This article is part of our series about the four stories not included in The Weird. See the Four Stories introduction for more information. — The Editors
Where should we draw the line between the Weird and magical realism? In Stephen Graham Jones’ Flowchart of the Damned, he draws the line between weird fiction and other forms of fantastic literature like magical realism and surrealism by asking whether the strange elements are assumed. If the characters naturally accept the bizarre occurrences, then it’s magical realism. If not, then it’s weird. But what if we have a narrator we cannot trust? What if the narrator is so disturbed that we’re not sure if the narrator’s assumptions are those of a sane mind? Such is the case in Otsuichi’s “The White House in the Cold Forest.” This short story is a tale from 2009 collection Zoo penned by Japanese author and filmmaker, Otsuichi.
I tend to agree with Stephen Graham Jones on his distinction between weird and other forms of strange literature. However, like most rules in literature, there are exceptions and I think that “The White House in the Cold Forest” is one of them. In Otsuichi’s story, the narrator is raised by his aunt and uncle, who ostracize him by forcing him to live in a barn out back while his family lives in the house. Eventually the narrator runs away after he comes of age, and ventures deep into the forest where he builds a house out of corpses. This house reminds him of the barn he was raised in and in it we can see the dichotomy of weird and magical realism. To be able to build a house purely of corpses is strange or downright impossible but to want to build a house of corpses is weird. So again, is this weird fiction or magical realism?
Another piece of this puzzle occurs when a girl, sister to one of the house’s corpses, offers herself in place of her brother so that his corpse may be returned home. She assumes the position of her brother’s corpse and remains there for days until she passes.
She slept standing upright. After a while she spoke less and less. Her face grew whiter and eventually became the same color as the other corpses around her.
This seems almost natural and accepted by the girl but we have two doubts here as well. First, we never know the girl’s thoughts. Perhaps the house of corpses is as strange to her as it is to the reader. Secondly, the girl is a third person in this story and is only seen through the eyes of the narrator. Certainly, there is no shock or dismay described but maybe that’s because the narrator, who is disturbed and unreliable, doesn’t pick up on it or denies its existence.
The style of Otsuichi’s writing also allows the reader to interpret the story in different ways. He writes in a very simple manner with very direct sentences. Perhaps only once do we ever see the narrator experience any emotion: when the girl dies he “[feels] a stab of regret.” In the first part of the story, the narrator details the horrible alienation and abuse he suffers at the hands of his relatives. However, we see no emotion, no anger, no despair. With so little to go on in terms of how the narrator feels, it’s hard to determine whether or not any of the story’s events are assumed or not.
Despite the simple style of Otsuichi’s writing, we have a story with all the dark, eerie atmosphere of any classic weird tale. Moreover, his simple and concise style creates a fairy-tale-like prose where the interpretation of what’s happening is largely up to the reader. Without a doubt though, the narrator’s strange and unsettling behavior in this story make it one of the great works of the Weird.