From Echoes: The Saga Anthology of Ghost Stories
“If you’re looking for closure here, you won’t find much. These stories I collect now are only alike in their consistent lack of completion or explanation, their sheer refusal to grow a clear and satisfying ending – is any story ever ‘finished,’ really? Not until we’re dead, and maybe not even then.” So says Loren, the first-person narrator of Gemma Files’s creepy, Toronto-set ghost story “The Puppet Motel.”
A lack of closure, so often the bugbear of reluctant short-fiction readers, is useful to a writer working in the form, as a short story cannot by its nature prove comprehensive. When a story ends, it is because everything pertinent to that particular concentrated timeframe or set of incidents has been related; as Loren suggests, there is always more to be said.
How much more effective is such an approach for an author working in the enduring mode of the traditional ghost story, perhaps one of the oldest and most popular forms of storytelling on Earth? Keeping things ambiguous is a huge boon for a ghost story because it allows the reader’s imagination room to run rampant. By insisting an individual reader do the heavy lifting in regards to filling in the blanks, the writer is freed of the obligation to explain whatever supernatural occurrences exist at the centre of a given tale – explanations that would always be less convincing or unsettling than what the reader might be capable of imagining.
Henry James understood this. James arguably set the template for the modern ghost story with his 1898 chiller The Turn of the Screw. (Anyone who doubts that story’s ongoing influence need only recall that it served as the basis for a film adaptation released at the beginning of 2020.) In his preface to the New York Edition of his novella, James adumbrates his strategy for creating the ghosts (or “ghosts”) that torment the Governess to the point of madness: “Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough, I said to myself – and that already is a charming job – and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy (with the children) and horror (of their false friends) will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications.”
In other words, show don’t tell. And above all, don’t describe and don’t explain. Even well-known horror writers have made the mistake of falling into the trap of “weak specifications” when it comes to describing otherworldly phenomenon: one of the most egregious of these is H.P. Lovecraft (to say nothing of Lovecraft’s most obvious successor, Stephen King).
In “The Puppet Motel,” Gemma Files applies James’s central lesson with rigour, assiduously refusing to provide any definitive explanation for what is awry at the eponymous apartment, which, in a delightfully contemporary gesture, is a haunted Airbnb (sublet units that have sometimes been described as “ghost hotels”).
Loren is acting as caretaker for the unit in question – situated in a new building near the corner of King and Bathurst Streets in Toronto. (Though Files heightens the uncanniness for anyone familiar with the city’s geography by placing it on the east side of King Street – a mirror-image of the intersection’s actual location.) She refers to it as “the Puppet Motel” because, she says, it “was creepy, like a Laurie Anderson song. Because it was different, squared. Because it made me feel … not myself.”
Other things mark the Puppet Motel as odd or eccentric. To access the unit, Loren must turn the key “widdershins,” or counterclockwise – the opposite of the intuitive direction (also thought historically to be unlucky). The rooms are painted in blacks and greys and admit little light, something that is exacerbated by windows that look inward onto a courtyard. An apparent electrical short prevents the overhead bathroom light from working and the other ceiling bulbs regularly blow out. And then there are the floors, which are canted at various strange angles.
“Oddness, at best, a fugue of disconnection,” is how Loren describes the apartment’s appearance and sensation, “at worst, a physical queasiness, like I’d stepped through some unseen mirror into a weird, dim world, a cracked reflection of normalcy. On some very basic level, it just seemed off.”
Loren has accepted the gig to manage this and another property owned by a buddy of her boyfriend, Gavin. (“Let’s call him Greg,” Loren say of the absent landlord, in the first of the story’s many refusals to provide specific or trustworthy information.) Loren is a student and needs money for the upcoming term, so she accepts the job looking after the two rental locations for the summer months.
The condo on George Street – which Loren comes to think of as the House of Flowered Sheets because of feminine design choices she assumes must be the work of Greg’s wife – is relatively accommodating; the Puppet Motel is anything but. It is not long before strange occurrences start to befall Loren and the unfortunate renters. Loren begins experiencing strange auditory hallucinations (which she calls the “tone”) and one of the tenants, a woman from Barrie on a weekend “Big-City-cation,” disappears without a trace. When Loren’s boyfriend kicks her out and circumstances force her to take up residence in the Puppet Motel, things go from bad to worse quickly and decisively.
Files’s ghost story is defiantly up to the minute: a spectral entity (which may or may not be the missing woman from Barrie) contacts Loren by text message; Loren does online research via a Facebook page run by a paranormal investigator who specializes in “esoteric networking”; the Siri-esque AI on Loren’s phone appears to be conversing with a disembodied spirit; and the strange goings-on at the Puppet Motel first come to light via the comments on the residence’s Airbnb page.
While the references to 21st-century technology provide recognizable touchstones, the happenings that occur within the Puppet Motel are handled with a kind of nebulous, elliptical approach: strange handprints appear on the walls and the walls seem to disintegrate in front of Loren’s eyes. The entity that confronts Loren from behind the swirling wall is “pale, surrounded by darkness, a monochrome infected wound coming up through colourless skin.” This is about as precise as Files is willing to become, leaving the rest of the hauntings as suggestions teasing the edges of Loren’s mind, and ours.
“Everything you can think of is true, somewhere, for someone – is now, or has been, or will be. And proof, for all our demands, has never been more than the very least of it,” Files writes at the story’s outset, laying out the narrative strategy for what is to come. “The Puppet Motel” relies on atmosphere for its effects, and the atmosphere Files creates – weird, otherworldly, claustrophobic – arises organically out of her understanding that what we don’t see clearly is infinitely more unsettling than what we do. There is creeping terror at the heart of this story, but the nature of that terror – its specific origin and constitution – is never explained. Which makes it all the more frightening.