Gillian Flynn’s short story “The Grownup,” lauded as an “homage to the classic ghost story” and winner of the Edgar award, has been published in a standalone format for the first time. I picked it up on Sunday, bewitched by the cover. It’s such a slim little book with a Goosebumps-like font and a black house in its middle that I found it delightful. I wanted to read it as much as I wanted to have it in my possession for aesthetic pleasure.
But a ghost story, this story is not. It has a few components of a ghost story but then it dispels them, leaving little room for terror.
There is a house that acts as this story’s lodestar, like many ghost stories, and it’s even dark and Victorian, the only one of its kind on an otherwise normal suburban street, but unfortunately, there are no ghosts are tethered to this house. For there to be ghosts, there has to be deaths, whether real or figurative. The only deaths that occur in this story are fabricated by the characters in order to convince the other characters of something. And that’s because “The Grownup” is a story about con artists.
If you’re seeking a true Gothic ghost story in the vein of Poe you’ll be dissatisfied with Flynn’s tale. This is why I think branding it as a ghost story does it a disservice – go and see Crimson Peak to get your fix instead. While Flynn is a writer who excels at pacing and immediacy of feeling, she is not a lush writer; there’s no decadence in this story. This could be because it’s set in modern times and unlike a classic ghost story, there are no true forays into the past because there are no real ghosts to act as conduits. There are only people who may or may not be evil, and the tendency of their natures to fluctuate does the story another disservice. They feel a little shallow.
While there are moments of uncertainty and brushes with terror in “The Grownup,” moments that I wished had been explored more deeply, the story is not haunting. It’s too aware of itself, which feels deliberate.
For example, when the nameless MC discovers that Miles has thrown up in her purse, it’s such a revolting, gruesome moment of betrayal and shock that triggers the visceral feelings that terror and the grotesque so often inspire, and it’s thrilling to read; but when Miles later explains why he threw up in her purse, both the terror and the sinister aura of Miles, very much a Damien-like or Norman Bates character, is somewhat effaced, along with his actions.
The terror is explained away in “The Grownup” and that’s why it’s not all that scary. It is only on the last page where the story shows its real promise of morphing into something truly mysterious, and that’s because it’s left unexplained.