Discussion Guide for Bleak Houses: Safer & Family Solstice two Gothic novellas by Kate Maruyama
These compelling explorations of dark family secrets fearlessly delve into some of today’s most relevant and troubling issues surrounding class, race, wealth, and ethics. In Safer, Maruyama explores what parents will do for a child, and what happens to outsiders in unsafe houses, while Family Solstice addresses the dangers of tradition, inheritance, and the sins of the father.
Elements: gothic horror, Frankenstein, history, metaphors surrounding home, family, erasure, and inheritance.
The Central Question: How do power structures change an employment situation when race or class come into play? How can one challenge the power structure when kept or employed in positions denied power or prestige?
It’s the summer of 2020. College student Soledad’s stuck in lockdown, jobless, and alone. When a wealthy Hollywood family with a mysterious mansion offers her a live-in, podded nanny job, she jumps at the chance. But Dad’s an actor she calls “James Famous”. Mom’s a bird-boned celebrity wife with problems of her own. At first, Sol enjoys her life in Hollywood Hills. Her charge, four-year-old Story, is a delight, and she adjusts to the family’s strange quietness.
But the house seems haunted by “Mrs. Wolfe,” whose weeping echoes though the sprawling house. Though she has a special affinity for Story, Sol’s disquieted. Worse, Story’s parents seem distant, toxic, and strange: The public doesn’t know their son exists. When a stranger recognizes the boy as her missing son, Sol has to find justice in a system rigged for the rich. Despite her seemingly powerless position, she takes her future in her hands to help a mother find justice and regain her son.
Exploring the Central Question:
Safer: By helping students see the power structure involved in employment, and by connecting the excitement of a job to the real damage employers can do in the world, we can help them gain insights as they go out to work in the world. Through exploration of these topics students can identify the imbalances class and race throw into any working situation.
The hope is also to connect readers of their experiences during lockdown, and creating safe spaces to talk about feelings of isolation, wrongness, loss, and helplessness. How did class and race come into play during lockdown and how was self-care harder with frontline workers, people with large family networks or shared living situations?
The story offers a number of themes, from ideas of family, inheritance, rich/poor power structures and what people in power can get away with.
Power structures in an employee situation open up into larger concerns when it turns out Sol is not the only powerless character in this situation. Her employers have abused their ability to operate in society without question, to move through the world above the usual channels when they kidnap a child and absorb him into their lives. Story/Antonio’s mother, being Latina, has only the news and vague police interest in her hands when he is taken, and interest in her missing son wanes quickly. Celine’s simple denial (backed up by money and power and the above) that a kidnapping has happened is enough for this family to spend three years as if nothing wrong has happened. As Sol attempts to rescue Antonio, she is risking everything, including Antonio and his mother to right wrongs. They know that the authorities will take the word of fame, money and power over their own so they have to take matters into their own hands.
Maruyama uses a number of literary techniques to enhance the creepiness of the story that can bring larger questions to light. The ghost story shows that what we think is wrong in our world may not be the thing we need to be focusing on and what we’re afraid of may not be a threat. She builds tension through the supernatural, through sounds, environment, and scenario while slowly revealing through character that humans are more unpredictable and terrifying. She examines the power of the rich and famous, and how it puts anyone around them at an immediate disadvantage. She also explores the risks of speaking truth to power.
Questions for Discussion:
What was Sol’s situation in lockdown that led her to take this job? Did it remind you of where you were in lockdown? What you did to pass the time?
Did you think Sol could make Story’s situation better? Have there ever been kids in your life in tough situations? Did you feel like you could try to help?
How did your perception of Sol’s situation change when you learned that Marcus was also working at the house? How were people safe or not safe in the year of 2020? What are measures that people took that increased their own or others’ safety or danger? How did you feel about the word changing in meaning?
Why do you think Story befriended the local ghost? What did that tell you about his character and his situation? Do you have your own ghost stories?
How does Maruyama build the spookiness once Sol gets to Wolf’s Lair? Have you ever been in a really big house with secret rooms? What kind of secret room would you make if you could build a mansion?
What do you think of Marcus’s choices when it comes to the trouble that comes up? Can you blame him for not getting involved?
How does JF take advantage of his fame and money to get things done? How do you think Celine took advantage of it in the first place?
Do you think that famous people should get a break because they mean a lot in the public world?
What did you think of Sol and Dolores’s decision not to call the authorities? What would you have done?
Do you feel like Celine and JF got away with something there? What do you think about people who get away with things because they’re rich or in powerful positions?
Do you think Story/Antonio will go on to have a good life?
Questions for literary analysis:
How does the world of lockdown establish conditions for this particular story and determine how the characters make choices? How might things have been different if the story took place in a world not without the Covid-19 pandemic?
How does the author use Sol’s unexplainable feelings (her supernatural senses) to ramp up the tension?
What were particular challenges for families with young children during the lockdown? How does Maruyama use this build characters and reveal the conflict in the story?
What do you think Missy the gibbon and Mrs. Wolf represent in the house of Wolf’s lair? In the larger story?
How is Marcus further evidence of the (im)balance of power in the home?
How does the author use Story’s injury to show Sol’s place in the power structure of the house?
How does the author use nature in the story to counter the unnatural aspects of the house?
Art: Design your own castle with secret rooms.
Language Arts: Break into groups and make up a few jobs working for difficult people. Create that character, how difficult are they? What are the unreasonable things they ask you to do? Discuss what your tipping point would be. Discuss how power imbalances at work affect your lives or your family’s lives.
Break into groups and create an activities plan for a four year old on a day in lockdown. What would you do to keep them entertained? How would you schedule it.
The Central Question: How do we handle our family’s expectations and secrets? What family stories do we tend to keep secret and why? How do we question the larger power structures we are living in and when is the right time to push back?
The Masseys love their house. It’s been in the family for generations, and Masseys have owned the surrounding land even longer. They’re happy. They love each other. But as summer turns to fall, their mood darkens. Solstice is approaching, when one of the children must battle something lurking in their basement. It’s the family duty—but so is the tradition not to tell the children what they’ll be fighting.
Excited to learn the family secret, which will make her a “real Massey,” thirteen-year-old Shea trains extra-hard. But something about this year is different. As the leaves fall and the weather cools, Mama becomes extra quiet. When Shea descends into the basement’s dark maw, she learns the devastating truthabout how generations of Masseys have paid for their land. Shea faces a terrible choice: will she betray her own morals, or her family?
Exploring the Central Question:
By helping students examine the culture of their own families, sibling relationships, and inheritance in the places they live, they can begin to ask questions of their environment. Students will be able to explore their place in the larger power structure, how race and class affect their daily lives and their access to privileges. They can also examine the power structures within their families and how those structures are related to societal power structures. Through this students can also explore how they can find agency within both societal and familial structures. . Through talking about the Massey family secrets, students can weigh how they make choices individually in families and in the world. .
Theme: The story offers a number of themes, from ideas of family, inheritance, sibling relationships, and family culture and culpability, as well as family secrets, to the question of identity outside the family, and how to do the best thing for the larger cause.
Maruyama gets the reader into the story using the sensory, childhood feelings, and seasons. Through the lens of Shea, a thirteen-year-old, we are in the space where a kid loves their family unquestioningly, but where they may start to notice they don’t share the same belief systems as their family. Shea confronting her family’s past makes her question her place in the world and what she can do to combat a bigger evil. The house itself acts as metaphor, and Shea going into the basement of that house is what uncovers the family secret. In order to save her brother, she needs to destroy the house that systematic oppression built. In a different way, this can be seen as the culture of silence and the place of narrative in a family where abuse is present. The family lie about that abuse is what is presented to other children, and often to the world at large.
Questions for discussion:
1. The Masseys have a lot of family secrets. How did you feel about Shea being kept out of the loop over what was going on in the basement? Did your siblings ever leave you out of something when you were younger?
2. Shea is so excited for it finally to be her turn! Did you have any coming of age events or rites of passage you couldn’t wait for growing up? When you reached that point, did the event live up to your excitement? How did you change? Were you confronted with new responsibilities or decisions?
3. What role do rits of passage have in maintaining familiar or societal structures. How can we change them?
4.. Shea’s mom gets depressed at the same time every year. How does the family cope with this?
5. What does Shea think of her brothers who are gone? Are there peoplewho are around in familial stories but whom you haven’t met?
6. Once Shea finds out the terrible truth, how does it change what she thinks about her family? Did you ever learn things about your family (or someone close to you or someone in your community) that made you look at them differently?
6. Do you think she could keep living in that house as if nothing has changed? How does the way she sees the house change from the beginning (summer) to after she goes in the basement? What are other options Shea might have to deal with everything she’s learned?
7. What do you think of Shea’s decision to destroy the house?
8. Martina has the last laugh, by going along with things and getting to build in her big house. Is there anything in real life this reminds you of?
Questions for Literary Analysis:
How does the Massey family ritual on Winter Solstice represent larger class inequities in this country?
How does Shea, Jeffrey, and Martina’s relationship with what happens on Solstice represent different ways of coping with family secrets?
How does the author use weather and seasons to represent the moods of the book and what happens?
What items around the house can be seen as representations of colonialism that runs through the family?
Discuss Maruyama’s use of the Massey family ritual on Winter Solstice as a metaphor for inequality
How does the author explore the levels of culpability through the characters of Mama and Dad? How are their links to this family history different and what does that show us?
Ask student to brainstorm questions around the following themes in the book: Racism, economic inequality, inheritance laws, real estate covenant. Visit the library to find a variety of sources to answer their questions (i.e. news papers, government websites, library databases, magazine/journal article, encyclopedias, primary sources). Using what they learn, choose a prompt above to discuss how Maruyama’s story speaks to one of these issues and helps the reader to think critically about their own relationship to the issue.
Art: Design your ultimate fantasy house. The sky is the limit. You can have that pool like Martina. What’s in the basement?
Language Arts: Take some friendly traditions your family has and make up a way they could be creepy. Write your own little family horror story.
About the author: Kate Maruyama is the author of Harrowgate (47 North, 2013,) Halloween Beyond: A Gentleman’s Suit (2022, Crystal Lake Publishing,) and Bleak Houses (Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2023). Her novella Family Solstice (Omnium Gatherum, 2021) was named Best Fiction Book of 2021 by Rue Morgue Magazine. Her short work has appeared in Asimov’s SF, Analog, Entropy, and Duende among other journals, as well as in numerous anthologies. Her short story, “Jacaranda Park” was awarded the Uncharted short story prize in 2023. Maruyama serves on the board of Women Who Submit, an organization that works toward gender parity in publishing and provides free services and resources to women, nonbinary, and femme identifying writers. She has served as a juror on the Bram Stoker Awards, twice for the Shirley Jackson Awards and is a member of the SFWA and the Horror Writers Association where she serves on the Diverse Works Inclusion Committee. She is affiliate faculty for Antioch University Los Angeles in their BA program in Literature and Creative Writing and was affiliate faculty in their MFA program for five years. She is a lecturer in Fiction and English at California State University Los Angeles.