What happens when you drop a group of elitist (read: self-indulgent) Oxford post-graduates in a sprawling, three-storied stone manor in the English countryside, and supply them with copious amounts of expensive liquor and a smorgasbord of sordid secrets? According to Lucie Whitehouse, complete chaos. If you, dear reader, are a fan of characters who betray each other at every step, ongoing relationship melodrama and salacious plot twists piled on at the end, then Lucie Whitehouse’s creepy and deliciously macabre debut, THE HOUSE AT MIDNIGHT, is just the novel for you.
The story begins as Joanna --- the book’s earnest but somewhat vapid narrator --- and her college chums are driving up from London for a mini reunion of sorts to celebrate New Year’s Eve with their friend, Lucas, who recently inherited his uncle’s posh estate after his mother died, his father disappeared and was presumed dead, and his uncle committed suicide. As soon as they arrive, a fire is lit, drinks are poured, and the crew gets down to the business of reacquainting themselves and reminiscing about the good old days.
From the start, it’s clear that the friends shoulder their fair share of baggage. Lucas and Joanna are best friends but realize their feelings for each other might be of the romantic sort. When they finally get together, all seems glorious and happy-go-lucky until Lucas’s precocious and pompous childhood pal, Danny, finds out --- and gets jealous. Is he a homosexual? Not exactly (despite his fling with well-intentioned Michael). But that still doesn’t prevent him from threatening Joanna, telling her to keep her paws in check --- or else.
Then there’s Martha, Joanna’s straight-laced and responsible roommate who falls for Danny, knowing full well that he’s a womanizer and a cheat. (But the sex is good, so why not?) And Rachel, the fashion maven who brings along her new boyfriend, hunky Greg, who gets along swimmingly with the others --- especially Joanna. Michael, who also slept with Danny, rounds out the group, until Diana shows up. But that’s not until later.
Over the next few hundred pages, the friends travel back and forth from London to Oxfordshire, spending weekends in the lap of luxury while generally driving themselves crazy and acting like spoiled children. One minute, Lucas is a sensible young man with a career. The next, he quits his job and moves with Danny to live in Stoneborough Manor full-time. The two dabble in writing novels and playing movie director, but who are they kidding? They’d much rather slack off and get boozy.
Meanwhile, Joanna is having second thoughts about her relationship with the changed Lucas. So it isn’t surprising when she’s caught kissing Greg in the moonlight. All hell breaks loose upon that discovery (including Rachel’s disappearance from the rest of the book), and the group’s fragile equilibrium irreparably shatters --- especially after the surprise appearance of the aforementioned Diana, Lucas’s other childhood acquaintance, whose debutante mother hobnobbed with Lucas’s parents/uncle before they died.
If that’s not enough (and of course it isn’t, given Whitehouse’s style), in a cacophony of shocking events (some easily foreseen, others delightfully unexpected), Lucas finds out that his family history is not what he thought it was, and the news turns his --- and everyone else’s --- world upside down.
Overall, THE HOUSE AT MIDNIGHT falls somewhere between a modern-day (albeit twisted) THE GREAT GATSBY, a V.C. Andrews novel and the brat pack movie St. Elmo’s Fire. Although Whitehouse’s characters may appear two-dimensional at times, her ability to spin a wickedly suspenseful tale that underscores human weaknesses and gives free reign to unleashed depravity will entertain even the more skeptical reader.
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on January 22, 2011
The House at Midnight