Thursday, May 27, 2010


I have a theory that the places you found mysterious in your childhood will always be more mysterious to you than new any place you are first acquainted with as an adult, however interesting that new place is.

And by "mysterious," what I really mean, in most cases, is "terrifying."

When I was little, family vacations mainly consisted of visiting relatives, and they all lived in houses older than the one I grew up in. The advantage to living in a house that only dates back to a few years before you were born is this: you can be pretty sure no one is buried in the basement. I didn't even know such a thing was possible until I read that book about Bernie Magruder and the Bessledorf Hotel in which Bernie discovers a body under the dirt floor of the basement. Thanks a lot, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor! Our basement was concrete, so even if there were bodies under it, they were not going to come up through it, which was of considerable concern to me. Other people's basements were another story entirely -- their basements, their houses, and in some cases the entire property the house was on.

In the case of my great-aunt's house, I remember finding quite a lot of things distinctly creepy. Again, this is partly due to reading. In seventh grade we had to do a poetry project, and I accidentally read a poem called "Ghost House," which starts with this:

I dwell in a lonely house I know,
That vanished many summer ago,
And left no trace but the cellar walls,
And a cellar in which the daylight falls
And purple-stemmed wild raspberries grow.

I immediately thought of my great-aunt's house and the crumbling old barn foundation behind it. The poem goes on to describe the situation of house with alarming accuracy, and then casually throws in some "mute folk" whose names are written on gravestones and who wander around "slow and sad." To this day I still cannot separate my idea of the house from the feeling in that poem. Although I absolutely do not believe in ghosts, I do believe in poetry, and the poem was very effective in creeping me out. Thanks a lot, Robert Frost!

But the ghost house was only one of many, many things that scared me. Let's talk about the pump house. I do not have any reliable memories of the pump house, I could not draw you a picture of the pump house, I am not totally clear on what the pump house is all about or if it's still in use. But just the words pump house make me think of a dark, spider-filled shack on the edge of a dim pine forest, with a deep black hole inside that might -- yes, of course -- have someone in it. The only good poem I ever wrote involved the pump house and its aura of doom, and because of that I now find it more foreboding than ever. Thanks a lot, Simon!

Was the inside of the house safe, at least? Goodness, no! First of all, someone at some point decided that a nice decoration for the study (where my sister and I often slept) would be a flying squirrel. Stuffed. I mean taxidermied, to be clear. It hung from a hook in the middle of the ceiling, body a bit bigger than a bat's, webby wings all stiff, nefarious thoughts going around in its head. I could not sleep in the same room with it. People kept telling me that it was dead and therefore couldn't hurt me. But there ain't no "therefore" about it. In the world of my childhood, bunnies could suck the juice out of vegetables and there were such things as tesseracts. It didn't seem out of the realm of possibility that the squirrel was not permanently dead and frankly I found it a bit naive of everyone to think it was.

That was the main threat on the first floor. On the second floor, I fell victim to the misapprehension that the rat closet was for rats, not to keep rats out. Oh, how I wish someone had made that clear a bit earlier on. But that was a comparatively small problem next to the fact that the north bedroom (where my sister and I also sometimes slept) contained the creepiest portrait on the face of the earth. It was this . . . girl. I do not know how to describe her so as to adequately communicate the fear she inspired. Her hair is ratty, first of all, and her whole demeanor is plain shifty. She's posing for a portrait, but she's not looking at the painter like a normal person. Her eyes are aimed at someone outside of the painting whom she is clearly plotting to murder, and her mouth is craftily turned up in delight at the thought of it.

Now, Freud tells a story about a time he caught a glimpse of himself as a reflection in the window of a train compartment, and his first instinctual feeling, before he realized he was looking at himself, was vehement dislike and distrust. This is supposed to demonstrate the state of being of "uncanny" -- when something familiar becomes unfamiliar and threatening. I think Freud would say my problem with this painting is that the model, if she ever existed, was once my age and is now dead, as I will be at some point, and it's the fact that I identify with her yet can't conceive of sharing her fate that makes her absolutely repugnant.

But that's Freud. My opinion is that she's a psycho-killer. Run run run run run run run away.

Recently-ish, this house changed hands. Last weekend, my sister paid a visit. On Monday, she called me mysteriously and said, "I have something for you," but she wouldn't tell me what it was, because she "wanted to see my face." Advice: if anyone ever says this to you, run run run run run run run away. It means the Girl Murderer has tracked you down.

Apparently my cousin found her face-down on the dresser below where she's supposed to hang. Here is the conversation I imagine happening:

Cousin: Someone must have been scared of this or something.
Sister: Yes! Yes! It was my sister!
Cousin: You want it?
Sister: Yes! It will bring her great horror!

And so it did. Thanks a lot, guys! I made the mistake of leaving it face up on my desk and every time I go by it gives me the shivers. It would be significantly less scary if I could figure out what it was -- who painted it, and when, and, for God's sake, why. But it's some sort of reproduction, there's no signature, and nothing on the back of the frame. It's like she came into being on her own just to scare the crap out of me.

I have to admit I became slightly reconciled to her while studying her for clues, but squirrels will fly before I hang her up in my house. She'll be face down in a drawer where she belongs.

Further developments here.


Ivan said...

that's the sort of girl that puts strychnine in the well.

Anonymous said...

There's still a long stick propped against the wall of the pump house, with marks on it to measure the depth of the water in the well.

Of course you have to push the stick all the way to the bottom, which can be a problem - what with all of those dead children in the way.

Simon said...