“The House That Jessica Built” by Nadia Bulkin


“The House That Jessica Built” by Nadia Bulkin.
Short story. Published in “The Dark,” November 2016.

This story was suggested for discussion by Charles Payseur.

Payseur’s previous review of this story is well-worth reading, and he’s also written a discussion opener for us:

Something that I find particularly interesting is how this story uses belief. It’s something of a trope in horror that if someone has a completely legitimate concern (noises, silhouettes in the night, flashes of seeing…something) everyone around them will discount it and ignore it. That these other people will tell the aggrieved that they’re just imagining things. And it’s no mistake that often the person being disbelieved is a woman or a child. Horror tends to play with the feeling of helplessness, and this story certainly checks its share of boxes when it comes to horror tropes. This is far from a complaint, though. Indeed, I love how the story complicates the tropes, deepens this concept of belief, how it can be weaponized against a person, and also how it can be freeing and healing.

The story opens with a conversation between Rue’s father and psychiatrist, which I think is great, because already we have this feeling that she’s being cut out from her own story. Neither person believes Rue. Both feel like they have an explanation for what’s happening. Both take steps to punish Rue when their assumptions about what’s going on are threatened. Both gaslight Rue when she seeks to tell them that there is something very wrong in the house. Further, it turns out [SPOILERS] that the ghost of the story is in some ways suffering a similar fate, trying to assert her own identity when everyone is trying to say that she’s really just a shade of Rue’s feelings.

Of course, it goes deeper than that, but the real progress in the story comes when Rue is willing to believe not just herself, but the ghost of the woman haunting her home. And, of course, the ending, which is literally “I believe you.” And I feel like that goes so deep into how the situation could have been handled at the start, how any trauma or post-trauma can be handled at the start. Not people looking for ways to analyze a child’s or a woman’s words to make them fit into some preconceived and comfortable narrative (that often blames the victim for their own abuse), but with this trust that the person is being honest. Only from that place of mutual respect and belief can a healthy relationship be built, a healthy dialogue be built. Only then can recovery begin. The truth is, when someone tells us something difficult, something we don’t want to hear to trust, we have to believe them anyway and then examine why we would resist their narrative. And that is not something that horror often analyzes but which I think this story does a beautiful job illustrating.

Read the story, and join the discussion in the comments!

Charles Payseur is an avid reader, writer, and reviewer of SFF. His fiction and poetry have appeared at Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, The Book Smugglers, and many more. He runs Quick Sip Reviews, contributes as short fiction specialist at Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together, and can be found drunkenly reviewing Goosebumps on his Patreon. You can find him gushing about short fiction (and occasionally his cats) on Twitter as .

7 thoughts on ““The House That Jessica Built” by Nadia Bulkin”

  1. I appreciate Charles’ introduction here, because I didn’t really pick up on the tropes being played with at first. I found the story tense and frightening (don’t read much horror & have a low threshold for fear), and I had expected some sort of conflagration, rather than endurance/belief.

    On my first read, I found it a bit annoying how many people didn’t believe Rue, but also plausible (I’m becoming more and more convinced that we are REALLY GOOD at rationalizing whatever we want). Now that Charles has highlighted how important “belief” and whether supernatural horrors are real (and in what way – external vs. internal) in horror generally, I appreciate that this story plays with those ambiguities but comes down on the side of real & external phenomena.

    I also think I get the importance of that “I believe you” at the end, but I am horrified & terrified for the next girl who (even if fortified by having someone who believes her) is going to have to live in that house. And here we come to suspension of disbelief (I’m sorry, the only appropriate response to this is to either burn the house down or find an actual expert in the occult, who would have to exist in this world. But if there’s an expert in the occult and ghosts like this can have such power, then I’m reminded of the XKCD comic about how if ESP phenomena were real, here’s how they’d be monetized, and so the world in which this story can exist is a world that can’t be this similar to ours, and I think I’m missing the point of “horror” and “belief” now)

  2. My initial reading was, basically, that it’s a well done but very standard ghost story, which is a whole category that’s Not My Thing. I’m not hugely well-read in the sub-sub-genre, but I rolled my eyes at the backstory of the ghost, which seemed really cliche. The abuse/trauma angle wouldn’t’ve occurred to me, and does at least provide some explanation for why this might be interesting in its own right rather than merely competently written.

    On reading Jonah Sutton-Morse’s comment above, though, I’m kind of in the same boat he is– it’s a ghost story, and once you start poking at the foundations of a ghost story, the whole thing is liable to fall down (a big part of why it’s Not My Thing). I do agree with him, though, that it’s really pretty reprehensible to leave the house and the ghost there to afflict other families, and that isn’t really offset by popping in later to tell the afflicted children you believe them.

  3. I think part of why I think that the story works (and why the ending never seemed odd to me) is that is reads as uncomfortably realistic to me rather than unrealistic. That all she can do is come back to the house and speak to the girl there and offer her belief strikes me as powerful because in the real world, as much as we want to believe there are options to “fix” things, often there are none. Okay, maybe Rue could burn the house down, but maybe the ghost would just move. Maybe something worse would happen. And Rue herself would certainly go to prison.

    What I like about the story is that it shows how in many situations (especially for women, especially when dealing with abuse, especially when dealing with parents) there is no way to get a child out of a bad situation. The system is designed to disbelieve them. Social workers, therapists, etc., don’t have a lot of options and certainly don’t like to break up families or act to protect children as much as people want. When there’s abuse and it legally can’t be stopped, people want to further blame the victims for what’s happening because it’s uncomfortable to look at. To see. We want to demand there be a way to wipe it away and the story doesn’t do that. It shows that there is power in that final “I believe you” but yes, it also shows that being the extent of Rue’s power. Which maybe will help the girl not suffer so much, but Rue can’t burn the house down. Can’t kidnap the girls. Can’t exorcise the ghost. Maybe we want her to be able to. Maybe we start to blame her for not doing it. But that’s only further showing the horrors of gaslighting and abuse. For me personally I think it does a great job of showing just how important belief can be, but also how having one person believe isn’t enough to fix a broken system, which is the one that failed Rue and is the one still firmly entrenched by the story’s end.

  4. One of the things I really like in this piece is that, not only do people refuse to believe Rue, but they also build a false narrative of their own, and force Rue into it.

    A lot of thew beauty of this piece, in my eyes, is that Rue is not only going “Stop saying I’m making this up.” So much of her struggle is, very specifically, “Stop lumping me and her together.”

    Rue’s father is the one who names her — “Is Jessica going to be joining us tonight?” — and throughout the entire story, Rue is often more frustrated by that assumption than by the ghost itself:

    “Dad says you’re lying! He says Jessica isn’t real! You just made her up to get attention!”

    “Her name isn’t Jessica!”

    In scene after scene, people keep assuming, prodding, hinting, “forgetting,” trying to make the connection stick. Because if they can make it stick, then they’ll have turned Rue into the dangerous, hateful person she’s afraid of. And everything will be so simple, for them.

    This continues through the story’s core. Rue starts gaining the upper hand when she’s able to point to who the ghost is, and the way she introduces that is by discovering, “Rue was right—Jessica wasn’t Jessica.” For the climactic meeting with the ghost, Rue holds tight to the fact that the ghost is “Not Jessica! Esther, Esther, Esther!”.

    I feel like what the story is saying is that, when the world is against you, they try to make you into something you’re not. And then you’re forced into the position of differentiating, disassociating, rejecting their attempts to conflate you with whatever’s near and easy.

    So, I enjoyed very much, and thought it was very well-done. 🙂

  5. Interesting comments!

    As for not burning the house down, it does seem pretty firmly established that the ghost isn’t confined to the house. I’m not sure burning it down would actually help, in any way.

    But yeah, that does seem… weird, if you take it as a happy ending. I’m not sure it is a happy ending, really. It might be a tragic one “Uncomfortably realistic,” as Charles said.

  6. So – yes, burning the house down probably wouldn’t work. And yet in a world where ghosts exist, surely we’d have more developed tools to stop them? Surely we operate in a reasonably-informed world where when big and horrific problems that can destroy families rear their heads, there’s enough knowledge and reporting and suchlike that we can address those kinds of problems and develop techniques for dealing with them? Because if we didn’t live in that world, and if families and children and young women and other marginalized people instead just have to deal with all of society telling them it’s not really an issue and it’ll just go away …

    That’s really horrific. That’s I think what I’ve been avoiding grappling with in the story. Because Charles is making me realize that the horror in this story is a grapple-necessary horror.

    1. I think it can be read at either level – this might be the only ghost in the world, for all the story cares, or it might not. I’m not the type of reader to assume detailed worldbuilding from all short stories; I’m not sure that the story is directly implying that this is a widespread thing.

      But, by focusing on one specific case, bringing to life one specific situation where one is disbelieved and written off as the cause of the entire problem — well, when the story does that so well, it’s pretty easy to imagine the same dynamic being repeated over and over. For this to be a single story amongst many identical ones – none of which end in widespread understanding and assistance.

      With such a good portrayal of the dynamic of doubt, it’s easier to see how destructive doubt can be in other situations – situations that mean more to us than ghost stories.

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