Bly from the Other Side

In my last post, I noted how Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw has strongly influenced various works of American Gothic (in both fiction and TV/film). No writer, though, has engaged more directly with James’s classic novella than Joyce Carol Oates, whose 1992 short story “Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly” (collected in Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque) completely turns the screw on the source narrative.

Oates’s clever conceit is to revise the Jamesian precursor text by presenting the narrative from the point of view of Bly’s two deceased employees–former governess Miss Jessel and valet Peter Quint. By no means does Oates glamorize the postmortem existence of these two ghostly/quasi-physical figures lurking in the so-called “catacombs,” an “abandoned storage area in the cellar of the great ugly House of Bly.” Even to herself, Jessel is an object of “horror” and “disgust” as she washes “mud-muck” off her body and picks beetles out of the tangles of her hair (she has also developed some ghoulish appetites, and is prone to feral pouncing on vermin encountered on the estate). Nevertheless, by delving into the perspectives of Jessel and Quint, Oates endeavors to cast the ghosts abhorred by James’s governess in a more sympathetic light. While denounced as “depraved, degenerate sinners” by “all in the vicinity of Bly,” the couple is not depicted here as a pair of demonic figures intent on corrupting the innocent children Miles and Flora.

The title of Oates’s story is thus significant, as what at first sounds like a blunt denunciation is proven by the ensuing story to be not necessarily the case. “Accursed” works on a couple of levels, both natural and supernatural. The term references the slander by the seemingly decent Christians living in and around Bly, and also points to the question of whether Jessel and Quint have been damned by some higher power (Jessel is a suicide–a ruined woman summarily dismissed from Bly, she threw her pregnant body into the lake on the manor grounds–and the mourning Quint’s fatal, drunken tumble “was perhaps not accidental, either”). Either way, Jessel and Quint are not the only accursed inhabitants of Bly, as Oates’s title further encompasses the tragic existence of the orphans Miles and Flora. The relationship between all four characters–forced by circumstance into forming a strange, surrogate family–is indeed central to the story. Yes, the late Jessel and Quint might be “accursed by love” of one another, but it’s also their love for the children that keeps them haunting this house: “It was desire that held them at Bly, the reluctance of love to surrender the beloved.” Just as an affair between the two employees trapped in “the romantically sequestered countryside of Bly” was inevitable, the insinuation by the love-starved children into the adult couple’s trysting is (according to Oates’s interpretation) an understandable, not unnatural turn of events.

Oates executes a delicate balancing act, as her story gives name to the unspoken horrors of James’s Victorian narrative, and, like a depth charge, sends the sexual subtext of The Turn of the Screw surging to the surface. She tactfully handles difficult subject matter–sexual relations between adults and minors–touching on the taboo without ever resorting to inappropriate prurience. Of course, Oates has not scripted some curious endorsement of pedophilia here; her story works more in opposition to the facile demonizing of same-sex relationships. As the author herself remarked (in a letter to the New York Times in response to a review of her story), her aim was at “reimagining homoerotic ties as not ‘by nature’ repellent.” Quint’s own pondering in the story–“How is it evil, to give, as to receive, love’s comforts?”–is not a mere self-justification of illicit behavior bur rather poses a broader question to Oates’s audience. Presented as neither sexual nor supernatural predators, Oates’s versions of Quint and Jessel are not hellbent on luring Miles and Flora to their doom but desperately seek the solace of family reunion.

If Quint and Jessel are largely redeemed here, two other characters from James’s novella are overtly villainized in their place. The absentee Master of Bly is exposed as a spurious gentleman. Drunken and dissolute, he is an unloving uncle to the two unfortunate children left in his care. Worse still is his pronounced homophobia, as he says to Quint of Miles (ironically blind to the relationship that will subsequently bloom between valet and child): “I would rather see the poor little bugger dead, than unmanly.” Meanwhile, James’s narrator, the governess, is presented as repugnant in both her physical appearance (“homely as a pudding, and with a body flat, bosom and buttocks, as a board”) and fanatical personality (marked by “a Puritan’s prim, punitive zeal”). Recasting the either-or dilemma of James’s famously ambiguous narrative, Oates shows that revenants are in residence at Bly, yet the governess is nonetheless a “madwoman.”

Oates’s prose style here proves more accessible, but no less elegant, than James’s. Her story excises the more tedious elements of The Turn of the Screw (the governess’s ruminations and conversations with Mrs. Grose), zeroing in on the key scenes (the governess’s ghostly encounters) and reflecting them from a different angle of vision. The result is not some bloodless postmodernist exercise but an intriguing touchstone to the original novella. As new versions of The Turn of the Screw head to the big screen and streaming (Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor) next year, “Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly” surely warrants its own film adaptation. Perhaps the best part of such  cinematic translation, though, would be its leading more readers back to the short story, which testifies to Oates’s preeminent status as a writer of Gothic fiction.

 

Short Story Glory: “We, the Fortunate Bereaved” by Brian Hodge

Imported from the Macabre Republic: a post that first appeared on the old blog back in October 2013.

Dark Harvest meets Pet Sematary meets “The Lottery” in Brian Hodge’s “We, the Fortunate Bereaved” (anthologized in Halloween: Magic, Mystery, and the Macabre). But this is not to suggest that Hodge’s narrative is derivative in the least; the story is stunningly original, and presents a masterful mix of American Gothic and Halloween themes.

The isolated rural community of Dunhaven isn’t like other towns, and its Halloween rituals are undeniably unique. October’s closing night “brought more than just trickery and mischief. In Dunhaven, genuine magic, dark magic, pierced the veil on All Hallows Eve.” Each Halloween, a scarecrow figure stationed in the town square animates with the spirit of a resident who died within the past year. According to custom, the particular returnee is determined by the personally-significant memorabilia left at the foot of the scarecrow’s cross. Right up until the time the eldritch effigy climbs down from its post, it’s unknown which decedent will be communicating with his family from the beyond. This uncertainty supercharges the town–and the story itself–with tension and suspense as the night of the visitation approaches.

Hodge extrapolates brilliantly from this premise, dramatizing the emotional toll the situation has on the survivors of the annual decedents and exploring whether such postmortem reunion is truly a blessing or a curse. The author also shows the effect the rite has on Dunhaven as a whole, inspiring “a deep legacy of secrecy” and turning the town insular (“the last thing [the townspeople] wanted was a tide of incomers desperately seeking assurance of life after death, driving up the property tax base in the process”). But the most intriguing development of all is the “sabotage” and “subterfuge” that attends the Halloween event. Some Dunhavenites pull out all the stops–to ensure their loved one will vivify the scarecrow, or to prevent the revelation of incriminating deeds. As the protagonist Bailey notes, “the dead had secrets, and sometimes the living had a powerful interest in making sure both stayed on the other side, unseen, unheard.”

An incredible sense of anticipation builds as the narrative takes readers through Halloween day and evening. When the climax finally occurs, Hodge provides a pair of terrific plot twists (you might think you know how this story will end up, but you’ll likely be wrong). Ultimately, the narrative reminds us that masking is not just germane to Halloween but to everyday life, with the veil of civility disguising heinous natures.

“We, the Fortunate Bereaved” is an instant classic, and as good a piece of Halloween literature as I have ever read. It perfectly embodies the subtitle of Halloween: Magic, Mystery, and the Macabre, which (as I attested in my earlier review) is an enjoyable anthology overall, but is worth owning for this amazing autumn tale alone.

 

Hardly Garden Variety

 

Why is it that the secrets we don’t like to talk about during our lives are the same secrets we don’t want to take to the grave with us?

The day before dying on a hospital bed after a long battle with cancer, my mother told me a story that happened the year after I went off to college. The story was as strange as the time she chose to tell it.

How’s that for an opening hook? These lines from Mariano Alonso’s short story “Nemesia’s Garden” (published in Cemetery Dance #76) drew me in quicker than the snap of a Venus flytrap.

The story is set primarily in the Dakota Building in Manhattan (filmed as “The Bramford” by Roman Polanski in Rosemary’s Baby; coincidentally, CD#76 also features an essay by Peter Straub marking the 50th anniversary of Ira Levin’s landmark horror novel). Thankfully, though, Alonso doesn’t recur to the device of devilish impregnation. Matters here (involving the botanical extravaganza of a room occupied by the aged, wheelchair-bound eponymous character) are much more exotic and eccentric than suggested by the story’s quaint title.

Alonso’s plot proceeds with subtlety and misdirection, building skillfully to a twisty revelation in the closing paragraphs. Dealing in sibling rivalry, surreptitious poisons, and wild transmogrifications, “Nemesia’s Garden” exudes a modern fairy tale air. But its fantastic elements are well grounded in the everyday, and rooted in the historical (as the story hearkens back to post-Nazi-invasion Poland). Alonso has crafted a tale that is at once beautifully descriptive and hauntingly outre. This latest edition of Cemetery Dance presents several strong stories, but “Nemesia’s Garden” without doubt forms the dark highlight of the issue.

 

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Postscript: if you are interested in learning more about the haunted history of the Dakota Building, check out this short essay by Orrin Grey.

 

Canine Surprise: Stephen King’s “Laurie”

Stephen King’s latest short story (posted–without previous notice–as a free download at the author’s website) opens with the gifting of the eponymous mutt to a grieving, elderly widower by his sister. Mid-scene, Beth mentions to her brother Lloyd that “dogs die in cars. Especially little ones.” That is exactly the fate of the Jack Russell terrier Biznezz in another canine-centered King story, the Carveresque “Premium Harmony,” which leads one to wonder if “Laurie” will unfold in a similarly minimalist and irony-rich vein. On the other hand, since this is Stephen King we are talking about, there’s also the possibility that the gruesome chaos of Cujo could erupt. No small part of the fun of reading “Laurie” is the uncertainty of just where the tale is heading. King ultimately delivers a wicked curve, resulting in a suspenseful–and somewhat bloody–climax. The narrative works as both a chilling bit of realistic horror (to which the Florida setting is essential) and a heartwarming account of the developing bond between owner and pet. Hardly a shaggy dog story, “Laurie” rewards Constant Readers with a fine, unexpected treat.