The narrator’s voice is prim and proper, an outsider who knows everything inside and yet refrains, “After all, we don’t live in that house.” It speaks to knowledge and responsibility. Why else choose this kind of narrator?
The narrator is a first person plural voice, which I wanted to use in order to talk about public versus private dealings, particularly in small rural towns, where the social fabric is very tight in many ways, some good and others invasive, where everyone knows each other’s business, and talks about it, while also often not intervening. I like this collective “we” voice as it embodies that kind of language used in those communities, and it’s not one that I’d seen used in regard to small town supernatural fiction before. Stories of haunted houses are often engaged with what happens to those haunted within the house, contrasting with the normality of the world outside it. This type of voice seemed perfect to amplify that affect.
The narrator also feels like the voice of the community (“We all feel a bit sad for Mary Kay Billings”), which reminded me of Shirley Jackson and William Faulkner (“A Rose for Emily” in particular). What does such a POV character allow you to do that, say, a distant, disembodied third person omniscient narrator cannot?
I think the collective voice rides this really weird line that blurs between feeling intimate and feeling at a distance, whereas the disembodied third person omniscient narrator is mostly just distant. While both achieve the ability to narrate on an omniscient (or almost omniscient, in the case of the collective pooling of knowledge or hearsay in the case of the first person plural), it’s the collective voice that also personalizes that knowledge in the context of a specific community.
There’s a repetitive tone of voids and holes: the bathroom as privacy where things are flushed away, the hole in the dead child’s heart, Jesus speaking through the mouth of Rose, buttons that litter the house without their holes; Jonas’s argument on people becoming “nothing,” the vanishing Blank family members. Hauntings are usually about what is left behind, but here there are notes of what is lost forever. Why make that the focus?
I usually like to invert genre expectations, or at least to put a different spin on them. Since, as you mentioned, hauntings are often about what lingers, I wanted the haunting effect to be about what’s lost irrevocably, which can haunt in a different way. The strong absence of someone or something can sometimes be felt as if it’s a presence.
Rose loves flowers and Jonas loves drink. But the house is the one that seduces her, as if trying to bring life into the dying orphan’s structure, with a tradition of draining families of life. A pattern started with the Blanks. What appealed to you about this common cultural note of intimacy between women and home?
Traditionally the home has been equated with women, particularly in patriarchal cultures where women’s roles have been limited to the running of a household. But homes and houses also function as prisons in this way, where that intimacy can feel oppressive, which I felt was a perfect sort of note for the oppressive nature of haunted houses.
Stories that cover large swaths of time often face the challenge of holding a reader’s attention compared to ones that focus on immediacy and urgency. Here that challenge is met with depth and layers of horror. Were there other advantages for having a generational discourse in the narrative?
I think covering generations in one short story does have the possibility to feel at a distance to readers, but by fracturing the narrative, moving between the time periods, the present back into the past on a loop, I think the story accrues a kind of gravitas that might not have been felt had the weight of the house’s history not been an aspect of the story. The backstories of the previous families in the house are revealed as the present-day story unfolds, and I think this creates an engaging feeling of parallels and concurrent hauntings within the story.
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