A horror movie of a book, but one that has fun while it terrifies you.
The beginning of Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House mimics the opening credits of a horror movie. First, a dedication, a single lovely line on a clean, cream page (“If you need this book, it is for you”). Then three short epigraphs, each with a big, mostly blank page of its own. All distant, in that way that epigraphs are, until you realize, too late, what they really are. Warnings. Then the title page. Stark, all caps, the font only slightly larger but still a scream. You can practically hear the shrill violins announcing the beginning of this scary story, the true tale of a haunted house that isn’t a house.
Despite only being released a few months ago, In the Dream House has already been called genre-bending, wholly original, a work of genius, the first of its kind, brilliantly complicated, all of the standard phrases used to announce a work of exceptional quality that the mainstream doesn’t know what to do with. But don’t let that full you or scare you away. While it may be some or even all of those things – In the Dream House is certainly groundbreaking, and Machado is demonstrably brilliant – In the Dream House doesn’t defy categorization as much as it dares to be queer. And queer books, particularly the ones that break through into broad or even mainstream publishing, are instantly “othered.” They are portrayed as things that can only possibly happen once or twice in a generation or era or cycle or however it is the powers-that-be want to categorize what is normal and acceptable and relatable.
To portray In the Dream House as some monument of complexity is to undercut one of its primary characteristics, which is that it provides – or begins to build – a lexicon around abuse in queer relationships. And part of what makes that so vital is the book’s accessibility and relatability. Which is in itself a bit frustrating, because why should queer books always have to be relatable? Queer people have been having to fill in the blanks in straight books since the dawn of publishing and we have still managed to enjoy the odd book or two. Regardless, In the Dream House is relatable, it is accessible, and it is important.
In the Dream House describes Machado’s relationship with a volatile woman. She gives us the intoxicating first moments of the relationship and the heady fall into its exciting, consuming depths. She notes the warning signs, but also notes how confusing the warning signs are when they haven’t previously been identified in public discourse. In one powerful moment, she describes trying to articulate to her lover how she felt about her pinching her arm. It was an act of abuse, but as it wasn’t a push or a punch or a shove it is difficult to describe why it wasn’t okay, and so she ends up describing it in a way that makes her feel “like a fucking hippie.”
While In the Dream House is often heavy and occasionally grim, it is also a consistently rewarding read. Machado’s referential abilities are stunning, and she packs this memoir full of delightful pop culture metaphors and allusions, from the Animorphs to Star Trek to the book’s most consistent reference, Gaslight. The book is told in a series of tiny chapters, some as short as a line and none longer than a couple of pages, and most of these are based around both an event in the central relationship and a specific reference. This serves two purposes; first it allows Machado to build a consistently relatable, understandable and at times kind of delightful dictionary for the kind of relationship she experienced, and the second is that it breaks the heaviness and distressing nature of Machado’s experience and breaks it up into short, digestible portions. Trauma is hard to linger in, and Machado dexterously allows her reader to jump in and out of it, to learn from her in small lessons rather than one big data dump.
There are more qualities on display as well, such as frequent callouts to the chronically underappreciated Dorothy Allison, a warm, heartfelt appreciate for nerds and nerdly pursuits, a devastating but childishly enjoyable Choose Your Own Adventure section and frank and sometimes fun descriptions of the discovery of queer sex. There’s also a plot twist, a rare gift for a memoir. But In the Dream House’s main attribute is that it provides words to the voiceless. Don’t let decrees of its brilliance scare you off; In the Dream House is a readable, thoroughly entertaining and disarmingly relatable work. It’s a horror movie of a book, but one that has fun while it terrifies you. If you don’t read it to better understand your own situation, read it so you’re better able to understand and discuss someone else’s.