It’s so nice to have Laura Benedict back again, particularly after a bit too long of an absence. That her reappearance is manifested by her best book to date --- a frightening and unsettling tale ironically titled BLISS HOUSE --- is a very large added bonus. You will be haunted by the book from its first unsettling page to its final paragraph.
“Bliss House” is not meant to be a term describing the hominess of the large, magnificent house that has towered over rural Old Gate, Virginia, for well past a century. Its descriptive term is derived from the family that originally built the house, only to have it pass into the hands of strangers with results that are vaguely and starkly unsettling. As the story begins --- following a vignette you will not soon forget --- the home returns to the ownership and stewardship of the Bliss family as Rainey Bliss Adams and Ariel, her 14-year-old daughter, take up residence in the huge mansion. They come with well-scuffed baggage, both literally and figuratively. An incident that killed Rainey’s husband and left Ariel both physically and emotionally scarred --- one for which Rainey takes full blame --- hangs over the proceedings like an ever-present, invisible pall.
"That [Laura Benedict's] reappearance is manifested by her best book to date --- a frightening and unsettling tale ironically titled BLISS HOUSE --- is a very large added bonus. You will be haunted by the book from its first unsettling page to its final paragraph."
It is clear, however, that all is not right almost from the moment the ill-fated mother and daughter step across the threshold. Ariel is the first to sense that the house is perhaps different. Her benevolent, all-too-real dreams concerning her beloved and deceased father soon give way to increasing violent manifestations of other spirits who seem to resent the presence of the new interlopers. A housewarming party for the residents of Old Gate provides the impetus to really stir things up on both sides of the veil.
The narrative eventually begins to shift between the present, as Rainey and Ariel confront the house’s history, and the past, in which the sins of those who occupied the house some 20-30 years previously linger in the walls and multitude of rooms of the Adams’ new home. Then there are the residents of Old Gate, who have sins, errors and omissions of their own that they are set on concealing from their new neighbors and from each other. The issue that ultimately confronts Rainey and Ariel, and those with whom they come into contact, is whether the house is evil or whether the Bliss family itself carries the seeds of evil in its genes. Perhaps it is a little (or a great deal) of both.
Be forewarned: BLISS HOUSE contains some harrowing material, particularly of a graphic sexual nature. Benedict, though, is never gratuitous in her presentation; one must simply accept that bad things, truly awful things, happen to good and bad people. And while Benedict can be explicit in her presentations, she is also a master of subtle contrasts and hints that suddenly fulfill the promise of the almost inaudible whispered threats that are dropped throughout the narrative.
I have previously compared Benedict’s work to that of Shirley Jackson and will double down on that comparison with BLISS HOUSE. However, Benedict continues with each new novel to finish the work that Jackson left undone, in tales such as this one, which is frighteningly but beautifully told. Strongly recommended --- but be sure to leave the lights on.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on July 11, 2014