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Familiar Terrors: What Scares Us About the Domestic Surreal

What is the scariest nightmare you’ve ever had? I’ve had dreams that terrified me in which my cat turned into a turtle, my family morphed into strangers, and I picked handfuls of snakes off my childhood playground. It’s not the complete unknown in my dreams that scares me, but rather the transformation of the known. The familiar becomes less real. The same holds true for the stories that give me the deepest chills.

Merriam-Webster defines the adjectival form of surreal as “very strange or unusual” or “having the quality of a dream.” Like a dream state, the surreal presents the familiar to us . . . altered. In the stories that follow, authors use the surreal in conjunction with the domestic (dishwashers, pets, strange neighbors, soap, household pests)—to terrifying effect.

Study #1: “Stone Animals” by Kelly Link

rabbit“Stone Animals” is a classic example of a scary story that takes the ordinary and slowly distorts it. It begins with a conversation that isn’t flat-out surreal, though it is strange. What are those stone animals outside the house that this family is considering buying? The son thinks they’re dogs. The mother: lions. The real estate agent: rabbits.

The family moves into the house, and their everyday lives start to break down. The family begins to discard and avoid household objects because they feel off: first, the son refuses his toothbrush; then, the husband throws out a bar of soap; the kids, then the wife, stop watching TV; next it’s everything in the father’s office that feels wrong, down to the paper clips; the list continues. The pregnant wife can’t stop painting and repainting the walls. The daughter sleepwalks.

Rabbits begin to infiltrate the family’s life. They congregate in droves on the front lawn. They consume the family’s thoughts. Before the surreal takes over the “real world” of the story, it dictates the family’s dreams. The father has a dream in which: “He tries to sell a house to a young couple with twitchy noses and big dark eyes. . . . ‘Let’s stop fooling,’ he says. ‘You can’t afford to buy this house. You don’t have any money. You’re rabbits.’” The mother dreams that, over cups of paint with sugar, her neighbor asks her what color she plans to paint the rabbits.

When the family first moves into the house, before the surreal elements have begun to take root, the wife, Catherine, thinks of her husband: “It worried her, the way something, someone, Henry, could suddenly look like a place she’d never been before.” This is the scariest suggestion: that you don’t know what (or who) you think you know. The surreal in scary stories works in much the same way as the terrifying rabbits in “Stone Animals”; it’s a surprise when something we expect to be friendly turns out to be menacing—the initial comfort the object offered makes it all the more frightening once transformed.

I’m not going to summarize “Stone Animals” because I don’t want to ruin the suspense; and, the truth is, it doesn’t sound scary in summary. It is a testament to the strength of Link’s writing—and the power of the surreal—that the storyline is terrifying because of the off-kilter world that has been built around it.


The Low-Residency Question


By Kim Winternheimer

Deciding between a low-residency program and a more traditional course of study to pursue your MFA can be difficult. Low-residency programs are fairly new to the scene, offering writers who can’t commit to a program that requires living on campus the opportunity to pursue their creative writing goals. Aside from a few residencies each year (two sessions a year on the campus where the program is offered is typical) writers in low-residency programs live as they normally would. Many of them have fulltime jobs, kids, and attend to the 20-30 hours a week their MFA program demands of them when time allows.

The pros and cons associated with pursuing an MFA in creative writing vary greatly, and the dialogue about whether low-residency programs are worth their salt is a source of discussion among MFA applicants who are faced with the difficult decision as to which program is right for them. As an editor for The Masters Review, I see stories from MFA students pursuing both forms of study. While The Masters Review showcases all new and emerging writers, our flagship publication is an anthology of ten stories written by students currently pursuing their MFA, MA, or PhD in creative writing. While we do see stories from students in the latter two categories, the majority of our submissions are from students enrolled in MFA programs. Last year, The Masters Review published four stories written by students in low-residency programs. Four stories we claimed were among the best in the country. Four stories that were screened and chosen by New York Times bestselling author, Lauren Groff. While we had submissions from many highly ranked fulltime MFA programs — stories from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the Michener Center for Writers, and UC Irvine, just to name a few — it does make a strong case for those pursuing an MFA remotely: that although the programs differ in structure, there is absolutely no difference in terms of the quality of writing.

Now, this isn’t a case against the schools and programs that offer full-residency. Those programs have proven time and again to churn out writers of extremely high merit. My only point is that our publication is a very clear testament to the quality of stories being produced from writers who are able to pursue their degrees remotely. That improving your craft through a program which allows you to live a very real writer’s life is just as valuable as some of the more traditional options. In fact to me, the very definition of a low-residency program mimics the life of an aspiring writer. You write when you can, you carve out minutes, hours, and nights to tend to your craft . . . then you get up in the morning and you go to your real job. I don’t mean that to be cruel. I simply mean that most emerging authors aren’t sustaining their lives with fiction, and one of the clear pros I see to a low-residency program is the ebb and flow of developing that sort of balance to your life.

Of course there are cons to choosing a low-residency program, just as there are cons to pursing a graduate degree on campus. One such criticism is that low-residency programs don’t provide the focus on teaching necessary for graduates to land a job. While most remote programs don’t require students to teach in order to receive funding, and therefore don’t focus as tightly on aspects of teaching, there are many excellent schools that do provide this concentration. I would tell someone who really wants to teach to look into those programs. He won’t have a hard time finding one. However, this does bring to light one of the greatest differences between the two programs, which is the issue of funding.

Many fulltime courses of study provide students with funding in order to offset tuition. Usually students are required to teach undergraduate classes and engage in a certain number of work hours for the university in exchange for this reduced tuition. This is a fantastic way to reduce the cost of pursuing a graduate degree and give students a working example of what life is like for the creative-writing teacher. It’s a win-win for the universities as well as for the students.

Unfortunately for low-residency programs, logistics get in the way. Because students aren’t on campus and are generally unavailable for work study, they aren’t able to ‘earn’ a reduced tuition. There are an increasing number of low-residency programs that will allow students the opportunity to work for the university, however this isn’t a common construction and it isn’t as widely available as most students would like. The bottom line is, pursuing your MFA remotely does tend to cost more. However, total tuition costs are less than many traditional graduate programs and low-residency students have the added benefit of continuing to work for their current employer while they pursue a degree.

One can go into a lengthy discussion about what works best and what doesn’t, the fact of the matter being that both programs produce truly wonderful writers. Talented writing can and is being nurtured through remote programs and I am continually amazed at the quality, ingenuity, and sensibility behind that writing. Anyone considering a low-residency program who is nervous about the quality of their degree should look carefully at the many highly qualified low-residency schools. Take into consideration that from our perspective, in comparing the two programs, the end product – your writing – is the same.