“If you’ve never walked into a house where someone once lived but no longer does, then you’re lucky. I recommend avoiding it for as long as you can manage. It’s a different feeling than walking into a house that happens to be empty, say because everyone is at work or out to a movie, or even a house that’s sitting empty because it’s for sale. There’s a vacancy that houses only get when their occupants have vanished in the middle of things, as if you can feel the vacuum left behind by death. That’s what I felt as I stepped through the front door of my dad’s house for the first time.”
And so we come to our first haunted house story! Well, sort of. At least, it starts off that way. This story I came across in the anthology called Autumn Cthulhu, edited by Mike Davis and published by Lovecraft Ezine Press in 2016. I’ve read a few out of here now and I can tell you, they’re mostly excellent. The theme of the collection is Halloween stories, or at least Autumn stories, which just so happens to be my favorite time of year, so yeah, I’m excited for this book.
Emmy’s dad has just passed away, seemingly peacefully, in his front porch rocking chair at the house in the woods he retreated to following his divorce. Following a fight with her roommate, Emmy decides to move in to her dad’s old house for a while. She’s not emotionally ready to sell it yet and it seems a good hideaway from the world and her problems for a while. As you can see, the story opens rather…normally…for one of these types of stories, but Lovecraft did that often as well. The horror of Lovecraft’s stories was partially to be found in the fact that the awful encroached upon the mundane; the unnameable thing in the house down the street, if you will. We only get one hint that something might be off (save for the super creepy house in the woods whole thing). When Emmy’s dad died, he was clutching a note to her that read, “Sorry Emmy.”
When I was reading this, there was one point, and I mean one sentence, on which this story just turned. I had to go back and reread it to make sure it was saying what I thought it was saying, but wow, did it sneak up on me and then just slap me across the face. Let’s put it this way: Emmy’s dad went to desperate and terrible lengths to protect his daughter. Her discovery of this shattering fact propels her through the rest of the story, but before it does, she has to take a minute.
“I thought that I might be sick, that I might vomit up what little food I’d managed to eat in the last twenty-four hours out behind the house…” This nausea drives her outside, and that’s where she sees the well. Because of what she’s discovered, she knows that water isn’t the only thing in that well, and though she has absolutely no desire to do so, she cannot help but take a look deep down in it. This craving of knowledge is another Lovecraftian hallmark, and well put to use here by Grey. At great personal risk to themselves, Lovecraft’s heroes often seek to know something they know they have no business knowing. Think here of William Dyer, Randolph Carter, Charles Ward. And it usually costs them at least their sanity if not their lives. This need for gnosis motivates Emmy beyond the pale of normal behavior.
Of course, I won’t say how the story ends, gentle reader, that’s for you to discover, but this was a good one. It’s got an originality to it somehow despite its dressing and familiar set pieces. I believe that’s tied to the fact that what you’re waiting for isn’t what ends up happening. What does happen is a far superior ending to the cliched one you might have been anticipating. I’ve gotta say, this was another story that kinda creeped me out. Now, I was reading it late at night with the lights down low, but that turn it takes in the middle just did it for me.
The writing here is very good at pulling you along, too. You almost want to linger for a moment, as if to get your bearings in this new house of yours (hers), to look around, to breathe in the must and sawdust of years. But Grey’s prose, like Emmy’s tremulous discovery, shoves you forward to where you do not want to go. It’s not weighed down like Lovecraft’s can be sometimes, which rather modernizes the writing. Maybe that’s not the right thing to say, perhaps it popularizes it rather than modernizes it. I will also say this – there’s a definite mood created by story, an atmosphere of dread that’s not always present in these post-HPL Lovecraftian stories. It’s very good, and it’s fitting, given the theme of the anthology.
Have a care around wells, my friends. Their bottom is not for you. Unless, of course, it is.
That does it for this one. Stay tuned for next time, though, because I’m not sure I have such good things to say about it, and it disappoints me because I was excited to finally read one by this next author. I’m hoping it’s not indicative of their style, because I know they’re well thought of in the field. While writing this one, I listened to the 4th disc of the “Panorama of American Piano Music” collection, which sounds some fairly haunting notes.
Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,
Autumnal words of trepidation: “It was a cold October day, getting on toward evening, and though it was no longer raining, fog hung thick over everything…It felt as if I had stumbled out of the house and into a different world, for more reasons than one.”