Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Review: Just Like Home by Sarah Gailey

It’s not always wrong to love a monster, as long as you love the right one.

Cover illustration and design by Will Staehle

Sarah Gailey is a writer who has undergone a remarkable shift over their career, tilting from a purveyor of breezy, heisty, hippo-filled romps five years ago (NoaF nanoreview here) to someone who has realized that their real strength lies in—whatever the hell kind of monstrous grim horror story we have here in Just Like Home.

I want to pause here to emphasize that when I say whatever the hell kind of monstrous grim horror story we have here, I mean it in the best possible way. I don’t typically seek out horror as a genre, but I’ve deeply enjoyed Gailey’s previous work, and it hasn’t escaped me that the bits I’ve enjoyed best—The Echo Wife (2021) and ‘Bread and Milk and Salt’ (2018) most notably—have been the darkest and grimmest and most monstrous. And it was on the basis of this trust that Gailey has instilled in me that I read this book—a book I absolutely, under no circumstances, would have dreamed of picking up if I had not already trusted Gailey to take care of me.

And they did. I mean, sort of. Wowzers. This is a doozy of a rough ride. It starts out with a dedication--to everyone who has ever loved a monster—and it follows that path all the way down to a surprisingly touching and horrible and satisfying and really bizarre conclusion.

Vera Crowder returns home after a decade away, called back by her mother who is dying and wants Vera to be ready to settle the estate. Once she is back at the Crowder house, the book loses no time in fulfilling the promise of its dedicatory note by introducing three core monsters. The first is Vera’s father, Francis Crowder. He’s no longer around, having died years ago, but it becomes clear quite quickly that Francis was involved in something Very Bad, something that was responsible for the enforced estrangement that has distanced Vera from her family home for her entire adult life. Whatever it was, it made her family into a sort of celebrity among the true-crime loving community. Surfaces are protected with plexiglass to preserve the house in the state it was when the whatever-it-was actually happened. True crime writers and artists and probably rather twisted fans visit the house to spectate on the site of whatever-it-was. But, for all that Vera seems to recognize that badness of whatever-it-was, she is unwavering in her loyalty to Francis. She loved and adored and trusted him when she was a child, and in all the flashbacks to Vera’s childhood he appears as the epitome of a good father. And even now, as an adult, with the perspective of years and maturity and distance, Vera yearns after his memory, treasuring traces of his letters and journal pages in a way that seems quite incompatible with the monster he seems to have turned out to be.

Such a set-up leaves a reader of less skilled narratives expecting that the truth will turn out to be something obvious and predictable—he was actually a sexual predator! Vera must come to terms with the truth of what a monster her father was! Fortunately, Gailey eschews such tedious tropes, and the actual truth of Vera’s father, and Vera’s relationship with him, turns out to follow a much more unexpected path, one that is entirely in keeping with the starting dedication of the book.

The second monster is the house itself, Crowder House. Vera’s relationship with the house is characterized by a kind of childlike, magical trust that goes well beyond nostalgic affection for the times we felt safe and protected as children by virtue of our ignorance of all the things that make us unsafe. When she snaps her fingers four times, anything distressing—strange shadows, unwanted noises—fades. Francis built the house himself, and built it well, designed it to meet his specifications—including the requirements of whatever-it-was that looms over the Crowder family’s downfall. Even when some deeply, unpleasantly weird stuff starts happening—black ooze, moving furniture, traces of monsters under the bed—Vera’s sense of comfort and safety in this house never falters. She’s aware that the house is being weird, but she does not seem as freaked out by the weirdness as the situation warrants, and her desire to get to the bottom of it is connected with her love for her father and her desire to understand the house more than with fear or horror. This was a very good thing for me, as a scaredy-cat reader who doesn’t like to be frightened. If Vera had been afraid, I would have been terrified. Since Vera was not afraid, I was fascinated—and when the true nature of the house is revealed in the final chapter, I was delighted and horrified and comforted in equal measure.

The third monster is Vera’s mother, Daphne, whose monstrous nature is built along much more mundane lines, but no less chilling ones for all that. She has always been a cold and unloving woman, seeming to see Vera as a rival for her father’s love. After whatever-it-was went down, Daphne banished Vera from her childhood home and welcomed the true-crime vultures to Crowder House, capitalizing on the same gruesome whatever-it-was that made it impossible for her daughter to remain there. Even now, as she lies dying in a hospital bed in the dining room, unable to stomach anything except lemonade, she rejects Vera’s attempts at reconciliation, preferring instead the attentions and company of her most recent guest. This guest is an artist in residence, living in a shed in the yard that has been furnished and fixed up for the use of these sorts of guests, leeches who take inspiration from Crowder House to make art that cannot be anything but a truly tone deaf appropriation of sick tragedy. (I suppose a case might be made for viewing him as a sort of monster, a kind of second-hand voyeur whose goal is to titillate the sorts of people who get off on true crime, but his monstrousness, and the kind of love he might inspire, is weak and pale in comparison to the Francis, Crowder House, and Daphne.)

Throughout the book, Vera’s entirely mundane actions—visiting a hardware store, buying a bed frame, heating up frozen lasagne—take on sinister overtones. Everything she does is connected with her childhood, and whatever-it-was that Francis did to turn his family into a pariah, and Crowder House into a magnet for weirdos who fancy themselves artists. Through flashbacks and conversations, we do, eventually learn what that inciting action was, how it is that Vera can still love her father despite his involvement in it, and the secrets that Crowder House holds which she only now manages to uncover. And again, I must hasten to add that Gailey again eschews such lazy, easy narrative tropes as, ‘He had reasons’ or ‘it was all a misunderstanding.’ The revelations make sense, but, as with all of Gailey’s best work, it is a sick sort of sense, that is twisted and dark and weird, and, in the end, equal parts comforting and horrible.



Nerd coefficient: 8/10, an enjoyable experience, but not without flaws
  • Wildly messed up families
  • Very well-constructed childhood homes
  • All sorts of monsters
CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. She is on mastodon at wandering.shop/@ergative

Reference: Just Like Home. Sarah Gailey. [Tor Books, 2022].