I’m fascinated with the relationship between home and the unhomely space it can represent. In horror the home can become a site of demonic possession, murder, domestic violence hauntings and twisted relationships; all the more horrifying for the inversion of our traditional understanding of the home as a space of light, warmth and domesticity. The genre of domestic noir, a term popularised in 2013, plays with these dualities, exploring the aspects of the Heimlich (homely, secret, concealed) and the Unheimlich (the unhomely, the uncanny). The home becomes a place where buried secrets come to light with the most awful of consequences; it’s a space haunted by spectres of domestic violence, incest, murder and the paranormal. We see this dark domesticity writ large in novels from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca to Michael McDowell’s The Elementals, from Anne Rivers Siddons’ The House Next Door to Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts. I’d like to trace this tradition by highlighting aspects of two novels, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects.
Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, is a supreme novel of dark domesticity. On the face of it, the plot is relatively simple; a story about a group of paranormal investigators conducting experiments in a haunted house; their behaviour, relationships and mental stability all become affected by it. But the novel is much, much more than this. It depicts a haunting, terrifying space where the protagonists and the reader are constantly adrift, trapped in a nightmare between sleep and waking, between fantasy and reality. As the novel proceeds, this rift widens; an effect further heightened through Jackson’s marvellous, limpid prose which delineates the dizzying, disorientating effect of the misaligned architecture on the inhabitants.
Hill House is marked out as a dark place from the beginning. In fact, the famous opening sentence signals its sentient, brooding quality, the idea that it holds an ancient evil within in:
The Haunting of Hill House works so marvellously because it operates through the eyes of the main protagonist, Eleanor, herself an uncertain, troubled woman. The house acts as a malignant echo of Eleanor’s own unhappy past; it configures itself around her, like a great, malignant animal calling to her, beckoning to her. Her dissolution of mind is conveyed beautifully through her internal monologue which shifts subtly from delight to fear to a bewildered, seduced love, and a final, crushing realisation of doom. It’s a beautiful, unsettling novel that never fails to disturb me.
From an old favourite to a new favourite, from The Haunting of Hill House to Sharp Objects. Gillian Flynn is one of the main writers (together with Paula Hawkins, S J Watson and BA Paris) who have re-ignited interest in domestic Gothic novels – and given the genre a new name, that of ‘domestic noir’. Flynn’s novel Gone Girl with its convoluted plot, dark storyline and unreliable narrator charmed millions. However, the best-seller tag that clung to this book obscured the fact that her other novels are very much Gothic horrors. Dark Places and Sharp Objects are remarkable for their unapologetic darkness, visceral violence and ambiguous characters. Flynn’s first novel Sharp Objects in particular offers a lushly written, brilliantly-conceived contemporary take on the traditional Southern Gothic novel.
The narrator of Sharp Objects is Camille, a dysfunctional reporter, crippled by the dark secrets of her upbringing, who is forced to return to her hometown. Camille’s relationships with her mother Adora and half-sister Amma are spectacularly dysfunctional, overlaid with half-suggested horrors and troubling intimacies. She is also haunted by the death of her younger sister, an old terror resurrected by the shocking murder of young girls that she is reporting on for her paper.
But as Camille narrates her journey home to the heart of her family secrets, the uneasy darkness of home re-activates her self-destructive impulses. As the humid heat rises, home becomes a trigger for self-harm as she cuts words onto her flesh that signal her mental agitation. As with Jackson, the writing is evocative, mesmerising.
‘Thoughts and words captured where I could see and track them. The truth, stinging, on my skin, in a freakish shorthand. Tell me you’re going to the doctor, and I’ll want to cut worrisome on my arm. Say you’ve fallen in love and I buzz the outlines of tragic on my breast. But I was out of places to write, slicing myself between my toes - bad, cry – like a junkie looking for a last vein.’
Sharp Objects is memorable. It’s nasty. It’s unsettling. As Stephen King puts it ‘…after the lights were out, the story just stayed there in my head, coiled and hissing, like a snake in a cave." It’s this peculiar, haunting quality that links these two very different books. Once read, they act to subvert our very notions of domesticity; these Unheimlich homes that writhe and vibrate with their hideous secrets.
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