“An Itinerant House”

Never having read any Emma Frances Dawson, a literary associate of our friend Ambrose Bierce, I was looking forward to this week’s weird fiction story over at LibraryThing.

This “Deep One” turned out to be disappointing, so disappointing I’m going to spoil everything about it.

Review: “An Itinerant House”, Emma Frances Dawson, 1878.FanTales1

This one started out promising.

Mexican housekeeper Felipa is absolutely devastated to find out her employer, Mr. Anson, who runs a boarding house, actually has a wife, and she’s shown up in town, town being San Francisco, site of all of Dawson’s fiction.

It’s pretty clear that Felipa has been more than just an employee. She’s been Anson’s lover. We don’t hear what promises he may have whispered into her ear.

When Anson shows up “on pretense of putting his house in order”, Felipa calls him a coward and drops dead. And two doctors confirm she’s dead. The funeral is set for 36 hours in the future.

The rooming house is populated by artistic types. There’s our narrator, a poet; there’s Volz, a violinist, and Dering, an ex-medical student.

Claiming any corpse has enough life left in them for revival – but only once – if you act fast, Dering comes up with a resurrection scheme.

The narrator is skeptical. “Let her alone! … Better dead than alive!”

Volz pleads with the narrator (I’m actually uncertain if the narrator is a man or woman; presumably, the mores of the time wouldn’t allow a woman to spend so much time unchaperoned around men) not to say that: “… the nerve which hears is last to die. She may know all we say.”

Dering tells Volz to play music for Felipa. Her “gypsy blood” will be aroused by it.

And it actually works.

Felipa wakes up. She is not pleased:

‘Better dead than alive!’ True. You knew I would be glad to die. What right had you to bring me back? God’s curses on you! I was dead. Then came agony. I heard your voices. I thought we were all in hell. Then I found how by your evil cunning I was to be forced to live. It was like an awful nightmare. I shall not forget you, nor you me. These very walls shall remember— here, where I have been so tortured no one shall have peace!

And what then follows is the sad end of Dering (killed by vigilantes) and Mr. Anson (suicide).

Now the gimmick of this story is in the title. Felipa has cursed the house – and the house moves. It’s based on a real historical oddity: pre-fab steel houses designed in England or built in New York and imported to California where they were moved about.

What follows in a serious of episodes in which we hear or see various unfortunates done in – usually by despair – after staying in that house.

Volz, the narrator, and Wynne, an actor, meet years later. Wynne not only suffers from staying in the house but, possibly, from glimpsing Felipa in Mexico. He goes mad and dies.

A few years later, the narrator meets Arne the painter who has strange visions and drops dead.

At the end of the story, Volz and our narrator find Felipa’s curse has moved with the house.

There’s a skeleton of a good story here. The trouble is it’s covered by an obese prose full of allusions to opera, art, poetry, music, and literature. Volz and the narrator and Wynne and Arne just won’t shut up. But, with the exception of the narrator’s poetry, they are expressing their thoughts and feelings and experiences in other people’s words.

Now this can work in moderation. Edgar Allan Poe did it. Dawson’s friend Bierce did it sometimes – and it was one of his least effective techniques.

Dawson just doesn’t stop. We get it, Emma, you’re full of erudition. I don’t mind only getting about half the allusions (the linked Library of America site will give you some of the most significant). I mind characters, even artistic ones, not expressing themselves in anything but a modern version of classical allusion. It’s decadent in it’s lack of originality and allusion to the past, and it smacks, along with some of Bierce’s stories printed in the same magazine this story saw print, The Argonaut, of the California literati determined to prove to those East Coast snobs that they’re cultured too.

Dawson has almost given us a prose version of a cento – and that’s a hard form to pull off, especially this long, and she predictably doesn’t.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

3 thoughts on ““An Itinerant House”

  1. pete July 11, 2018 / 8:17 am

    That “American Fantastic Tales” anthology (and its sequel) looks like an intriguing collection to pick through for a site like this. I’ve read several stories from it, just not Dawson’s. I think my favorite from this volume had to be the Nathaniel Hawthorne story – “Young Goodman Brown.”

    • marzaat July 11, 2018 / 1:53 pm

      I haven’t picked it up because I have a lot of the stories in other volumes, but it, along with David Hartwell’s Dark Descent and the Vandemeers’ The Weird have become sort of standard volumes for our discussion group.

  2. Phoenix June 11, 2022 / 6:32 am

    Honestly, very well put.
    As I was reading I had the same impression and I’m glad I’m not alone. The story felt like a desperate attempt of forcing intertextuality.

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