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I have always been haunted by houses, which is fitting – it’s nearly Halloween as I write this. There are seasonal gourds in the shops, pumpkin patches in the fields, gruesome masks on display at the newsagents.
By some cruel irony I live not far from one of the country’s reputedly most haunted houses, Ham House, whose windows look toward the River Thames. Inside it is dark and unnaturally chilly, with a chequered floors and oil paintings bearing the faces of long-dead ancestors whose dour expressions do little to inject any less foreboding.
It is said that as many as thirty ghosts reside there, one of whom is thought to be the Duchess of Lauderdale who pushes visitors down the stairs. Having toured the house the ambiance is undeniably eerie. There’s the presence of a fourth dimension, a strange distribution of atoms in the air, the sensation that something else is trying to edge its way through. If you want to believe in the supernatural – a house like Ham makes it easier to do so.
My own experience of the paranormal is limited to a singular event but the memory is firmly written and with it, my fate as a believer, sealed. When I was a teenager I lived on the Isle of Wight and once spent a night babysitting my boyfriend’s sister. She lived with her mother in an old cottage, deemed to have links to Carisbrooke Castle where Charles The First was held before his execution. The cottage was rumoured to have an underground passage beneath it, leading to the castle dungeons. I have always found such stories irresistible. The thrill of rediscovering a buried past, a tunnel lost in time – especially something that seems impossible. Because one way or another, we all want to believe impossible truths.
His sister occasionally mentioned seeing a woman in the garden wearing traditional clothing, her hair pinned onto her head. But his sister was just a child. Six years old. Children like stories, attention, magic. I was intrigued but disbelieving when she said she’d seen the lady again when I put her to bed.
It was a warm July evening. Still light. My boyfriend and I were sat on the sofa when the room became icy. The television turned itself off. The cat who’d been sleeping in a corner scooted out of the house as though being chased by a demon, and clouds of our breath began to fog in front of us. We puffed into the air, incredulous, thrilled, a little anxious. Something Was Happening. My skin tingled and on cue, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck.
There was the sound of the front door being opened and slammed shut and the brisk clip of footsteps along the hallway which stopped abruptly when they reached the door of the room we were in, as though the person arriving had been startled by our presence, scared to see us in their home. A wanderer lost in time, repeating their life beneath the surface of this one and finding themselves mistaken, having drifted too far forwards.
The house took a while to warm up after. What had we experienced? We had both heard, seen and felt the intrusion of an entity beyond our knowledge. We had to ask ourselves if we would believe the unbelievable, or dismiss our experience – deny what we knew but couldn’t explain.
It seems the commercialised fears which pervade around this time of year, when Halloween calls, are fundamentally related to this membrane between what we know and that which we cannot comprehend. For a few weeks of the year, we are subjected to a proliferation of zombies, vampires, skeletons, ghouls. And while such things reside, for the most part, firmly in the world of fiction, some of them permeate our everyday existence – we can see their shadows superimposed onto real life. The skeletal bodies of the elderly. The monsters that govern countries, the living dead that we pass in the street.
Most often, it is from the belly of houses that we contemplate such fears, before we fall asleep, when our ears attune themselves to the exhalations of the brickwork, identify mice in the walls, or catch the unexplained movements of neighbours leading their own nocturnal lives beside our own. Within our houses we ruminate on what spectral dread may exist outside, as well as face the fears that lurk inside the home; the rift in a family, the face of loneliness or darker desires we wish to pursue.
This Halloween there will be no cloaked figures at our doorsteps – no seasonal threat of teens trick or treating, synthetic blood at their lips. In many ways this Halloween will be a quieter, altogether more disturbing affair. In the age of coronavirus, the idea of the haunted house takes on new meaning.
We rattle around our homes while an invisible danger creeps through the population, invading chests and taking the breath from unsuspecting lungs. It is a horror story out there; businesses boarded up, streets silenced, cities stoic. An unspoken mistrust of the other percolates; poison breath, every utterance a possible death sentence for someone vulnerable or unassuming. Yet this demon is one we cannot see or hear unless we are “frontliners” treating zombified patients in hospitals or listening to its hacking splutter in our homes. And what gross irony that such fear and death has reached us via horror’s favourite mascot – the bat. And so, we find ourselves indoors, estranged, dependent on the alchemy of technology to summon the spectral voices and apparitions of those we love.
At its origin, Halloween is concerned with remembering those who have departed. Such macabre topics are regular fixations for writers who are drawn to melancholy the way moths circle candlelight. It’s no wonder ghost stories have become an oral tradition, sating as they do, our appetite for answers beyond the grave. More often than not such narratives originate close to home and take place in familiar settings, giving rise to generic tropes; the madwoman in the attic, the proverbial skeletons in the closet, the basement you dare not enter.
Writers have always treated houses as pseudo characters, and as staying home becomes a national past time, I have found myself drawn to books that deal with the home and the stories that unfold therein. From Daisy Johnson’s Sisters taking place in a neglected cottage, Carmen Maria Machado’s In The Dream House – a compelling examination of domestic abuse – and Ann Patchett’s novel, The Dutch House, where a brother grieves the loss of the family home; the house as alive, as a device for memory, for fear, as a vessel for secrets, is enduringly effective. As Virginia Woolf explores in “The Mark on the Wall,” houses and their contents provide a context for us to strengthen our grip on reality, as much as they take us to the edges of what is real.
“Thus, waking from a midnight dream of horror, one hastily turns on the light and lies quiescent, worshipping the chest of drawers, worshipping solidity, worshipping reality, worshipping the impersonal world which is a proof of some existence other than ours. That is what one wants to be sure of…”
As restrictions structure our more isolated existence, we are becoming hidden between brick and tile, living and working between walls, under roofs, behind doors. Our houses have become more fundamental to us and I wonder how this will cut across the canon of fiction in years to come. Whether stories will be somehow imbued with the sense of entrapment as we are made to pace the same boards and repeat the same actions, each day layering on top of the one that came before until we are the spectres that cannot escape our own homes.
For many, the lockdown and new lifestyle limitations have created time for introspection, allowing the ghosts in our individual haunts to bubble through our consciousness and ask questions of ourselves. Who are we now? Who were we then? What matters? What, in essence, is truly real? Before vanishing back behind a wall.
Even without the instruction to stay in more, go out less, the idea of home has always been of interest to me. I’ve felt haunted by home for as long as I can remember – striving to understand what it means and where it truly is. When my parents divorced, for while I was ferried from houses spending alternate weeks with each parent. My life was divided – two homes, two houses yet predominantly I seemed to inhabit the space between them, the fractured line that existed between my parents, my past, my present.
I have tried to elude the need for home, that comfortable yet claustrophobic concept, but throughout my life I’ve had visions and visitations of houses, homes and rooms – the places in which I have left episodes from my past. In the house of memory there are many floors, many rooms, many doors which will always remain ajar.
Presently, I am on the cusp of a return. Moving from London back to where I grew up, a move prompted by a desire to be closer to family as they get older and my children grow faster – a way to close the social distance opening between us – but this desire to move predates coronavirus. Fundamentally it is a desire to feel rooted. I want to feel a deeper belonging that has eluded me in all my years living away, in Brighton, in Paris, in London, but I do not know if when I get there I will feel settled. It won’t be the same place I left and I am no longer the person I was. Yet I am lured back to my old haunts without knowing what I’m expecting to find – who I am? Or who I was?
I believe we leave an imprint on the locations in which we live. Our psyche and experiences saturate a place and, in some inscrutable way alter the atmosphere which exists within them. And it’s like that now as I tentatively search for a new abode. I am not looking for bricks and mortar. I am searching for a feeling. A distribution of energy. Somewhere that feels super … natural. A fit.
Perhaps this roving rootlessness and the inexact nature of home is one of the reasons why I’ve always had an appetite to hear about fictional houses. To me, they’re the literary equivalent of property porn, offering adopted lives and homes through which I can journey and grow. From the faded decadence of Tessa Hadley’s Victorian houses to Ian McEwan’s prime real estate in Bloomsbury, Zadie Smith’s North London estates in NW, to the disturbing quality of 124 in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, in every book there is a house, in every house there is a book, but perhaps it is within words that my writer self feels most readily at home.
Like the Duchess of Lauderdale jolting people on the stairs in Ham House or the footsteps that echo in the cottage hallway, whether you believe in ghosts or not, we are all revisited in our homes, haunted by pivotal memories that we can’t help but return to.
If Halloween requires us to remember those we have lost, it seems that as well as the dead, it is natural to reflect on those selves we have left behind. They trail after us like lengthening shadows cast by fading light, existing between the partial layers of time; we echo and repeat, becoming the shorthand by which we define who we are and how we have lived.
Wherever we find ourselves, our personal ghosts – sometimes ghoulish, sometimes forlorn, sometimes sweet or mawkish, play amid life’s light and shade, pacing the corridors between living and dying. We are walking through walls, forever passing between one house and another, between this life, and maybe even the next.