I was distraught because of the death of my pet bird. The sky comforted me with a quote from The Lion King: “It’s the circle of life.” When I woke from the dream, I felt a sense of profound comfort.
I was swimming through a flooded house. Pieces of the dead drifted around me. When I woke from the dream, I was so frightened, it was difficult to breathe.
There is an undeniable power to dreams; in them, we may confront our deepest anxieties or live our desires. Thus, sleep encompasses contradictions, and it’s also intrinsically human. Into Bones like Oil, a hauntingly disquieting novella by Kaaron Warren, explores the warring impulses of dreams and what they reflect about humanity, as well as the impacts of guilt. Warren, an award-winning writer of long and short fiction, has a knack for psychological horror. This focus is particularly clear in Into Bones Like Oil: although the novella contains supernatural elements—specifically, ghosts—the living characters are mostly haunted by their own wounded hearts, dark histories, and selfish desires.
At its surface, Into Bones like Oil is about the people living at a rooming house along the ocean. Named “The Angelsea” after the site of a famous shipwreck (and not the local shipwreck, which is a short walk away), the rooming house is essentially a shipwreck of the living. Its occupants are a collection of deeply troubled people with no better place to be: Roy, the two-faced, sleazy landlord who interrogates the dead to further his own ends; Freesia, a self-described free spirit who loves and hates all men; Julia, a woman who is waiting in the rooming house for her dead brother to return; Dr. Adams, who uses his skills to put people into coma-like slumbers; Luke, a tidy man who is “almost handsome”; and an artist who has been painting the same shipwreck for years.
The Angelsea plays host to other guests. Ghosts—especially ghosts from a shipwreck off the nearby coast—march to The Angelsea every night. As Luke explains, “Near midnight, other times too, you can see ghosts walking up from the wreck. Over and over, trekking up and down. Roy reckons they need to speak their last words, but no one can hear them. I think they’re just … lost.” Although these ghosts cannot speak themselves, they have another method of being heard. In the rooming house, the dead communicate through the mouths of the living, but only when the living are asleep. Interestingly, nobody questions why this happens. The complete acceptance of the weird by all the characters is one element that gives Into Bones like Oil a dreamlike quality.
The nucleus of Warren’s novella is Dora, a new resident of The Angelsea. It is quickly evident that Dora, a hairstylist who was recommended the rooming house by somebody whom she assumes despises her, is burdened with intense guilt about the deaths of her two daughters. Although many roomers live at The Angelsea because it’s the only place they can sleep, Dora’s motivations are different; she seeks to punish herself. At one point, she notes, “I deserve this shit hole.”
Certainly, the rooming house is run-down and patched together with stolen materials and objects from the local shipwreck. It’s full of bad smells and distracting sounds. On top of this, a lack of privacy characterizes life in The Angelsea (and nicely builds on the sense of unease that permeates Warren’s writing): the shared bathroom cannot be locked; Dora’s flimsy bedroom door is little protection against break-ins; meals are communal; sounds travel through thin walls. Even the lockbox is a farce that can be opened without a key. Even the roomers’ dreams aren’t sacrosanct: the dead force their secrets upon them, and this violation is encouraged by the landlord. Roy, who compiles ghost stories, often lures his roomers into wearing the clothes of the dead and sleeping with the help of the doctor’s drugs.
It may at first seem counterintuitive that a community of people with dark secrets would tolerate this lack of privacy. However, the novella hints at a few possible explanations. Although the roomers generally do not speak of their past, they often slip dark secrets into casual conversations and refer to communal meals as therapy sessions. Crumbs of their secrets are scattered throughout the novella, and occasionally, the trail leads to a terrible and/or tragic revelation. Other times, there is no trail; apropos of nothing, a character will casually mention that he once murdered a girl or was accused of killing his stepdaughter. It’s as if they—maybe unconsciously—want to be known. Or perhaps the roomers, like Dora, believe they ought to suffer in the “shitwreck house.” As Laura notes, “Half of us are here because we think we deserve it.” There is no easy answer, and that’s one strength of the novella. Characters have complex, often cryptic motivations. Their psychology is a puzzle.
One key to this puzzle is the connection of Into Bones like Oil to Psalm 109, from which the novella’s title is taken. It is widely known as a psalm of brutal curses, and begins: “Hold not thy peace, O God of my praise / for the mouth of the wicked and the mouth of the deceitful are opened against me: they have spoken against me with a lying tongue.” From here, the speaker asks God to ensure that the wicked experience great misfortune. Among various curses, such as an early death, the following request is made: “And he donned a curse like his garment, and it came into his midst like water and into his bones like oil.”
It may be argued that Dora and other roomers at The Angelsea are ideal targets of the curses in Psalm 109, suffering among ghosts because of the sins in their past. Dora blames herself for the deaths of her children, as lies she spread were indirectly responsible for the tragedy that befell them. Furthermore, at a pivotal moment in the novella, Dora shouts the psalm’s curses at another resident in the rooming house, successfully wielding them like a weapon. However, it should be noted that Psalm 109 is not only a series of curses but also a prayer for mercy:
But do thou for me, O God the Lord, for thy name's sake: because thy mercy is good, deliver thou me.
For I am poor and needy, and my heart is wounded within me.
This element of mercy also comes into play in the novella. Warring with Dora’s self-loathing is her desire for peace. She desperately wants to speak to her children again. At one point, she even decides to seek out their ghosts:
If there was an afterlife, her girls could still hate her. Or perhaps they loved her. Forgave her. Understood her.
If she could bring them here, she’d know.
Dora believes that she deserves to be cursed, but she also wants forgiveness from her daughters and from herself. She contains both perspectives of the Psalm. This is a relatable contradiction. Throughout the novella, Dora’s self-image teeters between that of a wicked, cursed woman and one woman with a wounded heart who desires mercy. Whether Dora—or anyone at The Angelsea—finds peace is a question I encourage readers to investigate themselves.
Content warnings for Into Bones Like Oil include: violence against children, death of children and adults, suicide, sexual assault/attempted rape, abuse of a disabled woman, fatphobia.