Thursday, February 26, 2009

Books: A man's home is his castle. And mausoleum.

All apologies to Grant Wood, but there's something almost paradoxical about the idea of an American gothic. Certainly, the lack of standard genre trappings and settings doesn't help: America's most famous castle is probably Disney's Snow White Castle. But, more importantly, it's the combination of a prevailing American fantasy of self-invention, our amnesiac's sense of history, and the vastness of the American landscape that all work against it. Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy both riffed off this idea in bits each did regarding the Amityville Horror flick. The former involved a man giving ever stupider justifications as to why he wouldn't move from a haunted house ("Sure, the kids turn into bats; but the value of the land alone . . .") and the latter was about how short the flick would have been if the comedian had been the one living in the house ("What a lovely old house." "Get out." "Too bad we can't stay though . . ."). Gags aside, both jokes speak to the same point: How could one get tangled in the web of associations and implication of the traditional gothic when you can always just move and start over? If Disney's fairy-tale castle is our most famous keep, it's telling that its "occupants" are predominantly tourists breezing through on their way to Tomorrowland.

Despite this seeming incongruity, there's a rich thread of dark romanticism in American lit. Poe got around the problem of the unsuitability of American soil by planting his tales in an imagined Europe. Hawthorne used the insular social world of New England as his isolated and sealed off environment (ironically, he was unable to keep his grim Puritan poker face when he moved the setting of his last novel to Europe, native home of the gothic). The haunting legacy of slavery and bloody defeat provided the sense of unavoidable accursedness necessary to fuel an entire school of Southern gothic works, from Faulkner to Wise Blood to Beloved. Though its now seen as slumming, there was a time when even the country's most urbane writers would craft the occasional gothic: James's Turn of the Screw and Wharton's Ethan Frome being the iconic examples. A coalition of often nameless, probably underpaid copy-engines kept a cottage industry of mass market paperback gothics on the shelves, reaching some sort of cultural highwater mark in the 1970s – when Rice became a perennial seller and Flowers in the Attic became a touchstone of illicit YA tween chick lit.

Still, the dominant features of America's mythical landscape tends to be open roads, not mist shrouded moors; bustling cities, not decaying manor houses; well-tended suburban lawns, not crumbling family cemeteries. This gives the whole goth tradition, despite its long history, something of a pulpy, not-quite-respectable appeal. Done well, a good gothic delivers serious literary quality and, somehow, still feels vaguely naughty. Imagine art-porn that was, impossibly, both good art and good porn – that's the kick of a good American gothic tale.

It's this kick readers can find in the tricky postmodernism of Castle, by J. Robert Lennon, and the aggressively retro-gothic A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick. The former is a clever update of some traditional gothic tropes while the latter is expertly-handled throwback, a richly imagined gothic that feel like it could have sat on shelves next to Wharton's famous book nearly a century ago (except for all the frank descriptions of semi-incestuous sex, of course).

The high-concept pitch for Castle - it's Deliverance by way of Kafka, with just a hint of Frankenstein for spice notes – promises boatloads of weirdness. Lennon delivers on this promise admirably. Eric Loesch, an Iraq War vet with a tangled family history and nasty scandal hanging over his military record, returns to his hometown in upstate New York. He purchases a secluded house out where he plans to live out his remaining days in hermit-like isolation. This plan hits a surreal snag when Loesch discovers that there a small castle, complete with turrets and everything, smack dab in the middle of his property. This bizarre turn of events takes on a more sinister aspect when it becomes clear that the castle and its mysterious occupant are connected to Eric's guilt-haunted past.

In the best gothic tradition, Lennon takes the metaphoric connections between people and places and manifests them. Just Poe made Usher's skull-shaped home literally reflect every stress, strain, and crack in the cranium of its unraveling owner, Lennon makes Loesch's story is almost too-nakedly allegorical: A man with a troubled and mysterious past must investigate a lock-up keep situated in the heart of his dark private forest. Not the most subtle extended metaphorical conceit committed to paper, granted; but the gothic tradition hasn't generally been big on subtlety. Strip away the contemporary trappings and Castle's set-up wouldn't feel out of place in a Shirley Jackson novel or one of Lovecraft's weird tales of twisted, doomed families.

Where Lennon most clearly breaks with the gothic tradition is the telling is in the voice of Eric Loesch. Operatic emotions explored through explosions of overheated prose are a hallmark of the genre. But Loesch is a maddeningly different creature. Loesch's narrative voice is the Lennon's secret weapon. Emotionally dry (almost barren, really) and meticulous, bitterly defensive and self-assured, Loesch's narration is a hypnotic drone that lulls readers into a false sense of confidence. He seems like he doesn't belong in his own novel, like he walked in from some nature-writer's book or from a quiet domestic novel about the desperate and restrained lives of New England families. But, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that he's not only an unreliable narrator, but that he's more damaged and insane than anybody in book (with the possible exception of our mystery castle-dweller).

Lennon expertly shifts between exacting detail and fantastic horror, giving his tale the crisp realism of a well-remembered nightmare. The end result is somewhat marred by an awkward attempt to create a metaphorical parallel to the prisoner torture scandals of the War on Terror, the results of which are neither insightful or illuminating. Still, aside from that one misstep, Lennon's curious thriller is a refreshingly odd slice of genre fiction and it is bound to please fans of "new weird" horror and genre bending mysteries. Castle is published by Greywolf Press and streets in April.

In contrast to The Castle's updated approach, Goolrick's A Reliable Wife is a full-on, unapologetic, old school gothic. Set in the first decade of the 20th Century, the novel focuses on the tangled lives of four characters: the aging but still powerful Ralph Truitt, wealthy and isolated founder of Truitt, Wisconsin; Catherine Lamb, his mail order bride with a tainted past and murderous intentions; Antonio, the illegitimate son of Truitt's first wife and a music teacher, a bitter libertine who has swoon revenge on Truitt; and, through her ghostly and suffocating absence, Truitt's ex-wife, the mad and decadent Emily. If the dramatis personae didn't tell you what kind of book we're talking about here, the locales – the opium dens, a seemingly perpetually snowed in farm house, and an abandoned European-style mansion built in the middle of nowhere – and plot – a murderous conspiracy, secret identities, guilty pasts, suggestions of sadomasochistic and incestuous relationships – evoke everything from Wuthering Heights and Rebecca to the works of de Sade and Poe.

In contrast to the tight-lipped narrator of The Castle, Goolrick's prose is intricate, elaborate, and intense. Reflecting the genre's pre-Freudian roots, the traditional gothic's purple prose is partially the result of the minute observation of extreme mental states without falling back on the medical shorthand of pathological labels. (Indeed, the ascension of therapy culture is, in some ways, partially responsible for the decay of the gothic tale's stature: forcing it into strictly supernatural byways or rendering it strangely quaint.) Goolrick recaptures this intensity in prose that feels vintage without feeling recycled or tired. His doomed, beautiful creations contain thunderous emotional storms, all of them described in pleasingly obsessive detail.

Goolrick's made a wonderful book about damaged people doing horrible things to one another. It's entertaining without feeling thin, dark without being draining, and twisted without being heartless. A Reliable Wife is going to have the Algonquin Books logo on its spine and will be available March 31st.


houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

Castle sounds very intriguing. As a German, I find American variations on the Gothic Tale often very exotic (with all connotations of getting a very wrong picture of a country the word has).

CRwM said...

Screamin' House,

Of the two, "Castle" makes the biggest bid to "say something about America." I have to admit, I feel it kinda loses its way a bit when it tries. I don't want to go into detail, but there's a plot link to the torture of Iraqi prisoners by American military forces that seems half-baked to me. I'll be curious to she what you think.

Anonymous said...

Hi there--I really appreciate your reading, and posting about, CASTLE. The Iraq link, I should mention, was the fundamental thing that inspired the entire book, and so was instrumental in its creation, and firmly in place, in my mind, from page one--so I hope that not all readers find it awkward or ill-advised. But you're right on the money about the mood I was trying to evoke, and I'm glad you liked it! I am an ardent fan of Shirley Jackson, and I will most definitely read the Goolrick book, which I hadn't heard of. Best--JRL

CRwM said...

Mr. Lennon,

Thanks for stopping by and thanks for writing such an engrossing novel.