the keep, jennifer egan
When I was nine or ten years old, there was a dilapidated Victorian-era house a few blocks from where I lived that appeared to be empty. We neighborhood kids would crouch outside its blotchy windows, peering through gray lace curtains at what we thought was a light pulsing from deep within the house. Being part of that giddy, squealing cluster of kids gave me my first taste of a particular thrill—part longing, part dread—that goes along with the feeling of being haunted.

This was San Francisco in the seventies, where another kind of haunting was also taking place. The 1960's had come and gone while I was a little girl, and now there were just the dregs to remember them by: addled hippies in rainbow-knit caps playing bongos in Golden Gate park, smells of pot and incense wafting in the air, and a deep stillness to the city, as if it were slowly coming to after a sharp conk on the head. In that stillness I could almost hear the echoes of the wild parade I'd barely missed. At times it seemed more real to me than my own life.

The power of absent things comes from the ghostly marks they leave behind—on places they've occupied and on our minds. When my boyfriend (now husband) and I first moved in together, we found an East Village tenament apartment whose four rooms encompassed 600 square feet. The rough pine boards of the tiny dining room were deeply stained with grease. On our first night there, I lay on a futon bed that barely fit inside the bedroom, imagining all the immigrant families who must have eaten in that dining room over the past hundred years, children laughing, babies crying, food landing on those floorboards—and a deep excitement swept through me that felt like crouching again at the windows of that Victorian-era house.

The gothic genre is a celebration of ghostly traces. At the center of most gothic stories is an old building—a castle or even just a house—that some believe is a symbol for the body or the mind. I'm thinking of Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" or Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, or (if you were a seventies kid like me who sneaked TV in the afternoons) Dark Shadows. Sometimes the house is haunted—there are actual ghosts—but often it's not clear whether the ghosts are really there or are just internal states of worry or obsession projected onto the landscape. In my new novel, The Keep, I explore the idea that internal and external hauntings are basically the same. We hear someone whispering into our ear—what does it mean? That a ghost is talking to us? Or that our imaginations have been sparked by the ghostly marks history has left on our surroundings?
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