The Atrocities opens with Danna Valdez navigating a hedge maze. There is no risk of her getting lost, not if she can follow the instructions written for her using the grotesque statues in the maze as landmarks: a screaming woman with a collapsing face, a big-breasted bear with a child’s head in her jaws. When she emerges from the maze, pulling her roller luggage, the young governess gets her first view of the old, converted cathedral in which she will be tutoring an eight-year-old girl:
Stockton House scratches at the gray sky with two pyramid spires. Dozens of headless figures populate the yellowing, weatherworn façade. These sculpted figures reach to the heavens, their fingers curled. The wind picks up, dragging the heavy blanket of cloud across the firmament.
If you haven’t noticed, The Atrocities is well familiar with the tropes of Gothic fiction which we examined last week, and pleasurably delivers amplified versions of them throughout. The contorted, exaggerated art continues inside, both faceless and over-faced. The disturbing figures battle in the stained glass that obscure most all of the views out of the house. The Evers, who own the estate, refer to the building as a converted church, but what kind of church would have such baroque, chthonic figures carved deeply into the walls and staircases is never addressed. The immense dwelling seems to be more corridors than rooms, more of a place to wander, chasing sounds in the dark, than to settle and live. And the girl Danna has been hired to care for has been dead for several months.
When Mrs. Evers confesses that she brought Danna to Stockton House to educate a ghost, one only Mrs. Evers can see and no one else believes in, she fully expects Danna to immediately abandon her, as the last two governesses have. But Danna has suffered her own losses. Filled with empathy for Mrs. Evers, she can’t dismiss herself as quickly as she would like to, but when Mrs. Evers leaves the room so Danna can start her lesson, Danna can’t go through the motions of running through times tables to an empty chair, either.
Danna is the grounding force in a novel with a high current of the disturbed. That is, until, she falls asleep. Then she returns to her dreams, dreams she has been having for years. Stockton House can only aspire to evoke such dreams as Danna slips into. How the symbols and sequences of Danna’s dreams relate to her loss or the other ideas of the book is only occasionally obvious or even fathomable. But these dreams, some of them quite long, by shaming the comparatively quaint absurdity of the church’s art, do help explain how she can confront the quirks of her new environment without much trouble, though she does run through her little rituals to confirm whether she is awake or dreaming more than once.
Author Jeremy C. Shipp likes to throw in details to remind us that this story, which we could easily assume is taking place in the mid-nineteenth century, is actually set in the present day. There are 84-inch, high-definition, wall-mounted televisions, smart phones, a security camera system. These details work to heighten the Gothic elements by the intrusion of sudden, modern contrasts. The bits of today that appear thicken the atmosphere of the past by comparison.
This short novel is dense with detail and quick to take turns that impress you to keep reading. You’ll want to finish it one sitting because there is never a reason to put it down. Especially if you are in the mood for some Gothic fiction before our second Southern Gothic post on novels, pick this one up and it will give you a good, hard dose. Because how much more Gothic could The Atrocities be? None. None more Gothic.