Houses have been haunting the pages of novels and plays for centuries, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher to Morrison’s Beloved. One of the newest haunted houses on the scene is Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, nominated and shortlisted for a chunk of prizes throughout 2015 and ’16. Main character and family “Prime Minister” Cha-Cha is the one visited by a haint in this story (damn autocorrect keeps changing my word from “haunt” to “haint,” but it is indeed a “haint” here, along the lines of voodoo and black magic). Cha-Cha isn’t the only one running scared, however. His 12 brothers and sisters—not to mention their parents, one dead and one hanging on—are also fiercely haunted by their own sets of issues, problems, and various versions of the Turner family history. Meanwhile, around them, the city of Detroit has become a specter of its former self, with so many houses simply abandoned along with the aspirations they once held.
In terms of familial roles and relationships, the Turner family just happens to be African American, meaning that most readers, color and heritage aside, will recognize traits of their own family here. It’s a story of how children deal with aging parents, how siblings interact with one another, how family history follows us throughout our lives no matter how far afield we roam. The Turner siblings, though more numerous than most, have settled into the patterns dictated by birth order and personality, by circumstance and duty. Hence oldest Cha-Cha gets to be Prime Minister, while youngest child Lelah gets rescued by him and others time and again.
But, of course, no family just happens to be African American; for all the universality of their story, it’s tied to American specifics. Patriarch Francis Turner was one of the many black men in his generation who left the South, headed north to stake his claim, and then sent for wife and kids to join him. Francis’s children have long revered his legacy, which makes it all the more difficult when they find out about the ghosts that haunted him as well.