the-dumb-house_john-burnside

The Dumb House by John Burnside

Paperback, 198 pages
Published June 4th 1998 by Vintage (first published 1997)

“…the very act of breaking the skin, of entering another human body, intrigued and excited me. I could see why people might kill for that sensation…Such people would be the victims of an exquisite curiosity…”

To accurately assess this novel, I would first have to say that I have honestly never before encountered such an exquisitely void soul in fiction before. It was almost like staring into nothingness, a sensation I have not felt in reading in a long while, if ever.

John Burnside’s The Dumb House is a disturbing and unsettling narrative that crawls inside of the reader’s psyche and pushes the boundaries of what is socially, morally and, dare I say it, scientifically, acceptable. This work of short literary fiction burrows in and takes hold; before you know it, you’re on a deliberate and methodical exodus from the everyday, headed toward a climax that is as gripping as it is literarily brilliant and macabre.

This novel essentially starts with a bedtime story: Of all of the cold elaborate tales that Luke’s mother spun for him as a child growing up, the experiment of the Gang Mahal, or Dumb House, left its mark the deepest. This experiment, set in the ancient world of India, centered around one simple question that would haunt and motivate Luke for the rest of the novel: “whether a child is born with the innate, God-given ability to speak” or if it is a learned behavior. The Gang Mahalwas erected to find the answer to this question, tasking a court of mutes to care for newborn babies who were never to be exposed to human speech. Inside its walls there was only silence; the children never learned to speak. But the experiment, to Luke, feels incomplete. The nature of communication and its possible correspondence to the soul obsesses him. Did it correspond to the soul, and, if so, how could one see it? Could you touch it, see it, cut into it…

It is the tone of this novel that does a lot of the work. The tone of the protagonist, the tone of setting. Together, they build an intense fusion of the former’s analytical voyeurism and the latter’s airy and wraith-like qualities. It is like watching a madman inside a dream, complete with a Sleepy Hollow-like sort of haze that covers everything and turns the everyday interaction—a chance meeting at a library, an innocent letter sent through the post—into catalysts for sexual deviance and callous violence. The characters felt almost ethereal and had a dream-like quality, as if they, and likewise, their entire world, were constantly shrouded in a sepia haze. That almost-surreal quality reminded me of The Vegetarian, House of Leaves and even 1Q84.

Yet, for so many of us readers, it is the protagonist that we most care about. We want to feel what it is like to slip into their shoes; we want to crawl into their minds and understand the mechanisms of it. But, readers, beware. For in The Dumb House, Burnside managed to create a character who is as cold in his natural eloquence as he is almost detached in emotion in narration. The narrator is like a slick block of ice, rounded at the edges so as not to be overtly or obviously menacing and dangerous to the outside word, to the everyday onlooker. For some, the inner workings of his mind will utterly intrigue. Others will find him utterly deplorable. For there were two things about Luke that I slowly began to grasp as the narrative went on: he suffers from “Rich and Entitled Syndrome” as much as he does from severe ego maniacal delusions. He believes himself to be always laboring under the guise of curiosity and exploration of what it means to be human, even as he slowly destroys the humanity around him in search of this purpose. And this delusional quality is what made the narration so piercing, because it was consistently eloquent and disturbingly calculating in the coldest of manners simultaneously.

“…how easy it would be to find a young runaway on her first or second night: someone inexperienced, someone vulnerable. I’d read about men who wandered around the stations and backstreets at night, hunting down such girls. If they could do it, I could…Even if she wasn’t a willing partner, even if she didn’t understand what was happening, or what her true purpose was, she would be comfortable and well looked after, for a time at least. Most importantly, she would be engaged in something worthwhile…”

This would likely be a good time to mention that if you’re squeamish, intolerant of the sexually perverse and/or uncomfortable reading about harm inflicted on women, children and animals, you should go ahead and turn back now. This one is full of that.

There is no mistaking that the prose is both elegant and intellectual throughout, no matter your feelings about the protagonist. This novel was unmistakably Gothic, with all of the subtle touches and fine-hair-raising moments requisite to earn such a title. From crop circles to human dissections, you can find an alternate world within these pages, one that will stretch the breadth of what you’re comfortable with and is altogether unlike anything else you’ve ever read. The Dumb House earned itself a solid 4 stars ****

Slade House_David Mitchell

Slade House by David Mitchell

Hardcover, 260 pages
Published October 27th 2015 by Random House (first published October 20th 2015)

“To follow [the] trail of breadcrumbs you have to blindfold your own sanity…”

Wow, what a ride! David Mitchell’s Slade House came running round the bend, no pun intended (well, maybe just a little for those who have read it), at full steam ahead with all of the mechanical makings and suspenseful trappings of a haunting psychological thrill ride. It had a rhythmic flow that you could fall into, but beware. That trap has thorns. And fangs.

“…but as I watch, the running-boy shape gets fuzzier and becomes a growling darkness with darker eyes, eyes that know me, and fangs that’ll finish what they started and it’s pounding after me in sickening slow motion, big as a cantering horse and I’d scream if I could but I can’t my chest’s full of molten panic it’s choking me choking…if I fall it’ll have me, and I’ve only got moments left and I stumble up the steps and grip the doorknob turn please turn it’s stuck no no no…it’s ridged does it turn yes no yes no twist pull push pull turn twist I’m falling forwards…”

Slade House is the tale of a mystical house in London, that can only be found if you know just where—and when—to look: just a skip from the ratty Fox and Hounds pub, down the alley too dark and narrow for “a properly fat person…[to] get past someone coming the other way.” There you’ll find a little iron door, so small you’d have to stoop to go through it, embedded in the side of the wall. You’ll wonder how you missed it when you first walked by. Was it there before? Are you imagining it now? Inside you’ll find a paradise to your liking: a beautiful woman, the career opportunity of a lifetime, a raging kegger, whatever you fancy. But once inside, there’s no turning back because, as we all know, the house always wins.

The format worked well for this one, using a series of vignettes, all nine years apart, to weave together the haunting mystery of Slade House and the experiences of those who dared to enter those walls—all linked soul-to-soul if not hand-in-hand. Their experiences in Slade House overlap in the most disconcerting and sinister of ways. Each character is eventually and inevitably interlaced into the experiences of the other vignettes, and subtle sequences tie it all together with an eerie thread of déja vu like a finger down the spine of your back.

Mitchell’s Slade House was Hill House meets The Skeleton Key, if you’ve ever seen that movie. An enchanted experience woven by a true magician, because now you see it; now you don’t. It was absolutely cinematic, and once the novel had you in its clutches, it was quite the thrill ride, building suspense in a way that made you grasp the pages and say, “No, that is not happening—oh, my God, is that about to happen!” (Well, it did for me, anyways. ;)) The premise of this novel was divine and the execution of it near-perfect.

However—oh yes, I’ve got to hit it with the “however—” I couldn’t give this one 5 stars.

Of course, you’re asking, “Why’d you steal Slade’s star?” And the answer, simply put, is cop-out. I haven’t seen cop-out revelations like that since middle-school writing, at least, I’m sorry to say. The short explanatory monologues spoiled it for me a little, pulling me out of this world of ghostly mystique and foreboding just to dowse me in annoyance before inserting me back into the plot. I loathe when pro/antagonists practically leap out of character to deliver stilted, unrealistic dialogues amongst themselves, explaining things (to the reader) that they, themselves, would already know! Case in point, under what circumstance would it ever be okay to turn to your sister and say:

“For fifty-four years, our souls have wandered that big wide world out there, possessing whatever bodies we want, living whatever lives we wish, while our fellow birth-Victorians are all dead or dying out…”?

Umm, no. Never! Never ever! Creative Writing 101—hell, Reader 101! That totally killed the mood of mounting suspense for me, and I was definitely peeved to find that I could expect this at the end of every. single. vignette. Then there were the annoying explanations that the narrator gave for why protagonists did what they did, such as, “Vodafone must have begun upgrading their network after Avril’s texts arrived” (to explain why a call didn’t go through at an eerie time, ect.) I’m basically positive that that’s why the page count is so low on this one—cop-out wrap-ups that didn’t require the time or word count to really flesh out these seemingly minor makings of the novel that can never go forgotten about, that can never be faked or rushed.

So, think of Slade House as a thrill ride with bumpy turns. If those had been smoothed at the edges and fleshed out with the same brilliant strokes of writing as the kaleidoscope of fun-house horrors—the effortless illustration of Slade House and all of its haunting hallways and staircases, rose gardens and phantom occurrences—this definitely would have earned back its stolen star. Still, I’d definitely recommend this read for anyone who dares to stoop through that doorway and enter Slade House. The taste of the pros is definitely worth eating the cons—you know, like a good bag of popcorn or potato chips. But reader beware: this book has bite. 4 stars. ****

We have always lived in the castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Paperback, Penguin Classics Deluxe, 160 pages
Published October 31st 2006 by Penguin (first published 1962)

      “The least Charles could have done,” Constance said, considering seriously, “was shoot himself through the head in the driveway.”

Have you ever tiptoed down a hall in a dark house late at night, not sure if you really heard that bump in the night? That is what reading this novel was like, in all of the best ways possible. Shirley Jackson is a renowned master at the macabre, the unnerving, the Gothic genre, and this work puts her talents on full display—in HD. Most have read The Lottery, whether forced by the classically inclined high school English teacher or for the pure love of the unusual, and here you will find the same masterful foreshadowing, biting eeriness and haunting cruelties found in a small-town community. As my Grandma used to say, “You can always count on those ole’ townies to hide the most secrets, put on the most airs and turn on ya the quickest,” and Jackson, once again, highlighted those small-town characteristics in a manner that left hairs raised on the arms and resonance echoing at the finish of each chapter.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a novel about two young adult sisters, Mary Katherine and Constance, who have essentially become lepers in their small town after an incident at their family dinner table six years before that left half of their family poisoned to death, one sister on trial for murder and the other in an orphanage. The women go about their lives, hardly ever even leaving their property and being openly hated by the townspeople, kept company by their ailing, eccentric uncle who loves to talk about “what happened” and their loyal cat, until one day a cousin comes a knocking and their lives are forever changed. It slowly becomes apparent that Merricat (Mary Katherine) is not 100% mentally stable, as she believes she has voodoo-like magical powers to protect herself, her family and her home, she has fantasies about how her dead family members should have treated her before they died, and she harbors obviously sadistic and murderous feelings towards the townspeople who tease and abuse them.

“I would have liked to come into the grocery store some morning and see them all, even the Elberts and the children, lying there crying with the pain and dying. I would then help myself to groceries, I thought, stepping over their bodies, taking whatever I fancied from the shelves, and go home, with perhaps a kick for Mrs. Donell while she lay there.”

This story had an aspect of urban legend to it, the makings of it and the effect that it has on those who hear it, who believe it. Jackson wove the tale so beautifully that I didn’t even realize how engrossed in their lives—a sign of truly good writing—I’d become until the cousin started changing the sisters’ routine and poking his nose around in that way that is uncomfortable for readers invested in the protagonists, in that way that makes your heart rate quicken just a touch. This story was a peep behind closed doors, both literally and figuratively. It was a look inside the protective bubble of recluse-ness, while simultaneously being an exploration of man’s nature to fear and hate what we do not, ourselves, understand. It was also social commentary in that delicious way that only Southern Gothicism can offer (though this novel has no clear mention of place, it is widely believed to have been set in Vermont, making it technically not Southern Gothic, though every other aspect of it is every bit that genre): it tore back the layers on the small town where everyone knows your name, on the myth of genteelism, courtesy, manners, and community that we all think of from this era of writing (Castle was originally published in 1962). What does it mean to be an outsider in a town like this, in a town where there is no degree of separation between any? In a town that needs a common enemy to unite over in gossip and violence alike? Because, you see, every bully loves a weaker kid, and there’s nothing more cruel than the mob mentality turned against a common enemy. Don’t believe me? Then you haven’t read The Lottery.

Castle was everything I’d hoped it’d be as a lover and writer of this genre. It was the macabre dressed in politesse that made you think twice—a skill extremely difficult to hone and, thus, all the more laudable when it is—the oddity of family unity and where those bonds can take you, for better or for worse; it was the sharp little dagger of lines like the one above and the what really happened there aspect of the dinner-table happening.

“It did happen. I remember that it happened…”

Eerie.

Easily five stars! *****