Cassandra Knye - The House That Fear Built

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The House That Fear Built

written with John Sladek, as by "Cassandra Knye"
To whit, the first paragraph of The House that Fear Built:

And subsequent resolution 154 pages later...

Between which telos we encounter: thunderstorms; earthquakes; a Rhine castle in Mexico; a haughty, forbidding matriarch; imprecations not to go into the cellar; an eerie portrait; wandering ghosts; superstitious servants; repeated attempts on the heroine's life - including falling statuary, a gila monster, drowning, and shooting; shrieking; swooning; fever dreams; a subplot of thwarted lovers; drugging; secret passages; a murderous lackey; revenge murders; a lunatic nazi locked away in the cellar; the heroine fleeing from the burning house; and a fight to the death on the edge of a volcano.

And at the heart of all this: Nan Richmond, our heroine, the character with whom the intended audience (not you) cannot help but identify, because they are Nan Richmond. She enjoys show tunes, she bakes toll-house cookies, the gifts she buys for her family may not be expensive but (and what homekeeper would not proudly say the same) they are chosen with love. A small town girl with a job as a secretary, like the intended audience she enjoys reading, but for the romance of it, not to be bookish or academic. "You can know more about life from one minute of living it than from a lifetime of reading about it" though this might be undermined by consideration of Nan's stupidity and the preposterousness of the plot. For what is Nan, with all her self-consciousness, but a tuning fork alternating love, fear, and social embarrassment. But for all the vicarious thrills, in empathising with Nan, the reader is rewarded with the comforting knowledge that a good heart in life is best and wealth and high living do not bring happiness.

For small-hearted people like myself, who have not the goodness and grace of spirit to be on the same level as Nan and her supporters, the problem in reading in all this is how seriously to take it as a creative work. Disch and Sladek, in their other works, are great spoofers and mockers so one comes to this expecting pastiche, etc. But, even if I didn't suspect some element of the playful, would I be capable of reading one of these ladies' gothic novel at its own value, or would I only be able to read it as unintentional camp, and where Disch and Sladek have done a workmanlike job in accordance to the blueprint, I'm granting them the benefit of the doubt and saying it is intentional camp. Yes, it's formulaic (from Bluebeard down Rebecca way, and any other number of forebears outside of this specific commercial formula); yes, it has a nigh-hysterical tone, but have Disch and Sladek upped the ante in any way (a Gothic castle in Mexico? Jorge Luis Borges a great matador?), are they mocking their audience, or is this exactly what the audience paid for every time (it was reprinted twice) ?

Sladek, solo, wrote another Cassandra Knye novel, The Castle and the Key. Cassandra Knye as a character appears in Disch's short story "Getting Into Death", where The House That Fear Built is instead about a Nazi general disguised as his own grandmother. And Sladek works an appearance for Casandra Knye into his pastiche book of occult pseudoscience Arachne Rising; to which putative astrological attribution I am proud to lay claim inclusion. As "Cassandra Nye" A.N.Other (an occasional Disch collaborator) wrote the short story "Drumble" in The New Improved Sun and the novel Steps to the Grotto.


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Edited by Disch

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