Release date: June 30, 2020
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: Home Before Dark, by Riley Sager, is set to be released on Tuesday, June 30, 2020 by Dutton Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House). It enjoyed an early release as part of the Book of the Month subscription box program, which is how I got my hands on this copy a month early.
Maggie Holt has just experienced one of the biggest losses of her life, when her father dies after battling a terminal illness right before her thirtieth birthday…and it’s even more devastating because her father has lied to Maggie her entire life, and refused to stop even on his deathbed. In his last moments, Maggie begs him to tell her the truth about her childhood, but he simply apologizes instead with his last breaths.
The Holt family, you see, is no ordinary family; in a plotline eerily similar to The Amityville Horror, they had lived in an infamously “haunted” house named Baneberry Hall for exactly 20 days when Maggie was five years old, before fleeing in the middle of the night, never to return. Or so Maggie thought. Her father had chronicled the story in his bestselling novel House of Horrors, which provides her with her inheritance: a lump sum of money from his profits, and – in a shocking twist – Baneberry Hall itself.
Maggie has spent her entire life dealing with the unwanted stardom that comes from being the star of a “real-life” horror novel. Her father wrote about Maggie’s visions and her experiences with the murderous ghosts who haunted Baneberry Hall, and her life has been unfairly shaped by this label that was unwittingly placed on her. She can’t even remember her childhood or her time at Baneberry Hall, and both of her parents have spent nearly 25 years refusing to answer her questions about what was real and what was simply fiction. But now, she holds the keys to Baneberry Hall in her hands…and with her mother’s insistence that she never step foot in the home again, her resolve is solidified.
Her return to Baneberry is interspersed with excerpts from her father’s novel, and we can see the mysterious occurrences that happened before are now happening again. Maggie meets people chronicled in the book, and she is desperately seeking answers from them about what was real and what was not…but the longer she stays in the home, the more the lines begin to blur between truth and fiction. Objects appear and disappear; strange noises are heard, and old secrets are uncovered that should possibly have stayed buried…including the unsolved disappearance of a young girl who had babysat Maggie on multiple occasions, on the very night they fled Baneberry.
As Maggie gets closer to the truth, the occurrences intensify, and she starts to question everything she’s assumed she knew over the years. What REALLY happened at Baneberry Hall 25 years ago, and how will she leave this house alive again now once she discovers the truth?
MY THOUGHTS: I should start with a full disclosure: I’ve read every Riley Sager book since the initial publication and release of Final Girls, so I’m definitely a fan. I have a terrible memory, so I can’t promise definitively that this is my favorite Sager novel (because I remember next to NOTHING about Final Girls), but I enjoyed it more than Lock Every Door, his 2019 summer thriller release. And I genuinely look forward to every new Sager novel with eagerness (and an automatic preorder) in a way that I don’t for any other author, save Stephen King.
There’s nothing better than a good haunted house mystery to me; my first ever “scary” book was Nancy Drew’s The Ghost at Blackwood Hall, which my mother handed me when I was six years old…and I’ve been obsessed ever since. Sager is excellent at blending a mystery/thriller – complete with an unsolved murder – and the seemingly paranormal, with the caveat that he (almost) always ends the story firmly on solid ground, with realistic (read: events were generally caused by a human) revelations. In this book, he immediately wants you to know that this is no Amityville Horror rip-off (which crossed my mind when I read the description, if I’m being honest); in fact, he mentions Amityville early on as an “inspiration” for Maggie’s father to write his own story of their supposed experiences. This book is actually told in two parallel stories: Maggie’s father’s book, House of Horrors, and Maggie’s own first-person experiences in the present.
Not only does he find ways to make ghostly occurrences feel possible (before shattering your visions and bringing them back down to reality), but he also finds ways to weave deep human experiences and emotions into his popular fiction. A lot of Home Before Dark is about grief, and as someone still experiencing this emotion after a difficult loss this spring, I found it immensely relatable. (In Chapter One, Maggie tells us, “Grief is tricky like that. It can lie low for hours, long enough for magical thinking to take hold. Then, when you’re good and vulnerable, it will leap out at you like a fun-house skeleton, and all the pain you thought was gone comes roaring back.”) His characters, like Maggie, have often experienced a deep trauma of some sort, and their stories involve them coming to terms with reality and learning how to find their own inner strength even as their preconceived notions of safety crumble around them.
And Sager manages to accomplish all of these things with twists that the average mystery/thriller reader can’t see coming. And coming. And coming. (He usually has a good 2-3 per novel…sometimes more.) I did actually guess the ending of this novel – as I mentioned in previous book reviews, my track record on figuring out “surprise endings/unpredictable twists” within the first 50 pages is typically about 85-90% – BUT his spiral-shaped way of telling the story made me think I was wrong first, before it curved back around. And Sager deftly weaves more mysteries into his novel than just a simple whodunit – was House of Horrors mostly based in truth, or entirely fictional? Why did Maggie’s parents insist on lying to her throughout their lives, even on her father’s deathbed? And who is responsible for both the experiences Maggie had as a child, and the ones she’s currently living through in the present?
I definitely enjoyed this intricately plotted book, and will continue to read (and preorder) all of Sager’s future releases. I like my mysteries with a dose of humanity, reality, deep emotion, ghostly occurrences, and murder…which is probably too much to ask for most writers, but is honestly just par for the course for Sager.