Horror Lite – Riley Sager’s Home Before Dark

Ewan Holt had a dream – to buy a large home, maybe even a mansion, with a storied history that he could research for a book. Baneberry House, located outside a small town in Vermont, had a dark history. The original owner, William Garson, had poisoned his daughter to prevent her from eloping with a local boy. Years later, Curtis Carver, killed himself after smothering his daughter, Katie. There were other deaths – a child falling down a staircase and another jumping from a window. Even learning about those deaths didn’t dissuade Ewan. He loved the rambling structure, particularly the large room on the third floor where he pictured himself working on his manuscript. His wife, Jess, was less enthusiastic about taking on such a white elephant. But the space, the antiques that came with the home, and the more than reasonable asking price won her over.

Shortly after moving into Baneberry Hall, their five year-old daughter, Maggie, began to talk to imaginary people she called Mister Shadow, Miss Pennyface, and a girl with no name. Although neither Ewan nor Jess believed in ghosts, events inside Baneberry soon drove them from the house after being there for less than a month. 

Ewan ended up writing a book, but not the one he had anticipated. House of Horrors, which purported to tell in graphic details the events inside Baneberry House, became a bestseller, often compared to another book about a haunted house – The Amityville Horror. Shortly after the House of Horrors was published, Ewan and Jess divorced and Maggie spent her formative years bouncing between her two parents’ apartments. While House of Horrors was a financial windfall for Ewan, for Maggie, the “Book,” as she called it, made her life a living hell. In school she was tormented or shunned by classmates who thought she was a freak. She had little recollection about those few days spent inside the mansion, but the memories she did have caused her to have night terrors. Maggie’s attempts to find out the truth about what happened were met with stoney silence. When she sat with her father as he was dying from cancer, he made her promise she would never go back, saying, “It’s not safe there – for you.”

Maggie turned her back on her father’s hopes that she would become, like him, a writer. Instead she partnered with a friend, Allie, to set up a company to renovate homes. The last home she ever expected to work on was Banberry, but her father never sold the mansion and left it to her in his will. Although she promised both her parents she would never go back, she was determined to discover whether the Book was fact or fiction.

Home Before Dark alternates between excerpts from the Book and Maggie’s present day experience coming back to Baneberry House. In both sections, there are unexplained noises, ringing bells, strange shadows, a chandelier that lights itself, and, in one part of the Book, dozens of snakes that drop from the ceiling. While Maggie wants to discount what’s in the Book, when current events begin to mimic past ones, she begins to wonder whether what her father included in the Book really occurred.

Besides tackling the ghosts inside Banberry, Maggie has to deal with the the living. The press, particularly a local reporter whose interest in the house has never dissipated, continues to stand outside the gate, hoping to corner Maggie for an interview or at least a comment. She’s aided by Dane, a handsome handyman that her father had been paying to keep up the house and the grounds. Yet when she uncovers Dane’s background, she wonders whether he has ulterior motives. And Elsa, who still lives in a small cottage on the property, blames the Holts for the disappearance of her daughter, Petra, once a teen babysitter for Maggie. Elsa’s other daughter, Hannah, may be the one pilfering antiques from the home and selling them online. Also an enigma is Marta Carver, Curtis’ wife, who inexplicably remains in town after her family’s tragedies and runs a local bakery. Why is she still there? And can she help Maggie connect the dots?

Home Before Dark is horror lite. There are enough scary moments, but not horrific enough to keep you up at night. Sager wraps everything up in the end and we learn why Ewan and Jess hoped that Maggie would never return to Banberry. We will return in the future, however. Home Before Dark has been optioned for a film.

Home Before Dark
Riley Sager

Top photo: Bigstock

About Charlene Giannetti (400 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her last book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "Life After You," focusing on the opioid/heroin crisis that completed filming on February 1, 2020. Charlene divides her time between homes in Manhattan and Alexandria, Virginia.