The Old House at Home
A ghost story for people who don't believe in ghosts
The séance began at midnight.
The email that drops in my box is an invitation from a woman who claims that her experiments in Virtual Reality have opened a Doorway to the Dead. Would our society like to assist her?
I belong to the Dia-normal Club. There’s a group of us from all walks of life who research the dead. We prefer the pre-fix ‘dia’ to ‘para’. Dia, in Greek, means ‘through’ or ‘across’ – as in diameter (the measurement of a line across a circle). For us, the non-material universe runs through, and across, our own dimensional reality. That includes activity from those no longer bound to three dimensions; namely, the Dead. And those who were never in bounded form at all; aliens, entities of every kind, including demons.
Most of our explorations are worthless or harmless. The world is full of people claiming kinship with the Dead. In America, belief in ghosts has risen fourfold since the 1970s. Here, Halloween is the biggest festival of the year, apart from the Christmas holiday season. We like to believe we are not alone.
Where are we tonight?
New York City.
Not Times Square or the Empire State Building. Not overlit or oversized. Somewhere older, more modest, darker. W. 10th St, between 5th and 6th Avenues. Not far from Washington Square Park, that lost burial ground, where, they say, 20,000 souls were laid to rest, or restlessness. History lies in layers, the topmost layer being where we live. The question is: What lies beneath?
The members of the Dia-normal Club are anonymous. When we meet, we wear a mask - a simple, black, double-hole eye mask. Or fancy dress. This avoids intimacy. It keeps the psychic space clear of ordinary curiosity.
A brief check of the address tells me that W. 10th St. has a history of haunted houses, including the ghost of Mark Twain at number 14, dubbed The House of Death, for its many paranormal disturbances.
Number 14 is not our destination.
Drizzle makes a mist of the fuzzy yellow glow from the sidewalk lamps. This is old New York; a cobbled street, a row of houses, iron railings, wide, gracious front doors.
Built from the 1850s onwards, as part of the gentrification scheme around Washington Square, these houses with their large windows were homes to the wealthy. The 1860 livery stables still stands near the corner. Grosvenor Private Boarding Stables is a home now, but even there, some say, is the ghost of Edward Albee, though he was only resident for a few years in the mid- 1960s.
Still, ghosts can go where they will. The benefit of being a no-body is frictionless travel.
I am standing outside the house. It’s the typical Greek Revival style of the period. Two stone fluted columns support a pediment covered with lead. This porch is deep and shadowy, like the entrance to a family vault. The leaded pediment shines dark grey in the rain – it’s the colour and smoothness of a rat’s pelt. Below, in the overgrown slip of garden, I can hear scuttering.
Growing directly across the leaded portico, climbing up the iron drainpipe to the top storey, is an old wisteria. The knotty and twisted trunk partly covers the ground floor window. Houses on either side are well kept, but not this one, and that is part of its charm. And its creepiness. The half-moon fanlight over the front door is also leaded, giving it the look of a spider’s web, half visible. The spider is invisible.
This is a Miss Havisham house, pinned into its own past. Time has travelled differently here.
There is no one in the street. I am a little late.
I knock at the door and wait. Footsteps. The door is opened, allowing me to see a wide hallway with a tiled floor. Entering, the door is closed behind me with a certain finality. I look for my host and am greeted with a silent nod from a small man in a brown draper’s coat. He indicates to me that I should mount the stairs, and I do so, admiring the mahogany banister and deep polished treads.
‘You are the last to arrive,’ he says.
At the top of the first flight of stairs I walk into the drawing room. I understand why the house seemed so dark from the street. The shutters are tightly closed across the window, and the only illumination in the room comes from a lively fire, and several large candles. At a table in the middle of the room sit my fellow members of the Dia-normal club. I recognise some of them from their shapes and sizes, the cut of the jaw, the way they smile, or not.
Our host stands up.
Like us, Madam K wears a half-mask. Her voice is accented and melodious. Russian, I think. I guess she is her 50s.
‘Welcome’, she says, ‘to the old house at home’.
Tonight will be no ordinary séance. Madam K regrets there is no medium present to summon the dead. Rather, she hopes we will investigate a phenomenon. We may see nothing at all.
On the table in front of each of us is a VR headset. When we put on our headsets, we will find ourselves, in avatar form, in this room in 1870. The room will seem much the same to us as it does now.
Our host explains that the VR tour will be unique to this house when it opens, in due course, as an interactive museum. What Madam K has designed is an advance, she tells us, a different kind of VR experience. Instead of walking dutifully from room to room, listening to the guide and looking at the reconstructions, visitors will become a living part of the living past. Some early trials of her innovation have induced hysteria, psychosis, even.
Certainly, this new method of personal disembodiment and re-embodiment is interesting to our club. My digital self, will, one day, not be limited in space or space-time. That could be called dia-normal activity. But it couldn’t be called a haunting.
Ah yes, our host agrees. Not a haunting. And yet…
She says no more. We each turn away to disguise our faces, and we put on the headsets . Our avatars take our place. After a brief period of adjustment, the virtual room becomes clear. This room is brightly lit. It is a perfect period replica of its time. The heavy mahogany furniture. The large parrot cage. Dusty, velvet drapes, small tables with cloths that cover their legs. A piano. The dining table is set for dinner. My fellow members, that is, their avatars, wear the evening clothes of the period.
The talk at the table is of the supernatural.
I notice I am getting cold.
Standing up, I leave the company discussing the question of why ghosts wear clothes. It is vexing. Is it so that the living can identify them? Are ghosts projecting their clothes, just as they project their astral body? Or, do we, the living, clothe them? If ghosts are a form of telepathy, perhaps we are responsible for the shape of the form we see, though not the energy behind the form.
The truth is, I have never seen a ghost and I doubt I shall. The Dia-normal Club lends an air of mystery to my life. Doesn’t do to be too transparent. What a terrible pun.
There’s a woman standing by the fire. I didn’t see her earlier. What dazzles me now are her eyes. Emerald green. She must be a guest of our host. I am sure she is not a member of our club. I feel a strange excitement. My body is cold, but my heart is beating rapidly.
‘There is nothing here of any interest’, she says. ‘Would you care to see the rest of the house?’
Without waiting for an answer, she goes towards the door. I follow. No one seems to notice us. The landing is quiet. The woman is already on the stairs. She opens a door and disappears into a bedroom of the period. Flocked wallpaper, a deep patterned carpet, a four-poster bed with the curtains drawn. Gas-lamps light the interior. Where is the woman?
Not knowing why, I walked into the room, and jerked open the bed curtains.
The woman was lying on her back on the bed, her hands crossed over her chest, her eyes open. I let out a cry.
She jumped up, laughing at me.
‘Part of the show’, she says.
‘Do you work for the Historic Houses Trust?’
‘You could say that, yes.’
‘Only, we haven’t met before, and yet I seem to think I know you from somewhere. An historic ]house, perhaps?’
‘Yes, very likely.’
She says her name is Esmeralda.
‘Esmeralda,’ I thought to myself, looking into her eyes, intense as a cat’s eyes, with the same unsettling combination of focus and boredom.
‘You are not here, of course,’ she said. ‘Only your avatar is here. This encounter is not taking place.’
‘Does that make a difference?’ I said
‘If you are not here you cannot be responsible for what is going to happen.’
‘What is going to happen?’
‘This,’ said Esmeralda, kissing me, and loosening my tie. ‘What can you feel?’
Electricity. Pinpricks. Tingling. The thawing feeling after the dentist, swollen lips, have I been stung? Vibration, like a tuning fork, like a piano string plucked. Like the quiver of a bow, like the rumble of the subway under the streets, like a whoosh of air from an underground shaft.
When she touches me, my skin is covered in goosebumps.
She touches me. I’m shivering. I lean towards her cool skin. She is smooth as marble. She kisses me and it’s like falling down a well.
At the bottom of the well I am in darkness.
This darkness, though, is visible. I can see her as an outline, neon against the background. Her shape, but what shape is that? Not human. She’s crouched down. Her head turns towards me. A heavy, feline head. Her mouth opens.
Did I fall asleep? I wake without opening my eyes. My eyes are open, staring unblinkingly at the ceiling. I can’t lift any part of my body. From the corner of my right eye, I can see someone next to me. We were lying together side by side, unmoving. Embalmed and alive.
I try to speak. My lips do not part. The tip of my tongue can feel thick thread. Have my lips been stitched together?
Latex. I am wrapped in latex. The vinyl feel of something glued, rubbery, suffocating. Like a diving suit that has grown into my skin. It’s hard to breathe. I must concentrate. This is an illusion.This isn’t me.
I picture myself sitting up, opening my mouth. Again! Again! The more vivid I can make it, the freer I become. There is a popping noise like bubble gum. I sit up. I open my mouth. The black threads snap. Where am I?
There’s no-one on the bed next to me. My clothes are loose and undone.
I am alone.
I make my way back down the dimly lit flight of stairs to the drawing room. I expect to see the members of our club sitting as I had left them by the fire. The fire, though, has burned out. I walk to the fireplace, sift the wood ash through my fingers; still faintly warm. The table where we had gathered is empty. There are no VR headsets. I am wearing my own clothes and not an evening suit. I am not an avatar of myself.
There is a creak on the stair. It is the little man in the brown draper’s coat.
‘Where is everyone?’ I ask.
‘You are the last to leave’, he answers.
He indicates downstairs with his arm. I go past him to gather my things. ‘But where is our host? Where is Madame K?’
‘Shall I carry your bag?’ Said the man.
‘There was a woman – Esmeralda …’
He shook his head and began to carry my bag down the stairs.
In a moment, the front door had opened onto the street and I was stretching my legs towards 5th Avenue, in the bustle of a New York City morning; car horns, cabs, guys wheeling cardboard boxes into apartment blocks, a construction site across the street, a little old lady walking three curly terriers. The Washington Square arch in front of me.
I picked up a shot of coffee and went to sit in the park. Had the night passed because I had fallen asleep? Why had no one come to find me? Who was Madame K? Who was Esmeralda?
And why can’t I stop thinking about her? I took out a notepad and began to draw her. Her slender body. The wild hair caught up in a bun. That’s what I see in my mind. What I draw is something crouched down with its mouth open.
The hours in the day go by, as they do, whether you are happy or sad, busy, or not, until around 5pm, when I got an email from the Dia-normal Club, regretting that nothing had come of our vigil. No other-worldly activity had been detected by the EMF meter.
Impulsively, I walked back to the house. In fact, I think I was led back to the house. I don’t know why. After a short wait, I saw Madam K letting herself in.
I explained my story. She asked me to come inside with her.
We didn’t go into the period drawing room, but into her busy modern office to the rear of the house. Our previous evening’s encounter had been recorded .To begin with, I saw nothing out of the ordinary, except our rather silly avatar selves talking about the supernatural.
‘Look closely’, said Madam K.
Yes, there did appear to be a shadow moving around the table. Not a shadow thrown by a body. This shadow was its own shadow.
As the shadow came close to me, I felt myself shiver. I saw my avatar get up to stand by the fireplace. Then, I watched myself leave the room.
‘Who is Esmeralda?’
Madam K stopped the recording. ‘The person you describe was not invited to our evening and I did not see her.’
‘Then what did I see?’
Madam K shrugged. ‘What is Virtual Reality? It is an out of body experience. What is death? An out of body experience. I have become convinced that the dead are using this technology to mingle with us differently.’
‘In what way?’
‘How could you know what is an avatar and what is a ghost? Or worse? A demon.’
‘I don’t believe in demons. I am not sure I believe in ghosts.’
Madam K looked unimpressed. ‘It is not a matter of belief. It is a matter of fact. Some nights ago, I went to a party in Venice. By that, you understand I mean VR Venice. A simulation. But perhaps Venice has long been a simulation of itself. At the party, I did not know everyone. We each became an avatar from a Venetian carnival. Our physical bodies were at home wearing a headset. How could I be sure that among those avatars were not others too? Others without a physical body at home? Others, who came through the gap of time, because they could.’
What Madam K was saying seemed absurd to me. Why would a ghost care about VR?
Madam K shook her head, impatiently.
‘The word ‘avatar.’ You understand, don’t you, that in Hinduism, an avatar is a representation of a god in physical form? In VR, the avatar is a non-physical representation of the human – not subject to limits of gravity or gender.’
‘Ghosts seem to me to be subject to both,’ I said. ‘They are earth-bound spirits – and they always return as themselves.’
‘I agree that too many ghosts lack imagination,’ said Madam K. ‘It is disappointing.’
Just for a split second I thought I saw the edges of Madame K waver.
‘But to answer your question,’ she said. ‘Why VR? It is a medium where neither side needs a physical body. Perhaps to the Dead, it is an interactive astral plane.’
The air in the room was still. I must breathe. Again, that sensation of a film over my nostrils. Thin as a soap bubble but obstructing the free flow of oxygen.
Madam K was watching me closely.
‘Would you like to try again?’ she said.
When I fasten myself into the headset, the fire in the hearth is burning brightly. I am in evening clothes. There are others in the room this time, but they seem not to notice me. I move through the knots of men and women talking together. The door to the landing is open.
Outside the bedroom door I can hear rustling. I knock.
Inside the bedroom, Esmeralda is dressing. She asks me to help her, and I go to fasten the hooks at the back of her dress. The deep V of the dress leaves a long triangle of smooth skin. I stroke it, feeling the muscles beneath that support the skin. She turns to kiss me. Green eyes. The retina is a black slit. When she kisses me it’s like being caught in an electric fence. I guess the sensations VR can simulate are crude. Crude or not, I want more of her, but she seems less interested than she was yesterday.[JK7]
I ask her about the people downstairs. We should meet them, she says, and I check myself in the mirror. Yes, I look good. But there it is again – what you might call the outline issue. My shoulder is blurred.
VR. It’s a new technology. It won’t be perfect. This isn’t me. This is my avatar.
‘Who are you in real life?’ I ask Esmeralda.
‘What is real life?’ she said.
It’s a fair point. I just read that Barbados will be the first country to set up an embassy in the Metaverse.
In the room downstairs everyone wants to talk to Esmeralda; the burgundy dress, the piled-up hair, the impression that her clothes are temporary distractions. What is disconcerting is the level of nausea I feel. It must be the VR headset. It’s something to do with eye alignment.
I should come out for a minute.
My hands are at my head feeling for the set. Where is it?
Blundering like a shot elephant, I reach the door to the landing and go upstairs. The bedroom is just as before, but not as before. The carpet and four-poster are gone. In their place are broken floorboards and an iron bedstead with a thin mattress. Sitting on the bed, in dirty jeans, is a young boy – maybe twelve years old. He’s got a headset on.
‘I want to leave’ he says. ‘Help me.’
‘Here, let me take it off.’
The VR set is an old model. Clunky.
‘It’s still the same.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘On or off. I’m still here – in this room.’
‘We can leave together. Don’t worry about it. Come on.’
The boy and I tread softly down the stairs. The people in the drawing room are preoccupied. As I glance in, I see the marvellous V of skin that is Esmeralda’s back. She almost turns her head. Down we go to the wide, tiled, hallway. I’ll get the kid in a cab and come back to find Madam K.
‘Where do you live?’ I asked him, giving him twenty dollars
‘Here,’ he said.
I’m thinking to myself, we could both use some fresh air and a burger.
With difficulty I open the front door. On the other side of the door is a blank wall. The front door is bricked up.
My body is colder than I have ever known it. The kid wears no sneakers. He is pale. His face is empty of hope.
‘Let’s try the back door.’
I don’t know my way around this house, but there must be a door to the rear. Yes, down a half stair, past a lavatory with an overhead cistern and a steel pull chain. The door is locked. There’s a window. I push it open.
Outside, there’s a square of air.
‘Go on. I’ll give you a leg up. Get out. Just go.’
I get him through the window. When I lean out there’s no sign of him. I go back upstairs. Stairs that seem darker with every step. I enter the drawing room and sit by the fire to warm my coldness. I notice I have no shoes.
The fire should warm me, but it doesn’t warm me. I’m exhausted.
‘Anyone else want this party to end?’
No-one looks at me or takes any account of what I said. I get up and go over to a couple of the men talking seriously about business in the way that men do.
It’s not that they ignore me – glance at me, look away, like I’m a waiter or something. It’s as if I am not there at all.
Then I get mad and flip one of them in the face. He raises his hand to his face, as if he’s swatting an insect.
I push him. Straight in the chest. He doesn’t register it.
Now I am moving between their bodies, criss-crossing their groups. I lean hard on one of them, and he moves slightly. Esmeralda sees me. Her pupils close up to the thin black retina line of a cat.
For some reason I believe she will follow me, and I go back upstairs to the bedroom.
The bedroom is as I left it. The boy is where I found him, sitting on the bed.
‘Why did you come back in?’
He doesn’t comprehend me.
‘Why wouldn’t he come back in? This is his home.’
Esmeralda had followed me up the stairs.
‘I want to know what’s happening here.’ I stand close to her, my face level with hers. She doesn’t flinch away or move towards me.
‘Why do you think information will change anything?’
‘Where is Madam K?’
‘I am Madam K.’
Her voice and form are shifting. She’s Madam K. In the mirror over her shoulder, I can see a hump forming on the exquisite triangle of her back. Now she’s older, much older, her lips thin like mottled stones, her mouth gaping at me, like a dark, dry, well. In my mind I throw a stone down the well. It falls. It falls. It keeps on falling.
‘Where am I?’
‘You are between worlds. Not dead. Not alive. Don’t you like it? You liked it last night’.
She reaches out to touch me and her arm is young and supple. The rest of her is not. She undoes my shirt and runs her hand over me. Deep scratches, like drunken runways, swag across my chest and stomach but I don’t bleed. I’m too cold to bleed.
‘Where’s my headset? Where are the controls?’
‘There are no controls.’
Esmeralda’s shape was returning to its glory. She came to kiss me, but I lowered my head. I’d seen enough.
She said, ‘It will always be tonight. You will always be here. You will always be waiting for me. Your room is next door.’ She took me onto the landing. There was a series of doors I hadn’t noticed in the gaslight. Had they been there?
I opened the first door. A broken-down bed filled the small damp space.
I opened the second door. A man sat at a plain desk obsessively jabbing his mobile phone. The screen was blank.
And beyond the door, other doors, each opening into a limbo of despair.
Wretching, a thin sour bile filling my mouth, I rested my head on the door jamb, pushing my hand against my bare stomach. My hand felt warm and sticky. Wait, I’m bleeding.
That means I’m not an avatar. Blood means human.
I traced my bloodstained hand over the door. The door wobbled slightly. It’s not real. I am real.
‘This way, please, this way.’
The man in the brown draper’s coat is beckoning me down the stairs. He’s holding a rat trap.
As we pass the office, I see a light streaming out from under the door. Electric light – and the sound of a voice talking on the phone. A real voice. A real phone.
I do it. I shoulder the door.
On the other side, looking startled and afraid, is Madam K. On her computer screen I can see the VR simulation she’s running. She has a big paperweight of King Kong on the desk. With it, I shatter her screen, smash her keyboard, and throw the paperweight out of the window.
Falls. Falls. Falling. I hear it smash.
That’s all I need. I know the front door will open.
I am outside on W.10th St., in the light rain, with no shoes and a ripped shirt, and I am alive.
I hold up my head to the rain. My feet leave imprints on the cellophane smoothness of the paving stones. Temporary imprints in a temporary place. I am alive.
But something is different. I walk straight to Washington Square Park, where anyone looking as crazy as I do can sit in peace for a while. No one worries about it. I sit near the fountain, watching the skateboarders and hustlers. And then I see them.
I see the dead that are under this ground, their shapes transparent and clear. I see the ghosts of the past with hoops, bowls, parasols, an accordion. I see those long-gone, racked beneath the asphalt in their broken graves.
I see what is hidden and it’s not a game.
And I wonder what will happen when we perfect the space where we can enter their worlds? Or they can enter ours?
Across the wide gap of time.
It’s later the next day when I see Esmerelda, wearing white jeans and a white T-shirt, walking through the park.
For a second, I’m terrified. That’s her, all right. Oh God, she’s beautiful. I stand up. The park is busy but there are only the two of us. She’s coming towards me. I feel the cuts on my skin.
Headphones on, she looks right through me.