first third was somewhat slow, after the twist happened, it took on another dimension that really got me invested. If you’re into spooky haunted house stories that are threaded through with mystery, then I’d highly recommend it.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.