Ryan Chapman | Longreads | April 2019 | 8 minutes (2,082 words)
I recently bought a century-old Victorian house in the Hudson Valley after a decade in Brooklyn. There are mountain views and streets lined with mature trees; it’s about as bucolic as you’d imagine. I’m now adept at lowercase ‘fixer-upper projects’ like stripping 1970s wallpaper, staining a deck, and cursing the previous owners for installing 1970s wallpaper. The cursing feels productive, and the house, a marker of adulthood.
One unexpected development: movies and books about home invasion deliver a gut-punch like never before. I’m no longer the rent-stabilized New Yorker tittering at the onscreen rubes killed one by one in their cabin in the woods — now I’m the rube. Specifically the nerd rube: I die second to last.
This isn’t limited to horror films. Even watching art-house fare like Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, I cringed less at the grand guignol filicide than at the houseguests’ breaking of that gorgeous double-basin sink. (You animals!) This new sensitivity is reassuring. I worried about becoming complacent as I entered the propertied class, in addition to the usual worries of growing cynical with age. The sensitivity is a naked flank for art to locate and slowly pierce. In the case of two books published in the past year, the piercing came with a memorable twist of the knife.
Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World, his sixth book, was marketed as a thriller, with a cover blurb from Stephen King. On that count it delivers: you’ll cancel dinner plans to finish reading it. The titular cabin is an off-the-grid lakeside idyll in northern New Hampshire. Eric and Andrew, along with their adopted seven-year-old Wen, have driven up from Boston for a weekend of lazing, reading, and not much else. There’s no cell service and the nearest house is two miles down the road. Then four strangers arrive on foot, dressed in matching jeans and oxford button-down shirts, toting homemade weapons. They insist the family make a terrible decision; the strangers — two men and two women who speak in the benevolent, even tones of the zealot — can’t leave until a sacrifice is made. One of them says, “I can only imagine how nervous you all are, and understandably so, at our arrival on your doorstep. This isn’t easy for us, either. We’ve never been in this position before. No one has, ever, not in the history of mankind.”
The novel’s perspective shifts between Eric, Andrew, Wen, and, briefly, between two of the strangers. This heightens and draws out the tension, though later chapters, narrated by both parents in the first person plural, distracts from the action. It’s a minor quibble. Tremblay deftly illustrates how quickly regular life can become a nightmarish struggle for survival. He also knows a clear-eyed belief in an antagonist — that absolute certainty justifying all actions, however terrible — is uniquely troubling for someone self-aware: I don’t want to do commit violence, but I must.
Refuge is always a temporary construction.
The strangers are led by a gentle giant named Leonard (likely a nod to Lenny, the gentle giant in Of Mice and Men) and insist on blood sacrifice in order to prevent a biblical apocalypse: first there will be floods, then plagues, then the sky will fall, and eventually total darkness. The hostages are understandably incredulous. Then the predictions start coming true. TV news reports confirm earthquakes in the Pacific created city-decimating tsunamis along the West Coast. Soon after there’s an outbreak of bird flu in China. The strangers, who claim to experience shared, prescient visions of these disasters, plead with Eric and Andrew to prevent further destruction. And if this weren’t high stakes enough, the strangers ritualistically kill one of their own as each vision comes true. After the last of them dies, Leonard says, it will be too late to prevent the end.
Cabin complicates its premise repeatedly, throwing readers off-balance. Andrew happens to teach apocalyptic literature at Boston University, and thinks he can detect fissures of doubt in the captors’ justifications. Can he rationalize with them into letting his family go? Then again, one of the strangers resembles a man who attacked Andrew in a bar thirteen years ago. Could this be an elaborate sequel to a hate crime? And then there’s Eric, who suffered a concussion in an initial skirmish and claims to witness a figure of light in the cabin. Is this merely the result of his head injury, or a validation of the strangers’ beliefs? By the last fifty pages you’re wondering if the world really is ending, and if you’d be capable of sacrificing a loved one to save mankind.
Tremblay excels at psychological nuance and pacing. He elevates the home invasion story into something timely — incorporating issues surrounding homophobia, adoption, gun control, and modern parenting — while expanding the domestic to the global, the personal to the political. Most impressively, Cabin avoids the heteronormative coding of traditional home-invasion stories. All too often it’s a straight husband affirming his masculinity by protecting his wife with NRA-approved retribution. Cabin’s gay couple operate from an assumption of an intolerant America — Andrew is almost unsurprised when their vacation home becomes a prison. He knows refuge is always a temporary construction.
In Willem Frederick Hermans’ An Untouched House, the narrator is the invader, the villain who shatters the domestic. Where Cabin’s antagonists slowly earn our empathy — wouldn’t you take extreme measures to prevent the apocalypse? — Hermans’ protagonist starts at zero and finishes in complete abjection.
The book’s 88 pages make it easy to tackle in a sitting, but fair warning: after my first read everything in my house took on the feel of a “Before” picture. I was convinced barbarians would arrive at any moment and burn it to the ground.
The novel, set in an unnamed Eastern European country in 1944, follows a nameless Dutch partisan serving in a ragtag outfit with Polish, Hungarian, and Romanian soldiers. Their lives are violent routine: people shoot at them, they shoot back, the shooting stops, they move forward, people shoot again, they shoot back, maybe catch some sleep. There’s an abstract, almost fable-like aspect to the prose, and the action is conveyed in a blank manner:
“I checked my watch. Two-thirty. A silence descended. All of the combatants seemed to be taking it easy as if the war was a large sick body that had just been given a shot of morphine. The only thing happening: a high altitude dogfight, two against one. I watched it, a blade of dry grass between my teeth. Like skywriters the fighter pilots were drawing a pattern of white loops on the blue background, as if for our entertainment and no other reason. Don’t try to read what they’re writing, it’ll drive you crazy.”
There’s little camaraderie among the soldiers, as nobody seems to speak the same language and new friendships are cut short by enemy fire. The narrator receives a vague order to perform solo reconnaissance on a nearby village. He discovers the titular mansion and its manicured gardens, large pollarded plane tree, and unattached summer house. The owners have only just left: there’s warm soup on the stove and ash in the ashtrays. After the soldier’s peripatetic war years, it’s downright edenic: “Being alone in a house where nobody can come to move something or take it away: a life could be counted a success for less.”
He quickly makes himself at home, luxuriating in a hot bath, donning the owner’s tailored clothing, and smoking on the sofa.
Then there’s a knock on the door. It’s a German soldier. The front has moved again; fires dot the horizon. Our narrator is forced to improvise. This is his house, he’s been ill, what’s this all about? The German asks to billet a few soldiers in the house. He promises they’ll keep to themselves.
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They move in. The house has now been doubly invaded. We await the owners’ return, and we wonder what’s behind that locked room on the second floor. More soldiers arrive and make camp. The Allies re-advance, the noose tightens.
Spoiler alert: it all ends in ruin. But what ruin! The last pages are rife with horrific degradation, like watching a priceless vase fall in slow motion. The Allied soldiers conquer the Germans and promptly steal what they can, destroy what they can’t. A grand piano is torn apart and its strings put to gruesome use against a captured German general. In his afterword, Cees Nooteboom — oft-rumored Nobel favorite and author of the spectacular novel The Following Story — notes An Untouched House “ends in an apotheosis of random cruelty that is unparalleled in literature.” Blood Meridian is an exception, but I take his point.
Spoiler alert: it all ends in ruin. But what ruin!
Hermans was an aggressively pessimistic Dutchman. From an essay titled “Sadistic Universe,” quoted in the afterword: “Even in a world without war and fascism, year after year millions of people come to a dismal end, without anyone paying the slightest bit of attention. The millions who are forced to continue living in a miserable fashion are mentioned at most with occasional generalities that are largely meaningless to those of us who remain better off than those unfortunates.”
An Untouched House was published in the Netherlands in 1951, with an English translation by Estelle Debrot fifteen years later. (Its winking title: The House of Refuge.) We can thank Archipelago Books and translator David Colmer for introducing American readers to this urgent scream from the middle of the twentieth century. Not a word or a sentence feels dated.
Novels documenting the horrors of war are nothing new, nor are juxtapositions of high culture against those horrors. Hermans recasts World War II not as a monstrous aberration of history, but as an outsize expression of our inherent monstrosity. What may have felt like a provocation in 1951 has taken on greater import in the decades since, and especially these last few years: every news alert is further evidence of our “sadistic universe.” For those searching out examples of anthropocene lit avant la lettre, it’s easy to see the mansion as synecdochic for the world entire.
This mansion-as-world symbolism used to be my default interpretation. I’d watch a zombie movie, and in the scene when the undead break through the barricaded doors and windows I would think, Of course, the house equals society (or family, mother earth, etc.). It’s a 101 reading that discloses a fair bit of detachment and passivity.
In all fairness, detachment is useful for urban apartment dwellers. Upon hearing a bump in the night I would lie in bed and take solace in my third-floor rental: a homicidal maniac would surely start at the garden level, knocking off the tenants in 1A and 1B, and be apprehended (or exhausted) before ascending all those stairs.
As a homeowner I appreciate the long-term equity and relative stability. At the same time, there was that night a month after we moved in, when I jolted upright at a sudden clatter from the kitchen. The homicidal maniac is here, and now I’m first on the list. My wife slumbered in blissful ignorance as I groped in the dark for a blunt object. Why didn’t I collect baseball bats? Or swords? Did I buy a sword at some point and forget about it? After a fruitless search I threw my hands up and descended the stairs with a zen-like acceptance of death. I flipped the lights and discovered the culprit: a hardback edition of The Joy of Cooking, which had fallen from a shoddy bookshelf atop the fridge. I’d been struck with mortal fear by Irma Rombauer.
There have been scores of nighttime noises since then: squirrels on the roof, wind-battered branches against the windows. I’ve grown accustomed to them.
The homicidal maniac isn’t coming. The house is just a house. I’d been worried about complacency, when it was in fact complacency’s sinister shadow, a fear of change, that was trying to creep in. At the risk of sounding mawkish, this was the real marker of my adulthood: not my name on a mortgage, but an everyday ease with naked uncertainty. When I hear people rail against the killers at their doorsteps or at their borders, I think, maybe naively, that it might help if they read more books. You can only find out the shadows are empty by looking into them.
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Ryan Chapman lives in Kingston, New York. His writing has appeared in NewYorker.com, Bookforum, BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, The Millions, GQ.com, and elsewhere. His novel Riots I Have Known will be published by Simon & Schuster in May.
Editor: Dana Snitzky