The Storm at the Doorby Stefan Merrill Block
The past is not past for Katharine Merrill. Even after two decades of volatile marriage, Katharine still believes she can have the life that she felt promised to her by those first exhilarating days with her husband, Frederick. For two months, just before Frederick left to fight in World War II, Katharine received his total attentiveness, his limitless charms, his astonishing range of intellect and wit. Over the years, however, as Frederick’s behavior and moods have darkened, Katharine has covered for him, trying to rein in his great manic passions and bridge his deep wells of sadness: an unending project of keeping up appearances and hoping for the best. But the project is failing. Increasingly, Frederick’s erratic behavior, amplified by alcohol, distresses Katharine and their four daughters and gives his friends and family cause to worry for his sanity. When, in the summer of 1962, a cocktail party ends with her husband in handcuffs, Katharine makes a fateful decision: She commits Frederick to Mayflower Home, America’s most revered mental asylum.
There, on the grounds of the opulent hospital populated by great poets, intellectuals, and madmen, Frederick tries to transform his incarceration into a creative exercise, to take each meaningless passing moment and find the art within it. But as he lies on his room’s single mattress, Frederick wonders how he ever managed to be all that he once was: a father, a husband, a business executive. Under the faltering guidance of a self-obsessed psychiatrist, Frederick and his fellow patients must try to navigate their way through a gray zone of depression, addiction, and insanity.
Meanwhile, as she struggles to raise four young daughters, Katharine tries to find her way back to Frederick through her own ambiguities, delusions, and the damages done by her rose-colored belief in a life she no longer lives.
Inspired by elements of the lives of the author’s grandparents, this haunting love story shifts through time and reaches across generations. Along the way, Stefan Merrill Block stunningly illuminates an age-old truth: even if one’s daily life appears ordinary, one can still wage a silent, secret, extraordinary war.
"The Storm at the Door is one of the bravest and most beautiful books I have ever read. It's a wholly original hybrid --by turns a fictional account of the love story of Frederick and Katharine Merrill, a terrifying tour of the "horrorland" of the Mayflower Home for the Mentally Ill, a lucid translation of madness, and a grandson's quest to understand "the blank page" of his family's past. Stefan Merrill Block's language soars--he's got a wingspan that covers three generations. Refusing to be "paralyzed by fact," Block moves nimbly between fact and fiction, history and the imagination, to get at truths that are almost unbearable: that love can fail, that a mind can immolate, and that language can sometimes leave us lonelier than our original silence. This is a powerful, enthralling and unforgettable book."
-- Karen Russell, New York Times bestselling author of Swamplandia!
"The Storm at the Door is a fascinating exploration of Stefan Merrill Block's family history, both of what actually and what might've happened following his grandmother's fateful decision to commit his manic depressive grandfather to a mental institution. Told with intelligence, a poetic ear for language, and empathy, The Storm at the Door is a captivating story about separation and enduring love."
--Lisa Genova, New York Times bestselling author of Still Alice
“The Storm at the Door is a brilliant and passionate examination of the outer limits of language, sanity, and the human heart. At its center is the heartbreaking love story of a writer's lost grandparents, an enduring marriage interrupted by madness, sustained by language and memories. Stefan Merrill Block is an amazing writer, at once cerebral and tender, lyrical and profound. The Storm at the Door is an enthrallingly original book.”
--Kate Christensen, author of The Great Man, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award
“Lucid, intelligent, passionate, this beautifully orchestrated novel reaches half a century back in time and reverts to the present in order to show three generations struggling to cope with the consequences of a grandfather’s madness that may or may not have been real. The visual images of this book are burned into my memory. The style is masterful. But most important the compassion that reconstructs the painful past and analyzes the uncertain present is unflagging and deeply admirable. Stefan Merrill Block is a brilliant young author who has turned out a nearly perfect work of art.”
-- Edmund White, author of City Boy and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award
“One way to read The Storm at the Door is as an extended meditation on Robert Lowell’s poem, “Waking in Blue,” written when the poet was a psychiatric patient at McLean Hospital. Another way is as a novel about corrosive family secrets. Yet another is as a slant re-telling of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In actual fact, it’s a brilliant and fascinating fusion of all three.”
-- Mary Jo Bang, author of Elegy, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award
"Stefan Block's heart-wrenching tale of love and madness cuts through the insulating layers of American life until it's rubbing up against the bare essence of humanity. The writing is that good, the characters that strong. Never has a true story been imagined so beautifully."
-- David Goodwillie, author of American Subversive
"In this gorgeous and heartbreaking novel, Stefan Merrill Block has achieved something rare and magnificent: A sympathetic and utterly realistic portrait of depression, that will ring true with anyone who has suffered from its crushing weight. That he has also managed to perfectly capture the joys and tedium of marriage and family life is only a testament to this young writer’s extraordinary and evolving talent."
-- Joanna Smith Rakoff, author of A Fortunate Age
Through fiction and the imprecision of memory, a writer examines the challenging relationship between his grandparents.
After garnering raves and sales for his first novel, Block (The Story of Forgetting, 2008) once again delves into that murky area between lost love, memory and deeply held melancholy. This round, the author builds his story largely on the true-life history of his grandparents, who found themselves at an impasse when his grandmother had his grandfather committed to a mental institution. The novel opens on Echo Cottage, as the writer contemplates his steely-eyed grandmother, Katharine Mead Merrill, in 1989. At 69, Alzheimer's has started to chip away at long-held memories. Then the story lurches forward to July of 1962, finding the grandfather Frederick Francis Merrill in a drug-induced stupor at the Mayflower Home for the Mentally Ill, where he has been incarcerated for a long history of drinking, bad behavior and, finally, flashing two old ladies on a New Hampshire back road. Block examines, through cautious language and nearly imperceptible sympathy, the events that have brought the couple from here to there. And it is true that Katherine is in an awful state. "Katherine is a mother of four, with a husband in a mental hospital," Block writes. "The winter is coming, and the money is running out. Her marriage has failed, everyone knows it, and she has no real friends. Her relatives have turned against her husband first, and now they are turning on her too. She can no long be anything other than what everyone plainly sees her to be."But there is sympathy to be unearthed for Frederick, too, as Block expertly captures the frustration and personal devastation wreaked by his grandfather's depression, equally hard on him as it is on his family. As he suffers in the institution he dubs "Horrorland," Katherine begins to reconsider her responsibility for her husband's condition.
A sad but elegantly told story punctuated with photos, letters and a verisimilitude that elevate its fictional ambitions.
- Random House Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.80(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)
Read an Excerpt
There is the house in the wilderness. The house, Echo Cottage, with the lake spread before it, a quivering lattice of light in the late afternoon. Beneath the mossy portico, a placard displays Echo's flaking name.
An overcast-pale porch rings Echo Cottage, and at its far corner is an aging chaise lounge, rusted aluminum supporting an avocado vinyl cushion. Sticking to the vinyl, my grandmother dozes beneath the brown-gray nest of her hair.
The air along the shoreline is dense with an insectival mist, the gnats hovering. From time to time, my cousins pierce the droning quiet with their yelps, as they tackle one another in the water. Thirty years before, my great-grandmother rested on Echo's chaise; years later, my mother will ascend to the recumbent throne. But it is 1989, and the chair belongs to my grandmother.
My grandmother's calves unsuction from the cushion as she wakes. Her stalwart New England face tightens, the fine wrinkles drawn taut. The translucent shells of her eyelids part to reveal her eyes, which can hold light in a nearly impossible way, as if her irises were twin concavities, blue geodes. My grandmother's eyes look out to the lake; her gaze is as inscrutable as ever.
There is my grandmother, Katharine Mead Merrill. What do I know of her? That she was so often in that chair. That in the afternoons, she often slept. That, one afternoon, in the summer of 1989, she woke from a nap to make the vexing decision that she made.
Katharine has been dreaming. Of what? Of her husband, of Frederick. Though the specifics of the dream recede into the static of wakefulness, a feeling of certainty remains. Not one of anger or sadness, but perhaps born of both. A simple knowledge of what must be done.
Katharine knows, suddenly, the rightness of what she must do.
Still, she takes her time. She rises slowly, pauses to receive the diffracting late afternoon light as she enters the house. Katharine passes through the musty, tenebrous living room, which always seems resentful of sunlight, seems to be the place nighttime gathers to hide out from the summer's unblinking sun stare. As she enters the kitchen, the smell of stale coffee prompts her to empty the filter into the trash. She pulls a box of Lorna Doones from the cabinet, slips one whole into her mouth, as she used to as a child, letting it dissolve on her tongue. Increasingly, in these last months, she performs such behaviors that, if not exactly childlike, are not quite as prim, quite as austere in her familiar matronly ways. On this summer day of 1989, Katharine is sixty-nine; the early traces of Alzheimer's have begun to fray the edges of her attention and intention. For a moment, pausing at the kitchen sink to observe my cousins diving off the dock, she remembers her certainty but forgets its object; for a moment, she thinks she woke, simply, resolved to swim. But, no, no. It was something else; the idea of a swim does not fill the space opened by her resolve.
Katharine reminds herself that forgotten notions can sometimes be found where they were first conjured, and crosses halfway back to the porch. Just before the screen door, Katharine remembers her determination, and its actual object. The actual object is lodged like a repressed memory, like a Freudian scene of childhood trauma, behind and within all the clutter of the years, somewhere deep inside the attic. The actual object she has not held for a decade or more, but she often still finds it holding her. The actual object, or the idea of it, sometimes rises in her thoughts against her will, threatening to ruin all the progress she has made in converting her memories of Frederick to the stories she tells. When she speaks with her daughters and her relatives about her husband, all accept her characterization, without a flinch of doubt. Frederick was an alcoholic, a philanderer, a madman who once exposed himself on the road leading into town. He was insane, and she was sane. He was selfish, and she sacrificed.
Frederick was a man of manic passions. He wrote a great many letters to her, just as he also wrote stories, ideas for inventions, patents, politics, and philosophy. He also wrote poetry, some good, most dreadful romantic boilerplate that leaned heavily into Elizabethan English in a sentimentalizing, embarrassing way. She can keep all of these pages in boxes in her closet, as she usually can keep the memory of him near her in her orderly way. But the actual object, that bundle of papers, is a telltale heart. She buried it long ago, and still it thumps its maddening beat. Katharine finds an ancient, paint-splattered stepladder in the laundry room, and carries it upstairs.
At the top of the cottage's staircase, the entrance to the attic is a heavy door, carved from the ceiling. The heft of the door, along with the dexterous, near-acrobatic maneuver one must perform to pass through it, makes entering the attic an act as burdensome as the mental act that it accompanies. At sixty-nine, Katharine is lightly stooped, her gait stunted with osteoporosis, but her arms are strong from the water, from canoeing and swimming. She hoists herself, tries not to look down.
Inside, the shock of attic, the recognition of this alternate parallel space, always suspended here, above us: a silent, cobwebbed clutter of immutability, a dark antipode to the house below, forever blustery with motion and light, with cocktail parties and children chasing one another in swimsuits. Katharine eyes the piles nearest the door: the old records, the broken gramophone, a box of withered gloves. Up here, without our choosing, things simply persist. Katharine wonders at the mystery of what does and does not survive. There are a great many things she would have wanted to keep that are not here now; a great number of unwanted objects remain. Nearly all photographs from her two youthful, single years in Boston are gone, and yet here are the legs of a mildly pleasing doll she had as a girl. Katharine suspects that the truth of memory is that it works this way too: that if we do not decide to discard and rearrange, if we do not deliberately inventory and organize, unwanted things will simply persist. Memory can be a willful power, but we must always be vigilant. Always, we must choose.
She walks carefully along the beams, knowing that the space between, which appears to be a floor, is in fact the thin cardboard paneling of the ceiling below. Once, while she was sleeping in her bedroom, Frederick, who would spend long afternoons excavating the attic's recesses, fell from the beams and came plunging down, ricocheting off the side of her bed, landing on the floor. He then stood, holding a milk crate of antique Christmas ornaments from above. Ho, ho, ho, he said. Merry Christmas! That was Frederick.
She knows precisely where to find it, back five yards or so, in the bottom of the crate that contains the things of Frederick she cannot quite bear to throw away, yet also cannot quite bear to live with: his naval uniform, a collection of pressed and dried flowers from their early courtship, the box that once held her engagement ring. It is strange to put her fingers on these things; at first they are only common objects in her hands. Yet, if she lingers too long on any of them, they become sentient and electric. Through her fingertips, they begin to transmit something; they begin to transfer their history, nearly bucking Katharine's determination. And so she digs. She digs and hefts and shifts until, simply, there it is. For a brief moment, it too is diminished in its objectness. It is, after all, just ink and yellowed paper, just paper holding commonplace words, like the words in which she thinks, writes, speaks. It is strange that this particular arrangement of mere words, of letters of ink, could haunt her dreams.
For a moment she thinks this whole enterprise, her resolve, is foolish, or worse. A disrespect, a betrayal. These are only the words of a man she has not seen for more than twenty years. A man she loved once in a life she no longer lives. She nearly puts the papers back, nearly leaves the attic to change into a swimsuit and enjoy the water at its best hour, as the sun starts to settle. And then, just for a moment, she lets herself read.
And suddenly here, in her hands, is another place. She knows that she does not believe-not really-the stories she tells of Frederick. She knows she does not believe-not really-the opinions of Frederick's psychiatrists, her relatives, her own family. She knows that she still does not believe it is as simple as others tell her it ought to be, as she tells herself it ought to be: that she was sane, while Frederick was mad; that she performed the heroic necessary work of saving her family, while, in his mental hospital, Frederick indulged in the escapist writing behavior (his psychiatrist's words) that is now in Katharine's hands. Sane, mad, heroic, dissolute, earnest, deluded: she knows she does not believe-not really-in those simple divisions into which she has spent the last twenty years organizing the past.
Katharine's determination returns to her.
And still, as she carefully descends from the attic, papers in hand, Katharine wonders: why now? Why all these years later, when everything has turned out, more or less, well? When the fate of her family no longer hinges on the outcome of her marriage's drama? Why now, this certainty?
Frederick so often devised moments of dramatic catharsis, would drag himself bleeding from the night, into the living room, and demand reckoning. In those moments, with all his impassioned urgency, he was always more powerful than she, and she hated him for it. But here, now, is her reckoning, solitary and silent, the way she has always felt that such resolution actually comes. A private feeling; a quiet moment.
Does guilt at all taint her certainty? Katharine tries to encourage herself. Likely, she thinks, these pages would be of no use to anyone. Likely, their power comes only from what they signify to her alone. To others, these pages would likely seem only the madness that perhaps they are. And, besides, hasn't she earned this? After all she has suffered and survived, hasn't she earned this final power?
Katharine is in the downstairs living room now, stuffing newspaper into the Franklin stove, arranging the kindling.
Twelve miles to the east along the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee, I'm sitting at the counter of the Mast Landing diner, chatting with a flanneled man in a ski cap. I pretend that my mother and my brother, seated at a table behind me, are not there. I try not to notice the man's gaze meeting my mother's. I'm seven years old.
David and I started a rock shop, I tell the man. We sell mica. And granite. And quartz. And fool's gold. But mica is the best.
Mica? the man asks.
Yeah, it looks like glass. What do you do?
Mostly, the man says with a laugh, I drive a truck and eat junk food.
That's your job?
Ha! I guess.
Speaking of which, the man says, consulting his watch, I need to get going. Anyway, I think your mom and your brother are getting bored.
I turn back to them. My brother happily swings his legs as he manipulates his Game Boy. He seems grateful for the air-conditioned diner, for the waffles now reduced to a sparse syrupy slop on his plate. My mother watches the scene, my imitation of adulthood, with unswerving adoration. I can see how adorable she thinks I am, and for a second I'm furious about it. I have started to put on these displays of my self-sufficiency every chance I get.
Yeah, I agree with the man. I should get back to the rock shop.
On the ride home, my mother maneuvering our minivan along the twists and hills of Route 109, I think about the trucker, the roads, freedom.
I've decided what I want to do when I grow up, I say.
I want to drive a truck and eat junk food.
Haha! my mother says. Stefan, that's the sweetest thing I've ever heard.
That's retarded, my brother says, not glancing up from the Legend of Zelda. You can't make any money doing that. And you'll get fat.
We turn off the paved highway onto the rutted dirt path, marked with the hand-painted sign for Providence Road. Sixty-five years earlier, my great-grandparents concluded their long horseback journey from Concord down the same path.
The jostle of the car catches the attention of my brother, who immediately joins me in our ritualistic competition, to be the first to spot the glimmer of the lake through the dense forest.
I see it! David claims.
No you don't! I yell. Liar!
Why is there smoke? my mother says.
A delicate line of white smoke ascends from the chimney of Echo Cottage, just coming into view. I watch the smoke's strange configuration, like a calligraphic word nearly written into the immaculate early evening sky. Nearly written, then vanishing.
Huh, my mother says. Isn't it warm for a fire?
From the dirt and pine needle parking lot, we descend the path to Echo's back door. I carry a superhuman number of bags from our stop at the grocery. I want, very much, to impress my mother with my strength.
Mum? my mother calls, once in the house.
In here, she says from her spot near the stove.
My brother rifles through the paper sacks for a bag of potato chips as I follow my mother to the living room.
(My grandmother must have been there for some time, considering. Or could it possibly have been as coincidental as that? That the moment we arrive is the moment she finally holds the papers to the flames?)
What's with the fire? my mother asks. What are you doing?
Oh, I thought I would get rid of some things, my grandmother says, as if performing any household chore.
All three of us now turn our attention to the bundle in my grandmother's hands. There, on the top page, are the precise slopes and flourishes of my grandfather's handwriting.
Are those Daddy's? my mother asks.
My grandmother shrugs.
Daddy's, I think. My name for my mother is Mommy, but my mother's name for my grandmother is Mum. A minor difference, but one that helps me forget that my grandmother is indeed my mother's mother, that my mother was once, like me, a child with parents. But, Daddy. Daddy is my name for my father. Daddy, like mine, but gone.
Awestruck and grim in their recollections, my mother and her sisters have outlined my absent grandfather darkly: adventurous, tragic, brilliant, a case study in the dangers of living too extraordinarily. During our de facto family reunions at Echo Cottage every summer, my mother and her sisters recite the Frederick mythology, stories that seem our family's equivalent of the Trojan epic, the original story from which all our modern stories rise:
Meet the Author
Stefan Merrill Block is the author of The Story of Forgetting. He was born in 1982 and grew up in Plano, Texas. He graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 2004. This is his second novel. He lives in Brooklyn.
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This is a beautiful story of love, marriage, family and the harshness of reality living with mental illness of any kind. I could relate to katherines character so thoroughly it was eerie! I have never read an author so in tune with my own personal thoughts that i could never put into words. Loved this book although heart wrenching at times to read. Looking forward to more.
The Book Report: What happens when a naive young woman meets a tall, dark, and handsome young man on the eve of WWII? He's charming, he's witty, he's intense, and he's going away to war in the Navy. Give up? They get married! When TD&H comes home after only a few months, spends some time in a hospital for the non-physically wounded, and is discharged, the course of the future is set. The author's maternal grandparents are the protagonists of this novel. He wrote it as a novel, in my opinion, because the drama inherent in this tale of madness, manic depression, motherhood, and untimely death demands things that mere reportage can't deliver. I can't imagine how Mr. Block's mother must feel, seeing her parents' hellish agonies spread wide for the world to view. I can't think it was done without at the minimum consulting her. But this act of revelation, this telling of the disintegration of a family, of a man's mind, and of the consequences of naivete, cannot have been easy for the lady to take in, even fictionalized and told through her son's eyes. I don't know if this is a brave book, or merely a sensational appropriation of the pain of the past. My Review: NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH. The scenes in the fictionalized madhouse outside Boston are extremely hard to read with equanimity. It's not some neo-Victorian hotbed of cruelty; no, it's far worse; it's modern bureaucratized Kafkaesque insensitivity, callousness, and self-aggrandizement causing the final dissolution of a man's mind and spirit. It's horrible, in that sense. The author's rather dead-pan prose makes this quality of coldness so much more vicious than a highly emotive or overblown and descriptive style would have done. The author's grandfather died many years before he was born. His grandmother, however, lived on to be a burden to her family during her own descent into dementia. Mr. Block deals with every strain of mental disease in this book. It isn't a jolly little bagatelle, but it is quite an accomplishment for someone so obnoxiously young (not even thirty!) to come to grips with so many strands of the pain of the past in this public way. It makes up in courage and rightness for what it lacks in smiling, sunshiney pleasures of reading. It's the kind of book I don't exactly recommend to people, so much as alert them to it and allow them to decide what to do with the knowledge. Don't be fooled. This book will change you, it will challenge you, and it will make your synapses fire in strange and new constellations of emotion and empathy. You may not like that. Prepare for it. I think you'll be better off for having read the book.
I had very high hopes for this book, but it never developed into anything interesting. It was a bland story all the way through, which always seemed to fall short of expectations.