The Stupid 365 Project, Day 30: “Spirit House,” Part 3

October 30th, 2010

Artie swore a string of words that were foul even by his standards.

The driveway was slathered in a particularly vile kind of mud, so slippery and malodorous it might have been mixed with petroleum, The SUV lost traction again and again as he coaxed it up the curve of the drive, the rear wheels swinging out so suddenly that Artie’s stomach seemed to be in the seat next to him until he could bring the car under control again.

The yellow-lighted window grew larger as he approached, but the figure had retreated.

He pulled up in front of the porch and punched up his brights. A fallen tree clawed its way out of the darkness, lying across the drive forty or fifty feet away. The only way out was the way he’d come in. He sat there, the engine running, looking from the tree, which was skeletal and darkly wet and had obviously toppled years ago, to the empty yellow window. Then, with much grumbling and cursing and a few unsettling moments when his wheels spun uselessly in the muck, he got the car turned around. It seemed like a good idea to be facing out.

After a couple of moments of nothing, just listening to the reassurance of the engine, he turned off the lights and ignition and climbed down. The slave cabins were silent, so dark inside that  the darkness seemed to be flowing out of them to fill the night. The yellow window flickered at him: candles, he thought, or a lantern. No sign of the figure, and from what he could see of the room – the window was six or seven feet from the ground – it was empty. Peeling walls and yellow light. Artie had never liked yellow.

He got back into the SUV and turned the engine back on. Sat there again for a minute or so. This time, when he got out, he left the driver’s door standing open and the headlights on. He would have to run around the back of the vehicle to get to it, but –

Run around? What the hell was he thinking? He shook his head at himself but left the engine running anyway, popped the seatback on the driver’s side, and removed the slender, gleaming black briefcase. Feeling better, somehow, with it in hand – it’s my weapon of choice, he thought – he picked his way around a big puddle behind the car and climbed the six high, white steps to the front door.

It lolled on one hinge, open about eighteen inches. Beyond it, the house was very dark. Artie closed his eyes to widen his pupils and put a shoulder to the door. As it groaned open, he called, “Hello?” and looked in.

Better. With the reflected light from the SUV, he could make out a grand entry hall, a broad, partially collapsed stairway climbing halfway up the wall to the right before coming to an abrupt end. Long-standing damp assailed his nostrils and dirt gritted beneath his shoes: the floor was stone, possibly polished marble a century ago. Darkness beyond darkness, the hall broadened into an enormous sitting room twenty feet in front of him, a few crippled, unidentifiable pieces of furniture still staking their mildewed claim. To his immediate right was a closed door, and another was to his left. Beneath the one to his left he saw a thin line of pale yellow light.

“Mr. White?” He cleared his throat. “Mr.White? It’s Artie Pepper.  You had somebody call me in New York.”

A wordless rumble, lower than a swamp bottom, came from the room to his left, the lighted room. With a certain reluctance, he stepped the rest of the way through the sagging door and into the hall.

He knocked on the door with the light beneath it. Waited, knocked once more. “May I come in?”

The rumble again. Artie took it for assent and pushed the door open.

The light came from two candles stuck into mountains of wax on the floor at the far end of the room. Layers of thick wallpaper hung in rigid, diagonal sheets from the walls. Between the candles was a cane rocking chair, and in the rocking chair was the tallest, thinnest black man Artie Pepper had ever seen.

“Mr. White?”

The man in the chair said, “Uuuuuuuuh huuuuuuuuuh” in a voice so deep it made the doorknob in Artie’s hand vibrate. He sat forward slightly and opened the biggest hands ever created, fingers so long they could have wrapped themselves around the neck of a guitar twice, and grasped the ends of the rocker arms. Those two black spiders opening to engulf the chair arms made Artie swallow, so loudly he was afraid that the man – Lamar White? –had heard him, but there was no reaction, no change of expression. The man’s eyes were deeply shadowed in spite of the candles, just ellipses of darkness in the dark face. Not a glint of reflected light.

When in doubt, attack. Artie closed the door behind him and stepped into the room. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. White,” he said. “Longtime fan, longtime fan.”

Lamar White said again, “Uuuuuuuuh huuuuuuuuuh” and the elongated fingers flexed once more around the arms of the chair, which emitted a squeak that might have been protest, and then White was pulling himself out of the chair, unfolding himself toward the ceiling, and his eyes, Artie saw, were no longer dark but instead were gleaming gold, reflecting the candle-light.

As White reached his full height, Artie felt an internal wave of cold roll through him and he realized that the golden color of Lamar White’s eyes was actually the wall behind the man and that the eyes were simply tunnels through his skull.

Artie said, “Ohhhhhhhh.” and backed toward the door, and then turned to grab the knob and heard the back of the rocking chair snap against the wall as White stepped away from it. The doorknob was slick in his hand, turning, turning but not moving, and he heard a scrape of shoe on the floor behind him and then, for the third time, that vibrating “Uuuuuuuuh huuuuuuuuuh” and he grabbed the knob in both hands, the briefcase bouncing onto the floor at his feet, and this time he heard a click as the knob turned, heard the mechanism ratchet inside, and then the knob turned all the way and he bolted through the door and yanked it closed behind him.

And froze.

The hallway was awash with light, the marble floors gleaming. The walls were hung thickly with poster-size photos, three feet by two feet, dozens of them, huge glossy black-and-whites, posed forties-style, the subjects leaning in at an angle in their best clothes – the best clothes of their lives – their hair marcelled and gleaming under the studio lights, the eyes in their young, dark faces full of hope that the change had finally come, that the miracle was at hand, that the music had delivered them at last: Buck Cherry, JoJo Hopkins, Midge Finn, Elmore Swain, Etta Wright, Big Mac Morris, a dozen more. The founders, the inventors, the –

The victims.

The black-and-white head of Midge Finn, framed in her trademark dangling jet earrings, turned toward Artie and slowly put out a long, lascivious, very un-black-and-white tongue. It curled toward him as the door at his back, the door leading to Lamar White, began to open.

Artie was at the front door in an instant, finding it shut, hanging plumb-straight on its strong hinges, good as new, thick, gleaming, closed closed closed closed. With a squeal of feedback, the Buck Cherry lick from “Ernestine,” the one Artie’s radio had delivered as he turned onto Cherry Street, kicked in, and then Midge was singing “Fool’s Heartbreak” and Elmore Swain counted off to the unplayable 12-string flourish that opened “’Bama Far Behind,” and the all the songs swirled together into a single deafening smear of noise and got louder and louder, and the door would . . . not . . . open, and with a bang the other door, the door to the yellow-lighted room swung open and Lamar White – whatever Lamar White was now – stood there. Artie could see the vertical line of the door-jamb through Lamar White’s right eye.

One of the photos fell from the wall, lay flat, and began to bulge in the middle. With a tearing sound Artie could hear even over the music, a hand broke through the shining surface.

The door to the right of the hall. Maybe he could open the door to the right of the hall.

He reached it in a leap and felt it swing open behind his weight, and then he was through it, and on the inside he found a metal latch, an honest-to-God metal latch, strong, well-made, not even rusted in position, and he threw it home and leaned against the door’s hardwood solidity, gasping. The music through the door stopped, and Artie listened to himself breathe.

This room was dark, although a silvery light announcing the return of the moon fell at a slant from Artie’s left. The front windows, he thought, and he checked once more to make certain the door was secure, and turned to face the room.

At first glance, the thing dangling from the huge chandelier was a bunch of rags, but then the remainder of the moon cleared the clouds and poured more silver into the room and Artie saw Doris. Her feet angled straight down, like a dancer’s on point. Her neck was almost a foot long.

Artie screamed. He was still screaming as he fumbled at the door, trying to open it even if Lamar White was on the other side, still screaming as he realized it would never open, still screaming as he ran to the other door in the room, the one that had to lead into the big sitting room he’d glimpsed. As the knob turned in his hand, he stopped screaming just long enough to hear the crystals on the chandelier behind him begin to tinkle.

The door caught, eased, caught again, as though someone, someone strong, was holding it closed from outside, playing with him, and the tinkling increased and stopped. And then the floorboards creaked.

Artie put his foot through the bottom panel, hauled back and kicked it again and again, and dropped to his hands and knees to force himself through. Scraped and filthy, his shins bleeding, he stood blinking in the sitting room, dark again, the remaining bits of furniture decayed and sloping as though soul-sickened and unutterably weary.

Something soft and wet-sounding struck the other side of the door he’d crawled through. Again.

There was one other door in the room, beside the archway leading to the hall and Lamar White, and Artie yanked it open, not recognizing at first the flood of small, neatly-wrapped packages that tumbled out, that had been stacked in the closet, so many of them the closet must have stretched two or three stories high, and he took a leap back as they pooled around his feet and rose around his legs. Transfixed, he bent down and picked one up.

Hundred-dollar bills. One hundred of them, he knew from long experience. A ten-thousand-dollar packet. An avalanche of them, knee-high by now, still pouring out, and he stooped to grab ten or twelve packets more, and something hit him hard on the back of the neck and then an iron weight was planted on his back and he lay there as the money cascaded down, and when the weight was removed from his back, he remained perfectly still, waiting against all hope for whatever it was to go away. All the while, he heard the feathery sound of bundles of paper sliding over each other.

The money pressed down on him, so heavy he could barely breathe. Eventually, the sound stopped and all he heard was his heart, slamming against his chest in triple-time. Nothing else. No music, no voices, no – no soft, wet thing hitting a door. He counted to a hundred.

Silence. He counted to a hundred again.

He tried to get up and found that he couldn’t.

His arms were splayed out, stretched to either side. He couldn’t get any leverage against the floor. The pile of money was very heavy.

Just relax, he thought. It’s only money. The phrase lifted his spirits, almost amused him. Slowly, slowly. He could work his way out, of course, he could. An inch at a time, he edged his arms closer to himself and managed to get one beneath him. Pushed up, but couldn’t raise his shoulders with only one arm.

Smelled smoke.

Only a rumor of it at first, but almost immediately it grew sharper, nearer, more insistent. He couldn’t see anything at all beneath the heap of paper – no, money – in the dark room, but the smoke was thickening. It snaked its way through the bundles, seeking him out. He coughed twice, and then he heard the fire.

The snapping of burning wood galvanized him. It took him a few seconds to get his other hand beneath him, to work his elbows to the outside in pushup position and then slowly, agonizingly, lift himself. Against the sounds of the fire he heard packets of money sliding, tumbling, down the pile, lightening the load, and he dropped to the floor again, breathed in twice, and thrust himself upward to the limit of his arms, and heard more money flutter downward, felt that the weight was lighter to the right. He lowered himself to the floor again, grabbed the deepest breath of his life, and forced himself up, to the right, feeling the pressure lessen, and a moment later he was sitting, clawing away the packets of bills, and his head cleared the pile.

The sitting room was ablaze, long peels of wallpaper flaring up, the remnants of century-old curtains almost blindingly aflame, a shallow cloud of fire, blue and patient as a gas stove, gnawing away at the ceiling. The heat was a blow in the face. He shoveled at the money two-handed, tossing it away from him until he could stand, and then he was running through the flames toward the darker, cooler entrance hall.

The door once again hung on one hinge. Artie grabbed it two-handed and pulled it open, then plunged through, into the cool of the night, barely registering the lights flickering in the open doorways of the slave cabins as he tumbled headfirst down the marble stair, picked himself up and ran behind the car –

–into a pool of water bottomed with soft, soft mud. His feet went out from under him and he landed belly-down in the mud behind the SUV, fighting off the impression that something had grasped his ankle. Spitting filthy water, he got his arms under him and pushed, but his hands skidded away in the slickness of the mud and he was gathering himself for another try when he heard something that almost literally stopped his heart.

Doris said, “Recalculating.” Then she said, “Back up ten feet.”

The backup lights brightened and the SUV began to move as Artie fought the mud, saw the red of the taillights grow farther apart as they came closer, saw the gleam of the bumper, saw the letters spelling out SPRT HZ get bigger,

saw

*

When the engine company got there, just after dawn, they found that the fire had somehow leaped from the gutted house to torch the slave cabins, leaving untouched the driverless, mud-caked SUV in the drive, leaving untouched the millions of dollars scattered over the mud, each bill bearing the meticulously engraved likeness of Jefferson Davis. The SUV’s driver was nowhere to be found.

24 Responses to “The Stupid 365 Project, Day 30: “Spirit House,” Part 3”

  1. Sylvia Says:

    I love the inevitability of this and how is one chance to save himself involves leaving the money (so for Artie, isn’t a chance at all). Your descriptions of the house and the photographs are chilling: horrifying details that shall no doubt haunt my dreams the next time I eat cheese before bed.

    Bravo!

  2. Gary Says:

    Uuuuuuhhhhhh…!!!

  3. Gary Says:

    Now that my heart’s stopped pounding…

    Everett, how come the other HTML text formatting doesn’t work here – stuff like ins for underlining, big, small, sub, sup, etc.?

    And you were right about my ageing intelligence. Back in my day (he said wheezily) of steam-powered FORTRAN compilers, a toggle command to turn something on was the same as to turn it off again. So I overlooked that you need to use i and /i to turn italics on and off, instead of just i and i.

    And if THIS discussion wouldn’t terrify Artie, then I don’t know what would.

  4. Bonnie Says:

    @Gary Boy, this takes me back. When I was working for IIASA in the 70s and 80s, we used an editor “preprocessor” on big mainframes, so you had to type /fIword/fR to italicize a work that then reverted to Roman. When I came back to the States in 1985, there were already dedicated word processing programs, but boy, was Word Perfect a gift when it finally came along!

  5. EverettK Says:

    [Lights fade to black. Explosion of applause bursts forth to fill the void left by the departing stark raving, pant shitting, mind blowing terror.]

    Or, as the beatniks used to say in the 1950s and early 60s: [snapping of thousands of pairs of thumbs and fingers]

    Bravo, Maestro, bravo!

    And who said you were JUST a novelist???

    Thanks, Tim! You may not be a gentleman and a scholar, but you’re one hell of an entertainer!!!

    Minor proofreading items:

    …petroleum, The SUV…

    Period instead of comma, or lowercase ‘t’.

    Artie said, “Ohhhhhhhh.” and backed toward…

    Comma instead of period? Or capital-A?

  6. EverettK Says:

    Gary: usually these kinds of “comment fields” only support a small set of html fields. One, that’s cheaper and easier to do (from a programming point of view), and two, it prevents hackers from entering javascript and other nasty chunks of code into comments in order to hack into the blog data base and do things they shouldn’t be doing.

    But back to the subject at hand: Did I say how much I loved your short story, Tim? If you ever make it to Oregon, I owe you lunch!

  7. Beth Says:

    Another piece of genius, Tim.

    I am not a fan of horror stories; never read Stephen King although there is at least one copy of each of his books in my house. I read the first installment of your story and thought about reading the second. Then I read the second and thought that I might not read the third. But, of course, I had to read the third.

    Am I going to start reading Stephen King? No, but I will read another short story you write should you decide to make a three-part Halloween story every year a new commitment.

    So Arnie didn’t know what was in store when “Spirit House” took over his life. The slave quarters should have been a tip-off about the antebellum south. I don’t think Jefferson Davis has been a character in any other horror stories. It was a very inventive use of history.

    Congratulations.

  8. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thanks to all of you, and especially to those of you who were more interested int the story than in the topic of how to format these replies. I’m with Sylvia, in response to an earlier post: Real men don’t need preview.

    And, on the topic of Sylvia — I’ll take it as the supreme compliment if you have a nightmare about any of this. Where should I send the cheese?

    Gary, glad it chilled you a little, even if Fortran beckoned so quickly.

    Bonnie, I actually still miss WordPerfect, if only for that “reveal codes” switch.

    And Everett, while I appreciate the spirit in which your comments were made, I am widely regarded, among a very small circle, as both a gentleman and a scholar. Glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for the proofing catches, although I doubt I’ll ever do anything more with this. And lunch in Oregon sounds great, even though it’s Oregon. Rain, people on bicycles, rain.

    Beth, thanks as always. Great reaction. By the way, I’m writing a blog, perhaps tomorrow, that’s inspired by your response to the Thai Ghosts thing I wrote today on Murder Is Everywhere. Thanks for the idea.

  9. Kari Wainwright Says:

    Edgar would be sooooo proud.

    And now I will never be able to go down a country lane in the South in the dark ever, ever again.

    Which is pretty much okay since I live in the west. Still — I can almost feel the kudzu crowding out my pine trees as I write.

  10. Paul D. Brazill Says:

    Wonderful writing. A classic chiller!

  11. Bonnie Says:

    @Tim Having just finished Four Last Things, I’m not sure this story measures up in the scary department to your earlier novel. So as not to spoil it for others, let me just say that Psycho now has competition for scariest shower scene!

    The creepiest part of this story for me was suddenly realizing he was looking right “through” Mr. White’s eyes. But I liked “Doris” getting her double revenge, as well!

    Oh, dear, my CAPTCHA is swinany magnesia. Knew I shouldn’t have stopped at the dim sum place on my way home from Costco.

  12. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Kari, the South was spooky enough even before kudzu, which is truly a vegetable monster. But, of course, the South is also beautiful and hospitable, and absolutely choked with ghosts.

    Paul, thanks a zillion — from you, that’s very high praise.

    And Bonnie, glad you liked the shower in FOUR LAST THINGS. When I went through it again prior to putting it online, I was completely surprised by that scene — I had no recollection of having read it.

    I liked Mr. White’s eyes, too –felt like it was actually the only original thing in the house sequence, although I really do like the long, long resonance of injustice to African-Americans that the story takes as its real background. But I thought most of the Grand Guignol stuff was imitative, so I was very pleased with the eyes, which I hadn’t seen before. And, like you, I like that Doris ends the story.

    This was actually a lot of fun to write, although I wish I’d had a week more to make it better. I’m now thinking of doing stories for the major holidays, maybe even as soon as Thanksgiving. If not, then definitely Christmas.

    I’ll call your swinany magnesia and raise you an initial purecky, which is what I’ve just gotten from Captcha

  13. Gary Says:

    Tim, my scholarly and gentlemenly friend, how can you suggest that our comments are not on topic? The inane chatter about codes and formatting is just our way of trying to sound desperately normal, against a looming shadow of mind-numbing horror.

    Besides, if I told Bonnie that I actually wrote a word processor in 1976 she wouldn’t believe me. Especially if I told her it was written in FORTRAN.

    And it was a great story, Tim.

  14. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Well . . . if you say so. I mean, if all this tech-chatter was just a frantic scramble away from the madness of terror, well . . .

    Ahh, horsefeathers. But I love you anyway, all the way down there in Oz.

  15. Suzanna Says:

    When I knew I wasn’t going to be home to read your story until yesterday afternoon I printed it out to bring with me to Morgan’s race. We left the house way before sunrise so he could get a good spot to park his bike.

    I dropped him off at the entrance and went back about a quarter of a mile to park and wait for the sun to come up before I walked back to the race.

    It was Marin county for goodness sake, no big deal, right? And yet….YIKES!!!

    Naturally as I read your story and the images got creepier (Lamar White’s see through eye sockets were particularly creepy) I was checking my locks and wishing I wasn’t sitting there by myself.

    So why’d I read a scary story in the car alone in the dark? Well, no offense, but I really didn’t think it was going be that bad, and besides I wanted to see what happened next. Also Artie wasn’t someone I was exactly rooting for and I suspected he was gonna get what he deserved.

    You didn’t disappoint me. Good job giving me the heebie-jeebies and giving Artie a fitting end.

    But next time if I know I’m about to read one of your scary stories I’ll be sure to wait for sun up.

    Like your idea for writing holiday themed short stories. There’s only 25 days til Thanksgiving, just in case you wanna get crackin’ on Turkey Day.

  16. Larissa Says:

    What’s wrong with people on bikes? hmmm??? (c:

    Love the story By the way-and I’ll have you know that I visited the page today just to see how it all ended-it had nothing to do with Everett’s comments.

    Well done as always.

  17. Maria Yolanda Aguayo Says:

    Enjoyed the last installment and concur with all about the see through eyes.
    Loving your blog.

  18. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    Wow, late to the dance, but this ending was totally creepy, and yes, I thought the eyes were particularly, um, scary. You did have me, at the door knobs. I am a tad claustrophobic, so this really got to me. So I thought this was funny until it wasn’t. Great. So you will do something Thanksgiving spirited? Should be interesting.

  19. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Awww, Suzanna, I didn’t mean to scare you. Well, I mean, I did, of course, but not so much. It actually never occurred to me that anyone would read it alone in a car in the dark. And you know, The Hook has been marauding in Marin County, too. Look out for the Hook!!!

    (Does ANYONE remember that?)

    “Get crackin?” on the Turkey Day story? “Get crackin’?” Actually, while I was writing that, I thought of a Turkey Day story situation, even if it’s not a story. Hmmm.

    Larissa, there’s nothing wrong with people on bikes unless they’re in Portland, Oregon, where city law mandates that 237,409 of them have to be out at any time of day or night and they have a lane of their own on the right and TOTAL right-of way, so any car that wants to turn right or (horrors!) park, had to deal with an unending stream of smug, over-entitled bicyclists blowing those infuriating whistles or ringing those goddamn bells, and . . . Okay, I’m breathing, I’m breathing.

    Maria — Everyone likes the eyes, and I do, too. I like that and the fact that it’s Confederate money in the light of day, and the whole racial background. But most of the “terror: is pretty derivative, I’m afraid. I don’t read or particularly like horror, but some powerful imaginations have worked that literary seam.

    Lil, I also hate doorknobs. We have a downstairs bathroom, and I com CONSTANTLY washing my hands in it and then rubbing them with an especially nice lotion my wife buys and then being completely unable to open the door, my hands sliding with no effect at all on the doorknob. Drives me crazy.

    Thanksgiving. Maybe.

  20. EverettK Says:

    Sheesh! I’m starting to think you have something personal against Oregon, Tim. First the rain, now the bicyclists, next I suppose you’ll be complaining about all the trees.

    Well, fair’s fair, I guess. After all, we native Oregonians complain all the time about all the Californians that have moved up here and ruined the state. We even have a phrase for it: the Californication of Oregon. 🙂

  21. Kaye Barley Says:

    LOVE the story!!!

    and, I really love the photo.

  22. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    There’s nothing wrong with Oregon if you like mud and plaid shirts.

    As for the Californians who have moved up there, they’re clearly lemmings and not worthy of notice.

    Ahhhh — Oregon’s okay. There’s actually not a state in the union I haven’t enjoyed, although there are lots I’d rather visit than live in.

  23. RJ Baliza Says:

    i loved it! 🙂 descriptions are vivid yet short and powerful enough that it moves the story along really smooth. there should be more of these, Tim! or maybe, a good amount of more of these that could be published both on paper and e-book.

    thanks for the read.

  24. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thank you, RJ — this is definitely not a form I feel comfortable in yet, but maybe if I write another ten or twenty of them, I’ll get to the point where I actually understand what I’m doing. I think this one works (to the extent that it does) because Artie is a triple-dipped shithead and deserves all he gets and more.

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