Carmen Maria Machado Has Invented a New Genre: the Gothic Memoir

The haunted narrative of "In the Dream House" shows that memoir and gothic novels have more in common than you think

Photo by Shane Gorski

In the middle of Carmen Maria Machado’s new memoir In the Dream House, CARMEN, stylized in all caps like a play script, sits across from the woman with whom she’s been in an abusive relationship (THE WOMAN IN THE DREAM HOUSE). The scene is set (“the curtain rises”) and we’re shown, “the house inhales, exhales, inhales again.”

Image result for dream house by carmen maria machado

This moment, setting the tone in its quiet terror, is an example of what makes Machado’s memoir so extraordinary. The construction and style of playwriting is the perfect way to show what is so hard to describe: that trauma objectifies us in the strangest ways, that we can feel like figures moved around on stage by something unseen. This othering works because that’s how memory works; we look back in time to see ourselves talking and acting but we’re powerless to stop it. And there, at the end of this scene, we have the Dream House, which breathes and terrifies and haunts throughout the memoir. This small scene is one glimpse into how In the Dream House is not only a memoir but a masterclass in what genre can do. 

Genre is Machado’s sandbox; her short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, troubles genre as often as it indulges in it, cherry picking from science fiction, horror and apocalyptic fiction. Dream House takes this to a delightful extreme. It picks up tropes, motifs and imagery and mixes and matches with joy. We see the dream house as soap opera, folk tale, self-help book and, running throughout always, the gothic. In Dream House, with its doppelgängers, hauntings and descents into trauma, Machado shows us that there is nothing more gothic than our own memory. 

Surely, no genre is more ripe for gothicizing than the memoir. To write about yourself is to double yourself, and looking back at your own life with present-you eyes is definitely uncanny. The point in a memoir at which we confront the worst parts of our memory is the ultimate descent: into trauma, into the bottom floors of our minds, into madness. These are all characteristics of gothic literature, the joys found in reading The Castle of Otranto, the fear waiting for us in Jane Eyre’s red room. And yet, for whatever reason, most memoirs not only ignore but resist the innate gothicness of memory; instead, they provide an artificially neat story, with no significant hauntings. Machado has the guts and the chops to embrace the fundamental eeriness of her project, and thus invent something new. It’s a retelling of an experience that feels at once uncanny and uncomfortably familiar to the reader. All of the ways in which memoir has the potential to be unsettling are heightened by the use of gothic standbys. And in memoir, the gothic can take new forms in ways that reinvent a centuries-old genre. 

No genre is more ripe for gothicizing than memoir.

In the classic gothic novel, a woman descends within a house, usually down stairs—away from the light, into the unknown. Memory sometimes works this way in a memoir, with the author delving further back into her past (although it’s more common to start all the way at the bottom of memory, as it were, and then ascend). But Machado also gestures toward descent in other, surprising ways. Footnotes draw us to the bottom of the pages as we read, directing us to an encyclopedia of folk motifs. “Choose Your Own Adventure” moments give us the allusion that we can control something that’s already happened even though it will remain unchanged. “Go to page ____ if you _____,” as if memory offered any possibility, as if we can change what’s already been done to us. 

Doppelgängers abound in Dream House, too. This is where the possibilities of gothic memoir really shine. Machado moves through the book with different pronouns: she is “I”, “you” and “CARMEN” at various points. By moving swiftly through pronouns and disrupting point-of-view, she others herself and renders language itself uncanny. At the same time, the act of writing about yourself is its own doubling. Machado is our unreliable narrator, reminding us how tenuous the connection between memoir, storytelling and the truth of memory can be. And, to complicate further, when a book is built in a way that purposefully mimics tropes from other genres, is the book itself a doppelgänger? 

And throughout the memoir, there’s the most recognizable gothic trope of all: the haunted house. The dream house itself serves as a character, as well as a place that haunts and is haunted. There is doubling here again: the dream house is at once the physical house where the abuse took place and the structure of memory we navigate while we read. Within it, you can lose your mind to the point that you feel like you are the one doing the haunting. The house transforms with every chapter: The Dream House as memory palace, The Dream House as Murder Mystery, The Dream House as Modern Art. A house can be so many things at once when you lived there during one of the worst times in your life. It takes new shape again and again so that we can understand it. Shapeshifting: another gothic trope. 

In the gothic there is always something we know is there but can’t see until the time is right: the monster in the house.

When we picture haunted houses we imagine long corridors with doors that lead nowhere or doors that won’t open at all. A memoir can work like that, too. You navigate another person’s memory and find questions with answers that aren’t easy and questions with answers that don’t exist.  This is one reason memoir, though rarely explicitly gothic, always has an element of the gothic to it. In the gothic there is always something to be found, something we know is there but can’t see until the time is right: the monster in the house. Often, we think of writing memoir as a cathartic way to face deep traumas and truths within ourselves; but the craft of writing memoir also offers the unique opportunity to choose where those dead ends and closed doors are placed, and what we discover behind them. The memoirist gets to both build the house and haunt it. 

In Dream House, the house is inhabited by two people in love—past Carmen, the one Machado calls “you,” and the unnamed woman—but it’s also haunted by their pain. Like most ghosts, this relationship is at once absence and presence, then and now: lovers in a house, but cohabitating with something darker. To marry the gothic and the memoir is the perfect way to illustrate the harsh realities of abuse, because abuse rarely feels linear; in an abusive relationship, a source of comfort becomes strange and unfamiliar, a secret monster. By moving in and out of time and manipulating tropes, Machado creates an uncanny and unsettling portrait of how a once loving and exciting relationship can decay and self-destruct.  Every ghost has a before-and-after: what they were and what they’ve become. Reading Dream House, you witness the optimism of a new relationship turn into something awful. What should be a place of safety becomes a site of anguish and hysteria. The spectre of abuse, the pain and shame of it, lurks around every corner in Dream House

Machado cites studies of abuse between queer women, using objective research along with the gut-punch of her own experience. Machado’s memoir introduces The Queer House to the genre when she shows us the house she shared with “the woman.” It’s a house with closed doors, that presents itself as benign to outsiders but is filled with horror: this is the house of abuse. About halfway through the memoir, light is shone on something that we don’t talk about within the queer community, something we rarely look at directly—if the house is queerness, then queer abuse is our monster in the house.

No one’s experience with abuse is the same, just as each queer couple’s dynamics differ from others’. But In the Dream House exists as an unsettling, spiraling account of queer abuse as it happened to one woman, in one house, in this way. The abuse illustrated in Dream House is hard to witness, like most accounts of abuse are, but it demands acknowledgement. Much in the way that gothic literature and horror forces us to look at things we’ve long avoided in our own lives and in the world, the gothic memoir marries the toughest moments of personal and universal experience. It serves a dual purpose; it’s a very real moment in one person’s life and a crucial piece of a larger narrative, a hard look at something that’s always been around us. The abuse is there, but no one talks about it. The ghost is here, in the house with us, and confronting it is the only way to push through. 

There are moments in Dream House that feel impossible to confront for Machado and, in turn, for the reader. She’s in the car with the woman from the Dream House and the woman is driving fast enough to kill them both, and the fear is heady and suffocating as you read. But you cannot look away. She’s in the Dream House and the woman is beating her fists on the bathroom door. We read, and feel the thudding within ourselves. The story feels wholly personal and internal, but also painfully, painfully universal.

In the Dream House may be the first book that could be described as a “gothic memoir,” but it also highlights all the ways in which the memoir was always already gothic. The gothic is all about ghosts (real and imagined) and just like ghost stories, memoirs are all about witnessing. In Machado’s descent into memory, we see a necessary portrait of a queer relationship rarely shown. And just as much as the relationship with “the woman” illustrates the realities of queer abuse, the memoir’s plot twist—yes, a memoir has a plot twist—reminds us of the depth of queer joy. Finishing Dream House is like walking back up the staircase, into the light. 

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