Amy M. Reade
Secrets of Hallstead House
Kensington / July 17, 2014 / $15.00 print, $3.99 digital
Macy Stoddard had hoped to ease the grief of losing her parents in a fiery car crash by accepting a job as a private nurse to the wealthy and widowed Alexandria Hallstead. But her first sight of Summerplace is of a dark and forbidding home. She quickly finds its winding halls and shadowy rooms filled with secrets and suspicions. Alex seems happy to have Macy’s help, but others on the island, including Alex’s sinister servants and hostile relatives, are far less welcoming. Watching eyes, veiled threats…slowly, surely, the menacing spirit of Hallstead Island closes in around Macy. And she can only wonder if her story will become just one of the many secrets of Hallstead House…
The title, Secrets of Hallstead House, contains clues for the reader. “Secrets” suggests romantic suspense, but “Hallstead House” hints that this is a house book. Lauren Willig wrote about the appeal of the house book at Heroes and Heartbreakers. The phrase in the book description “sinister servants and hostile relatives” reveals the genre.
Welcome to the world of gothic romance.
The Free Dictionary definition of a gothic romance is “a romance that deals with desolate and mysterious and grotesque events.” Willig has a remarkably accurate description of the gothic variety of house book story, “… in which someone Doesn’t Want the Heroine There and goes about trying to push her off cliffs and drop large marble urns on her head.”
When Macy Stoddard looks at Hallstead Island from a boat, she can’t even see the house where she is to work. Everywhere are tall dark evergreens, which make her think of a “peaceful, primeval forest.” Handyman Pete, the man piloting the launch through the Thousand Islands, says, “Summerplace—Hallstead House—is right in the middle of those trees.” But this is no ordinary house:
… I spied a dark-green structure rising from the forest floor. I couldn’t see it very well, but as I scanned the woods I saw several dark-green turrets, each with a rich chocolate-brown roof. I would have to wait until I was closer to see the rest of Summerplace.
The house blends seamlessly with the shadowy surroundings, and it’s understandable why Pete calls it gloomy but with the buoyancy of youth, Macy decides to reserve judgment. A new house and a new job will help her forget her parents’ tragic recent deaths, followed closely by the demise of her romantic relationship. Adopting a “fake it ‘til you make it” approach, Macy tries to remain confident when Pete warns her that the unwelcoming look of the mansion will be matched by the attitude of some of its inhabitants:
“Let’s go in,” I told him. After all, it couldn’t be any worse than what I had left behind. If I had known then of the events that were already taking shape in the gloom of Hallstead House, I might not have had the courage to go inside.
This prophetic statement, warning of dark events to come, couched retrospectively from the perspective of future years, is a hallmark of a classic gothic novel. Another common trait of a gothic is the girlish appearance of the heroine. Where would we be without mirrors in bedrooms, allowing our heroine to think:
My straight, shoulder-length hair was pulled back in a low ponytail and tied with a ribbon at the nape of my neck. I looked a little windblown from being in the boat. I smiled at my reflection. I wasn’t going to win any beauty pageants, but I wasn’t a troll either.
Going over the “it-might-be-a-gothic” list, gloomy mansion, check, young, resilient heroine, check … what about unfriendly servants and hostile relatives? Macy endures a fire in her bedroom chimney, a rock hurled through her window in the dead of night, all capped off by being locked in a turret art studio. You may wonder is she TSTL (too stupid to live) but she isn’t, rather she’s intrepid, curious, and stubborn. Plus Macy becomes very fond of Alexandria Hallstead, her courageous patient. She knows that Alexandria is benefiting from the therapeutic exercises and regime that Macy provides. Alexandria’s handsome nephew Will tries repeatedly to persuade Macy to leave Hallstead Island, with no success.
“I can see that you’re determined to stay here despite Aunt Alex’s best interests. Fine. There are other ways to persuade you to go.” He stood up. Relieved, I rose as well. He stepped closer to me and put his face very near mine. His dark eyes flashed anger. His lips curled and he hissed at me, “You are not wanted here. Go away from Hallstead Island or you will be very sorry you stayed.”
Without revealing too many secrets about Hallstead House, it appears that *portentous moment* Macy may be more closely involved with the fortunes of the Hallstead family than she realizes. How can it end well when so many people want her to leave Alex’s employ? But life isn’t all broken glass and locked doors—Macy is surrounded by the magnificent Thousand Islands, a world she gradually comes to love. One beautiful autumn day Pete takes her out on the St. Lawrence River.
The leaves were a rainbow of warm colors and the air was crisp and clear. The waves danced across the channel, their small whitecaps rising and then disappearing. Though the breeze on the boat was a little chilly, one could easily forget the cold and sit mesmerized by the idyllic surroundings.
Macy has few allies at Hallstead House but she has to share her worries and concerns with someone, and fortunately Pete is a friend. She tells him that she saw Alex “in the library, acting strangely.” Alex is indomitable, intelligent, and no cowering old lady seeing shadows in the corners, but Macy realizes her employer “was afraid of something.” Between trying to sort out the mysteries of Hallstead House and keep from being maimed, Macy has a busy dance card.
But another hallmark of a gothic romance is the man who has your back, and more. Macy isn’t naïve but she isn’t terribly sophisticated either. When she and Pete go off island to explore a nearby mansion from the Gilded Age, she muses on whether or not she should stay or return to New York City. Pete’s attitude gets a little surly and it finally dawns on her that he doesn’t want her to leave, “Is this why you’ve been such a jerk since we finished lunch?” Pete tells Macy that both Alexandria Hallstead and he support her investigations—but that he has a personal interest in Macy’s welfare:
“But I can’t stop thinking about you.” And with that, he pulled me to him and kissed me. He must have known I’d be willing. I got a feeling in my stomach like butter melting as I kissed him back. It had been a long time since I had felt this way …
Danger, mystery, a brave but resilient heroine, and a hero at her side, coupled with a house that is almost a character in its own right: these classic gothic romance traits are all to be found in Amy Reade’s debut novel. The words of a country song by Lady Antebellum come to mind, “And if I knew then what I know now. Whoa, if I knew then what I know now. I’d fall in love.” The world of gothic romances is definitely worth a tumble—enough familiarities with romance to be recognizable but enough differences to make it intriguing and enjoyable.
Learn more or pre-order a copy of Secrets of Hallstead House by Amy M. Reade, available July 17, 2014.
Janet Webb aka @janetnorcal has unpredictable opinions on books. Season ticket holder of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Social media devotee. Stories on royals and politics catch my eye. Ottawa born. Grew up on Georgette Heyer and Mary Stewart. When I rediscovered the world of romance, my spirit guide was All About Romance's Desert Island Keepers — I started with the “A” authors and never looked back.