cover image Beneath the Stairs

Beneath the Stairs

Jennifer Fawcett. Atria, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-1-9821-7715-7

Octagon House in Sumner’s Mills, N.Y., the setting of Fawcett’s atmospheric if cliché-hobbled debut, is notorious for the never-solved disappearance of its builder’s fiancée and her six-year-old daughter in 1936 and the murderous attack on a mother and her two young girls there in 1965. In the present, the ruined house’s pernicious pull threatens Clare Madden and Abby Lindsay, long-estranged childhood friends who remain haunted in different ways after their traumatic experience there as teens in 1998. When Abby’s parents reach out to tell Clare that Abby’s hospitalized following an apparent suicide attempt at Octagon House, Clare, whose life in Chicago has been unraveling after a miscarriage, returns to help—and to see if she can figure out how to finally free them both from the house’s spell. Fawcett skillfully intercuts present-day action with flashbacks to adolescents Abby and Clair and Octagon House’s fraught earlier history, but the genuine horrors she gradually reveals are buried under haunted-house chestnuts and jumbled plotting leading to what feels like a forced optimistic finale. The imaginative flair she displays promises better for next time. Agent: Victoria Marini, Irene Goodman Literary. (Feb.)