In the Dream House: A Memoir, by Carmen Maria Machado. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, November 2019. 210 pages. $26.00, hardcover.
One of my favorite horror tropes is the house that builds itself. Inhabitants stumble into rooms they know they’ve never visited before. There is nothing overtly menacing about the rooms, at least initially—they have the same walls and ceiling and furniture as the rest of the house. The fear is in being disoriented, as well as in being in a room that might look logical enough but which certainly isn’t. This trope exists in Stephen King’s Rose Red, the Spierg brothers’ Winchester, and The Haunting of Hill House, both the Netflix series and the Shirley Jackson novel.
Speaking of Shirley Jackson, Carmen Maria Machado is 2019’s heir to her—and like Jackson, Machado can be terrifying without raising her voice. But Machado has a style all her own. Her debut story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, was full of haunted characters and settings, and more than a few screams. Her stories were filled with beautiful sentences and complicated situations. She disoriented readers and (probably) laughed about it. She sometimes would forgo those Jackson-esque quiet sentences in favor of howling ones. How does somebody like that write a memoir?
In short? Exactly the same way. As somebody who loved Her Body and Other Parties, I found In the Dream House to be just as mesmerizing and no less satisfying as Machado’s debut collection. In this memoir, Machado recounts her relationship with a woman who seemed too good to be true, before revealing herself to be a nightmare entirely. The narrator speaks to a “you,” a younger version of Machado entering into an MFA program and hoping that everything would work out okay. It is that younger version of Machado who enters the proverbial dream house, charmed by the exterior, missing the danger until it’s too late.
In the Dream House is a memoir about queer abuse, a new chapter in an old but rarely told story. Machado is aware of the danger in telling this story, in revealing that even while we LGBTQ people fight for the legitimacy of our relationships, not all queer relationships are full of love. The form of this work, each chapter with a new title and none of them longer than five pages, allows Machado to sometimes interject with research, criticism, and LGBTQ history without straying too far from the core story being told.
But a part of telling this story is learning that it is a story in the first place—that, after weathering all of society’s obstacles against LGBTQ love, queer relationships can have all the same problems as the heteronormative ones you’ve seen your whole life. Machado likens this, in a beautiful passage, to God’s task for Adam to name all the animals: “When I think about him, just sitting there with his brand-new fist under his brand-new chin, looking vaguely perturbed and puzzled and anxious, I feel a lot of sympathy. Putting language to something for which you have no language is no easy feat.”
Machado finds the language to describe this situation as the relationship worsens, and in the process she employs pretty much every genre under the sun: an index of folk literature from which references occur throughout the book, an I Love Lucy episode, some Star Trek plots. And like the trope of the ever-changing haunted house, In the Dream House reinvents itself in each section. Titles range from “Dream House as Daydream” to “Dream House as Bluebeard” to “Dream House as Murder Mystery.” Sometimes the references to the titles are overt, and Machado becomes a protagonist in peril. Sometimes she simply uses a metaphor or a few pieces of language before the dream house reinvents itself again. (Some of the concepts are downright genius and fun, I will not do you a disservice of revealing them within a review.)
Machado doesn’t exactly elide the pain she went through. She sometimes cloaks it in form or metaphor, but in the next section she looks straight at it, leaving readers clutching the hand rests the same way that Machado did in one scene when her partner dangerously sped down the highway. What is there to say about the fact that this is sometimes an exhilarating read? That even while recounting some of the worst moments of her life, Machado seems to want the readers to be having some of those same thrills as if they were watching a horror movie? I hope that it simply means more people will read this book—because, especially if you’re somebody who has gone through abuse, you should.
Knowing a little about Machado—what she’s written about the body, her obsessions with pop culture, even her history at the MFA at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop—can help readers access this book more readily, but such background probably isn’t necessary. No matter who you are, there is something for you in this book. In a section towards the end, as Machado wonders why she endured so much hell for the sake of this relationship, she compares it to how people live on rich earth near volcanoes that can periodically shower them with lava: “The truth is, there is no better place to live than in the shadow of a beautiful, furious mountain.” In the Dream House is a complex mansion, each room designed beautifully by Machado. Enter, and you’ll be wandering through them all before you even know what you’re doing.
Benjamin Kinney lives and writes in Tampa, Florida. He earned an MA in English from Northern Michigan University and is currently in an MFA program at the University of South Florida. He has published fiction in Cartridge Lit, Cheap Pop, and Blue Fifth, and nonfiction in Walloon Writers Review and f(r)iction, where he was a finalist in the Creative Nonfiction Contest. His obsessions include David Lynch, Survivor, and Reese’s peanut butter cups. He has an infrequently updated blog at benjaminkinney.com.