The Dumb House – John Burnside
In Persian myth, it is said that Akbar the Great once built a palace which he filled with newborn children, attended only by mutes, in order to learn whether language is innate or acquired. As the years passed and the children grew into their silent and difficult world, this palace became known as the Gang Mahal, or Dumb House. In his first novel, John Burnside explores the possibilities inherent in a modern-day repetition of Akbar’s investigations. Following the death of his mother, the narrator creates a twisted variant of the Dumb House, finally using his own children as subjects in a bizarre experiment. When the children develop a musical language of their own, however, their gaoler is the one who is excluded, and he extracts an appalling revenge.
Review: Well, that was severely messed up. It’ll be a long time before I can get this book out of my head.
I saw The Dumb House on a list of classic horror novels. It was first published in 1997, but I guess the book gods have already decided that it’s a classic. (Who decides which books are classics? I must Google that.)
Anyway, I was familiar with the story of Akbar the Great and his palace of silent children, so I was curious to see what John Burnside would do with that tale in The Dumb House.
The narrator, Luke, is an awful gentleman who’s obsessed with language, thought, and the soul. As a child, he attempts to dissect animals while they’re alive to see how their insides work. After his mother dies and he inherits her house, he moves on to bigger experiments. He convinces a homeless woman to move in with him and have his children. When his twins are born, he locks them in the basement and studies what happens to children if they never hear a human voice. The twins eventually develop a language of their own. Luke is so jealous of the twins’ love for each other that he decides to murder them.
“No one could say it was my choice to kill the twins, any more than it was my decision to bring them into the world.” - The Dumb House
Luke is one of the most screwed up fictional characters I’ve ever encountered. He’s realistically screwed up. This isn’t some over-the-top-supervillain nonsense. The guy is like a real serial killer. He has trouble connecting with people and gets violently envious of their relationships. He’s extremely selfish and doesn’t mind killing people or animals when he no longer has a purpose for them. Luke has no empathy at all. He believes that animals (and mute humans) are incapable of thought, so he doesn’t see the problem with killing them. He’s so creepy! Definitely not someone I’d want to meet in real life.
“If the components of the body were organs and veins and cells, then the components of thought and language were words and grammar.” – The Dumb House
I think Luke’s tone is what makes his narration so unsettling. He says all these horrific things in a very cold, detached way. He sees himself as a scientist, an observer whose job it is to learn about the world. He thinks he’s doing something good for humanity. His emotions only come through a few times, but they’re messed up, too:
“The very act of breaking the skin, of entering another human body, intrigued and excited me. I could see why people might kill for that sensation.” – The Dumb House
The story starts with Luke telling the reader that he murdered his children. Then he backs up to explain how he got to this point. I love the slow way the story unfolds. Luke was always a profoundly screwed up guy, but as the plot progresses, he becomes more isolated, more paranoid, and more violent.
John Burnside is a talented writer. Everything in this book is vivid and believable. As terrifying as this story is, I’m convinced that it could happen in real life. This story is scary because it’s so believable.
“When Mother had told me that animals found quiet, unexposed places to die, I had always imagined they knew they were dying, and accepted it, almost gratefully. Now I saw that this wasn't so at all: they crept into corners in the hope of surviving, they only knew they were weakened and exposed, easy prey, and their instinct was to find a hidden place and try to outlive whatever it was they were suffering. It had been a mistake to imagine they wanted to be alone, to die in peace. Animals have no knowledge of death: for them, death is the unexpected end of life, something they resist by instinct, for no good reason. In that sense their existence has an almost mechanical quality.” – The Dumb House
Since this novel is called The Dumb House, I expected the children to be a bigger part of it. They’re mentioned at the beginning, but then they don’t show up again until the last 50 pages. This is a slow, character-driven story, so it doesn’t have much of a plot. Toward the middle, I found myself getting impatient to read about the children. I guess it makes sense that they’re not a huge part of the novel. Luke is selfish. He wants to talk about himself, not them. They’re just pieces in his experiment. Still, I wanted to see more of them.
The Dumb House is only 200 pages long, but it’s one of the most subtly creepy horror stories I’ve ever read. I think the book gods made the right decision when they proclaimed this book a classic.