I love a haunted house that does its own thing. Such a house births a kind of haunting that is unique from its predecessors and peers. And yet, it’s willing to learn from them. Within its walls the traditions and motifs established by the great literary haunted houses are respected. However, this house is determined to creak and settle to its own moaning boos. Its foundation is secure in pre-established themes while its structure expands into new, terrifying space. Where, you might ask, might I find such a haunted house? Look no further than the “house next door!”
Hi there, welcome to my article about Anne Rivers Siddons’ critically acclaimed novel The House Next Door. All is fine with Walter and Colquitt Kennedy, the two major characters of this novel. They live in a quiet suburb of Atlanta and admire the empty lot next door with all its greenery and naturesque habitation. But move over nature, for a new house will be built on this lot. With the new house will come new neighbors, a succession of them, for no one will stay in this house for very long. After several mysterious and unfortunate events involving the new house and its different occupants, Walter and Colquitt suspect that the place is haunted. They then will do whatever it takes to steer potential buyers away from this evil house.
This piece is more than a review; it’s an analysis of the various themes that help this novel to both earn it’s rightful place among genre-specific greats while offering readers something unique. Since I will be looking at key plot points in order to achieve my analytical goals, there will be spoilers throughout the article. They are simply unavoidable.
In past articles, I have declared my love for “haunted houses that are more than the sum of their ghosts”. Stories with such houses don’t fit into a logic paradigm that states: there are ghosts in the house. Therefore the house in the story is haunted. These stories feature a house that is haunted in and of itself, with or without ghosts. The House Next Door haunts without ghosts. Ghosts represent the intangible yet powerful images and sentiments from the past. Within Gothic literature, ghosts from a bygone era often return to haunt the contemporary generations. The House Next Door is classified as a Southern Gothic, a subgenre of Gothic Literature. Works within The Southern Gothic often explore contemporary social issues. This is true with Siddons’ novel and in doing so, it inverts the premise of the parent genre – the “haunting present” tears at the characters traditional and comfortable way of life.
Gothic in Brief
I have delved into some of the elements of Gothic Literature in various articles across this Blog but by no means am I an expert on all there is to know about this genre. Gothic Literature, from its roots in the 18th century, brings together romance, fantasy, suspense and horror. Its influence on modern day storytelling is vast. It’s sort of like what The Beatles are to modern day music. My “ghosts from the past” description in the preceding paragraph is but one of its many elements. Ah but what an interesting element it is!
Different time periods are often juxtaposed in Gothic literature. Eras clash with one another. There is the failure of modern science to combat vampirism in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Modern science has finally achieved the ability to create life in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but the scientist is unable to control his own creation. More apt to what I might call “the gothic haunted house tradition”, characters are forced to atone for the sins of past generations. These characters have to deal with ghosts and other supernatural entities, or even supernatural events, as a form of retribution. This happens in The House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne and to some extent in The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe. Think about it, another word for “haunt” might be “linger”. To linger is to stay. Whatever is lingering is old, meaning, it was there before. It may no longer be wanted. Yet it lingers, to the horrific detriment of the characters in a horror novel.
Southern Gothic and “Then Vs Now”
The Southern Gothic is a uniquely American expansion of the Gothic tradition. Like with its parent genre, I am by no means an expert on its character. I know by its title that it pertains to settings in the American south. But what else is it? Here are some quotes from Wikipedia to help answer that question:
The Southern Gothic style employs macabre, ironic events to examine the values of the American South .Thus unlike its parent genre, it uses the Gothic tools not solely for the sake of suspense, but to explore social issues and reveal the cultural character of the American South – Gothic elements often taking place in a magic realist context rather than a strictly fantastical one.
Warped rural communities replaced the sinister plantations of an earlier age; and in the works of leading figures such as William Faulkner, Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor, the representation of the South blossomed into an absurdist critique of modernity as a whole.
The thematic material was largely a result of the culture existing in the South following the collapse of the Confederacy. It left a vacuum in both values and religion that became filled with poverty due to defeat in the Civil war and reconstruction, racism, excessive violence, and hundreds of different denominations resulting from the theological divide that separated the country over the issue of slavery.
A key takeaway from these quotes points to the subject of time and change. That was the past, this is the now. In some cases, The Southern Gothic conforms to the “ghosts of the past” scenario. Toni Morrison’s Beloved provides such an example as the horrors of slavery return many years later in the form of a young, undead woman. But, according to Wikipedia, stories of the Southern Gothic tradition deal with situations where characters are unable to adjust to modern times. These folks might just prefer some “ghosts of better times”. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not making a case for the descendants of aristocratic plantation owners to return to the “glory days” of “the good life” on the backs of slaves. I’m just pointing out that anytime there is social upheaval, there will be serious adjustment problems, for both the oppressed and the oppressors. .
Not having read much in the way of classic Southern Gothic, I am guessing that what I have described in the above paragraph applies significantly to period pieces immediately post antebellum. But there is contemporary Southern Gothic; stories that take place in the modern day South, where characters are historically far removed from the days of slavery and the “Old South” Still, one element is the same – the theme of larger, outside cultural forces threatening the pre-established ways of insulated communities. Newness “haunts” the old.
Case in point, The House Next Door. From Simon and Schuster, here is an observation on the novel:
An unparalleled picture of that vibrant but dark intersection where the Old and the New South collide.
The characters in The House Next Door are content and cozy in their private suburb of Atlanta. They are all neighbors. They are well-to-do and they enjoy each other’s company at holiday house parties and country clubs. It’s a leisurely life until…a new house is constructed on an empty lot on the block. New house, new neighbors. There goes the neighborhood, brought down by the supernatural elements that come with the new house.
Since this isn’t a story about the past coming back to haunt the present day characters, this house has no need to outsource its terror to a bunch of spectral phantoms. It does the job all by itself, and brilliantly so, thanks to the mind of one Anne Rivers Siddons. This house creates horrific situations that no other house has been able to do, at least not in the haunted house books that I have read. In the next section I detail these situations while examining exactly how outside and modern cultural forces threaten the pre- established ways.
Analyzing The House Next Door – Checking Out the New Neighbors
To begin, the official story of the house is that it preys upon the weaknesses of its occupants. Or, it knows what its occupants cherish the most, and it rips and tears at the seams all that they hold dear. The malicious intentions of the house are rooted in either the architect, the architectural design or both. The Kennedys guess that the architect is cursed, and this is why the house behaves the way it does. At the book’s end, the architectural plans end up in the hands of a couple that want a newly built home. Readers then know that the “haunting” is embedded in the design. Very creative, Siddons!
There is not a whole lot of description regarding the overall appearance of the house. The key takeaway is that is new, not just “new” to the block, but “new” as in “of modern design”, contemporary, state of the art. The architect himself, Kim, is a young man, fresh out of school, and somewhat of the bohemian type. It’s his first architectural design. Once built, the Kennedys, who weren’t too happy about its construction, had to admit that it was beautiful. The couple that hired Kim to design the house and then have it built for them, The Pie and Buddy Harralson, are young and inexperienced. Pie Harralson is somewhat flighty but as a whole they are nice enough and the Kennedys welcome them warmly. The Harralsons are expecting a baby.
Problems began during the construction process. The dead remains of wild animals and household pets turn up on or around the construction site. They have been brutally mauled, but there are no predatory animals in the area strong and fierce enough to cause such damage.
(Analysis: Suburbanization and modernity are the predators. Land for wildlife destroyed by a modern domicile)
Then there was the accident. Pie falls at the site and loses the baby to miscarriage.Off to a bad start but determined to carry on, the Harralsons settle in once the house is finished. They have a party and invite the neighbors. They are determined to fit into this community and things will work out all right – they hope. Buddy is an up and coming lawyer and Lucas Abbott from the firm is showing him the ropes. Lucas is at the party. So is Pie’s crotchety father and all of the neighbors, including Walter and Colquitt, their brand new best friends.
Then it happened. In a bedroom. Behind closed doors. When the doors opened and the guests peered inside, they saw a disturbing scene. The body of Pie’s ‘s father lay dead on the floor. He was a victim of a stroke. In the bed lay Buddy and Lucas, not dead, very much alive. They are naked. Two men sneak off to have sex, presumably in front of a shocked father-in-law, who died as a result of shock.
(Analysis: in these days, 1978, while the gay rights movement was making strides, the culture at large frowned upon Homosexuality. At best it was scene as an alternative lifestyle, an “alternative” that I’m sure the characters of this story, secluded characters in Southern suburbia, would find very uncomfortable After this Harralsons move away in grief and shame The book suggests that the two men in bed were never gay. The house, perhaps, took control of their wills and forced them into that socially mortifying situation. It allowed the social ills of modern life (from their perspective, Homosexuality = an ill) to spill into its walls and wash its filth upon the occupants, even killing the father in law in the process. The old have no place in this new world.)
A new couple buys the house. The Sheehans are older than the Harralsons. Like the Harralsons, Anita and Buck Sheehan are eager to fit into the community. But for some reason, they are worried about the teenagers that live in the community. The neighbors reassure them, “They are good kids”, they say, referring to the only two teens in the neighborhood. But it’s not the propensity of youthful shenanigans that worries them. Anyone of youthful appearance upsets the mentally unstable Anita. Not too long ago, the Sheehans lost their son in The Vietnam War. The sight of a young male teen triggers within her a crippling grief. But she is trying to get better. The couple as a whole are trying to move on, start over, find happiness. The house will not let them succeed.
The house takes over the television programming. It shows Anita war movies when none are being aired by any network. It also manufacturers long distance phone calls from her son. She hears the sounds of war in the background. This is too much for her. She withdrawals and the marriage is strained. Virgina, another neighbor, married to Charles, assists the couple and looks after Anita while Buck is at work. Virgina sometimes stays behind to help even after Buck gets home. It is Colquitt who walks in on the scene that does the Sheehans in. She observes Anita in her living room sitting and staring blankly into space. Next to her, on the sofa, Virgina and Buck are having sex.. Again it is suggested that the house took over the wills of Buck and Virginia in order to destroy two families. In the wake of this, Virginia and Charles disappear on a long trip. The Sheehans move away.
(Analysis: The plight of the Sheehans represents the then present day crisis that was the aftermath of The Vietnam War. Families grieved for their lost children killed at war. Veterans had a difficult time readjusting to society. The aftermath of this war in particular was dealt with behind closed doors. People grieved privately. Veterans suffered in silence. A community such as the one depicted in this book, of mostly well to do families that didn’t have to send their sons off to war, was Ill -prepared for this kind of brutal reality. But the house magnifies the tragic grief of the Sheehans so that the misfortune would spread to another family on the block, tangling Virginia into an adulterous affair.)
Finally there is the Greenes, the third family to move into the house. Norman Greene is always publicly shaming his wife Susan. He also treats Melissa, the twelve(?)- year-old daughter with utter contempt. As a host at neighborhood party, he wants everything perfect and he blames his wife for any mishap. When the house itself shuts off all the electricity at the height of the party, he blames her. It is Anita who comes from money. Norman thinks he’s entitled to have and manage her money and she lets him do this. Why? Because he did her the favor of marrying her. For you see, she had brought shame on herself and family by having a child out of wedlock. That child would be Melissa, who is not Norman’s biological daughter. In the end, the house will kill them all by manipulating their wills to commit murder/suicide.
(Analysis: Dysfunctional families on a block of “normal” families. Back in 1978, among some populations I’m guessing, having a child out of wedlock was still somewhat of a taboo. The term “baby Daddy” was just not popular parlance. Then on top of this is the abusive husband, his words and actions so caddish as to rub the neighbors the wrong way. Although the house did not create this situation, it certainly brought it to light by humiliating Norman, causing him to lash out, causing, eventually, for their backstory to be made known.)
The House Next Door – Standing Among the Great Haunted Houses in Literature
Inside “the house next door” we the readers encounter a series of families and couples that fall victim to the enigmatic will of the house. It manipulates their mind and forces them to behave in ways they wouldn’t otherwise. They cause scandals with adultery, gay sex, murder and suicide. All this and yet these families aren’t the victims that are at the forefront of the story. It is from the perspective of Walter and Colquitt by which the story unfolds. It’s not the horror of personal experience with the supernatural (with one exception, but I won’t spoil everything) , but the horror of the aftermath of sadness on behalf of the others. Never again will they have normal, happy neighborhood because the world is no longer normal. Abnormality has put its roots down on their block, and their lives will never again be the same. For a modern house has brought the ills of contemporary life into their secluded community. The Old and New South have collided, just as Simon and Schuster said it would, making Siddons’ novel a staple of contemporary Southern Gothic
The House Next Door is no ordinary haunted house. Yet it is very much influenced by the legendary haunted houses from its literary predecessors; books such as The Haunting of Hill House, Burnt Offerings, The Shining come to mind. But it’s paid its debt to them with a style of its own.
How is The House Next Door similar to these epic haunted houses?
All of the houses in these books have their own will. They are much more than a place for ghosts to hang out, if there are any ghosts at all. The source behind the haunting is vague and mysterious. These houses are, in a way, alive and they prey on its occupants in one way or another.
How is The House Next Door different from these epic haunted houses?
The aforementioned haunted houses are all unique in their own ways. The House Next Door stands apart from the rest in the way that it manipulates the will of its occupants and then creates these bizarre scenes for which the occupants become actors and then act out perverse, humiliating, and sometimes deadly scenes. This house is also unique in the way that it is shown from the perspective of not is current owners but the neighbors next door. These neighbors , The Kennedys , are forced into a situation where they become unwilling voyeurs of the scary strangeness that lurks next door.
Anne Rivers Siddons – she has many books under her belt. According to wikipedia, Her genre is southern literature, not horror. Perhaps that’s what helps her novel The House Next Door stand out. Horror doused within another genre allows for a wider and more enriching story than a tale with flat characters and things that go bump in the night. Perhaps I’ll read more of her works. I probably won’t find another horror story, but maybe I’ll find another book of hers that touch on that good ol’ Southern Gothic. That would be interesting.