Predatory Residence: housing as horror in Andrew F. Sullivan’s The Marigold
Winter 2023 J.R. McConvey
This container in which I live is vile. It is vile and it protects me, shelters me, and I love it. I love it even though it makes me decadent: landowner, hoarder of space. My container makes me wary of others. My container is a selfish structure: never big enough and always hungry.
Still, my family must be housed.
I say that we live in this detached, single-family house in the inner suburbs. I say that I own it—as though being in thrall to an invisible financier and to the house itself, shifting and sweating in the uneasy dirt, demanding fealty and reparation lest it sicken me with toxic molds invited in from the lake down the hill, does not make it clear that it is the other way around.
I live in Toronto, which means it feels as though I am living through a decline engineered beyond my control. Canada’s largest city is on the bad end of a brutal run. I say it feels like decline, rather than simply that it is, because Toronto is a city that fundamentally exists from two perspectives. It sits on the land in the form of a great cross, split on its axes by main arteries. Toronto is east side or west side, with Yonge Street in the middle. Toronto is north of Bloor Street or south of Bloor Street. Toronto is the vibrant cultural hub of Canada, or a self-important shithole that despises anything outside itself.
Now, however, like many places, Toronto is most clearly split along lines of income. Toronto is rich; Toronto is starving. Toronto is growing; Toronto is collapsing. Either you walk the streets of the upscale Yorkville shopping district comfortably, the luxury shops it houses nothing remarkable to you and your friends in investment banking, mass media ownership or real estate; or, you feel loathing emanate from the shops like the conditioned air that escapes from their doors, because you know you will soon come on a tent city scheduled for a bulldozing. In the latter case, you might periodically think about how to bring all of it down: the finely dressed people, the buildings, the corporations, the politics, this merciless churn that calls itself a city.
In our current climate, “owning” a house in Toronto—or holding a mortgage—means you are now on the wealthy side of the divide. And so it is true: my detached single-family house near the lake is valued at more than a million dollars. I inhabit millionairedom. I can borrow against this; the bank is happy to lend me more, at applicable interest rates. I am wealthy in that I own my house; my wealth contains me. In Toronto, even wealth is precarity. This city has been built to squeeze people dry.
And yet, it seethes with Wet.
Andrew F. Sullivan’s The Marigold is not a haunted house novel. It is not, exactly, a haunted high-rise novel, either—although Sullivan readily acknowledges the looming influence of J.G. Ballard’s High Rise on his polyphonic story of a condo building that gives rise to the city’s anger and despair in physical form, manifested as a sentient, permutating, semiliquid mold called the Wet.
Haunted houses are usually either indifferent or trying to push people away. They often lay dormant for decades, infrequently visited by the dumb and curious or the paranormally inclined, like Shirley Jackson’s Hill House or Richard Matheson’s Hell House. “No one’s been able to live in it,” says one character in Peter Medak’s 1980 haunted house film, The Changeling, of the mansion that hides its secrets; “It doesn’t want people.” Even when residences buck the trend, it is usually specific people they want. King’s Overlook Hotel seems to have been waiting for Jack Torrance; it was incomplete without him.
Even Ballard’s titular tower is still shrouded in a kind of mystic optimism, belief in the home of the future. “The high-rise was a huge machine designed to serve, not the collective body of tenants, but the individual resident in isolation,” Ballard writes. The key point is that it was designed to serve at all. Its architect, Anthony Royal, lives in the penthouse, and prizes the building as a “private zoo,” a hierarchical “social organization below them that they could exploit and master.” Its residents are game pieces. Still, they are a part of the building that entombs them, a collective entity working out class relations within a defined concrete framework.
The residential tower that gives The Marigold its name is something else. It is not a bold architectural statement, fueled by demented but potent vision. It is not a good faith effort to create a place in which people can live and prosper; it does not even care if they interact, or know of each other’s lives. It is not old and cobwebbed, but new and flimsy. It is not separate from the city, looming on its edge, but embedded in its heart. It has no charm, only hollow ambition. It is a human fly trap, built to extract juice from its victims in the form of money. It is a predatory residence. Truly haunted architecture lures people in by preying on their desperation.
At the beginning of architecture, housing was something you could build yourself from materials you had on hand. You might hunker down in a cave or build a hut with the bones of the mammoth you slew. You might craft yourself an igloo out of solid snow, or a yurt out of bamboo and hide. Over time, with the standardization of currency, trade and borders, housing took on the mantle of status: a lord in his castle, an emperor in his palace. Markets emerged. In North America, the dream of settlement became tied to the idea of owning land, then owning a home. Cities begat suburbs, which, after the World Wars, begat subdivisions. Still, for some people of modest means, it was possible to buy land and build your own house. In the 1940s, my grandfather built the house in which my mother grew up. Costs came into play, but the idea was the same: make a place where your family can survive.
I am not an economist, and would not be, any more than I would be a dung beetle. So, I cannot pinpoint when, exactly, shelter turned from something to inhabit into something to withhold. An investment, as they say. “Real estate.” Some say the 2008 financial crisis, and the fallout from the subprime mortgage debacle, is the inflection point. Surely, it seems to account for some of what has happened since. But the cruelty in how we have come to understand shelter is older than that. Although I cannot tell you how the market behaves for investors or why, I can recognize, without ambiguity, how indifferent to human suffering it has become.
Here is a story about a building in Toronto that haunts me. The Kormann House Hotel at Queen and Sherbourne, a tough corner in Toronto’s downtown east side, was built in 1897. My great-great grandfather, a liquor and cigar merchant, commissioned it. For a time, it served the city as a public house and an inn. Sometime near the end of the twentieth century, it closed for good. Since then, several condo proposals have been put forward to replace it, including one currently in development. But, for at least a quarter of a century, it has been boarded up, empty, negative urban space: a brick revenant.
Across the street is Moss Park, a popular spot in the area for homeless people to congregate. A few years ago, some of them set up an encampment there, a community of tents in which they might survive. With the approval of the mayor, the city’s police force forcefully evicted the people living in the tents, clearing the encampment as soon as they could.
Inside the walls of the former Kormann House Hotel, behind the peeling white and grey paint and the posters advertising the renewal to come, the stale air of abandoned decades vibrated with disuse, a cathedral to nothing, space withheld.
Now, we build housing to make money. We watch planned communities rise, knowing every bolt and panel have been bought on scrimp, to maximize the final payout for developers and investors both known and secret. We let those without money sleep on the hard streets we have built. When these people do as people have always done, and create their own shelter with what they have, we remove it, on the grounds that they are an eyesore, that they stink of sweat and piss, that they offend our notion of what kind of a city this really is.
But our notion is wrong.
One night, at a diner in Toronto’s stark, liminal northwest, two brothers made a pact over a hearth of sweating ribeye: a pledge to own the city they had always hated. It wasn’t enough to be rich on their father’s mundanity, a fortune made selling tacky decals. The brothers were hungry, and their hunger was not of the sort that anything on offer at Steak Queen could sate; not even if the diner’s friendly cooks offered to sever a piece of their immigrant dishwasher’s hand and toss it in on the griddle, fried to order. You can’t just eat people, said the smarter and more malicious brother to the simpler and more pathologically insatiable one. You have to eat their home.
The characters in The Marigold are vivid and sharp, and it inhabits its ooze and grime with a stylistic consistency in the feel and flow of the prose. But I will not expound on the book’s aesthetic merits, since I hope readers will explore them directly.
Rather, the question I want to answer is, why did The Marigold feel so permanent on arrival? So quiveringly resonant in its images? Great evocations of place become markers in that place’s fantastical imagination. Toronto’s is notoriously thin. It is a mistake to buy into the idea that this city is absent from fiction; there are Toronto books, if you want to look. But often, we simply do not: the city is a shrug, a turning away from what came before, to face the next flux. The Toronto of The Marigold, however, does have a past. Specifically, in the cinematic psychogeography of filmmaker David Cronenberg, who has captured, better than most, its mix of cold sterility and restless bodies. If I were to locate the novel’s Toronto on a timeline of the city’s fictional markers—depictions that somehow live within its soul, but also come to shape it—I would place it as the final node on a trinity beginning with Cronenberg’s Videodrome and Crash, which depict Toronto as, respectively, a cesspool of screens and a ribbon of twisted metal, each colliding with the malleable tissues of flesh. Pixel, concrete, chrome and cladding; sewage and blood and bones. Nihilistic orgies of production and destruction in cycles that yield, as their nectar, the membrane that separates the daring from the meek, the clean from the tainted, those who proudly strut into Holt Renfrew with dental veneers shining from the filth that might defile their expensive shoes simply by walking the same paths. Toronto the Good: a domain for builders who do not raise towers to house people, but to sap them.
And, below, the accumulated sludge of so many sacrifices flowing through the buried creeks, every variety of matter discarded into the same vast hidden pit, everything underneath invisible. If you can’t see it, it can’t infect you. Paint over the cracks and the blooming patches on the walls; fill the holes with secret blasphemies to make sure the cheques get cashed. Here, it is a stark choice between above and below.
The Marigold offers a lubricious stew from which to pluck nuggets of genre: body horror per Cronenberg; urban noir a la China Miéville; Dick-like dystopian sci-fi; Ligottian Weird; Japanese creature stories; more Ghostbusters II than you might expect; a bit of hallucinatory grit care of Mexican author Yuri Herrera, whom Sullivan loves. But I am less interested in how the novel functions as a genre piece than in how it declines the notion of realism as distinct from genre, by expressing, in speculative language, a realism that the book itself brings into being. The Marigold feels, irrefutably, like Toronto now. Its purported fictions interact with the city. After reading it and walking the streets, one cannot help cataloguing the signs of decline: broken roads, overflowing trash bins, transit breakdowns and delays, major construction projects stuck in a limbo of gutted suspension. Here we are, in this terrible moment—and The Marigold rips off the rosy goggles to show us that the true fiction is the polite and pleasant city we think we live in: the vile container that we love.
I want to believe that Toronto has seen itself, or at least that enough of us have, to pursue genuine change. We are at a point of disgust. The city has morphed into a new reality, which Sullivan has ensconced and made more visible. I want to believe that this novel, having cast its spores wide and taken fungal root in the city’s mythology, marking a grim milestone in how we imagine it, might also metaphorically mirror its own ending, and wipe the slate clean for the next timely vision of Toronto’s hungry darkness. Once you have been inside The Marigold, you cannot un-know what it tells you. Maybe after this, things can’t be the same.
But of course, they can.
At certain readings to promote the book, Andrew F. Sullivan began with its epigraph, which comes from the dead, pink brother, who recently had a stadium named after him: former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. As a pithy statement, it is the distilled essence of that serum extracted in the grinding of homes into assets, people into buyers and sellers, streets into funhouses of desperate hustle though a steady rain of plate glass. It is the thinnest and strongest barrier, the layer that so many seek to maintain with zeal to ensure that the picture before them does not flicker and fuzz and turn toxic, afflicting their eyes with the livid, moldering new realism that Sullivan is dealing, his city infused with Wet. If the city is sick—and how could it possibly be, when there are still so many luxury shops?—but if the city is sick, surely it is someone else’s fault.
To quote Rob Ford, “Everything is fine.”
Everything’s fine. I am housed. I am comfortable at home. My cute little place in the inner suburbs would never hurt me. I worship it and it loves me back. Everything’s fine. Everything’s fine.
Down the street from my house, they’re tearing down the old apartments by the lake. The plan is for new condo towers, one thirty stories high. People must be housed. As for the ones who live there now, as The Marigold tells us, every development takes sacrifice; every building demands blood. And if, once the shiny new high-rises are built, the units are priced to bleed, built to crumble, and empty of humanity, no one who has read Sullivan’s book and felt its veracity will be even a bit surprised. Nor if the towers are only ever sold and never built, the value achieved without having to house anyone at all, the transaction completed with the tearing of earth and the draining of enough bank accounts, the gaping wound in the land an afterthought left to ripen and rot. “Before the towers,” reads The Marigold’s opening paragraph, “there were trees here. Now there was only a hole.”