[Book Review] A Ghost in the House by Betty Ren Wright

When Sarah Prescott's family moves from a cramped apartment to her great-aunt's big old house, Sarah thinks that life is perfect—complete with her own beautiful bedroom. But from the moment Aunt Margaret returns from the nursing home, Sarah begins to feel that something is terribly wrong.

Sarah tries to believe that she's just unhappy about having to spend so much time caring for her disagreeable invalid aunt. Yet she knows there is more. There's a chill in the air, which only Sarah seems to feel. There are unexplainable heavy footsteps in the upstairs hall. Lights go out, doors slam unexpectedly, and things move by themselves.

Sarah realizes that one other person in the house is just as frightened. Aunt Margaret. Together, a sick old woman and a frightened young girl, they must figure out what evil spirit is trying to terrify them.

I'm only rating A Ghost in the House this highly because if I'm being perfectly honest, the kidlit ghost stories / YA pulp horror (like Fear Street) genre is like popcorn for me. It's not actually that great and I probably shouldn't eat/read it, but if I'm in the right atmosphere, I'll keep shoveling it into my face whether I really want it or not. And even if I don't really enjoy the experience, I'll still enjoy the experience. It's 100% guilty pleasure reading, and even if these books don't completely meet my standards, I still really enjoy them. It's weird.

Fair warning: The bulk of this review isn't so much a review of A Ghost in the House as it is a rant about a particular trope found within the novel that is found within damn near all of the similar novels I have read from this era. Said rant is cordoned off behind a spoiler tag for any readers who (rightfully) choose to ignore it.

Click to view spoiler!
So here's the thing. Both Betty Ren Wright and Mary Downing Hahn (and, I'm sure, plenty of other authors within this genre during the height of their careers) tend to write more or less fun children's ghost stories with more or less bearable protagonists... and awful parents. It's a bizarre cultural divide, I think, between the authors and myself; the children are so often portrayed by their respective narratives as mildly bratty/spoiled and their parents stern and authoritative... but, like, that's never how it actually reads. The children read as, you know, children, and the parents are always varying degrees of abusive or neglectful. In A Ghost in the House, we have a seriously neglectful father (as is so often found in a very traditional nuclear family, whether we're talking reality or fiction), a psychologically/emotionally abusive mother, and a grumpy, rude great aunt who turns out to actually be the most sensible and kind adult in the whole story.

Like, I get it. It makes a ton of sense for the parents in children's stories to take antagonistic roles... but personally, I'm sick of it. As much as stories need conflict, I'd say it's more important for children to see healthy relationships modeled in fiction. Now, I wouldn't be complaining if this wasn't such an overwhelming thing (and hopefully the trend has fallen off in more recent works), but in these older ghost stories, the parents are tyrants who hardly seem to give two shits about their kids, and so these stories normalize that behavior. But while these stories portray these parents as good or average, they're not. These parents are shit, and for once, I'd just like to read about a mother or father who supports their child, who listens to their child, who acknowledges the validity of their child's emotions and desires and fears, who sets healthy boundaries for their child and allows their child to set healthy boundaries of their own.

Basically, I'm saying that I would've liked to read a book as a kid that could've helped to show me what the fuck a healthy parent-child relationship looks like, so maybe I could've figured out that my own parents were neglectful, abusive fucks before I spent over half of my life wondering why I was suicidally depressed and incapacitatingly anxious. (Spoiler, it was PTSD!)

/end rant

Anyway, about the actual book... the ghost story of A Ghost in the House is mostly just a spooky backdrop for the real crux of the story, which is the protagonist's journey to cross-generational reconciliation/understanding/friendship with her invalid elderly relative. There was a great opportunity for a darker ending that Wright (perhaps unintentionally) set up but didn't deliver, but the climax/ending that Wright did deliver was a satisfying enough conclusion. I've no real complaints on that front, so if you're a fan of children's ghost stories, this is a decent enough instance of the genre.

If nothing else, it definitely scratched that "spooky children's pulp" itch for me.

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