By Katharine Coldiron, Guest Reviewer.
Imagine a novel, mostly in journal entries or epistolary form, that unfolds slowly. Imagine that it bears witness to the deepening madness of a man who’s either a nascent schizophrenic or the victim of a voodoo curse. Imagine a sultry, blood-soaked novel haunted by the history of the American South and the complexities of Creole culture and heritage. Imagine that this novel uses a kaleidoscope of perspectives, no one view revealing all, and that its end bears destruction without resolution—more sour fruit of the Southern legacy.
If all that sounds appealing, you’re in luck: that novel exists, and it’s The House of Erzulie, Kirsten Imani Kasai’s third novel and her first for Shade Mountain Press. The plot involves a modern-day historian locating and becoming obsessed with the journal and letters of a mixed-race Louisiana couple from the 1850s. The husband of the couple, Isidore, suffers under a mysterious curse; we read of his descent first in his wife Emilie’s words, and then in his. Isidore’s journal comprises the bulk of the novel’s pages, which is a good thing, because his prose (and, by extension, Kasai’s) is extraordinary.
I saw Her last night, a vague and spectral shape wandering the cane fields, climbing among the shattered ribs of my ruined glass house. …I pushed myself through cloying lightless rooms as if wading through muddy swamp water, following the sobs of a crying child. I call his name but he does not answer except to weep and wail.
Sometimes the prose of these nineteenth-century citizens veers into melodrama, but that label is hard to avoid when considering a Gothic novel—which, make no mistake, is precisely the category in which The House of Erzulie rests. It sits on the shelf with Wuthering Heights, Frankenstein, the work of Edgar Allan Poe, and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca: restless ghosts, body horror, dastardly secrets, loves that should not be. The African American Gothic is often ignored in favor of the British variety, which is a shame, because there are just as many haunted houses and wailing spirits in New Orleans (more, even!) as on the moors of Yorkshire. The volume of melodrama turns up gradually as the novel progresses, both in theme and in language, but the book is so absorbing that this insistent music is hard to criticize without a particular distaste for the genre. Gothic fiction and melodrama share a lot of the same geography; this Gothic novel sometimes tips the carriage as it rides, breakneck, over its emotional territory. But in return, the reader is gifted with prose like this:
The house, the house! That cursed landlocked shipwreck. Pasted like a flyer onto my sleeping mind’s eyes, I cannot unsee it or spend a peaceful nocturne without wandering its spiraling, ruined halls.
If they are to the reader’s taste, the pleasures of this genre, and this novel, are exquisite.
If the initial, epistolary section of the book occasionally feels unpromising, it is because Emilie’s voice, perspective, and activities are appropriately limited for a woman of her era. Her letters are sometimes repetitive or trivial. But, crucially, they set down the groundwork for the horrors to unfold later in the novel. The reader needs to hear her perspective on what befalls Isidore before we hear his own. And once he begins to reveal that perspective, the novel becomes mesmerizing, clamping down on the reader’s attention and locking its jaws.
I believe little in Spirit realms, ghosts, or heathen gods, but if such powers exist, they trifle with me and take great pleasure in batting me about between their paws. Devour me now, I say! My cowardly soul has little use for this world as it is. I cannot account for my time, and my unquiet mind will not make sense of these events, nor find suitable explanation for what has happened.
What concretely connects Isidore and Emilie to Lydia, the modern-day historian reading their words and framing the novel, becomes clear only in the final pages. But what thematically connects the two stories is plain much earlier on. Lydia has had a bout with madness herself, and she practices what’s now known as “cutting” and what was once “bloodletting” in order to soothe her demons, just as Isidore does. Blood, literal and metaphorical, is front and center in this novel, from Emilie’s hemorrhaging during childbirth to the red Xs Lydia paints on a voodoo queen’s grave.
Inevitably, the topic of bloodletting in the South will invoke the spilled blood of slaves. The novel does not draw its emotional power from slavery (as does what is probably the most famous African American Gothic novel, Toni Morrison’s Beloved), but it does not ignore it completely. This is a challenging balance to strike. This novel covers a narrow emotional scope rather than a broad political one, but no author writing about the South in the 1850s can reasonably disregard slavery. Kasai negotiates the problem partially by gesturing to New Orleans as a profound melting pot, where racial lines are harder to draw than in other areas of the South, and partially by unflinchingly depicting a whipping and an auction in the course of the novel’s other, more emotionally central events.
The House of Erzulie privileges the spaces of dreams, imagination, and sexual ecstasy (oh, no, this novel is NSFW). It does not care much whether it’s taxing the reader’s patience, or straining her credulity, and at some point, the reader must stop caring about these elements, too. Kirsten Imani Kasai wants to take you for a tour of a particular house in New Orleans, and the best option is to accept her offered hand and go along, eyes open. I suggest you leave the lights on while reading.
Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Ms., The Rumpus, The Offing, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at The Fictator.