Why should you read The Residence by Andrew Pyper?
- Halloween’s around the corner and you need a spooky book to keep you up at night. (Or if you’re like me, a book you have to put down at night because it’s dark and you’re the only one up and it’s getting scary.)
- The elegant and intelligent writing.
- The history: the story is firmly based in facts about President Franklin Pierce, his family, as well as the White House itself – and the souls who built it.
The story begins with Jane Pierce grudgingly forgiving her husband. Franklin won the presidency after promising her that he didn’t have a chance. They’re on the train to Washington when they lose their last surviving child in a tragic accident, a son named Bennie. These are facts: Pierce was our 14th president. Jane was often ill, and she intensely disliked politics and Washington, DC. Their three sons all died young – one in infancy; then Franky died of typhus at age 4. Beloved Bennie died in a train accident in January 1853 when the president-elect and his wife and son were traveling to their new home.
Jane’s an odd woman with a dark side; even as a child there was something off about her. She learns of a strange pendulum game hidden in her father’s desk and it becomes irresistible to her. It turns out to be a Ouija type game and she takes it to the basement to play. Unfortunately something or someone wants to play with her, too. She calls the shadowy entity that emerges Sir and he has plans for her. Jane’s dad knew, by the way. He knew she took the game and later tells her they’re both “curious kitties…Devoted to God but also devoted to knowing what he keeps from us.” And Jane is really curious.
Miserable and depressed in the White House, Jane learns about the Fox sisters. They perform séances and readings and have become minor celebrities in places like New York City. She invites them to the White House in hopes of connecting with Bennie. But what starts as a routine performance turns into something real when Sir shows up. He’s known to one of the sisters by another name but I’ll leave that for you to discover, as the moment is pure (demonic) delight. I had to put the book down for a minute after this scene to let my goosebumps settle.
Pyper’s style of writing seems distilled in The Residence. Subtle and spare, menacing and atmospheric. Scene after scene will have you nervously looking over your shoulder as you read. Exactly what you want when reading horror.
The Residence has so many scenes that have stayed with me. Like Jane and Franklin’s wedding day. It’s the morning of the ceremony and Jane is upstairs, sobbing. Is it pre-wedding jitters or perhaps a visit from a childhood friend? Sir is pleased with their union – Franklin will deliver them, he says. To what? Ultimate power, of course. Who is more powerful than the President of the United States? This is the first time Sir has appeared in human form and Jane can’t handle it. “The thing’s indifference to her horror compounded her horror” is a terrifying line in an outrageously frightening scene.
I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.— First Lady Michelle Obama, 2016
The issue of slavery in the United States is a minor theme in this book. President Pierce struggles with his responsibility and his power, trying to balance what is right with political implications. In the White House he comes face-to-face with the slaves who built the residence and now haunt it. They add to the atmosphere of dread and get the reader thinking about the origins of the US and the horror of slavery.
The story doesn’t have a happy ending but things are resolved and demons contained, more or less. It’s a horror novel unlike any other: the imagined history alongside the facts make for a unique and satisfyingly scary read.
Here’s my Halloween wish: for Presidents Biden, Obama, Bush, Clinton and Carter to form a POTUS book club, read The Residence, then host a discussion on the history of the White House. And if they experienced anything unusual while living in the Residence, tell us about it. Wouldn’t that be something?