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2021 Hugo Award Series – Short Story Category
Read John Wiswell’s “Open House on Haunted Hill” published by Diabolical Plots on June 17, 2020 in DP FICTION #64.
Minimal Spoiler Review
John Wiswell has crafted a unique protagonist: a house. I don’t mean in some obtuse metaphorical sense. The main character’s name is 133 Poisonwood Avenue. It’s a haunted house, and its realtor has opened its doors to potential buyers. Now, this sounds like prime time horror grounds for terror and madness, but—perhaps unsurprisingly—Wiswell turns expectations upside-down. 133 Poisonwood Avenue admires the power of “show off” haunted houses, but sets the record straight in the first sentence: it is not a “killer house”.
What ensues is a deeply empathic story about a house bearing witness to a father and daughter struggling with a recent loss, and working its haunting skills towards convincing them to move in. “Open House on Haunted Hill” is a short, barely over 3000 word story, so it’d difficult to discuss the plot and (more importantly) its characters in significant detail without going into spoilers.
Learn More about John Wiswell.
I can highlight, however, how this story succeeds as a horror story. The best horror tales render psychological pain into concrete terrors.1 By externalizing mental strife into discrete entities, these authors can explore the extremes of the human condition by depicting how their characters react when confronted by their fears. A fancy way of saying, “What if [insert something scary]?”.2 Wiswell takes this question directly to the object of horror, and has 133 Poisonwood Avenue ask, “What if no one ever moves in? What if I’m alone forever?” Talk about existential fear…
Instead of having the house’s fear manifested in some physical manner (which would be a cool story in itself), Wiswell has his protagonist confront its fear. So, in short, this is a story about bravery through adverse loneliness, in all three of its main characters. I do urge you to read the story before continuing into spoiler territory.
1For another example, I talk about how Rae Carson does this with zombies in my review of her Hugo-nominated story.
2And this is why I celebrate different takes on the same monsters. I’ve never been one to complain “zombies don’t work like that” or “vampires can’t eat human food” or any of nonsensical rule-making. Different authors have different fears, and see society through different lived experiences. By eliminating new interpretations of old monsters, we only lose out on understanding each others’ fears.
Spoiler Content Below
It’s hard for me to define the highlight of this piece—its unique narrator or the father and daughter characters—but let’s talk about Daddy and Ana. Wiswell makes a smart choice in not giving Daddy a name. Instead, all of parents and potential parents out there feel ourselves to be self-inserts for “Daddy” (and personally, Ana’s rambunctiousness and frizzy hair helps to achieve this illusion in my case). This pair of characters is depicted with admirable tenderness and patience, the traits parents at times struggle to adhere to. Parenthood is an important theme in this story, but I’d say this theme extends beyond to Caregiving. Wiswell creates a web of caregivers in his story. Even Ana plays a pivotal role through her adoration of ghosts and slightly spooky 133 Poisonwood.
The climax of this story is when Daddy and Ana are leaving, and the narrator—the haunted house is tempted into locking them all in, to keep these people as its prisoners. 133 Poisonwood sees how easy it would be, and finally understands why so many lonely houses turn evil. Being hurt for so long can make a house do terrible things. Wiswell imparts onto the reader that evil does not come only from within, but without. Connection and kindness is what gives people strength to continue, to remain hopeful. And 133 Poisonwood sees by losing hope and folding into manipulation, it will lose even more.
Wiswell’s Nebula-winning, Hugo-nominated story is humorous, hopeful, and heartfelt (and haunted!). It argues monsters need not be monstrous, and asks readers to take care of each other. If you haven’t read “Open House on Haunted Hill”, I implore you to hop over to Diabolical Plots and read it (and it makes for a good re-read too!). At just over 3000 words, it’s time well spent.
– Chris Airiau
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