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The Blackhouse: a creepy story set in remote Scotland

The Blackhouse by Carol Johnstone

Genre: Historical Fiction; Suspense

Publish Date: January 3, 2023; 336 pages

Thanks to #netgalley and #scribner for the advance copy of this book for my review. The opinions expressed are my own.

First Sentence: Prologue: "It wasn't the screams he remembered most, although they crashed to shore inside the howling, furious wind and ricocheted for hours around the high cliffs above the beach."


Set on a small remote island off the coast of Scotland, the story is very evocative of a harsh land, harsh weather, the loneliness and challenges of living in such miserable circumstances. An atmospheric, almost Gothic, vibe is evident throughout the story.

The story is told in 2 timelines - present day which is over half the story, and 25 years in the past - and primarily from the perspective of Maggie, a very unreliable narrator, who is trying to deal with her mental health issues and come to terms with her relationship with her dead mom so she returns to this remote island hoping to resolve some vague, uncomfortable memories. As a child she had a vision of a man murdered in this village - she's back to figure out if that is true. As she meets the residents of the village, she picks up a secret here, a hint of something hidden there, a slip of the tongue - all making the story hard to follow.

There are characters with secrets who tell lies (so WHO is the unreliable narrator???); there's a little unexpected romance; there's an old cottage on a cliff; Maggie is working to overcome her fears as villagers encourage her to leave the past in the past. A lot of suspense is built up as Maggie endures hidden threats and villagers who won't talk to her because she's trying to bring up bad memories.


For me, there were too many characters, villagers, that had tangential connection to the main mystery, but kept popping up. I could not keep track of them or what their relationships were; I found that incredibly annoying. Combine all those characters with Maggie's unreliable narration and I was lost more than once. Also, there are LOTS of Scottish words and names for a bay, a beach, a house, a tool, etc. There is some Norse folklore and more unusual words. That slowed my reading and my visualization of the area - are they on a beach or a valley or a mountain? Couldn't tell by the name. Just like in many fantasy stories, I have a hard time wrapping my head around a collection of letters that is supposedly a word, but I can't pronounce it in my head. Every time I encounter it, I try again to sound it out. Sigh.

Ultimately, it's a suspenseful, interesting book with a really unexpected unreliable narrator. A story of loss, of vast secrets, of discovering that truth may not be all it's cracked up to be, and how parental behavior can have lasting results.

Applies to my COYER challenge: 23/54

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