“That’s true enough, sir,” said the first man. “As I’ve said more than once to the wife and kids.”
“Well, now and again,” the tall man told him, “we have the chance to change that. Just now and again. By the way, what are the facts here?”
“Found unconscious in the Northern Line train at Hampstead, sir. Major heart attack. Never recovered consciousness. In fact, died in the ambulance, sir. Finish!”
“Thank you! Possibly finish – possibly not. We don’t know, do we? Goodnight!” And he left them so quickly, he might almost have vanished, a trick some of these top blokes seem to have mastered.
Joyce Carol Oates
Location: Minton Farm, Elk Creek.
Time: Summer, 1987.
Eyewitness Description: “There weren’t such things as ghosts, they told us. They were just superstition. But we could injure ourselves tramping around where we weren’t wanted – and you never knew who you might meet up with in an old house or barn that’s supposed to be empty . . .”
Author: Joyce Carol Oates (1938—) is one of the most prolific contemporary US female writers and her vision of the dark side of American life has been compared to that of Honoré de Balzac, “whose feverish productivity she has more than matched,” according to John Clute. Born and raised in the rural countryside around Lockport, New York, she has combined the roles of teacher and author, writing over 75 books that have forged new directions in psychological realism and taken the supernatural tale into new and unexpected paths. Among Oates’ highly rated novels are Wonderland (1971), about a dreadful life haunted by doubles; A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982), a Gothic tale of spiritualism; and Mysteries of Winterburn (1984), in which detective Xavier Kilgarvan investigates a series of supernatural cases. She has acknowledged her admiration for Henry James, William Faulkner and D. H. Lawrence in, respectively, her short story, “Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly” (1972); the southern novel, Bellefleur (1980) and the essays in Contraries (1981). “Haunted” draws a little from all three as well as her rural upbringing to relate a story of crime, punishment and the inexplicable that lures the narrator – and with her, the reader – into a situation of almost unbearable terror.
Haunted houses, forbidden houses. The old Medlock farm. The Erlich farm. The Minton farm on Elk Creek. No Trespassing the signs said, but we trespassed at will. No Trespassing No Hunting No Fishing Under Penalty of Law but we did what we pleased because who was there to stop us?
Our parents warned us against exploring these abandoned properties: the old houses and barns were dangerous, they said. We could get hurt, they said. I asked my mother if the houses were haunted and she said, Of course not, there aren’t such things as ghosts, you know that. She was irritated with me; she guessed how I pretended to believe things I didn’t believe, things I’d grown out of years before. It was a habit of childhood – pretending I was younger, more childish, than in fact I was. Opening my eyes wide and looking puzzled, worried. Girls are prone to such trickery; it’s a form of camouflage when every other thought you think is a forbidden thought and with your eyes open staring sightless you can sink into dreams that leave your skin clammy and your heart pounding – dreams that don’t seem to belong to you that must have come to you from somewhere else from someone you don’t know who knows you.
There weren’t such things as ghosts, they told us. That was just superstition. But we could injure ourselves tramping around where we weren’t wanted – the floorboards and the staircases in old houses were likely to be rotted, the roofs ready to collapse, we could cut ourselves on nails and broken glass, we could fall into uncovered wells – and you never knew who you might meet up with, in an old house or barn that’s supposed to be empty. “You mean a bum? – like somebody hitch-hiking along the road?” I asked. “It could be a bum, or it could be somebody you know,” Mother told me evasively. “A man, or a boy – somebody you know—” Her voice trailed off in embarrassment and I knew enough not to ask another question.
There were things you didn’t talk about, back then. I never talked about them with my own children; there weren’t the words to say them.
We listened to what our parents said, we nearly always agreed with what they said, but we went off on the sly and did what we wanted to do. When we were little girls: my neighbor Mary Lou Siskin and me. And when we were older, ten, eleven years old, tomboys, roughhouses our mothers called us. We liked to hike in the woods and along the creek for miles; we’d cut through farmers’ fields, spy on their houses – on people we knew, kids we knew from school – most of all we liked to explore abandoned houses, boarded-up houses if we could break in; we’d scare ourselves thinking the houses might be haunted though really we knew they weren’t haunted, there weren’t such things as ghosts. Except—
I am writing in a dime-store notebook with lined pages and a speckled cover, a notebook of the sort we used in grade school. Once upon a time as I used to tell my children when they were tucked safely into bed and drifting off to sleep. Once upon a time I’d begin, reading from a book because it was safest so: the several times I told them my own stories they were frightened by my voice and couldn’t sleep and afterward I couldn’t sleep either and my husband would ask what was wrong and I’d say, Nothing, hiding my face from him so he wouldn’t see my look of contempt.
I write in pencil, so that I can erase easily, and I find that I am constantly erasing, wearing holes in the paper. Mrs Harding, our fifth grade teacher, disciplined us for handing in messy notebooks: she was a heavy, toad-faced woman, her voice was deep and husky and gleeful when she said, “You, Melissa, what have you to say for yourself?” and I stood there mute, my knees trembling. My friend Mary Lou laughed behind her hand, wriggled in her seat she thought I was so funny. Tell the old witch to go to hell, she’d say, she’ll respect you then, but of course no one would every say such a thing to Mrs Harding. Not even Mary Lou. “What have you to say for yourself, Melissa? Handing in a notebook with a ripped page?” My grade for the homework assignment was lowered from A to B, Mrs Harding grunted with satisfaction as she made the mark, a big swooping B in red ink, creasing the page. “More is expected of you, Melissa, so you disappoint me more,” Mrs Harding always said. So many years ago and I remember those words more clearly than words I have heard the other day.
One morning there was a pretty substitute teacher in Mrs Harding’s classroom. “Mrs Harding is unwell, I’ll be taking her place today,” she said, and we saw the nervousness in her face; we guessed there was a secret she wouldn’t tell and we waited and a few days later the principal himself came to tell us that Mrs Harding would not be back, she had died of a stroke. He spoke carefully as if we were much younger children and might be upset and Mary Lou caught my eye and winked and I sat there at my desk feeling the strangest sensation, something flowing into the top of my head, honey-rich and warm making its way down my spine. Our Father Who art in Heaven I whispered in the prayer with the others my head bowed and my hands clasped tight together but my thoughts were somewhere else leaping wild and crazy somewhere else and I knew Mary Lou’s were too.