Even now I can remember the first time I saw the house as clearly as if there were a video of it playing in my head.
—From The House at Midnight
It was the house that changed everything. After the suicide of his uncle, a successful art dealer, Lucas Heathfield inherits Stoneborough Manor, a stately property in Oxfordshire. He imagines it as a place where he and his tight-knit group of friends from Oxford can spend time away from London.
Soon after their first reunion at the manor on New Year’s Eve, Lucas reveals his feelings for Joanna, a woman he has long pined for, and the new pairing pleases everyone. But Joanna senses that the house is having a strange effect on Lucas. He is haunted by the death of his uncle and seems obsessed with home movies his uncle’s friends made at Stoneborough 30 years earlier. The old gang of friends in those films is disturbingly similar to the new set, revealing a side of Lucas’s family that he has never seen before.
Over a hot, decadent summer within the claustrophobic confines of the house, past secrets emerge and sexual tensions escalate, shattering the group’s friendship and changing their lives forever. The House at Midnight is a compelling union of The Big Chill with The Secret History, cut through with Grey’s Anatomy. An eerie story of compulsion, desire and betrayal, it heralds the arrival of a major new talent on the literary scene.
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Lucie Whitehouse studied classics at Oxford University before moving to London to become a literary agent and rights director. She is now writing full time. The House at Midnight is her first novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Even now, I can remember the first time I saw the house as clearly as if there were a video of it playing in my head.
Danny, Martha, and I had driven up from London together, the force of our collective will keeping my elderly Citroen from one of its increasingly frequent breakdowns. Cold night air had forced its way into the car around the loose windowpanes as I coaxed it along at speeds for which I could feel it reproaching me. I think we all had a feeling of adventure that evening, leaving the city as so many other people had been pouring into it, going against the tide.
Lucas’s directions had been easy to follow until the last part. We came off the motorway and soon were lost in the maze of minor roads that laced across southern Oxfordshire.A part of me was glad;I wanted to be ready before seeing him, but the miles had disappeared too quickly. The half hour we spent shuttling along the same dark lanes again and again had given me time to think. Finally I pulled up at the side of the road in the village we had been circling.
Danny leaned forward between the seats.“This place is like the end of the world.”
He was right. Even for a village, Stoneborough was nothing. The cottages, five or six of them huddled together, had an empty air; only one was showing any light, the blue wash of television seeping through the net curtain in an upstairs window.There was a pond,its edges sharp with frozen reeds, and a village green that was little more than a patch of crisp white grass. No one had been across it since the dew fell.
“We can’t go round again,” I said. “We’re going to have to ask.”
“Can’t we call him?” said Martha.
“There’s no reception.”
Across the road was a pub called the White Swan, a squat stone building whose roof covered it like an oversized hat. The upper windows looked out slyly from underneath. On the ground floor the curtains were drawn, but a rim of yellow light was visible around them.
“It’s like the place doesn’t want to be found,” said Martha. She opened the passenger door and got out. Her usual long stride curtailed by the cocktail dress that clung tightly above her knees, she crossed the beam of the headlights and went in.
The radio was too loud now that the car had stopped so I turned it off.Danny leaned forward again.“It had better not be much further.It’s gone nine–I’m dying for a drink.” His breath carried an unmistakable whisky tang.
“You’ve been taking nips from that hip flask all the way. I’ve seen you in the rearview.” I twisted round to look at him. The light from the pub’s carriage lamp cast the planes of his face into sharp relief. He looked elfish.
“It’s New Year’s Eve, Joanna.”
“Light me a cigarette, will you?” I asked. “Mine are in the boot.” He rummaged around among the newspapers on the backseat and found the packet. The match flared and died. “Thanks.”
“Your hands are shaking.”
“Are they?” I held one out flat and observed my fingers in the light from the dash.“Maybe it’s the thought of the big house.These things intimidate English teachers’ daughters, you know.” I shrugged and wound down the window to blow out the smoke. It was a policy I had developed with Danny: to reveal my weakness rather than give him the pleasure of discovering it himself.
“That’s one of the things I like about you. You’re always so honest about your humble beginnings.” He sat back and started flicking through old text messages on his mobile.
“It’ll be a thrill for me to be allowed above stairs.”
Martha came out of the pub, the heavy wooden door slamming shut behind her. “That way, about a mile on. I think we must have gone past it at least three times. There’s no sign on the road, apparently, just a track on the left that leads into a wood.” She pulled her red fake-fur jacket more tightly around her shoulders. “It is so cold out here.”
“I thought New Yorkers were used to hard winters,” said Danny.
We drove on out of the village. Living in London, I had forgotten how dark it got in the country. Hedges flashed past, illuminated only by our headlights and falling back into blackness behind us.We saw several pairs of small eyes in the undergrowth. When we’d gone about a mile I slowed down and started to look for the driveway. We were coming into a wood. Huge trees made a skeletal tunnel over the road, their bare branches tangled and swaying eerily. I pulled slowly along the verge for a couple of minutes.
“There,” said Martha. “That must be it.” I turned and we started up a rough track. I had expected to be able to see the house from the foot of the drive and squinted forward looking for lights, but there was nothing, just an intricate mesh of leafless branches opening up in front of us and pulling tight as a net behind us as soon as we passed. I thought of those fairy-tale woods where the trees sprout at supernatural speeds to ensnare those foolish enough to enter, but there were no signs of new growth here. Everything around us was dead or dormant, in the widow’s weeds of winter. We fell silent, as if the looming and falling away of the branches were weaving an enchantment around us. The car made heavy work of the road; we bumped and lurched over potholes for the best part of another mile before we veered left and found ourselves on a circular gravel drive.
I stopped the engine. There, in front of us, was the house. Stone-borough Manor, the Cotswold stone pile–it really was the only description–recently inherited by Lucas, my best friend.
Three stories high, it reared out of the night as if it were facing down the darkness. There were seven windows on the second and third floors, all blankly reflecting the tiny sliver of moon, but light spilled out of every one on the ground floor onto the two small lawns in front of the house. An avenue of yews lined the long path to the door, which was sheltered by a portico on two smooth round columns. I felt a pang of anxiety. Lucas had described it to me pretty well, but even so, the reality of it shocked me. How could it not change things between us?
We unloaded our bags from the boot and I locked the car, although who would break into it so far from civilization was anyone’s guess. I held Danny’s arm as we made our way up the path; the flagstones were slippery with frost and the heels I’d just changed into didn’t offer much in the way of grip. Martha rang the bell and we heard the echo of it reaching back into the house like a whisper. For a minute or two there was nothing and then the shape of a body appeared behind the stained glass panels in the door. Suddenly there he was, lit from behind and grinning. I saw immediately that he had lost weight.
“Lucas, it’s incredible,” I said, stepping forward. He put his arms around me and held me tightly. The collar of his dinner jacket was rough on my cheek.
“Hello,” he said, next to my ear.
He let me go and embraced Martha, then clapped Danny on the arm. “Mate. Come in. Did you find it all right?”
“Not without some effort,” said Danny. “Fuck, it’s fantastic. You kept this a secret. Why haven’t I been here before?”
“Well, it was Patrick’s. He did his entertaining in London. He was quite private here; it was a sort of family place.”
We left our bags by the door. We were standing in a central hall lit only by two large table lamps on a wooden chest. Their light pooled onto a black-and-white-checkered floor. Around the edges of the room were a number of marble busts on pedestals; one of them, I saw, was wearing our college tie.Above us,the upper floors of the house spiraled away like the inside of a snail shell, getting darker and darker as they receded upward. Our voices echoed coldly off the walls, rising away from us until they were swallowed by the body of the place. There was a strong scent of old-fashioned furniture polish.
“We’ll have the champagne now everyone’s here.” Lucas opened a door into an enormous drawing room. There was an immediate rise in the air temperature. The room was dominated by a white marble fireplace carved with an oak-leaf and acorn design, and in the grate a fire was burning, sending up flames a foot high. Brocade curtains hung from ceiling to floor at the three windows, their sun-faded rubies and greens complementing the ivy-pattern border of the artfully threadbare carpet. Here, too, the light came only from lamps dotted around on low tables and from a pair of thick church candles on the mantelpiece. In front of the fire there were two grand Chesterfield sofas of burnished burgundy leather that looked as if they had been there since the house was built. They were so much a part of the room I could imagine that they had grown there, sprung from seed in the carpet. Sitting on them were Rachel and a man I didn’t recognize.They stood up and Danny bounded over, caught Rachel in his arms and spun her around and around.
“Put me down,” she laughed. “Put me down, Danny. You’ll ruin my dress.”
He set her down on the carpet and stood back to scrutinize her. She was wearing a silver slip dress, crumpled like tin foil, deliberately torn at the shoulder and hem. The look was catfight on the catwalk. “Nice.” He nodded with approval and pouted at her.
She turned to the man and smiled at him, “Greg, this is Danny– the inimitable–and Joanna and Martha.”
“Ah, the new boyfriend,” said Danny.
“God, you’re rude....
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