The Ghost in You: Death and Interpretation in I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

The Ghost in You: Death and Interpretation in I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

Sensual reading shapes and steers the self as much as it informs it. The signs we take in and interpret define our state of mind, the contours of our body, and their place in the world around it. Reading special texts (collections of signs) brings experience and pleasures disjoined from the body–the sublime jouissance (“bliss”) of touching new thought, new language, and new dimension. This jouissance is limited, however, by the spacetime of its living reader; it cannot transcend its dying mind and body or its fading pasts and accelerating future. External texts collapsing into the reader’s internal ones, the reader’s only liberation to greater eternal interpretation is Death, its finalizing end, or its limitless expanse

For the inhabitants of that expanse, that liberation can bring paradoxical restraint. Their time freed from linearity, their corporeal past can still pull them back to its thrall, its vital phenomena exciting their minds as they jar–and hopefully realign–their “bodies.” Lily, the uncanny narrator of Oz Perkins’ film I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House embodies and asserts this, noting how haunting ghosts will:

…go back and forth, letting out and gathering back in again, worrying over the floors in confused circles, tending to their deaths like patchy, withered gardens…there is nothing that chains them to the places where their bodies have fallen. They are free to go, but still they confine themselves, held in place by their looking. For those who have stayed, their prison is their never seeing, and left all alone, this is how they rot.

She is not being impersonal. Going back and forth between times and bodies herself, her interpretation is direly internal…as is her dread of the rotting she fears encroaches upon her. Trapped in a physical house, between carnal and spectral bodies, and earthly and deathly Time, Lily must complete two separate but enjoined interpretations, un-maskings of two primal mysteries for saving self-knowledge and freedom from “rot.” She must move from the stasis of impotent looking to the existential freedom of spiritually seeing

This involves a double mode of interpretation–and subsequent double mode of being–similar to a third person dream where dreamer is both acting object and viewing subject, both hero and watcher of the dream’s “film.” As Lily herself notes, this process isn’t automatic. The temporal/bodily separation of the two “selves” brings a strangeness as potentially potent as the natural recognition, particularly that moment initially separating them–the sublime moment of death:

They have stayed to look back for a glimpse in the very last moment of their lives, but the memories of their own death are faces on the wrong side of a wet window, smeared by rain, impossible to properly see.

To realign with that point of revelation, and that face in the “wet window,” Lily must watch her living self–a nurse caring for the Horror author Iris Blum–solve the temporal mysteries of her last days as her own reading of their revelations brings the jouissance and self-awareness eluding her

In her living present, and spectral past, Lily arrives at Blum’s house (itself dying of rot) sneering at the author’s output (“the kind of thick and frightening books that people buy at airports and supermarkets”), marking herself a facile, surface reader. She is also a considerably faint-hearted one. When the estate manager suggests she read Blum’s most famous novel, The Lady in the Walls, she recoils, asserting, “I scare too easily!” Later, she comments on herself, “Some people, they just get spooked.” Each of these “flaws” draws living Lily to both the mystery of the dying, oddly-sounding house and that of Blum’s novel incorporating its story…her banal self-assurance spurs her investigation as her potent fear gives it tantalizing allure. Her spectral future, meanwhile, watches in wait, her past self and interpretation her own mysterious text to decipher

Both “Lily’s” will be engaged in two types of reading semiotician Roland Barthes referred to as the texte lisible (“readerly”) and the texte scriptible (“writerly”). The readerly text is that collection of signs whose interpretation demands no changing of consciousness, or rearrangement of self; its reading brings no real revelation, no sublimity. The writerly text is that sublimely alien, uncanny collection of signs reshaping the reader’s consciousness as they interpret their strange arrangement…the text bringing its reader jouissance. For living Lily, her readerly texts are the physical house surrounding her, and The Lady in the Walls and its literary history of Polly Parsons, the 19th century occupant of the house who mentally (and possibly literally) haunted Blum and may now be haunting Lily. For her future ghost, and “current” observer, she herself is both readerly and writerly text, both her mundane observations she has already experienced and the sublime discoveries and sublime death she has yet to fully interpret or absorb.

Living Lily actually begins this investigation with a simple written text, or as it seems at first. Overcoming her fear of the frightening, she begins Blum’s novel, seeking the mystery of the house, of Blum, and of the enigmatic Polly with whom Blum has confused her. Opening Lady in the Walls immediately opens the parameters of the novel, as Lily discovers a pressed flower in the inner back cover, a physical memento carnalizing the connection between author and subject…and possibly reader and subject. Her entrĂ©e made to the intimacy of the text, Lily reads and Polly speaks:

I’m not more than a few minutes old. I was tied to my mother’s body by a terrible rope. But now I am dead, and yes I left the world just as I came into it; I am wearing nothing but blood…I am as white as a sail. I tell this often to myself. I tell myself that nothing gets on me, but it does me little good. The words pour right through; I am too full of holes.

Lily recoils in both faint-hearted dread of the horrific and uncanny recognition of the eerily familiar, the image of blood-soaked Polly stirring her fears as Polly’s existential disease echoes her state…both moving her into sublimity–and sublime knowledge–within and outside herself.

Lily’s sublime reading in turns expands the readerly limits of the novel, at least for her, extending its signs to the house and mysteries it documented and releasing its hero from its printed words to the spiritual unbound. The house begins to reveal silhouettes and upturned carpet corners suggesting an uncanny occupant not entirely unknown. Polly’s transcribed words of her life, marriage, and matrimonial murder became literal whispers in Lily’s ear, hushed ominous warnings of “This is how you rot.” And these warnings become suggestions, and possible prophecies, as Lily begins seeing herself rotting like the moldy house slowly making her its own. Now heightened reader, and imperiled subject, of a ghost story expanded beyond its pages, she must work to avoid its promised ending even as its allure beckons her to it.

Spectral Lily watches all this with the intrigue and the dread of her doppleganger subject. A spirit who has left her body and bodily past behind, she is still dependent on them for her own self-knowledge. She is aware of both her post-mortem state and her removal from living space and time:

From where I am now, I can be sure of only a very few things: the pretty thing you are looking at is me. My name is Lily Saylor; I am a hospice nurse. Three days ago, I turned 28 years old…I will never be 29 years old.

Lily’s awareness of her ghostly state is remarkably incomplete; she is aware of her death and her aging’s end, but she remains nescient of what she is and what sublimity made her; still locked in looking, Death’s true jouissance still eludes her. Even worse, as Iris had warned her, she has not escaped the dying (the rot) that plagued her living body and encasing house:

You poor pretty things whose prettiness holds only one guarantee–learn to see your self as the rest of the world does and you’ll keep…but left alone with only your own eyes looking back at you, and even the prettiest things rot; you fall apart like flowers

To free herself from this spectral narcissism (and rot), she continues it to its climax, her bodily ending Polly found so opaque. At that sublime moment, living and spectral Lily become one, just as both “readers” move from readerly observation to writerly participation. As white silhouette becomes dreadful revelation, they converge into shared death, one shedding their body as the other finds real form. True jouissance closer at reach; Lily is ready for new readers, the house’s new occupants in sublimity’s grasp