The bad news is that the older I get, the more I’m going to look like a grouchy German man. The good news is that I’ll have fabulous shoes.
When I was a child, the house was vacant, accompanied only by one gnarled old enormous catalpa tree which stood about halfway down the hill, though its roots crept along the ground almost to the foundation. The daffodils which grew near the house were scraggly and their blooms sparse and pale, and though my mother said, repeatedly, that she intended to go dig up some of the bulbs and plant them at our house to see if they would do better in better soil, she never could bring herself to go up close enough to the house to actually complete this gardening quest. We boys felt some proprietary terror when we thought of the house and so, even though we didn’t want to go to the house, we felt as if it were our obligation as Allens to explore it.
I can still remember the long, slow walks to the front door, which we often entered on some quest fated to end in shudders. The door was never locked. We had often talked locking the front door and exiting out of the house through the walk-out basement, but we couldn’t bear the what we felt was the certainty of coming back days later to discover that the house was open again.
Now that we’re a couple of days into it, I wanted to say something about “Allendale” and, more specifically, about why I think Lovecraft’s story is so good. First, I love that, right from the start, he lets you know that you’re in a world very much like this one, possibly this one. After all, an author you know and probably have read is in the world of the story as well. I’m not sure if Lovecraft’s original story is as firmly routed in a kind of plausible alternate history of the land as mine, but it wouldn’t surprise me. But I think there’s something effectively funhouse about a labyrinth that doesn’t appear to be. Like, with “Allendale,” you’re just outside of Gallatin, on a road that really exists, talking about a house I really saw out there and wished were connected to the Allens. It appears to be a straight historical hall we’re walking down, and yet, the maze is so big, the curves so slight you don’t realize you’re making them, and then, whoops, you’re not in a real timeline decorated with fiction but a fictional timeline decorated with fact.
When did we make that turn? You look back and the hallway still seems straight, but you can’t see the front door anymore. It’s just a fucking brilliant approach to horror, because it introduces the uncanny at a level most people aren’t prepared to steal themselves against. Here’s a more blatant example. If I tell you that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1676, you either think I’ve made a typo OR that you’re reading a book set in a timeline much different than the one you live in. The things in that timeline may be horrible or scary or whatever, but you have a certain amount of distance. But say that I say that the Declaration of Independence was ratified on June 30, 1776? Feel that? That feeling of “No. That’s not right. But wait, is it right? Did they ratify early and then not announce it until the 4th?” It’s just, ugh, I die of jealousy over how well it works to set uncertainty in the mind of your reader, how it kicks in a little self-doubt without signalling that that’s what it’s doing.
Could Stephen King have come to Gallatin for pot in the 70s? Is that where the Allens lived? There is a house there… That was isolated… It just puts you in the mood of uncertainty right from the get-go without it being obvious.
I love it. Later on you’ll see how Lovecraft, and by extension, I make the turns in the labyrinth tighter, the history more elaborate and less true, but in a way that seems plausible.
The second trick of Lovecraft’s that’s really obvious here is the “the story doth protest too much” strategy. No one thought the house was haunted. Everyone thought the deaths were natural. No one had any idea things were strange. I’m certainly not going to say for certain anything weird was even going on in the house. Just phrase after phrase about how everything’s fine, fine, fine. It doesn’t take too many “Oh, it’s completely cool here, totally cool. No, really, it’s lovely.” before you’re like “Um, I think this is not cool, but I don’t know why.” Lovecraft uses this trick a lot in his writing and he’s not always exactly subtle with it, but I think it works well here.
The third thing that he does really well that’s already obvious are the tiny cliffhangers. The story builds up over and over to these small moments of revelation. Serializing the story, it was nice because they’re kind of natural places to break for the day. But again, if we’re using the labyrinth metaphor, these are little turning points. We’re going along one way–say talking about how everything is fine at the house, how all of the stories can be dismissed–and then we turn and now the Uncle’s notes tell us something different.
But watch how this goes tonight, because it’s a skill I could sorely learn as a writer. Last night we learned that there’s something in the notes that undermines the family myth of the house. So, you’d think that we’d be on to talk about what’s in those notes. But no, we have four more days after today before we return to the subject of the notes. They’re just hanging out there, a little tantalizing temptation to keep us moving further into the story. And once we reach the notes, watch how he throws something farther down the hall for us to move toward, to try to figure out.
It’s so good. And even seeing how he’s doing it somehow does not take away from the magic I feel seeing it done.
1. You don’t call Pat Summitt a liar and have it end well. I don’t know how, exactly, this is going to go poorly for Vice Chancellor Margie Nicols, but it’s going to go badly for her. And here’s the thing, if I were Nicols right now, I’d be pissed because she’s now in the most likely position to have to fall on her sword when this blows up in UT’s face (or second most likely after the AD). Which means UT has arranged this situation so that they can get rid of another woman, if need be. Over a lawsuit about how much UT loves to run women off. That’s a bitter pill for Nicols to have to swallow, I’d guess.
2. Ever since Rachel said it on Facebook, I can’t stop thinking about whether the butt-chugging incident is an unrecognized sexual assault. And, in light of that being a real possibility, I’m growing more and more uncomfortable with making that kid the butt of a great national joke. And I’m now really uncomfortable with his name being released to the media. I think that, if a woman showed up in the ER with signs of sexual assault and she was all “No, nothing happened. Really.” we wouldn’t be so quick to jump to the conclusion that she was cool with whatever happened until it landed her in the ER. And we’d be appalled that her name got released to the media as if what happened to her was a big joke, before a real investigation even had time to take place.
I thought Romney had an excellent night as it was happening. But after seeing online reactions and what stuck with people, it might not have been a good night in retrospect. As I said on Twitter, I noticed that most women on Facebook and Twitter who follow politics and most men in general thought that Romney “won.” But women who don’t follow politics, for whom this was their first big introduction to Romney? They were, during the debate, using words like “aggressive,” “rude,” and “boring.” And I noticed that many of them either stopped talking about the debate or said they were changing the channel after the Big Bird fiasco.
That’s not a good first impression. And if Obama spends the next couple of weeks running ads that just feature clips of “Romney said this. [something] But during the debate, he said this [the opposite].” it seems like there will be a receptive audience for that.
So, I don’t know. I thought it was obvious that Romney did great, but I’m used to arrogant politicians. I don’t think anything of it. And so I’m not sure how to read the number of people who don’t pay that close of attention to politics who turned in and were like “Oh my god, who is this asshole blowhard?”
It’s not the impression I got, but I feel like it’s important to realize that’s an impression some women had.