I am here, reading with you. I am reading this over your shoulder. I make your home home,
I’m the Braille on your wallpaper that only your fingers can read—I tell you where you are.
Don’t turn to look at me. I am only tangible when you don’t look.
Home. There place where we belong. Where we put our things, our emotions, our past. More often than not, it is a dwelling of some sort—a room, an apartment, or a house. You know every room, every door, all the corners, the way the fourth step from the top creaks, and the way the sunlight enters the windows. You know it intimately. You will carry this knowledge with you forever.
I’ve always been fascinated by the interaction between a person and the building she inhabits. It is a relationship, and both person and dwelling provoke change in each other. I’ve written about it before on this blog, particularly to examine the ways in which purportedly haunted buildings physically interact with the people who move about inside.
Even after we have left, we carry the physical presence of home. It is part of us, and we have become a part of it. Home is a record of our lives. We dirty it. We wear it down. Sometimes we break it or fix it up. Home is the intersection of our past, present and future.
Which brings me to my new favorite book, White is for Witching.
Written by Helen Oyeyemi (who wrote 2014’s critical and commercial success Boy, Snow, Bird), White Is For Witching is a brilliant exploration of the gothic horror novel, but it’s so much more than a gothic horror novel, retaining elements of the genre but adding new twists on its tropes. It is part fairy tale, part modern commentary, part nightmare, and part love story. Its characters are expertly drawn. There are truly disturbing moments, all rendered in Oyeyemi’s lyrical, dreamy prose. As a reader, I was most unsettled by the parts of the book where horrific things happened and I did not understand what was occurring, where I did not know who was alive or dead or what the characters wanted or what they were capable of or if it even mattered. And I cannot stop thinking about it.
“’There’s something wrong with the house, isn’t there?’”
“’It is a monster,’ Sade said, simply.”
The book follows the Silver family of Dover, England. Twins Miranda and Elliot have moved with their father, Luc, into their mother’s ancestral home, 29 Barton Road. Their mother, Lily, is dead, having died suddenly while abroad in Haiti. Luc has decided to turn the house into a bed and breakfast. “Like a castle,” it is a beautiful house, all stately brick and old chimneys and huge fireplaces and grand staircases. Four Silver women have lived in the house—great-grandmother Anna, grandmother Jennifer, mother Lily, and now Miranda. An air of mystery and foreboding surrounds them all.
But there is something very wrong with 29 Barton Road. Objects go missing and reappear. Even those who have lived there for years sometimes get lost in its corridors. It is impossible to keep a housekeeper—they keep leaving and refuse to say why. Children go missing, only to be found hours later, trapped on an elevator stuck between floors. The same children who reluctantly tell Miranda about the people stuck between the floors and warn her that the house is bigger than anyone knows. Sometimes Miranda has the sense that she is not alone in her room.
All this time, Miranda has been no-so-quietly suffering from pica, an eating disorder that forcers her to eat “non-food items, things that don’t nourish,” an ailment Anna suffered from. Even though Lily’s death and Miranda’s pica have put enormous pressure on the family, they try very hard to live their lives. Luc has his bed and breakfast, Elliot forges his own way after high school, and Miranda studies at Cambridge University. There, she befriends Ore, a young Nigerian immigrant. The two girls have an instant attraction and a strong sort of understanding. They eventually become lovers.
All of this occurs against the backdrop of rising racial tensions and prejudicial concerns about immigration. Dover seems to reject anyone who is not from Dover, who does not “belong” in Dover. There are attacks against immigrants and refugees. There are protests, but they never find who is responsible for the attacks.
Throughout the story looms the house, and it isn’t afraid to share its opinions directly with the reader.
Now, I’m still unpacking this novel. Despite its brevity, it is dense. It was beautiful and enigmatic and I was completely invested in the story, even if I didn’t understand what was going on. So far, the thing I’ve loved most was how the house was a character. Oyeyemi pays homage to gothic horror at the same time that she pushes the envelope. 29 Barton Road isn’t just a record of the Silver family’s lives, it is the family’s product, its offspring.
Traditionally, gothic horror incorporates a lot of elements—an aristocratic family on the decline; a prophecy or curse that haunts the family; a damsel; distress that arises from a supernatural source; high, abstract stakes, like damnation, madness, or another kind of existential or spiritual danger. The horror in gothic literature transcends death.
And of course, the setting is usually a dark, creepy house or castle that has seen happier, sunnier, better days. The house always represents the passage of time; a painful reminder of how things used to be and what they are now. But because the house is a monument (or masoleum) for the preceding generations, it almost always functions as the physical manifestation of the looming past.
The house is an imposing character in its own right. In early gothic literature, the house was a passive participant, subtly manipulating characters with its long corridors and intricate but imposing décor, thereby assisting in the terror. But it would not speak. It was not, in fact, alive.
But as gothic horror evolved, authors gave the house more agency. In Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, the reader is left to wonder if Eleanor’s death is the insidious work of Hill House or the tragic, natural result of Eleanor’s fragile psyche. In Richard Matheson’s Hell House, the house becomes the means by which the murderous Emeric Belasco defies death, imbuing the house with his spirit so that he may torture those who dare enter.
Oyeyemi takes it further in White is for Witching. 29 Barton Road is alive. It sentient. It acts independently from its owners. Whole passages are told from the point of view of the house, which produces a jarring result. It is extremely powerful. It can prevent the windows from opening, as it does when Anna tries to fling herself from the attic window. The house can create new doors and capture people, as it does to Jennifer Silver when she tries to abandon her infant daughter. It can trap people in place, as it does to the black couple staying as guests of the bed and breakfast. It can confuse a person by rearranging the rooms and hiding whole sections of the house, as Ore finds out when she tries to find Miranda in the house. It brazenly possesses a mannequin and uses it to terrorize the housekeeper. And it swallows Miranda whole.
How did the house get this way? Unlike Hill House, 29 Barton Road was not “born bad.” No, its power was born out of a character’s grief and hatred.
“White is for witching,
a colour to be worn so that all other colours can enter you,
so that you may use them.
At a pinch, cream will do.”
Anna Good is a witch, even if she doesn’t know it. A woman obsessed with cleanliness, key moments of her life occur when she wears white. This gives her power. She was baptized in white. As a young girl, she participated in a program where was chosen to play Britannia, the personification of Great Britain, clad in white. When she meets Andrew Silver, she wore a cream-colored dress and bewitched him. When she married him, she wore white.
Years later, when Andrew is killed fighting the German forces in Africa, Anna is devastated by his death. She wanders the house, overcome with grief and fear, wearing the cream-colored dress and a white coat. She curses those she feels are responsible for his death, Germans and black people. Her hate is so strong that it gives the house power. As 29 Barton Road explains, “her fear crept out from the whites of her eyes and wove itself into my brick until I came to strength, until I became aware.”
The house finds its purpose in that moment, which is to keep Anna Good and her daughters safe by any means available. They must be kept safe from outsiders, those who don’t belong. The house hates the immigrant staff and guests who are not white. The house is incensed by Miranda and Ore’s relationship and resolves to take her away. “I would save Miranda even if I had to break her,” the house explains.
I love that the house is alive, manipulating and conspiring. The pure, unadulterated rage of the family matriarch somehow transfers into the house, transforming it. The past can now fight back, reject the present and spit on the future. It is no longer a mere monument. Under Anna’s directive, the house has captured her and her line of female descendants, imprisoning them. And the house has taken so many prisoners.
It’s a wonderful metaphor for the ways in which newer generations can be imprisoned by the prejudices of older generations, how these terrible beliefs isolate the succeeding generations and stunt their personal growth. It could happen to all of us.
You hope you would be stronger. You hope that you would be able to escape, but how can you when the past refuses to release you? It is forever a part of you. You can never truly leave your home.
The horror is that you can only do so much, and the threat that you will never truly distinguish yourself, that you will never be free to be yourself, to be free, is always present. You will do your best, but there is always that strange nagging sensation, that little rasping voice threatening to overwhelm your present, promising to bleed through you and pollute the world around you.
Does Miranda survive the house? If yes, will she ever escape? I don’t know, just like I don’t the future until it happens to me, and even then I don’t really know what it meant, what really occurred. The past is always reaching out to use, refusing to be forgotten. Even if Miranda is able to remove the apple from her throat and escape the house, she will never be able to extract the house from herself.