Dec 10 2010

Haunted Houses

Erik Morse


The Winchester Mystery House


The haunted house has performed a dramatic, if often caricatured, role in the literary and cinematic narratives of the last century. Over time, the once popular "old dark house" tropes were abandoned—or at the very least, relegated to genre fare. Now, in the place of exotic castles and remote mansions (think Walpole's Otranto or Radcliffe's Udolpho), apartment blocks, duplexes, tract houses, trailer parks, and roadside motels have become the haunted spaces of the twenty-first century. The contemporary supernatural dwelling is no longer a reliquary of spirits and ghouls, but rather a porous domicile—fractured, urbanized and suburbanized—of other grotesqueries: repressed neuroses; technological paranoia; ethnic, sexual, or gender antagonisms; and conspicuous consumption. With its murkier demarcations between private and public space, interiority and exteriority, ecology and waste, speech and noise, the "haunt" has been transformed, simultaneously, into a prison of bodies and a palimpsest of dreams. If, as Heidegger, says, "Language is the house of the truth of Being," then Being itself became yet another haunted house for the modern writers listed below.

A Room Of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

"I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse, perhaps, to be locked in." As one of the twentieth-century's most influential feminist polemics, A Room Of One's Own posits domestic space as a central place to critique gender roles. Haunted by her own childhood and a lack of formal education, Woolf sees the home as both a site of traditional antagonisms and one of creative self-discovery.

The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin

Along with Proust's In Search of Lost Time and Bachelard's The Poetics of Space (see below), Benjamin's The Arcades Project is the twentieth century's chef d'oevure on psychotopology, the study of psychic space. This thousand-plus page jumble of quotations, aphorisms, and fragments dedicated to the experience of consumption in post-Haussmann Paris is split into 36 convolutes around various topics. Convolutes I, K, and R provide Benjamin's most insightful musings on the modern interior space as a mystical, if not haunted, reification of bourgeois capitalism. For example: "The difficulty in reflecting on dwelling: on the one hand, there is something age-old—perhaps eternal—to be recognized here . . . on the other hand, this motif of primal history notwithstanding, we must understand dwelling in its most extreme form as a condition of nineteenth-century existence." Left incomplete at Benjamin's death, and entrusted to Georges Bataille's safekeeping, the corpse of the Arcades perfectly encapsulates the immolation of the Enlightenment project on the ash-heap of war.

"Building, Dwelling, Thinking" by Martin Heidegger

Heidegger's seminal lecture on architecture was written in 1951, following the German theorist's famous philosophical "turn" from the seinsfrage ("the question of being") and the dark liturgies of National Socialism. A short treatise, and one of the few Heidegger dedicated principally to space, "Building, Dwelling, Thinking" is nonetheless one of the defining statements of postwar existentialism, and finds Heidegger at his most supernatural: "Mortals dwell in that they save the earth . . . Mortals dwell in that they receive the sky as sky . . . Mortals dwell in that they await the divinities as divinities . . . Mortals dwell in that they initiate their own nature—their being capable of death as death—into the use and practice of this capacity, so that there may be a good death." This piece is a love letter of sorts from Heidegger to the Black Forest purlieus of his childhood.

The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard

Published only a few years after Heidegger's "Building, Dwelling, Thinking," Bachelard's treasured text is a similarly phenomenological investigation of domesticity and dwelling. But, diverging from the German sage's prolix ontology, Bachelard sought to compose something akin to a psychoanalytic daydream—symbolic, impressionistic, and, above all, eminently readable. "If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace." In his musings on the significance of such ordinary spaces such as the stairwell, the cellar, and the attic, Bachelard emphasizes that both the atmospheric and the architectural contribute to our understanding of a place. The Poetics of Space exerted a profound influence on later psychotopologists from Henri Lefebvre to Paul Virilio and Peter Sloterdijk.

Aminadab by Maurice Blanchot

(Doubting) Thomas wanders into a strange village, where he is beckoned by an old woman into a nondescript boardinghouse. Once inside, he attempts to make his way to the top floor but is frustrated by nosy residents, serpentine hallways, and secret chambers. It is only when Thomas plunges deeper and deeper into the building that it becomes apparent that his architectonic journey is, in fact, a textual and hermeneutic folly from which he will never re-emerge. Aminadab is an immersion into the austere language of France's most mysterious literary philosopher.

"The House Behind" and "The House Plans" by Lydia Davis

Not to be outdone by her spiritual advisor on spatially recondite prose, Davis evokes Monsieur Blanchot (whose English translations she was largely responsible for) in these two short stories. The first, a brief survey of class consciousness and neighborhood one-upmanship is set, rather appropriately, in the anonymous Blanchotian environs of Saint-Etienne, and the second, centering on an unnamed businessman who aims to renovate a derelict house in a rural no-man's land, both have a rapturous eye for place and space and contain some of Davis's most haunted prose.

Carpenter's Gothic by William Gaddis

Set almost exclusively in a rented house of titular construction, Gaddis's dark portrait of a Vietnam veteran, Paul, his neglected wife, Liz, and their disintegrating relationship, is mirrored in the odd domestic space they inhabit. A nod of sorts to the high Gothic novel of the Bronte sisters, whose spirits infuse Gaddis's prose, Carpenter's Gothic is nonetheless dedicated to critiquing the American dream as it stumbled through the Cold War in that most un-gothic of decades—the 1980s.

Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis

The "mature" and "sober" Bret Easton Ellis (both author and protagonist) returns from the globe-hopping hyper-terrorism of the novel Glamorama into an alternate present where the suburbs are the last barrier erected between the idle rich and urban destruction. Despite his wealth, famous starlet wife, and two children, Ellis's (the character) struggle with narcosis, infidelity, and obsessive fans creates a tension that, quite literally, alters the household. A pastiche of sorts of Stephen King, Mark Danielewski, John Cheever, and David Lynch, this ode to Ellis's (the author) own suburban childhood and familial disintegration is as genuinely sentimental as it is (at times) horrifying, a ghostly souvenir of innocence amid ravages of the millennial American experience.

Erik Morse's second book, Bluff City Underground: A Roman Noir of the Deep South, will be published next year by Creation Books, as part of the Mondo Memphis series. He is a contributing writer for Bookforum, Frieze, The Believer and Modern Painters.

seedbed

December 22, 2010
5:12 pm

you might also like Jean Ray's Malpertius

raffaello tamagnini

January 17, 2011
12:49 pm

scary house...good setting for an horror movie

lemccan

February 21, 2013
2:48 pm

Absolutely belongs on this list — Danielewski, House of Leaves.
(though i should never have read it without reading Aminadab first, am going to fix that right now.)

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