A worthy modernization of the traditional gothic horror story


The Spite House

Johnny Compton

Macmillan Publishers

9781250841414, 272 pages

February 7, 2023


“The boundaries which divide life from death,” said Edgar Allen Poe, “are at best shadowy and vague.”


Welcome to the Masson House in contemporary small-town Texas, which encompasses both ends of Poe’s temporal spectrum, allegedly haunted today by tortured spirits from the past. 


Enter Eric Ross, whose backstory is crafted by Johnny Compton in layers like a smooth varnish. He doesn’t tell us everything we need to know—another Poe principle—but rather lays the essence of Ross, as well as his daughters Dess and Stacy, delicately between thin coats of dark lacquer. Readers gather that they’re on the run, that he’s a loving father bereft by an abandoned lover, partner, or spouse. From what and why? That’s a discovery whispered more than shouted. 


Ross is troubled and troubling, desperate and dedicated to his daughters who accompany him on his itinerant quest for work that will feed and house the three of them. They’re both masked and marked by their blackness, literally hiding in plain sight: “One of the few things they had going for them,” Dess explains, “was that missing black people weren’t all that newsworthy, or much of a priority. Fugitive black people, sure. But missing? That wasn’t going to lead the news any night of the week.” Nonetheless, Ross’s heritage is the race-link to some hidden supernatural revelation in the architectural bones of the haunted mansion. 


So, the first haunting in this chilling, captivating story is of the reader: what lies beneath the veneer, and below the haunting of Masson House, and between Poe’s amorphous boundary of life and death? Compton patiently fashions an intricate latticework of characters, including the house itself, with cryptic symbolism of hope and dread, determination and fear, that engenders a reader’s growing awareness of the netherworld alongside Ross’s discovery of supernatural reflections of enduring Civil War torment. For me, this recalls Melville’s deft, unwearied set up of Moby Dick: the first two hundred pages teach readers how to holistically engage the rest of the novel. 


The notion of a “spite house” is the unifying principle of the binary life/death conundrum that is Poe’s elegant understanding of the literary concept. That is, the same foreboding, disturbing essence that disquiets the house’s neighbors is exactly the subtext of past horror that is a troubling undertow dragging both Ross and the readers into deep, dark waters of revelation about Masson House, past and present. 


If there’s one thing that may (or may not) put readers off, it might be Compton’s frequent diffusion of detailed particulars revealed by minor characters. But that to me is a strength rather than a weakness in the writing, adhering to Poe’s “don’t tell all” maxim: it’s worth the effort demanded of the reader to engage the misty diffusion that is the firewall between past and present, memory and certainty, and the hybridized reality of yesterday’s history today.  


In Spite House, Compton has created an aesthetically stunning and thematically troubling “Middle Passage,” an honored African American literary trope worthy of Charles A. Johnson’s acclaimed 1990 novel of the same name. The book is a worthy modernization of the traditional gothic horror story, and a fascinating read. 

Johnny Compton’s (he/him) short stories have appeared in PseudopodStrange HorizonsThe No Sleep Podcast and many other markets. He is an HWA member and operates the podcast Healthy Fears, which covers how our fears are explored through horror fiction. The Spite House is his first novel.