I don’t read a ton of horror, because I am a fraidy-cat, but the occasional horror novel can be a bracing delight, as long as it’s not the last thing I read before I go to bed. In 2018, I read not one but two horror novels, Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions at the tail end of the year, and Stephen Graham Jones’s Mapping the Interior at the very beginning. When I started reading them, I felt a keen sense of excitement at how good and how scary they were.
As I read on, though, I began to get that sinking feeling — you know the one? Where you can see the author steering into a bad, bad curve, and you are clutching the book whispering don’t do it don’t do it don’t do it? And then they do it? You know?
Mapping the Interior
(Assume there will be spoilers throughout.) The protagonist’s younger brother Dino1 has intellectual and physical disabilities, and his seizures have recently been getting more severe. Junior’s father is dead, but he thinks that he sees the ghost of his father in his house. He believes that his father is coming back to help him and Dino, and that there may be some way to help his father cross back over the border between life and death.
As Junior investigates what’s going on with his father’s ghost, however, he begins to realize that his father is actually draining Dino of life in order to cross back into life himself. Dino’s worsening seizures are a result of this vampiric effort by Junior’s late father. I was, let’s say, uneasy with the book at this point: We have no sense of Dino’s interiority. As far as the reader is able to tell, he is a saintly innocent, acted upon by parties of varying good (Junior) and bad (his father, prejudiced kids at his school) intentions. I also hated the implication that abled-ness is related to the possession of a kind of “life force,” and that the extraction of such life force would lead to disabled-ness.
The book then does a time jump, many years into the future. Dino now lives in a residential facility, and Junior is the father of a son who has died. Junior takes Dino out of the facility for a day trip and sets out to perform the same ritual that their father attempted many years ago. The book closes with the understanding that Junior is going to bring his late son back to life using Dino’s life as a means of doing so — just as their father attempted to do, all those years ago.
This is meant to be horrifying, and it is, though perhaps not for the reasons I think the author intended. The book is clear that Junior is doing something inexcusable, so I don’t think Jones intended to send the message that disabled lives are worth less than abled ones. But killing marginalized characters is not a neutral act, and disabled characters are more likely than abled ones to be the author’s choice of tragic death. Mapping the Interior doesn’t pass the Fries Test on any one of its three conditions. On an emotional level, it upset me very badly that Dino cannot trust the brother who has always protected him. Even to the character who most valued and cared about Dino, Dino’s disabled life is worth less than the life of an able person, Junior’s son.
(Please do not respond to this post to tell me that Jones is also condemning Junior’s choice. I know he is. I take issue with him choosing to tell a story in which the sole disabled character serves no narrative purpose separate from the desires and choices of the abled characters, survives abuse from one family member, then dies at the hands of another family member. The choice to tell this story plays into ableist tropes that privilege abled lives and voices over of those of disabled people.)
The Silent Companions
Again, assume there will be spoilers here. We start with Mrs. Bainbridge, shut up in an asylum/prison for suspected arson. She has lost her voice and many of her memories. A kind doctor is helping her to remember what happened. Jump back in time, and we are with Elsie Bainbridge, a young pregnant widow who married above her station and is now arriving at her late husband’s country home, The Bridge. She is accompanied by a poor cousin of her husband’s, Sarah. The Bridge is very desolate and creepy. It contains a locked garret to which nobody has the key. Inside the garret (don’t worry too much about how this happens, for now), she finds the diaries of a Bainbridge ancestor who lived during the time of Charles I, and a whole slew of creepy wooden people.
Aside: The creepy wooden people are a real thing from history. Look how creepy they are!
The wooden people, or silent companions, as they are called, take on a life of their own. Their eyes shift to follow Elsie. They appear in rooms where nobody will admit to putting them. Anne Bainbridge’s diaries tell us that she acquired the silent companions from a merchant (whose stall later vanished) in anticipation of a visit from Charles I and his queen.
Anne also has a daughter called Hetta who cannot speak because she has a deformed tongue. This is cast as Anne’s “fault” for using herbs and tisanes to ensure that she would have another child, and that it would be a daughter. “Why should Hetta be punished for my greed?” she asks. She also draws a distinction between her daughter and the “freaks” the Queen and King bring with them for after-dinner entertainment.
So far, not great, right? But I foolishly hoped the book would at least make it clear that Anne was speaking with the attitudes of her time. I hoped that the book would later give us access to Hetta’s wants and interests, rather than filtering her exclusively through the eyes of her mother. But that’s not even what happens! What happens is that Anne realizes that the same “witchcraft” she used to bring Hetta into the world brought with it an evil that now lurks inside of Hetta. As becomes clear from Elsie’s sections of the book, Hetta’s evil spirit now occupies the silent companions, and it is searching for a new human host. At the very end of the book, the reader realizes that Hetta has found one, occupying the body of Elsie’s cousin-in-law, Sarah, and using her to ensure that Elsie hangs for all the murders the silent companions have committed at The Bridge.
Long, slow exhale.
Oh yeah, there’s also free use of a slur for Romani people; Anne has period-typical attitudes towards Romani people; and Hetta and Anne’s choices lead to the brutal deaths of two Romani children. SO THAT’S FUN TOO.
I would have hated it if Hetta had been the voiceless innocent Anne initially believes her to be, the pure-hearted victim of her era’s prejudices, whose thoughts we never get to hear. I would have hated it if the sole disabled character in the book had turned out to be the villain by reasons relating to her own agency — like maybe the perpetual mistreatment she experiences turns her to evil. But what made me want to really scream is that Hetta’s disability and her evil nature are explicitly linked together. They arise from the same source, a choice made by her mother before Hetta was even born. Oh, and Hetta’s ultimate goal turns out to be acquiring the use of a non-disabled body.
I know that the horror genre has a long history of ableism, and that there are works of horror out there trying to change this history. I delayed and delayed in writing this post because horror is not my home genre, and I have worried / do worry about criticizing a genre about which I know very little. I worry that I’m wrong about these books perpetuating ableist tropes.
But I also know that I’ve learned a lot about disability representation in just the past few years. Once someone gets you to notice the trope of the pure innocent disabled character (who dies! how poignant!) or the trope of the evil disabled character whose soul is as twisted as their [insert body part here] (who also dies! how inevitable!), you start seeing those tropes everywhere. I wish we had grown past them. Failing that, I want at least to not let them pass me by in silence.
- Incidentally, I now cringe whenever I see a story narrated by the family member of a disabled person. Maybe can we go on break from those? ↩