Author Eugene K. Garber spins some very dark and grim fairy tales in his neo-Gothic novel Maison Cristina, but does allow occasional light and laughter to enter this supernatural story.
The novel opens with the image of a dead man lying at the bottom of a cliff while another man looks down from above. We later learn that this scene is merely one of many figments of the imagination which reveal themselves on the walls of the Catholic mental institution in which our protagonist Peter Naughton finds himself. Peter, an elderly Walt Whitman scholar, has been placed here after committing an arson. While ostensibly a patient at Maison Cristina, he is soon recruited by his therapist Sister Claire to act as a healer for a young female patient named Charlene, who has been rendered mute and paralyzed by some unknown trauma. Peter begins to bring Charlene out of her comatose state by telling her stories of the Wanderer, which is actually a thinly disguised description of Peter’s own wanderings in search of his lost family including his wife Cam, sister Stella, and daughter Alexie.
Loss is one of the multiple themes sown into the tapestry of this complex, yet satisfying novel. In addition to the loss of his loved ones, Peter suffers a loss of faith. Charlene has lost her identity, while the story’s antagonist Vogt, either an apparition who appears to Peter on the walls of the hospital or the Devil himself, has obviously lost his soul.
Peter’s and Vogt’s discussions reminded me of a darker version of Louis Malle’s film My Dinner with Andre only here the two intellectuals’ discourses entail a much darker subject matter. We later learn that Peter has been visited by this demon since childhood as the narrative switches back to his past which reveals that Peter had been brought up in a dysfunctional household of alcoholic and mentally ill parents. In addition, we are provided a glimpse into his years at a Catholic prep school in New Orleans, his career as a naval officer, and his life at Tulane University where he studied Whitman and met his wife.
My first impression of Peter’s visions of Vogt was that he probably was suffering from schizophrenia, or a split personality because of a conversation between Peter and his eccentric Aunt Ettie when she remarks about a man named Vogt answering Peter’s phone with a rough voice. I became convinced of the apparition’s legitimacy after Sister Claire and another nun/therapist observe a thin black creature shaped like a cardboard cutout attempting to gain entry to the hospital and Sister Claire subsequently trailing the demon into a forest adjoining the property. These later passages are where the novel takes on a much darker and creepier tone which reminded me of the Washington Irving short story “The Devil and Tom Walker.” Adding even further to the Gothic feel was a tale told by Peter to Charlene about a young woman like herself who ends up in a travelling circus. It was at this point that I was recalled Ray Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes.
The other main theme which Garber attempts to establish concerns what the protagonist calls “retrocausality.” According to Peter, “It’s the idea that something in the present causes something in the past.” Peter also provides an example: “If we go back to the motives for the arson, Charlene, we’ll have to go back to the wounds Wanderer suffered and who gave the wounds and why until—you see?—we arrive at the snake in the garden and why he was there…” While I have to admit that Garber’s pursuit of this particular theme at times for me was a bit shady, I always found it interesting.
In addition to the multiple Gothic elements contained here, I would also characterize this novel as literary because of the author’s extensive use of symbolism and imagery. Religious imagery abounds. One of the stories that Peter tells concerns his conjectures about what happened to the Good Samaritan after he is cared for by the innkeeper. In addition to Peter the protagonist being a modern day Peter the Apostle, we can easily infer that from his helping to save Charlene that he is also a modern day Good Samaritan.
One of the symbols used most frequently are walls. It is on the institution’s walls on which the apparition Vogt and even Peter’s dead family members appear and communicate with him. Eyes also play a prominent role: “I look at Charlene’s face. A memento mori with tw giant black eyes. Inside, a dramatic scene in progress. It could be called the Dance of Death…”
The plot and parallel stories in this novel are basically one long extended metaphor about Peter’s search for the family that has abandoned him. Those family members include his sister Stella, who joins a cult of cloistered women in San Francisco, and his daughter Alexie, who is an eccentric artist in hiding. The author is also pointing out to us that our lives are just like stories, too. The following passage where Peter’s wife Cam tells him why she is leaving him exemplifies this best: “I’m going now, Peter, but I’ll answer your answer. I was watching over Alexie. Josh was safe in his world of facts and numbers. You were living a story. I hated to destroy it, but once Alexie was off to college, my story as a mother and wife was finished.”
Garber’s novel contains many elements of classic Gothic stories and novels written by Hawthorne, Irving, and Bradbury including an interesting anti-hero, a twisting, supernatural plot, and a dark setting. I would like to add that like his predecessors, Garber also possesses the genius of a great storyteller.
Maison Cristina, by Eugene K. Garber. Transformations Press, October 2021. 374 pages. $15.99, paper.
Francis X. Fitzpatrick holds a MFA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University and is currently revising his first novel. He has also written several screenplays for film and television. He is a native of and resides in Philadelphia, PA.