Ghost stories are so ubiquitous in our culture that — if you’re interested in the concept of ghosts in general, like I am — it can feel difficult to find truly original ones. The worst ghost stories simply prey on our most basic, primal fear of not being able to overcome something potentially more powerful than us. The best ones, though, operate on a whole other level. The best ones take that fear and the tropes of typical ghost stories and upend them. They turn our terror and discomfort into entirely different emotions and twist our understandings of ourselves and the people around us to reveal something very real (and often dreadful) about the state of living through the inevitably of loss and heartbreak.
In her debut novelette, Helen House, Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya expertly crafts a ghost story that is a thrilling, erotic, and unnerving example of the latter. Set about a year into a relationship that the unnamed narrator isn’t even sure she wants, Helen House begins with a revelation the narrator doesn’t expect just days before her and her girlfriend, Amber, are about to embark on a trip to meet her girlfriend’s parents: Amber’s sister died when they were young children and Amber’s parents, Pam and Arnold, are perpetually trapped in the cycle of grief that began all those years before. This propels the narrator into a spiral about her own grief — as the narrator also lost her sister just four years before the novelette’s beginning — and disappointment over the fact that Amber hadn’t shared this information sooner.
Before we even get to Amber’s parent’s house, the narrator divulges some secrets she’s also been holding onto. We learn how her sister’s death catapulted her into using sex and her relationship with Amber as coping mechanisms that she doesn’t want to fully escape from. At Amber’s parent’s house, there’s a strange feeling in the air that the narrator can’t really put her finger on. This family is very obviously still deep into mourning their lost child and lost sister, but the narrator doesn’t judge them for it. Instead, she resolves to be the “best” girlfriend she can be and goes along with the peculiarities — the sweltering heat of the house, the weird wifi password, the way Amber’s parents treat Amber as if she could be both Amber and Helen for them at the same time — the ensuing days have in store for them. Helen’s death haunts Amber’s family in their dreams, and similarly, the narrator’s grief is part of every situation even if the other characters can’t feel or see it. As time passes, the interactions between the four characters get more and more discomfiting. It all builds to an ending (or maybe it’s not an ending at all?) you couldn’t possibly see coming.
The narrative itself is a fresh take on the haunted house/haunted person story, which makes Helen House feel especially extraordinary. But what is truly special about this big little story is the way Upadhyaya builds profound atmospheric tension in a small amount of space and flips certain tropes in stunning directions. In a pivotal dinner party scene, we see how ingeniously Upadhyaya does both of these in tandem.
As Pam and Arnold realize that Amber didn’t tell them she was recently promoted at her job, the narrator notices the ambience of the room changing and says, “Pam and Arnold’s warmth leaked away. […] Pam nodded, but she didn’t look up from the spindly, naked pheasant bones on her plate. Arnold forced a smile, and I decided, no, he wasn’t good at acting after all. The silence was larger in the heat. I noticed the walls sweating condensation behind Arnold’s head. It was odd, the walls so slick and glistening. Was it because it was so cold outside? Did they have a leak? Was I seeing it right? I wanted to reach out and touch the wall.”
Helen House is filled with moments we expect in horror, moments where we question why the narrator isn’t acting on the strangeness of what she’s experiencing, moments where we can see a clear out for the narrator, alongside her, and yet she is frozen in place. These scenes provide some frustrating anxiety over where the narrator’s story might be heading, and then, every time, Upadhyaya draws you back in and shows you that — much like grief itself — not all bizarre circumstances are as easy to get out of as they may seem: “Here’s what I knew then: I knew we were both unwhole. I knew we were the living ones but that we were also the ghosts. I knew death was a sieve, full of holes that can’t be plugged at once. […] I didn’t tell her I fuck away the pain, and I never would. I would never tell her I almost ended things the second we started having less sex. I only didn’t go through with it because I did care about her and did get more than sex out of our relationship and couldn’t bear to lose her because of my own shit I hadn’t even begun to untangle because oh god untangling this shit wouldn’t be worrying a knot unloose, it would be another destruction.” The self-awareness that Upadhyaya grants the narrator in these moments imbues the narrative with a sense of dread about the way we carry hauntings within ourselves in the forms of shame-filled withholding and secrets about who we are and what we want.
At the end of the Helen House, we’re left with more questions than answers about where the characters’ lives are going (or not going) after the events of their time together. But what is not left up for interpretation is Upadhyaya’s ability to craft a ghost story that both feels thoroughly new and exciting and also reminds of something that’s hard to forget or run away from: “We all do things to keep the dead with us.”
Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the Managing Editor of Autostraddle.com but was not involved in the creation of this review.