WHITE IS FOR WITCHING and Creeping Me Out
Helen Oyeyemi's White is for Witching is about many things (twins, immigration, mental illness, losing a mother, coming of age…). But it's also a haunted house story, and that's what I want to talk about. Scaring a reader is one of the hardest things to do, and I want to figure out how Oyeyemi scared me.
Here's a moment I found spine tingling. Miranda is the protagonist, but this is from the perspective of Ore, Miranda's girlfriend, during a visit to Miranda's house:
I looked out at the garden through the kitchen window. The sun was setting into storm clouds; there was smoky brightness outside, as if the world was being inspected by candlelight. I saw the woman who'd brushed me on the stairs the first time I'd gone up them. This time when I saw her I knew she wasn't a houseguest. She was standing under one of the trees, standing so deep in the ground that the earth leveled around her ankles. As if she had no feet, as if she was growing. Her presence made the branches behind her jerk and contract, like hands trying to close around her but not quite daring to. She had her hand spread over her face. She was looking at me through her fingers. Miranda knew her. It was Miranda who had said: "Tell me about that woman, the woman with the covered face? Is she your mother?"
My hand moved to the window latch, making sure the window was locked, making sure the window was really there, keeping her out. More than anything else, I wished she couldn't see me. I forced the need to blink into a second of something like prayer—go away, with my eyes squeezed shut—and when my eyes opened, she was gone. It took minutes for the trees to recover from their shivering fit.
We've got some ghostly tropes, for sure—the storm clouds, the candlelight, the creepy tree branches. But the gloom of the storm and the candle are balanced by brightness, which is a twist on the expected. The woman's feet are below the ground, but I still see this as a type of floating. After all, the earth is "leveled," not churned up, which means she's not standing in a hole, but existing independently of the ground. So she hovers like a ghost and yet it's different. In these few simple ways, Oyeyemi invokes standard clichés but tweaks them powerfully.
To interrogate these tweaks, let's consider how the uncanny works. It's a shiver born of something that is so very close—but not quite!—what we expect it to be. With a creepy doll, for instance, the more human it looks, the scarier it is. Part of a traditional ghost's creepiness might come because it reminds us of a living person, yet it is different. The trouble is we've come to expect what makes a ghost eerie and so we no longer see a ghost as a not-quite person, but as a just-right ghost. Oyeyemi treats the typical ghost as the known and then invokes the uncanny by making it not-quite. So it's sort of meta-uncanny.
I'm also interested in the way perspective works in this scene and how we come to believe what is unbelievable. For a ghost to scare us, we must believe it is real. And yet its un-"real"-ness, paradoxically, is what makes it scary—so we also must believe that it can't exist.
Some of this happens when Ore jumps perspective to tell us what the trees are feeling. She's making a judgment based on the evidence, but she can't really know that the tree is afraid of the woman. She admits it's speculation by saying the trees act "like" they are afraid. But this stretching of her perspective still expands the space of it, putting us somewhere unknown and unsettling. It creates danger.
Character speculations are some of the least trustworthy moments in all of fiction. The character could believe and still be wrong. This is part of how we believe and disbelieve at the same time. We know her unknowing.
It's also important that the potential for error is part of how I feel close to the one creating the error. Because I feel like I am judging the character being judged, it's just enough to collapse the distance between me and the character doing the judging. When I lose my grasp of one for the other, it's as if I am one or the other. Not just a boring reader.
But in this case it's not a character! It's trees! That this trick works on the trees helps create the agency of those trees, which is part of the haunting, and also important for other reasons.
Reading just this passage, we might wonder if the whole thing could be hallucination (scary on its own). However, this book gives us multiple perspectives—we've long been seeing these things with Miranda and it is, in fact, Ore's experience that lets us know Miranda is not merely delusional.
Even though the reader gets in other people's heads, the characters themselves are stuck in their own. For the most part, they don't get corroborating perspectives and so are isolated. Isolation makes it scarier for the characters, I suppose, but it also works against confirming for them that something is truly amiss. It means that my fear is different from the character's fear because I know more about the realness of the ghosts and feel less of the simultaneous belief/disbelief.
To merge Ore's fear with my own, something must confirm for both of us that this haunting is real, but without giving either of us the relief of a human character who will know and sympathize. Oyeyemi's brilliant fix is to make the trees corroborate that the hovering woman exists. They confirm but do not comfort.
But couldn't the trees also be imagined?
First, I should say, the trees convey Ore's emotional state through subtext. They make us feel her own instinctive revulsion at the woman. But that isn't enough to prove that Ore is merely imagining the trees. If it was, they would be text rather than subtext. As readers, we are quite used to physical spaces that reflect on internal spaces. We don't assume a thunderstorm is imagined just because the character is also gloomy.
So the trees aren't necessarily imagined, but that's not a guarantee that they're real either. The reason my brain assumes they are is that they not only notice the woman, but are repelled by her. It's that agency of theirs. When these trees react in a negative manner to the woman, they signal that they are not of the same substance or origin as the woman. They're not on the same team. If they don't come from the same source, they can't both be imagined by Ore. It then follows that, since they respond to each other, it can't be that just one of them is imagined either.
This isn't strictly logical—a person can imagine entities at odds with each other—but it doesn't need to be logical. It only needs to create a fleeting impression on the brain of the reader. Just enough to draw a chill.
And unlike with other types of evidence, our brains see the trees and race through this almost-logic at the same moment that Ore does.
All of this works to make sure the fear of the reader is aligned and simultaneous to that of the character. Knowing a fear is one thing—feeling it is a quite-compelling something else.
Allison Wyss's stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters’ Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss. Check out the Loft's Summer 2018 class offerings for her upcoming class: Tell, Don’t Show