When I started reading The House Across the Lake I was already aware that this mystery/thriller contained a huge, supernatural twist thanks to the review of fellow blogger Mogsy who had showcased this book previously, so when it happened (and Mogsy’s comparison to Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes was indeed spot-on) I was not surprised, nor put off, but still I would like to warn potential readers who don’t enjoy the addition of the uncanny to their thrillers that this kind of element is there.

The story focuses on Casey Fletcher, a former actress whose career floundered after the tragic death of her husband: she’s now a grief-stricken alcoholic who stopped caring long ago about the media frenzy over her drunken public appearances.  Casey’s mother sent her to the family’s lake-house in Vermont to keep her out of the media’s voracious eye, and with the not-so-high hope of sobering her up, but unfortunately the choice of location is the wrong one since Len, Casey’s husband, drowned in the same lake on whose shore the house stands, so that heartbreak and loneliness are driving Casey to drink practically nonstop from morning to night.

Something however breaks that self-destructive routine when one day Casey spots someone in danger of drowning in the lake: taking to her boat, she’s able to save the person, only to discover that it’s Katherine Royce, a famous former model and her neighbor on the other side of the lake, where the woman lives with her husband Tom in a new house whose big glass windows seem to invite a peek into the life of the rich and famous Royces.  And that’s exactly what Casey starts to do, pointing her binoculars at the Royces’ house and seeing that apparently her neighbors’ marriage is not the modern fairy-tale told by the tabloids; so, when Katherine suddenly disappears, Casey becomes convinced that Tom must have killed her, and she launches into an alcohol-fueled, often messy crusade to uncover the truth. Only to discover that appearances can be very, very misleading….

It’s going to be very difficult to write about this book while steering away from spoilers, particularly where that famous narrative twist is concerned, but what I can and will share are the reasons why this book proved quite disappointing – and certainly not for the supernatural element: being aware that it would be there made me look forward to it, curious about what it would be, and it turned out to be an intriguing one indeed, even though it came with little or no foreshadowing, unless one takes into account a passing mention that might very well have been overlooked.  No, what disappointed me were the characters and their actions, which often made little or no sense, and a feeling of… narrative flimsiness – for want of a better definition – that employed some well-known tropes without trying to invest them with some much needed uniqueness.

Casey takes of course the role of unreliable narrator (and toward the end we will discover just how unreliable…), but she is also an unsympathetic character I could not drive myself to care about: we are told that she’s grieving for the death of her husband, and we see her trying to drown that grief in the bottle, but I never truly felt her pain. If her alcohol-induced fugue state was a way of expressing that sorrow, I’m afraid it did not work for me; what’s worse, at some point we learn about a certain dramatic revelation from the past, and Casey’s harsh choice in dealing with it, but I’m afraid that the too-short time frame from discovery to action made the whole sequence totally unbelievable, because there was simply no time for her to truly process that momentous epiphany. I apologize if this sounds cryptic, but to do otherwise would lead to spoilers…

The other characters fare no better, from the potential victim’s husband’s suspicious attitude, to the avuncular protectiveness of the older neighbor, to the appearance of an attractive neighbor/caretaker who might be a romantic interest, they are barely sketched figures that left no lasting impression and serve only as a sort of foil for Casey’s reckless and ill-advised choices.   I held some hope once the true villain of the story was revealed – and here I have to acknowledge that the author managed to work some very successful red herrings here in the narrative transitions between the “before” and “now” of the various chapters – but the exchanges with Casey destroyed that hope because instead of the hoped-for dramatic effect they bordered on the grotesquely outlandish and robbed those scenes of the required emotional impact.

As I said the weird element in the novel was an intriguing one, and being a fan of horror themes I did not find it objectionable, even though it might have been introduced a little more organically: what I find hard to accept is that the… phenomenon, let’s call it that way, did not manifest itself sooner and lay in wait for a very long time before coming to the surface, considering that there were many opportunities for that to happen before Casey’s arrival on site.  And as a last complaint, I must add that once the main story seems to have reached its climatic end, we are treated to a second dramatic revelation, which not only steals the wind from the main ending, but adds what I felt was a ludicrous note by having a second baddie threaten Casey – I kid you not – with a five thousand dollars bottle of wine. If this sounds as insane as it is unbelievable, it’s because it IS.

In the end, I’ve come to view The House Across the Lake as a bundle of missed opportunities that turned what was a potentially intriguing story into an alcohol-soaked mess. From what I’ve seen online, this does not seem to be the author’s best offering, but still I’m not exactly encouraged to explore further….

My Rating:



I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

This is my third book from author Craig DiLouie – the previous ones being One of Us and Our War – and it will certainly not be my last: in The Children of Red Peak he once again takes us on the hard but compelling path of betrayed innocence and damaged youth, and does so with clarity and empathy while not sparing any kind of emotional punch.

Siblings Angela and David, and their friends Deacon, Beth and Emily are the only survivors of a terrible event that occurred fifteen years ago: they were part of the religious group called Family of the Living Spirit, and on that fateful night, as the group committed mass suicide in the belief that the end of the world was near, they barely escaped from the Californian retreat at Red Peak, from which – incomprehensibly – no bodies were ever recovered once the alerted authorities reached the area. Now grown up and separated by their different life choices, they meet after a long time for Emily’s funeral: their friend ended her life quite unexpectedly and this event forces them to connect again with a past they would rather forget.

The story alternates between the present and flashbacks to the past, where we see how the community, secluded from the world as it was, was a place of peace and comfort, of hard, honest labor and shared kindness – that is, until something changed drastically and the relocation to Red Peak brought on a downward shift that culminated in that horrific night.

The remaining four survivors have not escaped unscathed, of course: Angela is a hardened police officer in Las Vegas; her brother David is married and has two children, but he keeps apart from them preferring to drown himself in his work; Deacon is now a musician pouring all his anguish and pain into the songs he writes; and Beth has become a psychologist, but is clearly suffering from PTSD, no matter how much she denies it.  Emily’s suicide convinces them that they must go back to Red Peak, where it all happened and where something dreadfully mysterious both seemed to influence the adults and to cause their disappearance in such a fashion that no one could believe possible, not the authorities who interrogated them, nor the five youngsters themselves.  Facing once again the place where it all happened (and where, by the way, similar uncanny occurrences were recorded in the past) might bring the four of them the closure they need, and maybe offer the answers to the questions that still plague them after fifteen harrowing years.

The news have offered us examples of the tragic consequences of extreme religious beliefs carried beyond their intended original purpose – what happened in Guyana with Jim Jones’ community being a most dramatic one and an appropriate comparison with the events described in this novel – and The Children of Red Peak tries to analyze the issues that could lead a well-intentioned congregation toward a self-immolating path. True, there is an unknown, unfathomable element added here, but some of the dynamics explored before the fateful move to Red Peak are completely human, and the author shows a notable degree of compassion when he examines the adults’ behavior, particularly that of the leader Reverend Peale, a man driven by honest beliefs, and the will to establish a community where strong faith and the desire to create a safe environment far from the hurts and the dangers of the outside world, are the foundation of the Family.

As I read I often wondered if that kind of separation from the rest of the world, combined with the strong belief that the end times were at hand and that the members of the Family had to be prepared for them, did not act as a catalyst for the appalling developments after the move to Red Peak, where punishing climate, exhausting labor and poor nutrition brought everyone to a state of extreme susceptibility to Peale’s instructions and to the mysterious force dwelling in the mountain. As the children observe:

Their home had changed from a lush valley to a desert mountain, their parents had traded contentment for a forced cheerfulness […]

There is no condemnation for the adults’ actions as they prepare for the afterlife through gruesome acts of “purification” (and I can assure you I recoiled at some descriptions), but only the compassion of an observer who tries to understand how the best teachings, and the best intentions, can be led so dramatically astray and how – and this is my own consideration – a too-tight focus on the goal based solely on dogma, and not a healthy dose of reason, can make people blind to consequences.   

This lack of condemnation walks hand in hand with a lack of answers to the many questions the story lays down, leaving the ending open to interpretation, as it’s only right considering the complex issues at the core of the novel, and as I’ve come to expect from Craig DiLouie’s works, where thought-provoking ideas are posed to the readers so they can draw their own conclusions.

The Children of Red Peak has been DiLouie’s most traumatic work for me so far, but it’s also one that will instigate many considerations for a long, long time.

My Rating: