This story is incredibly haunting—the secrets and the chest, of course—but also in what the story has to say about the untrustworthiness of memory. At times while reading, I had the distinct impression that, like the glass in the little room, several things could be true at once, and I think memory can be quite a bit like that as well. Are the complexities of reality and memory something you reach for often in your work?
First of all, thank you for the kind words—and thank you for the close reading of “The Summer Castle.” It’s really always an honor to be in Nightmare, and I’m so glad this story—probably one of the strangest I’ve written—found a home here.
I’ve been interested in memory for—well, maybe for longer than I can remember. But my obsession with it started when I began a project to write a sequence of poems about my childhood. I became fascinated by the way memory distorts—the way that, when we look back at ourselves, we so often find ourselves looking at impossible angles into our past—down into our own faces, for example, clearly outside of our own bodies and observing scenes that we cannot possibly have seen this way. It’s not all about angles, though—important details shift, and are rewritten—and I found that, if I wrote something in a poem and changed it, I would then remember the event from my childhood differently: altering it on the page altered it in the past. Here is one of those poems, as an example:
My mind condensed you all so perfectly
that I can’t distill from what it’s made
a separate grade-school friend. Your dirty hair
slips from yellow corn to dark. To dead-leaf
porches, gestures, apple trees from which
I cannot strain this concentration back.
Temporary friends coagulate
into what now appears to be a role
you played in the late light just for my sake.
What branches of these age-warmed afternoons
Are mine? Who threw the apple down? Who held up
his shirt to catch the fruit? What cut and graft
has memory subjected us boys to?
Somewhere, I think you wear me as a mask
and shove me in the hedge where I shoved you.
The poem is about how, when I tried to remember an incident with a friend of mine gathering apples, I could no longer remember who had done what, which friend it was, and who I was in the memory, although I remembered the incident “clearly” and in detail.
It’s not only memory that is inconsistent, of course—it is our self, which we are fooled into thinking is a stable entity, that is inconstant. We are in constant flux—our emotional states, our opinions, our goals. We are continually reassembling our self, and as we do so, I believe we rewrite our past to suit the narrative of the present and our goals for the future. I think that is one of the things that makes memory so very unreliable. Our present self “reads” our memory as a story—we think, “I am like this because of this event in the past . . .” and if that event in the past doesn’t fit the story we are trying to tell, memory alters it—without our knowledge of the alteration. Study upon study, especially lately, has proven that memory is fundamentally unreliable. One excellent study, done back in the middle of the twentieth century, is called “They Saw a Game: A Case Study.” It’s a deceptively simple case, a series of interviews with fans about what they witnessed during a particularly violent Dartmouth-Princeton football game. I recommend you read it, if you haven’t: it will shake the foundations of your reality, if you still believe in things like “truth” in human affairs.
So, I wanted to write a story that explored this issue. It’s not, certainly, the first time I’ve written about the inconsistency of memory (as you can see from the poem above), but it’s my most concentrated prose work on memory so far. And one of the things I wanted to do was to use a familiar horror trope of the “monster”—and treat memory itself as a monster, a kind of manipulative entity shifting the furniture of past events to suit some unknown purpose.
Where did the seed or spark for “The Summer Castle” come from?
So, anyone who has known me for a while knows that I have a certain list of obsessions that have followed me since childhood. It’s not a list that makes any particular sense, but I suppose we don’t really get to choose what catches our minds when we are growing up. I’ve long been obsessed with octopuses (and marine biology in general), Antarctic exploration, Ancient Greece, semiotics, and World War I—specifically, the English poets of World War I. In high school I used to carry a collection of Wilfred Owen’s poems around with me. I don’t like war—what I seem to be fixated on is the way World War I destroyed one world and created another—the way that, before World War I happened, nobody could have predicted it, and the way after it happened, nothing was left of the sensibilities that had existed before it. It is, in a way, a conflict we are still fighting.
The works I find most haunting about World War I are not the descriptions of the conflict itself—they are the descriptions of the peace away from the front, such as the poem “Adlestrop” by Edward Wilson1:
Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat, the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
What is so crushing for me about this poem is that it is nothing but a description of a country station in England—but the fact that the train is stopping through in June of 1914 is what gives the poem its weight: All of this will be torn apart by the guns of August. Wilson was killed in the war in 1917. In some ways, I don’t think there is a more powerful war poem than “Adlestrop.”
So, the spark for “The Summer Castle” came from poems like this one, from autobiographies of the war poets and others caught up in World War I—not descriptions of the war, but of fox hunting and summers in the countryside, and the English country estates where they convalesced from shell shock. And it extended in my imagination from there.
The imagery of the bloated, white-bellied fish plays so well with the imagery of the flooded morgue. Do you start writing with an image in your mind or do you work through plot and add the imagery as it comes to you?
The images are almost always amalgamated out of my reading and my personal experiences: I am a massive consumer of books of all sorts, as well as a constant traveler, having lived only sporadically in the U.S. since 2003, and I pick up images from all over. Those images bump up against other things in my brain. As I am writing a story, often new things will (like the fish from the pool in the story) surface out of the unconscious into the light. I know that the image of the flooded morgue was inspired by Louis Aragon’s surrealist description of a flooded arcade shop window in Paris Peasant, for example, though the morgue itself is from another source.
I think invention is most often the recombination of things we have read or seen before in ways that are unique to our particular pathway through life. I generally don’t have a story plotted out when I begin. I have more of an idea of the “feeling tone” I am looking to achieve in a work. I know how I want my reader to feel, and I use that as my target. Sometimes I even have a particular song in mind that I would use as the “end credits” for a story—the feeling I want them to walk out of this “theater” with. Once I start writing, the story coalesces around that focal point, and both plot and image emerge from that goal.
Are you the type of person who would open the chest, or try to?
I am the type of person who, like the children who are the collective narrator of “The Summer Castle,” would convince myself I had tried my best.
I know you don’t like to talk about upcoming plans, so what’s something special you’d like this month’s readers to know?
Right now, as I write this, it’s December of 2021, and my lips are sealed. By February of 2022, perhaps there will be more I can say. Check my page at raynayler.net or follow me on Twitter (@raynayler): I have a big surprise for you all.
1. [Editor’s note: This poem is in the public domain.]
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