If you’re going over the river and through the woods this holiday season, to Grandmother’s house or wherever, what if you turned the corner, drove up the gravel lane, and there was — the house from Psycho? All turreted and gray, as gothic as a Charles Addams drawing. Wouldn’t you jam your car into reverse and speed away?

Or what if the gates to the driveway opened, and you slowly approached the destination, rounded a curve, and there was this: A country house “the atmosphere [of] which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the gray wall, and the silent tarn — a pestilent and mystic vapour, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued.” Yeah. No amount of holiday artisanal bourbon is going to make you hang around for the fall of Mr. Usher’s house. 

Manderley. Pemberly. Tara. Hill House. All houses that evoke the essence of the story. Where you can dream of being once again, or vow never to give up, or perhaps, never leave. (Even though you wish you could.) And we remember the beginning of The Turn of the Screw, where there’s a Christmas Eve storytelling about what happened in a country house called Bly. …

Those in real estate will say location location location. Those in literature will say setting setting setting. And what better setting than an iconic house — one that becomes the main character in itself? And what cooler character than a house — a perfect metaphor for a person, with a façade, and hidden depths, and locked places only certain people can enter?

Whether the house-as-character is a good guy or villain depends on what it wants and how far it will go to get it. And whether the house will let you go. Besides Rebecca and Gone with the Wind and The Haunting of Hill House, here are some house-centric stories that do it well. 

The Shining by Stephen King. Well, yeah, the house is a hotel, and as the Eagles say, you can check out, but you can never leave. Jack Torrance is trying to write a book, but the hotel has other ideas. Hard to imagine this taking place at a Holiday Inn, right? 

The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Agatha Christie’s first Poirot, written on a bet, it is said, that Christie couldn’t fool the reader. A rich aristocrat found dead in a locked room at her country mansion called Styles set the stage for an entire career of group-gathered-in-country-home mysteries. The 1921 Times said it was almost “too ingenious.”

The Seven and a Half Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. Stuart Turton’s twisty Groundhog’s Day take on a similar theme — a death in a secluded mansion called Blackheath where everyone is a suspect. But in this book, the death happens over and over, and the only way to escape Blackheath’s time loops is to figure it out. Read BookTrib’s review of the novel here.

Those People by Louise Candlish. I know Candlish’s Our House has “house” in the title, and it’s also terrific, but the suburban house where Those People live changes the lives of everyone in the neighborhood. What goes on outside that house — and what might be going on inside — is a terrifying commentary on society, marriage, and revenge, and a perfect example of real estate noir. 

The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. Oh, yikes, that house where Buffalo Bill keeps his victims in the basement? And the gaspingly scary chase-in–the-dark where Clarice Starling has to track him down. Do we ever see the outside of that house in the book? I don’t think so — but I always imagine it as completely ordinary, suburban and unremarkable. Which makes its secrets all the creepier. 

Forget You Know Me by Jessica Strawser. The caller is inside the house! Sort of. This modern take on how in-house technology sets the scene for at-home disaster because a “home invasion” does not have to be witnessed in person. When an at-home video call captures a shocking incident no one was supposed to see, the secrets it exposes threaten to change lives forever. Read the Tall Poppy review of the novel here.

Flowers in the Attic. V.C. Andrews’ ground-breakingly controversial horror story of what happens when four children are locked in an attic to fend for themselves. And it is not pretty. Like so many house stories, this one has to do with money and inheritances, but this psychological thriller from 1979 still evokes heated discussion and debate. The “someone is locked in the attic” theme is the stuff of all of our nightmares.

Little Black Lies by Sandra Block. What happened in Zoe Goldman’s house? Talk about nightmares. The ones about the place she grew up — the one that caught on fire and left her an orphan at the age of four — are the focus of Zoe’s existence. So, in the company of her psychiatrist and with the help of hypnosis, she goes back to that house — in her mind. What happens when the closed doors and tiny hiding places of our memories finally get unlocked? Will the house give up its secrets? Read the Tall Poppy review of the novel here.

What can we learn from this? Turn off your in-house monitoring system, don’t go into the basement, don’t try to write your book in a hotel room, and if you buy a new house? Get someone to check the attic before you move in.