By Laird Hunt
All Posts Contain Spoilers
So, this is embarrassing, but it happens to everyone (everyone! I swear!), and so I’m just going to admit it and try not to sound defensive at all, OK?
I just read an entire book, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand it. At all.
Here’s what happened:
Last weekend, I was in my favorite local bookstore with a friend, perusing the “Staff Selections’ rack. Now, I am, in general, skeptical of this particular flavor of curated bookstore table, because I am not at all convinced that working in a bookstore improves your taste in books. But one book caught my eye: it had a creepy cover, hands crawling all over themselves on a bright orange field. The title was kind of irresistible: ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘. The description on the inside cover began, “In this ingenious horror story set in colonial New England, a woman goes missing.”
Ingenious horror? Yes, please. I bought the book and started reading it right away.
I realized that I was in trouble almost immediately. ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ is, essentially, a dark fairy tale. ‘Goody’ goes for a walk in the woods one day to collect berries for her son and husband. She takes a nap only to wake in the dark; panicked, she sets off running, cutting her feet and hurting herself badly in the process.
Eventually, she is discovered by a woman called Captain Jane, who takes her to the house in the dark of woods, where lives a woman named Eliza, who wears the face of a friend and will try to keep Goody with her forever.
But ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ is one of those books that hinges on the reader’s inability to tell whether or not their narrator is mad. Now, when that kind of book is done well, it’s incredible, and some of the great classics of horror rely on this trick: ‘The Turn of the Screw‘, or ‘The Haunting of Hill House‘.
But those books are so affecting in part because, whether or not their narrators are insane, they are definitely terrified, and their distress is communicated to you. Goody, however, spends most ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ in a sort of blithe, batty daze, which does make her seem crazier, but which also alienates the reader from the horror. She speaks in choppy, under-punctuated, declarative sentences with very little emotional subtlety or elaboration. I suspect that this was meant to make her seem childlike but instead it made her seem, well, stupid:
“The sun was gone from the glade and gone almost from the world when I woke and took up my basket and went hurrying back the way I had come. I smiled a little but didn’t mean it when the oak and ash and box elder began to grow tall around me and my trot turned into a run. There are fears in the airs and on the earth that can call up a fire in your heart whose ash will blacken all hope. This was not such a fear; it was just the little toe or finger of one. I stopped running and wiped my brow and realized I had left my bonnet behind. I shifted my basket from one hand to the other. I stood with my legs planted sturdy and gave a laugh, for I had never liked that bonnet, blue with a frill of tender flower. A gift from my dead mother.” (p. 6)
And which doesn’t in any way clarify whether any of what happens to her is real. What is clear, however, is that what is happening to her is a metaphor, and here is where I have to ‘fess up: I have no idea what it’s a metaphor for.
That it is a metaphor, there can be no doubt (when characters have names like Captain James, it’s a safe bet that metaphors are happening…). Which obviousness makes my confusion even more embarrassing, since I think it’s probably not a subtle metaphor.
I’m also pretty sure that it’s a metaphor about being a woman, or womanhood, or the trials and tribulations of women in society – it’s somewhere around there. There are creepy shadows of violence lurking at the corners of the story, dark intimations that the women in it have been slowly but thoroughly brutalized by the men in their lives, the men to whom they toil in constant service, the men to whom they belong.
What emerges, I think, is a tale about the roles that women play. I think (I think?) that ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ is a allegory about the slow, creeping horror of the feminine position. It shows that a woman who does not choose to obey has no other option but to go mad, either because society will drive her so or pretend that she is. And that the roles available to us are highly circumscribed, archetypical and limiting and cannibalistic, as we slowly destroy each other in an attempt to break free of the restraints into which we were born. That every woman will move through these roles: innocent girl, wife, mother, crone, until she eventually comes face to face with the terrible adversary that is her own furious psyche.
‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ is weird, and creepy, and I think it was probably pretty good, but I’m not sure because I’m not sure it was…coherent. Partly this is a problem with the book itself – partly, perhaps, it is a problem with me (I may just not be getting it). Partly, however, it is a problem with allegories in general.
The meaning of an allegory lies beneath the plain reading of the text, is hidden, coded, in symbols and allusions. They tend, therefore, to mean different things to different people; they often act as mirrors, showing us our reflections, shining our own baggage back at us.
Is ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ a feminist allegory about the slow mutilation done to women by society, the violence to which we are subjected and which we sublimate into madness? Or am I, who have always found the roles normally prescribed for my gender (wife, mother, grandmother) stifling and unnatural, simply finding in this story confirmation of what I already felt?
To a certain extent, this is the purpose of fairy tales, to teach us the lessons that we, in particular, need to know. ‘Little Red Riding’ is a lesson about the dangers of straying too far from the path. It is also a lesson on the bravery available to each of us, when we need it. It is also a lesson in caution, even about the faces we believe we know well. It is also a lesson about the triumph of ingenuity over darkness (and, depending on which version you read, it is also a lesson on the triumph of darkness over everything).
I am not, in general, comfortable with ambiguity – I like to know what is. This may be an indication of a pedestrian mind, but, alas, it is what it is. I am not content to say, ‘This what the text meant to me’; I need to know whether what the text meant to me is what the text really meant. And I feel inadequate when I can’t solve it.
So, I guess that’s what I’m trying to say: ‘In the House in the Dark of the Woods‘ made me feel inadequate. It made me feel creepy, undermined, and inadequate. Like there was something flickering at the edge of my vision and I couldn’t focus my eyes on it. It was unsettling and difficult to understand. It was a strange, cold mist of a book, something with a definite shape but without clear edges. It was eerie.
I suspect that that was exactly the point.