The House of Dies Drear, by Virginia Hamilton, was published in 1968 by Macmillan.
The house held secrets, Thomas knew, even before he first saw it looming gray and massive on its ledge of rock. It had a century-old legend—two fugitive slaves had been killed by bounty hunters after leaving its passageways, and Dies Drear himself, the abolitionist who had made the house into a station on the Underground Railroad, had been murdered there. The ghosts of the three were said to walk its rooms….Yes, the house held secrets…did it hold danger as well? Thomas was sure it did, but his obsession that the house give up its secrets led him on, through the terror entrapment in its labyrinth of tunnels and to an awesome confrontation with Pluto, the mysterious and formidable “devil” who jealously guarded the house. Then, suddenly, it was alarmingly clear—there was danger, and the Smalls were being warned to flee. But what kind of danger, and why, and what did it have to do with running slaves and the ordeals of a hundred years ago? Thomas searches, and in searching finds not only the answer to these secrets from the past, but a deeper sense of his own connection to that past.
The House of Dies Drear is a bit of a spine-chilling suspense/mystery novel. Hamilton’s sparse writing helps contribute to the overall tension of the book, combining with the history and the mysteries of the past to create a creepy atmosphere. It’s a bit of a strange book, but you can tell how much Hamilton put into this book as it relates to her own history.
I suppose calling this book a mystery is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not really a mystery; it’s more suspense. There is some mystery aspects to it, especially at the beginning, but the mystery is solved midway through and the rest of the book is the characters dealing with what they have discovered.
The House of Dies Drear holds a lot of information about the Underground Railroad and black culture, in general, including things like the church environment which was nice to see in a novel. Most novels these days (and movies) pretend like religion (or, at least, Christianity) doesn’t exist at all, and if it does, it’s some distorted version of it that the author uses as a strawman. Hamilton’s take was both historical and respectful, detailing how important things like church and the church experience are to people, especially when in a new situation.
The House of Dies Drear is an effectively creepy novel, and though it’s not the best thing I’ve read, it was certainly interesting and informative. I appreciated it for the passion so subtly conveyed by the author and for its historical worth. I probably won’t read it again, as it was a little too strange and not quite engaging enough for me, but it’s a good book.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction
As soon as Thomas had entered the room, he understood what old Pluto had tried to do. He had arranged the furniture in a rigid progression, with the two long windows, not the open fireplace, as its focus. Thomas’ eyes swept from the fireplace to the windows, then out into the gray day, on and on, until he could see no farther.
It’s his warning, thought Thomas. He means for us to flee.