The Practical Witch’s Guide to Acquiring Real Estate | A.C. Wise
⇒Read the story @ Uncanny Magazine⇐
I like when people working in genres like fantasy bring in a nontraditional form (lists, questionnaires, how-to articles, interviews, etc.) to reframe their story and show their subject in a different light. That’s what A.C. Wise’s incredibly imaginative story does, taking a standard element of the fairy tale–which is to say, the witch’s house–and bringing it to life as the central “character” in this mock How-To article.
When I first discovered this piece over at Uncanny Magazine, it was the title that grabbed me. I began reading with the expectation that we would be getting some sort of quirky humor piece a la McSweeney’s Internet Tendency but with a fairy-tale twist. If you’re not familiar with McSweeney’s online content, they’ve basically made an art form out of combining too contrasting things (a sort of postmodern high/low juxtaposition) for hilarious effect. McSweeney’s has pieces where a video game character argues for gay marriage or a guy who curses like a sailor gets excited about decorative gourds. That sort of thing. Now we have the fantastic (witches) and the mundane (real estate) combined in Ms. Wise’s story.
But as it turns out, this story is much more than a comic monologue of the ironic-juxtaposition variety (not that I have anything against McSweeney’s). What begins as a gently funny remix of the witch’s house trope turns into something far more complex and compelling.
Let’s look at what’s going on here.
Structure and Narrative Movement:
The piece is written in essay form, a How-To article, so the familiar conventions of this style are in effect here. We move from one subject/aspect to another with the appropriate headings: Introduction, Section 1: Buying, Section 2: Squatter’s Rights, etc., with the sections’ movement from familiar to fantastic serving as the story’s principal mode of narrative escalation. The essay form gives the story a conceptual rather then traditional narrative structure.
Still, I would challenge any claim that this is a “non-narrative” story, despite the fact that it isn’t shaped like a traditional story. Personally, I’m not sure I believe there’s such a thing as “non-narrative” storytelling: one way or another, the author and reader are traveling from point A to point B, and this is a progression based on change, emotional escalation, movement.
What really brings this piece to life is its use of “anecdotes” to demonstrate the various scenarios, good or bad, that are described over the course of this “practical guide.” This is how we learn about Dee St. Pierre, who squatted her way into a “darling cottage” in Cape May, NJ. This is also how we learn about Mary Townsend of Harleysville, PA, who was set on fire by her neighbors, her vacant home left to mourn its owner.
What would otherwise be a simple parody of a how-to article is instead alive with witches and sentient houses, and these vignettes transform the story into whole different creature entirely. The author skillfully navigates us between emotional peaks and subdued explication, modulating her diction accordingly. Thus we have gorgeous language like this
The only one who mourned was Mary’s house—a great sighing of wind in the chimney, and a chorus of floorboards like ancient joints popping.
followed by banal, how-to guide prose:
Building one’s own home is an attractive option for many witches.
The piece pulls off a very skillful dance between the literary/fantastic and the humdrum essay style that we’ve expected, so we never know which way the piece will go next.
Since this is a how-to guide, ostensibly, we get a lot of second-person You-sentences, but the fantastic side of this story sometimes takes this second-person into very personal, emotionally intense territory:
Do you remember when you first became a witch?
When you woke with fire inside you, setting your whole body aglow. Did your bones crack and turn inside your skin? Did you step off a cliff, in front of a train, or from a building when you first learned you could fly?
This demonstrates just how versatile second-person can be (despite what one may expect); it pulls the reader-as-witch into the story one moment, then offers uninflected information the next.
Magic, Nature and Conflict:
This story does not have a stable protagonist (the “You” persona’s identity is constantly shifting, always hypothetical), but we do see the emotional stakes of the story rise through a central conflict, which I suppose boils down to something as simple as the Quest for a Home. (Sure, you could go to town analyzing this piece as a commentary on female identity, self-actualization, autonomy, social acceptability, or Otherness in general–but I’m going to leave that discussion to someone else.)
The pursuit of this goal becomes increasingly dangerous, of course, as magic and nature (which appear almost interchangeably in this story) either help or complicate efforts to create one’s own home. Which brings me to the part of the story I like best: the magical animation of houses into living, breathing, feeling creatures with their own wants and needs. Suddenly, real estate is no longer about bricks and mortar but about an organic object that interacts with its resident. While the “haunted house” concept is the tried-and-true way to imbue human emotions into an inhuman structure, this story demonstrates that a house can come to life for reasons other than simply to avenge the murder of one of its occupants.
All in all, the author’s deconstruction of the “witch’s house” conceit–and the How-to article, for that matter–make for a truly mesmerizing story.