Remember when

May 7, 2018

Remember?

You had me on the waste ground behind the old changing rooms
just as the day, snake-like, shed its skin.
You were like a wild thing in the shadows, desire firing your blood.
Un-fucking-stoppable.
I said: ‘I don’t usually do this on a first date.’
You said: ‘This isn’t a date.’

Remember?

And you were right.
It was more a rape.
You stabbing me with that angry cock of yours.
And I thought: WOW!
This boy’s a beastie –
thrusting up me and waiting for the moon.

Remember?

And when you started cumming
I knew the morning would be foggy with drizzle.
I knew I’d feel like a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces.
And I thought: ‘Is this love?’
And yes, you made me cum too, you bastard.
Then you left me to give birth to the ghosts we two had made –

Remember?

GREY WOOLF

i am reading ancient poetry composed thousands of years ago, and the words dance off my tongue like rain bouncing off of flower petals, filled with so much life for a language that so many have called dead. around me, the ghosts of those who lived long ago settle in beds of their own words, their paper blankets tucked up to their chins as they listen to their bedtime story. their happy sighs are the whispers as i turn the pages; their soft, sleepy breaths are the rhythm of the words that flow around us. a warmth fills my chest as i keep reading. they are content, and i know that i am not alone.

sarah thoodleoo
Concept

a house on a hill

Regrettably, the ivy of literary criticism attached to Hill House has tended to obscure its finer features. Biographers, scholars, and pop-culture commentators alike have proven dubious guides, telling tales riddled with factual error and taking interpretive leaps that a careful reader hesitates to follow. The first step, then, to pushing toward a clearer understanding and appreciation of the novel involves hacking through such accrued verbiage.

Judy Oppenheimer’s hefty biography, Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson, has surprisingly little to say about The Haunting of Hill House, and the scant analysis it does offer is marred by inaccuracy. Discussing Eleanor Vance’s climactic smashing of her car “into a wall” (actually, it was a tree), Oppenheimer asserts that the protagonist kills herself “triumphantly. For it is not a defeat, far from it — in the moment she makes her decision to merge with the [house’s] dark powers, Eleanor is more blazingly alive than she has ever been in her life”. Grossly misreading the novel’s ending, Oppenheimer ignores the dismay Eleanor expresses when facing fatality: “In the unending, crashing second before the car hurled into the tree she thought clearly, Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? Why don’t they stop me?”. Oppenheimer concludes her chapter soon thereafter with the punning assertion that Jackson’s “triumph was as total, and as smashing, as Elinor’s [sic],” and the glaring typo here does nothing to inspire trust in the biographer’s attentive reading of the novel.

In Shirley Jackson’s American Gothic, scholar Darryl Hattenhauer devotes an entire chapter to Hill House, but his study proves no more reliable than Oppenheimer’s. Hattenhauer states that the line “Fear and guilt are sisters” is an admonition inscribed by Hill House’s founding father Hugh Crain in his daughter’s primer, whereas the line is a bit of third-person narration that appears in the chapter section subsequent to the main characters’ perusal of said primer (Jackson writes: “Fear and guilt are sisters; Theodora caught [up with Eleanor] on the lawn”). Discussing the scene in which Theodora’s bedroom is defiled, Hattenhauer observes that Eleanor “apparently smears menstrual blood on Theodora’s clothing and then blocks out any memory of doing so”. But that would have to have been one deluge of a period to produce “so much blood”, and Hattenhauer’s reading of the incident in natural and psychological terms fails to explain the complete disappearance (later in the novel) of the blood smears from both the bedroom wall and Theodora’s clothing. Most problematically, when describing the author’s notes for her novel, Hattenhauer observes: “Jackson (apparently unconsciously) inscribes herself into the house. Her several sketches of the two-storey house exhibit traces of her body”. Unfortunately, Hattenhauer fails to produce any sketches to corroborate this off-the-wall theory.

Another take on Hill House can be found in Dale Bailey’s American Nightmares: The Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction. In this treatment, the author (a horror writer as well as an academic) seems preoccupied with legitimizing the haunted-house subgenre as a subject worthy of scholarly scrutiny. In his constant search for deeper meaning, Bailey refuses to consider the novels’ domestic horrors on their own terms: “In the hands of the best paperback novelists,” he writes, “the haunted house becomes a strikingly versatile metaphor; transcending the glossy clichés of formula, it drags into light the nightmarish tensions of gender, class, and culture hidden at the heart of American life”. Accordingly, Bailey argues that Jackson employs Hill House “as a metaphor for an oppressive patriarchal society”. He reads the novel in light of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” an 1892 weird tale in which medically-prescribed home confinement exacerbates rather than cures the female narrator’s mental and emotional woes. Jackson no doubt alludes to Gilman’s story (although Bailey fails to forge any specific intertextual links). Dr. John Montague’s plan to “rent Hill House for three months” starting in late June recalls the doctor named ‘John’ in “The Yellow Wallpaper” who likewise makes a summer rental of a Gothic manse. Montague’s wife comments as she obsesses over the titular wallpaper: It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide — plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions” Eleanor’s reaction to her blue-wallpapered bedroom at Hill House echoes this; scanning the perimeter of the room, Eleanor ponders:

“It had an unbelievably faulty design which left it chillingly wrong in all its dimensions, so that the walls seemed always in one direction a fraction longer than the eye could endure, and in another direction a fraction less than the barest possible length; this is where they want me to sleep, Eleanor thought incredulously; what nightmares are waiting, shadowed, in those high corners—what breath of mindless fear will drift across my mouth.

Yet, just because the two texts parallel each other in some regards does not mean they do so in all. Jackson ultimately appears more interested in the frisson generated by “The Yellow Wallpaper”‘s ambiguities (mental breakdown occurring in a quite-possibly-haunted setting) than in rehearsing an unmistakable feminist critique (during the extended rest cure forced upon her, Gilman’s narrator significantly comes to perceive a female figure trapped behind the wallpaper). Bailey, whose book is representative of the predominant feminist-psychoanalytical approach to Hill House, misses the mark when he targets the patriarchy as the arch-villain of Jackson’s novel. Eleanor’s problems trace back to her relationship with her unpleasant mother, not the father whose absence Eleanor regrets: during her childhood “it had seemed to be summer all the time; she could not remember a winter before her father’s death on a cold wet day”. The textual evidence further contradicts Bailey’s positing of Hill House as “the vast corrupt palace of the patriarchy itself”; with its “concentric circles of rooms” and rounded furniture, Hill House (whose very name suggests female contours) is more overtly figured as a “mother house”. Similarly, Bailey’s ultra-Freudian assertion that Eleanor “ascends the library’s phallic tower in a moment of ‘intoxicating’ sexual union with the patriarchy” overstates the case — in this scene, Eleanor (a character too sexually repressed to engage in wanton union) believes she is chasing after her “Mother”. Sometimes, Bailey should be reminded, a tower is just a tower.

Bailey is not the only horror author to make a nonfiction study of Hill House. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King devotes considerable space to Jackson’s novel, which he lauds as one of the only two (Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw being the other) “great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years”. King’s comments are not devoid of error — even as he extols the brilliance of Jackson’s opening paragraph, he flubs the analysis of the lines. Jackson begins: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality, even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within – “. The implication here is that Hill House has been subjected to too much absolute reality, but King misreads the passage and claims that the house “does not exist under conditions of absolute reality; therefore it does not dream; therefore it is not sane”. Also, for all the admirable rigor King demonstrates in mapping out the novel’s various interpretive possibilities, he falls disappointingly short in his commentary by ruling out one particular reading: “the one thing we can be sure of is that there are no actual ghosts in Hill House. None of the four characters come upon the shade of the companion flapping up the hall with a rope burn around her ectoplasmic neck”. This last statement is true enough, yet signals how easily Jackson’s subtlety can mislead — just because the author is not so blunt as to let a ghost manifest front and center in the novel does not mean it is not there haunting Hill House.

King’s denial of a ghostly presence in Hill House represents the fundamental flaw in the literary criticism of Jackson’s novel. Time and again over the past half-century, the strange happenings at Hill House have been explained in either psychological (i.e. as the unconscious projections of the disturbed and telekinetically-gifted Eleanor) or vaguely-supernatural terms (i.e. the house itself has been malevolently-sentient since its construction). Marvin Kaye, in a bibliographical appendix to his anthology, Ghosts, qualifies his inclusion of The Haunting of Hill House, which is “technically a twisted story of haunted people”. Critics Dara Downey and Darryl Jones conversely assert: “The manifestations themselves, their multifarious nature, and the fact that they almost never take visible form, all imply an amorphous malevolent force, without origins or motives”. A closer reading of the novel, though, exposes the limits of such polarized perspectives, which jointly overlook the fact that Jackson has scripted a bona fide ghost story. Lenemaja Friedman is a rare critic who holds that “the reader must accept the possibility of ghosts…all members of the party share in seeing and hearing the same manifestations, which are not the product of any one person’s imagination”. But one can still take another step beyond Friedman’s generic discussion of “the spirits of the house”. For all her crafted ambiguity, Jackson embeds key clues within her text that point to a specific ghost haunting the premises. After fifty years’ worth of confusion, the time has surely come to identify (the origins and motives of) Hill House’s resident revenant.

Joe Nazare
Haunting Anniversary: a half-century of Hill House

Tied to other realms

March 4, 2018

river crossing

For as long as I can remember, I have been tied to what I call other realms. My childhood is filled with amazing yet what many would call unexplainable experiences…hearing voices of those who are not physically present, feeling a presence not physically there and even seeing someone who is but a reflection in appearance. I have even seen those who look so much like a physical person I mistook them for one.

I have had numerous encounters with things beyond this plain of existence yet I still find it difficult to name these experiences. I am extremely reluctant to label myself or to try to define those things that might not have a definition. I have shied away from using the word gifts yet for those of us who are sensitive to these encounters I guess gifts are a good name to use.

I am fascinated by all the experiences I am so fortunate to have. I remember feeling both nervous and excited by the footsteps of those I could not see in my grandmother’s attic. I would eventually leave the comfort and sanctuary of my grandmother’s bed to investigate. As I approached the attic door I did my best to be quiet, to be cautious and not alarm those whose footsteps I could hear. Slowly I reached out my hand and as soon as my fingers touched the delicate doorknob all was silent. Imagine me thinking I could sneak up on ghosts, spirits or magical creatures. It seems humorous to me now however I took it quite seriously then.

Xntric Raven
The Lady on the Stairs

black and gray in the shadows

December 30, 2017

sensuous threat

The first ghost was Iris Lesley, looking as if she had been peeled from a movie screen. She was all silver when the moonlight hit her, black and gray in the shadows. She moved like she hadn’t been in the ground for thirty years, like she was walking a red carpet in diamond slingbacks and McQueen gown. Welch hadn’t been able to look away, thinking the actress was a hallucination. After the knife across a throat . . . After all that blood . . . What might a mind do to erase it?

So Welch didn’t move when Iris Lesley did, allowing her ghostly fingers to stairstep their way up a cheek, into a tangle of hair, across and into a mouth. Iris Lesley was hot and tasted like ash, which didn’t surprise Welch one bit, given she had died in a studio fire that had consumed four blocks before it too died.

E Catherine Tobler
Ghostling

Haunted Houses

November 2, 2017

All houses wherein men have lived and died
Are haunted houses. Through the open doors
The harmless phantoms on their errands glide,
With feet that make no sound upon the floors.

We meet them at the door-way, on the stair,
Along the passages they come and go,
Impalpable impressions on the air,
A sense of something moving to and fro.

There are more guests at table than the hosts
Invited; the illuminated hall
Is thronged with quiet, inoffensive ghosts,
As silent as the pictures on the wall.

The stranger at my fireside cannot see
The forms I see, nor hear the sounds I hear;
He but perceives what is; while unto me
All that has been is visible and clear.

We have no title-deeds to house or lands;
Owners and occupants of earlier dates
From graves forgotten stretch their dusty hands,
And hold in mortmain still their old estates.

The spirit-world around this world of sense
Floats like an atmosphere, and everywhere
Wafts through these earthly mists and vapours dense
A vital breath of more ethereal air.

Our little lives are kept in equipoise
By opposite attractions and desires;
The struggle of the instinct that enjoys,
And the more noble instinct that aspires.

These perturbations, this perpetual jar
Of earthly wants and aspirations high,
Come from the influence of an unseen star
An undiscovered planet in our sky.

And as the moon from some dark gate of cloud
Throws o’er the sea a floating bridge of light,
Across whose trembling planks our fancies crowd
Into the realm of mystery and night, –

So from the world of spirits there descends
A bridge of light, connecting it with this,
O’er whose unsteady floor, that sways and bends,
Wander our thoughts above the dark abyss.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I am definitely now exploring what science can do to create a new biological body for a ghost or a spirit. I am certainly asking whether or not newly created humanoid entities have souls. I do have my own pantheon of ghosts, elves, werewolves, vampires, mummies, witches and the like. I have loved creating this. And I’ve had wonderful fun exhuming these horror clichés and doing my take on them. I think there are certain concepts that unite my work, and the main one, of course is that the monster, particularly the vampire, is a metaphor for us, a metaphor for the outsider and the predator in each of us. Good horror fiction as I see it is always about us, about the human condition. It is always allegorical and metaphorical. I love writing these books. They are about my reality, my moral and social obsessions.

Ann Rice
Interview 14th February

All Souls’ Night, 1917

October 21, 2017

You heap the logs and try to fill
The little room with words and cheer,
But silent feet are on the hill,
Across the window veiled eyes peer.
The hosts of lovers, young in death,
Go seeking down the world to-night,
Remembering faces, warmth and breath –
And they shall seek till it is light.
Then let the white-flaked logs burn low,
Lest those who drift before the storm
See gladness on our hearth and know
There is no flame can make them warm.

Hortense King Flexner

The unexpected roar of a cannon wrecked the silence of that cold night –

Nehemiah Fosternbury, shepherd, started suddenly round; his dog, slouching at his feet, growled a warning.

It was December 1642. The country was at war with itself, Royalists against Parliamentarians. Only two months earlier, a huge battle had taken place at nearby Edgehill, the first major conflict of the English Civil War. Had the soldiers returned once again, to spill yet more blood…?

Cavalier or Roundhead, Nehemiah cared not. All were of a fierce, bloody and licentious disposition. All committed every manner of cruelty on the inhabitants of those places they came to.

A volley from massed match-lock muskets echoed over the valley. Screams and curses could be heard…But from overhead!

Poor Nehemiah felt the sounds to be the very emblem of Sodom and Gomorrah! Glancing upwards he saw them. Phantom armies in the night sky. The battle of Edgehill was being refought. Spectral soldiers screamed and died in agony. Cannon flamed and thundered. And Nehemiah fell trembling to the ground in his terror –

Over the coming weeks and months, others reported hearing this same spectral battle played out in the skies around Edgehill. Ghost were encountered too on the battlefield itself. The area developed a dreadful reputation for hauntings.

The first reports of these apparitions and the existence of a ‘strange psychic aura’ at Edgehill appeared in a pamphlet published January 1643. This pamphlet tells us of ‘Apparitions and Prodigious Noyses of War and Battels seen on Edge-Hill near Keinton in Warwickshire.’ It continues:

‘At this Edge-Hill, in the very place where the battle was stricken, have since and doth appear, strange and portentious Apparations of two jarring and contrary armies…it being certified by men of most credit in those parts…between twelve and one of the clock in the morning was heard by some shepherds, and other countrymen, and travelers, first the sound of drummes afar off, and the noyse of souldiers, as it were, giving out their last groanes…but then, on the sudden…appearing in the ayre the same incorporeall souldiers that made these clamours, and immediately, with Ensignes display’d, Drummes beating, Musquets going off, Cannons discharged, Horses neighing…the alarum…and so pell mell to it they went…after some three hours fight, that the Army which carried the King’s colours withdrew, or rather appeared to flie; the other remaining as it were masters of the field…On Sunday, being Christmas night, appeared in the same tumultuous warlike manner, the same two adverse Armies, fighting with as much spite and spleen as formerly…The rumour whereof coming to his Majestie at Oxford, he immediately dispatched thither Colonel Kirke and three other gentlemen of Credit…who…heard and saw the forementioned prodigies…distinctly knowing divers of the apparitions or incorporeall substances by their faces, as that of Sir Edmund Varney, and others that were slaine.’ *

The Edgehill ghosts have not ceased to exercise their influence on succeeding generations of visitors to the battlefield. Many have suggested they were conscious of being watched on the battlefield by ‘many hundreds of unseen eyes’. The international concert pianist Michaeli related the account of his visit to a place on the field where Cavaliers and Roundheads are buried together. Here he became deeply disturbed, cut short his visit and returned home immediately. However, on his return home, he became aware of a most terrifying fact, ‘which was that I had brought back with me one dead from the battlefield.’ A visitor who went on to haunt Michaeli for about one month, after which ‘he ‘left me as suddenly as he appeared.’#

* British Library, Thomason Tracts, E85, “A Great Wonder in Heaven, Shewing the Late Apparitions Seen at Edge-Hill.”

# Statement of 15th November 1966 by Michael Howard Romney-Woolard and quoted in Peter Young, ‘Edgehill 1642’.

23rd July

Living here with so many ghosts I feel like a caretaker of the restless dead – a protector of spirits who haunt my life – so that I’ve become my own haunted house, attempting communication with partially glimpsed movements at the edge of perception, or the sound of a creaking stair, or a noise in the attic which might only be the patter of falling rain…My ghosts can be cranky on occasion: they can whisper words, the meaning of which I’m unable to determine.

It’s been a long time since anyone treated them well –

#

So the Saturday evening play-party. With our friends from the local munch, people possessing the emotional bandwidth to comply with our safety standards, while sharing similar aesthetic tastes to ourselves.

Like a small film club, are we, eagerly awaiting the main attraction: crisps, freshly roasted nuts and popcorn are liberally distributed to ‘the audience’ in small china bowls. Missy A has been naughty and is to be disciplined while we watch. Furniture has been moved to accommodate this tableaux.

Seeing Missy A bent over a chair with her skirt hitched up is breathtaking. Hearing a hand slap against her buttocks, is so very arousing – how could it be otherwise? Savouring the slight trembling of flesh with each fresh impact. Her yelps of discomfort –

Then E rising to join T who is tiring. E has a riding crop. She takes T’s place. Her skin-head hair cut is intimidating. She uses the crop with consummate skill –

Yelps become cries. Missy’s poor glowing bum is criss-crossed with red stripes –

Missy’s now estranged husband used to take her to play-parties in the boot of their car. Almost nude, gagged and handcuffed, even in winter, she would endure this humiliation without complaint. His treatment of her became harsher and harsher, until she finally left him eighteen months ago.

It should serve as a lesson to us all, how quickly such consensual abuse can become pure abuse –

I’m reminded of Jean-Paul Sartre and his theory of emotions as ‘magic’. Because Missy has simply exchanged one sadist for another. The new man in her life allows his fantasies free rein. She is, it seems, one of life’s natural victims –

E’s skill with that crop is superlative. Her strokes are hard enough to mark Missy’s naked bum but not to break the skin. I can’t take my eyes from Missy, her tear-filled eyes, parted lips, writhing as if in the grip of some invisible power. Sex is inherently ritualistic, a symbolic act whose meanings extend beyond itself. And there can be no doubt that Missy’s submission is sexual, that she takes pleasure from E’s practiced flogging of her backside. And every face in ‘the audience’ is slightly flushed with sexual excitement as they look on. And my own arousal is equally obvious –

Finally, aftercare. Caresses, kisses, gentle stroking. A smile on Missy’s tear-stained face. She experienced some sort of climax near the end of her ‘punishment’, and all the tension is now drained from her.

I finish my popcorn (which incidentally is homemade) as E takes Missy upstairs to the bathroom to fix her make-up.

‘I hope they don’t wake the ghosts,’ I say to no one in particular.

And no one, as expected, bothers to reply.

#

Hamlet experienced an encounter with a ghost and it ended in massacre. Macbeth was confronted by Banquo’s ghost during a great banquet, and lost his peace of mind forever. It’s more than likely that Shakespeare’s ghosts are simply psychological manifestations of guilt – imagined apparitions, in other words.

But what of my ghosts?

Trish, for example?

She used to love me reading out loud to her. At bedtime I always had to read to her or she couldn’t sleep. On occasion she would perform an act of fellation upon me as I read –

She once described herself to me as ‘Terribly thin’. And her body, I must admit, was like a sabre slash in silk. As flat chested as a boy, was she. ‘You’re fine,’ I’d tell her. ‘I love you as you are.’ And then laid her back and performed cunnilingus on her for almost an hour –

I read her ‘The Story of O’ and we both got turned on by it. It was Christmas Eve I remember, and Trish guided me between her buttocks. I gently sodomized her for the first time while she masturbated herself.

We talked a lot about art, writing, music and cinema. One time I told her about André Gide, his enormous influence on the young, which sprang from his teaching that one’s only duty is to oneself, that one should never be ‘encumbered’, either by material possessions, memories or other people –

‘Often the best in us springs from the worst in us.’

And so I read ‘Isabelle’ to Trish, and we both visited le chateau de la Quartfourche with Gerard Lacase, and accompanied him on his quest for Isabelle in the grip of ‘amorous curiosity’.

Books, reading, more reading and fucking. ‘Why don’t you read me something you’ve written?’ she asked. It was a bridge too far for me. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Never that. It’s all too awful.’ But she insisted, so finally I recited some of the poems in ‘Summer Births’ from memory. And while the words spilled gently from my mouth like little lost souls, Trish fondled me erect and masturbated me –

Trish had always had a thing about India. For her it seemed a magical, mysterious, exotic place. One day she announced she was finally going to go there. She’d saved the money. She was going for six months – longer if she could!

And so she drifted from my life almost as casually as she’d drifted into it. And now she keeps company with the crowd of ghosts occupying this place; a spectre who loves to hear me read out loud late at night –