The Stranger Upstairs
by Lisa M. Matlin
pub date: 12-Sep-2023 Ballantine/Random House
A therapist and self-help writer with all the answers, Sarah Slade has just bought a gorgeous Victorian in the community of her dreams. Turns out, you can get a killer deal on a house where someone was murdered. Plus, renovating Black Wood House makes for great blog content and a decent distraction from her failing marriage. Good thing nobody knows that her past is just as filthy as the bloodstain on her bedroom floor.
But the renovations are fast becoming a nightmare. Sarah imagined custom avocado wallpaper, massive profits, and an appreciative husband who wants to share her bed again. Instead, the neighbors hate her guts and her husband still sleeps on the couch. And though the builders attempt to cover up Black Wood’s horrifying past, a series of bizarre accidents, threatening notes, and unexplained footsteps in the attic only confirms for Sarah what the rest of the town already knew: Something is very wrong in that house.
With every passing moment, Sarah’s life spirals further out of control—and with it, her sense of reality. But as she peels back the curling wallpaper and discovers the house’s secrets, she realizes that the deadly legacy of Black Wood House has only just begun.
I’m going to write this review starting at the end. I don’t mean the end of the horror story. I mean, the Author’s Notes. Lisa Matlin graciously bared her raw emotions in a few pages explaining what happened to her while she drafted The Stranger Upstairs. She states that she had a breakdown. From the sound of it, she was in a mental health crisis. She even lists the hotlines for Australia and the United States. She also included a link on how to test carbon monoxide detectors. For an author to take elements of her story to heart and use them to warn people in the real world who might be reading about characters who suffer emotionally and mentally, it goes above and beyond her role as a writer of entertainment.
Certainly, haunted houses are not a new subgenre of horror, but Lisa M. Matlin has made The Stranger Upstairs relevant for today’s readers. This isn’t about a couple who buys an old Victorian house that the neighborhood children believe is haunted. It is a little bit, but there’s so much more. The first thing you’ll notice is that the story is told 99.5% through the lens of main character, Sarah Slade. The perspective brings a lot of humor (my kind anyway) where readers get to know Sarah’s inner thoughts like what she really thinks of her coworkers and husband and those nosy people in the neighborhood.
Sarah is a strong and extremely flawed protagonist. She’s even unlikeable as her past reveals more and more. Her husband Joe has absolutely no interest in her whatsoever. Sarah is the one who makes more money and since Joe is deeply depressed, she has no problem being the one to call all the shots in their relationship. I won’t spoil how deep Sarah’s manipulation goes. She’s conniving.
Now that Sarah has forced Joe to buy and live in Black Wood House, a house only known because of the terrible murders that occurred in the past, she finds herself paying the consequences. The townspeople want to raze the house. Sarah sees it as a money-making opportunity. She’s a successful self help author and needs another best seller quick. She lives through social media sponsorships and the vapid world of influencing. Sarah believes that her fans will stick by her as she renovates Black Wood House and blogs all about the progress.
Life isn’t that simple for Sarah. Soon she begins finding threatening notes around her creepy, haunted house. She tries talking to locals and the contractors to find out who could know more about the house’s previous owners and most importantly, about Sarah’s own past.
As the house “drives Sarah insane,” her only friend Emily grows worried. Sarah drinks bottles of wine every day. She starts to ignore clients who come to her for therapy. Her boss has no pity for how difficult Sarah’s life is. (because she keeps all of her marital troubles and renovation nightmares a secret).
Matlin does an incredible job of making readers live inside Sarah’s mind. She types up blog posts exposing her real feelings but always deletes them. She talks to her house as if it’s a living entity (is it?). Sarah loses chunks of time in blackouts. Is it stress or something supernatural? Is she being poisoned by the neighbor who is vocal about wanting that house torn down? Readers take this journey with Sarah which begins with hope and a falsely happy façade and struggle with her as she gets worse day after day. By the end, Matlin has to shift to Emily’s point of view at the climax when Sarah too far gone mentally to keep up with her own story. It’s an interesting choice to wait that long to change perspectives, but it does work.
The pacing is handled masterfully during all the frightening moments filled with Sarah’s anxiety. There are short notes that she finds; her own raving voicemails to people; her actions driven by paranoia that Black Wood House is alive and doesn’t want to be renovated. All of this comes with the mysteries of Who is Amanda, the previous owner and what happened to her? Who is Sarah Slade really?
*FYI: the cat lives.
The Stranger Upstairs is perfect for the spooky October and November days that lose light and the air is chilly. (If you’re in the northeast like me). Lisa Matlin’s unreliable narrator, Sarah Slade, goes from shallow yet normal to full blown Jack Torrance mode. If you’re susceptible to feeling the emotions of others and being affected by that, perhaps this isn’t for you. If you enjoy mild horror with a ton of suspense, you won’t be disappointed by The Stranger Upstairs. This review is provided courtesy of NetGalley.
Rating: 5 stars