It’s tough being an atheist who lives in a haunted house. You’re constantly bothered by the moaning of people suffering in an afterlife you don’t believe in.
I’ve lived in “haunted” houses before, but since I categorically do not believe in ghosts (despite being an occasional writer of horror stories), that hasn’t been a problem. I staunchly refused to believe the reports of laughter in the basement or dead men muttering outside my bedroom door.
Recently, I bought the 18th Century house of my dreams in rural Vermont – central chimney, a beehive oven, paneling in all the rooms – a real witch-burner.
During negotiations, I was surprised when the price kept dropping. Sure, the chimney needed fixing and the upstairs floors were sagging, but I was shocked my lowball figure went through. Friends explained that the house had a ghost story: supposedly, a child wails outside the windows in the night.
Notice: Outside. Not my problem.
Sure, when I first moved in, the electrician plugged his meter into a socket that I said was making the lights blink on and off, and he told me that he’d “never seen a reading like that before.”
I was more concerned with the fascinating human artifacts we found as we repaired the floors in the cramped bedroom upstairs: children’s card games, a metal top, some kind of Robin Hood game piece, baseball cards, a broken record (“The Flintstones’ Zoo Adventure”), a hand-drawn 1st place medal for a sled race, and the advice page from a 1979 Hustler. Some kid – having grown out of the baseball cards – had shoved his porn collection under the floorboards, and it had slipped down and nestled next to the brick belly of the chimney-stack. It’s a miracle that the house didn’t burn up years ago. It would have been fitting, this Puritan house going up in flames because of hidden lusts.
In the kitchen floor, we found old blacksmithed nails and a mummified rat. And a guy in a hazmat suit.
I tried to make the house more period, but less creepy. I discovered, however, that while cracked plaster looks spooky, the bonding agent for new plaster is itself not particularly reassuring.
The walls are not dripping blood. But the homeowner’s wallet is.
At about 9:30 one night, about a week after I’d moved in, I heard the scream. I was working on a speech, certainly not thinking about the supernatural, when I heard something about fifteen or twenty feet from the house wailing – baleful, prolonged.
I have to admit that I could feel myself blanching – the blood running out of my face – though I’m pretty damn white to begin with. Almost immediately, my rational brain kicked in and denied it was a ghost. I was more worried that it was someone playing a prank. Given that I didn’t have any shades, shutters, or curtains, the idea of someone crouched in the woods peering in at me was unsettling enough.
In the following half hour, I googled all the nocturnal cries of Vermont’s mid-sized mammals. Maybe a fisher-cat, a local relative of the weasel? Turns out that the night-scream of the fisher-cat is actually more hotly debated than the existence of ghosts. (National Geographic claims fisher-cats don’t scream. People who live in New England swear they hear them all the time.) And the blood-curdling scream of the groundhog turns out to be a hoax. The cry I heard was too prolonged to be a fox. My best guest would be a rabbit being killed by a fisher-cat or perhaps a coyote (which make some pretty eerie noises). Or, as friends demand, maybe the sound of an undead child crying for comfort.
It was a few days later that the workmen replacing the floors upstairs made an important discovery: they found, shoved between the joists, two letters written by kids who’d lived in the house in the 1970s, addressed to the ghost.
This was incredible.
Letter 1: “Dear Ghost, I love you. I hop you’re haveing a good time. You are cute. I love, Sarah
Letter 2: “Dear Ghost, I hope you’re mother buys you a corgi so you can ride it. I hope you can ice skate. Love, [Name Redacted]
I love these letters. I love these kids. I love that they’re concerned that the undead child, trapped between life and death, might be lonely. They’re trying to comfort it. But also, perhaps they’re trying to comfort themselves, trying to personalize something which otherwise terrifies them. I picture them in that little room under the eaves, hearing a cry like the one I heard, and wanting to befriend whatever weeps in the night, whether out of fear or compassion.
Either way, I’m going to search for those children, now adults. I’m going to ask them the story of the ghost outside their windows, and what they remember of a childhood that vanished beneath the floorboards of a house long abandoned.
I can’t wait to see what I discover, both about the living and the dead.
M. T. ANDERSON’s work has been included in two volumes of THE YEAR’S BEST FANTASY AND HORROR, and he has won the National Book Award for his Gothic novel of race and the Revolution, THE POX PARTY. His most recent book is SYMPHONY FOR THE CITY OF THE DEAD: DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH AND THE SIEGE OF LENINGRAD.