In Mathew West’s House of Footsteps, Simon Christie visits Thistlecrook House, the home of a recluse named Victor. As an employee of an auction house, Simon performs a professional assessment of Victor’s art collection, which he wants to sell. Due to its sheer size, as well as the remote location of Thistlecrook House, Simon remains as a guest, occupying an unused bedroom. He visits the library to do further research and finds Amy, a secretive woman who evades his questions about her identity. As their friendship grows, Amy drops hints that Victor is her enemy. Despite knowing nothing about their history, Simon promises to help her escape Victor.
I admire the novel’s ambitious choice to keep its explanations vague. As Simon reminds himself more than once, he only has a limited understanding of Thistlecrook House’s troubled history. His acceptance of this cluelessness as his best chance of happiness echoes the Lovecraftian theme of blissful ignorance. In fact, the archaic writing style, which uses formal language and intricate sentences, brings Lovecraft to mind. While the lack of a “big reveal” risks disappointing readers, I think it respects the third person limited point of view, from which the story is told. I also love the prevalence of suggestive details, especially the painting in Simon’s bedroom from the perspective of someone standing in the centre of a lake. The vividness of these details complements the obscure backstories of Amy and Victor, accentuating their mystery.
The romantic scene between Simon and Victor encapsulates the strength of the characterisation. Neither Simon nor Victor acts in a clichéd or oversimplified way. Rather, their interaction gives their personalities a new dimension. Victor tells Simon that “we both knew it was going to happen”, referring to their physical contact as though it already occurred. The pronoun “it” reinforces the bold assurance of Victor’s manner, who takes for granted that Simon perceives his intentions. Meanwhile, Simon’s post-alcohol narration is interrupted by em-dashes and sentence fragments, emphasising the brokenness of his mental state and his struggle to form a coherent thought. Victor’s merciless exploitation of Simon’s vulnerability conveys his power and cunning. In contrast, Simon’s innocence inspires not just pity, but dread of what he has in store.
Although “The House of Footsteps” is slightly slow-paced, its compelling characterisation makes it hard to put down. In particular, Mathew West’s eloquent writing style will appeal to fans of Lovecraft.
Ryan Tan studies English Literature at the National University of Singapore. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Straylight, Grimdark, Bone Parade, Bristol Noir, and The 13 Days of Christmas.