Sunday, October 04, 2009

2BR, 1B; steps to shops, restaurants; ghost incl. free of charge

{Photo of the view from our bedroom window by rocketlass.}
Houses of any antiquity in New England are so inevitably possessed with spirits that the matter seems hardly worth alluding to. Our ghost used to heave deep sighs in a particular corner of the parlour, and sometimes rustled paper, as if he were turning over a sermon in the long upper entry--where nevertheless he was invisible, in spite of the bright moonshine that fell through the eastern window.
That's Nathaniel Hawthorne, from "The Old Manse," the inspiration for his first collection of odd and creepy stories, Mosses from an Old Manse (1846).

That passage has been on my mind lately, as rocketlass and I have been house-hunting, her particular desire for a garden having outweighed my general desire to avoid change of any sort. And as we've been wandering through hundred-year-old bungalows and farmhouse-style wood frame houses, I've been vaguely wondering about ghosts. All those families living there over all those years. . . . A selling realtor is required by law to disclose quite a bit of information about the property being sold, if it's bad--radon, mold, liens--but the law is, appropriately, silent on the topic of ghosts. So what is a realtor's duty?

Fitz-James O'Brien's short story "What Was It?" (1859), which is included in the new Library of America collection American Fantastic Tales, opens with a rental agent in just that position. And while she feels no compunction about laughing off reports of hauntings in a building she rents on 26th Street in Manhattan, it's to no avail:
The neighborhood caught up the story, and the house remained untenanted for three years. Several parties negotiated for it; but somehow, always before the bargain was closed, they heard the unpleasant rumors, and declined to treat any further.
If, after all, there's one thing you can count on the neighborhood gossips to pass on, it's surely news of hauntings--especially ones as impressive as the ones afflicting the building inn question:
Doors were opened without any visible agency. The remnants of furniture scattered through the various rooms were, during the night, piled one up on the other by unknown hands. Invisible feet passed up and down the stairs in broad daylight, accompanied by the rustle of unseen silk dresses and the gliding of viewless hands along the massive balusters.
Ultimately the problem is solved by the recruiting of a "plucky and philosophical set of boarders," whose appreciation of opium and cheap rent overcomes any trepidation they might have felt about ghosts; terror, nonetheless, ensues.

In our own house-hunt, the question came up the other night as rocketlass was climbing into a particularly spooky-looking attic--the stairs having been lopped off partway for closet space (and maximum creepiness). As she disappeared into the darkness, I asked the selling realtor if there were any ghosts up there.

The woman laughed and said no, but that she had sold a haunted house once. It was a lovely house on a street near ours that turned over with unusual frequency, and as she was setting up for an open house one sunny afternoon, she was startled to see an old man sitting in a rocking chair in the living room. He ignored her when she asked if he was there for the open house--then the sound of the doorbell made her briefly turn away, and he was gone when she looked back at the chair.

According to her, she did feel it was her obligation--in ethics, if not in law--to disclose the fact of the ghost to the couple that made an offer on the house; they disregarded her and bought the house despite, only to put it on the market themselves within a couple of years. My realtor and I were suitably impressed: either she was very, very quick on her feet--and a good storyteller to boot--or this really was something she'd experienced, however many ways one might find to explain it away. Doubt ghosts as I may, it would take quite a house for me to make an offer after hearing of a haunting; at a minimum, I would have to hire the Scooby gang to investigate beforehand.

When I put the question of the duty to disclose hauntings to our realtor, he replied that he definitely would feel obligated . . . the minute someone brought him a positive, verifiable, scientific test. Until then . . . well, for all he knows, you might have brought that ghost with you from your old place. 'Tis good to have a hard-headed rationalist as your realtor.

All of which leaves me glad to be able to say that our house, after nearly ten years of our living here, has given no signs of being haunted by anything more sinister than our three cats. In fact, now that I think of it . . . if you're a ghost who's looking for a comfortable, convenient new home, right next to the cemetery, we are currently accepting offers . . .


  1. I once was at a party at a beautiful mansion in Baltimore, and when the owner (who had only lived there a short time) took us for a tour, she showed us a bedroom that had a door with a small, barred opening. Talk about haunted houses. I shudder to think about what went on in that room years ago.

  2. Now that is creepy.

    {And it reminds me of a story I'm hoping to write about next week, from the new American Fantastic Tales collection, "The Little Room." It's about a lovely (not creepy) little room . . . that's sometimes not there.

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  4. You've forgotten that our little rocketship is haunted . . . by a ghost moth.

    At least that's always been the most reasonable explanation for that spot on the wall in the hallway that fascinates the cats.