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“The Masson House of Degener, Texas, was like the corpse of an old monster, too strange and feared for most to approach it, much less attempt to bury it.”

The Spite House

Ghosts of the past haunt a family on the run in Johnny Compton’s extraordinary debut novel, The Spite House, a Black Southern Gothic horror set in modern-day Texas.

Spite houses are buildings constructed for the sole purpose of aggravating neighbors, for example, to obstruct their view or to create an eyesore adjoining their property. Spite houses are dotted across the United States, in many cases becoming tourist attractions due to their unusual designs, which are meant specifically for irritation rather than inhabitation.

In Johnny Compton’s novel, the titular structure is the Masson House, a menacing four-story home with a bizarre architectural design built adjacent to an orphanage in Degener, Texas. The Masson House practically seethes with spite and is believed to be one of the most haunted buildings in the state.

As the novel opens, an unemployed single father, Eric Ross, arrives in Degener with his two daughters, eighteen-year-old Dess and seven-year-old Stacy. The Ross family is living a peripatetic existence, hopping among seedy motels, on the run from a mysterious past.

Eric’s arrival in Degener presents him with a unique job opportunity: to become caretaker of the Masson House and record an objective account of its supposed paranormal activities. The generous pay for this work would create a financially secure future for his family, but is it worth the danger to him and his girls?

The setup for The Spite House mirrors that of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 classic, The Haunting of Hill House, which also features a main character investigating a notorious haunted home. Johnny Compton provides a modern update of the haunted house trope, while also mining new depths of horror beyond that of Jackson’s classic.

The supernatural elements in The Spite House reflect specters of the Civil War, pitting neighbor against neighbor on both national and local levels. The Masson House is the incarnation of spite itself, unable to contain the evil that constitutes its very existence. Its paranormal activity is accompanied by an unbearable, paralyzing coldness, plunging the nearby temperature close to absolute zero.

Johnny Compton builds layers of complexity throughout the first two-thirds of The Spite House and then expertly ties it all together in the final part of the book. The Spite House features several unexpected plot twists, including a major reveal that left me completely blindsided. I also found the modern setting to be a refreshing change from the usual Victorian or Edwardian settings of traditional Gothic horror.

Eric Ross is a highly compelling, multi-layered main character, a fundamentally good, hard-working father who cares deeply about his family and will risk his own safety to ensure their livelihoods. Johnny Compton did an excellent job balancing the mysteries of Eric’s past with his present-day efforts to secure a better future for his daughters.

I also enjoyed reading from the viewpoints of Dess and Stacy. However, I felt that too many chapters were told from the perspective of minor side characters, and the story would have been stronger if told exclusively from the viewpoint of the Ross family.

Overall, The Spite House is an exhilarating debut that will both warm your heart and leave you chilled to the bone. I look forward to reading more from Johnny Compton in the future.

4/5

The Spite House

The Spite House

The Spite House

The Spite House

The Spite House

The Spite House

The Spite House

The Spite House

John Mauro

John Mauro lives in a world of glass amongst the hills of central Pennsylvania. When not indulging in his passion for literature or enjoying time with family, John is training the next generation of materials scientists at Penn State University, where he teaches glass science and materials kinetics. John also loves cooking international cuisine and kayaking the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.

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