Catherine House, the debut novel by Elisabeth Thomas, defies categorization; it is a coming-of-age story, a thriller, science-fiction and a Gothic novel all at once. These elements should feel incongruous, but in the strange world of Catherine House they blend together in a way that makes perfect internal sense.
Ines is a young woman running from her past. Once a dedicated student, her life changed dramatically during her senior year of high school, leading to a horrific tragedy. With nowhere left to go, Ines is fortunate to have been accepted into Catherine House, an elite, unconventional university. Isolated in the Pennsylvania woods, Catherine House’s campus is at once beautiful and moldering. Students agree that for three years they will focus solely on their course of study with no interaction with the outside world—no TV, no radio, no calls or visits home. The book’s mid-1990s means that students don’t have access to Wi-Fi or cellphones either. If they should fall behind in their studies or violate the university’s rules, they are sent to a facility called The Tower for “restoration” and contemplation.
Ines is never quite sold on Catherine House’s exclusive charms. While other students, like her roommate Baby, focus entirely on succeeding in the rigorous course study, Ines sees the decaying grandeur of Catherine House for what it is: an institution hiding secrets in plain sight. Among these secrets is the university’s research and highly secretive experiments into a mysterious substance called plasm.
Catherine House employs that wonderful Gothic convention of an inexplicable sense of wrongness, which pervades the narrative. We see the institution through Ines’ point of view; she craves its sanctuary, but is simultaneously also too cynical to accept it. There is never a moment when Ines, or the reader, can fully let her guard down and trust that any of Catherine House’s strange rituals and traditions are benign, and as Ines’ curiosity about plasm becomes a fixation, the atmosphere of the novel takes on an even more sinister feel.
Much of Catherine House is devoted to building the world that Ines and her friends inhabit, a narrative strategy that delays some of the suspense. However, by crafting a truly immersive experience, Thomas ratchets up the sense of dread as both Ines and readers begin to see Catherine House for what it truly is. With a compelling narrator and truly inventive setting, Catherine House embraces Gothic conventions even as it defies expectation and utilizes them in new and exciting ways. It challenges the genre while embracing it and takes readers on a truly unique journey.