Karen Novak’s Five Mile House is unambiguously a ghost story, even a haunted house story — one of the narrative voices belongs to a ghost, and provides the novel with its arresting opening sentences:
I am Eleanor, and I, like this house, am haunted. I died when I fell from this tower, that window. It is sixty-seven feet from the sill to the stone on which my neck was broken. All a matter of record.
But Five Mile House manages some striking and unusual twists on the theme. Novak uses ghosts as an extended metaphor, mirroring and externalizing internal conflicts. The dominating presence of Five Mile House is not Eleanor, but Leslie Stone, who is haunted by several things, but chiefly by the act of vigilantism that ended her career as a police detective, and estranged her from her family. Stone is initially pretty resistant to the notion that she might also be haunted by a destiny that links her fate with Eleanor’s, perhaps because she doesn’t have room in her life for more haunting.
Whether or not she has room for them, Stone eventually finds herself in some unsettling and unpleasant circumstances. The classic horror fiction trope of the protagonist whom no one will believe arises very organically from the circumstances, as does the threat that motivates her. Stone refreshingly continues to act and think like a cop — if a damaged cop — as the level of weirdness rises around her.
While Stone’s present-day life is unraveling, Novak gradually peels back the century-old mystery of the titular Five Mile House, which turns out to arise from a substantially different mix of jealousy, insanity and revenge than is commonly supposed.
Five Mile House displays some of the weaknesses you might expect in a first novel. Some of the supporting cast are too thinly drawn to avoid cliché and I think there are indications that Novak is still evolving her prose style, but those caveats aside, this is recommended as a nifty, spooky read.
Needs More Demons? Not at all.