From the back cover:
One hundred years ago, Dies Drear and two runaway slaves hiding in his house, an important station on the Underground Railroad, were murdered. Legend has it that the ghost of Mr. Drear still haunts the lonely old house. But Thomas Small’s father, a Civil War history professor, doesn’t believe the legend and buys the house.
The house is fascinating, thinks Thomas, and it is filled with hidden doorways and secret passages that he can’t wait to explore. But funny things keep happening—frightening things that no one, not even Thomas’ father, can explain. Is someone playing a prank? Or is the ghost of Dies Drear trying to warn the Smalls of danger?
Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give The House of Dies Drear, set in the early 1960s, is that it managed to incorporate historical details about the underground railroad as well as Thomas’ first experiences living somewhere without segregation (having grown up in North Carolina, he experienced wonder when his family ate at the same establishment as white families) without such things dominating the story.
Because I am a house buff, I also enjoyed hearing about spooky passages and secret rooms, though there wasn’t as much exploration of same as I was expecting. Instead, the focus was on the house’s mysterious caretaker, Mr. Pluto, and some incidents intended to drive the Smalls from the house. I thought the resolution to this was kind of simplistic for a book billed for “older readers,” unfortunately.
I liked that Thomas had both his parents on hand; the lack of parents, or at least one, is a popular trope with books for this age group. He’d call on his father in times of peril, and it was refreshing not to have a reckless, Gryffindor-type protagonist. Thomas, alas, had a tendency to be wildly superstitious and would work himself into a panic based on his foolish beliefs. This made him a little annoying sometimes.
I think I’d recommend this to a younger audience than YA, but it certainly wasn’t bad. There is also a sequel, written 19 years later, which I’m a little wary of. Such things often don’t live up to the original, but I suppose it’ll gnaw at me if I don’t read it.