Nothing in horror fiction is so well-trod as the haunted house. Whatever variations you throw into the themes and tropes of the genre, audiences and readers more or less know what to expect, and it’s difficult to do anything entirely new with the framework. What you expect is about what you get, and for the most part you know roughly where you’re going to land whenever you crack into a new haunting tale.

Even with that in mind, there’s an air of inevitability that permeates Jonathan Janz’s THE SIREN AND THE SPECTER, a book that almost seems to know that it exists within a certain framework. The twists are expected, like a winding road you’ve driven countless times, and the territory all too familiar.

The recipe, for the most part, is fairly simple. Take one marginally famous writer known for debunking hauntings (in this case, David Caine), add one locally famous haunt (the Judson House, “the most haunted house in Virginia”), mix with hints of past tragedy (a girl, here), and a dash of creepy conspiracy and voila!

Fortunately for haunted house fans, Janz is a talented enough writer that the reliance on tropes and clichés is easy to overlook. As familiar as the framework and foundation might be, his prose is such that getting lost within his world is not so difficult, quickly turning into a night of “just one more chapter” until you find yourself nearly at the end of his tale.

Coming in at a hair under 300 pages, it’s a quickly paced book with a plot that unfolds at a steady clip until you find yourself rapt in his simple narrative with a powerful need to know what happens next. This, despite the fact that you probably already know. Even considering the familiarity of it all, Janz has managed to weave together a taut mystery punctuated by a wild climax that keeps getting crazier the longer it goes on.

The character of David Caine is easy enough to like, even though he’s not exactly an original character in an original set up. He serves as our way into the bizarre mystery of the Judson House, which may or may not involve a mystery that affects the entire surrounding township. Depending on which version of the story you believe, the Judson of Judson House was either a practitioner of the Dark Arts or a psychopathic murderer or both, and whatever shadow he cast still affects the psyche of the small, Virginia town. Even if the haunting (or “haunting”) doesn’t compel you, the history Janz has woven here is more than fascinating enough to keep you going to the end.

While there are moments that rankled my critical eye (there a few too many modern pop cultural references in the form of t-shirts for my taste) overall THE SIREN AND THE SPECTER is a gripping enough read for haunted house fans who just want a book they can kill in a night or two. It may not particularly move any needles, but it just might move your blood if you let it. It may be imperfect, but it’s never bad and makes for an enjoyable quick read on those long, autumn nights.

James Roberts
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