Wednesday, October 10, 2012

31 Days of Halloween, Day 10: Lights in Other People's Houses

Need a ghost story be frightening? How do you define the spectral tale? In my view, if it gives you shivers or conjures up spirits in your mind, it counts as a ghost story. If it lingers long after the telling, and makes you feel as though you were being followed, it counts. If it changes the atmosphere and temperature in the room, it counts. Oh, and if it happens to contain a ghost... why, yes, that counts too.

Lucy Wood's short story, "Lights in Other People's Houses" certainly conjures and lingers. The standout tale in her collection Diving Belles and Other Stories relates the yearning of a woman for the sea, and the unintended consequences of waiting too long to unpack old boxes.

The story begins with a lonely woman, Maddy, who lives in a town where she knows no one, save her boyfriend, Russel. Maddy grew up by the sea and feels completely stranded living inland. An epic heatwave only makes her crave the water even more. But she can't go home again -- her parents have moved out of the ancestral home, and suddenly she finds herself tasked with the unpacking of a lifetime of detritus now cluttering her new house. Quite unexpectedly, as she goes to sort through the boxes, she find a "pale gaunt man" sitting on the floor rifling through them.

The pale gaunt man is the ghost of a wrecker, those beachcombing salvagers who lured boats into shallow waters to crash on the rocks and spill their treasures. Some wreckers merely waited for ships to crash and seems the ghost was one of these, though actually it's never quite clear. Either way, it's an aptly creepy and dramatic occupation for a ghost (it made me think of the villains in Daphne du Maurier's Jamaica Inn).

The wrecker refuses to leave. He stands in a bathtub full of water for hours at a time and takes over the guest bedroom; by day he goes through the boxes. The wrecker's presence begins to fill the house with water, to warp the building like a damp piece of cardboard, the walls and ceilings dripping. Salt and sand begin to drift over the carpets. Smooth pebbles appear underfoot; tiny shells run out of the taps.

In the midst of all this, the heatwave continues. The wrecker mutters to himself about the weather, nattering on about full moons, high tides, and low pressure. Maddy's mind eventually becomes befogged and her reality takes on a somnolent confusion that mirrors the stranded spirit's. The story has that same lingering, oneric quality, a deep and unsettling dream.

As in much Wood's writing, maritime metaphors abound. The wrecker-ghost brings "a restlessness and clamoring [into the room], as if he had just disturbed a colony of nesting seabirds." When the wrecker wanders around the house murmuring, "Where's all the sea mist? Where's all the water?" we know, of course, exactly what's going on with lonely, parched, transplanted Maddy. Wood handles this perfectly, making it evident without making it obvious. 

The cumulative effect of Lucy Wood's writing is incredibly impressive: reading this story I could feel the damp sea mist curling into the corners with a faintly oily quality; I could see the dim heat of the lamplight in a hot summer night. The whole story was the literary equivalent of dragging sand from the beach into the bedsheets. (You thought you brushed it all off but there it goes, trickling out from your shirt-seams...)

Ghosts are just some of the strange and mythical creatures populating Wood's universe; fairies, mermaids and giants also roam the landscape, and I highly recommend the whole collection. The other standout for me was "Of Mothers and Little People," which I loved so much my mom might just unwrap a copy of Diving Belles in some colorful Christmas paper soon enough.


Elizabeth Twist said...

Sounds like exactly the kind of story I love. I completely approve of your super broad definition of ghost stories.

Andrea Janes said...

Ha ha, I love super broad definitions of just about anything.