The Historian

Holy shit! This book–The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova–is extraordinary. I wasted my whole day curled up on the couch reading it. When the Butcher came home I told him he had to not talk to me until I could finish the last three pages.

I want to high-five Kostova. This book is so good. Over at Goodreads, I see some folks think it’s ponderous. I can only assume those people have no taste.

I want to tell you all the things I love about this book, but I don’t want to spoil a single thing.

Let me just say that, if the world is a haunted house and Dracula one of its ghosts, Kostova seems to come to the same conclusion I do about haunted houses. And so the ending is delicious. It’s just exactly right.

Man, it’s beautiful.

I am so jealous.

Allendale: A Shunned House Part 21

I now visited that accursed place with increased frequency, studying the unwholesome vegetation in the flowerbeds, examining all the walls of the house, and poring over every inch of the basement floor. Finally, with the Fitzgeralds’ permission, I made myself a copy of the key to the disused door opening from the cellar out onto the country lane that circled around the back of the house and ran down to the Cumberland River, preferring to have more immediate access to the outside world than the darks stairs, ground floor hall, and front door could give. There, where morbidity lurked most thickly, I search and poked during long afternoons when the sunlight filtered in through the cobwebbed windows, and a sense of security glowed from the unlocked door which placed me only a few feet from the outside. Nothing new rewarded my efforts—only the same depressing mustiness and faint suggestions of noxious odors and nitrous outlines on the floor—and I fancy I must have been quite a sight to any hunters or fisherman that passed by.

After a while, upon the suggestion of my uncle, I decided to try the spot at night, and one stormy midnight ran the beam of a flashlight over the moldy floor with its uncanny shapes and distorted, half-phosphorescent fungi. The place had affected me curiously that evening and I was almost prepared when I saw—or thought I saw—amidst the whitish deposits and particularly sharp definition of the “huddled form” I had suspected from boyhood. Its clearness was astonishing and unprecedented—and as I watched I seemed to see again the thin, yellowish, shimmering exhalation which had startled me on that rainy afternoon so many years before.

Above the anthropomorphic patch of mold by the fireplace it rose: a subtle, sickish, almost luminous vapor which as it hung trembled in the dampness seemed to develop vague and shocking suggestions of form, gradually trailing off into nebulous decay and passing up into the blackness of the great chimney. It was truly horrible, and the more so to me because of what I knew of the spot. Refusing to flee, I watched it fade—and as I watched I felt that it was in turn watching me greedily with eyes more imaginable than visible. When I told my uncle about it he was very upset; and after a tense hour of reflection, arrived at a definite and drastic decision. Weighing in his mind the importance of the matter, and the significance of our relation to it, he insisted that we both hunt down—and if possible destroy—the horror of the house.

Scott DesJarlais Keeps Making His Ex-Wife’s Case

I don’t know Scott DesJarlais’s ex-wife, but the more he is in the public eye, the more plausible her stories of abuse become. It’s not just the “cajoling his mistress into having an abortion while trying to get out of taking her” stuff. Now his campaign is threatening to call the police on the Chattanooga Times-Free Press. This is not a man who’s used to being in positions where he can’t be controlling.

If you want people to not believe that you abused your ex-wife, you can’t really go around forcing your mistress to have an abortion, trying to gaslight voters over it, and then going thermonuclear on anyone who doesn’t go along with your made-up version of events.

At the least, it proves that you have and will deploy the skill set used by abusers when necessary. At the most, it proves that your ex’s accusations are probably true because it seems to be the only skill-set you have.

And what’s funny is that that cartoon is pretty yucky. DesJarlais had the moral high-ground here. If he’d come out and said “Wow, you know, for the media to continue to bring up and now make jokes about what was the darkest time in my life is pretty vile.” who could have disagreed with him?

But he’s just not the kind of guy who is willing to be vulnerable, even when it is obviously the stronger position. For him, it’s just continually striking out, over and over.

Like I said, the more he does, the more I believe his ex-wife.

What Makes a Haunted House Story Work?

The strangest thing about Hell House is that, by a few sets of criteria for a good story, it is one. I mean, even by the criteria I’d like to come up with, it would score pretty high. I think, partially, this is what annoys me about it.

There should be a house around which strange phenomena converge. I guess this goes without saying. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a haunted house story. It would just be a ghost story.  There’s obviously some gray area here as we move through “ghost story” to get to the specific room that is “haunted house story” but I think an important component of a haunted house story is that difference in emphasis. In a ghost story, it’s clear that there is/are some specific ghost(s). In a haunted house story, I don’t think it’s always necessarily clear what’s going on, at least at first.

There must be an investigation. This can be as simple as Laura in The Orphanage just roaming the halls of her own house trying to figure out what’s going on (and, man, The Orphanage is a great illustration of a movie that lives in the doorway of “haunted house story,” still retaining a lot of elements of a traditional ghost story). Oh, maybe this is a good way to think of the difference between a ghost story and a haunted house story. The big question in a ghost story is “Why is this happening?” In fact, there really is no good ghost story that doesn’t come with the why practically attached to the ghost. “I see my drowned sister in the conservatory.” Oh, right, because she drown. Now that I think about it, this may be why I like “Dodge City” so much, even though I didn’t have this articulated back then. The scary part of the story is not the “why” of Antwane’s haunting, though that, like in any good ghost story, is creepy in a lovely way. It’s that the “why is this happening?” of Chuck’s haunting is unresolved. It is as if we have found Chuck at the beginning of a more traditional haunted house story. His question is “What is happening?” or “How is this thing I don’t understand happening?” And that question “What is happening?” is central to a haunted house story. It’s what spurs the investigation. “Why?” is an important question, because a haunted house story is a ghost story at heart, but they “why?”s often get answered as a means to settling on the “what?” Or at least while trying to settle on the “what?”

The investigators must be engaging. This is, perhaps, where I think Hell House fell down. I didn’t feel like I was really invested in the characters. This is, perhaps, one of the things that works oddly in “The Shunned House”/”Allendale.” I don’t particularly feel bad or deeply moved by the death of the uncle himself. I mean, we barely know him. And the houses have a habit of killing people. But the manner of his death, the literal “how” he dies and how that affects his nephew? Wow. That did move me. And part of that is because Lovecraft builds up for the whole story how important this history is to the nephew. He’s faced with all the people he’s been only reading about. It really works.

It’s better for the solution to be genuinely ambiguous than to end up being ambiguous because it wraps up too neatly. I think “The Shunned House” ends up pretty okay, but if I were doing it over, like I said in the comments earlier, I’d make “Allendale” much more ambiguous at the end. Maybe let the nephew be charged with the death of his uncle by massive chemical dump in the basement in a way that plausibly recasts everything we’ve read as the ravings of a dude who can’t face the fact that he killed his uncle. But then, maybe have the later tenants’ mother die in the house, leaving it open as to whether the curse is still there. I mean, really, if the house is haunted, how does it ever honestly become unhaunted?

This is my fundamental problem with the genre. How, exactly, would a house become unhaunted in a way that would satisfy me that the unhaunting would stick? This is a question Hell House comes right up to the edge of. It even asks it. And then shies away from the obvious answer. A house, as it stands, cannot be unhaunted.

At least, not for long. Whatever allowed those ghosts to set up shop there–something about the land or the arrangement of the architecture or the number of deaths in it–is pretty fundamentally unalterable. If a story doesn’t end with the destruction of the house, you cannot be sure the haunting of that house has ended.

A ghost story is a close cousin of the tragedy. Unless everything is destroyed, you can’t be sure the story is over.

Which is not to say that every haunted house story needs to end with the destruction of the house. But if it doesn’t end with the destruction of the house, it needs to be obvious that, though our story is over, the story of the house goes on. (This is something The Red Tree does beautifully.)