The Household Spirit by Tod Wodicka

Hardcover, 336 pages
Publisher: Jonathan Cape June 2015
Language: English
Selected by Tank

Tod Wodicka’s second novel, The Household Spirit, is deeply, refreshingly uncool. It is both quiet and sneakily psychedelic: swirling around and burrowing inside the lives of its two characters, the reclusive 50-year-old Howie Jeffries and his irreverent, messed-up 25-year-old neighbour Emily Phane. Both are stuck. Emily suffers from extreme attacks of sleep paralysis; Howie has been more or less haunting his own house since his wife and daughter left him 20 years ago. Their stories reflect and refract each other, eventually coming together in a strange and unexpected way.


The night terrors would occur an hour or so after Emily fell asleep. They were not dreams. There was no narrative, no images, and it was the same thing every single time. It was a concentrated wrongness. It couldn’t be explained or described and only made sense from a tongue-tied corner of Emily’s consciousness. And it was terrible.

Like this: suddenly, inside sleep, the wrongness would thicken and grow until it was all that she was, until it finally broke Emily from sleep, from bed, eyes open, dark rushing in, and she was rushing, too, running through the house blindly toward her grandfather. She would turn on lights, all of them, exploding the house awake. The severe way a room filled with things, herself included, all conjured just like that at a flick of a switch. She needed it but couldn’t handle it. Light. What was it? What was any of this? The carpeting and dolls and dumb, sinister pieces of furniture, all the senseless shouts of matter, and all Emily’s fault for flicking the stupid switch. Turn them off, make them go away. Make it stop. Often, Emily would scream.

Sometimes, in school, she’d get intimations of these night terrors when trying to fix her reality within the concept of outer space, the infinite, or the fact that everything was happening on an ostensibly flat surface on a planet that was actually gigantic and round and rolling at abominable speeds through nothing much whatsoever. Surrounded by what? Light-years of more of the same. Later, the best way Emily found to describe these terrors was that it was like being upside down in her own body.

Peppy would help Emily sip water from a Dixie cup. Guiding her into the bathroom. Here, up up up. Plopping her on the bathroom counter, next to the sink. The homey purr of the tap filling a cup with water. This is how you drink water.

“There, now you, now you, one, two, three…”

She’d turn and look with Peppy. The mirror like a guide, a way for Emily to see how it was done while she was apparently in the process of doing it, and Peppy always counting, usually to three, but sometimes higher, numbers stacking, not exactly calming but making more sense than words. The night terrors felt like they would never end, the gaping panic of them, and she felt like there was no escape and that from now on everything was going to be like this because maybe everything was really always like this, or was like this before she was born and would be like this for Emilywhen she was finally, genuinely dead. Later, as an adult, she would think that she’d been cursed at too young an age with a sideways peek into the exact opposite of life. 

Finally, she would hush. Her sobbing would soften and she’d feel herself fitting back into her body. Then, like that, like nothing had just happened, back into sleep.

Generally, mercifully, in the morning Emily wouldn’t remember a thing. Not unless she awoke on the living room sofa or in her grandfather’s bed, or unless Peppy told her about it or, later, when she was older and more perceptive, by the tense, internal way he went about preparing breakfast. A sleepless hang to his bulk. Cheeriness, tight as a drum.

Waking on the sofa: “Why am I here?”

“You had a bad dream.”

She’d remember then. Could still feel the wrongness, the terror of not being real, of not fitting. “But no,” she’d say. “No, I didn’t. I remember, Peppy. That’s not why I’m here.”

  • The Household Spirit