People love haunted houses, the grander the better. That fear becomes all the more delicious when it is bound to family legacy, when the house in question is an ancestral estate. The Secret Skin, a gothic tale by Wendy N. Wagner and set in Prohibition era Oregon, is an excellent example of the genre.
Storm Break was completed the day that June Vogel was born, but it was never a happy home – for her, or for anyone else. Her mother – a grand lady, obsessed with entertaining – had no time for a shy, homely daughter. June left to become an art teacher at a boarding school as soon as she could, and even found some measure of happiness for six years. But now her brother, Franklin, has asked her to return for the summer. He needs her to look after her niece, Abigail, while he honeymoons with Lillian, his new wife, and June can’t tell him no. As she slowly gets to know her niece – and later, Lillian herself – her presence awakens the house, and she uncovers secrets.
The Secret Skin has everything you could want from a gothic style novel – an imposing and forbidding estate, the continued impact of an overbearing mother (now deceased), a half-feral child, a hateful housekeeper who clings to the memory of her deceased mistress, a forbidden queer romance, and endless family shame and secrets. Richly detailed, atmospheric writing brings it all together for some delicious dread.
This story beautifully demonstrates the insidious trap of societal expectations and pressures. Frederick has inherited his father’s business and estate, but has no real interest or skill for either. His new wife, Lillian, struggles to play the role of the fancy lady, and copes with both that and other trauma through the use of opium. Abigail, a nine year old wild child, sees the rot at the center of all of this, but has little power to do anything about it. June, who always chafed against the role she was born into, is the only character who has successfully escaped. Now that she is back home she struggles to play the part of the lady of the house, and keeps slipping back into childhood habits of silent observation and obedience. None of them can live as themselves, as Storm Break — its expectations and its demands — threatens to consume them all.
While I loved the social dynamics and the lush atmosphere, there are several intriguing plot threads that are not developed as fully as I wanted. Wagner introduces compelling characters in Frederick’s foreman and a Black truck driver whom he bullies, but they only tangentially connect to the main plot. Of course, there is only so much space in a novella, but it was frustrating to get these tantalizing glimpses and then have very little come of them. Still, the atmospheric writing and compelling characters made for an enjoyable reading experience.
In the end, June chooses to leave Storm Break and its malevolence behind her. I think that fans of both Shirley Jackson and the gothic genre will love The Secret Skin, but it will also appeal to those who have needed to make peace with their past, in order to build a future.