A Dark And Stormy Night
Memory is not reliable. It gets tangled among emotions and thoughts. Who is to say what really happened and what we felt happened. Who is to say that both are not real in some way even though no one is around to bear witness to an event?
I sit here at my computer trying to sort out the sequence of events, but I find it less and less clear. Did I somehow read the book in High School and not remember it? The first time I remember reading The Haunting of Hill House was for class in 1999. And yet, somehow it parallels my own novel Damon’s House, which I wrote in 1992. And the dreams. When did the dreams about the third floor begin? Did they begin in 1992, 1994 or 1999? I can’t say for sure. All I know is that The Haunting haunts me.
My Grandmother was a Home Health Aide from a woman named Elizabeth Black. The 92 year old women lived alone in a huge house. Her husband had died and her children and grandchildren all lived elsewhere. She had a cook, a maid and a nurse to take care of her during the day. At night someone was required to watch over her as well. That was my Grandmother. She spent every weeknight at the Estate for over a year.
It wasn’t long after Grandma started working that she invited me to spend the night with her. I jumped at the chance. What writer wouldn’t want to spend the night in a creepy old mansion, right? So I packed an overnight bag and hoped in the car with my Grandma. We drove to Marion Avenue in Mansfield. There was a long drive to the house, which was hidden back behind some trees. It would have been in the country at one time, but was now simply on a large pocket of land between developments. Grandma parked in the garage and we got out.
We entered the house through the Mud Room. From the small room off the garage, we entered the family room. It held a couch and chairs for lounging around. I noticed there was a piano with pictures on top of it. I studied the pictures briefly, observing the children and grandchildren in clothes from the 1970s. They looked happy. We passed through an entire closet filled with liquor. Most of the bottles were half empty and looked like they hadn’t been touched in years.
Grandma continued the tour. She showed me the room that had been dedicated to the servants. No maid was there at that late hour, however, there was an ironing board and iron ready to go for the morning. There was also a small TV in the corner, possibly from the early 1980s. We walked through a breakfast nook with a small table and four or more chairs. A swinging door opened up into the sunny kitchen. It was a long kitchen with fairly new appliances. Despite that, it still had the same decorations from the 1940s. We exited on the other side of the kitchen into the dining room.
The dining room had a buffet table against the wall and a picture of the Revolutionary War or a Hunting Scene or something above it. There was a cabinet with dishes against another wall and a nice wooden table in the center. Though obviously dusted and kept up, I guessed that no one had actually taken dinner there in quite some time.
We left the dining room and crossed a hall to the formal sitting room. There were two chairs facing a fireplace. Grandma mentioned that Mr. Black was said to haunt this particular room. It had been his favorite in life. We took a quick peek into a den or study. It was a small room that was lined with book cases. A desk set inside as well. I didn’t get a chance to notice the titles on the shelves.
Grandma turned her attention to the pictures on the Hall wall. She explained that Frank Blymyer Black’s family was originally came from Ireland. His family moved to Zanesville, Ohio. Eventually, he came to Mansfield, married and founded The Ohio Brass Company. It was a factory that ultimately made him wealthy. The house we were in was built in 1940.
We took a quick look inside a bathroom right next to the front door and then headed up the stairs. Grandma showed me to our room on the left. I settled as she checked in on Mrs. Black. When she returned, she gave me a quick tour of the upstairs. There were quite a few bedrooms and bathrooms that all seemed to connect. At the end of the hallway was another stairway to the attic room. I don’t believe we ventured up there that night, although, I did eventually see the attic space a year later.
Grandma set the alarm and we went back to the bedroom. She slept in a brightly painted room with a canopied bed. The canopy had green printed curtains on it. Grandma read a bit of her book and I read a bit of mine. It was probably 11pm when she turned out the light and went to sleep. I couldn’t sleep though. All I could think about was the liquor downstairs in that rather large closet.
When I was satisfied that Grandma was asleep, I snuck out of bed and down the stairs. I searched in the darkness for that ever elusive room at the end of the hall. I pushed open the door to the breakfast nook and set off the alarm. I’d forgotten that it went off when doors opened and closed—even swinging doors. The blare of the alarm startled Grandma awake. I was running back toward the bedroom when she spotted me. She came down the stairs and turned the alarm off. The phone rang shortly after and she assured the alarm company that all was well. Grandma suspected that I had tried to get to the liquor, but said little. We went back to bed and I finally got a few hours of sleep.
The next morning Grandma checked on Mrs. Black and then spoke to Dreamia the Nurse. Dreamia had urged Grandma to go back to school and take Nursing Classes. We walked back passed the liquor closet and through the family room to the garage. Grandma drove me home and dropped me off.
It was nearly a year later when I spent the night again. In April of 1994, I was trying to stay sober. I had been to AA . I didn’t know then that I would fall off the wagon just a few months later. I had not yet unraveled the damage done. My second stay found me older and worse for the wear. I had been drinking with increasing frequency and was aware of the emptiness more than ever when I arrived. So, I arrived prepared. I brought emptied out shampoo bottles in my bag to store the liquor in.
Grandma and I drove up the long drive once again. It was cloudy out and had rained off and on throughout the day. We came inside the mudroom and spoke with Dreamia briefly. Grandma and I went upstairs right away to check on Mrs. Black. She had been growing weaker. They didn’t expect her to live for very much longer. I think she did eventually passed in 1996.
I went with Grandma inside the Master bedroom. Mrs. Black laid on her bed quietly. Grandma spoke with her, but she wasn’t really with it. I walked through her rather extravagant walk-in closet that was painted pink. It was still filled with clothes from the 1940s onward. There were dresses and feather boas, among other things.
We left Mrs. Black and Grandma took me to see the attic space at the end of the hallway. I had been obsessed with seeing what was on the Third Floor since we skipped it the year before. We went up the narrow staircase and walked into a large open room. Apparently, the children had played up here long ago. There was a huge toy box filled with toys. I glanced at them before we went back downstairs. It was kind of anti-climatic.
Grandma was tired and wanted to retire to bed. I requested time to explore on my own before she turned on the alarm. Grandma granted that wish. I crept downstairs and found the liquor closet. Nervously, I poured some vodka into one shampoo bottle and gin into another. I tucked the bottles into my pockets and returned upstairs.
The upstairs felt like a maze. I remember passing through a couple of bedrooms connected by a Jack and Jill bathroom. I came around the other side and through a nursery and a children’s bedroom. I decided to sleep in the children’s room alone. I couldn’t explain why I wanted to be alone in a dark and scary place. I just did.
I remember it stormed that night and it was scary. I saw shadows dance along the walls as the wind blew. I stared at the small bookshelf with kids books still on it. I wondered who once slept in the bed and the bed next to it. Were the kids happy here or did they suffer some sort of trauma? Did they still haunt the place perhaps? Though scared, I dared not get out of bed and venture across the hall to Grandma’s room. I had to prove I was brave enough to finish out the night alone.
In the morning Grandma checked on me and Mrs. Black. I changed back into my clothes and went with Grandma downstairs. We met the Nurse and then left through the Mud Room once again. I glanced at the pictures on the piano. They had not been moved. And I wondered why they no longer lived at the Estate.
Grandma dropped me off to an empty house that morning. She went home and I was left alone. My Mother and Step-Father had gone to work. It was Friday after all. I might have had the day off from school, but they still had work. The loneliness I felt at the Black Estate came back. So, I dug out my bottles of liquor that I had taken from them and drank them. I didn’t want to feel the emptiness inside.
That large house could have easily been a representation of the vast emptiness inside me. I imagined the parties the Black’s must have had in the 40s and 50s. How the house must have been alive with people talking, playing and even making love. But what was it now? It was a shell of its former glory. It was well kept, but devoid of any real love or warmth. I felt bad for Mrs. Black living there all alone. How could she not be haunted by her memories? How could I not be haunted by mine?
I was completely drunk by 11am that day. It was a new low for me. I’d been drunk three days in a row and the third day was the worst. I started drinking at 10am. Who does that? I hated how it made me feel. I hated myself.
Just four years later I tried to write a story about my experience of surviving a dark and stormy night at an old mansion. The story was anti-climatic because I saw no ghosts. There were no demons or things that went bump in the night. There was nothing to report that would have made for a good ghost story. After reading The Haunting of Hill House, I wanted to capture my own Haunting. But I didn’t have the words for it. I didn’t understand it.
I went on to struggle with depression and loneliness for years. I tacked issue after issue. I tackled the feelings of helplessness and powerlessness. I sorted through my relationship with my father and my ex’s. I trudged through them bravely—challenging myself as I did alone in the dark bedroom of the empty house. I faced my fears and dealt with the shadows year after year.
Now here we are in 2018 and I just finished binge watching the Netflix Series The Haunting of Hill House. It takes the back story and runs with it. The TV show is touching in a way the book wasn’t though. Why? Because it shows us how every family is haunted in their own way. All of the grief and guilt was experience in real life follows us. We can’t escape the horrors in our mind any more than the Crain’s could escape Hill House. The show explores how families can be so dysfunctional around trauma and tragedy, but how they need to come together to heal. The Haunting of Hill House is effectively chilling, but more than that it cuts to the core of why people even write, read and watch horror. It is cathartic.
I saw in this new incarnation of Hill House how the overwhelming grief over losing a child was at its very core and how that core had framed my story Damon’s House back in 1992. It was Damon’s grief over losing a child that drove him crazy. It was Olivia’s fear of losing her children that led her to be so easily manipulated by Poppy and Hill House. And that grief spilled over onto The Dudley’s when she poisoned their little girl. I actually cried when the Dudley’s begged Hugh not to burn the evil house to the ground. The house kept the souls it took and they could visit their little girl any time they wanted so long as the house stood intact. Hugh took pity on them that night even though it eventually cost him his daughter Nell’s life. All of that got me to thinking about the nature of grief and how it haunts us.
Maybe the core of my Haunting is the scene where I sit on the floor alone in my home drinking. Maybe the real story is not about the night I spent in a mansion and saw a bunch of ghosts, but how I was battling my own ghosts and inner demons at the time. And like the TV show, it isn’t a linear progression so much as a spiral that keeps coming back on itself. It is a narrative that needs unwound in the space of more than one single night to really understand it.
My take away is that tragedy surrounds us when we are isolated. It is only through other people and other narratives that we can move past it. Hell is wandering alone through an empty house. Hell is being stuck in your own mind. If Heaven is the opposite then it must be communing with our loved ones and finding some sense of community through family or friends.