BY CHARLES RAMMELKAMP
Author: Eleanor Swanson
2013, Stephen F. Austin University Press
Filed Under: Literary, Short Stories
It would be misleading to describe the stories in Eleanor Swanson’s new collection, Little Houses, as “gothic,” but they do involve some elements of the gothic tradition in terms of “other-worldly” manifestations, and an elusive, romantic tone. But the ghosts that haunt these stories are as real as flesh and blood – more often than not they are brothers, sisters, parents, spouses. Thus, the real haunting is usually something like the disturbance of the conscience, the challenge to our moral sense, echoing the epigraph to this collection, from Italo Calvino: “The more enlightened our houses are, the more their walls ooze ghosts.”
Take the first story, “The Ghost of Bertrand Russell.” The father and daughter in a seemingly solid young family on a camping trip are gazing up at the stars, looking for meteors, when the ghost of the past rudely intervenes in the form of a memory of an incident involving the protagonist, Andy, and his college Philosophy professor from long ago, Dr. Annalisa Baillet, and a “haunted” farmhouse. His best friend and roommate, Scot, subsequently killed in Vietnam, is also part of the memory, and by the end of the story both Andy and his wife Joan are haunted by these ghosts from the past – ghosts of their own devising. The joke in the title, of course, is that Russell idealized reason, regarded religion as superstition and had no patience for such non-scientific phenomena as spirits. But we’re not talking about “real” ghosts, after all, are we, the stuff of Poe and other authors of gothic romance?
Swanson deliberately invokes Faulkner’s famous Southern gothic story, “A Rose for Emily,” in the story about a daughter’s discovery of her mother’s “secret” life, “A Still Volcano,” when the daughter, Chloe, travels to Arizona to close down her recently deceased mother’s home, pack things up and put the house on the market. Only, there are no actual skeletons in the bed in this story of a marriage that is an oppressive disappointment. Instead, there’s a message from mother to daughter that has a real impact on the daughter’s own marriage and how Chloe sees her relationship with her own husband. Invoking another Emily – Dickinson – the message is contained in cryptic little anagrams, like dispatches from the afterlife that Chloe discovers hidden throughout the house as she sorts and disposes of her mother’s things.
In so many of these stories, the real drama involves the effects of the “weirdness” (not always ghosts, though they always seem somehow “not-of-this-world”) on the relationship between members of the nuclear family – brother and brother or sister and sister, husband and wife, parent and child. Perhaps the most unsettling of these is a story called “The Hypnotist,” which doesn’t necessarily involve paranormal phenomena – ghosts – but focuses on a woman who marries a former CIA goon, who brainwashes her, feeding her false memories, manipulating her outlook.
At story’s end it’s obvious that the sisters, once as close as, well, “sisters,” will no longer have anything to do with one another. Jenny, the narrator, has always recognized that her sister Lynne is flaky, but she’d never felt so estranged from her until Lynne became involved with the control freak, Frank, devoted to him as if a cult member. At the story’s end, “I watched her walk down the concourse until she became smaller and smaller, then slipped away and disappeared into the crowd.” Continue reading