The Deadly Space Between by Patricia Duncker

by Jonathan Messinger

20 August 2003


A Ghost in the Bedroom

It might be said of psychoanalysis that if you give it your little finger it will soon have your whole hand.
— Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis

Elizabeth Duncker knows creepy. Like a devilish camp counselor, she oozes out the plot of her new novel, The Deadly Space Between, at a tenaciously unhurried pace. And true to form, the reader is left like a helpless camper after the story has ended: a blend of disturbed and confused.

cover art

The Deadly Space Between

Patricia Duncker


The novel’s narrator is Toby Hawke, an 18-year-old student who is most explicitly in love with his mother. Toby sounds less like he’s telling a story and more like he’s recounting a nightmare. The characters are huge and mysterious, the type of monolithic creatures that threaten or dominate in dreams.

The trouble with a nightmare is that it’s difficult to control. So it is with Toby and his living dream. Toby and his mother are hotly pursued by her lover, Roehm. Roehm is a snake-skinned, hulking character with, one imagines, the charm and seductive powers of a mob boss. Toby and his mother close; so close in fact, that his nightmare becomes one suitable for Freud’s couch. Is that not clear enough? The book goes from PG-13 to NC-17 in the time it takes a son to ask his mother, “Madame, may I kiss your breast”? In other words, there’s a very vivid Oedipal, sexual encounter.

All of this is allegedly at the unspoken behest of Roehm, who wields a sort of mystical influence over everyone he meets. He has mesmerized the two in a way that hints it’s all part of his grand design.

Roehm’s character is the central mystery of the book, and what gives it the feel of a ghost story. Toby is irresistibly drawn to him and his subtle advances; so subtle everyone speaks of them in wonderment. He has so charmed Toby and his mother they are unsure of their actions and spooked enough to take flight. Roehm pursues and his mystery gets murkier.

Duncker is an architect in the truest sense the word can be conflated with author. She builds characters rich in history and a story girded for longevity. The trouble is, she spends too little time filling in the details. If the nightmare analogy sticks, the story is an interesting study of Toby’s adolescent mind: a foggy playground for the wicked.

The author wants there to be more, however. In what thin information we’re given about Roehm, we’re told he could be the spirit of an 18th-century botanist trapped in ice, a homosexual Nazi spurned by Hitler or a modern filmmaker. The enigma here is finite: Roehm is someone otherworldly, someone fearsome, but someone tied to one of these options.

Between Roehm’s seductions and the oedipal action, Duncker wants to say something about power and how sexual longing and confusion can be a potent medium for control. By employing the logic of a nightmare, however, pieces fall but never come clearly into place. Nightmares aren’t places for discovery; they’re where deeper troubles go to stay buried in the psyche. Therefore, Duncker trolls away, but is unable to pull her exploration of power out of the depths.

And why dredge up the Nazis as a possible archetype for Roehm? Sure, it’s a grand example of the abuse of power. But the Nazis certainly carry a lot of other baggage as well, and why invite such an overwhelming element into what was already a multi-faceted, psychological ghost story?

Critics have praised Duncker for mining Freud and Shelley—the latter of which she quotes extensively. She would be better described as elegant Ann Rice with a greater economy of writing. She’s written a chilling tale that—though it trips over itself a bit—still manages to be flat-out freaky. And if Freud were alive and had me strapped to his couch, I might even admit it’s a bit sexy.

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