It would be misleading to describe the stories in Eleanor Swanson’s new collection, Little Houses, as “gothic,” but they do involve some elements of the gothic tradition in terms of “other–worldly” manifestations, and an elusive, romantic tone. But the ghosts that haunt these stories are as real as flesh and blood — more often than not they are brothers, sisters, parents, spouses. Thus, the real haunting is usually something like the disturbance of the conscience, the challenge to our moral sense, echoing the epigraph to this collection, from Italo Calvino: “The more enlightened our houses are, the more their walls ooze ghosts.”
Take the first story, “The Ghost of Bertrand Russell.” The father and daughter in a seemingly solid young family on a camping trip are gazing up at the stars, looking for meteors, when the ghost of the past rudely intervenes in the form of a memory of an incident involving the protagonist, Andy, and his college Philosophy professor from long ago, Dr. Annalisa Baillet, and a “haunted” farmhouse. His best friend and roommate, Scot, subsequently killed in Vietnam, is also part of the memory, and by the end of the story both Andy and his wife Joan are haunted by these ghosts from the past — ghosts of their own devising. The joke in the title, of course, is that Russell idealized reason, regarded religion as superstition and had no patience for such non-scientific phenomena as spirits. But we’re not talking about “real” ghosts, after all, are we, the stuff of Poe and other authors of gothic romance?
Swanson deliberately invokes Faulkner’s famous Southern gothic story, “A Rose for Emily,” in the story about a daughter’s discovery of her mother’s “secret” life, “A Still Volcano,” when the daughter, Chloe, travels to Arizona to close down her recently deceased mother’s home, pack things up and put the house on the market. Only, there are no actual skeletons in the bed in this story of a marriage that is an oppressive disappointment. Instead, there’s a message from mother to daughter that has a real impact on the daughter’s own marriage and how Chloe sees her relationship with her own husband. Invoking another Emily — Dickinson — the message is contained in cryptic little anagrams, like dispatches from the afterlife that Chloe discovers hidden throughout the house as she sorts and disposes of her mother’s things.
In so many of these stories, the real drama involves the effects of the “weirdness” (not always ghosts, though they always seem somehow “not-of-this-world”) on the relationship between members of the nuclear family — brother and brother or sister and sister, husband and wife, parent and child. Perhaps the most unsettling of these is a story called “The Hypnotist,” which doesn’t necessarily involve paranormal phenomena — ghosts — but focuses on a woman who marries a former CIA goon, who brainwashes her, feeding her false memories, manipulating her outlook.
At story’s end it’s obvious that the sisters, once as close as, well, “sisters,” will no longer have anything to do with one another. Jenny, the narrator, has always recognized that her sister Lynne is flaky, but she’d never felt so estranged from her until Lynne became involved with the control freak, Frank, devoted to him as if a cult member. At the story’s end, “I watched her walk down the concourse until she became smaller and smaller, then slipped away and disappeared into the crowd.”
Swanson’s stories have a way of making you think beyond the limits of the narrative, if not reflecting on your own relationships with your siblings and parents, then at least pondering the implications of what such relationships are really all about. In the story “Simon” (so like “simian” but from the Swahili word simo, meaning “something new”), a creature who might be described as “the missing link,” not quite human but not quite like the apes his adoptive anthropologist parents studied in Africa, brings to mind the lines from Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Reflexively, the whole situation makes the story’s protagonist, Everett, attempting to sneak away at story’s end, ask about himself — at least, in the voice of Simon, who encounters him tiptoeing away in the dead of night, “Amy is my mother. They adopted me. Are you my father too? Who are you, Everett?”
Caught red-handed, Everett ponders the situation. “Life is but a dream. He saw the miles stretching before him, into another country, well into another world.”
This sense of the strangeness of the familiar is captured so well throughout all of these stories. “I Saw Bigfoot on TV” involves a kid with a mild form of autism who wants to be a cryptozoologist in pursuit of such mythical creatures as the legendary sasquatch. “Lucia on Fire” introduces us to identical twin sisters with the ability to read each other’s mind, their suffocating closeness and heartbreaking estrangement. But perhaps Swanson conveys this sense of wonder best of all in the story called “Memory,” in which the protagonist, Ella, falls while on a run and loses her memory.
Ella does not know who she is or where she is or what she does. She does not even know that she is pregnant. “I’m from outer space,” Ella insists, over and over to people who ask where she’s from — Darla, a homeless person who befriends her, the intake receptionist at the clinic to which she goes, even her husband. Ella knows she is speaking metaphorically about the sudden sense of novelty that she apprehends (as do so many other characters in these stories) – even as the people she talks to think she is speaking literally.
Swanson’s stories are not all heavy existential investigations into the problems identity and relationship. The story “Bad Luck Shoes,” while playing on this theme of extrasensory influences in our lives (“luck”), is a comical romantic narrative about dating, in particular a date the protagonist, Bridget, goes on one Friday the Thirteenth, complete with hilarious details of dates gone wrong before. Suffice it to say that this story turns out well in the end.
To paraphrase Calvino, Little Houses
oozes the imagination of a wide, wondrous world.