Review: The House the Devil Built by Benjamin Hively

the-house-the-devil-builtRating: 2 stars
Buy Link:
Amazon | iBooks | Amazon UK
Length: Novel


After months of treatment for substance abuse, Ashton can finally get back to his husband, Dillon, and work on rebuilding their life. Dillon is equally eager to put both their transgressions behind them. To help them refocus on their marriage, he has even purchased a grand old plantation, Acadia Springs. In such an extremely rural setting, what choice do Ashton and Dillon have but to make amends and get on with loving one another?

Lead by ultra conservative Pastor Terry Schlepp, the town immediately turns its backs on the newest residents once word gets out that Ashton and Dillon are gay. Terry is a larger-than-life figure who uses the pulpit at South Belle Baptist to shape the world view of the denizens of Acadia Springs to be just as intolerant as his own. No one is immune from his influence, not even local Sergeant Mark—who only begins to realize the Pastor’s true nature when the Pastor and Mark’s own wife forcibly send Mark’s son to a special “camp” where homosexuality is literally beaten out of the inhabitants.

As hate brews at the church, Ashton and Dillon encounter one strange phenomenon after another at their new-to-them property. As the happenings escalate from odd noises to slaughtered livestock corpses inexplicably appearing in their home, Ashton begins to show physical signs of the stress. The longer they stay in their beautiful yet terrifying home, the worse he becomes. Before long, Ashton is losing track of time and behaving completely out of character for him. Even as Dillion fears for the physical and mental well-being of his husband, he finds himself weary of the continued strain on their relationship and finds solace in Mark’s company.

Something is definitely rotten in Acadia Springs, but only time will tell who will survive.

I have to be blunt: the quality of writing in this book is stunningly poor. Skipping a word or dropping an auxiliary verb here or there is one thing; this book has all the hallmarks of sloppy writing: missing words, incorrect grammar, punctuation mistakes, comma splices, and run-on sentences. I found the sheer magnitude and frequency of straight-up English language errors severely detrimental to my enjoyment of the story. At its worst, the text was rendered almost nonsensical.

For example, Ashton first seeing his new home:

“Ashton was in awe of the beauty, large columns surrounded the home with a wrap-around porch and twenty feet above that a balcony overlooked the property.”

This literally makes me roll my eyes. That comma ought to be a semicolon. The first two times I read this, I just assumed the author meant “in awe of the beautiful, large columns.” As I reviewed my notes to write this review, I was still reading it as “beautiful and large columns,” but as I reviewed it a third time, I finally realized the author meant Ashton wasn’t “in awe of the beautiful columns,” but rather “in awe of the beauty [of the house or the lot],” then goes on to describe the house itself.

And this snippet when Ashton has spent an afternoon unpacking after his and Dillon’s move from their old, well-loved New Orleans home to the brand-new-to-them Acadia Springs manse:

“The boxes could be opened tomorrow, the items placed into their respectful spots throughout the home another day, but now Aston wanted to lay with his husband in the bed they had spent many years together in between the walls of the palace they now resided in.”

First of all, I still subscribe to the school of thought that sentences do not end in prepositions. Second, why aren’t these independent clauses separated into individual sentences? Third, I just get this mental picture of a mattress literally squashed between two walls when I read “wanted to lay…in the bed…in between the walls of the palace.” Not to mention that, when I read this, it comes off sounding like Ashton and Dillon “had spent many years” in the bed that is located “between the walls of the palace they now resided in.”

Quite apart from the bad grammar, I found the author’s descriptive style lacking in, well, style. The prose is functional at best, but often turns into jilted jumbles that really failed to engage me as a reader. Here are few examples of the unnaturalness of the narration. When the author describes the scent of liquor “permeating from every pore” of someone’s body or that sweat mingled with the sweat that had “procured from his escape,” the inability to clearly describe the action simply turned me off.

Content wise, the story faired slightly better. I will say this: the premise of the book, while not original, is still interesting. The blurb above sets up the major themes and players very well and the author dedicates a lot of page time to developing: the Pastor and his bigotry, Mark’s personal self-discovery and how he feels it will impact his family, vilifying or infantilizing all the women (the Pastor’s and Mark’s wives are portrayed, more or less, as soulless, dangerously self-righteous ultra conservatives; a waitress waiting on Mark is characterized as have zero worries whatsoever because she’s a waitress so her life couldn’t possibly be hard), and setting up Ashton and Dillon’s relationship for failure (the on-page store completely glosses over their months-long history of mutual infidelity—Ashton’s induced by grief and alcohol; Dillon’s motivated by revenge; none of this bubbles up when Dillon and Mark start to get cozy). As well, if narrowly, defined characters are, I found them rather deplorable.

Objectively speaking, Terry was the easiest character for me to enjoy in that “love-to-hate” kind of way. He has a clear path of development. Terry starts out just a garden variety small-town homophobe, but as we spend much on-page time following him from church to home and back, we clearly see him falling deeper into a spiral of hate that culminates in a literal conflagration. Indeed, the fallout from that fire sparked the most sympathy from me after having read the entire book because one of the principle characters dies and it totally wasn’t someone who I thought necessarily deserved to die, nor someone I thought was going to die (when you’re reading a story about a possession).

Ashton and Dillon, on the other hand, were the “bad” kind of deplorable. While they obviously have a drama-filled back story, it’s slammed out loosey-goosey on-page and I felt like the author takes that for granted. We never really see them in a loving/functional aspect at any point in this book. Rather, they are always stressed out and wary of Ashton returning back to his boozy ways and Dillon turning to revenge-sex. I wanted so much to like them since they’re the main couple…but their actions and whole way the Mark character gets worked into their story line just left me with questions of who’s going to betray whom with whom.

I also feel compelled to mention Mark the cop. At one point, he winds up googling gay sex. He gets turned on and feels shame because of it; after all, he is married with children. One day, his wife ends up seeing the family computer’s browsing history with the gay porn sites. She jumps to the conclusion that it is her impressionable teenage son who is browsing these sites and works with Pastor Terry to send her son to gay realignment camp. The actual “removal” to the camp happens while Mark is at work. When he finds out what happened to his son and the reason why his wife thought their son was browsing gay porn sites, Mark does not fess up. Moreover, Mark does nothing to contact his son or to get is son out of the camp. For a character who was, up till this point, going to be at worst a home-wrecker, his shockingly stupid choices as an adult, frankly, disgusted me.

And I would be remiss to forget discussion the devil’s role in this tale. The story starts out with a snipped featuring Terry’s father trying to exorcise a young girl of the devil. This sets the stage for a haunted house/possession type tale. While it’s clear Ashton and Dillon’s house is still a focus for the evil that possessed the little girl…I didn’t get a strong sense of the exact same fate befalling Ashton. He’s affected; and while he’s under the influence of the devil, horrific things happen to the local fauna. Yet the resolution of this crisis left the door wide open—which is par for the course, except I did not at all get the sense that the author INTENDED to leave the door wide open. Not to mention the fact that the little girl’s possession and Ashton’s were resolved in manners that are incongruous. I am no big horror fan, but I thought a big part of the archetype was that the pattern continues even if the players change.

All and all, this book has many issues that I found too distracting and outright detrimental to the story as a whole. If anything in the blurb sounds enticing to you, this still might be worth a read. In hindsight, the structure of the story and the interaction between these three distinct story lines all colored by the actions of the devil calls to mind Stephen King’s Needful Things, so if that’s something you’d be into, you’d probably enjoy this. Barring that, however, I find this book a hard pass.

camille sig

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