I know, I know...it's a little early for Halloween material, but what the hey, it is my favorite holiday so I’m starting the celebration early. I kicked things off this past weekend when our local Sisters in Crime chapter took the “Official San Francisco Chinatown Ghost Tour.” I’ll describe that experience in more detail next week, suffice it to say it was well worth the money if for no other reason than I learned the true origins of the terms “hooker” and “Shanghaied.”
We opened the evening sitting around the lounge of a deserted Chinese restaurant sharing ghost stories, something I haven’t done since Girl Scout campfire time. So today I’m going to offer my best contribution to the genre. It’s been a long time since I thought of this incident, years, in fact. But it still makes a chill go down my spine…
People often ask why my books are set in New England when I’ve spent the past decade in the more temperate climes of the Bay Area. Initially it wasn’t a conscious decision, but when forced to reflect back on it I can safely say that for me, New England is just plain spooky. You get a sense of a past there that doesn’t exist in land of split-level ranch-houses and shopping malls. Add to that the fact that I grew up in a two hundred year-old renovated farm house with a ramshackle barn on the property that could easily have passed for the set of a horror film, and you’ll get some insight into my psyche.
In that barn, from the day we moved in until my parents finally left twenty-some odd years later, there was an aged, yellowing calendar on the wall. Since July 1952, no one had torn off a month. We bought the house from an elderly woman who had literally spent her entire life there, and had finally decided to move to a smaller, more manageable house.
Eleanor Cockrell told us that her father, a furniture maker by trade, had died suddenly of a heart attack in that barn mid-July, 1952. Apparently it never occurred to anyone to remove the calendar, or any of the spooky pieces of broken furniture scattered throughout. You would think that as a kid, having a barn like that to play in would have been a treat. Truth is, we barely went in the place. There was just something about it, an undeniable dark energy there.
Not that the rest of the house was any less spooky. I started suffering from insomnia when I was twelve years-old, and was therefore treated to years’ worth of odd late night bumps, creaks, and groans. Footsteps, where there shouldn’t have been any. If I closed the closet door in my bedroom all the way, at some point, maybe a minute later, maybe an hour, it crashed open again with a resounding “thump.”
“It’s an old house,” my parents would say, rolling their eyes. “Just wood settling.”
Strange things happened periodically, lights left on in rooms no one had been in, strange buzzing sounds bouncing around the house in such a way that even my parents were at a loss for an explanation.
But this one event I believe is indisputable. It was right before my parents were due to move out, and I was back home with a boyfriend clearing out years worth of old report cards and movie stubs (yes, I am a pack rat). Most of these treasured items were stored under the eaves in our attic. The Cockrells apparently hadn’t used the attic much in the winter, and Henry had built a large panel that could close off the staircase so only the bottom two floors would have to be heated. For the twenty odd years that we lived in that house, that panel had never been closed, not once. It wasn’t locked, but was almost too heavy to move, so we never worried about it.
It was one of those roasting hot, humid July afternoons that New England specializes in. My boyfriend and I were filthy from crawling around in the accumulated dust and dirt, dripping sweat thanks to the 100+ degree temperatures. As we headed downstairs to take a break, he muttered under his breath that this was the crappiest house he’d ever been in, and he couldn’t wait to leave.
That’s when it happened. Out of nowhere, the panel that hadn’t moved for decades slammed down on his head, sending him tumbling down the stairs and nearly knocking him unconscious. Hard to say if it was Henry taking offense, or another resident—I always suspected we had more than one of them rattling around, it was after all a very large, very old house. My boyfriend survived, but refused to return to the attic. And needless to say, that relationship didn’t work out in the end. Maybe Henry knew best, after all.
I love a good ghost story, so if you’ve got one to share, let’s hear it…