I am very excited to talk about the Upstairs Room – I’ve been patiently waiting for everyone to finish this one so we could talk about what happened here. It’s all so subtle that even weeks later I’m not entirely sure.
In the introduction to this month’s book I told you that how you felt about this book would depend on if you believe ghosts are real, and I want you to be ready to share your opinion – and whether your opinion changed as you read The Upstairs Room.
Modern ghost stories aren’t that easy to pull off because it’s often difficult to make them seem realistic.
Ghosts feel at home in historical novels – there’s room for plenty of misunderstandings without technology like the internet and telephone, and any era where there’s room for superstition is fertile ground for ghosts and hauntings.
So in this sense I found The Upstairs Room very satisfying – it managed to genuinely creep me out several times without my brain going screaming at me that would never happen.
The other great thing about the mysterious events in The Upstairs Room is you could argue they aren’t mysterious at all. Is something strange about the house or simply the people who live in it?
Let’s look at our two main characters and where they are; Richard and Eleanor are are both suffering from a bit of individual disillusionment as the gap between who they are and who they want to be gets wider.
Richard has dreams of being an academic, but can’t motivate himself to get there. Eleanor is married to someone she knows she doesn’t really love and is finding motherhood challenging and understimulating.
Her strategy with big decisions seems to be to simply choose the path of least resistance; we see this in real time when she agrees to buy a house she privately hates, and also through memories when we learn more about her ambivalence towards her marriage.
So when she starts feeling mysteriously ill, but the doctors can’t find anything wrong with her, it does raise the question (and Richard certainly raises it several times): are you ill or is this something else? Is this simply a case of her unhappiness, anxiety and stress manifesting in a very physical way?
That’s where Zoe becomes an interesting addition to the household. Unbeknownst to Eleanor, Zoe is also finding the house a little bit off, which makes it harder to simply shrug Eleanor off.
But then again, Zoe is also in the middle of an enormous upheaval; she’s left her long-term relationship and has basically decided to start over in the hope that she can build the life that she wants, even if she’s not sure yet what she really wants or how to get it.
You could very easily make the argument that it’s not the house or some supernatural force that’s causing it – it’s just Zoe working her way through a weird time.
And the let’s not forget Richard – Richard is completely oblivious to the weird goings-on of the household. He’s not feeling ill or having weird dreams or feeling oppressed by the house in any way (aside from feeling oppressed about how he’s going to pay for it). How is it that Eleanor and Zoe are struggling and he’s not?
As readers we also know that some of the creepy things aren’t creepy at all – Zoe doesn’t realise that some of what is freaking her out is just Richard rifling around in her room. And likewise, Zoe’s visit to the upstairs room is the cause of the door being open rather than it opening on its own. So we know at least some of what’s going on has a very straightforward explanation.
But then again there’s the dozens of other strange little things happening that aren’t as definitively explained – the name Emily scrawled all over the walls, objects moving around the house, the dead bird that falls from the ceiling, Rosie’s changed behaviour, comments from the neighbours, the fact that the real Emily keeps returning. Eleanor’s bizarre conversation with the woman that used to live there. What do we file all that under?
It’s also made more complex by the fact that Richard and Eleanor are on completely opposing sides – and that their confirmation bias is preventing them from considering other possibilities.
Every strange thing that happens reinforces Eleanor’s conviction that there’s something wrong with the house – as the book goes on it becomes an obsession with her.
For Richard, every strange thing that happens has a reasonable explanation – it reinforces his conviction that the problem starts and ends with Eleanor.
In all honesty, I hated Richard – he never listened to Eleanor. He didn’t really make the effort to try and believe her or come to any reasonable, helpful compromise. Telling her over and over that she’s just tired or would feel better after she rested drove me bananas.
And let’s not forget he also does eventually feel weird about the house too – in time he notices that something feels off and is also incredibly freaked out when the dead bird drops onto his desk.
So the fact that he still refuses to have an honest conversation or believe Eleanor when she tells him what’s happening was even more unforgivable. Because really, at the end of the day, whether you believe in it yourself or not – if it was so important to Eleanor, couldn’t he have simply got on board with bringing a medium into the house? Would that have been so hard?
And yet, when I really think about it, I wonder if I would behave much differently in his shoes? If you sunk all your money into a house that your wife swears is making her sick, yet the doctors say she’s fine and there’s nothing wrong with the house, what would you do? And if she became obsessed with the idea – how would you handle it?
Remember, this isn’t taking place over a weekend – Eleanor is on this for months. Even though I think Richard is wrong, I have to also admit that sustaining that much patience and empathy would be an extreme challenge.
And what about Eleanor? As readers, should we take Eleanor at her word? Or like Richard should we search for another explanation?
As a reader I was inclined to believe Eleanor, but as the book goes on the author makes it harder for us to stay on Eleanor’s side.
Just when you’re starting to feel like maybe this place is truly haunted, we get another glimpse into Eleanor’s psyche. As we learn more about how passive she’s been in all her biggest decisions, the idea that maybe she’s just having a panic attack about her life seems more plausible.
Is this the story of a haunted house or of a woman feeling suffocated by the decisions she’s made?
For example, let’s think about the (horrible, horrible) incident with the baby. It would be very difficult to argue that this is anything more than an accident, but for Eleanor this is the absolute last straw.
Unlike other incidents – like when Emily appears in front of the house – when Eleanor spills hot coffee on the baby what happened wasn’t really up for debate.
At the end of the day the single most tangible, terrifying thing that happens in the entire book had nothing to do with Emily or the house or Eleanor’s illness. Is this place haunted at all?
The characters are so preoccupied with the possibility of some malevolent force in the house that they’re missing the really scary things happening to them in reality.
Their unhappy marriage has the power to do a lot more damage, but they’re not paying attention enough to even realise it.
This is what I loved about The Upstairs Room. There’s something so clever and subtle going on here. I spent the entire novel terrified, reading with my shoulders tensed, wondering what was coming around the corner, but for most of the book the possibility of the supernatural was much more powerful than any actual supernatural events. I’m not even sure any supernatural events took place.
But then I think: how much proof does someone have to give to be believed?
Because this is a major theme in the book; proof and belief. Zoe is ultimately the only person who believes Eleanor and who treats Eleanor’s explanations with respect and openness.
Like Richard, she isn’t really sold on the whole exorcism thing – she wants to pull out – but she doesn’t. She believes Eleanor with very little proof. Which is more than we can say for Richard and more than I could say for myself at times too.
Is Eleanor entitled to be believed? Because if you believe Eleanor from page one, The Upstairs Room is very much a ghost story. If you don’t, then it’s a little less clear – for example, how do we account for the fact that everything went happily back to normal as soon as they moved?
Those are my thoughts – now I want to hear yours. Are ghosts real, yes or no?