One of my favorite short stories I’ve read in recent years is “Phantoms,” by Steven Millhauser.
I’ve been in love with horror fiction ever since I discovered Stephen King at ten years old, and I’ve particularly always loved ghost stories. I remember when I first stumbled upon the three volumes of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, written by Alvin Schwartz, with illustrations by Stephen Gammell, and suffered nightmares throughout most of my childhood. When told well, ghost stories have the ability to scare the reader half to death, and at the same time teach him values about life. I was so impressed and inspired by Millhauser’s story that I wrote a ghost story of my own soon after. I’ve read a ton of ghost stories over the years, but I’ve never encountered one quite like “Phantoms.”
Sometimes — and such is the case with movies as well — true terror from a ghost story comes from minimalism. Millhauser could have written “Phantoms” in a more straightforward narrative, telling, say, of a young man trying to come to terms with the creepy phantoms who reside in his small town. That story might have been effective, but what makes “Phantoms” so great is the unique manner in which Millhauser presents the story. There’s nothing straightforward about it; the story is presented as a case study, as if we’re reading loose papers in a detective’s notebook.
I liked the scattered nature of the paragraphs, roaming from explanations to analyses to conclusions. But what I loved most were the five case studies that worked as mini-stories, featuring the lives of five characters who each were interesting enough to warrant his or her own short story. Each case study is written in one giant paragraph, and the third case study, about an aimless twenty-six-year-old man who falls in love with one of the phantoms, is one single paragraph that takes up the entirety of pages 218 and 219.
The first case study tells of a father who worries for his daughter’s safety, and the fascinating fourth case study of a nine-year-old girl whose world slowly becomes smaller and smaller as her fear of the phantoms grows and grows. The fifth case study is smartly about the narrator himself, as he sees three phantoms and comes to terms with his own feelings about them.
But the story that moved me most was the second case study, about a lonely woman who discovers three phantoms in her attic. She’s scared by them at first, but she comes to check the attic once every day, not because she’s afraid, but because she enjoyed their company, and want them to return. I liked that Millhauser gave the characters in each case study a different outcome — some were terrified, some were in love, and some were in search of companionship.
I really love this story, and I’m excited to read more of Millhauser’s work, starting with The Knife Thrower, and Other Stories.