Fiction

Stephenson Muret – The Dark Empty House

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The Dark Empty House

Often, I observe curious faces flattened against the board fence work encircling the large dark house. Through knot holes those faces peer, murmuring absently as I pass homeward from the mercantile, or maybe from my sometimes twilight stroll beside the heather. It is not daily that I meet these sorts. But when I do encounter them I am wont to overhear quiet commentaries.

“They say it‘s proved.”

“Can‘t believe the gentleman lives there‘n.”

“S‘pose you gotta credit the tale by now.”

“I‘ll just keep my distance, I will.”

“Have ya ever heard of that?”

Such remarking and trepidation are apt of course, considering the house they gaze upon is currently inhabited by both the living and the deceased. This provocative, widely-known fact beams from that tall sombre edifice an irresistible allure to many a speculative mind.

“Look! Look!” they insist breathlessly.

And, mouths ajar, the gathered several will gasp at a vaporous phantom passing or pausing before an undraped window frame.

Truly the building is haunted. This is no ghost story. They discussed the house in Scientific American for a spell, and of course here in our own Daily Post; and once, I am informed, on that new wireless invention they are calling radio. The military men even investigated the phenomenon, prowling about the grounds as long as discipline kept sure, which was not long.

Another specter will cloud a windowpane then and the onlookers will hush and tremble, shivering to their very heart-strings. And the shiver is not one of “Perhaps” or “Might it be true,” but rather of “Behold, it is so!” and “Would it were fancy!” Patently then the spectators betray a craving to flee. Even so they stall, submitting to their more potent compulsion to see, to evaluate, and to mentally contrive measures of protection against this otherworldly menace.

On occasion I speak directly to one of these men or women. If, by chance, I discern among them a soul more intrigued and receptive than affrighted and gawky, I offer,

“Would you like to come in?

Most turn away mortified at first, and then muted by fear.

I unbolt the postern gate and step through. For a moment I stand in the breach, holding it wide, that one might follow. Usually my admirers avert their interests entirely then. A face will crimson and jerk askance, another will stare intently at the barren soil, a third will stand pouring fresh perspiration onto his collar while his hard-bitten wife sets her fists into her pockets, stepping backward. From time to time, however, someone indulges my hospitality. To them, with handsome goodwill, I give a tour.

***

After the tour, as I pause on the west veranda bidding my guest farewell, I feel the scruple of cruelty. But I feel cruel the way a mentor revealing a harsh truth feels cruel. I see the fullness and tightness of my guest‘s throat as visibly he restrains his inward sobs and nausea. I see the hollowness of my guest‘s cast as from me she looks weakly to the cracked road beyond. Even considering such woeful and desperate departures, I still judge those who enter the building as ready for its unbalancing lesson. Were it otherwise, I justify to myself, they would not accept my invitation in the first place.

A few disturbed souls return to me, after varying intervals, to beg counsel. I hear in their troubles how wounding this passage through my house was. Here is a typical example: One gentle lady related that after withdrawing from my rooms and halls, after witnessing there the tangible movements of the deceased and the subtle intercourse between themselves and us, she retreated fear-stricken to the presumed safety of her own dwelling; but there, said she, the dead awaited her. My tour, she noted with contrition, had taught her to see them. Most of her life she had occupied her home without recognizing the dead, she confessed, but now she saw and felt them moving around her constantly. They had always been there! She erupted. The woman described a lengthy process of adjustment. Firstly, said she, “I felt a panting terror which drove me from my home absolutely”. Secondly, her curiosity rebounded toward a toleration that allowed daylight visits to the property. Thirdly, she steadied into a morbid resignation that gave her courage to return for good. And finally, she found herself acknowledging and inter-acting with the deceased, willingly even embracing their presence and companionship.

This transition harrows the few who undergo it, and the genuine sympathy I feel watching them leave my premises, knowing they are now to begin this trial. But those who survive the process inhabit their apartments with greater cognizance, I believe. For they understand then the occult realities of their surroundings, and, being thus better attuned to them, engaging them more authentically. Occasionally, one succumbs, yes. But even the suicides frequently elect to stay nearby after killing themselves. I have asked many a suicide why this be so. They always decline to answer.

***

My house is empty. Not yet a century old, it appears distinctly older under its decrepit siding and crumbling gables. We enter through the front door to the vestibule and no comforting carpet welcomes you there, not even a common hat stand awaits your cane or parasol. It is dark. In the darkness, as the iron door latch catches behind us, you climb with me the broad stairway, feeling carefully for your steps and noting with disquiet the odors of mist and of rot. A penny candlestick faintly illumines the staircase landing and guides our creaky ascent until I take up its brass holder and proceed along the corridor. The echoes of our own footfalls trail us. No rugs to absorb our tread here, no swags of woolen ornament to muffle the clop-clop of our passing. Bare walls and naked floors render the deceased more distinguishable, I should explain. Their scratching and shuffling attain the audible then, their evanescent forms the visible. Only when the house is dark and empty can you perceive its hidden spirits.

Customarily I lead you first to a closet owned by two suicides. The cold of their souls seeps into us both. And instantly you cease moving when you hear their moaning – how they moan to one another songs of solace. I invite you then into the single chamber where I spend my solitary days. It houses a folding cot, a heater stove, a short stool for sitting and my scant wardrobe. We sit – you upon the stool, me at the cot – and, with a gesture, I forestall further sound. You then ingest fully the susurrus transacting of the dead. They ruffle my bedclothes and abrade the stovepipe and rub the wash basin and you hear. You watch them blend with each other and divide again as shadow-forms that dart between you and the candle glow. They brush your cheek. They pick at your clothes. They swaddle you in an eerie breathy chill. You are surprised as I begin then to address them individually, to greet them with respect, with deference even, caressing these sundry dead of my acquaintance. But then, amidst this ghastly pageant, the profoundest epiphany blooms in you. Your expression tightens with utter dread. All at once you age a lifetime before me and withdraw deeply into yourself. In our silent attention to the presence and personality of the deceased you have glimpsed a truth that alters you fundamentally, that painfully enlarges your perception.

Once you fully comprehend the implications of this truth, and I observe in you a burgeoning rejection of it and a desire to flee our interview, gingerly I excuse myself from my cot and offer the door. You flee indeed. Headlong you rush the corridor, tripping down the stairwell, flinging yourself off my veranda. I follow.

Slowly. Invariably, you have left the front entrance agape. Invariably, I find you sagged with gasps, or bent athwart the rail of my steps. But there you wait for me – tearful, nauseous – projecting at me an excruciating hope for some kind of reassurance.

I nod severely. I feel my regretful cruelty. For I can offer no reassurance.

You pass then wobbling along to the postern gate, and through. From the cracked road beyond I watch you look back, forever different.

***

My guests fancy they have escaped my house when they first quit the property. They presume that by galloping off from my grounds they leave behind the dead. But grossly this simplifies the truth they experience during their visit. For in suffering the haunting of my house, they awaken to the haunting of every house. Keener eyes they carry home then, staring freshly into the crackling hearths and brightened gas lamps of their parlours, drawing from these old comforts no further comfort. The warmth, the light, the cushions of their divans, the flow of their visitors – all of these they identify now as evasions, as salves, as distractions from their own ghosts. With these extravagances, they realise, they have been protecting themselves from their own dead. And then, despite a strenuous reluctance to accept this, they begin detecting their own dead. There is no escaping the deceased once you understand they are there. For-ever, for the rest of your days, you know that beneath the eloquent songs of the gramophone, behind that cheerful repartee of a shared luncheon, moans the restless sorrow of your own haunting.


Stephenson Muret lives and writes in southern California. His plays, stories, essays and poems have appeared in scores of publications, touching virtually all genres.


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