In The Woman in the Dark, a haunted house gothic thriller set on the South Welsh coast (shades of the BBC drama Keeping Faith?), author Vanessa Savage delves into the sordid private life of Sarah Walker, her husband, Patrick, and their teenage children, Mia and Joe. It's Sarah and Patrick's anniversary; Sarah still hasn't told Joe about him not being her biological child. This complicated family dynamic forms the cornerstone of Savage's novel. The author teases us with a series of dream-like flashbacks, all framed around Sarah's disintegrating state of mind and Patrick's visions of a beautiful Victorian fairy-tale house before it became the county "House of Horrors." Fifteen years ago, the family living in that house were stabbed to death.
While Patrick sees memories of a happy childhood lived by the sea, Sarah sees imaginary blood on the walls and "whispering ghosts." Anxious and guilt-ridden, Sarah tells her best friend, Caroline, about Joe's biological mother, long-lost Eve. Patrick offers all the security of home but none of Sarah's mother's petty clinginess. Life for the Walkers is about to change: the Murder House is for sale.
Savage strafes the early part of her novel with Sarah and Patrick's attempts to duke it out after Sarah's reluctant move. With an increasingly Jeckyl-and-Hyde personality, Patrick rails against Sarah and the kids, maintaining his love for the house he was born in. He tells Sarah stories of his childhood and the yearning for the house that is almost like "a physical ache."
At night, Sarah is spooked. The front door rattles for no apparent reason while the wind clatters the windows. To Patrick, it's not a haunted house, or monster house, or murder house, "or whatever they damn well call it." It was Ian Hooper "who lost it, and who went mad, not the house." This house will be different; Sarah's friends are just spreading lies and gossip. Patrick reiterates the demand that he won't have them in their life anymore. Patrick's veiled connection to the house is designed to disorient his wife.
Savage presents Sarah's predicament as if it were a dream sequence; a hot flame and a series of memories, mixed in a fog of angst caused by an overdose that Sarah can't remember. Sarah is living through a noir nightmare--career regrets, her life shattering into a thousand tiny pieces. She wants to live her best life, but Patrick's actions make it harder for Sarah to tell Joe the truth.
The tension builds when Sarah's suspicions turn to a figure walking next to the seawall, almost lost in darkness. Ian Hooper is tied to this house by a terrible crime. Patrick is afraid of something, and Sarah doesn't know what it is. Sarah distrusts everyone but needs Patrick to give her answers. And what about "the cold spots"--areas of the house cooler than the rest? "I don't know if it's real or my imagination fueled by Mia's ghost stories." Everything that is happening in the house--from the height chart becoming increasingly visible to the footprint, marks on the window and "the damn baby shoes"--add to the darkness and cobwebs taking residence in Sarah's psyche.
Though the climax seems a bit flat, Savage excels in portraying the inner world of a woman plagued by an abusive husband and a house aligning against her. The history of Ian Hooper's connection is horrifying, and we are caught up in Patrick's fears as well as his friendship with a man called John Evans. Who can help Sarah untangle this scenario? Exposed secrets leave an astounded Sarah damaged in their wake.