In a way, as it turns out, perhaps it was haunted.
Let me explain.
The lawn--well, really there was no lawn, not in any real sense of the word. Instead, there were clumps of weeds and tall grass. By “tall,” I’m talking waist high--to a man, not a boy. Broken flagstones led toward the rickety, sagging porch, in the middle of which was the entrance door. Some of the windows had been broken out, no doubt by the neighborhood’s idle, adolescent artillerymen’s launching of gravel missiles. Some windows lacked shutters, and some had them. The ones that remained hung at an angle as often as not. What paint remained upon the exterior walls of the two-story clapboard house was peeling worse than a three-day-old sunburn.
With some trepidation, and exchanging glances every other step of the way, we approached the house.
It wouldn’t hurt to take a quick look inside, we assured ourselves. If we saw anything amiss--ghosts, for example--we could always trust to our Keds to save us.
We crossed the creaking porch to the door. It opened easily, without, as far as I recall, a screech or a groan, displaying empty rooms, bare floors, and walls in need of cleaning as much as paint. The floors were littered with shards of glass, torn fragments of yellowed newspapers, and empty bottles and cans. The place was spooky as hell, but, as far as we could tell, it wasn’t haunted.
We’d entered the house at its living room, it seemed, and, after a cursory examination of its littered floor, bare walls, and discolored ceiling, we entered a back hallway up from which ran a flight of stairs guarded by a handrail, some of the were missing, perhaps for a long, long time. The stairs were littered with similar debris--paint peelings and chips, newspaper, and empty containers. We followed the steps up, to the second floor. Its rooms were similar to the living room--bare, dirty, and littered with dust, trash, and discarded bottles and cans. None of the windows had curtains or drapes, and several of the panes of glass had been broken or cracked by stones thrown by boys who found courage more compatible with distance than with actual trespassing.
We’d seen most of the house, and our exploration of the abandoned domicile hadn’t rewarded us with so much as a broken picture frame or a smashed TV set. Still, we might as well see the rest of the place before we took our leave.
Descending the stairs, we opened a door upon a dark, steep set of wooden steps that led into the cool, dark interior of the house’s basement. There was no way we were going down there. We hastily closed the door and moved on.
Rounding a corner, we stepped into the horror of the kitchen.
What was horrific about it was the plate of still-steaming pork and beans, the red-tinged tines of the pitchfork leaning against the wall, beside the table, and the dead dog with the gaping wound in its side lying on the floor near the pitchfork. The steaming beans told us that someone was nearby--maybe the same someone who’d killed the dog. We looked at one another, and, without a word, reached the consensus that we should run for our lives, which we did.
We ran home and informed our mother of the canine death scene we’d left behind, but she wasn’t disposed to believe us, chalking up our story to boyhood imaginations run wild.
To this day, though, my brother and I recall our adventure in the abandoned house, except that, when we recite the adventure, we usually refer to the residence not as an abandoned abode, but as a haunted house.
Abandoned houses are eerie. They’re spooky. They look as if they might be haunted, even if they are not. Having given the matter some thought, I think I know at least one reason that they often appear to be sinister, if not, indeed, haunted. Symbolically, houses represent ourselves. Their material structure represent our bodies, and the various rooms, as a good dream dictionary indicates, are stand-ins for various aspects of our personalities. An abandoned body is a dead body. An abandoned house, as a symbol of the self, suggests that one’s self--one’s spirit or soul--is dead, and if aspects of the soul, as represented by the rooms of the house are bare, soiled, littered, and dilapidated, the corresponding aspects of ourselves are also empty, unclean, and decrepit--perhaps even mad.
An abandoned house is, or can be, a perfect setting for a horror story, because such a place, as a symbol of oneself, allows a writer to peer into the attic (the conscious mind), the basement (the subconscious mind), and any of the floors and rooms between, suggesting, through symbol, metaphor, and other means of figurative and indirect communication, various dreadful states of human and personal existence. In fact, such a place is the setting of one of my own stories, in which the protagonist, an intrepid explorer much like my younger brother and I were in our earlier incarnations who, unfortunately for him, comes to a much worse end than we did, learning too late that, while home may be where the heart is, this organ is better kept inside the chest cavity than upon the mantle piece. Other writers of horror, using the same type of setting, will have different lessons to teach, but, in the fiction of fear, most such instruction is apt to include considerable pain and loss.
Abandoned houses are best left untenanted--and unexplored.
"Abandoned Houses" is one of the posts in Chillers and Thrillers' ongoing series of "Everyday Horrors."