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Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

Black Gothic Literature | An Exclusive Interview by Dakotah Jennifer

Photo provided by Harper Collins

Elisabeth Thomas’s debut novel, Catherine House, though it is a mysterious and gothic page-turner, is based in a very real and complex feeling - finding home.

Catherine House is the story of a girl, Ines Murillo, who is accepted into an eccentric, prestigious private college with dark, sinister secrets. Catherine House is known for its mysterious ability to produce brilliant, successful people—presidents, judges, prize-winning authors, inventors, and artists. The school provides everything, free of charge. It is extremely selective and promises power and prestige, but only if you completely remove yourself from the outside world for all three years of the program, including summers.

Catherine, even from the first page, is a “brutal, flawless” entity, in the same way, many private, prestigious institutions can be. Ines is on the run from a dark past life and though the school has unfathomable secrecy and peculiar protocols, she finds a new home there. Thomas writes with precision and authenticity, while also portraying the supernaturally strange atmosphere. In just the first few pages, Ines tells herself that she is not excited, but relieved as her heart beats fast in her chest, and already we feel with her — Thomas shows us exactly how you can be running from something and miraculously find…home.

This novel, most expertly, seems to pinpoint a specific and intricate sentiment that Thomas experiences with her Alma Mater. Yale University mirrors a feeling of loving the place you call home, despite being trapped with its strange, dark, and somehow forgivable flaws.

As a child, Thomas’s father nearly forbade her from applying to Yale University, “In our house, Yale reunion invites disappeared into the trash. Calls for alumni donations went straight to the answering machine.” Thomas’s father and grandfather, both alumni of Yale, experienced the racism, power, and exclusivity of the institution firsthand, and they didn’t want that for their daughter. “When it was my turn to apply to college, my dad said, ‘You can go to any school you like, as long as it’s not Yale.’ I chose Yale of course,” Thomas recalls. “Like many black daughters, I was raised to beware of racist, antiquated institutions like Yale. But by the time I went to Yale... I found the school had grown with the times or at least pretended that it had.”

As she began to make a home at Yale, Thomas found a beautifully comforting feeling — the feeling of being home. “I made wild, funny, brilliant friends who came from distant cities and countries but now lived right down the hall, ready for bid whist study breaks or midnight ABBA dance parties. I was happy.” And that happiness, Thomas explains, is complicated. Her love of fairytales, spooky, gothic novels, and “stories of eerie woods and houses haunted by bloody secrets,” greatly influenced both her love of Yale University and the genre of her novel, “...every detail felt so critical and so fleeting.

I could see myself, as if from above, in the young, glad moment. I smelled crisp, freshly mown grass, watched light shift on a classroom floor, heard my friends laughing in the hallway, and I thought, yes, here, right here: I am happy now.” This happiness was a theme for Thomas— the happiness she found at Yale, even among the “legacy of racism and hurt,”—and it was exactly this sort of happiness that prestigious institutions sell to this generation.

“I found it fascinating to see how private colleges had evolved to sell a glossy, seductive standard of living. These will be the best four years of your life, they say, satisfaction guaranteed. It’s a powerful promise, but a dangerous one.” It was this promise, though, that was fulfilled for Thomas, and it is the promise of belonging and happiness that Catherine House gives Ines Murillo, despite the flaws and secrets. “Belonging is a powerful, intoxicating feeling, especially if you’ve never felt it before. We’ll forgive a lot of our communities.”

As a black woman, Thomas saw Yale’s legacy of a largely homogeneous student body, and in many ways, Catherine House is just the opposite. Thomas crafts a diverse cast of people who all try to find a home in the surreal, even flawed, place that is Catherine House. Thomas has a conscious intent to write her cast of characters as real, unique people, who, in the world of the novel, are not impacted by societal difference.

They are proud and distinctive, diverse people, who, as Thomas remarks, are unimpeded by the societal differences that challenge American society today. Despite race, sexuality, and class, Thomas builds characters that are “diverse in so many vibrant ways—in race, sexuality, and class—but without the friction that exists in the real world.” In many ways, this tactic pulls the realism of the novel more into the shadowy sci-fi realm it is in, delivering the intensity of those strange feelings of home.

“Ines arrives at Catherine unhappy, lonely, and on the run from everything, she’s ever known. But throughout the book, she finds a community amongst the other vibrant students of Catherine House.” The themes Thomas pinpoints through her sci-fi mystery take on a more surreal form, though they are, authentic and complex feelings. How we find our homes, where we belong, and what we will allow from the flawed places where we find happiness. Catherine House, in so many ways, seems to bring reality into another, more intense realm, and Thomas, quite beautifully, crafts their sentiments into a mysteriously authentic novel.

Thomas’s experiences at Yale were fleeting, and though she had found that unbounded happiness, she soon had to graduate. “After graduating, in my 20s, I slipped into a deep depression almost without realizing it. My depression had nothing to do with leaving school, but in the fog, those four years took on a mythical significance. Yale became not just Yale: it was the time and place where I was happy, and I desperately wanted to go back. I wrote Catherine House as a way of teasing through that strange, impossible desire,” Thomas reflected.

After graduating, Thomas began to see more stories emerge in the news about sexual assault and the misconduct that many elite schools were accused of. She was not surprised. “I never believed that Yale was loyal to anyone or anything other than itself,” Thomas explained. “I knew that like every cultural institution, Yale enriched itself by trading in impressions.” Thomas knew she had “bought-in” to that marketed happiness, and it had, indeed, worked. Home can be flawed and strange and secretive and still be home.

Thomas’s novel mixed these conflicting feelings with the genres she loved as a child: the “sorceresses and monsters, creaking floorboards and whispering winds, daring damsels trapped in ghostly, intricate manors.” And it is just after her five-year reunion when Thomas decides to pick up her draft of Catherine House and realizes what the “true horror” of the story is— “[Ines Murillo] was trapped, yes, but she didn’t care. She would live forever in that strange, magic, impossible house - she wanted to stay.” It is this feeling — this “strange, magic, impossible house” and the simultaneous acknowledgment of its secrets and flaws that Thomas spins into a fantastical, “hypnotic” novel.

Thomas’s story ultimately explores a complexity known to many black people who may happen to find happiness in predominantly white spaces—how being trapped and belonging can be two sides of the same coin.

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