[The first half of this shortlist review can be read here.]
Victor LaValle's Big Machine is a novel of Big Ideas. Questions of race and class converge within a larger discourse about faith and the power of doubt in this story about cults, secret societies, and . . . monsters. Mysterious voices. Paranormal activity. Mass destruction. Cats who devour souls.
Ricky Rice is a janitor in Vermont, an ex-addict who now tries to just get by, harboring very little hope for the future. But when he receives a mysterious note and subsequently leaves his former life behind for a chance at redemption, everything gets a little bit crazy. Now an "Unlikely Scholar"—the term assigned to the people brought to the mysterious Washburn Library in Vermont, all of whom are fleeing a somewhat questionable past—Ricky spends his days poring over newspapers with his new colleagues, searching for something between the lines that they are apparently supposed to recognize when they see it. "Doubt has a long history with me" (p. 22), Ricky notes early on, and his attempts to believe something exists that he may find only if he looks closely enough are at first met with failure. But a man known as The Dean, the supposed leader of the Unlikely Scholars, insists that there is something out there: "There is a voice whispering in the darkness. I have heard it. Everything it says is true. It's been talking to us, to all of us, but the world is so noisy we can't make out the message. Not unless we go off somewhere, someplace remote and undisturbed and quiet . . . " (p. 35). Somewhere like Vermont.
But it doesn't end there, and Ricky is soon ushered into a greater set of mysteries, all while he slowly comes to term with a past already riddled with encounters with faith and belief. Raised in a cult which eventually destroyed his family and everything he once believed to be true, Ricky has since experienced the world largely through the lens of doubt. But he gradually begins to recognize the interconnectedness of the world, and he accepts the idea that things might happen for a reason. While at first he feels like just a pawn in some greater game being played around him, Ricky eventually acquires enough agency to be a major player in the story of the fantastic events of the novel. And fantastic they surely are. Big Machine communicates sweeping ideological messages, highlighted rather than simplified by genre tropes. A story about faith is also a story about monsters lying in wait underground, seen only by a precious few. A story about overcoming one's socio-economic status is also a story about becoming a host for a mysterious, angelic fetus. The fantastic illustrates the real, through a process both of exaggeration and magnification, in a more dynamic and intellectual way than a more straightforward excavation of reality would be able to achieve.
The story takes many unpredictable twists and turns, which resonate with the novel's superstructure in powerful and captivating ways. "You can't predict the places where you'll encounter the unknowable" (p. 105), we are told, and this is especially true in the reading of Big Machine. The plot jumps back and forth in time and space, the greater whole only being revealed in the end after all of the pieces can be put back together again. The tone is epic, representative of nothing less than one man's lifelong journey towards faith (its questioning stance makes it an interesting companion piece to Maitland's The Owl Killers, and Ricky Rice definitely possesses shades of Kline in Evenson's Last Days) after being told, for so long, what he was supposed to believe. Doubt, of course, is the big machine—"it grinds up the delusions of women and men" (p. 205)—and the novel itself documents the role of doubt in our lives, and the roads down which it can potentially take us. "The problem with shadows is what they hide" (p. 197), and Big Machine strives to shed light into all of those dark corners, while perhaps casting a few shadows of its own.
The integration of genre tropes into a novel with these sorts of concerns is nothing new, but LaValle operates here with a straight face, never identifying genre as flimsy, but rather as a legitimate source through which to communicate important, serious messages—which, of course, is nothing new to readers of serious genre literature, but per Straub's essay, it seems that people who frown upon the horror label must be constantly reminded that the presence of the uncanny need not point directly to pulp.
The nature of book reviewing often necessitates quick reading, a constant drudging up of the big picture: theme, style, genre, audience. What does the book do, and does it do it well? Who, if anyone, should read it? But during the reading of White Is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi, I found myself slowing down and savoring the work for its subtle creepiness and poignancy, already excited to start again from the beginning. Oyeyemi paints a picture of grief, heartache, and longing, and then places it into a frame adorned with questions of race, nation, identity, and history. The narrative adopts a similar multiple-viewpoint technique to The Owl Killers, but applies it with much more complexity and poignancy. The unreliability of perspective—nothing short, actually, of the unreliability of reality itself—is what the novel is essentially about, and the varied perspectives serve to illustrate, rather than distract from, that central conceit. The experience of reading Oyeyemi's novel is that of visiting an unfamiliar (and possibly haunted) house, described as the feeling of being "uncertain where you're going, every movement is prolonged by the sense that you're going to try the wrong door or get in someone's way and bother someone. It doesn't matter how big or small the space—if you don't know it, you get lost in it" (p. 191).
White Is for Witching is the story of the Silver family. They occupy a family house in Dover, England, which has only recently been opened up as a bed-and-breakfast. At the beginning of the novel, teenager Miranda is returning from several months at a mental institution, a tenure brought on by the fact that she suddenly and completely forgot who she was. She also secretly suspects that she is a ghost. Miranda, like other women in her family before her, has developed an eating disorder called pica which causes her to eat inedible objects—namely, chalk. The disorder is exacerbated by the recent death of her mother, and her relationship with her twin, Eliot, becomes more and more complicated as the novel progresses. (Eliot, for example, wonders bitterly why the ability to see and hear ghosts—namely that of his mother—appears to be only a "woman thing.") But this relatively straightforward coming-of-age story—signaled by the theme of moving on after a tragedy, and also that of first love—becomes complicated by the presence of a sentient house, haunted by the ghosts of the Silver family's women—"there's something wrong with this house, isn't there?" (p. 197)—which seeks to pull Miranda in, trapping her there forever.
"White is for witching, a colour to be worn so that all other colours can enter you, so that you may use them" (p. 108)—the pulling in of foreign things is the nature of the witchery in White Is for Witching. The house pulls people in, yes, but so do these characters, perennially projecting their own issues onto one another as they each deal with grief in their own way. When she goes off to study at Cambridge, Miranda meets Ore, a girl who becomes her lover but, more importantly, serves as a counterpoint to the strangeness within which she has enveloped herself. Ore tells her the story of the soucouyant, a "wicked old woman who flies from her body and at night consumes her food, the souls of others—soul food!—in a ball of flame. At dawn she returns to her body, which she has hidden in a safe place" (p. 137). Anxiety about the idea of consumption as the basis for human relationships, along with the unreliability of perspective, is at the heart of White Is for Witching, and Oyeyemi's skill in exploring her subject is impeccable—almost frightening in its precision, its depth. I was completely swept away by it.
And I was swept away, in a similar fashion, by The Little Stranger, the latest brilliant novel by acclaimed British novelist Sarah Waters. A dissection of class hierarchies in postwar Britain—distinctly and somewhat overtly reminiscent of Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh—the novel chronicles the decline of the Ayres family, who occupy the beautiful, mysterious, and crumbling Hundreds House (another cursed family, another haunted house) through the eyes of Faraday, a local doctor who started his life as a maid's son and has now become something of a success in the community through hard work and perseverance, rather than birthright. However, just as Brideshead Revisited is more about a house and its inhabitants rather than the novel's first-person protagonist, The Little Stranger positions Hundreds House as the main attraction early on. Faraday recalls his first visit to the House as a child, snuck inside by his mother who was literally the house's servant: "I recall most vividly the house itself, which struck me as an absolute mansion. I remember its lovely ageing details: the worn red brick, the cockled window glass, the weathered sandstone edgings. They made it look blurred and slightly uncertain—like an ice, I thought, just beginning to melt in the sun" (p. 1). The analogy to ice—to fragility, impermanence, fleeting beauty—proves brilliantly poignant to the unfolding story of the family's crumbling, both literal and figurative, in the face of the new postwar environment. And Faraday's early visit to Hundreds House, in which he secretly carved away a piece of the house's decorative plaster and kept it as his own, becomes a telling point of reference.
"The world's a changed place, isn't it?" (p. 46), remarks Caroline Ayres, one of three remaining members of the family still residing in the house, along with her mother and war-scarred brother. The Little Stranger circles around its characters' attempts to navigate the new world they live in—one in which a working class man can ascend to respectability while an upper class family can be reduced to performing menial labor simply in order to survive. The balance is constantly being challenged, tipped; of Hundreds House itself, "one could see so painfully . . . both the glorious thing it had recently been, and the ruin it was on the way to becoming" (p. 53). The Ayres family and Dr. Faraday both nurse different types of nostalgia for the past: the family for what they once had, Faraday for what he once wanted—and, it seems, still does. And when mysterious and sinister things begin to happen in the house, only the family itself seems to be victimized. "There's a bad thing in this house" (p. 131), notes the family's only remaining servant, and the "bad thing" begins to manifest itself in different ways to each of the members of the family, capitalizing on their weaknesses and literally casting out of the House just as it casts them out of their minds, their bodies, their very station in the world. The treatment of class here, though, is different from that in Victor LaValle's Big Machine. The resentment Ricky Rice feels is that of a man shunned from the possibility of mobility that Dr. Faraday enjoys, largely due to their differences in race, nationality, and time period; while Victor LaValle properly maps the relationship between race and class in contemporary American culture mostly in socio-economic terms, Sarah Waters is concerned with the decline of the British aristocracy in the wake of World War II. But their origins come to bear on the present in similar ways for each protagonist; how far and how fast must we run to escape the past? How much of where we're going is intertwined with where we've been?
The Little Stranger is filled with the creepiness normally associated with haunted house stories: mysterious noises, strange discoveries, the feeling of a presence that somehow does not belong there but which seeks, ultimately, to destroy the occupants of the house. The characters often speculate about what might be happening to them, and the usual suspects are named—ghosts, hauntings, poltergeists. The presence of the third Ayres sibling, a long-dead little girl who has been continually mourned by her tortured mother. Perhaps, also, a mistreated servant, come back to enact revenge. But the lack of answers, at least at first, is what imbues the happenings with their horror. Caroline Ayres exclaims, "Things have changed—gone wrong—so badly, so quickly. There has to be something, don't you see?" (p. 363), Caroline begins to research a possible source of the haunting, and she comes across some of her father's books which point to a poltergeist as a possible culprit—"some sort of energy, or collection of energies. Or something inside us. . . . Unconscious parts [of a person], so strong or so troubled they can take on a life of their own" (p. 373).
Eventually, it takes the counsel of a medical colleague for Dr. Faraday, who has befriended the Ayres family and has become a frequent visitor at Hundreds House, to seriously consider the possibility that something supernatural may be at work. The colleague echoes Caroline's suspicious in his speculation:
The subliminal mind has many dark, unhappy corners, after all. Imagine something loosening itself from one of those corners. Let's call it a—a germ. And let's say conditions prove right for that germ to develop—to grow, like a child in the womb. What would this little stranger grow into? A sort of shadow-self, perhaps: a Caliban, a Mr Hyde. A creature motivated by all the nasty impulses and hungers the conscious mind had hoped to keep hidden away: things like envy, and malice, and frustration. (p. 389)
It's impossible not to note the similarities here to the preoccupations present in Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, the story of one woman being overtaken by the mysterious power of a seemingly haunted house. What dangerous thing lurks just below, just out of reach, always ready to pounce? I daresay that Sarah Waters matches Jackson's skill in slowly revealing deeply rooted anxieties and bringing them to the surface of a narrative in horrific, terrifying ways, and the final paragraph of The Little Stranger is one that I suspect will haunt me forever—even as, much as the members of the Ayres family begin to sense the inevitability of their imminent demise, I might have known all along that it was coming. And for this reason among many others, I believe that The Little Stranger deserves the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel. No other finalist for the award joins the sense of horror and dread with literary mastery quite as completely, quite as gorgeously, or quite as memorably.
But, that said, the shortlist is one of the strongest of any that I've seen recently, genre or otherwise—perhaps helped along by the exciting variety of genders, races, and nationalities represented. None of the writers, except for Caitlín Kiernan and perhaps Brian Evenson, are particularly known—if at all—for writing horror fiction, but I think this speaks to the range of the form itself. In all six novels, the nature of reality, in the form of the weight of the past on the present, is decidedly horrific. They explore the lack of clarity with which people judge their surroundings in an atmosphere of manufactured realities, crumbling belief systems, and the presence of traumatic memories lurking around every corner. Perhaps this shifting balance between real and unreal is still one of the most intense preoccupations of the horror genre, inspired and expanded upon in the wake of Jackson's seminal work by these new and certainly noteworthy novels which all look inward into the human mind to discover that the things which scare us the most have been right there all along.
After the announcement of the winners. . .
Victor LaValle's Big Machine is the kind of novel that is a worthy winner of literary awards—large in scope, exceedingly original, and timely but also timeless, with the sense that like all important work it will outlast its context—and as the new winner of the Shirley Jackson Award, it aptly represents the range of imaginative fiction. Perhaps I was just more won over, in the end, by the terrifying subtleties of novels by Helen Oyeyemi and Sarah Waters, or the psychological claustrophobia of Caitlín Kiernan's The Red Tree. And the jury has in fact chosen from the shortlist the novel that I think diverges most from the style of Shirley Jackson herself. But the winner of a literary award need not be the book that bears the most resemblance to the award's namesake, and Big Machine's divergences are very welcome and compelling. Bold and assertive, dashing wildly through space and time, Big Machine spends a lot of its time catching the reader up, explaining how all the pieces relate to one another. But what could be perceived as a weakness—the proverbial info-dump—is actually just a symptom of the novel's extraordinary ambition; over-ambition, perhaps, but literature could always use a little more of that.
Richard Larson is a graduate student at New York University. His short stories have appeared (or are forthcoming) in ChiZine, Pindeldyboz, Electric Velocipede, Strange Horizons, and others. He blogs at rlarson.typepad.com.