Sunday, March 30, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 220: Emma Frances Dawson, An Itinerant House (#220)

Emma Frances Dawson, "An Itinerant House" (1878) from American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps:

OK, there is one super-important bit of historical information that the LoA page tells you that makes this story slightly less eerie, which is... ready? I don't want to spoil anything for you, so read on if you want a slightly less eerie story: some of the 19th-century houses in San Francisco were pre-made iron structures that were made to be portable. So when the title promises "An Itinerant House," the double meaning is both that this is a house for itinerants and that the house itself moves around. Which makes the story slightly less eerie, but slightly more historically weird: when the protagonist goes into a room and remembers the room where that Traumatic Event happened, we're meant to understand that this is actually the room where it happened, not merely the narrator's psychic slippage.

And "slippage" is going to be the word of the day for this piece: not only does the house move around, but all the characters move around abruptly, and history itself jumps. For instance, in one line we might be in San Francisco, and in the next everyone has moved on, then met up again on a ship in NY in the next line, and then, in the fourth sentence, the long sea voyage is over and we're back in San Francisco. And I haven't even mentioned the most serious slippage of all, which is the way these characters keep slipping in some artistic reference or quote. Seriously, if you took out all the references to pre-existing work, this story would be half as long.

There's some justification for that, since these characters are all artists, but it gives the whole piece an unreal vibe. I'm trying to think of a good movie comparison here--Whit Stillman's dialogue is very mannered--but there's nothing quite like this non-stop quote-fest. Of course, they are using these quotes to express their real feelings (not like those guys you went to high school with who use Simpsons and Monty Python quotes to hide their feelings), but it still gives the story an unreal atmosphere, especially with the jumps in time.

Which is why it's so disappointing to find that this sort of house really was portable and this isn't all in these people's minds. Because the story's style and tone is so heightened and strange that it's a bit of a let-down to find this bedrock of reality.

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