This is your haunted house.
The realtor was very perceptive the day you first came by, looking for a home that would provide more than mere shelter, a haven that would instead be an expression of your love of eccentricity and strangeness for its own sake, a place special and unique.
She saw in the two of you young professionals a pair of people with the right proportion of rationality and imagination, the kind of folks who would be delighted by spooky old legends without being frightened off by them, who would find in the local legends of supernatural visitations a point of interest that you would be more than happy to nurture as you began your new lives within these vintage walls. She showed you this grand old house, providing with it a long and colorful history of its growing reputation as the domain of disturbed spirits: from the tragedy that took place a long time ago, to all the supernatural visitations observed or at least reported by those who slept here in all the years that followed. She told you flat out that these stories have historically scared most prospective buyers away, but that this would also keep the selling price down to a fraction of what would normally be expected, for a home of this opulence and size.
You fixed the place up, repaired the damage done by years of neglect, installed all the modern conveniences, and otherwise furnished the multiple rooms in ways that complemented the Victorian-era architecture, from decorative leather-bound volumes in the library to portraits of mutton-chopped dignitaries in the foyer. Now it’s a neighborhood showcase. You love giving guests the grand tour, taking special pride in the secret passage behind the bookcase, the gargoyle statuary glaring down from the four gables, the ornate staircase leading up to a balcony where, you love to claim, a melancholy female figure in a long white gown can sometimes be seen wandering past the arched stained-glass windows.
Some of your overnight guests find all this a tad too evocative and lie in their beds sleepless and terrified, popping cold sweats over perfectly natural atmospheric sounds like the rustle of the wind, or the crash of distant thunder. The innocent sound of floorboards creaking in the hallway, as one or more of their fellow restless guests head down to the kitchen for a post-midnight glass of milk, is enough to make the spooked clutch their covers and think dark thoughts of the ghastly stories they didn’t take seriously when they were among friends but suddenly seem achingly plausible now that their skepticism has fled to wherever common sense goes in the dark.
It’s all harmless. Once dawn creeps through the windows, nobody will be found dead, faces contorted in masks of exquisite terror from unspeakable sights glimpsed in the night. Nobody will have been driven irretrievably mad. Nobody will have gone missing forever. What will happen instead is that they will all come down to breakfast and chuckle at the credence they gave your stories in the wee hours, the big joke that you have played on all of them by inviting them to this, your private museum of the macabre. They will compliment you on this delightful and picturesque treasure you’ve found and they will exchange fond reminiscences of the great haunted houses from the books they’ve read and the movies they’ve seen; the stories concocted by people like Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson and Stephen King and Guillermo del Toro that their sleep-deprived minds raided, so deliciously, with every sound your home’s living walls made in the hours between midnight and dawn. Later, returning to their jobs and homes and their other circles of friends, they will embellish the story of their night in your house with as much sensory detail as they can muster, spreading the legend; and as time goes on, its reputation will grow, until strangers come to gawk at it from behind the iron fence, and paranormal researchers write to ask if they can take their measurements.
If you’re willing, idiot reality shows might drop by and film episodes in which their teams of canned investigators wander about without using your perfectly functional electric lights, and offer half-baked dark suppositions about the meaning of every errant noise. You find all this delightful. You also know that it’s all bullshit. There might very well be ghosts here, but in truth you’ve never seen any, or ever come close to believing in any. Maybe they’re around, watching everything you do, and maybe they’re amused, or bothered, or enraged, but they’re also imperceptible, and so by all practical measurements, nonexistent.
This house will never come right out and kill you, not out of malice. You may succumb to an accident like tripping over your own stupid feet while halfway down a flight of stairs, or you may topple a heavy cabinet on top of yourself while trying to move it to another part of the room, or you may suffer your first chest pains while too far from a telephone to summon assistance. But you might very well live a long life here. You should be happy to hear it.
Or perhaps this is your haunted house.
You may have inherited it and you may have purchased it, considering its sprawling footprint and labyrinthine architecture a fine space to raise a family, but the elements that once made it a merely eccentric place have catalyzed into something much worse. The upstairs corridor that was always unnaturally cool even at the blazing heights of August, a phenomenon you once wrote off as some idiosyncrasy of architecture and air flow, is now not just cold but spectral, a place you avoid because of the icy fingers that caress the base of your spine.
The room of quaint portraiture in which the two of you once drank yourselves silly, making up stories about the people in those paintings who you gave names like Commodore Tightass and Admiral Stupid-Beard, is now a room that you can no longer bear to enter: a gallery of malignant old bastards, guilty of terrible sins, in concert with God alone knows what otherworldly entities. It is impossible to avoid the suspicion that they are still somehow conscious and aware on canvas, their antiquated features having long since twisted into sneers of pure hatred. Their gaze is somehow worse each time you see them, seeing past your reserve to all your worst secrets. They are proud of the stone weight that sits in the pit of your stomach, whenever they might be able to see you.
The wailing sound the wind makes as it roars past your windows is no longer a delicious part of the gag, but a sentient and despairing force, as damned by its imprisonment within your walls as you are, to be locked in here with it.
At night, the flower patterns on the wallpaper, still dimly visible because of the faint phosphorescence of the white spaces, become monstrous tableaux, re-enacting atrocities that once took place here, and are in a sense still happening. They are profane rituals conducted in subterranean candlelit rooms, by hooded figures chanting over innocents who they have shackled to slabs, who cry out for mercy as terrible images are painted on their bare flesh. Creatures neither earthly nor natural appear that were summoned by those rituals and still dwell here. You are aware of them but you cannot escape them, because the stain has transferred to the two of you. You will never be free of it.
Once, you were young and happy; now you are white-haired, drawn, reclusive, half-mad, and defeated. Once, you finished off bottles of wine because you were in love and that is what young couples do; now you nightly drink yourself to oblivion in the vain hope that the nightmares will leave you alone. Once, you would have fled this house when you saw blood dripping from the ceiling. Once, you would have been in the car heading for brighter vistas when the glowing woman appeared at the foot of your bed, lost and forlorn and begging for release you could not provide. Once, you would have burned the place to the ground, just on general principle, when her appealing features ran like wax and revealed the face of something that would suck the marrow from the bones of infants. Now you endure these outrages because you longer have a choice. The house owns you. You cannot escape unscathed now.
In the mornings you step out the front door in the cold light of dawn, not warmed by the golden light on your pale skin. You face your car, offering transportation back to the main road and with it to the modern world, and you regard it as if you no longer know what it’s for. In truth, you are not trapped here. You leave almost daily to tend to the necessities of life, the acquisition of money and groceries and so on that makes continued existence possible, but you have long since sensed that these are temporary departures the house permits as an indulgence. The two of you no longer manage to leave at the same time, not even for the span of a restaurant meal. Always, one of you remains behind, as hostage. The house gets angry if you attempt more, punishing you in more and more debilitating ways, aging you in ways that show on your face, horrifying you on the rare occasions when you permit yourself a glance at your own reflection. After minutes, shivering despite the warmth of the day, you return inside, once again reconciled to your damnation.
You have lived here for six weeks.
You will be here until there’s nothing left of you.
On the other hand, this can be your haunted house.
The two of you, your wife and yourself, have now forgotten the circumstances that led you to choose this place as your home. You know that once upon a time you traveled the world. You crossed borders. You slept in many of the globe’s great cities. You dwelt in places where family smiled on you and the warm sun shone down on you, places where it didn’t matter whether any day was at all different from the last, because at the very least they each had a beginning and an end, intervals interrupted by sleep, and the fresh promise of a new dawn. You always had a past and a present and a future. You had hopes and plans.
There are no such chapter headings now. You do not sleep and you do not eat and you do not go to the bathroom or watch TV or read books or see friends or make love or have conversations; you simply trudge down the halls, forever, searching in vain for the stairway down and the way out.
The air here is so thick that you move as if underwater, one deliberate step after another, following the cries of the one you love, who is always calling you from just around the corner, at the end of the hall you now walk. Your thoughts are sludgy and so you have not learned yet that by the time you reach that next corner, the one you love will have turned the corner after that; that there will be no catching up, not even if you chase her cries another ten or fifty or hundred years.
There are any number of things that a being moved by more than unthinking habit could do in this situation. You could stop and wait for the love of your life to complete a full circuit of this level, and catch up with you. You could speed up, or slow down, or turn around and therefore arrange an interception preferable to all this chasing. You could shout out an advisory: wait where you are, I’m coming. You could enter one of the rooms to your right, the ones with windows leading to the outside world, and break out, escaping to summon help. But none of these things ever occur to you. You are a creature with one impulse, following those cries, catching up with the owner of that voice, seeking a reunion that you still believe in, even if common sense should tell you that it will never come.
This is a mindless quest, but a desperate one, driven by love and loneliness, and occupying so much of your attention that you rarely think of anything else. When you do, the epiphanies you find vanish back into the fog. You honestly don’t want to hold on to the knowledge that you walk through but somehow never disturb inch-deep dust, that the floorboards don’t creak beneath the weight of your feet, and that honestly, you’ve been doing this longer than any human being can draw breath. You certainly don’t wish to remember a night of black rage and blood-stained bedsheets followed by suicide, a night that would not seem to lead to this unending monotonous chase, not in the world of life. Your mind always becomes clouded again just as you seem about to understand it. It’s all right. You don’t need to worry about anything but catching up, to whoever’s making those cries just around the next bend.
If you even ask how long you’ve been here, you miss the point.
But maybe this is your haunted house.
It is like the first in that it will never kill you. It is like the second in that you will be here until there is nothing left of you. It is like the third in that if you even ask how long you’ve been here, you miss the point.
It is again like the first in that you might very well live a long life here.
Unlike the first three we have already visited, it does not strike anyone as a likely haunted house when see from the outside. It is a small L-shaped suburban home, painted some bright color at harmony with the rest of the lazy, tree-lined street. Step outside late in the afternoon and you will hear dogs barking, children shouting taunts at one another from the shared park on the next street over, lawn mowers grinding fresh green grass to the length approved by the neighborhood board. Cars sit unattended in driveways. You are a three-minute walk to a bus stop, and a five-minute drive from a supermarket. The sun shines bright on the shade trees.
Open the front door and you will find a family sharing the space, but existing in a strange silence that is for the most part broken only by necessity. Close examination will reveal that there are fewer of them than there seem to be in the framed photographs adorning one wall. An oil painting over the mantel depicts a man, a woman, and three children, which include two boys and a girl; all smiling, all prosperous, glowing in the manner that only an idealized image can accomplish. You are one of these people. We will not say which one.
The man and the woman in the portrait are many years younger than the graying selves you now know. The man has since lost hair and acquired fat. The woman has since become drawn, developed a vague unfocused look that she maintains with regular trips to the medicine cabinet. You will find her sitting on the edge of her bed in the untidy master bedroom, staring at nothing. She is as lost in whatever she’s thinking, or not thinking, as creatures unaware of their own undead state can be, forever walking in circles around the same dusty corridors.
The oldest child, the daughter, who is beaming in the portrait, now sits in her upstairs room, pale-skinned and sullen-eyed, the glossy hair of the painting now stringy and lifeless. If you check on her right now, you will be able to catch her making hash-marks in one forearm with the edge of an X-Acto Knife. She is very serious about this project, which has been her secret compulsion for years now and which has turned the once-unmarked skin into an archeological record of her need for control. The tip of her tongue emerges from between her teeth as she concentrates on the latest incision of many. She winces at the moment the blood dribbles. She dabs at the wound with a square of toilet paper and casts a brief longing glance at the drawer where she keeps her cigarettes. It’s not like she enjoys smoking all that much. But the lit end can be as good as any blade.
The youngest boy is also ensconced in his room, drawing pictures. They are not nice pictures. He has recently discovered his own sexuality, and has not separated it from some other things he’s been feeling; things that manifest in his drawings as guts from open wounds. He has also discovered the joys of jerking off, but not of lubricant, and several times a day rubs himself raw to images that are still capable of shaming him. Sometimes he wraps a tight leather belt around his neck and hangs himself from the doorknob until the darkness gathers at the corners of his vision and the pounding in his head seems ready to explode. He has at times come so close to passing out from the pressure that he later thrilled to the nearness of his escape, though whether he’s so energized by survival, or the nearness of not-survival, is an issue that still puzzles him. There are school books on his desk, books that he’s opened and pored through and occasionally sounded out with at great cost, but as far as he’s concerned they have next to nothing to offer him. Nobody asks him why he’s covered the windows with black plastic bags, or why he sometimes sits in absolute stillness even while awake.
Between the master bedroom where his mother sits, and his own, there is another, which joins the rest of the world as a place where you will never find his older brother, the middle child, no matter how hard you look. It is now half-shrine to an overwhelming absence, half storage facility for any possessions that need to be put somewhere so they won’t inconvenience the rest of the house. There are boxes within boxes, some filled with disused toys, some filled with nothing more than the Styrofoam packing for appliances. Dig deeply enough, behind all the clutter, and you will find a once-beloved family schnauzer, freeze-dried after its death of old age. Its presence reflects what seemed like a good idea at the time, years ago, when there was a brief local fad of preserving deceased pets in this manner. But nobody in the family wanted it around, and since nobody wanted it thrown out either, it ended up buried in this room’s clutter and, though forgotten, in a way more present than the boy who once slept here. It’s certainly left more physical evidence that it once drew breath.
The house shakes as the garage door opens and the father’s truck pulls in. He staggers from the driver’s seat, entering the home from the garage door, and moves directly to the living room bar, where he fixes himself a scotch and soda. His hands stop trembling. He notes the debris in the living room and calls his family down. Over the next ten minutes or so they arrive, one at a time, and in the half hour after that they do not so much gather at the dinner table but congeal around it. By then he has another drink. By then his daughter is wrapped in the dark long-sleeve shirt that she almost never washes and that conceals the various places where fresh wounds have bled through. By then the boy has girded himself for a half hour of stony silence. By then the mother has sufficiently recovered from her afternoon medication to warm up something. There is very little conversation at the dinner table, beyond the father asking, once again, if it’s too much to ask for somebody to clean the fucking downstairs already.
After dinner the family separates with the urgency of pool balls after a violent break, the father to more drinking and a football game he plays at excessive volume, the mother to another spell of chemically induced catatonia, the son to his failing grades and magazines he keeps under the mattress, the daughter to the latest of a series of notebooks she keeps about how nothing makes sense and how with any luck she’ll die soon. The night outside turns black, the stars hidden behind a veil of pregnant clouds.
Nothing unseen wanders within these walls. No doors open to anything but rooms or closets. There are no portals to alien, incomprehensible places, unless you count the front door, an escape route that no member of the family, but one, has ever used to its fullest potential. Wherever they’ve gone, they’ve always carried this house with them, and they’ve always returned themselves to its dark embrace. From all available evidence, it’s quite possible that they always will, even if they find themselves on the other side of the world.
The game ends. A new program begins. The father sleeps through most of it, but then he stirs in a wet snort of arrested breath, smacks his crusted lips over the foul taste he finds in his mouth, and remembers where he is. After a moment he takes the remote, stabs enforced silence at the screen, and heads for the stairs, which he takes one step at a time, his every footfall an announcement audible to those who have been waiting for him.
Welcome to your haunting.