the romance of certain old houses.

Fonthill Abbey, delineation by John Rutter.

Fonthill Abbey, delineation by John Rutter.

I wanted to make a post about the obsession of the house in fiction, particularly fiction of the fantastic and/or macabre. Deriving from the Gothic, much fictional work featuring houses as a central entity or ‘character’ is based on variations of a conservative premise: the heir and their ancestral home. Either the heir has an uneasy relationship with the ancestral home, as in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels, or the ancestral home functions as a symbol of pastoral, Arcadian perfection which is invaded by an exterior force (or an interior force which happens to have been awakened). Either way we begin from a place of soporific privilege and perverting, idle wealth.

These narratives are suffused with the romance of old houses whose massiveness is a chimney-barnacled beacon of economic power, whose lamps shine into the night as quasi-religious icons of comfort and assurance that the Normal State of Things is untrammeled. Oftentimes the narratives use the color palette of faded grandeur, and employ allusive griping about changing economic and cultural situations necessitating the selling of the house’s store of cultural and artistic capital. With American writers, the houses become a little more Lovecraftian, a little more decked with fungal matter. But whether it is the glamor of the hale country stronghold, the faded beauty of a fleeting lifestyle, or the fascinating ugliness of the long-ruined, the romance of certain old houses is sold to us unrelentingly. The constituent parts of this narrative equation, s and h, are equally important: size and history.

As politically problematic as I find such narrative grounding, it is nonetheless formidable in its seductive power. As a kid I played the Castlevania series for N64 and Gameboy, and wandering through endless halls effulgent with ornate lamps, and impossibly large libraries stuffed with ghastly, floating books, formed a central role in my dreams and imaginings. I enjoy looking at delineations of old country seats and lithographs of castles and photochroms of villas. I re-imagine them (political correctness run amok!) as being artist colonies or other usages less oriented toward exploitation and wealth accumulation. For the most part, this severance from context is a pantomime done in bad faith. The extravagance of such structures is inextricable from their context of being built on the backs of others. Their foundations rest on the necks of the majority and their utilitarian function is to demonstrate the power of private capital or the state. And yet they are so god damned cool.

Artist n/a.

Artist n/a.

The large house in fiction of the fantastic is engrossing for a number of reasons, one of which is that it provides a material analogy for psychological phenomena: the mind (and thus, the house) is large and dark and filled with places for things to hide. The house becomes a projection of the mind that fills the skull, a materializing device that brings to solidity the neuroses and grubbing paraphilias nesting in the heads of such noble shits born into the gentry. We relate because though we may not all be born into privilege, neuroses and psychological gargoyles are born into us. They are exciting because they are foreign worlds in themselves; the house in a tale of terror is not so far from the alien planet in the First Contact SF tale, although lackluster in its potential to dislocate the reader from mythologies of stasis. (This incidentally relates to Thomas Disch’s curmudgeonly critique of first contact tales as being secretly within the genre of the pastoral, a point he manifested in his story “Et in Arcadia Ego”).

There are a vast number of things which could be talked about here, such as Chris Baldick’s definition of Gothic literature as being properly “anti-Gothic” in its condemnation of a barbarous past, exceptions to the general rules outlined here, etc. But I wanted to showcase a literary failure of my own in this department, an excerpt from a novelette I wrote a few years back called The Ossuary. I gleefully wanted to participate in the miniature world-building of house-creation, and to top and best all previous fictional houses as a stunning literary prodigy. Of course I failed at that, but I think the work overall was of interest. A short period after completing the novelette, I read Gene Wolfe’s four volume Book of the New Sun, and found my creation paltry in the extreme in comparison to The House Absolute (which, incidentally, is a beacon of the state rather than private capital in the series). While I found Wolfe’s novel overall to be a rather cold gumbo of Christ-allegory and Nietzschean ubermensch, his creations border on the astonishing. Creatures such as the alzabo and notule dashed to a pulp any of the beings I had invented, and Wolfe’s prose shimmered throughout.

In writing the failure that became The Ossuary I wanted to take the premise of Peake’s Gormenghast (which I haven’t read so far), with its tedium of rituals and its slow ooze of history, and turn it on its head. Instead of being oppressed by the weight of historical fact, the privileged narrator is oppressed by the falsity of its historical invention. The confabulator is the narrator’s grandfather, a figure somewhere in between Joris Karl Huysman’s aesthete Des Esseinte and former King of Bavaria, Ludwig II. Jean Des Esseinte was an aristocratic dandy who preferred the flowers in his collection to be of species that appear as artificial as possible, like metal or raw meat; Ludwig II spent damn near all of his ancestral trust-fund on the completion of a childish, phantasmagorical dream in the form of several garish castles.

Anyways, here is the excerpt. It is crass sometimes, and little more than a taxidermied wrist from  a discarded trophy, but I kind of like it.

 

It is called a house, but it is not really a house. It is an index of memory, a hall of glass concealing an abattoir. The word house is a sarcasm to begin with, as it is not a house in the sense that a Bissoan salt possesses a house, with one room, a fireplace full of ashes, and stiff beds pushed against stone. It is called a castle sometimes, by outsiders. But it is not a castle. A castle is a crumbling grayness stuffed to its windows with history. The house that Bediah Tanner built contains no history, only the dream of history. It is not gray, but the color of a young girl’s blush.

Everywhere inside it, trompe-l’œil covers its walls, as if its bigness were not big enough. Passageways end in lakes teeming with swans and plump albino nymphs. Gardens open up behind bathtubs, an oculus glows in every falsely domed ceiling. The whole house is a junkyard of antiquarian objects, all of them reproductions. From the guests’ Octagon Rooms to the sitting rooms with their daybeds covered in baldaquins, paintings and statuettes clutter the interiors, as well as the exteriors, of the house. The collection of historical kitsch is so vast, it is stored in three subterranean floors and weekly rearranged in new orders so it appears as if the reproductions are reproducing.

Years ago. Quite a few. My older sister Ada would smuggle me down into the underground storerooms when I was a child. Each floor was the size of a warehouse. In my moth-eaten mind it is an endless and cramped maze of coatracks and musty instruments, all brand new but never worn, and sealed with dust. Wolves’ heads and horses’ abdomens, ostrich-feather carpets hanging in rows from the walls, flintlock pistols and gibbets. All the detritus of my grandfather’s disease were collected there without any sense of order, as if catalogued by someone without short term memory. I remember feeling lost and afraid, but Ada was always just around the corner, singing old cowboy songs she’d learned from Bediah’s songbooks. I’m going back to see my mother, when the work’s all done this fall.

We were both forced to learn the collected works of Karlheinz Tanner, our capitalist ancestor who amassed the Tanner fortune and later served in the United Parliament. In fact, the only items of genuine age in the house are Bediah’s framed ambrotypes of Karlheinz dating from the 1750’s. His hair is lank and long in the reddish image, and his eyes are piggish eyes. He was given a pig’s heart too, in the early 19th century. It was an experimental surgery, and caused his death.

During his life, he claimed sexual disinclination and married only to continue the line. But according to his journals, he was plagued by hallucinations of an ursine god which demanded to take his virginity in the next world. He would be at the drawing room, notating a folk song he had stolen from a beet farmer on his travels, and a feeling like “a knife in my brain” would overtake him. A giant grizzly bear would appear amongst the china and berate him, as tiny, crawling fetuses poured out of its mouth. So he says.

Many entries in his journal describe him withholding masturbation on his bed, as this was another expression the bear god found offensive. Sometimes the desire would get so strong, he would “feel the seed, for lack of natural release, gushing out my eyes.” When this occurred, he would sit down and pen gospel songs, which Ada taught to me, a century and a half later.

Karlheinz was also fixated on history. He was a scholar of 13th century plainsong and claimed to retain over 1,000 descants in his head. He somehow amassed a collection of bones of hanged Viennese nobles dating from the anarchist revolutions in the early 1700’s. He kept them in a locked chest, and said that he talked to them whenever the bear god was troublesome. His journal entries detailing his antiquarian findings reveal that he had no sense of discrimination. A pile of ancient urinals was no less entrancing to him than a second edition of the Book of Hours, which he traded to receive the former. The oldness of things was an end in itself, their relative worth measured by the extent of his alienation from them.

It was is if he saw a great steak steaming on a plate when he looked at the past, and the horror of the slaughterhouse when he saw the present. The desire for a past which is irrevocable and unattainable, is analogous to a man or woman one pines for futilely in bed, and who may or may not exist; a desire whose sole purpose is to dissipate, whose joy is in dissipation. Those who are afflicted with this desire become vampires always striving to turn the present into the past. When one confronts them, they turn into mist or a wolf and slink away from hearing.

I can reach no other conclusion but that this is a form of cowardice.

Bediah was not particular about his history, either. All over the house’s tapestry, gunslingers in beaten leather dusters stand toe to toe with old Slavic wartenwurms, and medieval heraldry is celebrated alongside oil mercenaries from the previous century. Despite his crass reverence to antiquity, Bediah had a sense of the mischievous too; his smoking room, which later became his dying room, was adorned with stained glass pornography. He showed it to me when I turned twelve. Even as a teenager staring at saints performing cunnilingus, stained glass was not an arousing medium.

As I grew older, and Bediah’s songbooks still buzzed in my head like hornets, I began to hate him. That myself and Ada were not allowed to speak to him except during holidays made it worse. It would have been better if Malvina were around, but she was always off hunting in other counties. She was rumored to be involved in occult and Marxist organizations, which turned out to be true. She did not really leave, however, until the frontier came.

During all the ceremonies I was subjected to, where I was forced to raise a standard, consecrate a hunting rifle, or pass a gauntlet of Boys with sharpened fans – my movements felt sluggish and feverish, weighted with hatred. Like the historical items in the house, the traditions were not genuine; they had been invented by Bediah. He wrote them all down on a sheaf of paper years ago, drilled them into the salts and servants, and hid them at the bottom of his desk drawer. He later had them drawn up into lawful contracts.

When I was nine, I remember seeing Bediah rowed around on a gondola over the artificial river he had installed in the middle of the house. Sometimes it was the Delaware, sometimes it was the Seine. The gondola was wreathed in tartan cloth and strewn with bells, and the rowers (who really worked in the kitchens) were dressed like Siamese royalty. Bediah himself wore a muumuu and drank from a pitcher of chilled vodka and shouted about the Russian proletariat and the evil of women. He had a gun, and sometimes fired it into the wall. They rowed over the blue river with its smooth stones at the bottom and frightened Ada, who ran to complain to Malvina that grandfather had fallen into a bottle and couldn’t get up.

It was less than a month later that she drowned in the river. I found her at the bend that came near the entrance hall. She floated listless above the bright stones. She was sixteen. She was sixteen.

I do not have forgiveness in my heart.

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