Moving from Kansas City to build “a new life, new friendships, and new intimacies,” interior designer Rainey Adams and Ariel, her fourteen-year-old daughter, return to the hot Virginia sun after purchasing the house of Rainey’s dreams. For Rainey, Bliss House has a tentative air of softness, and Ariel needs the stability that a place like Bliss House can give her. Both have been irrevocably damaged by their sad, even tragic histories.
Mother and daughter are eager to make things right between them, yet neither can seem to rise above the terrible accident that claimed Will Adams—Ariel’s father and the man who was the center of Rainey’s world. The gas fire not only destroyed Rainey’s house but burned and badly scarred the entire right side of Ariel’s body, turning her into an angry unforgiving teenager, a wrecked beauty who sees nothing but hurt and contempt for the world around her.
Imagine the thrill, though, of finding a new and exotic home, although Bliss House itself has a terrible reputation, its previous ownership ending in tragic murder. While Rainey’s cousin Bertie truly believes the stories that Bliss House is “the wickedest house in the country,” Ariel strangely finds that the house has some power to heal her, begun when her father—or his ghost, or her dream of him—touches her. Despite the heat and sweat, Ariel feels better than since before the accident. Rainey, meanwhile, begins to see how the strings to her own past, “once so rich and full of love,” now gently tug at her.
Ariel’s physical and emotional healing plays an integral role in the solution of Bliss House’s mystery and of the woman who, thirty years previously, was kidnapped and locked up, supposedly in a section of the house. As Ariel develops a connection to the ghost, the arrival of Rainey’s housewarming guests are a harbinger of the disaster come. Is another woman’s blood helping Rainey become the mistress of the house? And what of Ariel, who witnessed the fall from the balcony? From the way Ariel talks about it, she might have dreamed up the whole thing.
Sometimes it is the hidden things, the lies and secrets, that bind people together, from sex addict Karen Powell, the local realtor who sold Rainey Bliss House, to Karen’s husband, Gerard, the contractor who had done some of the renovation, to town patriarch Randolph Bliss and his brother Michael, who disappeared many years earlier. The investigation revolves around State Police Detective Lucas Chappell, who has no love for Bliss House and is all too aware of its palpable air of malice. Stronger now and more intentional, Lucas visits the immediate scene of the murder, befriending vulnerable, befuddled Rainey, who is obviously shaken by the body in her front hall.
Benedict’s tale reeks of sinister events, murder, and sexual ambiguity. In a story about dysfunctional families, love forms without regard for blood connection, while paramount is what we choose to do about our inherited tendencies. The boundaries of flesh and emotion have never been as clearly drawn as people like to pretend they are. Even Gerard Powell’s words (“my wife was a sex addict who screwed pretty much any man she was interested in married or single”) has a fortuitious ring that echoes through the story and into the lives of Ariel and Rainey.
Ever more desperate, Rainey tries to discover the events of Bliss House’s past while Ariel is assaulted by voices that will not let her rest, compelling her to uncover the dark secrets that reside within this place even at the risk of her own life. Bertie and Randolph are tenuously linked to the house’s history as though they’re living characters in its great gothic drama. While Ariel spends the afternoons searching the hallways and rooms for something that seems just out of reach, it is Bertie’s young son Jefferson who truly understands Bliss House and why it’s so different from every other house he’s ever been in: “it’s not just one house, It’s one that has with two natures.”
Although the novel is too long and the ghost story elements don’t quite fit into the plot’s sexually graphic murder mystery, Benedict is able to juggle her various characters while moving back and forth in time. In a story of good versus evil, Benedict blends old-world mystery with the complicated layers of the present and the voice of a young girl who cries out for release, forever trapped in Bliss House, demanding retribution and revenge.