“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 @ClowderofTwo.