A Year of Orenda – House of Spines by Michael J. Malone

Day two of Michael J Malone week and I’m re-sharing my thoughts on House of Spines. Mandie read and loved the book earlier in the year and you can read her thoughts here. This is a classic gothic style mystery that has had us both rapt, from an author who may shift slightly in genre but never fails to dazzle with the beauty of his writing. Here’s what it’s all about:

About the Book

Ran McGhie’s world has been turned upside down. A young, lonely and frustrated writer, and suffering from mental-health problems, he discovers that his long-dead mother was related to one of Glasgow’s oldest merchant families. Not only that, but Ran has inherited Newton Hall, a vast mansion that belonged to his great-uncle, who it seems has been watching from afar as his estranged great-nephew has grown up.

Entering his new-found home, it seems Great-Uncle Fitzpatrick has turned it into a temple to the written word – the perfect place for poet Ran. But everything is not as it seems. As he explores the Hall’s endless corridors, Ran’s grasp on reality appears to be loosening. And then he comes across an ancient lift; and in that lift a mirror. And in the mirror… the reflection of a woman…

A terrifying psychological thriller with more than a hint of the Gothic, House of Spines is a love letter to the power of books, and an exploration of how lust and betrayal can be deadly…

My Thoughts

If you are coming to this book expecting something similar to Michael J. Malone’s other work, then you may find yourself a little bit surprised. Not in a bad way, not at all. You will find all the hallmarks of Mr Malone’s writing here; beautifully descriptive prose, characters who range from the sympathetic to the devious, and a plot, that whilst perhaps simple in premise, engages and draws the reader in without hesitation. The book may not manipulate your emotions in the way that A Suitable Lie did, but it will most certainly heighten your senses, as there is an overriding otherworldliness about this book which put me in mind, almost immediately, of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

In terms of basic premise, it is just as the blurb says. Ranald McGhie has inherited a grand old house and all of its contents from a Great Uncle whom he never knew. The inheritance comes with stipulations; Ran must live there. Given that he is a divorced, near penniless writer of educational texts, this doesn’t seem to pose too much of a problem for Ran. Until he sees the house. A grandiose and imposing building on the outskirts of Glasgow, in which nearly every room is full of books. Whilst his ex wife and his neighbour are pleased for him, not everyone shares their excitement over his new fortune and there are those in his new found family who would have him sell up. But the house is beginning to stake a claim on Ran’s heart and mind, one which it is not so easy to let go of.

Given that the book circles in the main around the character of Ranald, it is essential that this is a character that can hold your attention and, to a point, your sympathy, and that the reader can build an instant rapport with him. I found this a slightly strange experience as his character is somewhat hard to bond with at the start. I imagine his circumstances to be somewhat like that of a person at the end of their luck who has just found he has won the lottery. Overwhelming in ordinary circumstances, but factor in that Ran already has previous mental health issues for which he is receiving treatment, and you can imagine the way in which his circumstances are heightened. He is not always portrayed as a sympathetic character, he can be quite maudlin at times, and yet there is something about him which is likeable and ultimately has you rooting for him.

The other characters in this book all circle around the periphery. They drop in and out and it is hard to get the measure of any of them, although I got a strong feeling that no-one could be fully trusted. Everyone seemed to want something, with the possible exception of Ran’s ex wife and his neighbour. His cousins, his housekeepers, the solicitor… they all seemed to have a hidden agenda, or at the very least not be fully receptive and accepting of Ran. And then there are the ‘hidden’ characters, those revealed only in a series of letters Ran finds in his Grandmother’s effects, and a young but clearly troubled woman who appears only at the start of the novel and who the reader learns more about as the story evolves. Her ties to Ran are strong, her impact upon his world abundantly clear.

But the wonder of this book, something Mr Malone captures so beautifully in his writing, is the setting. Somehow he captures a feeling of oppression, be it in the description of the landscape and the weather, the isolation of being in a home where anything other than verbal communication is all but eliminated, or the thought and portrayed imagery of a house where the creaks and groans as it settles, the old and dated furniture and styling, mask a dark history which will come to inform the present. For very bad things occurred in the boundaries of the household and something, or someone, wants to see the Fitzgerald family pay. The who and the what are desperately sad, but the how is the key to this whole story. With the mysterious woman who appears to Ran, it is hard to tell if she is real or just a figment of his imagination, a symptom of the psychological issues which have plagued him for years.

More gothic mystery with a hint of the classic ghost story, than it is urban thriller, this book will keep you guessing and make you question what you believe to be true. As I said earlier, it made me think of The Haunting of Hill House, a book in which the house itself feels like a living, breathing entity, something which can both dominate and control. There was always something just below the surface in this ‘House of Spines’, a phrase used to describe the thousands upon thousands of books which surround Ran at every turn. A hint of the supernatural which is neither overstated or underplayed. There are moments of great tension, hints that Ran’s condition, his paranoia and blackouts, may have let him go a step too far, but also moments of quiet reflection when the house and the family’s history speak for itself. For me the balance was just about perfect.

Whilst some of the mysteries are resolved for the reader, there is one which remains open, one for which the reader must draw their own conclusions. I’m still in two minds myself about what comes to pass, of the truth that Ran chooses to accept. Is what he believes real or imagined? A clear and undeniable truth or a simple fantasy conjured by an unstable mind? Whatever the case, one thing I am in absolutely no doubt about, is that I loved this book. Highly recommended.

About the Author

Michael Malone Photo

Michael Malone is a prize-winning poet and author who was born and brought up in the heart of Burns’ country, just a stone’s throw from the great man’s cottage in Ayr. Well, a stone thrown by a catapult.

He has published over 200 poems in literary magazines throughout the UK, including New Writing Scotland, Poetry Scotland and Markings. His career as a poet has also included a (very) brief stint as the Poet-In- Residence for an adult gift shop. Blood Tears, his bestselling debut novel won the Pitlochry Prize (judge: Alex Gray) from the Scottish Association of Writers. Other published work includes: Carnegie’s Call (a non-fiction work about successful modern-day Scots); A Taste for Malice; The Guillotine Choice; Beyond the Rage and The Bad Samaritan. His psychological thriller, A Suitable Lie, was a number one bestseller.

Michael is a regular reviewer for the hugely popular crime fiction website http://www.crimesquad.com. A former Regional Sales Manager (Faber & Faber) he has also worked as an IFA and a bookseller.

Author Links: Twitter | Website

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