Wendy N. Wagner’s 2021 The Secret Skin is a stand-alone horror novella.
June Vogel of the Oregon Vogels escaped wealth (and exacting, impossible expectations) for the austere but rewarding life of a spinster artist. Escape proves temporary; her brother Frederick asks for her help. Having found a suitable replacement for his late wife Blanche, Frederick intends to enjoy a honeymoon with his new bride, Lillian.
That leaves the matter of Abigail. Who is to care for Frederick’s daughter while he is having fun? Not a nanny, for those tend to flee the family estate as soon as they can.
Duty overrides preference and prudence. June packs her things and journeys to the Vogel Estate, Storm Break.
June and Frederick’s mother wanted her children to be perfect. She was cruelly disappointed by her offspring, both of whom had a minor but unsightly skin disorder that was resistant to the medications of the early 20th century. Nothing else that they did could live up to Mrs. Vogel’s expectations. Years of punishment didn’t make them shape up. No wonder June fled. Now she’s back at the scene of the crime.
June meets Abigail and immediately understands that like June, Abigail falls short. She’s not beautiful. Abigail is an odd-looking, creepy little girl with uncanny abilities, a child who is not inclined to give any adult a chance to disappoint her. Despite all this, June eventually manages to overcome the little girl’s resistance and befriend her.
Complicating the relationship: Storm Break, the house. It’s only as old as June, but it’s steeped in levels of malice and misery that would otherwise have taken centuries to accumulate. It acts out with alarming paranormal events. Sensible people would flee. Anyone who dares to remain will be shaped by the distressing environment.
Frederick and Lillian return early from their honeymoon. Lillian is even more beautiful than June had expected from her brother’s letters. June is smitten, as is Lillian. They begin a covert affair.
Evil house, unhappy child with psychic powers, secret affairs, employees convinced knowing too much is the key to job security: disaster seems ordained. The only surprise is what sets off the explosion.
When narrator June mentions having scales, I wondered if the Vogels were West Coast Deep Ones. Nope! They suffer from ichthyosis, a disfiguring and potentially life-threatening inheritable skin disorder. This condition is especially dangerous for Vogels; senior family members are willing to kill damaged children. June and Frederick are lucky to have survived, even if they had to undergo disdain and abuse as children.
I noted with some interest that June turned out fine; she’s kind, she’s reasonable. As well, Abigail may be an odd little girl, even dangerous under the right circumstances, but she isn’t dismissed as a monster. I found myself thinking of all the horror stories in which the weird kid is permanently damaged by abuse (Carrie, for one), transformed into something for which humane euthanasia is the only reasonable answer. I was happy not be reading another one of those stories.
Speaking of books with parallels to The Secret Skin, there are some resemblances to the plot of The Haunting of Hill House: an ill-omened house, two women falling in love, a male scion of the family who is an amiable waste of biomatter. There are some very important differences, however, not least of which is that June is very familiar with Storm Break rather than being blind-sided by it.
The author doles out revelations in measured, intriguing doses. I don’t think this could sustain a novel, but since this is a novella, it does not have to. Story and length are very well matched and the result is entertaining.