In a relatively short time, Samanta Schweblin has carved quite a reputation for herself as a writer of offbeat, off-kilter, occasionally downright spooky and scary novels and stories – see Fever Dream, Mouthful of Birds and (for us, especially) Little Eyes. Seven Empty Houses is a new collection of short stories and, while it doesn’t do any harm, it feels rather more like treading water coming hard on the heels of Little Eyes. Sometimes you can be a victim of your own success.
As the title goes some way to suggest, what you have here are seven short stories, one of which runs to sort of novella length (‘Breath from the Depths’, just shy of 90 pages), whilst the rest are of what you might call more typical short story length. As with a lot of spooky, horror writers, Schweblin often creates a situation and then kinks it ever so slightly so that you feel unease. In the best of the stories (‘An Unlucky Man’, we are looking at you) you are left not quite knowing what went on but feeling – a little rattled all the same.
Let’s start with ‘An Unlucky Man’, just so you have a flavour of what you are getting. It’s set on the day our narrator turns eight. Her sister drinks a cup of bleach. Cue the entire family rushing to the hospital and in the rush our narrator forgets to put on underwear. On arrival at the hospital, she is left alone while the family concentrate their efforts on the bleach-drinking sibling. Left in the waiting room, it isn’t long before a man starts talking to her, a man she mentions her underwear-less state to, a man who then offers to buy her new underwear. We’re all creeped out by this point, right? Unsure whether we want to know more. And there is more. But there is also less than you expect. And you’re left, undeniably, irrefutably, with a sense that something wrong happened but what?
The book opens with ‘None of That’, a mother and daughter in a car, ostensibly lost (it’s the first thing we learn) but over the course of the story it becomes apparent that the mother has a problem – she likes to get into stranger’s houses under a pretext and steal things. On this occasion, by the time we become privy to what is going on, the situation is in the process of reversing. In ‘My Parents and My Children’ (parents and children playing a large part in a lot of these stories), a couple who have split up find themselves in contentious water when children are being dropped off only to discover grandparents are naked in the garden. There are interesting undercurrents (between our narrator, the ex-husband, and his ex-wife’s new beau) and unsettling irresolution that nags at you after you finish the story (in a way that will more than likely make you want to re-read to make sure everything is as you remember it and also that you didn’t miss anything that you should’ve seen – or not seen).
‘It Happens All The Time In This House’ concerns a pair of neighbours – Mr Weimar is being driven mad by his wife who keeps lobbing their dead son’s clothes over the fence into the garden next door (our narrator is the woman who lives next door). Curiously, the story finds the pair of them united –
“My god, I think, we’re in sync. I’m in sync with this man who ten years ago returned my son’s soccer balls deflated, this man who cut the flowers on my azaleas if they crossed the imaginary line that divided our properties.”
‘Breath from the Depths’, the longest story in the collection, functions much like ‘What We Can know About Thunderman’ in the recent Alan Moore collection, Illuminations, in that, because of its length, your view of the story rather colours your view of the book (spending more time in its company than anything else). As you’d no doubt expect from Schweblin by this point, it’s unsettling and disturbing and you can’t really trust the point of view of the narrator who appears to be in the grip of a debilitating and degenerative mental illness (a la The Father, the recent Anthony Hopkins film).
“The sound was subtle and close by, inside the room. If she opened her eyes, she told herself, she might have to face something terrible. She focused on controlling her eyelids. She was ready for death, and what a relief it would be…”
In a way that recalls David Lynch (sorry), the oddest details begin to attract fear (so, for example, the narrator is busy putting things into boxes but soon she starts to see boxes she doesn’t recognise and misses items she doesn’t remember boxing and the pile of boxes in the garage grows, and her neighbour wants to borrow boxes and she doesn’t know if she can spare them… and on and on it goes, ramping up fear and unease in a way you can’t quite put your finger on). People die. Are forgotten. Remembered. Situations occur before our eyes (such as the death of a close relative) but as a result of the narrative prism, we’re not quite objective about what we see.
Mundane mysteries seem to be Schweblin’s thing. Her characters find themselves in places they didn’t intend to be (see ‘Two Square Feet’ where a person is in search of aspirin:
“I turn down the first street to cross but it’s closed off, a dead end, and the same thing happens the next block down. I look around for someone to ask, and I find a woman who peers at me suspiciously.”
If you’re a fan of Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled and you’ve been waiting for a book that scratches a similar itch, this is it. At times, stories feel dream-like, even though they don’t really appear to be (in ‘Out’, for example, the story that closes the book, a woman leaves a row with her husband, gets into a car with another man, sets off on what feels like an adventure and then, for reasons that are not entirely clear, seems to change her mind and returns home).
The flipside of the uncertainty, however, is that the stories seem to remain distant and obscure in a way that Schweblin’s novels don’t – and we put this down to the time a novel has in which to bed down and luxuriate in your imagination. For these stories to work in the same way, you’ll have to scratch at them like a cat. There’s good stuff here, make no mistake. We just think, for now, Schweblin’s novels are better than her short stories.
Any Cop?: Certainly a good introduction to Schweblin if you’ve not read her before but know that Little Eyes is in your future if you start here and let that be your North Star.