Straub, an American, does an astonishing job of conveying British culture and scenery in this novel. This is perhaps his greatest strength as a novelist, as similarly and yet so differently achieved in other novels, such as Shadowland and If You Could See Me Now.
This novel opens with the protagonist, Julia Lofting, an American heiress, impulsively purchasing a fading mansion. We learn she has just been released from a mental institution proceeding the untimely and accidental death of her daughter. As tormented as she is by the death, Julia realizes it has finally broken the spell of enchantment of her domineering and brutal husband. She feels the purchase of the mansion, where she plans to live alone and reevaluate her life and its direction, will symbolically mark her first step down the road of independence and personal will.
Ironically, it is the house which chooses her for its own expression of will. Julia runs into an eerie little girl in the park across the way who bears an uncanny resemblance to her own daughter. However, unlike her own sweet child, this girl is prone to mutilating small animals and terrorizing the other children of the park. Soon, the malevolent girl begins to appear in the bizarre black and red mirrors of the upper floors of the mansion.
As a reader, we are uncertain at this point whether the sightings are strictly the hallucinations of a distraught and nervous woman, the spectre of her daughter come to haunt her or some demon, eminating from the mansion, toying with her. The rest of the novel delivers the answer in a tense and unrelenting series of climactic events.
The characterizations and conspiring of the characters puts one in mind of Iris Murdoch. While characters bind together to make plans and imagine themselves engineers of events and perceptions, they are in fact being manipulated by outside forces of which they have no knowledge.
DON'T READ THE FOLLOWING--SPOILER--IF YOU HAVEN'T READ THE BOOK: While the ending may seem unsatisfying, it in fact contains the entire theme of the novel. We realize that this story was not really about Julia, after all, but about the price of her husband's unchallenged reign of cruelty and callousness. Julia, never really a central figure in her own life, turns out not to be the central figure even of this novel which primarily features her.
Her husband Magnus, "king", is seemingly born with a commanding and irresistable personality to which his entire family kowtows. Similarly, his first daughter, Olivia, is born with such an inherently unfeeling and dominating personality. However, being illegitimate and poorly treated by her mother, she has no checks on her own expression of the temperament. The force of her evil is something which cannot be stopped even by death. And she intends to focus her energies to wreak vengeance upon Magnus by destroying everyone close to him, one by one, before going after him personally.
After Julia's death, Magnus and his spinster sister Lily are feeling smug and certain of themselves. They sneer at their new-agey, socialist adopted brother for running off to Los Angeles. And now, not only do they have complete control over Julia's money but they are no longer burdened with the problem of Julia herself. They fancy themselves the king and queen of their own miniature dynasty. Yet, it is clear from the final paragraphs of the novel, that Olivia is not finished with them. Lily spots her right outside her own window and is suddenly gripped with fear, realizing that the ghosts were real and now there may be more than one who is upset with them.