An involuntary cry escaped his throat as he ran into the house, leaving splayed on the sidewalk the album containing a century-old photo of his wife. (from The Birthing House, page 35)
The Birthing House by Christopher Ransom is a psychological thriller that opens with Conrad Harrison traveling home to his wife, Joanna, in Los Angeles after his father's death. The young couple is having some marital problems, and Conrad hopes the spur-of-the-moment purchase of a Victorian mansion in Black Earth, Wisconsin, will put them back on track. Conrad pays cash for the former birthing house, never asking why the seller is so motivated to get rid of the house. However, the move doesn't bring the couple closer, and soon after they arrive, Joanna leaves for eight weeks to take advantage of a new job opportunity. Conrad does his best to support her, but he doesn't really want her to go. He wants to settle into the new house with Jo and their dogs and begin the next chapter of their lives together.
After Jo departs, weird things start happening. The former owner of the birthing house drops off a photo album of women in 19th century dresses -- and one of them is a spitting image of his wife, except with an evil look on her face. Conrad begins to feel something isn't right in the house and seeks out the former owner, whose children were born in the home and have various defects.
"...You think your house is haunted? Why? Because it's old? I got news for you, kid. A haunting is just history roused from her sleep. Any house can be haunted, even a new one. Know why? Because what makes 'em haunted ain't just in the walls and the floors and the dark rooms at night. It's in us. All the pity and rage and sadness and hot blood we carry around. The house might be where it lives, but the human heart is the key. We run the risk of letting the fair maiden out for one more dance every time we hang our hat." (page 112)Conrad hears a baby cry in the house when he's alone with the dogs. There's a scene with a doll that's more hilarious than scary. There's a ghost walking around the house who looks like his wife. There's a virgin snake laying eggs. Conrad's marital problems escalate, and he reminisces about his high school love. Then Conrad befriends Nadia, the neighbors' pregnant daughter who knows something about the crazy happenings in the birthing house. And Conrad needs and wants answers.
I had high expectations for The Birthing House after reading the blurbs on the back cover. I was hoping for a truly scary story, creepy at the very least, but the book was neither scary nor creepy. It was disturbing, it was messed up, it was ridiculous at times, but it wasn't scary. The book drags for at least the first 35 to 40 pages, and I only kept on reading because it was chosen for my book club. I know it was Ransom's intent to create a disturbing, unbalanced character, but Conrad was hard to stomach. His attraction to Nadia, the fact that he runs from a picture and a doll, and his stupidity when it comes to matters that should be handled by the police did little to make me feel for him. I don't have to like the main character to enjoy the book, but Conrad was so offensive, idiotic, and annoying that I had a hard time picking up the book and staying focused.
It's clear that sexual obsession and possession are important to the story, but I think there were so many scenes dealing with sex that it began to detract from the story. There also are some violent scenes that get pretty graphic, but those are among the most interesting. Many of Conrad's actions made no sense -- it could have been the influence of the house, I'm not sure -- and it made the story a bit tedious. Although the pace picks up, tension runs high, and secrets are revealed over the last 60 or so pages, the book left me scratching my head. I understood the events on the surface, but I think Ransom may have had some deeper meaning in mind that I just didn't get. The events at the end are a bit hazy and confusing, and while Ransom is a talented writer, I think The Birthing House might have worked better as a movie.
My husband is reading The Birthing House right now, and so far, he likes it more than I did. Maybe I can get him to write up a paragraph or two of his thoughts when he's finished.
In the meantime, I will continue my quest for a truly scary book. It might be that it's hard to scare me, but I remain hopeful that one day I will come across a book that keeps me awake all night. If you have any recommendations, please let me know in the comments.
Disclosure: I borrowed The Birthing House from the library.