BOOKS SEPTEMBER 6, 2012
HERE’S AN IDEA: come October, don’t drape your shrubs in fake spiderwebs or wedge plastic tombstones in the yard. Don’t bother blacking out your windows and carving up a pumpkin to glare at trick-or-treaters. Skip the pointy hat and talon-like fake fingernails. Just pack up the kids and drive them to an abandoned housing development in, say, Phoenix, or the outskirts of Las Vegas. Plywood skeletons of McMansions. Weeds up to your waist. Concrete paths that peter out into gravel, then end abruptly. What could be creepier? You don’t even need a costume, since you might already resemble the ghosts of these empty estates: middle-class strivers who jumped at the promise of wall-to-wall carpeting and a finished basement, and signed on the sub-prime line.
This is not an entirely original idea. The “new” haunted house comes from contemporary literature; and it is the backdrop for two of the most celebrated pulp novels of the summer, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Tana French’s Broken Harbor. Both books have made it onto The New York Times best-seller list, with Gone Girl, in particular, creating a small storm of excitement. Gone Girl and Broken Harbor are clever psychological thrillers that deserve their summa-summer-read status. Readers rightly relish their chills in the heat: these books deliver.
But they also share a subtle slant that makes them more perceptive than standard beach fare. Sensational literature often pulls from headlines; the easiest way to frighten is to summon specific threats, however rare the danger. (Think of James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia, connected to the horrific murder of Elizabeth Short; Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes, which centers on a school shooting; or Emma Donohue’s Room, inspired, it seems, by Josef Fritzl.) But it is an uncommon thriller that harnesses the more nebulous and pervasive fears that needle society. Gone Girl and Broken Harbor do just this, presenting half-abandoned housing developments not only as crime scenes, but also as landscapes of disaffection and disappointment—a physical scar of the great recession and a gloomy reminder of our excesses.
This new variety of haunted house is a variation on the classic: a place where dreams wither. In Great Expectation’s Satis House, Miss Havisham has stopped the clocks at the moment her marriage was meant to take place and kept the decaying wedding cake—a nasty favor from a party that never took place. At Manderley, Daphne du Maurier’s setting for Rebecca, the deceased wife haunts the new; the second Mrs. du Winter cannot let go of the idea that hers is a less perfect union than the first. More recently, in Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger, the impoverished family’s struggle to maintain their decrepit mansion weighs upon them almost as heavily as the poltergeists roaming its halls.
What makes the new literary haunted house different is that dreams dry up more quickly, sometimes before they even take root. Modernity means speed, even when it comes to malevolent spirits. These houses are the shells of prematurely stunted hopes, laced with traces of bitterness and regret. Perhaps at no other moment in America’s history have so many of our towns and cities been filled with these kinds of structures, and pulp has put them convincingly on the page.
In Gone Girl, the scene of the crime is a rented house in Carthage, Missouri, where the protagonists—Nick and Amy Dunne—have landed after losing their Manhattan media jobs. (They got these jobs in the late ’90s, back when “there were magazines, real magazines” and “the Internet was still some exotic pet kept in the corner of the publishing world.”) The rental “screams Suburban Nouveau Riche … generically grand, unchallenging” and is located in “a miniature ghost town of bank-owned recession-busted, price-reduced mansions.” Upon arrival on the sorry threshold, Amy asks: “Should I remove my soul before I come inside?”
Nick takes turns with the neighbors mowing the lawns of abandoned houses so that they don’t become threateningly overgrown. Vagrants and squatters are a worry to the few tenants and homeowners who have stuck around. A nearby mall that has gone belly-up is a magnified version of the same phenomenon: “two million square feet of echo.” Amy vanishes from the house one day, but her disappearance is not the only thing adding to the eerie ambiance. Nick is struck that “a house so new could feel so haunted … just really gruesomely, shittily ruined. A house with a history, and it was only three years old.” Ruins, Flynn implies, can rise up almost overnight.
In Broken Harbor, the central crime also takes place in a half-abandoned housing development on the outskirts of Dublin—not an American city, but the new haunted house isn’t confined to U.S. shores. (A photo essay in The New York Times in 2011 showed that Ireland might have it even worse, depicting some of the misty abandoned streets of the estimated 2,500 “ghost estates” that dot the nation.) Brianstown—as the development in Broken Harbor is called—is a more explicitly miserable place than Gone Girl’s subdivision, its grimness established with the murder of a man and his children in the opening pages of the novel.
As in Gone Girl, the crime is only one aspect of the general despair. The houses are bleakly cookie-cutter and mostly empty. “You could look straight through three out of four houses, to bare rear windows and gray patches of sky.” In less complete stretches, there are “random collections of walls and scaffolding, with the odd gaping hole for a window … rooms were littered with broken ladders, lengths of pipe, rotting cement bags.” French’s details convey the desolation: “a screwed-up ball of newspaper” and “a kid’s bike lying on its side” on a dead lawn are among the scant signs of life. Mick Kennedy, the protagonist detective who investigates the murder, “half-expected feral dogs to slink up around the car” when he parks.
French is even more explicit than Flynn about the departed dreams represented by these desolate scenes. Ghosts “thronged the whole estate,” she writes, “whirling like great moths in and out of the empty doorways and over the expanses of cracked earth, battering against the sparse lighted windows, mouths stretched wide in silent howls: all the people who should have lived here.” The line is overwritten, but the sentiment still slices: this is a place that could have been great. When Mick makes a final visit to Brianstown, he sees an apparition of the alternate, happier fate: “lawn mowers buzzing and the radio blasting sweet fast beats while men washed their cars in the drive, the little kids shrieking.” But this is not the reality that Brianstown’s poor, trapped inhabitants face.
There is, of course, much more to these books than their scenery, and neither story is fully confined to lonely suburban streets. Gone Girl, in particular, moves quickly from the subdivision, roaming to New York and deeper into the South. But the striking atmospheric similarities between these books seem to be a sign of a larger, still-unfolding cultural shift: the consequences of the recession are making their way into our literature. What does this mean for fiction? Hopefully, in my book, fewer vampires and zombies and other breeds of made-for-Halloween horror. The ghosts of this recent economic downturn are going to be with us for years, and that’s scarier than anything from the supernatural.
Chloe Schama is the Executive Editor of THE BOOK.