One of my favorite horror movies is Poltergeist. I first saw it at nine years old, probably too young. The scene in which a character is induced by the house’s malevolent spirits to hallucinate peeling off his own face is with me forever. But what I find even more indelible is the ordinariness of the site of all that paranormal phenomena.
Unlike most haunted house stories, in which the terror to come is telegraphed by an obviously creepy setting—say, a creaking old mansion—Poltergeist’s action unfolds in a well-lit suburban home, and the chosen conduits for its otherworldly inhabitants are mundane ones. Ghosts communicate their ill intent through television static, the rearrangement of dining room chairs, the branches of a tree, a clown doll.
On my first viewing all this struck me as totally plausible. I was a kid who did search for ghosts in the corners of bedrooms, who was terrified of the birch tree in my grandparents’ backyard, which was covered by dark markings that looked to me like eyes. And now, as a writer of speculative fiction, I see a lesson to be gleaned from the efficacy of Poltergeist’s horror, the way its scares get under your skin because, in large part, they originate in a place that looks so safely quotidian: the importance of grounding the weird and fantastical in (supposedly) unextraordinary settings.
In her essay “Engineering Impossible Architecture,” Karen Russell describes this as a matter of including both “Kansas and Oz details.” That is, braiding both the real and the dreamlike into your fiction so as to avoid creating a “frictionless world” in which anything can happen and, therefore, becomes difficult for the reader to believe in or care about.
This careful calibration makes Russell’s short story, “Orange World”—in which a new mother strikes a deal with a demon to keep her baby safe—particularly visceral. Holding up her end of the bargain entails breastfeeding the beast, which has rows of fangs, a hairy snout, and the ability to communicate telepathically. It also lives in a sewer, across the street from the mother’s house. When she crouches down to feed it, she does so in “a trickling stream that carries beer tabs and flashing ice into the storm drain.”
The extraordinary occurs in a place teeming with the familiar and mundane, a quiet block littered with the usual suburban barbecue detritus. There’s something about the reassuring presence of the recognizable that makes it far easier to suspend your disbelief about the presence of a devil.
When I set out to write my novel, The Nobodies, I had a sense of the parameters that would contain its fantastical premise—that by simply touching their foreheads together, the two main characters, Nina and Jess, can switch bodies. I knew no one else in the book would have this ability; I wanted their superpower to be held inside a closed system, because a theme I was exploring was the intensely cloistered nature of the bond that can form between girlfriends. So, this body-swapping would occur in an otherwise ordinary or “realistic” world—but what would that world look like?
Recently my husband and I were driving to my parents’ house for a visit when he pointed out the smokestacks visible just beyond the canal to our right. “That looks like a huge power station,” he observed, “do you know anything about it?”
I didn’t, despite having grown up a couple miles away. The red-and-white cylinders that regularly exhaled gray clouds of smoke were a sight so familiar as to have become invisible. When we looked it up later, it turned out that the power station was in fact the second-worst offender in the state in terms of dangerous emissions. This ominous monument just outside my door, and I can’t recall ever giving it a moment’s consideration.
“Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days,” Flannery O’Connor famously said. But for a long time I couldn’t imagine that a childhood spent in a place as unremarkable as the south shore of Long Island had left me any profound insights that could serve my fiction. The particularity, the strangeness of my hometown was as invisible as the emissions that might have been slowly poisoning us.
Significant portions of The Nobodies are set on Long Island, so I had to return to what it was like to come of age there, mining the place for evocative qualities. I found that recalling specifics and infusing them into the narrative did give the otherworldly aspects of the story a necessary and solid foundation. But also, quickly enough, these two elements—the concrete details of a real place, and the magical details of swapping bodies—ceased to seem as simple as a Kansas/Oz binary. Soon there was slippage between the two. I was finding a lot of strangeness in the mundane, and vice versa.
There’s much that’s bizarre and even horrifying in the idea of switching bodies with another person, in leaving yourself behind and walking around in someone else’s skin. And there were scary existential questions this power raised for me, about notions of a fixed self, of containing any permanence or coherence, and of the ethics of entering the inner sanctum of another.
But as I wrote, and as Nina and Jess grew more accustomed to their power, using it more casually, I discovered that the supposedly realist side of the novel was also unsettling, or just plain strange—especially the details about Long Island. Why, I wondered for the first time, did we not perceive anything odd about the fact that the school flooded every time it rained, that we lived in the shadow of “Mount Oceanside,” a stinking town dump, that from one town to the next the demographics changed so utterly, that Long Island is one of the most segregated suburbs in the country?
I remembered the prickly quality, the quickness to suspicion that seemed to mark many of the adults around me when I grew up, its source as mysterious to me then as the source of the brackish water seeping up into our cafeteria. I thought about the psychological effects of the island’s physical separation, about its vulnerability to violent, destructive weather, about how it had been cast as the promised land for immigrants who managed to claw their way into the middle class and out of the crowded city, and how those people had shaped its particular vocabulary and rhythms of speech, its rites and rituals. About how all this was in fact very particular, and worthy of representation in fiction.
There are good, practical reasons for grounding your speculative fiction in a world that is, at least in some ways, recognizable and governed by consistent rules. But much of the fun of this grounding can come from how the fantastical elements of a story expose its supposedly ordinary settings as, in their own ways, deeply weird. David Lynch is a master of this kind of exposure, excavating the sinister from beneath suburban lawns or within coffee shops and convenience stores. David Foster Wallace, in an essay, identified one of the key Lynchian signatures that make the director’s films so unnerving: “a sudden grotesque facial expression… held for several moments longer than the circumstances could even possibly warrant.”
Capturing such small moments of destabilizing oddness, moments when the sense of normalcy slips, requires of writers very close observation of their worlds—not passive observation but active and even estranged observation—that is, the ability to step back and see what’s off about the things we take for granted as ordinary. Think of how strange it feels to watch those beer tabs float down the storm drain, to where a demon awaits its breastfeeding in “Orange World.”
Fiction that ventures beyond the bounds of narrative realism may be especially capable of this exposure of the fantastic within the mundane. It’s what Freud discussed in his essay on the “unheimlich”—literally, the un-homely, though usually translated as uncanny—the incursion of what’s hidden and unknown into what’s familiar and known.
In Poltergeist, of course, that nice family is being tormented by restless spirits because their home sits atop the dead’s graves. (“You moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies, didn’t you?”) And as I wove the “realistic” details of a Long Island setting into my novel, I found something uncanny under its surface. The suburban hometown I thought I’d understood so well took on an aura of strangeness that made it all the more fitting as a place in which the fantastic could unfold.
This article originally appeared in Literary Hub. You can learn more about Alanna and her writing at www.alannaschubach.com or follow her on social media @alannaschubach.