A suspenseful and entertaining debut thriller—and love letter to vintage horror movies—in which a teenager must overcome her own anxiety to protect the two children she’s babysitting when strangers come knocking at the door.
October 1993. One night. One house. One dead body.
When single mom Eleanor Mazinski goes out a for a much-needed date night, she leaves her two young children —sweet, innocent six-year-old Ben and precocious, defiant twelve-year-old Mira— in the capable hands of their sitter, Amy. The quiet seventeen-year-old is good at looking after children, despite her anxiety disorder. She also loves movies, especially horror flicks. Amy likes their predictability; it calms the panic that threatens to overwhelm her.
The evening starts out normally enough, with games, pizza, and dancing. But as darkness falls, events in this quaint suburban New Jersey house take a terrifying turn —unexpected visitors at the door, mysterious phone calls, and by midnight, little Ben is in the kitchen standing in a pool of blood, with a dead body at his feet.
In this dazzling debut novel, Emily Ruth Verona moves back and forth in time, ratcheting up suspense and tension on every page. Chock-full of nods to classic horror films of the seventies and eighties, Midnight on Beacon Street is a gripping thriller full of electrifying twists and a heartwarming tale of fear and devotion that explores our terrors and the lengths we’ll go to keep our loved ones safe.
You know that feeling from childhood, and you awoke from a deep slumber to the TV static playing on loop because the VHS tape had finished playing? Midnight on Beacon Street taps into those same sentiments of at first alarm, then surprise, and eventual nostalgic comfort.
If you’re anything like me and you enjoy your horror/suspense/thrills with a healthy dose of heart, Emily Ruth Verona’s debut novel, Midnight on Beacon Street cannot be missed. This novel has been pushed as an ode to the horror movies we all know and love matched with a healthy dose of “thriller” characteristics. I won’t say those things aren’t true, but what I will say is the show-stealing feature of this story is the sheer amount of emotion that Verona experiments with. More to the point, this is a story of facing your fears or anxieties (at any age) and demonstrating that bravery has more than one definition.
This is a single-setting tale with most of the events transpiring at Fifteen Beacon Street, home to Eleanor Mazinski and her two children, Mira and Ben. Of course, Eleanor has a night out planned and relies on her neighborhood babysitter, Amy, to watch the kids. What should be a quiet Friday night at home turns into a multitude of different things within the span of hours, ultimately resulting in one death within the home. Since we know this from the start, there’s a feeling of a “locked room mystery” type of suspense making every knock on the door all the more terrifying. It’s the entrance you don’t hear you need to fear the most.
Maybe it’s the buried romantic in me, but I felt a heavy sense of nostalgia at the simplest descriptions of what a Friday night in the 90s looked like. While my childhood was confined to the 2000s, the same sentiments apply to ordering pizza with your babysitter, picking books out from the Scholastic Book Catalogue, and watching movies you rented on VHS tapes. These are all events mentioned in this story that, while seemingly insignificant, breathed some life into a simple night at home. There’s something of a cozy atmosphere generated by all this that is starkly contrasted by the events that conclude the night. This well-known juxtaposition adds to the suspense created every time Amy and the kids hear a knock at the door. No Ring cameras, cell phones, or other pieces of technology provide the illusion of safety we feel now. Beyond these byproducts of setting, Verona creates real danger through her deep, thorough characterization of Amy and Ben. Without caring about these characters, the threat of violence or harm is greatly diminished, the stakes drastically lowered. However, this is not something that happens within the pages of Midnight on Beacon Street.
At seventeen-years-old, Amy, an only child, has always felt a little different than others, mostly due to her anxiety, something that resonates with me deeply. She’s struggling with friends at the moment and has a boyfriend she cares for deeply, but there’s lots of pressure to go all the way with him. More importantly, Amy is a rule-follower, someone who doesn’t like the unknown or to shake-up the status quo. She finds her thrills in the form of horror films where each danger can be learned and predicted with each rewatch. Consequently, she is a girl after my own heart. Verona also shares flashbacks to Amy’s own childhood and her days being babysat, adding more emotional background and understanding for her character. While a home invasion is scary enough, knowing how affected Amy is by such a thing is a different animal entirely. This ethos transforms this story from a simple thriller into a full-fledged examination of confronting one’s horrors.
Ben’s character only instills this idea of facing childhood anxieties through his unique perspective as a six-year-old. The chapters spent in Ben’s shoes were so emotionally touching, revealing how much innocence childhood holds, how much there is to be lost. Ben’s understanding of the world is simple, and he exists in an emotional space of wanting everyone to be happy, not unlike Amy. The events that transpire over the course of this story deeply challenge his world view, and we see his understanding of how the world works transform before our very eyes. There’s something to be said for the deeply emotional territory Verona explores here as both Amy and Ben redefine for themselves what it means to be brave.
More than just a thriller or an homage to horror of days past, Midnight on Beacon Street is disguised as a babysitter horror story that at its core functions as a closer examination of matters of the heart and childhood. The closest resemblance that I can find to a story such as this is Craig Davidson’s Saturday Night Ghost Club, a story that also closely explores what it means to grow up through the lens of tall tales. Emily Ruth Verona has created something strikingly stellar with her debut, a book that I deeply cherish.
Midnight on Beacon Street by Emily Ruth Verona releases TODAY, January 30, 2024 from Harper Perennial Publishers.