I’m a graphic designer myself and have been for more than two decades, so perhaps it’s a little self-serving of me to say that book covers are really, REALLY important, but just because I’m biased doesn’t mean the statement isn’t absolutely true. For example, the cover design of Patrick Delaney’s 2020 novel The House That Fell from the Sky was a significant component in why I particularly chose to read it out of all the available options on my Kindle Unlimited subscription, though I’ll admit the intriguing title sorta hooked me too. But yeah, that cover—designed by Ross Nischler—is dynamite. And although the story within the covers didn’t quite live up to the awesomeness on the exterior, this was still a solidly entertaining read for those into haunted house stories with a cosmic horror twist.
The tale revolves around four friends, all in the late 20s/early 30s age bracket, though at times their dialogue seems more like the discussions had by teenagers; this isn’t necessarily a criticism, by the way, as I’m 50 and still have conversations like this, because I’m kinda immature and not ashamed of it. I did see that some reviewers said the book read like YA, and though I don’t really concur with that assessment, it is an easy, breezy read with wisecracking characters who are constantly snarking at one another.
Our main protagonist is Scarlett Vantassel, a somewhat successful horror YouTuber who finds herself somewhat adrift at twenty-nine years of age. She grew up in the city of Winterview, but always dreamed of bigger and better things; at some point a few years before the events of the novel, she ran off with the purported love of her life, Luke, and started college. But not long after, both she and Luke realized that Scarlett was only doing what she thought she was supposed to be doing in regards to adulthood, and consequently subsuming her own identity to Luke’s; after he gently breaks it off with her, not wanting to be responsible for her looming identity crisis, she returns to her hometown with her tail between her legs and moves back in with her dad. She’s also contemplating ending her YouTube channel, even though she has millions of fans and it used to be something she quite enjoyed. She’s just not sure at this stage where she wants her life to go.
Also factoring into the plot is Scarlett’s brother Tommy—an aspiring professional baseball player who had to forgo his dreams after an injury ended his sports career—as well as Tommy’s girlfriend and Scarlett’s former best friend Hannah, who has been having an extremely difficult time dealing with the recent death of her mother. There’s also Jackson, a bartender and Scarlett’s close friend, who’s not only contending with his strained relationship with his father—the Winterview Chief of Police—but also has unrequited romantic feelings for Scarlett which she doesn’t seem all that aware of. All three of these other characters also harbor differing levels of resentment toward Scarlett for taking off with Luke without really saying goodbye; Hannah’s feelings of abandonment are easily the most pronounced, as she feels that Scarlett threw away a lifelong friendship for a random guy and was hence not there for her to help her through her grief after her mother died. Once Scarlett is back in town, however, the four of them hang out and try to resolve their differences.
Now, what about this ‘house that fell from the sky’ business, you may be asking. Well, we’ll get to that, although I will warn you that even though the house does indeed fall from the sky fairly early on in the story, it then kind of simmers on the back burner for a really long time while a bunch of character stuff plays out. How you feel about that is up to you, but it was by far the main criticism I saw in other reviews of this novel; in other words, that it took too long to get into the actual house itself. And yeah, I admit I agree to an extent; this is a long-ass book (528 pages on Kindle), and I think the thing was more than half over before our heroes even set foot in the house. So just know going in that this is essentially a character study for the first 250 pages or so, with just the promise of the house lurking in the background.
Anyway, as I mentioned, not long into the story, the titular house comes crashing down randomly in the middle of downtown Winterview one day, and everyone is completely baffled. It looks all gothic and spooky, and it soon becomes clear that something about it is undeniably otherworldly. The authorities rope it off after trying (and failing) to get inside, but on the handful of occasions that someone does manage to get past the house’s defenses—such as a rival horror YouTuber and a rookie cop—they go insane and kill themselves within seconds of emerging from the house. The house thus becomes a worldwide media sensation and is subsequently purchased by a shady conglomerate known as the Crow Corporation.
After all this stuff happens, a year passes in Winterview with the house pretty much reduced to background noise. The main characters talk about it every now and then, of course, and there’s concern that Hannah in particular might be becoming obsessed with it, but overall, Scarlett, Tommy, and Jackson are just going about their regular, somewhat dead-end lives.
But then, the Crow Corporation announces a Willy Wonka-style contest, a lottery where they send out tickets to everyone in Winterview. The lucky people whose numbers are drawn will be allowed to enter the house on Halloween night, and if they can survive the entire night there and come out unscathed, they will receive one million dollars each in prize money. It will probably not surprise anyone that our four protagonists are the ones who end up going in, though the way it ends up happening is a bit convoluted; to wit, Hannah, whose mother left her a considerable fortune, essentially buys her way into the house because she’s convinced that her dead mother’s spirit is waiting for her there. After this development, the other three feel obligated to go with her to make sure nothing terrible happens to her inside, since by this time everyone is pretty damn sure that the house probably came from some other dimension and is almost certainly bad news.
So at a little past the halfway mark of the novel, our main characters—along with a fifth character, an elusive magician named Vincent Velledex who I wish had been in the story more—enter the house, and all Lovecraftian hell breaks loose. Although we never learn much about the house’s history other than a few very rudimentary details and never fully grasp what the house is exactly, the saga of the four inside the house is pretty cool regardless, with lots of trippy descriptions of eldritch horrors and so forth, as the house attempts to break the minds of all those who enter it. There are a lot of flashbacks in this portion of the book as well, as the characters become separated and fall foul of the house’s deadly charms, and though some of the revelations given by said flashbacks are relevant, some seemed unnecessary, and I do sort of wish that the novel had been trimmed for length a tad, as some of the background character stuff didn’t factor into the larger plot all that much. That said, the characters are well-drawn, and I’ll admit that I did become emotionally invested in their fates, but despite that, I wish the balance had been tipped slightly more in the direction of more creepy, crazy house stuff, and less in scenes of the characters arguing in diners about what to do about something.
The sequences in the house are vividly described and some of the imagery is legit scary, though I don’t think I’d call this book overly scary as a whole. It’s sort of like The Haunting of Hill House (more the Netflix series than the novel) meets cosmic horror meets something like Silent Hill, all mashed up with tripping on a low dose of acid. While inside the house, time becomes meaningless, and the characters go through things where they seemingly die and then return to life in a different spot in the mansion with little memory of what happened or how long they’ve been in there. So the mansion is sort of purgatorial, in that sense. But as I mentioned, I wish more of the house’s history and construction and essence had been explained, though to be fair the characters in the novel wouldn’t have known what the fuck was up with this place, so maybe it was better to leave it mysterious.
Overall, this was an enjoyable read, though I’ll note that it took me way longer than usual to get through it; I don’t know if that was necessarily because of its length or more because I was sort of obligated to read it on my phone in short chunks over a week or so of lunch hours from work, which isn’t exactly conducive to total immersion in the story. I really liked the descriptions of the house and the nightmarish journey of the characters as they explored it, and I did appreciate the time spent building up the characters’ backstories and giving them each an arc. That said, I wish the protagonists had gone into the house earlier and more had been revealed about the house’s true nature; I also would have liked Vincent Velledex to have factored into the story more throughout, because he was really interesting and I wanted to know more about him. The characters did also read significantly younger than people in their late 20s, but that didn’t bother me all that much, as there was a kind of small-town wistfulness to them, as they were just beginning to realize that all of the big aspirations they had as teenagers were never going to come to pass.
If you like Lovecraftian-type stories and are willing to be patient with a book that is intensely character-focused rather than horror-focused for the first large portion of the story, then give it a whirl; it was a fantastic story concept, and even though it didn’t quite live up to its amazing premise, I still had a good time with it and was fairly satisfied with the way it ended.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.