Mirror, mirror, on the Wall… Robert Bloch’s “The Hungry House”

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Deal Me in 2014 Short Story Reading Challenge – week 8

This week, I drew the four of spades, which led me to a ghost story, Robert Bloch’s “The Hungry House,” published in 1951. (My complete roster of 2014 stories for this challenge may be viewed at https://bibliophilica.wordpress.com/2013/12/24/my-2014-short-story-reading-challenge/ ) I own this one as part of the anthology, “The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories.” Bloch is probably best known for writing the novel “Pyscho” in 1959. Maybe you’ve seen the movie.

(Below: Robert Bloch)

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Anyway, the luck of the draw this week led me to a story which turned out to eerily complement the first story I read of DMI2014, Steven Milhauser’s “Miracle Polish.” Both involve mirrors. While Milhauser’s story has a protagonist who becomes obsessed with mirrors and his reflection in them, Bloch’s story features a house once occupied by a woman, now long dead, who shared the same affliction. Mirrors are her pathway of choice to haunt the living and perhaps influence them to “do things.”

The young couple who moves into this house is unaware of its history, but both soon (individually) notice that they’re not alone. Both hesitate to tell the other anything for fear of seeming silly, but things begin to come to a boil when the husband finds an old, locked closet full of mirrors in the attic and later when they host a party for other couples in the neighborhood, which provides their spectral roommate more people to play with. I enjoyed the story, but it was far from being the best I’ve read in the genre. I wasn’t able to find the story available anywhere online, I’m afraid. If you’re interested in reading it, I’d recommend “The Weird” anthology mentioned above – well worth purchasing for all the other great stories it contains.

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Have you read any of Robert Bloch’s works? What are some of your favorite ghost stories?

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Deal Me in 2014 weekly wrap up (and my selection, “Miracle Polish” by Steven Milhauser)

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As I noted in the sign-up post, I’ll be posting a weekly update for the Deal Me In Short Story Reading Challenge. I’ll try to do these regularly on sunday evenings, and will include links to what others have posted since the last update.

I’d also like to thank Mannomoi at Dilettante Artiste for upgrading our unofficial logo (pictured above) for this challenge.  I love it! Feel free to use it in your weekly posts if you’d like.

So, What are other Deal Me In 2014 participants reading this week? See the following:

Dale at Mirror With Clouds on Saki’s “The Recessional”

The Returning Reader ‘walks into Omelas’ for the Ursula K. LeGuin Classic “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”

Hanne at Reading on Cloud 9 shares her thoughts on Steven Milhauser’s “Thirteen Wives”

Katherine at Writerly Reader read the classic M.R. James ghost story “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”

These are the posts I found as I went to press with this post.  If you finished a post on another story for your week one, you can also link to it in the comments to this post.

So, we’re off and running with DMI2014! As I said I’ll be doing a kind of round up post on Sundays.  We’re a small enough group I can probably just manually do these posts with the links.  If you’re a regular reader who’s not taking part in the challenge, please consider visiting some of these other blogs written by fellow fans of the short story.

Now for my week 1 entry:

“Miracle Polish” by Steven Milhauser

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Story #1 of my fourth annual “Deal Me In” Short Story Reading Project (see here for details on the project). This week I drew the Jack of Spades, which I had assigned to this short story – first published in The November 14, 2011 issue of The New Yorker – from Steven Milhauser. I first discovered Milhauser via his excellent short story, “Phantoms,” which was part of my project last year. I own “Miracle Polish” as part of The Best American Short Stories 2012 anthology. As of this writing, it can be read for free online here

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“Miracle Polish” is the story of an unnamed narrator who, against his better judgment, allows a traveling salesman admittance to his house. The salesman sells bottles of a mirror cleanser called “Miracle Polish.” Milhauser’s skills and attention to detail are on display in the opening of the story, especially in his descriptions of the salesman. How carrying his heavy suitcase has “pulled him a little to the side, so that one of his jacket cuffs was higher than the other…” Pitying the salesman, he resolves to buy a bottle. The stranger seemed “surprised, even suspicious, when I said I’d take one, as if he wandered the earth for years with the same case filled to bursting with unsold bottles.”

Though the narrator is by all accounts a fully rational man (“I wasn’t the kind of man who looked at himself in mirrors. I was the kind of man who spent as little time as possible in front of mirrors, the kind of man who had a brisk and practical relation to his reflection.”) he notices something strange when he first uses the polish to clean a smudge on a mirror. Realizing that now the REST of the mirror looks dull, he cleans the whole thing. That’s when the fun begins.

Something “magical” happens to the reflection of the narrator. His “new” reflection is clearly him, yet a different him, full of potential and promise. A “man who believed in things.” He begins to become obsessed with mirrors, buying one after another and treating them with the miracle polish. His relationship with his girlfriend, whose image is also enhanced by the miracle polish-treated mirrors, is affected. Concerned with his seeming obsession, she even goes so far as to say “You know, sometimes I think you like me better there (pointing to a mirror) than here (pointing to herself)”

Predictably, things cannot go on this way,and the story reaches a disturbing(?) climax. At least I thought it did. Others may feel differently. I also got the feeling while reading that the story would be easily adapted into a script for the old Twilight Zone series.

In the “Contributor’s Notes” section of my book, Milhauser himself says of this story: “I was seized by the desire to write a mirror story, but that was as far as things went. Every possibility seemed boring or frivolous. I turned my attention to something else. One day it came to me: the mirror shouldn’t be a gateway to a fantastic world, but should behave very quietly. This thought, or instinct, propelled me to this story.” Nice.

What about you? Have you read anything by Steven Milhauser? What do you think of him? What short stories have YOU read lately.

For another great “mirror story” try Haruki Murakami’s “The Mirror,” which I wrote briefly about in 2012

Would you like to join the “Deal Me In 2014” short story reading challenge? “Late-joining” is allowed! 🙂 See the challenge home page

Some other bloggers’ thoughts that I found on this story:
http://sloopie72.wordpress.com/2012/11/10/bass-2012-steven-millhauser-miracle-polish-from-the-new-yorker-111411/

http://perpetualfolly.blogspot.com/2011/11/new-yorker-miracle-polish-by-steven.html

http://www.ann-graham.com/2013/02/steven-millhauser-miracle-polish.html

http://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2011/11/11/steven-millhauser-miracle-polish/

(below: Will NOT cause supernatural results)

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(Below: MAY cause supernatural results)

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Top Ten Tuesday – Top Ten New To Me Authors I read in 2013

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme sponsored by the blog, “The Broke and The Bookish.”

Thank God for my short story reading project. Without it, I don’t think I have read ten “new to me authors” this year. About half of the following are form short story reading. Here they are, in descending order with #1 being my favorite.

10. Kevin Lynn Helmick
His novella “Driving Alone: A Love Story” was “different” and brilliant.

9. Douglas Watson
I loved his short story collection “The Era of Not Quite.” Read my post about it here.

8. Kyle Minor
His story collection “In the Devil’s Territory” was one of my favorite books of the year. I posted about it here.

7. Caitlyn Horrocks
Her short story, “The Sleep,” will be a finalist in my upcoming 2013 short story reading project awards post. See my post about it here.

6. Hugh Howey
I was spellbound by his runaway self-published hit “Wool” earlier this year. What a page-turner!

5. Henryk Sienkiewicz
The “elder statesman” on this list, his short story, “The Lighthouse Keeper of Aspinwall” was wonderful.

4. Neil Gaiman
Yes, I’d never read him until this year’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.” He hasn’t seen the last of me…

3. Steven Milhauser
His unique short story “Phantoms” was also among my favorites of the year. I think he also has a new story in the latest New Yorker. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s in my plans.

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2. Ruth Ozeki (above)
I just finished it, but certainly one of my favorite novels of recent years was her “A Tale for the Time Being.” I highly recommend it.

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1. Betty Smith (above)
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” was my other favorite novel for the year. A classic that I had somehow neglected until now. Also highly recommended.

Other new to me authors I enjoyed (“Honorable Mention” if you will): Alexander Pushkin, Rob Smales, Lori Benton, Jade Eby, R.J. Sullivan, Robert Rebein, Marissa Meyer (the Lunar Chronicles one, not the Yahoo CEO), Stephen Chbosky, Eric Garrison, Orson Scott Card, Kristal Stittle, Hagiwara Sakutar, Sam Lipsyte, Claire Keegan, Charles Beaumont, Rebecca Emin, and Alice Adams.

What a fun list to put together! Being reminded of discovering all these great, new (to me) authors made me feel good about my 2013 reading accomplishments.

What about YOU? Who were your favorite literary discoveries in 2013?

Steven Millhauser’s “Phantoms”

It’s been a couple months ago that I read this short story as part of my 2013 Short Story Reading Project. I acquired it, along with nineteen others, when I purchased “The Best American Short Stories 2011” anthology, edited by Geraldine Brooks.

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I selected several of the stories therein to include in my annual project in hopes of adding a more contemporary flavor to my roster (I tend to read or re-read a lot of classic stories and authors in these projects). Not all of the stories in the anthology are on my list for 2013, but the ones that are were chosen based upon the contributors’ notes in the back of the book. Millhauser (a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1997) says of this story: “For a long while I wanted to write a story about a phantom woman. It never came to fruition, for reasons I can only guess at. One day, unexpectedly, a different kind of phantom story appeared to me and dared me to write it. The story “Phantoms” is the result of that dare.” I liked that. Especially how a phantom story “appeared” to him – what else would a phantom story do? The story was originally published in issue 35 of McSweeney’s Magazine (cover pictured below).

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The narrator of this story (which should not to be confused with the Dean Koontz novel of the same name) is from an old town, founded in 1636, and surprisingly, matter-of-factly explains how these non-malevolent phantoms “plague” his town. So many of the people in the town have encountered phantoms that those who haven’t are actually a small minority.

What I Liked about this story was the unique way in which the supernatural was presented. Calmly, rationally, the author enumerates six separate proposed “explanations” for the phantoms. E.g., “the phantoms are the auras, or visible traces, of earlier inhabitants of our town,” or that “…the phantoms are not there, that those of us who see them are experiencing delusions or hallucinations brought about by beliefs instilled in us as young children,” and so on. Millhauser also includes numbered “case studies” and “histories” that sync-up with the different explanations.

The phantoms of this town always, upon discovery, disappear, but not after giving their spotter “The Look” described in this passage:

“Most of us are familiar with the look they cast in our direction before they withdraw. The look has been variously described as proud, hostile, suspicious, mocking, disdainful, uncertain; never is it seen as welcoming. Some witnesses say that the phantoms show slight movements in our direction, before the decisive turning away. Others, disputing such claims, argue that we cannot bear to imagine their rejection of us and misread their movements in a way flattering to our self-esteem.”

There is something about the rational and matter-of-fact way the town’s phantoms are presented that makes the story more chill-inducing than your standard issue “ghost story” too. In a section titled simply “You”, Millhauser challenges the reader:

“You who have no phantoms in your town, you who mock or scorn our reports: are you not deluding yourselves? For say you are driving out to the mall, some pleasant afternoon. All of a sudden – it’s always sudden – you remember your dead father, sitting in the living room in the house of your childhood. He’s reading a newspaper in the armchair next to the lamp table. You can see his frown of concentration, the fold of the paper, the moccasin slipper half hanging from his foot. The steering wheel is warm in the sun… the shadows of telephone wires line in curves upon the street… You pass through a world so thick with phantoms there is hardly room for anything else.”

Good stuff, huh?

In his final section, titled “How Things Are,” he finishes us off:

“For though we have phantoms, our town is like your town: sun shines on the house fronts, we wake in the night with troubled hearts, cars back out of driveways and turn up the street. It’s true that a question runs through our town, because of the phantoms, but we don’t believe we are the only ones who live with unanswered questions. Most of us would say we’re no different from anyone else. When you come to think about us, from time to time, you’ll see we really are just like you.”

I really enjoyed this story and its fresh approach. I’m sorry to say I had neither read nor even heard of Steven Millhauser before now, but I certainly plan to seek out other works of his. What about you? Does your town have phantoms or not? Have you seen any yourself? I have. (Well, kindasortamaybe.) Have you heard of, or read something by this author before?

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(above: author Steven Millhauser)