LURID: Location, Location, Location - Haunted House Stories
LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a twice-monthly guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.
Haunted houses have tugged at our imaginations since antiquity: creaking stairs, slamming doors, murmuring voices, rustling skirts, shattering vases, gurgling pipes, tapping branches, spitting cats and wailing dogs have echoed down the corridors of our collectively dreamed dwellings for as long as we’ve lived inside. All cultures tell stories about them, recognizing that even when we think we’re home, safe, things that go bump can still reach out and grab us.
Haunted houses represent a fascinating psychological space and scare us for some very primal reasons. On one level, they embody Freud’s concept of ‘The Uncanny’, in that such a space “derives its terror not from something externally alien or unknown but - on the contrary - from something strangely familiar which defeats our efforts to separate ourselves from it”. There’s nothing more familiar than hearth and home, and nothing more terrifying than the idea that you might be trapped there, either as a living entity fleeing phantoms, or as one cursed, after death, to walk its hallways for eternity.
On another level, houses are the ultimate in material possessions. They’re the most costly single item any one of us is likely to buy in a lifetime. Our houses reflect our finances, our social status, our taste, our needs, our security: you are where you live. We fill our homes with our most treasured people, pets and possessions. When a haunting manifests itself in your house, your core identity is threatened – along with your sanity. It’s all too easy to feel the fear, as the house stands for your sense of self. When it’s haunted, so are you.
Haunted houses can also be spectacular visual symbols – the human psyche writ in clapboard and tile, usually adorned with random turrets, grotesque ironwork and a bricked-up window or two. The interior decor functions as a roadmap to the mind of the person who designed it; peccadilloes can be preserved for all time by carving Bacchanalia into the banisters. They’re commonly old, large, a monument to the decadence of a forgotten era, and they encapsulate the injustice of our social structures. Mansions require masters and mistresses, usually members of a wealthy, land-owning elite who may not wield power benignly. A rambling old house is a stark reminder of hierarchy; some underling has always got to do the dusting and take out the trash.
Haunted houses usually result from our lack of respect for history. Whether we insist on building tract housing on an Indian burial ground, or constructing a stately pile at the nexus of a series of ley lines, or over a wartime mass grave, or on top of a huge, underground chamber where primitive religions made human sacrifices before our civilization was even born, or to utilize a lava pipe that plunges to the core of the earth as a sewer, our arrogance and ignorance will end in tears when the building, inevitably, oozes bad karma. Although houses built a century ago or more are favored spots for paranormal activity, the newest steel-and-brick loft-inspired townhouse can manifest spooks within its walls — the land has a long, long memory.
No wonder, then, that fiction writers of all flavors have explored such rich territory in their work. Pliny the Younger wrote one of the earliest surviving haunted house stories, in the first century A.D., recording the oft-told tale of Athenodorus, the philosopher-turned-exorcist, who spent the night in a haunted house and found a way to lay its ghost to rest. Haunted houses (or castles) dominate the skyline in Gothic literature. The Victorians were fond of ghost stories in general; Poe’s The Fall of The House of Usher is a glorious blend of paranoia and pathetic fallacy.
It’s surprising how many classic, literary writers include haunted house stories among their output – Charles Dickens, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, P.G. Wodehouse, Edith Wharton, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Susan Hill to name but a few. Haunted houses are the only fictional zone where these writers rub metaphorical shoulders with pulpsters like Richard Matheson, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little et al. Writing a haunted house story is a way of flirting with the fantastic, without making any kind of long-term commitment that might affect your credibility. Everyone’s welcome to the house party, literary snobs and mass market alike, but be sure to bring your most potent spirits and suspend your disbelief at the door.
The modern haunted house yarn that continues to top “Best of…” lists is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Elegant, restrained, crafted for psychological intrigue as much as for maximum horror, Jackson’s novel deserves its place at the head of the pack. In its pages, Jackson collects a series of tropes that have come to epitomize the subgenre.
Her framework is deceptively simple. As in all great haunted house stories, the house itself is a major character (“Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within”). She gifts her construction with a juicy history (“A perfectly splendid scandal, with a suicide and madness and lawsuits”). She implies that the location was a major factor in the past tragedy (“some houses are born bad”), and urges the reader to side with the locals, who won’t go near the place after dark, not even if you pay them. She trots out a few examples of previous tenants who left in an unseemly hurry, with months to run on their lease, with nothing good to say about their former residence (“the house ought to be burned down and the ground sowed with salt”). Naturally, there’s an absentee landlord. And finally, she introduces a mismatched quartet of strangers, who may only be carrying a single suitcase each but bring with them enough collective baggage to sink an iceberg. A haunted house can only ever be as demented as its hauntees.
Richard Matheson copied Jackson’s format almost exactly with Hell House in 1970, while cranking the sex and violence all the way up to eleven. The backstory of Hell House is especially spicy. It’s the former residence of nutjob millionaire, Emeric Belasco, who ran a kind of warped, Satanic artists’ colony as a psychological experiment into the nature of evil back in the 1920s. After several years of indulging his “favorite hobbies” of orgies, gluttonous feasts, drug-taking and “destroying women” (including his sister) by seducing and then dumping them, Belasco tires of playing the games himself and becomes the puppet master, encouraging...
...guests to conceive of every cruelty, perversion, and horror they could. He conducted contests to see who could come up with the ghastliest ideas. He started what he termed ‘Days of Defilement’, twenty-four hour periods of frenzied, non-stop depravities. He attempted a literal enactment of de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. He began to import monstrosities from all over the world to mingle with his guests – hunchbacks, dwarfs, hermaphrodites, grotesques of every sort.”
The resultant bad behavior leaves a nasty psychic residue, and, so the local stories go, Belasco continues his experiments from beyond the grave, destroying the minds of anyone who enters his home. Decades after the last inhabitant of Hell House dies of debauchery (and having to do their own laundry because all the servants have fled), Belasco’s malevolence is still palpable within the walls. Matheson sends four truly flawed souls into the fray, and charts their gradual unraveling in the face of paranormal activity that ranges from teleplasm to poltergeists to a possessed cat. His eye for graphic details, whether he’s describing the ‘cheat-proofing’ procedures followed before the medium, Florence, does a sitting, or the physical sensations Edith experiences when she's raped by a ghost, is chilling, and, despite the slight anti-climax of the ending, Hell House will linger long in your mind.
In more recent years, Clive Barker and Chuck Palahniuk have brought their colorful idiosyncrasies to the model beloved by Jackson and Matheson. Barker’s twisted love letter to the depravity of Old Hollywood, Coldheart Canyon, presents us with a female Belasco in the form of Katya Lupi. She’s an émigré silent movie queen with a secret basement in her hilltop house that can be used “like a cross between a two-bit ghost train and a fountain of youth.” Since the 1920s, she’s been exploiting its dark power to maintain her starry good looks, and to taunt a whole menagerie of ghosts (and their freakish progeny) who are trapped in her canyon, condemned to a nightly orgy – and the gyne-gymnastics do get rather dull after eighty years. When surgery-scarred leading man Todd Pickett decides to use Coldheart Canyon as his secret, post-op retreat, he and his screwball entourage are in for a shock. Because this is Barker, there are plenty of salacious sex scenes, truly nightmarish monsters, and some lyrically beautiful passages. And, the Los Angeles location means the house gets a proper Hollywood ending:
She’d read her Poe: she knew what happened to houses as psychotic as this had been. They came tumbling down. Their sins finally caught up with them and they collapsed in on themselves like tumorous men, burying anyone and everyone who was stupid enough to be inside when the roof began to creak.”
Palahniuk places not four but nineteen messed up individuals into his Haunted, and their subsequent behavior would make Belasco proud. Palahniuk riffs on the paradigms; yes, there’s an eccentric millionaire, “an old, old dying man” who bankrolls the whole project, but he’s got an unusual set of secrets. The characters are decanted, not into a Victorian mansion with a sorry history, but into “a slot of pure nothing” in a concrete wall. They bring their own toxic backstories, and, as the novel develops, they will come to haunt each other – there’s no need for any kind of paranormal activity in here. The abandoned theatre acts as an amplifier for their traumas, hatreds, perversions and warped ambitions, and if it isn't a haunted house at the beginning of the novel, it certainly is by the end. The resultant negative energy is more than enough to create a future haunting. Once the blood-soaked finale has played itself out, you would not want to be the next tenant to take possession of "the Museum of Us".
While Barker and Palahniuk gleefully splatter the walls of their haunted houses with all manner of bodily fluids, other writers take a more sanitary approach. Diane Setterfield's debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale, is a comparatively genteel reworking of Gothic paradigms, channeling Poe, the Bronte sisters and Du Maurier. She builds suspense slowly, depositing her protagonist, Margaret, at an isolated house a long way from her comfort zone ("Yorkshire was a county I knew only from novels, and novels from another century at that"). Margaret has come to this strange, silent dwelling, where the rooms are "thick with the corpses of suffocated words" to write the biography of its owner, Vida Winter, currently "the world's most famous living author". Vida has been lying about her past for as long as she can remember, feeding every interviewer a different line, but she has decided the time has come to set the record straight. Margaret's task is to unravel the mystery surrounding this fiercely private woman; she must reconstruct events from many years ago and decipher the links between Vida and the nearby roofless ruins of Angelfield, the former family home. Margaret discovers that the living and the dead (and those who hover in between) all have their own versions of the story, and it is up to her to decide what passes for the truth, and what remains as ghostly illusion. Atmospheric, lyrical, and very definitely literary, The Thirteenth Tale proves that there’s still mileage in the classic, M.R. James-style haunted house story in the twenty-first century.
It seems all kinds of readers and writers like to lose themselves in haunted spaces. From The Shining to House of Leaves, via The House Next Door, Turn of The Screw, The Amityville Horror, The Dead of Winter and December, the basic haunted house plot (‘Misfits meet House where Bad Stuff happened. More Bad Stuff happens. Not everyone gets out alive’) has been put to a range of effective uses. Whether you believe in spirit manifestations, or if you prefer to think there are no crazy houses, just crazy people, there’s a haunted house yarn out there for you.
What’s your favorite?
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