Alex hated the Somerset house. Rooms full of shadow rambled and transformed when he wasn’t looking. His parents liked to tell the story of their first visit, fresh from Hong Kong in linen and silk, winding up the long narrow drive: “Dear Alex was so excited to see his grandmama’s estate for the first time that he climbed up front beside Jonathan and pressed his nose against the windshield—but when we rounded the hill he fell back, screaming!” Which, told with the proper arch and timing, yielded laughs around dinner tables in Singapore, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Grand Cayman, and the clinking of champagne flutes. Alex himself laughed with the other guests, aping their sophistication, projecting charm he did not recognize as charm: a child of eight so far above his more childish self of four.
His parents waited for the laugh to finish before continuing the story: “Of course, when he met his grandmama, when she introduced him to the house and it got to know him, all fear vanished. He ran down the upstairs halls and jumped on the beds and curled himself in nooks reading. Our brave little Alex.” And sometimes, if Mother felt particularly cruel, she’d pinch his cheek there, and turn on him the private smile that always scared him in company. Private things, he already knew, were best kept private. Sharing that smile where others could see—the smile she used to banish nightmares and soothe him to sleep in hurricane winds—sapped its power. One day he would need that smile, and find its potency gone.
Their friends, at dinner parties on islands around the world, did not understand. They were warm-weather people, though they professed allegiance to a chill, wet, distant home. Not even his mother understood: she had not known Soldown Manor as a child. She had come to it as a grown woman, in Father’s company.
She did not know how it felt to see that crumbling, vine-shrouded expanse, that elegant ruin like some toy or tool God had abandoned, small beneath the boiling gray sky, yet so much bigger than Alex Norse, age four. Soldown Manor, the beast of his family, crouched at the end of the road and watched their approach with rows of enormous black glass eyes. Waiting, it breathed through gated mouths. Long dark runnels discolored the stone where ivy did not grow: the beast stained by its own ichor. There was no end to the thing. If he let it draw him in, he would remain whole, embedded in its belly.
On that first trip he did run down the upstairs halls, in part to flee the skin-wrapped bone sculpture with fierce glittering eyes his parents introduced as Grandmama, but also in part because he thought, Now that I’m inside, I must find some escape. If I can map Soldown Manor, I can—if not master it—at least conjure it to devour someone else, and spare me. He jumped on beds to chase out dead souls. He curled in nooks because nothing could sneak up behind him there except the walls, and he read because, buried in a book, he could ignore the featherlike, fingerlike shapes moving at the edge of his vision. He held the books close as masks.
Mother did not know. Father told the story, too. But he did not laugh. Father had been the last Norse raised in Soldown Manor, and there were reasons he made his fortune in Hong Kong.
They spent Alex’s twelfth Christmas at Soldown. In years past, Father said, servants lit lanterns to fill the manor with light. For one night, no shadows lingered on the estate. But this year’s only guests were Grandmama’s manservant and her live-in nurse, the only music the sound of ventilators and heart monitors and a distant drip of water. Father watched his mother on the bed, and worked his hands as if washing them. Mother held his arm. He did not seem to notice her.
But Alex could not wait in that firelit room where Grandmama lay. In her eyes, darting beneath thin, stretched lids, in the unconscious grasping of fingers like once-taut gloves pulled over a wire frame, in the regular rasp of her machine-forced breath, he found something he feared more than the breathing manor’s hunger.
He did not run from the firelit room. He climbed the stairs he’d charted in his panic long ago, round and round and up and up, until he reached the long halls down which he’d fled, age four. They seemed narrower now, and shorter. Whispers drew him on.
In the drawing room where he’d curled in the corner, he looked up. One of the ceiling panels was hinged. He had never noticed before.
He stacked books on a chair, climbed from the desk to the stack, strained (teetering atop the books) with a broom handle, and pressed the panel’s edge. With a click, the panel slid back and then down. A ladder unfolded from it like a mantis’s arm extending. Soft creaks spoke to long disuse. The ladder’s brass feet settled softly into light depressions in the drawing room carpet.
Alex climbed, either out of Soldown Manor, or farther in.
The cramped, low-ceilinged room above was dark. Narrow triangular windows would have...