The Victorian ghost story matures in “The Grownup”

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With its allusions to Wilkie Collins, Henry James, and Daphne du Maurier, Gillian Flynn’s short story “The Grownup” weaves a rich intertextuality of 19th-century Gothic tales. In its sharp focus on the trappings of economics, though, Flynn’s incarnation of the ghost story closely aligns with a different style of terror, that of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915). Combining the Victorian internalization of horror with a Kafkaesque existentialism, Flynn thus updates the haunted house trope by substituting the sinister English manor for a bleak suburban nightmare of home ownership, faltering marriages, broken families, and matrophobia.

As in all of Flynn’s novels, the psychology of “The Grownup” is driven by complicated mother-child relationships. The unnamed narrator opens the story by detailing her unstable upbringing, from her father’s abandonment to her contempt for her mother, whom she deems “the laziest bitch she ever met.” Instead of stable employment, the narrator’s mother survives by panhandling, exploiting her daughter as a tool to bring in more money. With age, the narrator’s grifting experience naturally progresses from street begging to sex work and fortune telling at the seedy Spiritual Palms. When one of her palmistry clients, Susan Burke, describes eerie occurrences at her house, the narrator, sensing an easy mark, offers her “psychic” services to cleanse the space of its negative auras. After she visits Carterhook Manor and encounters Susan’s disturbed teenage stepson, Miles, however, the narrator questions whether the madness and malignant forces portrayed in her beloved supernatural novels truly exist.

Originally published in George R. R. Martin’s Rogues anthology as “What Do You Do?,” the standalone story’s revised title more precisely indicates Flynn’s concerns about the claustrophobic anxiety that accompanies adulthood. In particular, Flynn highlights the socioeconomic factors that affect women of various classes. Acknowledging the demeaning perception of sex work, the narrator constantly colors the reality of her profession, referring to her occupation as “customer service,” “vision specialist,” or “therapeutic practices.” She finds herself deficient in comparison to higher-class, university-educated women like Susan, but the reality is that such women bear their own burdens of mortgages, aloof husbands, and antagonistic children.

Both women are, in effect, hindered by a Kafkaesque immobility, unable to reposition themselves socially or financially. That the narrator describes Miles scuttling around “as if he bore an insect’s shell, shiny and hard” is a direct reference to Kafka’s traveling salesman who wakes up one morning to find himself inexplicably transformed into a creature resembling a cockroach. Gregor Samsa’s alteration has been interpreted as a physical manifestation of the stress induced by supporting his family through a tiring and dismal job. Flynn’s childless narrator suffers through a similar drudgery, but her transformation is an emotional one, inspired by her growing understanding of the Burke family dynamic.

In such commentary on alienation and loneliness, “The Grownup” echoes themes of the Victorian works referenced throughout the story, but the strongest influence drawn from these novels is the unreliability of the narrator. True to the nature of the con artist, the narrator leads the reader to believe “The Grownup” is a classic supernatural tale when it is actually a psychological thriller about feminine fears about the loss of one’s independence upon starting a family. Indeed, Flynn never reveals her narrator’s name because she doesn’t have one single identity. Rather, she is the embodiment of every woman’s worry that she will eventually metamorphose into her mother.

“The Grownup”; 64 pages; Crown Publishing, 2015.

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