One of the most iconic openings of any horror story also provides an unsettling twist on the traditional notion of the haunted house:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
The transcendent moment in the first paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s classic 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House comes in the first four words of the second sentence. Many Gothic stories include spectres haunting various abodes, creeping through ancestral castles, or troubling people who wronged them in life. But Jackson’s opening suggests something even more disturbing: Hill House itself is “not sane.” No ghostly inhabitants provide the uncanny aspect in a first encounter with the novel’s titular structure: it is the house that lacks sanity. Hill House is, in this regard, alive.
Sunny Moraine picks up on this approach in their story “Event Horizon,” which begins on an even less equivocal note: “On Tuesdays and Thursdays we go to feed the house.” The “we” in this sentence are Zhan and his friend Tom, the story’s thirteen-year-old narrator. Zhan is the one who, three years earlier, introduced Tom to the dilapidated, two-storey property at the end of Pine Street in their hometown. Twice weekly they bring live squirrels, chipmunks, or other small animals as sustenance for the house so that it does not starve. “Can you starve a house?” Tom asks. “It was a stupid question and I know that now. Of course you can starve a house. You can starve anything that’s alive.”
The idea that the house in “Event Horizon” is alive is developed throughout the story, with reference to the front door that acts as a devouring mouth (the animals pass through without it opening or closing) and – especially – the two upper windows that stand in for eyes. “They’re black holes,” Tom says. ”We’ve never seen what’s inside.” Later in the story, Tom will be convinced that one of the windows winks in acknowledgement or complicity. In a dream, Tom imagines the house “staring back” and creeping forward, “[r]eaching out.”
Tom’s connection between the windows and black holes is extended throughout the story; “I am a singularity,” Tom says at one point. The house’s destructive force exerts a kind of magnetic pull on its victims: the squirrels Zhan and Tom feed it are described as approaching the maw of the front door like “zombies.” The door itself exists as a permeable membrane, a liminal threshold between the everyday world of the town and the unseen, unknown interior.
The association between Tom and the house is redolent of difference; the house is clearly not like its counterparts in the small town, and neither, we come to understand, is Tom. Moraine’s narrator is non-binary: coded female at birth, he (or perhaps they: the first person narration is unclear on this) identifies as male. Puberty hits and Tom starts growing breasts, eventually trying to cover them up with sports bras that are a size too small. “I bristled every time anyone called me her,” Tom says.
Not content with stopping at “her,” three town bullies – Kyle, Jake, and Drew – insist on calling Tom “Tessa,” a birth name that does not reflect Tom’s gender identification. “They use my name like a punch. Names shouldn’t be used like that. No one should be able to use them like that.” Tom’s affection for Zhan arises in no small measure out of his respect for Tom’s gender preference. (Zhan’s own gender identity is unspecified, though he uses male pronouns; the three bullies mockingly refer to him with a homophobic epithet and the pronoun “her.”)
If the uncanny aspect of the story is located in the living house that requires sacrifices of warm-blooded organisms to survive, the more quotidian horrors are vested in the intolerance of small-town bigots who refuse to acknowledge Tom’s identity simply because it deviates from a cisgendered normative presentation. Tom is the target of transphobic hate and bullying and the house becomes a metonym for the repressed anger and frustration Tom feels in the face of the town’s prejudice and disparagement.
It may come as no surprise when Tom decides to escape the tormentors’ clutches – and get revenge – by feeding them to the house. The monster in genre fiction has always been representative of the other, and drawing a symbolic comparison between the house and Tom reinforces a sympathy for – and identification with – the other in the context of the narrative.
But if the house is associated with Tom – winking when Tom sends Jake up the front walk to be consumed – the association is dependent upon the presence of Zhan, who first introduced Tom to the house and who is the one figure in the town willing to accept a non-traditional gender identity without prejudice, hate, or fear. At least, this is how Tom conceives of things. When Zhan tells Tom his family is leaving town, Tom is bereft; it is one day after receiving this news that Tom feeds Kyle, Jake, and Drew to the house.
The integrity of Tom’s connection to the house is dependent upon the safety Zhan provides. After Zhan stumbles upon Tom, who has just served up Kyle, Jake, and Drew for dinner, he appears aghast at the intimation of what has transpired in his absence and walks away. Tom feels the pull of the house lessening: “I never know, afterward, if it’s just that the house demanded both of us and I was unacceptable alone, if I was bait for him and I failed, or if I was stronger than I knew.” The uncanny nature of the house is inextricable from the relationship between Tom and Zhan, and Zhan’s departure creates a rift that can never be altogether mended.
Still, the close of the story finds Tom only partially able to break out of the orbit of the house and all it represents. Moving on, to high school and college, a part of Tom nevertheless remains in the town, stuck by some gravitational pull, waiting for Zhan to return. The final lines of the story tilt in the direction of a tension that is as unresolvable as it is achingly plaintive: “There’s never any escaping that orbit. There’s never any going back.”