Last November, banking giant JP Morgan released a memo referring to the US housing market as an ‘American horror story’. Over the last three years, words like ‘house’ and ‘home’ have become fraught with new meaning. Houses, once places of safety and nurturance, have become sites of pandemic confinement and financial exclusivity. They cannot be escaped, and yet for all but the wealthy, neither can they be acquired. For the younger generations in America today, perhaps no single idea is changing as rapidly as the idea of home. This, after all, is the digital nomad generation, the #vanlife generation.
It should come as no surprise, then, that this evolving outlook on what home is and means should be brought to bear on the genre of the haunted house. With Lunacy, Chris Coppel has crafted a unique and uncomfortable new vision of haunted America: a horror story where the supernatural elements serve as an uncanny gestalt for the rot seething beneath the sheen of the American Dream.
Coppel’s latest novel may be properly termed ‘the horror of instability’ (or so this writer is branding it). Lunacy shows an acute awareness of an unnamed dread that runs below the surface of American social life. It’s a muted but growing anxiety that mostly goes unacknowledged yet nonetheless pokes its ugly head into the mainstream through the occasional statistic (such as in this piece from The New Republic that reveals seventy-five per cent of young people don’t believe they will have a future due to climate change and economic instability).
It is in this era — the era of Donald Trump and Covid; the era of George Floyd and war in Ukraine; an era of profound disorientation and disenchantment — that Mike and Lisa Ellis move from LA to Washington DC. Mike, formerly an effects employee in Hollywood, takes a straight-edge bank job managing their virtual meeting quality, a role that no doubt has its origins in the global response to Covid. The couple begin the novel, as so many young people today are beginning their adult lives, riding the tailwinds of macro global economic and geopolitical forces.
As soon as Mike begins his new role, they purchase a house in a charming, all-American housing community a small commute from the city. The house is large, new, and, best of all, affordable. But there is a special meaning in this house for the pair. Both Mike and Lisa grew up in itinerant households: Mike’s parents were house-flippers and Lisa’s mother worked for a management company who moved her from complex to complex every few months. It isn’t just that they’ve never owned a house; neither Mike nor Lisa have ever experienced the stability of home.
The fairytale, however, quickly distends into a slow-burn, anxiety-fuelled nightmare. Mike’s job is threatened by the surreal acrimony of his new boss, but just as he starts to question his future, strange events begin to occur in the house. The dimensions of the walls and cupboards begin to change, as though the foundation was a growing organism. The walls of the basement stretch and reconstitute themselves, leaving a gap between them and the newly laid carpet. Their son Kevin begins seeing people who aren’t there, and the house starts to experience an unhinged and growing malevolence seeping into the open from beneath its pristine walls.
Coppel keenly anchors the weight of the novel’s trauma in the sins of the past. Like the rage cast at historical statues outside of capital cities across the country, Lunacy confronts the spirits of past violence, pushed beneath the surface of our historical awareness only to bubble up from the depths like the spewing toilet in The Shining (the house begins to manifest objects from some antique past, including, of course, a chamber pot — Coppel knows what he’s doing). It depicts a unique confrontation with supernatural forces. The novel doesn’t reveal a singular menace; there is no central antagonist spirit or nameless demonic presence. Rather, Mike and Lisa are tormented by a formless accumulation of absurd, yet terrifying, occurrences. It’s a formless, tangled web of aggression and absurdity that haunts their house.
The novel brings itself to a slow boil revealing voices and abstract malice (potential dangers seemingly without author), which is conventional enough, but what sets this novel apart isn’t the what but the who. Lunacy breaks convention by featuring a house tormented not by a villain but by the victims of ruthless and very real human institution. Coppel’s story isn’t one of humans versus the supernatural but rather one of humans versus the unbearable weight of their own historicity. Somewhere in the distance, Mephistopheles is giving a slow clap.
This is a true breakthrough for Coppel, a novel that rearranges the core modules of horror’s psychodrama. The novel is less scary than it is uncomfortable, but it’s a visceral discomfort in the face of a supernatural threat that is perhaps less poignant than what Mike must stare down at work. This is a couple that can more steadily look into the face of the undead abyss that runs below their house than observe a lilt in their stock portfolio. No one ever said home prices discounted for haunting represent a poor financial decision.
Horror so often exists in those seldom-trodden and forbidden places we were warned never to go or wander into accidentally. But Coppel’s vision is different: this is a horror story integrated into daily life in a way that should disturb us. Mike is a man more afraid of his boss than the spirits that torment him. He is right to be.
If you’re a fan of fast-paced, seat-clenching horror, Lunacy may not be your favourite. But if you enjoy carefully cultivated horror stories that resonate in the fear-laden recesses of modern life, this is a book to savour.
21 February 2023