Just Like HomeBook by Sarah Gailey

You can tell when you’re being told a Sarah Gailey narrative at this point. There will be shattered familial ties along fault lines, with one member frequently cut out of another’s environment (Magic for Liars). A house frequently appears, either as a childhood home or one that never had the opportunity to house a family and has instead been filled with blood and trauma (“Haunted”).  Even before the blood, there is the equally traumatic trauma of adolescence, formed by an uncompromising and merciless parent who is so desperate to recreate the child in their image that they don’t care if it breaks them (The Echo Wife). 

 It’s been intriguing to watch Gailey polish the design for a home thriller with a supernatural twist over the last several years, culminating in their latest horror novel that creeps under your skin before you realise it.  Just Like Home interrogates the bloodlust of the real crime genre alongside a good old-fashioned haunting by looking at a serial killer’s legacy through his bereaved wife, estranged daughter, and abandoned house. 

Vera Crowder is barely out of puberty when her father Francis Crowder’s heinous killings take place beneath the floorboards where she and her suburban-with-a-sharp-edge mother Daphne sleep.  Death resurrects Vera, but it is Daphne who is wasting away before her eyes; Vera’s final desire is that she pack up the house and take care of things once she’s gone, as a good daughter should.  Never mind that Vera has never considered herself a decent daughter or a nice person.

 Crowder House is not the house Vera left when she was a teenager because, in the intervening twelve years, Daphne has profited from their unfortunate notoriety by throwing open the doors to any and all outsiders who feel entitled to see the evidence of Francis’ crimes, as well as to writers and artists who would scavenge for any remaining scraps of inspiration.  Crowder House has been so extensively altered and cut out that it is now split between a museum and an artists’ residency.

Almost. Vera learns that her fear of something scratching and scraping beneath the bed from her infancy is still very much present as she prepares for her sombre role as the only child.  And now that she is aware of how horrible some people can be, she could be more receptive to exploring if there is indeed a monster in her room or whether Vera possesses the same oily, strangling evil that runs through her family.  If her superstitious four-snap ritual doesn’t dispel the darkness, she will try another method.

 Other authors would stick to writing actual crime or haunted home stories, but Gailey grabs both stories by the throat and weaves them into one eerie, purposefully connected fiction.  They construct the repeating, almost sing-song vocabulary of the home her father built from the first comprehensive tour of Crowder House, in both literal and symbolic applications; even though Francis only exists in Vera’s memories, he is always present. 

The reader will never forget who exactly circles Crowder House thanks to the setting’s oppressive atmosphere. As the mystery develops, the horrifying banality of Daphne’s hospital bed occupying the dining room will become clear, as will a different kind of haunting in the form of James Duvall, the egotistical sculptor who has turned Francis’ beloved shed into his artistic Airbnb but still behaves as though he owns Crowder House.  James, who has wormed his way into Daphne’s final weeks, wants to do the same with Vera. James is the son of the true crime author who immortalised a particular version of the Crowder family history.

Gailey, though, resists the need to spill too many delicious details about Francis’ murders, and if this were a true crime podcast, you would be posting two-star reviews pleading for more, more, more.  But that’s hardly the point; it only shows how entitled we readers (and listeners) have gotten to the graphic details of someone else’s worst day. The way we consume this type of entertainment is comparable to our most primitive inclinations, such as James thinking that he, a secondhand source at best, has a stronger personal claim to, say, Vera’s father’s discovered letters than she has. 

Gailey holds back on the gory specifics of the murders, but they don’t hold back while building the true crime framework around Francis’ legacy. Simple yet unsettling reminders of Daphne’s decision to let fans into the house include the plexiglass covering everything, including the family portraits on the refrigerator and the stairs leading to his bedroom and basement.  It simultaneously protects and feeds Francis’ gloom to allow outsiders to figuratively walk in his shoes.

The most amazing thing is that Francis sounds like the sweetest person ever in Vera’s flashbacks. Not in the “but Ted Bundy seemed so charming” sense, but rather as a loving husband and father (even if he frequently failed to please his stern, tense wife). According to what Vera observes and hears as a young child, Francis is more interested in life than in death; all of his acts are taken with the intention of letting light in rather than giving into darkness.  The cleverest part of Just Like Home is this: It seems obvious, beyond even Vera’s prejudice, that Francis was, at least in her eyes, a good man.

However, it has no bearing on what he did. Furthermore, just because Daphne is nearing the end of her natural life doesn’t mean she is absolved of responsibility for the way she supported Francis and retaliated against Vera.  As Vera collects the remnants of her childhood house and unearths fresh secrets, Gailey weighs these unsettling realities side by side, but the scales never quite balance: Is the house genuinely haunted, or is Vera’s imagination and past traumas coming to the surface in a familiar setting?  Was Francis trying to monitor the same tendencies he had noticed in his daughter, or did he purposefully push her toward discovering his work? What did Daphne still keep from Vera and how much did she know?

The repetitive language occasionally creates the idea that it’s hiding the plot revelations, which has the effect of allowing an experienced reader of the subgenre to predict some conclusions before Vera reaches them.  However, that doesn’t mean that everything that happens inside Crowder House has a simple explanation; on the contrary, there are a number of related issues that, by the time the book is over, raise more questions than they answer.  Considering how conditioned we are to seek the linear narrative flow of a real crime story, the ending is startlingly anarchic (even an unsolved one).

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