Feature: Gary J. Shipley - The House Inside the House of Gregor Schneider
Updated: Sep 3
By Gary J. Shipley
I have a key. I let myself in.
And then I’m inside and it feels wrong, unsafe, like I’m returning to the scene of an unsolved crime, a crime that doesn’t have a name yet, some open-ended atrocity crammed inside an unassuming terrace for no sane purpose.
I follow the narrow, wood-lined hallway to a closed door to my right, to the endearingly ugly lampshade dangling from the ceiling at the foot of the stairs. There are nail holes in the walls and nails without pictures. Only the walls, and the walls are enough, and they are telling me something is missing. I open the door, its hinges groaning, behind it a small kitchen, off-white with dated appliances. At the sink in front of the window, its light framing her head like a Russian icon, is a woman doing the washing-up. Her motions are ponderous and robotic. She wears a black house-robe and loose-fitting black trousers, black flat shoes, and yellow rubber gloves. Her hair is long and lank and mousey. There’s a plunger on the floor to her left. The smell is of something perfumed masking something else: the can of air freshener beside her, or the green Fairy Liquid in the bowl. When I cough she doesn’t turn round.
I move sideways through a bead curtain to my right and into the living-room. Everything inside is meticulously drab: bland browns and magnolia on the walls, floor and ceiling, tired furnishings, the lived-in feel you get from lives that never get to be thought of that way by the people living them – as entities with contours and trajectories, as ontological extravagances that some living thing might actually inhabit. On the floor by a tiny television set are two white carrier bags filled with things I don’t feel ready to see. Another blue plastic bag is on the floor on the opposite side of the doorway. In the middle of a worn, patterned rug is a coffee table made of shiny gold tubing and glass crowned with two white doilies, one of which has a glass ashtray on top of it. I’m finding it difficult to get my breath. Even the light coming through the window is claustrophobic somehow.
I can’t imagine what might have been said into the wired telephone in the corner. Has it ever rung? When it rang, did the family look up from what they were doing and wait for it to end? For some reason, I can’t visualize anyone ever answering it.
The décor throughout is subdued, the arrangement of the furniture bleak – by which I mean, if I imagine humans sitting on the couch or the armchair I imagine them rigid, staring at walls, brooding some disgusting distraction from an otherwise incessant misery. The cushions are understuffed and sink into the internal angles of the couch like slumped little bodies divested of their limbs. There is a framed picture on the floor turned to the wall. I turn it 90 degrees and lean in to look: it’s a landscape that somebody doesn’t want to see, that has no business being here. I turn it back to face the wainscot.
I have lived in a house like this. The grubby yellow stains from cigarette smoke everywhere: inside drawers, across ceilings, through fabrics. I remember its isolated bodies, my being one of them, the silent frustration of undernourished imaginations exploited by one stark, restless room after another, where inside I find other creatures like me with bad posture staring at objects.
The most abnormal thing about the house is its intolerable normality. It’s a place of ghosts without ghosts, of murderers without murderers, of child-molesters where there aren’t any. The effect is worse than if they were there. Worse because they are there – doing things, thinking things – where I can’t see them, where nobody can see them. And to be hidden this way, even when one has breached the privacy of their house, allows them repulsive freedoms.
I return to the kitchen and open the fridge. Inside are processed cheese triangles, a cheap cake in a box, and a jar of gherkins. The inside of the fridge is peculiarly clean, aseptic, as if meant for items other than food: test tubes in racks, petri dishes, sections of once living matter. On the floor another blue plastic bag. On the top of the fridge a round beer mat with a pony on it, and the word pony in capital letters. Was someone promised a pony and this is what they got? I wonder what they did to earn it, but then I already know.
I have always been here before. But the locations are different. All the rooms in this second house are made to look the same, down to the minutest details, as the corresponding rooms in the first house: the same furniture, the same flooring, the same sickly smell, the same number and brand of cigarette ends in the ashtray in the living room, the same jar of Vaseline and the same appetite suppressants in the same bathroom cabinet. The same area on the wall at the turn of the stairs has been scrubbed clean, and it’s the same spatter patterns that have been wiped away, the same blood from the same person dead or dying in some other part of the house that differs from the first house in this precise way. But the sameness is a distraction. The houses are not the same. The details are a lie.
Children have lived here, inconsolably sad children, bed-wetting, self-harming children with marks on their small bodies that go unexplained: welts from electrical cables, burns from irons, from the cigarettes, from the hobs on the gas cooker that never heated them a proper meal. They’ve been here but they are gone. Nobody took photos of them that they could put in a frame and leave on the mantelpiece. If they drew pictures with the crayons and the felt tips that somebody at some time must have given them, nobody has ever stuck them to the fridge or pinned them to the doors or wondered why the sun looks like a frayed ball of black wool or the man is bigger than the house and has bright red hands that also appear to be melting.
In the basement there’s another room. In it are unopened packets of biscuits, sweets and kitchen towels arranged like gifts for someone’s idea of the cruellest-ever Christmas, the children’s birthday party where the games are played to the death. I think I hear dripping. Something is clinging ever so slightly to the bottoms of my shoes. I look down at viscid puddles in the uneven concrete floor, the liquid silvered in the bad light. As I’m leaving I see a cot mattress laid out neatly in the coal hole. Could somebody here hide infants from harm? The context escapes me. A punishment perhaps. Left alone naked in the dark. Nobody is coming before it’s too late.
I go back upstairs, up to the first floor, into the bedroom. There are no windows. The smell is a stronger version of the smell on the ground floor, the smell on the stairs. I try to place the source: I get foul sweat, nervous excretions, something dead, anal abuse, dried urine. It makes me not want to look inside the fitted wardrobe, all the more chintzy for its failed pretensions, or get to close to the child-sized body sat upright between the bed and the wall, covered upward from the knees in a black plastic bin bag. The body is still breathing inside. I hear the bag rustle, watch the movement of air around the head. I look for movement in the legs and feet, but there’s nothing. I sit on the end of the bed next to a fake fur rug and watch myself in the mirrored wardrobe door. It’s almost a relief to see myself reflected there, but there’s also the sense that I’m somehow incriminating myself, that I’m what’s wrong in this room.
A small electric heater on the floor whirs and throws out warm air across the malodorous carpet. I can see the bagged body over my shoulder not moving. I smell decay that someone has tried to mask with the smell of something else, I smell the failure of that.
At the top of the last narrow-gutted set of stairs (uncarpeted, painted in that ubiquitous off-white) leading up to an attic room is a baby gate. It is shut in front of a locked door. Through the keyhole I can see pornographic scribblings on the wall inside. I seem to remember seeing a changing mat, but can’t remember where.
I descend the stairs and enter the other door on the first floor. I can hear water running and grunts coming from inside. The bathroom is predominantly cream with chrome fixtures. On the sink is a used bar of green soap and a part-squeezed tube of toothpaste. It has the feel of the facilities in an asylum. It is damp and clammy. The shower is running, its flow weak and sputtering. Behind the curtain is a stooped figure of a pale, doughy-fleshed man facing the other way, masturbating. Obscured by his own contortions and framed there in a white cube, he’s one of Bacon’s studies almost come to life. The sound of his exertions: frustrated, pitiful, and pleasureless. Whatever he needs to get him off, he doesn’t have it. His memory refusing to serve him the required stimulus. I imagine it arriving unprovoked at some later date and him ejaculating unexpectedly in his trousers, his hands abroad somewhere, flexing.
Someone might drink tea while murdering a child. The tea would be the colour of a builder’s forearms. The bag used would be some ubiquitous brand: Tetley, PG Tips, or Yorkshire. The tea would only enhance the murdering of the child. There’d be fags too: Mayfair, Lambert and Butler, JPS, or B&H. This is democratized evil. Nobody is going to rescue it with a well-chosen phrase, a designer shirt, good teeth, good skin, optimum body fat. Nobody will even notice their shortcomings. Someone will even fart. This is not A Sentimental Novel, it’s Happy Like Murderers.
That it’s even possible for people like this to kill children is beyond what is reasonable for most people to entertain. It’s the plain crudity of this reality that’s most acutely obscene.
Imagine people this bored and this dull. People bored with no right to be bored. People whose tobacco-stained fingers imply violence, whose copies of the Sun and their TV guides imply the molestation of minors. Imagine not even being French, not even having a double-barrelled name. Imagine doing things to children with economy baked beans stuck between your teeth. Imagine eating fish fingers, frozen chips and processed cheese and then interfering with a niece or a nephew in full view of your shell-suited spouse and not knowing sub specie aeternitatis how fucking grotesque that would be. Imagine watching your overweight wife have sex with little girls and catching a glimpse of her hairy, unbleached anus, the aroma of lazy toilet hygiene, that withered scar between her pubis and her belly button, the fungal nail infection on every single toe.
If only Peter Sutcliffe hadn’t stared at those medical models of torsos riddled with venereal disease for quite so many hours. If only he hadn’t used a hammer. If only Henry-Lee & Otis had better teeth. If only the furniture in there wasn’t so shabby.
Anyone who came here would talk incessantly about the unspoken. How it’s all so sad, so repressed, so secret. But they’d recognize it alright. They’d see themselves and their own petty traumas played out again and again, the bleak timbre of their own unowned memories reproduced in the shape of a house. They’d go from room to room without resolution or consolation. The disorientation of no way forward and no way back. They’d avoid the sinister details of how it is they come apart. They’d put their ears to the tiny cracks in the walls and listen for the pain of others as for a foreign language whose very alphabet is beyond them – something Slavic, Middle Eastern, asemic even.
The unspeakable is being spoken. The translators of its unknowable tongue are not so much abstaining as throwing up the residue of their efforts.
A section of dislodged plaster on one of the stairs is shaped exactly like the area of raw skin on my father’s groin. He would rub a foul-smelling fungal cream on it but it never went away. When he dies I know it will still be there in the coffin, the fungus still alive, the skin still raised and sore.
I hear a latch on a door click shut, but it’s unclear where it’s coming from. The light appears to dim. I’m finding the longer I stay the less orientated I am. The increased familiarity is making me queasy. I walk up and down the carpeted stairs. The acute drabness is almost its opposite, almost gaudy. How is it that such understated despair is able to scream like this? I can hear the woman washing dishes in the kitchen: the clink of a wedding ring on a plate, the squeak of rubber gloves, the sound of repetitive displacements of water.
This misery feels uniquely British, uniquely stale, uniquely unable to contemplate itself. But it’s an illusion. I’m not even sure it’s uniquely human. The grungy brown carpet on the stairs and in the hallways, while too thick for use in public thoroughfares, is too familiar with too many different sets of shoes to belong to the delicate biosphere of a home.
I can’t work out if I’m late or early to the horror of this house, and if the latter just how precariously situated I am in this speculative timeline. If the former, there has been ample opportunity to clean away the evidence and yet it’s so pervasive that I must have arrived only after years of sustained cruelty and terror, and so to imagine it over with, that I’m really post- whatever it is this is, feels offensively naïve. I have the inescapable feeling that this predicament is inescapable. I can feel things being normalized here that are beyond my facility to imagine them. And how can that even be possible? By definition, nobody gets acclimatized to noumenal evil. Has the doubly abstract as a result become concrete?
I am standing by the stairs to the attic and I can hear footsteps below me. I try to remember the outside of the house, or more specifically the house from outside, but all that surfaces are generic details of generic terraced houses – in a row, stretching further than I can see – and suddenly the noise of the footsteps isn’t there anymore. I call out, but the house swallows up the sound so quickly that I’m not sure I actually said anything. I thought I heard myself, but then I’ve thought that before.
I picture someone downstairs in the tiny basement room, their neck craned against the low ceiling, not moving. They have sweets from the bags stuffed down the front of their trousers. A hairline fracture in the ceiling plaster appears to emanate from the side of their head. As if the party game is straight out of a design-your-own-crime-scene pop-up book, a black bin bag leaks a suspiciously thick fluid onto the concrete floor.
From one windowless room to another, I enter the bedroom again. The heater is churning the smell of soiled carpet in a continuous warm blast. The aroma of urine that has first run down the insides of a child’s legs, stale cleaning products, stomach acids, the semen of men fed on ready meals and cheap white bread. The body in the bag though still immobile is breathing heavily as if about to move. I wait and everything remains as it was.
I open the wardrobe and there are wire hangers on a shiny golden bar. The smell is mothballs and piss. The hardboard panels that make up the back of the wardrobe are warped and gaping at the joins. If I’m supposed to think of Clive Staples Lewis then it works. I am thinking of him, and of his Chronicles, and of his elegantly lucid Christian apologetics. But am I also supposed to be thinking of two lean young men, one Clive one Lewis, with Lewis at the wrong end of a pneumatic staple gun, his genitals, chest and buttocks all torn up and bleeding and festooned with innumerable little strips of hugging metal? I can’t be sure. I am convinced, though, with desperation and reason conjoined like preposterously unfortunate twins, that this in all C.S. Lewisian holiness must be where all the house’s children have chosen to disappear. That this, at least, is where I’m supposed to think they’ve ended up. I’m being no more and no less suggestible than being alive demands. For where else but this flimsy flat-pack gateway to a Narnia where no adult’s fingers even got close to a kid’s unmentionables? Where else but where the victims of sacrificial murder can come back to life and murder their murderers? Where else but away from peacetime evacuations and the emotional prophylactic of yet more joyless games?
As I pull the first piece of hardboard away from the wall, wiggling it free of the shallow grooves in the sides of the wardrobe, I hear what sounds like a baby crying from the impenetrably dark rift now there in front of me where the panel had been. I remove two more panels and step back out of the wardrobe. The body in the bag appears to be gasping for breath: I watch the black plastic repeatedly sucked into a mouth-sized cup, make out the nose underneath, the faint outline of two eye sockets and a chin. I ask myself if I’m watching a child suffocate. But this is art, so I don’t have an answer.
Compelled to do something, to not feel complicit in whatever this is, I reach forward and extend my finger into the centre of the inverted dome forming there in that moment, and press down into the middle of the taut spot, where my finger goes through, coming to rest on a hot wet tongue. Repulsed, I pull it straight out.
You weren’t supposed to do that, a voice says.
I am walking backwards. I collide with the corner of the bed and fall over. Scrambling to get back on my feet I’m screaming something about how I can’t just stand around and watch things die. But no one there believes me. No one there believes anything so innocent, so stupid and so demonstrably false.
I get to my feet and climb through the back of the wardrobe as if there is no place else to go.
The house knows I belong here. It’s consuming me now. The house is transforming into a warren of insulated rooms, rooms constructed for purposes I’m not supposed to be capable of imagining. Over and over I come across the same stifling architectural devices: walls built in front of walls, corridors that don’t lead anywhere, blind windows, rotating rooms and rooms that once you enter you may never be able to leave.
Gary J. Shipley is the author of various books, most recently Stratagem of the Corpse: Dying With Baudrillard (Anthem), 30 Fake Beheadings (Spork) and Warewolff! (Hexus). He has been published in numerous literary magazines, anthologies and academic journals. More information can be found at Thek Prosthetics.
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