Thanks to soaring house prices, many now living will be spared the burden of home ownership. Thanks to soaring rents, many may have the opportunity to enjoy lives in the great outdoors… But just in case you want to take on the burdens of home ownership or rental, note that not all accommodations are expensive, particularly those that require a little maintenance to bring up to code. Many are the books recounting (in hilarious or depressing detail) how the authors have fixed their homes.
Unsurprisingly, speculative fiction authors have been swift to see the narrative potential in home renovation, whether for those who wish to own their own homes or who merely wish to find an affordable rental. Consider these five examples:
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gillman (1892)
Unable to comprehend such an arcane concept as postpartum depression, the narrator’s husband John does what any Victorian physician faced with an unhappy, ailing wife might do in his place. He secures a suspiciously inexpensive, conveniently isolated ancestral hall into which he installs his protesting wife. There she is to convalesce and return to her normal, cheerful, submissive self. Surely, there’s nothing like isolation in a gloomy mansion to deal with mental health issues!
Treated like a child, far from friends and family, the narrator is free to enjoy the ambiance of the rustic estate and to explore every subtle convolution of her growing obsessions. She is transformed by the mansion her doting husband forbids her to leave. John’s intention to see his wife become a brand-new woman succeeds beyond his wildest dreams.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)
Hill House’s no doubt substantial real-estate potential has one impediment: a reputation for inducing madness in the inhabitants. Hill House was built by the cruel, eccentric Hugh Crain and is subtly, disturbingly, out of true. It has a long and bloody history, which has so far deterred occupation by the sane and the living.
A quartet of occult investigators sees opportunity here. Luke Sanderson is present to keep an eye on his aunt’s cursed property; bohemian Theodora appears to be intrigued by novelty. Doctor John Montague hopes to find scientific proof of the supernatural; Eleanor Vance wants to escape a life of being exploited and disparaged by her kin. What better place to find one’s dreams than an estate legendary for its nightmares?
Way-Farer by Dennis Schmidt (1978)
Unlike some would-be pioneers one could mention, the pilgrims intent on settling Kensho did their homework. Kensho has no dangerous animals, no infectious diseases, no deadly biochemistry. It is, to put it plainly, an ideal world for land-hungry colonists to call their own. Only churls would ask why such a paradise is unpopulated.
The answer to that unasked question manifests almost immediately. The colonists eliminated all known sources of danger. They overlooked utterly unfamiliar threats. Kensho is home to unseen entities the humans dub “mushin.” Mushin are quick to seek out and amplify negative emotions. Human survival on Kensho demands extraordinary, unreasonable self-control. Few qualify. Unfortunately, return to Earth is impossible.
The Bones by Sheri S. Tepper (1987)
Having narrowly escaped his first wife’s scheme to feed his son Robby to a demon, Badger Ettison is eager to build a new, less demon-ridden life with his second wife Mahlia (whose magical skills helped save him from wife one). The new family consists of Badger, Mahlia, Robby, and the couple’s infant daughter Elaine. Once bitten, twice shy: Badger doesn’t want anything to do with magic. He insists that Mahlia cut all ties with her witchy mentors and move to a fixer-upper far from overcrowded New York City.
A corporate consultant, Badger is often away on business. It falls to Mahlia, therefore, to deal with the daily challenges of a house in need of repairs and upgrades. It’s a heavy burden for a new mom. But there’s worse to come. The new home is imbued with pure evil—and Badger has done his best to deny Mahlia the magical tools that might protect her family from the dark forces swirling around their new home.
The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher’s (2019)
Freelance editor Melissa shoulders the burden of sorting out her late grandmother’s Pondsburo, North Carolina home. By rights her father should do it, but he cannot face the hoarded-out house. Melissa’s makes the mistake of skimming the documents she is sorting, which is how she comes to read her step-grandfather Cotgrave’s diary.
Melissa’s grandmother was a mean, cruel woman. Life with her would have been a nightmare for anyone. However, the journal makes clear that Cotgrave had even deeper concerns. Cotgrave’s journal is riddling and allusive, but Melissa figures out that hostile, eldritch forces were haunting the Pondsburo property. To know of the existence these entities is to attract their attention (which is why Cotgrave wrote in such riddling terms). Melissa is now a person of interest to these dread figures.
There, of course, many, many stories about new homes—residences that challenge the survival skills of their new owners. No doubt you have your favourites and I have incomprehensibly overlooked them. Please mention them in comments below.
Originally published in June 2021.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and the Aurora finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.