Review: The Poisoned House

The Poisoned House
Michael Ford
Albert Whitman & Company
$16.99, hardcover, 328 pages
Release date: Aug. 1, 2011

London in the mid 1850s. A manor house governed by a stern housekeeper while the Lord of the house slowly goes mad. A soldier who loses a leg upon his return from the Crimean War. Secrets and strange bumps in the night. Clothes and furniture that move when no when watches. And at the center of it all, a 15-year-old scullery maid, unaware of the secrets that surround her.

Michael Ford’s The Poisoned House trots out nearly every trope found in a Gothic novel. The target young adult reader may be new to the genre of haunted Victorian families and may not wince every time Mrs. Cotton, the housekeeper, threatens young Abigail Tamper, the book’s heroine. Older readers, however, will recognize the stereotyped characters and plot twists long before they occur. And if younger readers have been exposed to Algernon Blackwood or Henry James, they may wonder if Ford deserves a place among them.

The Poisoned House sticks to the Gothic formula without straying. This is both an asset and detriment for the book. The formula lays the groundwork for the story, and readers should have an easy time following along. The main plot twist carries enough foreshadowing on its shoulders that young readers can congratulate themselves for figuring it out ahead of the big reveal, even if the reveal depends on one character’s complete change in personality that may dumbfound older readers.

Abigail, or “Abi” as she is called by other characters, is an amalgam of every young Gothic heroine. She is plucky. She has hidden intelligence and taught herself to read from the books in her employer’s library (although she cops to having poor handwriting and her use of the word “pumps” to describe her footwear could throw older readers out of the story into a search for the words etymology*). She enjoyed a special sibling-like relationship with the young master of the house (now the aforementioned war hero). She was the daughter of a servant and given special privileges while raised in the house she now serves.

Ford could have deviated from the formulaic road map now and then and elevated the story: Did the parlormaid have to become pregnant by her footman boyfriend; was it necessary for Mrs. Cotton to abuse her position as housekeeper and the lord’s sister-in-law so obviously; why did no one talk about the supernatural activities at the house?

It is when Ford turns his attention to the supernatural that the story takes hold of the reader. Are the strange events the result of a ghost or a human? A medium visits Mrs. Cotton and manages to convey a garbled message to Abi. A strange figure appears in a daguerreotype image.

Abi, however, is far too accepting of what she interprets as supernatural events. Even without a 21st-century cynicism, the scullery maid doesn’t question what is happening around her, even when events seem to tell her to mistrust everything she knew about the people with whom she’s spent her life.

*Pumps refers to “close-fitting woman’s dress shoes with a moderate to high heel,” according to Merriam-Webster, which cites the first use of the word as 1555. So, while the word is jarring in the book’s setting, it’s not impossible for Abi to throw the word around as she flees from the housekeeper’s tyranny in the opening chapter. Go back.

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