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October 27, 2003

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Growing Up in Spook Central

I know I promised to talk about Plush Cthulhu this time, but then I realized that Halloween is next week and so, I thought, screw Plush Cthulhu.  I'm going to talk about something far more interesting.


For me, Halloween has always been the ne plus ultra of holidays.  As a kid, I used to put an insane amount of effort into decorating the house every October 31st.  One Halloween, inspired by an article in Starlog about how make-up master Rick Baker and his friends set up displays for Halloween, I created a full-sized crashed rocket ship out of cardboard boxes and Christmas lights -- complete with a creepy alien with glowing eyes crawling out of the hatch.  Then too, I wrote short horror plays that my brother and I performed for whomever we could wrangle into watching.  Never mind that you could have counted on the fingers of one hand the number of trick-or-treaters we actually got.  I was always determined that this Halloween was going to be different.  But it never was.

I think there were two main reasons so few kids darkened our door.  One was that we were the only house on our side of the street and most parents weren't about to send their loved ones across that busy street just for one measly house.  That was a good reason and maybe the only one you need.  But the other reason, and the one I prefer, is this:

We lived in Spook Central.

Not that the neighbourhood kids would have known that.  But all you had to do was take one look at that place to know there was definitely some bad vibes coming off it.  When people asked me where I lived, all I had to say was, "You know the spooky old limestone mansion on Days Road?"  Their eyes would dilate in horror and they'd gasp, "You live there?"  Oh, yeah, I lived there.  I grew up there and, let me tell you, brothers and sisters, growing up in that place, every night was Halloween night.

Let me set the scene for you.  Like I said, we were the only house on our side of Days Road, a mile long stretch of pavement along which motorists roared at a merry rodent eating clip.  Remember the road in Stephen King's Pet Sematary?  This was its maniac brother.  This road was named after the Days who had owned the whole area a century before and who had lived in our house back when our house was the only house there.  On one side of our house, there was nothing but an endless wheat field stretching off into the distance.  But this wasn't just any wheat field.  It was owned by the local penitentiary.  All summer long we enjoyed the pleasure of being stared at by the convicts working the field.  On the other side of our house, there was a church.  No cemetery.  That would have been too obvious.  The church was bad enough.

Across the road, there was civilization.  There children laughed and played and lived lives of quiet desperation -- but not in Mudville.  In Mudville you were on your own.

The house itself was big and dark and spooky as hell.  But there were three particular "hot spots", if you will -- places where you just knew, if the ghosts were going to get you, that was where it would happen.  The first was on the landing halfway up the stairs leading to the second floor.  My parents' bedroom door opened onto the landing but that was where I knew the ghosts were thickest.  That was because not only was that bedroom paneled with dark wood, making it ubercreepy all by itself, but it had a back door which opened directly into a hay loft above the garage.  A hay loft filled with lumber and dust and spiderwebs.  And ghosts just love spiderwebs.

There was a light on the landing.  The problem was the light switch was at the very top of the stairs beyond the landing.  There was no way to reach the light switch without first passing through the dark gauntlet of the landing and passing the (dark!) doorway to the bedroom.

Whenever I had to go up those stairs in the evening to get something from my bedroom, I felt a sick horror gathering in my gut.  At the bottom of the stairs I would pause to work up my courage.  Then, taking a deep breath... I would run!  Up the stairs I would tear, up, up, up, into the darkness, reaching the landing, careful not to look at the bedroom door now (because the ghosts won't hurt you if they think you don't know they're there!), careful not to trip, turn the corner, then up the second flight of stairs, up, up, up, to the very top where, panting for air, I would slam my hand on the light switch so hard it left a dent in my palm.

Needless to say, I tried very hard not to leave things in my bedroom that I might want later...say, some time after dark.

The second "hot spot" was, naturally, the door to the attic which was conveniently situated directly across the upstairs hallway from my bedroom.  My folks had fixed up the attic with wood paneling and wall-to-wall carpeting and it made a great party room for my sisters and their friends.  But for me an attic was still an attic.  Just knowing that, beyond that door, there was a staircase reaching up into this day I still have nightmares about that door.

Nor was the situation improved by the fact that the attic wasn't completely air tight.  There must have been a leak someplace because on certain nights, while I lay wide-eyed and trembling under my moon landing bedspread, that attic door would rattle -- brother, would she rattle!  All night long.  Sometimes it would rattle so hard you would have sworn someone was on the other side trying to get in, trying very, very hard.  Of course it was just the wind, but to a little kid sleeping just across the hall, it was something far, far worse.

At least, I think it was the wind...

The third "hot spot" was the walk-in closet in my bedroom itself.  And, of the three, it was the worst -- a sort of Godzilla of hot spots.  At least, where those other "hot spots" were concerned, I could always lock them out when I went into my bedroom.  Not so that closet.  It was right there, in my sanctum sanctorum, always waiting, always watching, and there was no escaping it.

Here's some advice -- never give a kid a closet that is so deep he can't see the back wall.  For many years, I really believed there was no back to that closet.  I thought it connected with a passage in the walls.  Hence, anything could enter my room that way...any thing.  I spent my childhood forever averting my eyes from that door, always afraid I would see something I didn't want to see because (as I mentioned before) you were all right so long as the ghosts thought you didn't know they were there.  But if you saw one, and he saw you seeing him...gulp!

Still, lest I have given the false impression that my childhood was filled only with childish fancies, let me assure you, there were ghosts in that house.  Just about everyone in my rather large family saw one at one time or another, including yours truly.  But the most persistent spook wasn't one you saw, but was one you heard.  Or rather, women heard it -- only women.  It was simply called "The Bell" and, being of the masculine persuasion, I never heard it myself, but I was told it sounded just like the phone ringing.  Now, I know what you're probably thinking.  Maybe it was the phone ringing.  Take my word for it.  It wasn't.  When some female visitor would suddenly stiffen and innocently comment, "Oh, your phone is ringing." in a situation where the phone was clearly not ringing, there would be an exchange of knowing looks, a moment of uneasy silence, then one of us would gasp portentously: "The Bell!"

We pretended to think it was funny, a family joke, yuck, yuch, yuch.  But at night, when I lay alone in bed, trying not to look at that damn closet door, a door that never seemed to stay shut no matter how many times you shut it, while I tried not to listen to that other door, the one across the hall, the attic door that kept banging and bumping away all night long, and there wasn't even much of a wind outside...then it wasn't a joke.  Believe me, it wasn't!

The ghost too was always female.  When my mom saw it, waking one night to find it standing at the foot of her bed, she thought it was one of my sisters.  It wasn't.  And the thing I saw, as near as I can tell, was female as well.

Now, let me make one thing perfectly clear.  I don't believe in ghosts.  I laughed at the remake of The Haunting (but then, who didn't?).  I mocked Kubrick's The Shining.  I chuckled at The Changeling.  Okay, so I didn't do so well with The Blair Witch Project -- but you had to be made of adamantium not to freak at that flick!  Anyway, the point is, I know that whatever I saw, standing next to my closet door, with its long, tattered dress, its straggly white hair and its utter lack of a face -- there is a rational explanation.  I just can't think of one at the moment.

Anyway, whatever it was, it vanished as soon as I turned on the light.  So -- no harm done, right?  No harm, no foul, as my folks used to say.  Did I mention that, to this day, I still sleep with the light on in my bedroom?  But that isn't because of ghosts.  That's just because I am afraid if I wake in the dark something will eat me.

Did I mention that the ghosts won't hurt you if you pretend you don't know they're there?  Must remember that.  Very important.

Anyway, all that was a long time ago and water under a very long, very creaky bridge.  But I've often wondered why, having grown up in Spook Central, I should have spent the rest of my life interested in horror literature.  H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen'd think I would have wanted to put that crap as far behind me as possible.  Then again, maybe that's precisely why I like horror.  I'm trying to recapture my youth.  Maybe I would be better to collect Micronauts action figures.  You think?

You're probably wondering what became of that spooky old haunted house on Days Road.  It's still there, albeit somewhat altered and smaller than when I lived in it.  And it's still scaring people.  In fact its eventual fate sounds like the final punch line to one of those horror stories found in the 1950s Tales from the Crypt horror comics.  You see, they turned it into a dentist's office.

As the Crypt Keeper would have said -- "Heh, heh, heh..."

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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