The dead are never really gone. They’re not even really dead.
Such a sentiment infuses the debut work from Vietnamese-American author Trang Thanh Tran, She is a Haunting, a classic gothic story freshly dressed in the 21st century and the perspective of a young Vietnamese-American teenager caught between the trappings of past wrongdoings and the unknown futures that lay ahead.
Jade Nguyen is a driven eighteen-year-old, running from the mistakes of her past and focusing on the prospect of attending university, channelling her energies into connecting with her estranged dad on the proviso that he pays for her education in exchange for helping to fix up the ancestral estate in Da Lat, Vietnam. She’s far from a wholly likeable heroine, but Tran shades Jade in complex layers, allowing her nuance and grace even when she reveals some of her transgressions in the novel’s enjoyable, emotive climax.
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She is a Haunting does fall into some overly familiar structures at times – given that it offers a fresh spin on the Gothic haunted house narrative, through its focus on a queer, Southeast Asian-American protagonist, it’s a shame that the story beats weren’t further explored to subvert some expectations that feel familiar. This, however, is to be expected – after all no great Gothic horror novel really ever escapes the centuries-old format, much like the majority of characters never escape their predicaments.
The novel has already been pitched as kin to Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s excellent Mexican Gothic, which performs a similar narrative feat, but the argument could be made that it evokes modern-day ‘evil house’ chillers like Stephen King’s The Shining, with its focus on fractured families, or Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, with its creeping tension and macabre humour.
Tran is a skilled writer, and the best part of She is a Haunting shines in their sense of dread and slowly unfurling horror. They have a keen instinct of what gets under the reader’s skin and is unafraid of deploying it, largely in the form of creepy-crawlies that are forced down throats, hidden in food, or utilised as part of the oncoming horde, the manifestation of deep-rooted evil that the house is built upon.
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Tran is also unafraid to explore issues of identity in She is a Haunting. It’s no spoiler to say that colonialism, specifically the colonialism that Vietnam has historically faced, first by the French and then by the United States, is a key theme running throughout the story, brought to life by Jade’s struggle to reconcile her sense of self and her burgeoning romance with Florence, a too-cool boarding school girl. It brings a welcome sense of history to the story; the evil in the house is not an ancient, primordial evil, it is a product of human malevolence from centuries past, allowed to steep and strengthen its hold on those who dare to enter its abode.
Ultimately, She is a Haunting is a flawed but auspicious debut for Tran, one which they should be very proud of, giving the reader a satisfying yarn that builds its foundation with solid character work and bristles with gross, gooey body horror that is sure to delight anyone looking for a story that’s hard to put down and even harder to escape…
She is a Haunting is out now from Bloomsbury YA.