Archive for ‘Grosse Pointe’

April 18, 2011

the shadow knows: an appreciation of lois duncan

by Megan Abbott

In the process of writing my upcoming novel, The End of Everything, I had this strange experience of return. All my books prior were set in the past, a time before I was born, and were set in milieus (organized crime, Hollywood, gambling, party girls), I’d likely never have known otherwise. To find me, or my life, in them, one would have to look very hard, at least I would. But, about two years ago, I decided to try my hand at a book set in a world I knew, in a time and place I knew.

The book is from the point of view of a 13 year old, specifically a 13 year old in a Midwestern suburb in the 1980s. Writing it, I found myself drawing on all the sense memories of that time, especially my late elementary school years, many of which were spent in the home of my best friend, Meg.  She had two older teen sisters and a teen brother and I remember as far back as age nine or ten trawling their cluttered, shag-carpeted bedrooms. The whole upstairs of Meg’s house made of pale blue wood panels, all kinds of alcoves and niches and built-ins into which treasures could be tucked. We found Playboy hidden in the eaves her brother’s room and, always, fat glittery paperbacks (with those sinister, tantalizing keyhole covers) of V.C. Andrews stuffed under her sisters’ pillows.

I never read much young adult fiction, and there certainly weren’t a fraction the number of YA novels as there are today (nor the array of options within them). As a result, with the notable, stirring exception of Flowers in the Attic (and, of course, Judy Blume), I jumped to adult books, which promised a peek into the grownup world for which I was unprepared (sex ed courtesy of John Irving and Irwin Shaw).

But there was one author whose books utterly entranced me. I’m not sure how old I was when I first read Lois Duncan, but I do know I first found one of her books—either Summer of Fear or Stranger with My Face—doing one of my grade-school prowls through Meg’s house, arrested by the covers (remember those painted covers of so many novels then? Of long-haired girls with limpid eyes and mouths arrested with fear, confusion, suspicion, longing?), reading breathlessly the plot description on the back. And I remember it was exactly these covers (above and below) that fixated me.

Duncan’s books felt dark, strange, taboo—much like V.C. Andrews. Except when you read V.C. Andrews, you feel the frantic, sexed crazy on her. And her world is very foreign from yours (I didn’t know any girl imprisoned in the attic of a mansion, starved and tortured and whipped by mother and grandmother, dangerously beloved by her own very handsome brother), which is part of their appeal. It’s total, compulsive, dirty fantasy.

The heroines of Lois Duncan, however, were girls I knew—prettier than me, more comfortable in their skin (at the start), with an easier way of navigating life—but definitely a part of my world. Yet everything that happened to them was bewildering, terrifying, perilous, thrilling—in short, everything I wanted. Astral projection, witchcraft, voodoo, ESP, possession, patricide.

Both Summer of Fear and Stranger with My Face, I now see, bear similarities to the female gothic novel, in particular the pulse at the center of those novels: the Dark Other. In Summer of Fear, the heroine, Rachel, realizes that Julia, her mysterious witchy cousin from the Ozarks, aims to steal Rachel’s her best friend and boyfriend but her whole life. In the end (cue V.C. Andrews and the entire Freud playlist), we learn Julia’s true goal is not Rachel’s boyfriend but Rachel’s father (“You mean—you can’t mean—you plan to marry Dad!”).

In Stranger with My Face, teenage Laurie Stratton is haunted by the presence of another, someone who looks just like her. Laurie—whose dark features never matched her family’s sunny ones—turns out to be adopted, permitting full play of pre-adolescent and adolescent fantasies of orphanage and mysterious ancestry—and a reason for feeling different, out of place. When her dark double first appears, it’s a moment that, for me now, gives me the same spiky shiver and horror I experienced when first reading Sara’s magnificent Come Closer:

‘Can you see me?’ asked a voice by my bed.

I opened my eyes. The moon had risen now above the level of my window, and the room was very dark. …

‘Are you the one with my face?’ I whispered.

‘I came first,’ she answered with a little laugh. ‘It’s you who have my face.’

‘Who are you?’ I asked her.

‘You must know that. We are two sides of a coin. We floated together in the same sea before birth. Didn’t you know I would be coming for you one day?’

There was a movement by the pillow. I felt the air stir against my face, and something as slight and soft as the breast feather of a gull brushed my forehead.

These dark doubles call to mind Jane Eyre’s Bertha Mason and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and seem to serve just the same function. These shadowed women do what the heroines can’t—they get angry, they shout, they fight, they demand things. They demand to be heard. To want things and take them. To go mad.

The retrospective quality of both books also mirrors the narrative structure of Rebecca (the narrator beginning that book, famously, with her dream of return to the house where everything happened, everything changed forever), to similar effect. These are books narrated by someone a few years past the events but changed by them forever (I now, just now, writing this, wonder if that was in my mind with The End of Everything, which begins similarly).

There is not even space enough to talk about what was my favorite Duncan novel, Daughters of Eve, the tale of a charismatic teacher and her young protégées—a Jean Brodie for the post-feminist 1980s.

No supernatural elements here—the complexities of female power and powerlessness laid bare and one for the most shocking murder scenes I’ve ever read in any book. I never forgot it.

The endings of these books, when happy (as in, order restored, threat expunged), have the dreamlike, haunting, unreal happiness of the endings of Carrie or the original, masterful Nightmare on Elm Street. Or any fairy tale at all. You can’t have a happy ending after you’ve torn the seam that separates light from dark, the world we live in from the world we know, under our skin.

Next up: My interview with Lois Duncan and our book giveaway.

Highly recommended: Lizzie Skurnick’s essays on Summer and Stranger.



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March 15, 2011

the half-closed box

by Megan Abbott

vc andrews

sketch by v.c. andrews (via simon & schuster)

Recently, I did something I probably haven’t done since I first signed up for Facebook: I actually looked at my profile. I’m guessing it was about two years old and the list of books I’d cited as my favorites so surprised me. Not because I don’t love all those books still but many of them seemed so remote to me now.

It struck me how “favorite books” are frequently a snapshot of yourself at a particular moment. Oh, right, that was when all I wanted to read about were gangsters and heists gone wrong. Or, Oh, yes, it had to be obscure British crime novels from just before the war. Or, ah, only stories about the struggles for meaning in midwestern towns.

Just returning now from a bookstore, scouring the shelves searching for compulsive airplane reading for an upcoming trip, I thought about this all some more. How returning to past books we loved are like tunnels into old selves, or parts of our selves that may be neglected (sometimes rightly so) or dormant, that may be gone forever. And sometimes, by returning to these books, we can return to those selves.

For instance, when I first fled–catapulted?–myself from the Michigan suburbs to move to my dream town, New York City, all I wanted to read was tales of suburban malaise–Rick Moody’s Ice Storm, A.M. Homes, Revolutionary Road. Now, more than 15 years free from the grosgrained handcuffs of my hometown ‘burb, Grosse Pointe, I no longer feel such a burning need to burn down that particular house.

Grosse Pointe

(My new book, The End of Everything, is my first set in the suburbs–one much like Grosse Pointe–and writing it let me recapture some of the magic and longing that had been there all along, but I had missed, or forgotten.)

Walking the aisles, I wondered about the me, age 27, who tore through Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, all 15,000 pages of it, and was enraptured. Often, I pull that book off the shelf and want to dip back in but something in me worries I couldn’t find myself in it, like wandering through an abandoned house.

But maybe I could. Two years ago, Sara and I wrote a piece about V.C. Andrews for The Believer, and returning to her dark, epicly perverse world after so many years, I could find pieces of myself spring back into place in alarming and exciting ways.

enchanted-castleThen, a few days ago, I saw some writer mention Edith Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle as a favorite book as a child. Now that I think of it, it’s like the gilt-edged, proper sister to Flowers in the Attic, V.C. Andrews’ gothic tale of a pair of brothers and sisters locked in the family attic. Here’s Gore Vidal on the book:

There are those who consider The Enchanted Castle Nesbit’s best book. J. B.Priestley has made a good case for it, and there is something strange about the book which sets it off from the bright world of the early stories. Four children encounter magic in the gardens of a great deserted house. The mood is midnight. Statues of dinosaurs come alive in the moonlight, the gods of Olympus hold a revel, Pan’s song is heard. Then things go inexplicably wrong. The children decide to give a play. Wanting an audience, they create a number of creatures out of old clothes, pillows, brooms, umbrellas. To their horror, as the curtain falls, there is a ghastly applause. The creatures have come alive… Thwarted, they turn ugly. Finally, they are locked in a back room … It is the sort of nightmare that might have occurred to a highstrung child, perhaps to Nesbit herself.

Truthfully, I didn’t even know I remembered the book until suddenly I did. Like opening an old box (a locked room) and finding a childhood toy that was once your whole world and it slipped entirely from you. It made me want to read it again, with an awful longing.