I love nothing more than a good haunted house story. It is by far and away my favorite flavor within the horror genre. Haunted house stories prey on our most primal of fears: the violation of our safest of spaces. A good haunted house story builds upon that dread in subtle, delightful ways, praying on vulnerabilities and insecurities. David Annandale’s The House of Night and Chain represents one of the better house yarns I’ve read in awhile, due in no small part to Mr. Annandale’s love of the genre and the craft.
You can never return home
Maeson Strock is the heir to the Lord-Governorship of Solus. He is sent home to clean up his planet’s underhanded corruption and theft after a terrible encounter with the Tyranids. Part of being Lord-Governor is returning to his ancestral manse, Malveil*, which has been in his family for generations. Maeson and his family never lived in the house together, but that doesn’t mean memory doesn’t lurk behind every corner. Amidst planetary politics and rekindling with his children, Maeson also has to come to grips with his wife’s untimely death while living at Malveil.
As in most solid haunted house stories, the house itself is a character within the book. It has all the familiarity of Ms. Jackson’s Hill House, but with more a more modern feel. Similar to Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, the house is an ever-evolving presence, never allowing Maeson or the reader to full grasp its nature and layout. It’s devious in the best of ways, and makes us constantly question “Wait, isn’t this just a house?” It is almost impossible to get your footing with the house, which is exactly what Malveil wants.
Other characters both good and less good weave their way through the narrative, but Maeson, Eliana, and Malveil wrestle for the reader’s attention the most. Eliana is perhaps the most captivating as we learn through her writings the natures of both Malveil and the Strocks. It’s the kind of multimedia device that in the hands of a lesser author could feel rote, but the pacing of journal entries keeps the tension taut.
Heresy most foul
There’s another oppressive force at play and it’s simply the nature of the Imperium. Maeson Strock has seen the horrors of the universe up close and personal. He is grappling with immense feelings of shame, grief, and loss. He has to deal with children who are strangers to him and have been for 30 years. Their paths have taken them in ways Maeson doesn’t entirely approve of, but that can be said about so much of his life. The retirement options for Guardsmen really suck, if we’re being honest. This makes so much of Maeson’s horror very real and phantasmagoric at the same time.
There are other aspects of Imperial life that help bolster the story as well. In most haunted house stories our main character is met with doubt and skepticism. “I think my house is haunted,” they say. “Sure,” their friends say. It’s not until it’s too late that they realize that oh em gee, the house was haunted. That’s generally because modern people have accepted that hauntings and other such supernatural concepts are not real.
In the grimdark future, however, not only is this stuff real, it’s terrifying. Even suggesting the house could be haunted is heresyworthy of a visit from the Inquisition, and to be fair, I don’t know which is more frightening: the idea of ghosts or the Inquisition showing up at your door looking for ghosts. Our characters are trapped by both the malevolent goings on and fear of speaking heresy. And in this world, heresy is not taken lightly. When Maeson takes too long to confide in someone else, it makes sense.
It is impossible to review a haunted house story without drawing comparisons to such venerable urtexts as The Haunting of Hill House and Burnt Offerings. In many ways, The House of Night and Chain calls to mind the feeling of watching Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Both creators are not only students of horror, they truly love the genre. Their inspirations are obvious, and while they don’t always feel new, the manner in which they come together is delightful**. This book manages to lean on classics in a “chocolate in my peanut butter” moment.
Even better is that it fits so Throne-damned well into the Warhammer 40,000 universe. In fact, I’d argue the grimdark future actually elevates the genre on the whole. The vast majority of lesser haunted house books generally end with one of two things: the literal devil or ye old “something so terrible happened here it can’t be forgotten!” Yawn. The good thing about Chaos is how flexible it is. Even as the nature of the evil becomes clear in Malveil’s machinations, the genesis is a fun reveal.
By the end of the book, the lines between reality and fantasy are so blurred we as readers can no longer tell what it is real. It’s the slow, creeping horror that seems so integral to the corruption of the warp. Similar to The Turn of the Screw, the biggest scares come from the subtle stuff. Once the real horrors show up, they’re playing second fiddle to the psychological twists and turns. As the final scene plays out, I was just as confused as Maeson as to what was real and what was not. That’s delightful!
I heard it said that David Annandale was one of the driving forces behind the Warhammer Horror line, and I can believe it. I mentioned it before, but I am over-the-moon excited for this line. The Warhammer universe is begging for horror stories. Truth be told, The House of Night and Chain is never actually scary, but it’s plenty unnerving. It’s the type of hair-raising unease that comes from the best haunted house stories. The ones that want you to turn on the lights in your hall and make your spouse get up to turn them off because you’re not going back out there.
*Is the name a little on the nose? Yes. But who cares, it’s great!
**Similar to Peele’s work, you can tell Mr. Annandale loves the genre because you’re never screaming at the characters. When a character finds a creepy journal they read the journal. They don’t walk away and forget it. They don’t go into that creepy door upon first arrival. And they don’t ignore clear warning signs.