Despite (or because) of their number, ghost stories tend to be difficult tales to write. The subgenre feels incredibly familiar to audiences. Almost too familiar. After all, when it comes to to introducing anyone to the giant umbrella that is horror, is there no better way than a ghost story? Modern writers need to be creative in the execution of their ghost novels or risk boring their own readers. Thankfully, Trynne Delaney manages to accomplish the feat in her debut YA novel, A House Unsettled.
On a surface level, A House Unsettled appears to be stereotypical. A young, teenage girl, along with her single mother, move into an old house. The home came from an inheritance, in this case with the passing of great aunt Aggie. Both mother and daughter want a fresh start. Both find their desires thwarted when supernatural occurrences begin happening. When put in that way, what makes A House Unsettled different from any other ghost story ever?
For one thing, Delaney chooses to center her novel on an unappreciated voice: the POV of a Black queer teenager. Asha, our protagonist, makes for a compelling narrator and heroine. More than anything else, Delaney deserves much praise for creating such a human core to her debut novel. Asha’s struggles resonate deeply with the teenage human experience: the growing pains of young adulthood, the confusion of figuring out your identity, inevitable conflicts with family, and the troubles of moving to a new space.
However, Asha’s blackness and queerness add dimensions to not only her character but the plot. Her fears and problems don’t just reflect teenage angst. These quandaries center around real societal issues and generational pain. Asha’s conflicts with her mother, Traci, have less to do with hormones and more to do with a white mother unprepared to deal with what her Black child might be facing. Adapting to any small town becomes infinitely more difficult when you’re one of its only Black or queer faces. Doubly so when that small town happens to know that your Black father has just been convicted of a crime and is now in prison.
These problems only help prop up the central conflict of the book. Even before ghosts appear, the story drips with tension every time Asha interacts with Traci or her new stepdad, Jeff. This constitutes one of the best writing decisions in the story. Many would-be writers of the ghost story choose to emphasize a family’s normality in the beginning in an attempt to get us to relate more when tragedy finally strikes. However, this usually just bores your audience. In contrast, Delaney effectively utilizes well-written, complicated relationships and mundane conflicts to keep the audience’s investment.
Nor is this a waste when ghosts finally do decide to join the plot. If anything, Asha’s troubled family relationship allows ghosts to do what they’re best at: exposing the cracks in a cheery facade and refusing to let history die. After all, what better monster to help reveal the traumatic unfolding of history than an undead spirit? As a writer, Delaney understands that the house itself as a concept, that pipe dream of wealth that so many aspire to, is built on blood.
Or as Asha puts it:
This entire house is violence. I don’t want its lineage attached to mine. This house, which was supposed to be a place for me and Traci to start fresh, is built on violence preceding violence.
Ultimately, the ghosts in the novel are less monsters or fully-formed characters than they are avatars for the house’s violence. Some wish to seek respite and justice. Others simply want to replicate the systemic violence that rang clearer in the past yet echoes even now in the present.
Does A House Unsettled have flaws? Certainly. No book is without them. For one, I could have believed Asha’s isolation in the middle of the book more fully if we had the chance to see the town’s full reaction to her presence. Much of that response seems to come from a few characters such as Joe, her neighbor’s uncle and a cop. Perhaps if the book was set during the school year instead of the summer, we would have gotten a fuller development of the small town’s character outside of the exposition required to fuel the plot’s progression.
Another slight weakness lies in Cole, Asha’s neighbor and love interest. They just weren’t nearly as developed as Asha or her family was. Given what the story is and how it’s told, that’s fine. However, it does make Asha’s queer self-discovery a little weaker in the process.
Nevertheless, this is a brilliant YA book, and it’s hard to believe it’s just a debut. Delaney’s characterization feels like it came from a more mature writer. If this is how she starts, well, I just can’t wait to see what Trynne Delaney might have in store for the future of the genre.
Lyana Rodriguez (they/them) is a queer Cuban-American writer living in Miami, Florida. Their greatest interests include monsters, animals, nature writing, and staring way too long at the birds in their garden. You can find more of Lyana’s writing in their intersectional horror blog, Dark Intersections.