Home Before Dark by Riley Sager is a Gothic horror mystery thriller about a woman named Maggie who returns to a house that she has no memory of residing in. All she knows about the house—Baneberry Hall—is the controversial nonfiction book her dad had written about it, flinging her family into an incredibly stressful limelight that’s followed her since childhood. When her dad dies and she inherits the place, she decides to fix it up to sell and use the task as an excuse to finally learn what is true and what was false in her dad’s biggest writing success.
Man, I have been in quite the mood for Gothic horror and I’m even more pleased to say that the few I’ve dived into recently have not disappointed me at all. Riley Sager is an author who has written quite a few books, half of which I liked, half of which I didn’t care for. When I finally decided to read Home Before Dark, I did so rather cautiously without too much expectation, which turned out to be a good thing because it left me satisfied and delighted that I finally got around to reading it.
The three elements that make Home Before Dark such a stellar mystery are the atmosphere and ambiance of Baneberry Hall, the mystery of the house combined with the enigma of true/false titbits with Maggie’s dad’s book, and the curious storytelling style (those last two go hand in hand, so really there are two major elements that made this book great).
Baneberry Hall is fucking creepy as hell. It’s a big ass house with creaking floorboards, rattling windows, and a long history of macabre tragedies. Couple that with the careful revelations of certain details, wrapped in uneasy morsels of mysticism, mystery, and even melancholy, then it’s quite difficult not to formulate a strong distaste as well as an alarmingly morbid curiosity for the place. The darkness and the unknown quickly draw the reader into the shadows of Baneberry Hall, which combined with the specific storytelling technique, makes it breath-takingly effortless to binge read in one session (which I would’ve done if I didn’t start the book twenty minutes before work…sigh).
The book is expressed via two different perspectives. The first is Maggie’s real-time point-of-view as she learns of her father’s death and her unexpected inheritance, so on and so forth. The second, and the most interesting one, is the contents of her father’s novel. This allows us to compare everything that Maggie uncovers about Baneberry Hall and its past residents with how it was presented to the world as fact via her belated daddy dearest. It creates an intellectually stimulating and mentally gripping, fast-paced yet comfortably gradual building of tension, suspense, and shock.
Something else that helps develop the tension further is the vehement denial and snarky attitude that Maggie holds from the first pages until the last one-quarter of the novel. Her dad’s book made her life unbearable, especially as a kid and then later a teen just trying to fit in and make friends. Naturally, she’d have some strongly negative inclinations towards it. Her denial is so strong that it at times made me agree with her, and at other times it made me want to shake her until her head popped off for being so bloody dismissive. The contrast of reactions I had actually made it quite an interactive experience. I loved it.
Just as there are things I adored and appreciated, there are a couple of things I definitely could’ve done without. The first is the one-dimensionality of the side characters. They were definitely there just as plot beams to hold up Maggie’s journey, and that made me sad because the protagonist had some great chemistry with a couple of them. I also felt that their presence would have further instilled the sense of insanity that we start to get from Maggie as the story moves forward.
The second thing I didn’t like at all is one very specific scene involving snakes. I can’t describe it in detail because a) it would make me sick to my stomach (once was enough thank you…) and b) it’s a big-time spoiler. So… all I’ll say is that if you have a strong fear of snakes (like me), then know that there is a brief snake-related scene that will definitelymake your skin crawl and incite urges to empty your stomach contents. It’s in the last one-third of the book, so you do get some time to brace yourself, and you’ll know when it’s about to slap down if you already have a warning that it exists, a luxury I didn’t have… unfortunately.
Overall, I’d RECOMMEND Home Before Dark to readers of dark mysteries, Gothic horror, and folx that like haunted house type settings. It’s definitely not for kids and I’d caution against even letting younger teens access it because it has very disturbing thematic elements in it. Even so, it’s excellent spooky storytelling and probably one of Sager’s best books yet.
Publication Date: June 2020
Publisher: Dutton (978-1524745196)
Genre: Gothic horror, Supernatural mystery
Page Count: 432
Content Warnings: Disturbing supernatural elements and imagery. Murder including familicide. Moderate use of crude language. Poisoning. Preparation and consumption of food. Alcohol consumption. Depiction of mental health illness including instability and depression. One graphic scene involving snakes and snake behaviours. Brief mention of animal death.
Availability: In-print; Paperback, eBook, and audiobook formats available.