Novelist Samantha Hunt revisits her ‘haunted’ childhood home

A few months before her novel “Mr. Splitfoot” was published in 2016, Samantha Hunt had to solicit marketing submissions from other authors.

“It’s embarrassing to ask my friends and writers I admire to work for me, for free,” said Ms Hunt, a writer of haunting literary fiction. “Presentations are work. So I thought, Well, if blurbs are work, why not just pay for one? It would be simpler, fairer. And then I thought, since I was already going to see a bunch of psychics looking for ‘Mr. Splitfoot’, why not just have someone call Charlotte Brontë and get a blurb from her? »

So she went to see a medium in Albany. In a dark, windowless office, Ms Hunt said, the medium tried to make contact. Supposedly speaking as the author of “Jane Eyre”, she opined that “Mr. Splitfoot” was a good title.

“‘That’s what people want,'” Ms. Hunt recalled, saying the psychic, in Bronte’s voice. “‘There’s a lot of good energy and people, people are going to like it. It’s intriguing.

Ms Hunt doubted that Brontë, the great 19th century author, spoke like that, but these words appeared as back cover text, attributed to “Charlotte Brontë, speaking through a medium”.

Despite her scepticism, Ms Hunt, 50, said she remains intrigued by psychics and the work they do. “How much does intuition cost? How much does listening cost? How much is it to be an observer? I believe in all of those things,” she said last week during a visit to her childhood home in Pound Ridge, New York. my job to listen. It’s my job to observe everything and understand who people are.

In her latest book, ‘The Unwritten Book: An Investigation’, a collection of essays published Tuesday, Ms Hunt examines how the Pound Ridge House, originally built in 1765 and since expanded, informed her writing and vision of the world. It’s a haunted house, she says, but not in the traditional sense.

“I started thinking about how we are haunted as a process of calcification,” she said. “’Haunted’ is when something accompanies you, when we are not fully aware of a presence. It’s something you carry inside of you.

His mother, Diane Hunt, 85, has lived in the house since the family moved in more than 50 years ago. The author’s father, Walter Hunt, who worked as an editor at Reader’s Digest, died in 2001 at the age of 71.

The house is now “full of things from people we love who have died”, Ms Hunt said. She compared it to art installations by Nick Cave or Portia Munson, calling it “a wacky museum where you can touch everything”.

Her rooms are filled with collections: patchwork quilts, her father’s ties hanging behind a door, suits in the attic, thousands of art books and dozens of canvases her mother painted over the decades.

A portrait in the dining room shows Mrs. Hunt as a girl surrounded by ripe fruit, a candle, a goblet and a memento mori.

“I put a skull in there,” Diane Hunt said, “which wasn’t nice.”

Mrs. Hunt laughed and said of her mother: “She seems like a delicate flower, but she’s also morbid!”

In the living room, she gestured to a large painting of a dark male figure sitting behind a blindfolded woman.

“And that one is you,” she told her mother, “even though you said it wasn’t?”

“I guess it had to be me, because I don’t think I had a role model,” her mother said.

“I still think of it as you and dad,” Ms Hunt said. “Even if it’s a bit scary.”

“Some people think it’s scary,” her mother said. “Some people think it’s romantic.”

The house was bustling and noisy when Mrs. Hunt was growing up, often filled with neighborhood kids, who seemed to love the atmosphere of everything. She and her five siblings also had to deal with drinking adults during marathons. In “The Unwritten Book”, she recalls “ruffled clothes, jealous fights, dirty songs at 2 a.m.”, as well as “uncles stumbling down the stairs” and “visiting editors sleeping by earth in the living room”. Some nights ended with adults driving into a ditch at the end of the driveway.

To escape the chaos, Ms Hunt found herself gravitating to her father’s Royal typewriter. “The writing seemed like a quiet place in this house that wasn’t quiet at all,” she said.

At age 15, she left home to attend Northfield Mount Hermon, a “hippie” boarding school in Massachusetts. “My first religion teacher came in and said, ‘Hi, I’m a feminist!’ And I was like, ‘What is this?’ “, she recalls.

She then studied geology, printmaking and literature at the University of Vermont. After graduating, she lived in a geodesic dome and supported herself by serving tables and working in a garment factory. Almost every morning she would rise before dawn and write fiction, a practice she continued when she held jobs at Seven Days, an alternative weekly in Burlington, Vermont, and The Village Voice. At New York.

Ms. Hunt, who lives upstate with her husband, journalist Joe Hagan, and their three children, has published three novels and a collection of short stories. Her debut novel, “The Seas,” won the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award. His second, “The Invention of Everything Else”, based on the life of Nikola Tesla, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. In 2017, she published her collection of stories, “The Dark Dark”, and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in Fiction.

“Her sensitivity is like an antenna for the weird,” writer and editor Ed Park, who worked with Ms Hunt, told The Village Voice.

Ms Hunt said she recently unearthed a story she wrote in her early twenties, about two girls on a road trip. The girl behind the wheel talks all the time, while the other is silent. (Fans of her novels will recognize this twist.) “Of course, the girl in the back seat turns out to be dead,” she said. “I couldn’t believe I had been writing the same story for 25 years.”

Some readers have been paying attention to it for almost as long. “Sam has been steadily writing innovative, quirky and transporting books for 20 years now,” said poet and essayist Maggie Nelson, who wrote an introduction to a reissue of “The Seas.” “Her work is always feminist in a very profound way, that is, it speaks to difference while allowing for fascinating cross-identifications and new metaphysical possibilities.”

Before the family moved into the Pound Ridge home, Diane Hunt implored all ghosts to stay hidden. “I said, ‘If there are spirits here, that’s fine. You are welcome to stay. But don’t let me see you,” she said. “And they never did.”

With the original stone fireplace and American chestnut floors, crafted in the 1700s from a species of tree now all but extinct, the past lives on. “I was always aware of the number of families who had lived here before mine,” said Samantha Hunt.

The liveliest domestic spirit belongs to his father, who condensed books as part of his work at Reader’s Digest. The family believe he is visiting her in the form of cardinals, Ms Hunt said. Her mother added that once, when she lost her wedding ring, she asked her late husband where she was. Almost immediately, she found it “in a pile of debris in a small purse in the hallway,” she said.

Walter Hunt preferred Gilbey’s Schlitz gin and beer, and his drinking meant Mrs Hunt and her siblings were always on their toes. “Children of alcoholics are detectives, watching for the slightest changes in smell, behavior and language,” she wrote in “The Unwritten Book.”

She also notes in the book that his ashes are still in the house, inside a cookie jar labeled “Walter Victorious”.

“He could be lost again,” Ms Hunt said when I visited. She turned to her mother. “We had it about a year ago, remember?”

She left the kitchen and went upstairs.

“Check behind the bishop’s pew!” her mother shouted, referring to a folding table in the hallway.

Mrs. Hunt returned a few minutes later, a little out of breath.

“He was in the attic,” she said.

She was carrying her father’s briefcase, the same one he had brought to the Reader’s Digest office in his Oldsmobile Starfire. In the living room, she opened it to reveal the box that contained her ashes, along with a stack of condolence letters and an old lottery ticket.

“He was a big lottery fan,” Ms Hunt said. “He played every day.”

“Oh, yes, every day,” her mother said.

The title of “The Unwritten Book” comes from his unfinished novel, which Mrs. Hunt discovered in her office shortly after his death. She includes excerpts between her essays, with annotations to reveal the connections between her fiction and the family.

“My dad loved puzzle books and tricks and games,” she said, “so he’d be happy to think something strange happened with his job.”

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