Environments can be mind-altering. In books like Heart of Darkness, landscape is portrayed as an alien, oppressive force, and evil is rendered in physical terms. “The earth seemed unearthly,” says Marlow of the Congo. Then there are the novels that keep you indoors. In them, noise is winnowed away and narrative is confined to the space between four walls. Home-bound characters are no longer be prey to the forces that trouble the outside world, but isolation invites other dangers. Pressure builds. The smallest actions and remarks take on unnatural meaning. Inhabitants become estranged from reality, twisted by intimacy, or even—if we are in a supernatural mood—harassed by the devil himself. The home lends itself to claustrophobia, real and literary, and provides a number of ways in which to explore how humans can self-corrupt. For whatever reason, neuroses about death are most at home, at home.
An eccentric priest moves into a gothic rectory surrounded by nothing but bombed-out ruin. With him he brings his daughter Muriel, a Russian porter, a beautiful invalid, and a sensual, “cappucino colored” maid. The tower is in London, but for all the new tenants’ insularity, it might as well be on the moon. There is no church attached to the tower, which is fine; this rector does not give sermons. Nor does he leave his chambers, or answer the phone, or allow visitors––not even his own brother. The house is less a home than a battlefield in which the marooned occupants fight for control over their souls. Eventually, like the fog that seeps through the rectory walls, concerned outsiders infiltrate the fortress and make contact with the girls, and the entanglements of Father Carel Fischer and his three female wards comes into horrific focus. No one––save, perhaps, Dostoevsky––writes a better philosophical novel about evil than Miss Murdoch.
Dominican-born Rhys lived in the West Indies until she was sixteen, when she moved to England for school. Her life there was marked by status as an outsider; she had a Creole accent and the teachers mocked her inability to use “proper English.” Rhys draws from this experience to explore the effects of extreme isolation on Antoinette Cosway, the character whose psychological decline is the subject of Wide Sargasso Sea. The book, conceived as a prequel to Jane Eyre, traces the madwoman’s origins to Coulibri, a West Indian slaving estate that has fallen into disrepair. When Antoinette and her new husband move into the last remaining building of the family estate––a ‘honeymoon suite’ near a town called Massacre––she is tormented by the feelings of hatred, morbidity, and despair that defined her youth. A scene in which Antoinette’s increasingly spooked husband begins to research obeah, or “dark magic,” reveals parallels with their life at Coulibri: “A zombi is a dead person who seems to be alive or a living person who is dead. A zombi can also be the spirit of a place, usually malignant but sometimes to be propitiated with sacrifices or offerings of flowers and fruit.” The book’s publication in 1966 brought Rhys instant literary fame. Hands down the best fan fiction ever written.
Gaddis’ shortest novel takes place entirely inside “a classic piece of Hudson river carpenter gothic,” a house that looks like “they drew a picture of it and squeezed the rooms in later.” After the suicide of her tycoon father, heiress Elizabeth Booth rents the place as a refuge from the noisy city, a place to wait until the legal bloodbath over her inheritance subsides. Using masterful stretches of free indirect discourse, Gaddis reveals the supposed haven to be a hub of deception. Booth, her ne’er-do-well brother and her morally bankrupt husband all flounder in a sea of bills, litigation papers, and magazines; their half-baked tirades are constantly interrupted by the telephone, coffee spills, the doorbell, the television. And then there is the enigmatic landlord, Mr. McCandless, a somber chain-smoking geologist who comes back on occasion to access a padlocked room. Gaddis evokes and warps the clichés of the sadistic corporation, the fire-and-brimstone evangelist, the greedy fast-talker, and the mysterious stranger in an incisive critique of American avarice––all without ever going outside.
This book is about a country house in Virginia that is bigger on the inside that it is on the outside. Danielewski did not trust straight narrative to evoke the terror of this spatial paradox, so he presented Leaves as a “found manuscript” introduced by an LA-based tattoo artist whose story evolves in footnotes alongside the text. The manuscript––which the artist discovers in the apartment of a dead neighbor––is an exhaustive study of a fake documentary about a photojournalist who, upon returning from a trip, finds a door inside his house that was not there when he left. The door soon grows into a labyrinth of hallways, staircases, and gigantic rooms––all lightless, painted black, and defying of logic. Adding to the complexity is the fact that the book itself is a labyrinth, comprised of everything from academic criticism, bibliographies, and transcripts, to poems, photographs, and pages of “visual writing,” in which words are erratically spaced and form typographic images. The effect is one of claustrophobia, and reading Leaves begins to resemble being trapped inside a structure that is capable of giving itself life—but does so only to devour its occupants.
Matheson’s Hell House is both a horror classic––Stephen King called it “the scariest haunted house novel ever written”––and an account of architecture “under the influence” of a deleterious force. That is to say, this house has an agenda. Structured as a series of dated and time-stamped reports, the novel spans a week in December 1970 in which four strangers try to evaluate the phenomenon of “survival” after death. The strangers––a medium, a spiritualist, a man of science and his wife¬¬¬¬––have been promised generous compensation to experiment on the Belasco house, a building so juiced by the depravity of its active years that it continues to function long after its occupants are found dead. Shortly after settling in, the doctor oversees a sitting—or séance¬¬––in which tendrils of viscous white “teleplasm” erupt from the medium’s fingertips. Things only get weirder from there.
In this much-loved story collection, Carter frees the psychological impulses at the heart of familiar fairy-tales from their child-friendly scaffoldings (Bluebeard, Puss-in-Boots, Beauty and the Beast) and unleashes them inside a 19th century universe of her own design. Quite often, these universes exist within houses. The “bloody chamber” of the title is located deep inside a sea-bound castle; its secrets are uncovered by a bride awaiting her new husband, who, she learns, has had a distressing number of wives. The scariest vessel of all is the Vampire Queen in “The Lady of the House of Love” who has, despite her beauty, more in common with her decrepit mansion than with the unlucky humans who wander her way: “She herself is a haunted house…her ancestors sometimes come and peer out of the windows of her eyes and that is very frightening.”
Allison Bulger is a writer based in New York.