Not exactly the Mom and Dad you would picture for the traditional (and fabled) nuclear family, is it?
Photo Credit: A Grotesque Couple: Old Woman with an Elaborate Headdress and Old Man with Large Ears and Lacking a Chin, 1491 or 93 – 1570, Giovanni Francesco Melzi, pen and brown ink, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Drawings and Prints: Pharos/Wikimedia Commons/CC 0 1.0
These days, I don’t think many people would deny that families relationships can become grotesque when they are highly dysfunctional. It’s sort of a given that the post-World War II ideal of the nuclear family with the dad that goes off to work and earns the bread every day, the mom who stays home and bakes cookies and takes care of the kids, and the two kids playing happily in the sunshine after school is not only false but maybe even undesirable (let’s face it, when a family seems that perfect, you don’t want to know what’s really going on behind closed doors).
So when author and gamer Caleb J. Ross post on his blog about domestic grotesque fiction, I got interested. I’ve always been fascinated by the grotesque, those dark elements of life that are a little morbid, a little sad, and maybe even a little disgusting. The grotesque, for me, is an element of psychological horror though they can lean more toward gory horror as well. Ross describes his recipe for grotesque domestic fiction:
“Take a family situation—usually some sort of broken family dynamic—mix in something grotesque—possibly morbid but not necessarily—and you’ve probably got domestic grotesque.” (par. 1)
For him, it’s about pairing home and hearth with more unsavory elements of darkness. It’s the conflict between the two that interests Ross, as he states, “Domestic grotesque fiction … allows me to very effectively zero in on an idea by pairing dissimilar concepts” (par. 5).
I can’t deny much of my own fiction contains elements of the domestic grotesque and some of my stories lean quite heavily in that direction. It’s something I’ve experienced to a degree in my own life with my own family and my own psychological reality unconsciously seeks out the grotesque in the families I write about. Anyone who has read my recent book, The Order of Actaeon, the first book of my Waxwood series can attest that the Alderdice family, the main focus of the series, can be quite grotesque. But my idea of the domestic grotesque is more one of the kind of subtle, insidious psychological grotesqueness that makes families dysfunctional. There is a subtlety in the way that grotesqueness can insinuate itself into family relationships though can also be physically gory or gross.
I remember scanning my Facebook wall a while back and coming across an article that claimed to show some of the creepiest art around. Although I’m not good at tolerating creepiness, I was curious. One of these pieces of creepy art was a painting of a little boy, about seven or eight, standing against the backdrop of a heavily curtained window. Leaning against the window was a little girl who looked a little younger than him. He was smiling and his arm was lifted in her direction in an affectionate way. It took me a few minutes to realize that the little girl was actually a life-sized doll.
The picture stayed in my mind for weeks, haunting me (the article stated some little kids also get creeped out when they get near the painting). Part of the creepiness I felt I know came from my own light phobia of life-sized dolls but I was also curious about the little boy and that doll. Maybe his attachment to her had deeper implications about his home life. Maybe he was lonely or his parents mistreated him and he had no friends so he had made this life-sized doll his companion and his sister. One thing was clear from the painting – she was real to him. That, to me, is an example of the domestic grotesque.
That link between the grotesque and domestic which brings out deep and twisted psychological elements in the family dynamics exists in one of the stories in my first book, Gnarled Bones and Other Stories. In the title story of the collection, the relationship between the orphaned brother and sister Em and Denny becomes almost grotesque at the end when Denny dies in the hospital of a lung ailment:
The day Denny died, I stole away to the hospital. They were wiping his face in the hospital morgue, the Mole Hole, I heard the interns refer to it. I slipped in when they were gone and put my cheek against his. It was still warm like when he was flushed after telling me his silent stories. I close my eyes and I can still hear the stories about Mattie the Turtle and Potato Boy who was forced to work in the fields and sang at the top of his lungs Alive, Alive, Alive. They think that locking Denny up in a wooden box can keep him from telling me stories. What do they know?
Em’s devastation here leads her to blur the line between life and death.
The relationship between Gena and her aunt Helen in my work-in-progress, The Claustrophobic Heart, the second book of the Waxwood series, has always struck me as a little grotesque. Helen is like a child, clinging to Gena and relying on her to make all the decisions about life for her. In the scene below, Gena and Helen are having their first dinner at the Waxwoodian Hotel:
“Chicken or lamb?” I cocked my head at Helen.
“Whatever you feel like, darling dear,” she said.
I laughed. “It’s your dinner, Aunt Helen.”
She shoved the menu at me. “You decide.”
The edges of the table pressed into my chest. She had pushed it too close to me. “Which one do you feel like?” I tried to sound light-hearted.
The ritual had begun. I don’t think my aunt had made her own decision about anything on a daily basis for years. Like the duck at the lead, she always insisted I choose for her what to eat, what to wear, what shoes went with what outfit, whether she should go nap now or later. If I put it off, her wall of anxiety would build and eventually topple into a whining fit. Sometimes a siren went off in my head that screamed into a headache at the trap she had set for me regarding all those choices until I remembered that Mama used to do the same thing for her. It was just one more responsibility she had left to me.
The idea of deferring to someone else to order dinner may not seem grotesque but in the context of Gena and Helen’s claustrophobic relationship, this scene creates a feeling of uneasiness and suffocation. Although left in the care of her aunt since she was a teenager, Gena has become the parent and Helen the child.
The domestic grotesque is not easy fiction to read but it can be fascinating and, like horror fiction, it can touch upon the kind of fears and apprehensions we experience. In that way, the characters play out the discomfort we might feel.
Ross, Caleb J. “What is Domestic Grotesque Fiction and Why Do I Write It?” Burningbooks. Caleb J. Ross, 2017. 21 January 2012. Web. 28 February 2018.