Sep 20 2011 11:30am

Alert With Delight: Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s “Haunted House” Books

Nina Kiriki Hoffman booksI don’t know if there’s an official name for this series, but I call them the Haunted House books. I read them in absolutely the wrong order, but that’s okay, Nina Kiriki Hoffman wrote them in the wrong order, too. Internal chronological order is A Stir of Bones (2003), A Red Heart of Memories (1999) and Past the Size of Dreaming (2001). There’s also a short story that I’m sure I’ve read but can’t find which goes with them. I’ve been looking for A Red Heart of Memories for ages (though I have no idea why it was hard to find) and I managed to buy it in Reno. I’ve read it twice since then, once alone and once re-reading the series in order.

These three books are the story of a haunted house on the coast somewhere in the Pacific northwest and the children who come into that house and their lives and interactions. There’s lots of magic, and everything is alive, and they are written in a beautiful folksy way. They’re about family and friendship and they do startling things with magic. They’re remarkably original.

These are very odd books, and I’m not sure who they’re aimed at, apart from me. They read like children’s books — not like YA, nothing like YA, like old fashioned children’s books full of magic and ghosts. (One of the best characters is a ghost.) But in Red Heart of Memories and Past the Size of Dreaming the characters are grown up, though the significant events that have shaped their lives and which are central to the stories happened when they were teenagers. Besides, I say they’re grown up but they’re grown up in a strange way, almost like a child’s imagination of being grown up. None of them have children, and few of them have jobs or responsibilities that impede their daily lives. You couldn’t let a child read them though, not a young child because while there’s no more sex on the page than a kiss or a cuddle there’s a lot of background child abuse — two of the major female characters have been abused. They are like children’s books that go into the unspeakable things fairytales imply but do not explore. I suppose they are books for ex-children, as Firebird editor Sharyn November puts it.

They are not much like fantasy. I’ve said about Hoffman before that her books  remind me of Zenna Henderson, which is true, but not these. There’s a way of integrating magic into stories which is typical of fantasy — there’s a whole sheaf of ways of doing it, but they are all taxonomically related. I call it “realist magicism.” The thing with fantasy magic is that you think about how it affects the world and what the consequences are and how it all fits together. It’s a very science fictional way of looking at magic, though Tolkien did it, too. But Hoffman isn’t doing this here at all. She’s interested in a different set of questions. She doesn’t care about it making logical sense in a science fiction kind of way (granted that there is magic and it works like this then therefore —) she’s far off at the other end of the scale where things make poetic and emotional sense. If you’re asking how it works then you’re reading it wrong.

There are some awesome things in these books. There’s Julio’s mother, Juanita, whose reactions both to Susan being abused and to her son sharing his body with something that used to be a demon are terrific. (We don’t hear how she deals with Julio’s sex change, but I expect she takes it in her stride.) There’s Matt, who has conversations with benches and cars and clothes and occasionally even people. There’s Dee, who was the one who never got magic although all the others did. And although in all of these books everything works out too easily with too much magic, this is children’s book territory and I do not want to question it, I just want to read more. You’re not here for the plot, you’re here for the people and the voice. Did I say, they have this wonderful voice:

A really big secret can keep you warm on cold nights, stifle hunger, drive shadows back. The best secrets make you feel safe. “I could use this,” you think, but not using it is what keeps you strong.

That’s what gets me every time.

There’s a haunted house, which is a character. There’s the ghost, Nathan. There are the children who go into the house, as young teenagers, and who come back to it as adults. There’s more magic than you could shake a stick at. And I find them absolutely unputdownable. If there were six more I’d read them all before the weekend.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

1. Ki
I read one of these books years ago--either RED HEART OF MEMORIES or PAST THE SIZE OF DREAMING, because I remember being quite confused at all the references to past events, but utterly entranced by the writing and the characters. I have absolutely no memory of the plot, which I suppose is a good indication of how confused I was (or how young--early teens at the oldest), but my memories of the language are so lovely that now I want to read them immediately. Thank you for the reminder!
2. Craig Laurance Gidney
They kind of remind me of Ray Bradbury's work, crossed with Alice Hoffman. The magic has a sense of wonder and the characterizing is so...cozy. Like tea and toast.
Kristoff Bergenholm
3. Magentawolf
Do you suggest that they're better read in chronological order, or publishing order?
Liza .
4. aedifica
Oh, neat! I read A Stir of Bones a few years ago, but I hadn't realized there were other related books.

But really your post makes me want to re-read A Fistful of Sky, which I think is not related. Hmm.
5. alee_grrl
Hoffman is one of my favorite authors, and this one of my favorite of her series. Her books always manage to entrance me. It is really nice to see a spotlight on her works.
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
Magentawolf: I think chronological, but being aware that it isn't really chronological anyway -- they jump about in time.
Mike Cross
7. MikeCross
I agree that these are wonderful books, as is most of Nina Kiriki Hoffman's work. I think of these books, and the associated stories, as the Matt Black stories after the main character (who is aka Matilda Blackaver).

I read them as they were published, which is fine, but would recommend reading in chronological order. Working out the chronology of the shorter works is harder so I think you have to read those as you find them. The shorter works I've read all take place before Matt arrives at the 'haunted house'.

The other stories include (there may be others!):

"Unmasking" (novella, Pulphouse's Axolotl Press, 1992, 900-copy limited edition in 3 states)
"Airborn" ( Fantasy & Science Fiction, May 1996; ElectricStory.net)
"Home for Christmas" (*Finalist for Nebula and World Fantasy Awards, 1996) Fantasy & Science Fiction, Jan 1995; The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror: 9th, 1996)
Mike Cross
8. MikeCross
Some of the info I posted above came from the online bibliography here: http://books.ofearna.us/hoffman.html, which says that "Airborn" is a Matt Black story; checking the issue now, I'm not sure that's true as the intro describes it as a Tasha & Terry("who also appear in two delightful novels... awaiting rewrites") story. However, the ISFDB lists "Airborn" as connected to "Red Heart of Memories".

That bibliography also describes "Here We Come A'Wandering" (
Fantasy & Science Fiction, Jan 1996) as 'The first "draft" of the opening of the novel Red Heart of Memories'.

The ISFDB also lists "Trees Perpetual of Sleep" (Enchanted Forests, DAW, Dec 1995, ed. Katharine Kerr, Martin H. Greenberg) as a Matt Black story.
Pamela Adams
9. PamAdams
It's a g0od thing that I'm caught up on my Hugo reading........
10. Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Jo, thanks for this wonderful essay! Mike Cross, thanks for your researches! Craig, aedifica, Ki, thanks also for your kind words.

I'm assembling a collection of stories with Patrick Swensen of Fairwood Press, and I put in a section that includes some Matt Black & Edmund and Terry Dane stories. ("Airborn" doesn't have Matt in it, as you suspected, Mike.)

The list I've come up with is this:

“The Trouble with Big Brothers,” WITCH FANTASTIC, edited by Mike Resnick and Martin H. Greenberg, Daw, January, 1995 (Edmund as a young witch, with his younger sister Abby)

“Sourheart,” THE ULTIMATE WITCH, John Betancourt, ed., Byron Preiss Visual Publications, October, 1993 (Edmund as an older witch)

“Inner Child,” OTHERWERE, Keith R.A. DeCandido & Laura Anne Gilman, eds., Ace, September, 1996 (Edmund’s sister Abby encounters the supernatural)

“Home for Christmas,” FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION, January, 1995 (Matt spends Christmas with a stranger and his apartment)

“Trees Perpetual of Sleep,” ENCHANTED FORESTS, Katharine Kerr and Jo Clayton, eds., DAW, December, 1995 (Matt and Terry Dane)

"Hostile Takeover," WIZARDS INC., Loren Coleman & Martin H. Greenberg, eds., DAW, 2007 (Terry Dane after Matt has left)

“Here We Come A-Wandering,” F&SF, January, 1996 (Matt meets Edmund)
Table of Contents is not finalized yet.
11. Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Aaieee, I missed saying a thank you to alee_grrl. Also thanks to you!
12. Jason L
these books are the best I got confused by way they where write but I see now they are soposet be that way cant wait to read Past the Size of Dreaming, a stir of bones, a red heart of memories.

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