Creepy Houses

Definitions, I’m learning, are often a matter of one’s experience and taste.  I’ve read a lot of gothic novels and have tried to pinpoint what it is that creates a gothic feel for me.  I say “for me” because other people sometimes suggest works that I would put into a different category.  In any case, it’s clear that The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters, is a gothic novel by any measure.  A large, isolated house.  A tainted family slowly fading away.  A remorseless, 400-page winter.  Inevitable decay.  The story is ambiguous and moody as Dr. Faraday, the narrator, falls in love with Caroline Ayres, the only daughter of an aristocratic family in decline.  The house may be haunted.  Or the family may be breaking down mentally.  Like The Turn of the Screw, it’s up to the reader to decide.

My preferred gothic has elements of the supernatural in it.  Melancholy without existential threat isn’t really enough to tip the scale for me.  The Little Stranger has enough of both to keep the reader guessing right up to the end.  Reader-response theory—the underlying basis for what’s being called “reception history”—posits that the reader assigns meaning.  The author has her idea of what happened in mind, but the reader contributes their own understanding.  This idea has influenced my own writing.  Once a piece is published the readers will make of it what they will.  In this way I can read Little Stranger as a haunted house story.  Although it was made into a movie I have to confess that I only heard of the novel recently while searching for gothic novels I might’ve missed.

The ambiguity fits the ambiguity of life.  The same circumstances can be interpreted by one person as entirely natural while another will add a super prefix.  No one person has all the answers and reality can be a matter of interpretation.  In that way Sarah Waters’ art follows life.  Interestingly, religion plays very little role in the story.  Church, when it appears, is perfunctory.  The source of tension here is on a rational, medical interpretation of events versus the gloomy lived experience of the Ayres family.  They believe themselves haunted and the scientific answers have difficulty convincing readers that there’s nothing more going on.  This is a gothic novel with a capital G.  Nevertheless, the debased cleric would have been welcome, but you can’t have everything.


Another Turn

I have read The Turn of the Screw before.  Henry James’ most famous ghost story is a classic of ambiguity.  My previous reading, maybe a decade ago, was in an edition of James that insisted on stuffing other stories into the same binding, most of which I’ll probably never read.  I located a reasonably priced edition containing only the novella I wanted and it is published by Heathen Editions.  Obviously priding themselves on the unorthodox, Heathen Editions provides books with some little commentary, particularly pointing out unfamiliar words or explaining circumstances that many modern readers lack the training to spot.  The edition ends with James’ own afterword to the story, something my larger James volume lacks.  The story I remembered in part, but the notes also engaged me.

These notes aren’t numerous and they don’t distract.  In my case I understood the words defined, but I appreciated some of the historical or literary context supplied.  With so much literature available these days modern readers have to be drawn back into the classics.  James’ style tends toward the choice of more words than would be strictly necessary to tell the tale.  The fact that it was serialized helps to explain that.  Like Middlemarch and The Woman in White, both of which I’ve posted on in the past, being serialized encourages a kind of verbosity that modern publishers of fiction eschew.  At least in my limited experience.  For The Turn of the Screw the slow building to the climax requires spreading out.  The story itself could be summarized in a paragraph (which I won’t do, because you should read it yourself), but the feeling of dread has to grow as bits are slowly revealed.

One of the notes particularly caught my attention.  In an oblique reference to David and Saul, the editor expanded the footnote a bit.  The scene is when Saul is being tormented by an evil spirit sent by God and David is called in to help him with a kind of music therapy.  David plays his lyre and Saul’s demons temporarily leave him.  This is subtly referenced in chapter 18 of the Heathen Edition.  The note briefly explains Saul and David and then, for the only time in the book, goes on to provide a reception history of the reference by informing the reader that Leonard Cohen also refers to this episode in his song “Hallelujah.”  I’m sure the opening lines are familiar enough that I don’t need to risk violating copyright to quote them.  So it was that while reading a ghost story the Bible was introduced, which, of course has been my research agenda for a few years now.  A turn of the screw indeed.