Haunting of Hell House: Apologies
to Shirley Jackson
message found in an old book
Ah, to curl up
with a good book! During the day, my back aching, students’ questions grew
exasperatingly repetitive. I’d only survived because, at the day’s end, I could
rest against bed pillows and lose myself in a story.
Yes, they are still here—in Haunting of Hell House—people
more real than my co-workers.
There’s sarcastic Theo: “This house reminds me of boarding
school.” She’s wonderfully brave, laughing at ghostly echoes in the dilapidated
mansion that doesn’t seem to have tasted new air for a century.
“There won’t be anyone around if you need help,” Mrs.
Dudley, the cook, utters, her voice robotic. “I leave before dark comes.”
I wander with the other guests through the deserted house,
but mostly identify with Eleanor. The timid, lonely spinster craves the relief
of fresh air. I tug to get the front door open—too huge, too heavy, unbudging.
Pushing makes my narrow wrists ache. Ugh. “Help me, Theo.”
Running along with the girls, I revel in the fading
sunlight and floral scents after the closed-in house. As I skip down to the
river, I listen to their reminiscences: “I had colds all winter long. My mother
made me wear woolen stockings.”
Momentarily, I’m thrown out of the book as I recollect that
I suffered from indigestion in first grade. I caught few colds, as my dad
directed us to take cod liver oil.
Tired, I shut the book, click off lights in my little
solitary apartment. Time for bed, since I need to wake at five for my job.
The next night, close to midnight, I’ve finished grading.
But tensions from work make it impossible to sleep. I shouldn’t read about
haunted houses. But my fingers find the worn bookmark…
The women, accompanied by a doctor, are exploring the
gloomy house. With them, I feel the need to orient myself. Like them, I wish
for a book to lighten the long hours of being closed in with ghosts.
In clammy darkness, we find a small door tucked beside the
huge front entrance. The doctor opens the creaky door, and to my amazement, I
view the circular wall of a library.
“I can’t go in there,” Eleanor whispers, “…my mother.” I
see my mother, with a big, stern
face. I close my eyes to shut out the vision, open them. A narrow iron
staircase spirals upward…to a tower. What could have happened there? The ladies
gossip about someone who hanged herself. I step forward—blocked as if by a
sheet of glass.
If only I could go in and find Wuthering Heights, unless I
should try Pride and Prejudice, not quite as beloved but more soothing to
overwrought nerves. My fingers touch an invisible but heavy wall. Eleanor’s
mother frowns at me.
“The neighbors stoned you, Mary,” the doctor reminds me.
“That is the cause of your psychological block, this buried memory.”
“No,” my mind searches to retrieve a long-repressed scene,
“some kids abandoned me at recess. During hide and seek, I hid in the furnace
room. They refused to come and find me.”
“Do not add anything to this classic,” the doctor warns.
“Your trauma happened long ago. You should have moved past it.”
“Doctor, you are also adding to it,” I object, until
something pokes at my back.
I notice again my bed, with pillows stacked, the lamp
glimmering on the old page. Scrutinizing the page, I only see the word “stoning.”
My mind has been drifting in and out of the story. Time for bed. Yet I take a
moment to savor my own room, heaped with books I can access.
I had yearned for that library more than Eleanor. I love to
read myself to sleep (that ultimate book); I can slide between its velvet
covers into a fantasy where none can follow.
The next evening, I set aside grading to grab my book. I
admit being addicted to reading, but usually after completing my schoolwork.
This Haunting of Hell House seemed
larger than its 200 pages, the characters as real as if they breathed beyond
the stale pages. Dreamily, I re-read an early chapter I’d read distracted by
Eleanor chooses a blue room in the house, Theo green. I
claim my own—red and gold—at the far end of the hall. Am I adding too
much to the tale? What delicious closeness between
the girls; I want to join them, since I’ve never experienced that camaraderie.
Eleanor enjoys talking with Theo, especially since this chum is psychic and
reads her mind.
But Theo can be cruel. At first she plays up to Eleanor;
soon, though, she starts making cold, cutting comments. She shuts Eleanor out,
choosing Luke. Paragraphs later, I despise Theo enough to kill her.
Should I throw her from that tower in the library? Poison
her coffee? In free time left from teaching, I write murder mysteries, and have
become callous about bumping off characters; lately I’ve thrown them off
cliffs, since it leaves no fingerprints.
Oops, back to the
book. It’s fallen shut, but opens to a page of…hmm, interesting!
Eleanor is grabbing a hand. She feels happily close to Theo while a spectral
presence rattles the bedroom door. At least Theo exudes warm friendship, while
this ghost screams malignancy.
No, it’s not Theo!
It’s a stranger’s hand—bony, cold. This book is horrifying. I try to put it
down…but can’t. Yes, I must. But what will happen next?
Somehow I fell asleep last night, dropping the book, the
only way I could have quit. Tonight, though, chilled by wintry drafts, I read
avidly, having become blocked in my writing projects. A huge wave of cold
floods the hall, icy misery pervading the dim house. I’m aware of my body
crawling with goosebumps, despite my flannel pj’s.
Wow, I wonder if
there’s a cat buried in the basement. The doctor hasn’t checked down there for
trouble, has he? Oops, this isn’t a Poe story.
Back to the current book, I carefully turn a wrinkled page.
It’s half-torn as if some other reader tried to escape.
Desperately I flip through to find a soothing page. The characters
eat breakfast, drink coffee. They chat about sausage and eggs. How nice! They remind
me of a family. I wish
mine had not become estranged.
I devour words that magically create pictures I can see and
walk around in. What yummy food the cook prepares, like crisp bacon, rich and
juicy. I happily read, cocooning myself in webs of words, creating a small,
safe place. I almost forget I’ve neglected to choose my wardrobe for tomorrow.
But what happened
to my closet? It looks wet, a liquid oozing through the doors. Yanking at hangers—I
see a white dress ruined by red stains, and run to Theo’s room in a yellow
dress bathed in scarlet. Red? Oh no! REDRUM. Oops, this
is not Stephen King.
Once out of that bedroom, I escape to the library. To prepare
for the nerve-wracking night, what should I read?
I don’t want the doctor’s books. Never a fan of 18th-century
literature, I’m more into romantics, like Jane
Eyre (a second-best favorite after Wuthering
In the library, I try to push past dark chains of
inhibition. My mother enforced wishes with scoldings or denigrations. I felt
worthless, weak as days-old oatmeal. Why
should I be worthy of this library? My hands fall limply at my sides; my
body feels small and childlike, as if wearing a too-short, stained bathrobe.
Have I earned the
right to read? I can’t read perfectly because I can’t keep my mind on the one
page in front of me. I wish I could get fully lost in a story, like I could as
a child before worries crowded my mind, screaming:
HELP MARY STAY IN
TOUCH WITH REALITY!
Oh, why did the
doctor bring us here? And why did we agree to come? We weren’t forced at
gunpoint. Will Eleanor ever get back to her former life, where she cherished a
cup painted with stars?
Wandering long halls, trying to find Eleanor and Theo, I
see another sign: NO-ESCAPE FICTION.
The author’s magic makes me feel as if Eleanor is alive, and I could warn her
to leave this house while she can. Am I
too late? If only the heavy wood doors would stay open. If only drapes were not
so large and dusty. Windows are stuck shut, like giant traps of unrelenting
steel. I don’t see the cook. Maybe she has gone home—far away in the village, out
“Hello,” the handsome doctor pops up, out of deep shadows.
“Thank you for helping me with this experiment.”
I’m the only one
who can assist the doctor, the only one who can rescue Eleanor.
The house spreads, seeming to grow. Mismatched walls remain
unaligned, gloomy. I run to the front door, struggle with dark, thick wood, and
hammer till my hands ache. I push, straining my back, against an unyielding
I can’t get out of
this book! The paper-thin walls entrap me. Letters crawl past my hands like
spiders, cold and blurring. Desperately, I seek the words THE END. All I see is:
A GOOD STORY NEVER ENDS.
Fortier, MFortier@ben.edu, of Lisle,
Illinois, wrote “…Hell House…” for BP #81 (+ the flash fiction, “Battle
Zone: Earth,” for BP #60, BP #58’s “Missing Link” flash fiction , “Top Secret”
for BP #57, “Eunuch Patrol” for BP #55, “Legend” for BP #53, as well as “Shadow
City,” “The Last Circle of Hell ,” “The Order,” “Contamination,” “First
Contact,” and “There Is No Crime in Helmouth” for earlier BP issues). She has been teaching creative
Chicago area colleges for years. Her student, Bill Malmborg, has also
contributed to BP. She writes reviews, short stories (esp. SF), and novels.