“The House the Devil Built” by Benjamin Hively is one of the best indie books I read in 2017. This novel doesn’t pussyfoot around with hinting at metaphors or allegories. Instead, it is straight to the point with plot, subplots, characters, and prose. The result of which is a white knuckled read that mixes intense subjects like a forbidden gumbo.
The prologue grants insight into the year of 1962. At the Boudreaux Plantation, a demon has possessed Paul and Elizabeth’s daughter, Isabelle. After seeking medical attention without resolvent, they call Reverend Shlepp for help. Over five days, Shlepp has assisted the family. To no avail, he has tried to remove the evil that has invaded Isabelle. With each attempt being a failure, Paul does the unthinkable. In turn, his actions open a door for future horrors.
Part One, “The Beginning,” fast-forward to modern times. In this century, bestselling author and lead protagonist, Ashton, receives introduction. While one may suspect his introduction to be glamorous, it isn’t. Instead, he receives presentation after becoming cured at rehab for substance abuse. The following pages elaborate on his backstory. Here, one learns he grew up in a home with a tight knit family, free from abuse and neglect. Though spared a bad childhood, Ashton’s problems begin later in life. The first event which causes his downfall regards his father passing away. Adding to his stress, his mother develops Alzheimer’s, which leads to her death. Because of these tragedies, he starts a downward spiral. Like a domino effect, the abuse ranges from alcohol, cocaine, and promiscuous sex.
Throughout this turmoil, his husband, Dillion, dedicates himself to Ashton’s wellbeing. During Ashton’s hospitalization, Dillion has arranged for them to relocate from New Orleans. The primary goal for their move is to withdraw Ashton from an area where alcohol and drugs are easy to access. Also, Dillion feels solitude can allow them to rebuild their relationship. To achieve these goals, Dillion selects a quaint, neighboring town, Acadia Springs, LA. While Dillion’s intent seems well, he has purchased the old Boudreaux Plantation. For the husbands, this property displays the Southern beauty of a bygone era. But they are oblivious that beyond its beauty, an evil presence lurks.
Over the following days, they become settled in their new home. A week later, Reverend Shlepp, son of the reverend who attempted to help Isabelle, disturbs them. Upon his unannounced visit to the couple, he condemns their same sex relationship. Following this dispute, the book progresses into part two, “Love Thy Neighbor.”
In this section, Reverend Shlepp informs his church, South Belle, of “the sinners” who have moved into town. Following his announcement, vandalism begins to deface the Boudreaux Plantation. As the vandalism progresses from bad to worse, Ashton and Dillon refuse to leave. While they suspect the reverend and his church are to blame, they call the local sheriff for help. Unlike the stigmatized small town sheriff, Sheriff Mark Batton is the opposite. While not caring about his personal relationships, he holds the law above all else. This includes bringing justice to those who have been harassing the newcomers.
During part two, subplots and side characters receive crucial development. With Ashton and Dillion remaining the stars, one subplot regards Sheriff Batton. It focuses on his life as a family man and his hidden desires. Secondly, this window opens perspective to how Mark’s wife and children view the new residents. Among them, Mark and his son, Marsh, aren’t troubled by the newcomers. Mark’s daughter, Amelia, who is too innocent by age to judge, also isn’t affected. Opposing their nonchalant behavior, Mark’s wife, Denise, feels contrary. Since she is a South Belle member, she shares Reverend Shlepp’s contempt.
Furthermore, this section is where Reverend Shlepp’s character receives elaboration. Here, indicators show he believes he is holier than thou. Yet, despite his fanaticism, and hypocrisy, he truly believes he is enforcing God’s will. Due to his personality, he is a diluted character who lacks redemption. Still, he doesn’t seem altogether evil. Opposing his dominance is his wife, Janice. Though it is never said she is an abused woman, her actions indicate otherwise. Contending him is his son, Luke, who rivals his poor decisions and narrowmindedness.
Part three, “Into the Darkness,” elaborates greater on more sinister possibilities. With focus on Dillion and Ashton, small incidents begin to intensify. Since their arrival, Ashton has suffered from night terrors. Also, he has heard unexplained sounds that could be mistaken for scurrying rats. However, there is something more unnerving than the dreams or mysterious sounds. Neither, Ashton nor Dillion have seen any vandals on their property. They have only seen the aftermath of the destruction. Since the land harbors evil, one begins to question exactly who, or what, has caused the vandalism.
As stress bares down on the husbands, Ashton takes the brunt of emotional negativity. Because of this, his body begins to suffer what might be an illness. Although Dillion suspects Ashton to be sick, we, as readers, know better. Due to Ashton’s melancholy, one can assume the demon that possessed Isabelle has found a new host.
The final part, “Like a Moth to a Flame,” ties all loose ends together. From here, the novel’s tension goes into overdrive and presents relentless conflicts. Among these pages, some expected twists occur. But overall, many of the curveballs that Hively throws are unpredictable. In time, these conflicts merge into a grand battle. One that will leave the reader wide eyed and jaw dropped long after the novel concludes.
A major aspect I loved about “The House the Devil Built” was the strong character development. While sparing readers of irrelevant backstories, Hively focuses only on vital subjects. For the most part, I found the portrayed characters were not solely good or evil. Rather, they are flawed humans, and like flawed humans, they all have downfalls.
Hively’s greatest achievement is how he avoids stereotypes. My highest praise goes to Ashton and Dillion’s development. Neither of them were campy, melodramatic, or flamboyant for flamboyance sake. In LGBTQ fiction, the qualities I listed are more times overexaggerated than not. To my relief, Hively portrays the husbands as casual human beings. Because of this, Hively’s perspective opens a door to a broader audience. One where any orientation can empathize, or sympathize, with Dillion and Ashton’s marriage.
Although the book lacks stereotypes, Reverend Shlepp is the only real character trope. Still, one can excuse his development due to his unexpected extremities. His utmost insane moments include him gathering a posse and the harm he brings to his own family. Regardless, no matter how Reverend Shlepp causes more harm than good, he isn’t the devil in the flesh.
Superb character development aside, the unrelenting suspense of this work deserves praise. Throughout, Hively uses a Hitchcockian method. By this style, he presents an intense subject, then he writes of other issues. Meanwhile, the reader’s mind screams for closure in regards to the original subject. Then, when one least expects it, each issue becomes addressed in its own time. This tactic is something where if not done right, it can grow old fast. No matter, Hively knows how to weave a suspenseful pattern.
A great contributor to this novel’s fast pace are the subplots. Maintaining structure, Hively’s swapping of perspective receives presentation at the correct times. None of the points of view seem out of place, or are they confusing. Nor are they presented as meaningless information so that a thicker book is the outcome. As the book progresses, each subplot bleeds into another. Upon storylines becoming crossed, character interactions intensify. This form of brutal surprise continues pulverizing the reader, until the last word.
Message wise, the four main characters shine light on important subjects. These characters include: Ashton, Dillion, Sheriff Batton, and Reverend Shlepp.
Ashton’s character comments on co-dependency, depression, grief, and self-abuse. This downward spiral begins with the negative emotions caused by Ashton’s mother dying. In turn, co-dependency becomes relevant as Ashton relies on vices to overcome his loss. These vices become forms of self-abuse, and include drugs, alcohol, and promiscuous sex. While Ashton does show co-dependency towards Dillion, one gathers he craves other vices more. This toxic mixture makes him a prime candidate for possession. If anything, Ashton’s character suggests it’s okay to grieve, as long as one doesn’t trap themselves in lament.
Dillion is the strength of their relationship. Although Ashton’s wayward life has taken a toll on them, Dillion refuses to surrender. In most cases, one will lose everything trying to save someone from themselves. But under this circumstance, Dillion’s loyalty is not in vain. By today’s standards, Dillion’s commitment isn’t seen in most modern relationships. Due to his devotion, Dillion represents the foundation that most contemporary relationships lack.
Focusing on Reverend Shlepp, one should already envision a fire and brimstone bigot. Nonetheless, he pursues life following his interpretation of “God’s Will.” I wouldn’t say this allows him a pass to mistreat people, yet it does hint he is guilty by insanity. Despite he means well, he shares more similarities to the devil that he condemns than the God he worships. In his wildfire of chaos, he is guilty of murder, destroying families, and discrimination. The message relayed here suggests the dangers and repercussions of being judgmental. These troubles worsen if that individual is a person who is in power or influential.
Last, there is Sheriff Batton. He is the authority figure who obeys the book. No matter if he is friends with a person or not, if they do the crime, they do the time. Although this character walks the straight and narrow, he represents the oppressed individual. Having married and produced children, he falls into a role where he is unable to be himself. The strongest message one can take from Sherriff Batton is one of self-acceptance.
Now that I have addressed these points, I shall elaborate on the overall topic. In the words of Sheriff Batton, “Although tragic, it opened my eyes to what the true meaning of good and evil is and that is not always black and white in the terms we all believe.” By this statement, the novel indicates there are more gray areas in life than one may consider. Not everything is one way or another. Rather the majority of existence is a smear of positive and negative.
As an early Halloween treat, Mr. Hively has agreed to provide me with an interview on “The House the Devil Built.” Considering how busy he has been with writing his sequel, I appreciate him granting me this time. Without further ado, let’s enter the house of the damned to enjoy coffee and beignets with the devil himself.
Opposing your career as a comedian, you are also a horror author. Considering how dark “The House the Devil Built” is, how do you balance your art forms between light and dark? Why the polar opposite between stage and page?
I haven’t been on stage in quite some time but it’s definitely still an interest. With comedy, I am able to find the ridiculousness of everyday life. With horror, I am able to take that ridiculousness and weave it into a horrific happenstance. Comedy and horror, in that sense, go hand in hand. I think if I submersed myself completely in horror, I’d go mad, but we all go a little mad sometimes, don’t we?
What inspired your work?
When I started writing the book, I was still living in Indiana. What’s interesting about this book and its subject matter is that religion is a huge industry anywhere. The main source of inspiration, strangely enough, was the craziness of the Westboro Baptist Church. Globally, the LGBTQ community is becoming more accepted and laws are changing to give us more rights. Still, you’ll always have those “religious” folks that want to rain on our (pride) parade. Another inspiration was William Peter Blatty’s ever famous “The Exorcist.” “The House the Devil Built” was my love letter to that novel.
Your book takes place in, and near, New Orleans. Being that it focuses on hauntings and possession, one can connect the region’s lore to the book. Being a resident of New Orleans, have you encountered, or do you believe in, the supernatural?
The great thing about New Orleans, you’re always surrounded in history. The roads, the houses; so many lives have come and gone in the 300 years that New Orleans has been around. Unfortunately, I have not encountered a physical apparition but you can feel it. When you walk into a place and learn the history, it’s a tugging at your veins as if it’s playing a melody. I believe when the day comes and I see a supernatural occurrence, I’d run the other direction.
In your book, I don’t see any of the characters being truly evil. Even the worst deeds are out of concern for others wellbeing. Did you intend to write gray characters or do you see one of them being truly evil? Why?
Much like life, everyone has a potential of great things and pure evil. Initially, I wanted the preacher to be this evil entity but as the story began to unfold, I couldn’t do it. The only innocence is that of children, and I would say 100% that they are completely innocent in the book. Otherwise, everyone on this planet has secrets they’d rather not share.
What can we expect with the sequel?
“The Philosophy of Evil” will give the origin story of the evil that resides in Acadia Springs. You’ll learn what happens to those who survive such an ordeal and when secrets come back out to play.
Where can people connect with you?