Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Scary as Sheet: Ghost Stories For My Halloween

I live in a house that has good potential to breed ghosts. Built in 1920, the Craftsman home on a quiet tree-lined street in Butte, Montana, is a jigsaw puzzle of dark corners, cobwebbed crawlspaces, drafty closets, an obsolete coal chute, and narrow, twisting staircases that send one’s mind reeling with vertigo. In the basement lurks a big-bellied, multi-armed and asbestos-lined furnace that, when it gleams with inner fire, looks like a mechanical beast out of Jules Verne. And one hears things. At night, the radiators tick like approaching high heels. The blowsy curtains shift from side to side, in a breezeless room. There are creaks, there are hums, there are papery whispers behind one’s back.

The house has seen its share of stories, passing through several different Butte families before us, including one owner, a well-known married ophthalmologist, who met a scandalous end when he was killed in a car accident, along with an 18-year-old female passenger. In an unofficial history left by previous owners, there’s a winking little addendum to the story: He was known for his wandering eye and partying ways.

Like I said, stories have attached themselves to this house. And I believe some characters from those stories still live here.

During one visit, my daughter tripped near the top of one of those spiral staircases, barely catching herself in time from falling. She swears she was nudged from behind. A distinct push against the middle of my back. She was alone in the house at the time.

Houses contain us, we live our lives in them, and it is not surprising that they might continue to shelter us after we die. We are attached to our homes, perhaps so much that we cannot leave, even though we are dead. A haunted house has an emptiness that is filled by the inappropriate or unnatural. A house can lose its soul, a house can go bad. Houses can be monuments to personality, we inflict our tastes upon them, but they can afflict us with their perversity in return. Ghosts can be like vermin–pests to be driven away or exterminated. We are anxious about our houses. Even the most conciliatory, helpful house can become supernaturally burdensome.
I don’t know if I’m supernaturally burdened in my house or if those noises in the other room are just noises, but I do know I suck a lot of pleasure out of that paragraph from Audrey Niffenegger’s introduction to her excellent collection, Ghostly, which is one of the books I’ve been reading this past month to get me in the mood for Halloween.

Ghostly begins with “The Black Cat.” It has been years–decades–since I read Edgar Alan Poe’s classic, and Niffenegger was smart to open her roster with this one because I felt those spinal chills all afresh as if for the first time when I read these words from the narrator (murderer and terrible pet owner) when he overconfidently bangs against his cellar wall as a show of bravado in front of the investigating policemen:
       “Gentlemen,” I said at last, as the party ascended the steps,” I delight to have allayed your suspicions. I wish you all health, and a little more courtesy. By the bye, gentlemen, this–this is a very well constructed house.” ( In the rabid desire to say something easily, I scarcely knew what I uttered are all.)–“I may say an excellently well constructed house. These walls–are you going, gentlemen?–these wall are solidly put together,” and here, through the mere frenzy of bravado, I rapped heavily, with a cane which I held in my hand, upon that very portion of the brick-work behind which stood the corpse of the wife of my bosom.
       But may God shield and deliver me from the fangs of the Arch-Fiend! No sooner had the reverberation of my blows sunk into silence, than I was answered by a voice from within the tombs!–by a cry, at first muffed and broken, like the sobbing of a child, and then quickly swelling into one long, loud, and continuous scream, utterly anomalous and inhuman–a howl–a wailing shriek, half of horror and half of triumph, such as might have arisen only out of hell, conjointly from the throats of the dammed in their agony and of the demons that exult in the damnation.

The book only gets better from there. Shivery standouts include short stories by Edith Wharton, Oliver Onions (funny name, creepy story), A. M. Burrage, A. S. Byatt, and Neil Gaiman, whose “Click-Clack the Rattlebag” is an icy stab to the heart. I don’t want to spoil anything for the virgin reader, but these lines near the end really sent me over the edge:
He pushed open the door to the attic room. It was perfectly dark, now, but the opening door disturbed the air, and I heard things rattle gently, like dry bones in thin bags, in the slight wind. Click. Clack. Click. Clack. Like that.

Ghostly also briskly re-introduced me to Saki and his equally-brisk pleasures. “Laura” and “The Open Window” are both delights in narrative wordplay, trickery, and compression. Especially the latter. Saki gets the job done in the time it takes some writers (present company included) to merely warm up the pen.

Niffenegger closes Ghostly with Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” (updated here to “August 2026”). As she writes in her introductory note: “Perhaps this is not a ghost story at all, but I like to think it is. It is a story of the ghost of a house and the ghost of a civilization. It is a warning and a parable. Of all the stories in this book, it is the most possible.”

The story moves like a roving camera, in one take, through a day in the life (and death) of a house which has miraculously survived a nuclear attack. The house lived, but nothing else did:
       The house stood alone in a city of rubble and ashes. This was the one house left standing. At night the ruined city gave off a radioactive glow which could be seen for miles.
       Ten-fifteen. The garden sprinklers whirled up in golden founts, filling the soft morning air with scatterings of brightness. The water pelted windowpanes, running down the charred west side where the house had been burned evenly free of its white paint. The entire west face of the house was black, save for five places. Here the silhouette in paint of a man mowing a lawn. Here, as in a photograph, a woman bent to pick flowers. Still farther over, their images burned on wood in one titanic instant, a small boy, hands flung into the air; higher up, the image of a thrown ball, and opposite him a girl, hands raised to catch a ball which never came down.
       The five spots of paint—the man, the woman, the children, the ball—remained. The rest was a thin charcoaled layer.
       The gentle sprinkler rain filled the garden with falling light.

A house also featured prominently in my TV watching in October. The Haunting of Hill House was only nominally, tangentially related to the novel by Shirley Jackson, and it took my wife and I a couple of episodes to really get into the Netflix series, but when we did, we were sucked in, as helpless as poor little Carol Anne splaying her fingers across the television screen in Poltergeist. There were plenty of legitimate jump scares that had me choking on my candy corn, but more than anything The Haunting of Hill House succeeded as–get this–a tender story about the bonds of family and how to deal with grief and guilt. The scares melt to schmaltz in the final episode as the denouement swerves like a car on an icy road toward a tree called This is Us, but even that isn’t enough to dampen the series’ well-earned sentiment of family first, even unto death.

I also appreciate how the Netflix series was kind enough to include a few patches of text lifted directly from Jackson’s famous opening/closing lines:
Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it has stood for eighty years and might stand eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

I concluded my Halloween reading jag with Dolly by Susan Hill. While I wouldn’t rate it as highly as I would her previously ghost story novella, The Man in the Picture, Dolly does have its moments. Hill creates a soupy, chilly atmosphere of an isolated house out on the fens in Britain. She writes: “Empty houses breed fantasies, bleak landscapes lend themselves to fearful imaginings.” There are some superb, evocative descriptions which all combine to create some tense scenes surrounding temperamental children, a too-large mansion, and an unappreciated gift, a doll. And don’t even get me started on the rustling of tissue paper.

Speaking of odd noises, I just heard something strange coming from the other room. I’m gonna go check it out and then I’ll be right back.

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