Contributor Spotlight: Lucas Southworth
This is a house that needs to be haunted. Without that, it is just a house crumbling in the woods, and we are just a mother and son who will try anything we can to leave it.
When I started “There Isn’t Any Ghost,” I was going through a phase. My Netflix queue was stacked with horror movies—good and bad, high-brow and low—and I was trying to figure out how some of them were making me tense or squirm. I watched about fifty of them, thinking about how to transfer those strategies to the page, and what I liked most was the way many horror movies schemed to get their characters in remote settings, how they cut their characters off once they got them there, and how they used that isolation to create a kind of dread. I saw snow storms and vacation cottages and absence of cell phone service abound.
The sentences in italics above were from the seventh draft, which was the first complete one. In other words, these are the first last sentences. But I see mostly sketches here. They’re awkward in rhythm and idea, and they’re trying too hard to tie up what has not yet been conceived of or found. These sentences show me that even a month into work on the story, I was still in the place where I started. Yet I was also unconsciously moving toward what the story would eventually become. I was clearly thinking about genre here: the mother and son had to be in a remote place and they had to be trapped in that place with whatever menace my imagination could invent. Of course that is mostly literal at this point: their motivation is simply to leave, to get out of the place, to be free. It is definitely the start of what would become a greater metaphor for their relationship, but in this draft they were still facing an actual ghost. What the mother realizes here is that they need that other presence to reinforce their roles as mother and son. This isn’t bad, I guess, but even then I sensed the story had a long way to go.
This house is a house, I think. One that needs to be haunted. If it’s not, it’s just some place in the deep in the woods. A place to be hidden and to hide in. And we are just a mother and son trying to do everything we can to finally leave it.
In draft eight, just one revision further, there is the interesting addition A place to be hidden and to hide which suggests that the mother’s desires have started to become more complicated. While she still sees returning to the outside world as a goal and hopes to slot herself into her old life in suburbia, she understands (and I’m starting to understand about her) that there’s value in being hidden in this place. This house is a house, I think reinforces the same idea—that the confusion by being isolated in a house mirrors the confusion of dealing with a son who is a potential murderer (note: the mother was a stepmother in this draft, further complicating everything and adding a distance between characters that the story didn’t need). To live in a house with a ghost becomes preferable to being trapped in a house with only her son. This is not because she fears he will harm her, but because she fears his potential for violence toward others and the source of his rage as he enters adolescence. The mother still doesn’t have enough agency in the story yet; she’s still just reacting, dealing, thinking. She still doesn’t have her own voice.
This house, I think, is haunted for all of us. It’s a place deep in the woods, a place to be hidden, a place to hide. But we must continue to rebuild it. We must continue to do everything we can to try and leave.
When I started “There Isn’t Any Ghost,” I wanted to work with two well-worn horror motifs to see if I could find my own uniqueness left in them. I wanted to tell a story that happened in a house in the middle of the woods, and I wanted that story to be a ghost story. As these developed and I searched for a thematic overlap that seemed new and interesting, the idea of rebuilding developed, as did the image of the new house being built inside the old one. I also decided around this time that I didn’t want an actual ghost in my ghost story; in order to give the characters agency, they had to create the ghost themselves. Their insisting on its presence would lead to its own kind of belief. Here, the menace in the story has started to become less literal, more psychological, and it is something the characters put into existence rather than something that happens to them.
The sentences in italics above are from the ninth draft. The rebuilding idea makes the story a bit more hopeful here, I think. The finally from the last draft is gone as is this house is a house, replaced by this house, I think, is haunted for all of us. The story is shifting at this point from focus on the roles between the mother and son, which separated them, to a banding together in all of us and we we. Now the mother realizes others are involved in this too or that it helps her to involve others. While it is still as story about those central characters, it also implies a reaching out from the isolation and offers a (somewhat) hopeful ending. She’s even including the ghost in this, I think, which becomes less a menace and more something they can rely on, even if, and especially if, it is made up, concocted.
Soon the workmen will finish the new walls. They’ll tear the old ones away. Soon, they’ll wire electricity, patch the hole behind the stairs. And soon the house will be ours. We’ll make a new life within it.
At first glance draft fourteen probably has the most uplifting ending. These are the words of the husband who is the most optimistic character in the story. But they are still filtered through the mother’s consciousness, and the repetition of the words soon soon soon create a certain menace in themselves. The husband seems to be insisting too much upon the soon almost to the point of blindness, and a cynical reading of these sentences might understand that the mother already knows none of what he says will happen. Regardless, the draft floats on the chance that everything will work out, that the impossible rebuilding of the house is possible.
I listen to him and don’t know what I believe; it is just as likely that the house crumbles in on itself, trapping us within, coming to nothing.
The metaphors in the story really started to come together in draft seventeen, but the last sentence is still fairly awkward. In content it began to reflect what the mother’s voice would become. One of the ways I distinguished her voice from the son’s was the length and rhythm of the sentences, and here the semicolon shows me her individual voice has finally come through. The last sentence brings the reader back to what has become the dominant idea or group of images: nothing, or what is there and not there. The simultaneous presence and non-presence of the ghost (and the ghost story) overlaps with the idea of the basement, as does the son’s useless legs, the unloaded gun, the renovations the mother can hear but not see, her lies, etc. The mother and son are still trapped in the house, but what they’re really trapped in is what they do and do not believe, which extends to how they view their past actions and their own misunderstandings and fabrications about it. This is the draft where the mother’s main motivation solidifies and she acquires almost complete agency over the story (until section four where all her creations come back to haunt her). Now the mother has brought the boy to the house; she has isolated him and once there, she writes horror stories for the boy in an attempt to get him to confess what he’s done or what he’s been accused of doing. The mother has arranged everything by lying, and, in essence, she becomes the menace here. Of course she is only trying to help, but the pressure is much stronger on her now as is the potential for her own failure. She realizes the possibility of the house crumbling in on itself, and maybe she’s accepted it.
I listen to my husband. I put my hand on his chest and push down as hard as I can. I believe him and I don’t; it’s just as likely the house will soon crumble into itself, trapping us as we’re already trapped, in our fears and in ourselves, and in nothing, nothing at all.
Draft eighteen ties these ideas together in what has become the last last sentence, or the version that appears in Hayden’s Ferry Review. I hadn’t noticed how this sentence draws ideas from the last draft and draft nine, kind of mixing them together. It draws them out and clarifies them. While the ending isn’t as hopeful here, the still and the us offer some relief, balancing the possibility of hopelessness and hope fairly evenly. In this draft, the son has told the mother that he might have killed the girl, and the mother doesn’t know how to react and whether they can ever recover. One way is to submit to the husband’s optimism, to become no force against it, a path of little resistance. Yet she who sets traps can certainly be trapped in her own trap, and the mother seems to understand this too. The repetition of nothing, nothing at all also returns readers to the main theme of what is there and not there in terms of the mother’s belief and whether she and the boy can recover from the killing. But even this will entail a kind of overlooking or forgetting. Nothing by itself is just nothing, but nothing twice is something, and nothing at all is more and less, an absence and a presence, a ghost. And as the mother says, a ghost follows you; it is a reminder of what you’ve done.
Lucas Southworth’s stories are forthcoming or have recently appeared in Mid-American Review, Web Conjunctions, West Branch, Willow Springs, and others. Last year, Dan Chaon selected his collection of short stories, Everyone Here Has a Gun, as winner of AWP’s Grace Paley Prize, and University of Massachusetts Press published the book in November 2013. He is an assistant professor of fiction and screenwriting at Loyola University Maryland. His story “There Isn’t Any Ghost” appears in HFR 53.