The House Next Door

Welcome to the fine, warm, slow-paced world of Colquitt and Walter Kennedy. They live in an affluent suburb of Atlanta, where they have good jobs, close friends, beach vacations, and no children. They drink, but not too much; they love each other without the need for words; they are sheltered from the worst of things and don’t hunger for the heights. Their life is good — maybe even great. Until someone builds a supremely beautiful house on the lot next door, and one family after another moves into it and is emotionally and physically devastated, shattered, ruined forever. Colquitt, not believing and yet forced to believe, comes to understand that the house itself is evil, that it preys on the weaknesses of those who live in it (or near it), and that it must be destroyed.

I’ve never read any of Anne Rivers Siddons’s other novels, and I gather that this one is atypical. She usually writes family dramas that take place in the South: think Pat Conroy. This one is more dark Southern Gothic, the real deal, a haunting for the New South. Don’t make any mistake, it’s a trashy book, and it’s got some serious flaws (about which I’ll say more in a minute), but in other ways it’s almost unputdownable. I found myself surprised by the urgency with which I wanted to know what happened next. What terrible way would the house find to ruin poor Anita Sheehan, or little Melissa Greene? Was there an underlying explanation? Siddons can really tell a story, and I have to love her for that.

The story’s greatest flaw is, alas, the narrator, Colquitt Kennedy herself. She is so smug, so self-absorbed, so in love with her own life, so self-righteous, that there were many moments when I just wanted to smack her. Get this. Colquitt is explaining her own circumstances: her house, job, marriage, hobbies:

All this is by way of saying that we are fairly ordinary people, Walter and I. Not the norm, maybe. I think we add up to something quite graceful and special, something that both enriches and adorns the small world we live in. Our friends say so. But not, surely, the stuff of People magazine.

Argh! I found myself rewriting the book in a way that was more interesting (to me, at least.) In my version, it wasn’t the house that was evil. Colquitt Kennedy was so disturbed by the incursions of The Other into her closed little world (an Irishman moving next door, then a Jewish couple) that she went crazy and was, herself, without being conscious of it, the cause of the tragedies. Finally, in my version, the climax would be an African-American couple moving in. She’d have to go nuts then, and her husband would have to tumble to what was going on, and — oh, well, that’s not this novel. But you can see how much she bugged me. It says something for the power of the story that I read the whole thing, despite the pebble in the shoe, so to speak. If you enjoy a thriller with a slight feel of true crime, you’ll like this one, and it’s a quick read — especially since you won’t want to put it down until you’re done.

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