Julian Hawthorne’s literary career never really got out of the shadow of his revered father, Nathaniel. It’s tough to compete when one’s daddy wrote The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, after all. This is despite the son’s having written considerably more: “He out-published his father by a ratio of more than twenty-to-one,” says Gary Sharnhorst in a biography of the younger Hawthorne.
Sharnhorst also describes Julian as “a writer of modest talent . . . who tailored his tales to the demands of the market in the heyday of sensational fiction.” This is evident in “The House Behind the Trees,” a ghost hunter tale that is probably more interesting for the parentage of the author than for anything in the story itself.
That said, “The House Behind the Trees” does have a glimmer or two to make it worth a quick read. The anonymous narrator is chums with a man named Yule. The two, being “rather fond of marvels,” decide to explore a dilapidated house down the road, one with a reputation for being haunted. Hawthorne’s description of the house is fairly routine: long-abandoned, overgrown with foliage, a weathered “For Rent” sign in front. The only twist on their ghost hunt is that it takes place on a sunny summer day instead of a dark and stormy night.
Once that hunt is underway, the story depends on two elements to evoke tension: the initial survey of the house and the backstory to the haunting. I’ll avoid spoilers, but I’ll also say there isn’t much to spoil here. The ending is rather anticlimactic, given that the story had some potential. It was as if Hawthorne were being paid to fill just the one page that contains the story, so he clipped the ending.