An Ohio gothic

It started with wasps.

At the end of our first year in the house, they ate through the walls. I would find, first, the dusty piles of plaster by the baseboards, the strange detritus materializing like unlikely anthills on the ugly green carpet. Only later would I recognize these for what they were: evidence of invasion. At last, I saw the wasps themselves, clinging to the sheer white curtains and crawling along the windowpanes, or else strewn lifelessly across the floor and sills, their bodies transmuted into brittle husks.

For the living, I enacted well-meaning rituals of rehabilitation, trapping each intruder inside a plastic cup and conveying it staidly downstairs and out the back door. As they multiplied, this manual method was soon forfeited for the more practical affordances of the Dustbuster, which allowed me to suction up five or six at a time, releasing them reeling and dizzy into the ambient air outside. I attempted, with little result, to remedy the breach by the baseboards with electrical tape, then, more successfully it seemed, with wall caulk. Satisfied, I declared the matter solved.

Months later, they began appearing by the dozen in my husband’s office. We sprayed, sealed, suctioned; they kept coming. We never could discern from where.

In a famous scene from the 1979 film The Amityville Horror, Father Delaney is beset by a swarm of flies when he arrives to bless the ill-fated Lutz residence. At first, we see only a pair of them on the inside of the second-story windowpane that separates Delaney from the Lutzes, who are outside frolicking with their dog in a scene of suburban bliss. The door slams unexpectedly. Delaney looks toward it, agitated, and mops his brow. By the time he turns back around, a multitude of flies have appeared. We observe them from outside first, peering in at the priest beginning his blessing. We float beside the camera, invisible voyeurs. The crescendo of buzzing swells alongside the tremulous Lalo Schifrin score.

The flies leave the window, alighting on Delaney’s face and shoulders. He coughs and sputters, hunches over. Outside, the family blithely roars off in a motorboat, oblivious. The shot cuts to an extreme close-up of the flies: the bulbous swell of their compound eyes, the frenetic movements of their legs, the twitching of tiny tarsi. The camera alternates between Delaney and the window, both increasingly enveloped by insects, both equally immobile.

The door opens. Delaney’s eyes open. The scene cedes to silence. Then we hear it—a whisper at first, slight and inconspicuous; then again, shrill and unmistakable: Get out!

This is the problem with white people, as Eddie Murphy assesses it in his 1983 standup comedy special Delirious: we stay in haunted houses, like idiots. We don’t heed the warnings; we don’t read the signs. In pursuit of the American dream of homeownership—the middle-class domestic ideal, the manicured lawn, the thirty-year mortgage and its promise of equity and upward mobility—we colonize spaces, nominally vacant and hauntingly occupied, as if we belong there. As if it is our right.

We ignore the voices that clearly tell us otherwise.

• • •

The summer we got married, we bought a house. Less than two years later, we burned it down. Standing on the sidewalk in the snow, holding our coats closed over our pajamas, we stared as five fire departments attempted to tackle the flames shooting through the roof. We watched them drag in hoses and axes and smash our upstairs windows, and suddenly, we knew what it was like to lose everything.

We’d had the chimney repaired—or so we thought—midway through our second Midwestern winter, dreaming of cozy nights hearthside while snow swirled outside the single-pane windows. Satisfied with the inspection report that certified our fireplace safe to use, we ordered half a cord of wood off Craigslist; two days later, a guy dropped by in a pickup truck and dumped it in our driveway. I was five months pregnant, so my husband insisted on hauling it all inside himself, stacking it neatly in the basement for the frigid months to come. For the inaugural fire in our home, we toasted marshmallows and sat by the burning embers with our heat-seeking beagle.

For the past six years, while I’d been in graduate school studying nineteenth-century Gothic literature, we’d rented apartment after shoddy apartment, ever on the run from escalating prices. But I’d never had any desire to own a home. I didn’t know how to handle things like leaking faucets, malfunctioning furnaces, rotting woodwork, or assorted infestations. I figured such responsibilities were best left to landlords—or, rather, to the gruff, haggard-looking handymen the landlords hired to replace window screens and fidget with toilet tanks while I stood back, inhabiting the helplessness of tenancy.

But after I was unexpectedly offered an academic job in rural Ohio—a place with no rental market to speak of—we found ourselves driving down I-90, in an early April snowstorm, to tour a handful of properties with a real estate agent named Frankie. Each house we looked at was what its listing encouragingly termed a project, having been left in some degree of disrepair by its previous occupants. Poking through the cabinets of fixer-upper kitchens, we were incited to seize the full faculties of our imaginations, to eschew the limitations of our immediate reality for the more liberating lens of potential. Surveying a landscape of dry rot and water damage, such acts of idealistic vision seemed all but impossible.

The only houses we could hope to afford within reasonable commuting distance of the campus were in a run-down town, which, like much of the Midwest, is characterized by a kind of post-industrial spectrality. In the mid-nineteenth century, it had earned prominence for its hearse manufacturing business. During the Second World War, it had been the site of an ammunitions plant—the location chosen, apocryphally at least, because the inordinate amount of cloud cover the region received rendered it a difficult target for air strikes. Now once-splendid Romanesque facades on Main Street gaped with empty storefronts. The schools were terrible, but the property was cheap. This was not a place you moved to, I gathered; it was a place where you stayed because you were unable to escape.

It seemed especially ironic, then, that the last house we viewed—a four-bedroom Victorian with gingerbread trim and a stately corner turret, down the block from an abandoned GE plant and adjacent to a funeral home—was located on a thoroughfare called Freedom Street. Like the others we’d seen, it was riddled with a daunting list of deficiencies: peeling lead paint on the unfortunately whitewashed woodwork, water-stained wallpaper holding crumbling plaster in place, carpeting that had been ripped away to expose cracked asbestos tile, hastily patched swaths of ceiling betraying the places where the roof had caved in before it was eventually replaced. Yet, suddenly, I understood the transformative power of potential. What I saw were the vaulted windows, inviting light and air, and the fireplace promising comfort even as the April snow choked the emergent magnolia.

The house was too big for us, my husband argued—but I saw our dining room crowded with Thanksgiving dinners; I saw our children descending the staircase to open gifts on Christmas. An inveterate pessimist, I was taken aback by my own sudden sense of selective perception, but there it was. The breakthrough vision of hypothetical children was especially surprising. I’d undergone treatment for an aggressive cancer in my mid-twenties, and I knew the contamination of chemotherapy may have rendered my ovaries exanimate. For the most part, I tried not to think about speculative offspring.

So to buy this house, I thought—to make both imaginative and material space for children—would be to engage in an audacious, uncharacteristic act of optimism.

• • •

The bird was an omen; I ought to have known. I’ve always been phobic about birds. Superstition dictates that a bird flying into a window augurs bad luck and even portends death. And yet, among the things I chose not to see in my rose-colored viewing of the house on Freedom Street was a dead sparrow, which had apparently entered the house through the open attic hatch and shat all over the second-story carpet before breaking its neck on the master bedroom window. When we came back a month later to close on the sale, the bird was still there, its twisted body crumpled beneath the curtains in the corner.

In a nineteenth-century Gothic novel, it would have been sure enough foreshadowing. A hallmark of the Gothic genre is the transparency of its plot, inducting its readership into a knowing coterie skilled in predicting its utterly anticipatable machinations. In Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” for instance, a story I routinely taught, readers are alerted early to the possibility of “a barely perceptible fissure” in the Usher structure, one that might be detected by “the eye of a scrutinizing observer.” Eventually, of course, the ill-fated estate succumbs to the force of our expectations and is sucked into the unforgiving earth. We are supposed to understand the fissure for what it is: a wink, a nod, a not-so-subtle signpost. Confirmation of the inevitable course, dispatched from the point of no return.

But life wasn’t like that, I thought.

We began trying for a child in the middle of the wasp debacle. As it happened, my first eligible ovulation cycle coincided with the 2017 total solar eclipse. Although Northeast Ohio was nowhere near the “path of totality,” it was tempting to seek meaning in astronomical atmospherics: the two o’clock chorus of crickets, the wellspring of moon-shaped shadows. I assigned a name to our potentiality: Eclipse Baby.

Two weeks later, Eclipse Baby materialized in the form of a faint line on an early detection home pregnancy test—and then, a few days after that, dissipated in an unspectacular but unmistakable rush of blood. A “chemical pregnancy,” apparently: a loss in the earliest stages, when an egg has been fertilized but has not successfully implanted. I felt I had briefly entered, and quickly been pulled back from, a path of totality. Too briefly to legitimate grief, surely.

Most of these losses, I read on, occur before women realize they’re pregnant. Interpreted as late periods, they persist below the threshold of perception—except, of course, for some especially scrutinizing observers, their imaginary futures spooling forth from a stripe of pink dye.

A barely perceptible fissure. 

Early detection. 

What to expect. 

• • •

On Halloween, newly pregnant for the second time in two months, I stood on the front porch, wrangling the dog in his crocodile costume while a parade of Disney princesses and Power Rangers held out pillowcases and plastic pumpkins like Catholics awaiting Communion wafers. A six-year-old witch gazed up admiringly at the turret while I fumbled for a fun-size Snickers. “I like your house,” she said. “It reminds me of one of those fairy tale castles.”

“Me, too,” I agreed. I decided that when—or if, as I would continue to say for months to come—this baby arrived, the turret room would eventually become theirs, because what child would not love a fantasy of fortification, even if the kingdom was a shabby corner lot?

Of course, fairy tale castles nearly always conceal some species of darkness, often relating to the imprisonment and abuse of women. As I cleaned and painted in preparation for the possibility of not-Eclipse Baby, I waited for our house to reveal its obscured horrors—panicking, for instance, when I discovered a tuft of brown hair poking from a crack in a closet wall, convinced that the people who had rented the house before it was abandoned to vacancy (Russian drug dealers, we learned from a neighbor) had buried a body there. This was before I learned that Victorians often insulated their homes with horsehair. So it wasn’t haunted, then—at least, not in the way I might have imagined.

Still, hauntings happened—not those of the paranormal variety, but those that were, to the contrary, entirely ordinary: the kind sociologist Avery Gordon defines as “those singular yet repetitive instances when home becomes unfamiliar.” Haunting, Gordon writes, “alters the experience of being in time” as we come to realize that “what’s been concealed is very much alive and present.” In other words, we live amid palimpsests, the past only overwritten but never erased.

And the past indeed appeared in unlikely places, creeping out of corners and closet walls. We received mail for long-gone occupants. The doorframe of the nursery charted the heights of other people’s children.

“All houses wherein men have lived and died,” wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “are haunted houses.”

• • •

The contractor we hired to install our laminate flooring excitedly speculated about the vacant space under our staircase. Our house might have been a stop on the Underground Railroad, he told us, sheltering fugitives who managed to transcend that arbitrary and essential boundary of the American racial imaginary: the Ohio River. He was visibly disappointed when we informed him that the real estate paperwork dated its construction to at least a decade after the Emancipation Proclamation.

According to the documents we received, the house had been built in 1875, the year before Alexander Graham Bell introduced the telephone and Custer’s troops were killed at Little Bighorn. But if our home was indeed a design of the late nineteenth-century American architect George Franklin Barber, as an insomniac night of Internet research suggested, it meant that the extant structure would have been constructed several decades later, around the time Ellis Island opened to a tide of European immigration and the United States Cavalry murdered hundreds of indigenous people at Wounded Knee.

Barber—who had no formal education or training—published his first mail-order catalog of architectural plans, The Cottage Souvenir, in 1887 or 1888. He was far from the first to capitalize on the catalog craze of the Victorian United States; in Chicago, for example, the Lyman Bridges Company had been manufacturing prefabricated “balloon frame” houses since exhibiting them at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867. But unlike the more well-known Sears homes of the early twentieth century, Barber’s catalog did not offer pre-cut “kits” to be assembled en masse. Rather, Barber sold only the plans, though he encouraged correspondence and collaboration between client and architect, who could adapt his designs to suit particular needs, desires, and styles. After all, a house was more than just a shelter, Barber wrote; it was “something you will either enjoy or be disgusted with as long perhaps as you live.”

The design for our own home (No. 128) appears in Barber’s more widely advertised catalog of 1892, The Cottage Souvenir Revised and Enlarged. I imagined the kind of people who might have paged through Barber’s catalog in the 1890s, eventually selecting this “convenient and roomy” Queen Anne, for which they would offer customizing touches. Maybe the same kind of people who now pored over Pinterest, devouring before-and-after photos of HGTV-worthy home improvement projects.

I followed a handful of Instagram accounts that chronicled DIY renovation and restoration undertakings of the sort we would never be able to afford. While I eagerly scrolled through photos of new granite countertops and refinished oak floors, I discovered an entire neo-Victorian subculture that embraces the aesthetics of the nineteenth century along with its social mores and moral order. I found the uncritical reverence for Victoriana odd, even unsettling, and I wasn’t the only one. One particularly astute Internet sendup of this subculture lambastes a pair of “insufferably twee hipsters” who were featured in a 2015 Vox article. The author is scathing about the selective, regressive nostalgia and willful oblivion of privilege that comes with fetishizing the material trappings of the Victorian era—oil lamps, corsets, giant-wheeled bicycles—while maintaining a blithe indifference to the ideologies of imperialism, colonialism, and white supremacy from which it is all inextricable. “Fuck these people,” he pronounces.

I wondered whether we were becoming people about whom we might formerly have said, “Fuck these people.” Without really meaning to, I had wandered into the world of lawn fertilizer and Home Depot runs, the world of wicker porch furniture and pressure-washed fences and unfurled American flags—the world of marriage and the thirty-year mortgage and, now, improbably, motherhood.

It doesn’t mean we have to stay here for thirty years, I told myself.

But I worried that we would.

Barber’s homes are designed to appeal to the kind of white middle-class insularity that characterizes so many American neighborhoods. Still, the legacy of slavery is distinctly and strangely palpable in his catalogs as an explicitly acknowledged foil for the lifestyles the catalogs aim to cater to and cultivate. In The Cottage Souvenir No. 2, for instance, on the page before his first design, Barber presents two engravings of African American dwellings in the postbellum South. Labeled “Contrasted Architecture,” these structures are to be noted for their “oddity and picturesqueness,” he tells us. “The contrast between these two homes and those on the following pages,” he continues, “gives us an idea of the advancement of modern architecture in this country.”

Like his contemporaries who amused themselves with minstrelsy, Barber treats blackness as a kind of innocuous, consumable curiosity—as if there is no relationship at all between these shoddily constructed Southern cabins and the socially engineered disenfranchisement of their inhabitants; as if the “advancement of modern architecture” (and of American society writ large) had simply happened adjacent to, rather than on the very backs of, black bodies. As literary historian William Gleason has argued, these engravings are bizarre insofar as they function to “illustrate . . . the very homes—and by association, the very persons—one is guaranteed not to find in the book itself.” Hearkening to Toni Morrison’s argument that, from its early inception, American literature has depended upon a haunting “Africanist presence,” Gleason suggests there are “powerful connections between race and American architecture,” but “we have not yet trained ourselves to notice.”

But sometimes we are made to notice. The week we unpacked our belongings in our new house, in a predominantly white working-class town now unabashedly plastered with “Make America Great Again” signs, Michelle Obama, speaking at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, reflected on what it meant to “wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” We all wake up every morning, she reminded us, in a world that was.

• • •

The following year offered an autumn of hurricanes and wildfires in other places; every day, reports from the Caribbean and California attested to the cruelties of a changing climate. We offered donations to aid organizations and agreed that at least there was one good thing about Ohio: nothing happens here.

Still, my first trimester progressed amid a tide of anxiety. I complained about the bats and birds that inhabited the attic, driving us to distraction with their midnight flutterings. I agonized over the omnipresent lead paint and concealed asbestos and suspect plumbing poised to poison us. How could we bring a child into a home replete with so many latent dangers?

Not that what lay beyond the walls was any less hazardous. I restlessly probed the Toxics Release Inventory on the EPA website, noting that an industrial facility less than a mile and a half from our home was emitting over four thousand pounds of carcinogenic styrene into the air annually. (It manufactures, among other things, fire retardants.) Meanwhile, I taught the Gothic to a cohort of unimpressed freshman, leading them through texts like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Several of them had read Gilman’s story in high school and were pleased that they had the “answer.” The narrator is experiencing postpartum depression, they announced with confidence. She wants to tear into the walls because of overactive hormones. Because her body is a prison, because a baby is a prison, because a story is a prison, because there is no story a woman can tell that isn’t a tale of imprisonment. Hormones as hauntings. It’s enough to make you crazy.

I tried to open up the possibility of alternative interpretations. Some critics have discussed the story in relation to the use of arsenic in wallpaper dyes in the 1890s, I told them. Isn’t that interesting?

I received a slew of essays about postpartum depression. Because hormones, you know.

At Christmas, I insisted on procuring an eight-foot Douglas Fir for the parlor. “When I do this next year,” I marveled to my husband as I wound colored lights and wine-cork garlands around the branches, “our baby will be here.”

We hadn’t told anyone about the pregnancy yet. The plan to make the announcement to our families over the holidays, to forfeit the rights to our lemon-sized secret, filled me with both relief and dread.

My husband disappeared to the kitchen to start dinner as I stood back to admire the tree, overcome with a sudden surge of love for the beauty we’d created.

Then the whole thing toppled forward, collapsing in a confusion of tangled cords and shattered glass, as if overburdened by the symbolism I’d assigned it.

• • •

Six weeks after Christmas, we were curled on the couch on a Saturday night, felled by exhaustion and seasonal colds. Someone who happened to be driving by at 10:30 stopped and banged on our living room window.

“Your house is on fire,” he shouted.

It is amazing what people can see of our lives from the outside.

We made the local paper: the morning edition featured a photo of my husband standing in the street, staring up at the flames. I’m not in the photo; I was in our neighbor’s house, numbly clutching a cup of coffee as the neighbor watched Olympic curling on NBC and I watched our nursery burn from his living room window.

Of course, I was thinking about Bertha Rochester.

At the end of Jane Eyre, Jane returns to Thornfield Hall, the estate of her former employer and lover, to find it “a blackened ruin.” This, she learns, had been the handiwork of Mr. Rochester’s “lunatic” Creole wife Bertha, the infamous madwoman in the attic. Secreted away on account of her generic insanity, Bertha is consigned to the guardianship of Rochester’s servant—a gin-tippler who is prone to the occasional overindulgence, allowing Bertha to wreak havoc with her incendiary tendencies. When Rochester attempts to approach her, she leaps from the parapets. Rochester is left burned and blind, with an amputated hand, but secures Jane’s redemptive love. And the last we hear of Bertha, she is “smashed on the pavement . . . dead as the stones on which her brains and blood were scattered.”

If we are to believe a certain vein of second-wave feminist literary criticism, Bertha’s actions might be interpreted as an articulation of Jane’s secret id, a revolt against the Victorian social roles into which women were unwittingly conscripted. The fire is a raised fist, a radical expression of resistance against the patriarchy and obligatory domesticity.

The problem is Bertha’s brains still end up on the pavement.

I worried the fire had been kindled not by negligence on the part of the fireplace company, but by some dark, unacknowledged desire of mine. I was living an increasingly unrecognizable life. Did I secretly want to burn it all to the ground?

But then, maybe this wasn’t Jane Eyre, but Amityville. At the end of the movie, the Lutzes peel off into the night. George re-enters to rescue the family dog; the rest they leave behind. This is only right, the film suggests: they never belonged there. And not because of the whole portal-to-hell thing, but because they couldn’t properly afford it. They are punished for masquerading as upper-middle-class, having only secured the house by capitalizing on a tragedy, exploiting the general discomfort with murder that created a market opportunity.

When we finally drove away from Freedom Street at 2:30 in the morning, with our dog and two traumatized cats in the backseat, it felt a little like this. This seemed like the final scene in whatever horror we were living: tearing off toward an extended-stay hotel in another town, leaving our lives to smolder in the rearview. It might have been a relief, escaping unceremoniously, our possessions pared down to the toothbrushes and travel-size shampoos the Red Cross offered us. Part desperation, part liberation.

But, of course, we had to go back. Some twelve hours later, we returned in a daze, threading through the shattered glass on the sidewalk and stairs to see what we could save. The floors were awash in water and foam from the fire hoses; piles of charred and soaked insulation covered our belongings like the ashes of Pompeii. The odor of smoke was overbearing—not the lingering crispness I’d anticipated, but a repellent chemical stench that would sicken me for weeks.

I had thought that entering the house would feel something like walking through the scene of a crime, but it was more like walking through the scene of a surgery—one that had been abandoned midway through, rendered futile when the patient died on the table. Dumbstruck, we peered into the wreckage of our home’s mysterious interior, and I thought of the nineteenth-century physiologist William Alcott, who had written an anatomical textbook comparing the basic structures of the human body to those of a house: bones are framework, hip joints are hinges, the cranium is a cupola, and so on. Each part has its purpose and is evidence of an intricate divine design. Seeing the brick spine of our house’s chimney rising against the bedroom wall, the lath and plaster crumbled like broken bones, the electrical wiring hanging from the ceiling like so many delicately laced veins and arteries, we stood amid the almost unbearable intimacy of its viscera and did not cry.

The Gothic is obsessed with what lies beneath the surface: the repressed, the latent, the concealed. It traffics in the discomfiting intuition that all is not as it appears. But now, to the contrary, everything seemed to assume a sort of radical transparency. From the upstairs hallway, we could gaze directly up into the fragile rafters of the attic. Where there was once a roof with a fifty-year warranty, we could see the sky.

As I passed through the ruins with the still-uncanny sensation of a five-month fetus fluttering under my ribs, I imagined an exodus of wasps and mice, birds and bats, as the roof had collapsed; I envisioned the expulsion of some 125 years of history lodged in the walls.

Suddenly, we were shelterless.

And somehow, I was shelter.

About the Author

Emily Waples

Emily Waples is an assistant professor of biomedical humanities at Hiram College. She lives in Northeast Ohio with her husband and son.

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