The Christmas Guest
by Peter Swanson
William Morrow, October 2023, $19.99
Those familiar with Peter Swanson’s writings know that he likes to play a shell game with plot twists and character identity, and that the reader sometimes scores (the terrific Eight Perfect Murders) but can also come away feeling swindled (Every Vow You Break). I read his latest, the 96-page novella The Christmas Guest, wondering if, in the spirit of the holidays, I’d feel compelled to give it a charitable pass. But I don’t have to shill; Swanson has pulled off a winning entry.
The Christmas Guest is largely told through 30-year-old diary entries of Ashley Smith, an art student who, in 1989, is invited to join classmate Emma Chapman, and her family, for the holidays. “I’m actually going to an English country house for Christmas!” writes the lonely, orphaned American. “It sounds like the beginning of a romance novel, or else maybe a murder mystery.” Umm, foreshadowing is a Swanson signature.
Once she reaches Starvewood Hall—yeah, it’s got its own name—and meets Emma’s weird parents, our narrator enthusiastically details day to day activities and dishes about the others gathered at the estate. They include Emma’s handsome, enigmatic brother, Adam, as well as a touchy-feely author of spy novels named Daniel.
Ashley also describes a night at the pub where one of the patrons is completely taken aback by her appearance. Turns out Ashley strongly resembles a local teenager who was found murdered a few months back. Adam, who had had been seeing the girl, was questioned about the still-unsolved crime.
Returning to Starvewood, Ashley finds herself alternately creeped out and excited by what she’s discovered. Remembering her late mother’s love of gothic thrillers, she imagines herself on a book cover, fleeing from a foreboding house. Only instead of wearing a nightgown she’s in her PJ bottoms and a UCLA t-shirt.
A cunning plotter, Swanson is adept at both embracing and dashing reader expectations. It may be a slender volume, but The Christmas Guest delivers plenty of surprises—and a rather evil twist. You can read it in a single sitting, but the characters and their alliances will linger, much like the Ghost of Christmas Past. While delivering the scent of pine boughs and blood-spattered murder, this book reminds that less is often more.