My dad was a bricklayer, and during my childhood our family lived in a total of three houses he built at the edge of Boulder. Early on I became aware of how houses were made, how the inner wooden skeleton was covered inside by plaster and the outside with brick, how the plywood floors had surfaces of tongue-in-groove oak or asphalt tile or linoleum. Windows were finished with frames and sills, the doors lintels. Wires and pipes and vents and switches were set into the spaces left for them. Eventually a brand new structure was the result, and soon the smells of wood and concrete, of paint and newly-laid carpet melded into the scent of home.
Just because I’d seen those corners created didn’t mean I was okay with what I feared might live in them. My acute peripheral vision and sharp hearing had me starting at the least motion and softest noise. And while I knew about the wood and brick and wires, I wasn’t as clear about the sounds those materials made when the lights went out. Boards creaked and windows vibrated. Even new pipes could whine. The sound of tiny feet clicking across the floor was, I later realized, the ticking of the furnace vents as they heated. But, huddling under my blankets, I imagined small, vicious creatures beneath my bed and knew if I let even a finger extend past the edge of the mattress, they would grab me and haul me far away.
I smile now at some of the kid books I read back then, but a few of them had real power when it was dark and the images they’d evoked in my mind came out to play. Television became an influence, and some of the fears of childhood were enriched by depictions of the evil people commit against each other, fictional and real. It didn’t help that my parents let me watch the Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Or that my mom dropped my cousin and me off at the movies when we were twelve. The feature was Psycho. Yes, I am twisted.
I live in a house built in 1909. It has three stories and plenty of odd corners and strange sounds. Over the years we’ve lived here, I’ve grown accustomed to the nooks and crannies–cleaning once in a while will eventually calm the jitters. When I dream, it is of the house my father built for us the year I turned eleven. A modest brick ranch house on an acre of land beside a stream, it was the place he and my mother loved best. It is where they lived until their end, and if it haunts me it’s more because of their deaths than their lives. Old age and illness are far more frightening than those little creatures under my bed.
I continue to connect with the frightened child when I see a haunted house movie. (Next time I’ll write about the latest, The Conjuring.) The house, the home, the enclosed spaces where we spend our lives are haunted with our memories, our fears and triumphs, our most primitive beginnings. I’ve never made friends with the shadows, those vital shadows that feed my writing.
(Image from Spooky Places.)