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Nonfiction

The H Word: Picture a House

Picture a house.

It’s an old house. Stately, with two quarter-moon windows perched above a balcony, or a rundown farmhouse far out in the countryside, overlooking a bent, ancient tree. It’s something with history to it, history that’s not your own, but that doesn’t matter: the keys are in your hand. You own it. You are going to build a life there. You bring your family inside, and fill it with what is yours, and claim every room, every hallway. Except the attic, where you find a box of Super 8 recordings that don’t belong to you, or a photo that burned years ago with your childhood home. Except the basement, where the stairs are rotted out and a door stands chained closed against the far wall, leading to nowhere.

You make a life. You eat, you sleep, you let down your guard, because within these walls, you control your environment. You are safe. That’s what a home is: safety. But there are parts you don’t tread in, not yet. And you begin to hear voices. Knockings in the middle of the night. Things shifting when you’re not looking at them.

Your children are not as they once were. Your spouse sees things. There are people in your house, people you did not invite, and they are a violation. The sounds, the movement, the growing dread, all a violation of safety, of sanctity. You own this house!

Except you don’t. Except that the past has just as much a hold on it, or a pestilence has followed you from your previous home (unsafe, out of control, not yours at all anymore) to here, and here it settles, and grows, and once again breaks through the walls, destroys every illusion and need you have for your house to be safe.

Or:

The house is new, or you’ve lived in it for years, and you know that it is safe. Except the back door was unlocked when you got home from work, and you would never leave it that way. You can’t shake the feeling of eyes on you as you eat dinner, even though you live alone. As night falls, something prowls outside the windows. The shadows in the woods shift, creep closer. The power goes out, and the outside world disappears, wrenched away by the man, the monster, the thing that is invading your sanctum. You wake up screaming as the blankets are torn from you, or you huddle in the closet, the smallest microcosm of the protected space, and hold your breath. You listen to footsteps, to taunting, to nothing at all.

Or:

The house is old, and you did not choose it. You are brought into somebody else’s sanctum, a new bride or an adopted child, and nothing tries to follow you. There are sounds in the night, secrets so thick you cannot breathe for them, but nobody else seems to notice. Instead, they instruct you in the rules: do not go to the west wing, never open the locked door, do not ask about the sounds from the attic. You have been invited, and yet you never quite feel welcome. Your tea is bitter. You see ghosts in the hallway. You are alone, in every way that matters, and watched in every way that is terrible.

Always, at the center of it all, is the house.

• • • •

We are bound to the house like no other setting in horror.

We are obligated to remain whether by finances or family, emotional ties or physical boundaries. We’ve sunk all our money into the mortgage and can’t afford to sell it now; our children can’t take another move so soon; the storm is closing in and it’s too dangerous to get to a hotel. We cannot leave the house behind, not easily, not without cost.

Outside of horror stories, many of us are fortunate enough not to experience our houses as a battlefront. Instead, they are a bulwark, a retreat from the danger of outside. So it makes sense that seeing that safety stolen from us—by way of haunting, by invasion, or by being confined to somebody else’s domain—leaves us confused, vulnerable, and terrified. It removes our home base, our center. Seeing that implicit promise, that our house is our safety, be dismantled piece by piece is horror, plain and simple.

Because what distinguishes a house from a lonely motel or a campground? Regardless of where we are, the time comes when we need to sleep, to eat, to take our eyes off the threat and service our human needs. But there is a different tone to stories set at these other waystops. There is a constant vigilance, or at least the awareness that there should be. We set a watch rotation around the campfire. We barricade the door of the motel room. But when the horror comes home to roost, we are slow to act, even as the dread builds. Why?

Because we trust that the house is safe.

While we remain in the house, we are the subject of reflexive and obligate vulnerability. The home is familiar, it triggers habits without us even noticing. We fall into old patterns, even when we know a threat is lurking. Or we aggressively reject those habits, and act as if we are somewhere not safe anymore, not familiar, and the juxtaposition of huddling against the dark with sofas and children’s rooms becomes sharp needles, amping up our feelings of dread.

What can be worse than safety violated? Control wrested away? A house says you are not in danger, and we want to believe it. We need to believe it.

Otherwise, where will we sleep? Where will we eat?

Where will we be happy?

Caitlin Starling

Caitlin Starling is a writer of horror-tinged speculative fiction of all flavors. Her first novel, The Luminous Dead, is out now from HarperVoyager. Caitlin also works in narrative design for interactive theater and games, and has been paid to design body parts. She’s always on the lookout for new ways to inflict insomnia. Find more of her work at www.caitlinstarling.com and follow her at @see_starling on Twitter.