This offering from Black Static #20 is the only time I’ve encountered the work of Barbara A. Barnett, at least that I can recall. Weighing in at just over two pages, it’s a ghost story of sorts, one in which both the nature and identity of the ghost are highly ambiguous, and the real thrust of the narrative seems to be focused on the teenage narrator learning to come to terms with loss.
That narrator’s name is Maggie, and she regularly sleeps over at her grandmother’s house – ‘one quaint half of a turn-of-the-century duplex’ – a building that in Maggie’s mind is sentient, and has assumed almost human qualities. Beyond the house’s carpeting and plaster, Maggie sometimes imagines that it has ‘the pink, noodled crevices of a brain, or the beating red flesh of a heart’. (In parenthesis, Maggie enjoys slasher movies, which her grandmother allows her to watch and, indeed, views with her.) Peeling wallpaper is akin to picking at a scab.
In a sense the story adheres to the school of thought in which ghosts are accounted for by a building holding on to psychic echoes of the events that have taken place inside it. But for Maggie these ‘echoes’ are wounds the house has suffered, hurts that it holds close to itself. And Maggie regards herself as responsible for some of these wounds – ‘I had done far worse to wound it over the years, ramming toy cars into walls that had been slathered with a grandchild’s share of snot and crayon’.
The night on which the story begins is the first time Maggie has slept in the house since the murder of her grandfather, and it’s a night on which she is terrified by a trip to the toilet, made more frightening than usual because the upstairs hall light’s bulb has gone, and later wakes to find a sheeted figure standing at the foot of her bed.
In the morning she asks about her grandfather’s death and is told all the horrific details, including that he was so disfigured that the ‘undertaker had the body wrapped in a sheet’ to spare the feelings of mourners. Maggie wonders if the house has been hurt by her grandfather’s death, and if it is his ghost that haunts it. She offers to help her grandmother with cleaning, as if by looking after the house she can make amends and ease the pain of its wounds, help to set things right again.
The final section of the story is set two years later, just after her grandmother’s death, and Maggie takes some of the old woman’s ashes and scatters them in a room of the house. She believes that her grandmother’s presence will help the house to heal, and memories of her will ‘protect whoever lived there next’.
To repeat my opening observation, the spectral side of things is highly ambiguous – whether the house is haunted by Maggie’s grandfather, is in some sense ‘aware’, or if it’s all down to her imagination, is open to debate. But there is another possible interpretation that appeals to me.
Maggie is thirteen when the story begins and fifteen/sixteen when it ends. It occurs to me that the house could represent Maggie, and the damage inflicted on it reflect the changes she is experiencing in her own body at this time, the shift from girl to woman. There’s a similar sea change in her psychology, with Maggie’s fear of the house giving way to a form of acceptance and understanding, as if she has reached a state of equilibrium in her emotions regarding the whole aging process and inevitable death. More keenly than any ghostly visitation, Barnett’s prose conjures up the confused state of mind of a teenager and the way in which the gleeful amorality of childhood gives way, hopefully, to a burgeoning sense of responsibility.
Over on her blog Barbara A. Barnett has talked about the genesis of the story.