The new paperback thriller Bill & Jessie’s House by Island author Joyce Keating is a gripping read. Set in an old haunted house in the trendy neighborhood of Georgetown, Washington, D.C., where a young family house sits while the owners tour London, this page turner delivers all the goods of an edge-of-your-seat horror story.
If the goal was to scare the reader, the story certainly accomplishes that. It gave me nightmares. Bill and Jessie own a huge old home in Washington, DC’s trendy area of Georgetown. They invite Morgan, their 33 year old niece and her husband Anders, to house sit for nine days while they vacation in London. Morgan, husband Anders, and son Tyler are the tender family who naively agree to take a vacation in a house well known as haunted in the hopes of breaking up the monotony of what has become a humdrum life in Baltimore.
The experience breaks things up alright; in fact, it downright rattles them. The question of the veracity of ghosts is at first playfully toyed with by the young couple. Like many people, they respond to the evidence of paranormal activity with denial, which keeps them staying in the dreadful house longer than they should. Then bad things start to happen.
I had a conversation with Keating about her second book, and first work of fiction. Her interest in the paranormal goes beyond just writing a hair raising story. She says she has had paranormal experiences herself. “I have witnessed too many things over the years to simply disregard what I feel and sometimes see. So I put it to paper and chose a haunted house to contain it,” she says.
Keating claims best selling writers like Stephen King, John Grisham and James Patterson as influences. Her skill at building suspense certainly bespeaks this time spent with masters of the craft. I found myself thinking of The Shining and other Stephen King works as I read the book, and the story itself makes references to classics like Carrie.
Although the story is fiction, many aspects of it are drawn from the author’s real life. The house in which the story is centered, Bill and Jessie’s house, is based on an actual house in the Georgetown area of D.C., once owned by Georgetown University as student housing and finally sold after being riddled by a litany of haunted happenings reported by students. Joyce Keating got her MFA at Georgetown and knows the house well, even having stayed in it at one time herself.
Further, she reports having had many paranormal experiences of her own. “My personal paranormal experiences and my acceptance that there is so much more to all of us than
we realize or choose to believe, brought me to write this story.” She says. “The unexplainable happens in our lives all the time. I may accept them while someone else might not. To give you a quick example, I was having my run around Roosevelt Island early one morning, prepared to nod in greeting to the runner heading toward me only 30 feet ahead. Then, suddenly, poof! He wasn’t there anymore. My eyes hadn’t left him, he simply disappeared in front of me. This took place on the narrow path on the west side, north tip of the Island. “
When it came to a rape scene, in which Morgan is sexually assaulted by a spirit in the house, my willingness to suspend disbelief stopped there. I was bothered by the scene on many different levels. Writing about a rape in a work of fiction is risky. You always have to ask, is this necessary for the story? Why is the author making this choice? And, in the culture we find ourselves in, we have to be aware of messages of violence, and their potential impact.
Apparently I am not alone in my discomfort with that line of narrative. One author has even set up a special prize to honor thrillers that don’t depict women being raped and/or murdered. The Staunch Book Prize is headed by author and screenwriter Bridget Lawless. “As violence against women in fiction reaches a ridiculous high, the Staunch book prize invites thriller writers to keep us on the edge of our seats without resorting to the same old clichés – particularly female characters who are sexually assaulted [however necessary to the plot] or done away with [however ingeniously],” she writes on the prize’s website.
Inspired to launch the prize after noticing how many films at last year’s BAFTAs relied on rape as a plot device, Lawless determined it was ‘way past time for something more original.’ She said. “This is about writers coming up with stories that don’t need to rely on sexual violence… Is there no other story?’
For that reason, while I enjoyed the 274 page read as one enjoys a good thrill ride at an amusement park, I found Keating's decision to rely on that cliché ultimately disappointing. When asked about the rape scene, Keating responded, “One reader’s interpretation isn’t necessarily another’s. The story belongs to the reader, for absolute certain. And that’s how it should be.”
Bill & Jessie’s House is available in paperback on Amazon for $23.95, at Outskirt Press.
Also by Joyce Keating: Denholm’s Wife