Saturday, 20 July 2013

Short Story Showcase: Keeping House by Michael Blumlein

Saturated Loneliness by Sconsiderato
Writer and physician Michael Blumlein once said "There's a detachment that happens as a physician when you're dealing with frightening, horrifying, or sad events, that you maintain an objectivity that's required, and I do that also when I write." This is certainly true of his 1990 short story Keeping House, which tells of the psychological unravelling of a young housewife whose husband and child have fled, leaving her to fester in their new home and obsess over its cleanliness. She believes an evil presence dwells in the empty adjoining house; it seems to seep through the walls, leaving traces of damp, mould and other nastiness which she must tackle daily. She perpetually cleans but can never seem to rid her own abode of the manifestations of the dank presence from next door. It malingers about the place like a putrid fog only she seems aware of. Is this a real haunting? A spectral manifestation of familial strife? Guilt? Or an unreliable narrator sinking deeper into her own troubled mind? Blumlein’s detached and frank telling ensures the reader is lowered into an increasingly distraught mindset with a growing sense of desperation and horror that is alarmingly palpable.

Keeping House was first published in 1990, in Blumleim’s short story collection, The Brains of Rats. It’s also included in I Shudder At Your Touch, an anthology of horror tales edited by Michele Slung revolving around the themes of sex and death - which is where I first read it, after picking up a copy from a second hand bookshop. Hurrah for second hand bookshops and the weird and wonderful things one can find in them. In her introduction to Keeping House, Slung name checks Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper as bedfellows of Blumlein’s short stinger; both are similarly wrought tales of fragile female minds coming undone, featuring generous helpings of ambiguous, ever-suggestive supernaturalism in domestic environments.

Blumlein’s nameless protagonist seems cut from the same cloth as many of Shirley Jackson’s. She’s intelligent (a professor of classics), forthright and neurotic (no one does neurotic characters better than Shirley Jackson). Indeed, when introducing the house next door, Blumlein takes his cue directly from Jackson - like her Hill House, the house that adjoins his narrator’s becomes another character. ‘The house next door affects other houses’ and it ‘shares a circulation’ with the hers. Blumlein also notes that it is to the north of her house. As highlighted in Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate, the north has sinister connotations in certain cultures; The North is the dark place. It is not safe to be buried on the north side of the church and the North Door is the way of the Dead.

... there were cracks through which cold drafts blew even on windless days.
When the narrator initially begins to obsess over the neighbouring house and the affect it has on the cleanliness of her own, she exhibits extreme forms of OCD; Dirty dishes and glasses, which had always irritated me, now became constant reminders of failure. She is soon driven to distraction by the jarring patterns on her china dinner set and the cracks and damp spots which she perceives to riddle the house. She is a woman either haunted by something malicious next door, or utterly overwhelmed by her familial responsibilities and domesticity. She begins to vacuum twice daily - Dust and lint seemed to accumulate ever faster - and washes walls, windows, doors and herself, several times everyday. As in Polanski’s suffocating Repulsion, these can be seen as manifestations of her disintegrating mindset. There is always something encroaching from next door, be it weeds or thick brambles in the garden, or strange noises from the pipes and walls. The way in which Blumlein conveys the relentless encroachment of the house next door and its doomful effects on the narrator becomes stifling.

Insomnia by Arman Zhenikeyev
Things gradually become darker, more extreme as she imagines that the very light in her own home is being absorbed through the walls into next door, and at one stage, she believes that a mirror she has absent-mindedly propped against the bedroom wall has become a window through which the ‘menace’ next door can pass into her bedroom. Whether she is rigorously cleaning the house from top to bottom, scrubbing herself in a scalding bath or catching glimpses of serpentine figures in the mirror, Blumlein retains a creeping sense of ambiguity.

Upon entering her daughter’s nursery one night, she steps on a slug in the carpet and while flailing around for the light switch, glimpses a stalk-eyed ‘thing’ skulking in the shadows. For the next few weeks I dreamed about doing battle with limbless creatures whose flesh dripped when punctured. I was never vanquished, but neither was I ever victorious. The battles were nightmarishly everlasting.

Later, when her husband and daughter have left her, driven out by her extreme behaviour - which she maintains is what is protecting them from the presence next door - her isolation intensifies (she covers the windows in linoleum). When we arrive at the culmination, it is perfect in its logic and cruelty and almost provides a sense of relief. Almost. It might be a short story, but it’s brevity helps foster its impact.

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