The Architecture of Nightmares

by Christina Lay

Behind the train station on a thickly wooded hillside, the Victorian mansion abides at a safe remove from the hustle of modern life.  In the sunlight, it appears a friendly place; the spirits that may or may not linger are quiet and an easy elegance drapes the facade with the allure of simpler times.

Step onto the front porch and peer in past the thick lace curtains and wooden shutters. Through the warped glass the grand staircase is visible.  It curves up and away into a private world those on the outside can only imagine.

Find a long brass key in your pocket.  How did it get there?  It doesn’t matter, now that you’re inside.

Standing in a closed off hallway, smell the sharp medicinal tang of sickness, the cloying honeyed tang of tea steeping and the wet mud of the hillside, pressing ever downward.  Slide back the pocket doors on the left and reveal, in the parlor, a gathering of women in elaborate, restrictive dresses, their movements and speech constrained by social requirements, caged by lace and disapproving frowns.  They sip tea from delicate porcelain cups.  Across the hall in the sitting room, an old woman lies in bed, dying.  She is deaf but she loves company.  She wants to take your hand, and hold it forever.

Pass by the door to the basement where the handy man digs his own grave.  In the kitchen, an old man drops dead on the sticky yellow linoleum.  Never mind.  Step over his body.  In the mudroom, a séance is taking place.  They don’t notice the dead man’s ghost drift through.

Move quietly up the staircase; let your hand glide along the bannister smoothed slick by grasping hands. Pass by the rough-planked maid’s room where young women toil in drafty confinement, and go on to the grandmother’s room where the closet door opens itself, revealing nothing but stained white aprons and musty sweetness.  The spiders in this room never rest, filling the corners of the high ceiling with their webs.  On the sleeping porch, the family gathers in the frigid air to banish the threat of tuberculosis.

The stairs to the attic are plain, and steeper than the others.  In the corner of this sloped space there is a little tower room where the retired army doctor plays solitaire, polishes ceremonial swords brought back from war, and spies on his wife as she prunes roses on the front lawn.  The click and clack of the tea service doesn’t reach this far, but the whispers of a century seep upward through the warped floorboards.

Stairs to the attic

Stairs to the attic

You are in their world now.  The dead have drawn you in, past locked doors, into forgotten trunks, into a dark future where memory abides alone, isolated and twisted by lonliness.  Silence and dust repel all light. The further into shadows you move, the less chance you have of finding your way out.  Or even remembering there is an out.

Down through floors, ceilings, floors, all the way to the granite foundation, broken dreams sink into the abyss of time.

It is this abyss that lies at the heart of the nightmare, the dark spider in the basement, the crazy aunt chained in the attic.  This haunted house is merely scaffolding for the psyche, full of places to hide, so many doors to bolt, keys to slip into pockets.  Behind doors secrets fester.  Repressed fear, grief, shame, heartache, locked away so long that they’ve become monstrous, are waiting for the sound of a key in the lock.

Down in the mudroom, the séance calls to you.  Strangers murmur – Who are you? Why do you linger? What do you want here?

What side of the locked door are you standing on?

(My apologies to the Shelton-McMurphey-Johnson House, from where these stories have been misappropriated.  The SMJ House is not haunted, but it appears in my nightmares nonetheless.)

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