Bad real estate

The author of "Layover" picks five great books about malevolent houses.

Published December 15, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

The adage insists that there are really only two stories in the world: The hero leaves town, or a stranger comes to town. I would add, as a variation, that the hero gets stuck in a bad, bad place -- maybe even with a stranger. While movies may seem to have the monopoly on bad real estate ("Rosemary's Baby," "Poltergeist"), literature itself sports a long tradition of spaces you love to hate, even before Charles Dickens' "Bleak House." (Indeed, most of Dickens earns honorable mention on this grantedly idiosyncratic list.)

The Collected Tales and Poems Edgar Allan Poe
The father of all bad real estate. The crumbling, moldy, moss-sprouting walls in "The Fall of the House of Usher," the torture chamber in "The Pit and the Pendulum," the lavish but still-infected Prospero Palace in "The Masque of the Red Death" (a no-one-is-safe story I remember whenever I read about gated communities being burglarized): Poe is a catalog of real estate woes. You can't even trust the walls, which tend to close in to bury you alive.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
The house is haunted. It's really hard to heat. The new landlord sucks. And out there on the howling moors, you're not exactly commuting distance. (Runner-up in the category of "haunted house you couldn't have a harder time reselling if it were located right at the scenic Love Canal": Toni Morrison's "Beloved.")

The Watcher and Other Stories by Italo Calvino
Calvino is probably better known for his tale of glorious, magical real estate, "Invisible Cities." But I am exceedingly fond of this collection, which contains "The Argentine Ant," his 1952 story about a young family that embarks on a clean new life in a wonderful new house, only to uncover its horrible -- and incurable -- infestation.

Survival at Auschwitz by Primo Levi
I know, I know -- you think you know the story. But the genius of Levi's memoir, probably the finest memoir ever written, is the calm objectivity of his method of "bearing witness." He begins, of course, with the real estate. What are the bunks like? The restroom facilities? His cool account of how visitors are required to leave their shoes at the door -- then scramble for a pair of clogs that may or may not fit -- is shockingly moving.

The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard
The French philosopher's examination of how houses are used as metaphors. Attics, basements, closets: They all mean something. A useful book not only for the literary critic but for the dream interpreter -- Bachelard discusses, for instance, why we tend to dream about houses where we used to live.

By Lisa Zeidner

Lisa Zeidner's last novel was "Layover." She is a professor of English at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J.

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