January 6, 2016: “There Isn’t Any Ghost” by Lucas Southworth

Is it weird to do a ghost story so soon after the winter holidays? It seems so, like around the end of October, I’ll be scrambling to find scary stories to write about. I already wrote about one author on her birthday, so it seems like I’m planning themed posts. Why wouldn’t I? Why a ghost story? Halloween marks the beginning of two months of holidays for most Americans, coming one after another until the new year. I should be finding stories about people too lazy to take their Christmas tree down, but I haven’t run across that theme yet.

So here I am on January 6, writing about a ghost story, “There Isn’t Any Ghost” by Lucas Southworth, from his collection Everyone Here Has a Gun, winner of the Grace Paley Prize a couple of years ago and put out by UMass Press in late 2013. It’s another book I’ve had for a long time, since AWP in Seattle in 2014 (Southworth signed my copy and dated it, in case you’re looking for a source citation). I’d published one of the stories from the book, “The Running Legs and Other Stories,” in Mid-American Review, so I was already aware of his work and could be considered a fan, as editors are sort of fans by default. It’s a book I’d been meaning to get to for a while—it was in the trunk of my car nearly a year, the book I kept there as the what-if-I’m-stuck-somewhere-and-feel-like-reading-instead-of-dicking-around-on-my-phone book—but sadly I dicked around on my phone quite a bit last year. Hence this blog, and finally, some Lucas Southworth.

I’ve read three stories from this book as of this post, and to note, the title holds up so far: There’s a gun in every story. The title story is also the first story, and I was tempted to write about that piece—a satirical short about a club of gun lovers—but I’ve been writing about title stories and first stories a lot, so I skipped it; truth be told, it seemed like that post would have also been a gun rant, ideas already forming in my head. While I’m all set to do themed posts, I don’t think I’m ready for this blog to be an issues blog, for me to soapbox about guns, or for that matter, abortion, gay marriage, helmet laws, legalizing weed, or steroid use in pro sports, any of those topics I read a million papers about when I taught composition. I love the story “Everyone Here Has a Gun,” and suggest that you read it, too, but instead, I’m writing about a longer story that falls later in the book, “There Isn’t Any Ghost.”

This piece sets itself up as a true ghost story, a haunted house story. A small nuclear family, featuring a boy, a mother, and a father, move into an old, broken-down home that sits deep in the woods, and it seems like they’ve done so rather quickly, for reasons not immediately explained. The father has to return, more often than not, to their suburban home, far away, as that’s where his job is. This leaves the mother and boy—by the way, that’s the only names we get for these three characters—alone in their empty house for long stretches of time. Informed at the time of purchase that the house is haunted, they move in, anyway. I kept thinking that if I got a deal on a house, the house I wanted, in the right location, I wouldn’t listen to silly stories … at least not until I was home, at night, alone. Then I’d try to find the receipt and take the house back to the store. But of course, you can’t do that with houses, even when weird shit clearly starts happening, even when you go to the local library and find out that several grisly murders happened at houses just like yours, right about where your house is located.

This is what happens to Mother in this story, as she stays on pace to serve as the typical ghost story protagonist. She hears things in the walls. She feels like someone’s in the room with her. She thinks and acts irrationally because she’s scared. We expect her to be looking at herself in the mirror after a shower, and as the fog clears, we see a dark figure standing behind her before she does—it’s that type of story (that doesn’t happen, by the way).

Her story is just half the story, however, as the POV is split, the boy—who is in a wheelchair and has a penchant for naming rooms after his long-lost friends—getting as much of the word count, if not more. An interesting structure results, as the POV shifts don’t follow any pattern I’ve seen before. They don’t go back and forth, but offer up several sections/vignettes from one character, then several from the other, oscillating in that way. If Coover’s “The Babysitter” is jolting and intentionally misleading, “There Isn’t Any Ghost” allows you to get into a voice, settle into a perspective, before changing guard. It’s a neat trick, and I think Southworth makes it work to great effect.

The story eventually stops being about what goes bump in the night, taking on a much more serious, compelling, and terrifying slant, which I won’t reveal here. What I’ll say is this: “There Isn’t Any Ghost” switches from a ghost story to a very realistic horror story. I love that about it, and love the story overall. It’s fresh, surprising, and—reading this alone, in my home, at night—terrifying

Southworth hails from Oak Park, Illinois, like Ernest Hemingway, Carol Shields, Charles Simic, that Frank Lloyd Wright house, and tons of actors, including Dan Castellaneta, i.e, Homer Simpson. He got his MFA at Alabama, and I published him in MAR at a time we were publishing a lot of Alabama students, writers like Gabe Durham, BJ Hollars, Alissa Nutting, and Brandi Wells. Good program, Alabama, probably the school from which more of the people I’d published came from than any other.

It’s a scary time now, guns everywhere, guns in the news, guns under everyone’s jacket: I went to the local Walmart grocery recently, after midnight, and there was a man and a woman both holstering side arms, walking up and down the aisles, begging people to look at them, to start a conversation. I just needed something to make cookies with. Things are even more out of control now than when Southworth’s book came out, when he wrote it, entered it into contests and won the Paley. Maybe every story in this book truly has a gun—it would be fitting—and as far as I can tell, Southworth is saying that a whole lot of good it’ll do these people, as trouble rarely comes in the form of something you can shoot, something you can be ready to shoot. Or maybe I’m just turning this post into a gun post after all. Either way, I loved and was creeped out by his ghost story, and can’t wait to see what this talented voice does next. Everyone Here Has an Plan for Lowering the Drinking Age, Luke?

Lucas Southworth