The Theory of Haunting by Don Raymond


Horror, like gravity, is relative to its observer: We carry our dead with us like a cloak made of memories. The specter that haunts a place for one may wear a face familiar to another. Consider Jericho, oldest of cities. The first inhabitants, the ones who raised those storied walls, buried their ancestor’s skulls beneath the floors of their homes—generations of their blood fertilizing the psychic earth beneath them, stories laid down over the centuries like thick sediment. But presumably, when they moved, they destroyed those homes. After all, who would want to live in a stranger’s cemetery? But once in a while, we intrude upon an unfamiliar space: a room, a hallway, a house, even a city, where something more than mortal was left behind. And when we do, we enter those stories—willingly or not. Of Jericho, we are certain of only two things: the walls and the dead.

Light, too, has an analogy in horror. In the quantum theory, light is a synecdoche of its own fundamental duality: forever both wave and particle, it represents the union of those two—the creation of something altogether new. In the quantum theory of horror, we ask: How fast can light banish the darkness? How long until sunrise puts an end to the terror? And in both systems, we must eventually confront the point where these analogies fail—where rules, while internally consistent, operate according to their own logic. We find that sunlight is no savior: the dim, muted memories of dreadful things that happen on quiet afternoons when no one else is watching, the blood and betrayal in domestic bedrooms, the voices that whisper to us from another time… What atrocities were committed in those sunlit memories? What might we unknowingly stumble into?

Consider San Jose, newest of cities—the unofficial capital of Silicon Valley. From its skyline, you can see the future building itself on beams of colored light. But the quantum theory of horror says this: You can’t escape the past. It’s always with you, just a shadow’s length away. One false step, and you might find yourself in a narrative not your own. Beneath these gray streets, older stories lurk.

My father’s tale took place, not in Silicon Valley, but in the Valley of Heart’s Delight: that body in the basement of that brand new place, the telltale pulsing that reminds those who know how to listen that there’s always another, deeper stratum. Back before Silicon Valley’s insatiable growth swallowed them up, the eastern foothills of that older place were undeveloped, free of the tract homes and pavements that encase them now. Still wild, they drew the wild at heart—the dreamers, schemers, and traders in patent nostrums and tall tales. Consider, for example, Alum Rock Park: It is not true, despite what the old timers will insist, that a giant meteor fell from the sky one night in 1821, crashing into the scrub of the park. Nor is it true that La Llorona, the Weeping Woman, haunts the trickling waters of Penitencia Creek. But once, you could almost believe it… a liminal bridge between the city and the true wilderness, the park is a place where the rules are, if not voided, at least temporarily suspended. My father would go there to wander the fields, shoot his bow, and— most often but least mentioned to me, —make time with the woman who was to be my mother. It’s apparent that his attention was usually distracted, but still not so distracted as to shake the constant feeling that someone—or something—was watching him. Later, he would find his bow tossed to the top of a tall tree, higher than any human could have thrown it. There were never footprints—never signs that other people had been stalking about. That’s what you get when you go to the lonely places, though. You can never know who’s been there before you. You can only walk among the old stories. Those old stories, always injecting themselves into the new.

It was only later that he found out about the mineral springs.

The old stones were a dead giveaway that something had left its mark upon that place. He should have known. In any ghost story, there is a line that terminates past from present, that erases the consequential details of a story: names, deeds, reasons why. In this case, that line was drawn by the floods of 1911. Although they rebuilt most of the facilities, the stones of the old buildings remained, the incongruous shapes that don’t fit into the landscape. The flood left those, but it stole meaning and purpose: To what end had those foundations been set? Only the archives knew. Most ghost stores reach only back to the turn of the century—long enough to lose meaning, but not memory. That fin-de-siecle moment was also conveniently the last gasp of fatal diseases, before the insertion of modern science and medicine into our daily lives, before vaccines and antibiotics. Back then, people died from all sorts of curable illnesses. Tuberculosis, for example.

“But that’s not all...” I let the final syllable linger as hushed anticipation filled the room. I leaned forward conspiratorially, dropping my voice to a whisper. “They say if you look up through the trees, you can still see their faces in the branches.” The room erupted in high pitched squeals, a sort of prepubescent Greek chorus from Mrs. Brooks’ fourth-grade class. I snapped the binder shut, and the kids jumped as a group, right before the teachers begin rounding them up and herding them out the door. A chilly October wind blew in from the darkness. I was just about on the way out myself when the librarian stopped me. She shuffled over slowly, hunched in a stoop as if huddling away from some pain. I hadn’t seen her before, and I wondered if she was just filling in or if she was a replacement for Janice. She reached out one dry, papery hand and covered my own, searching for something in my eyes. “Thank you for entertaining our children,” she said in a strangely formal voice. She adjusted her glasses, thin disks on a thinner wire frame. I hadn’t seen anything like them outside of a pawn shop. “I have a question, though.” She paused, weighing her words. “Do you wonder how much of it might be true?” “I’ve done some research. There was a hospital there, that’s certain.” “I know. My grandmother died from tuberculosis.” “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” “Well, it was a long time ago. Time is supposed to heal all wounds, isn’t it?” “I’m not sure how much of a panacea time truly is. That’s kind of the premise of my story—that some pain never fully goes away.” “Do you think then that by telling these stories, you might be picking at old wounds? Digging up ground that should be left intact?” I thought for a long moment. Finally, I asked: “Do you know what ‘boo’ means?” “Boo? I didn’t know it meant anything. I always thought it was just a nonsense word.” “It’s Dutch actually. It means, I am. I exist. That’s all the dead want; to hear their names again. To exist.” “But whose story is it then? By what right do you tell it?” “I live here. I guess that makes it mine.” “I’m not so certain of that,” she mumbled, turning to leave. But she paused at the door to look back in my direction. “Is it true? About the faces?” I smiled my writer smile. “That’s the thing about stories. They’re as true as you want them to be.” Her questions lingered with me as I walked to the car. All art was a form of theft, it was true, but this literary resurrection sometimes felt like a form of graverobbing. The skulls of Jericho were a form of territorial marking, a way of taking ownership of space. You paid the ground the price of your dead and made it yours. By what right did I assert my ownership of this past? I wandered around the corner of the library, out of the way of the lingering students, and shook a cigarette out of the pack. The brief flare of the lighter pushed back the darkness for a while, and I breathed in deep, trying to let the past waft away with the smoke. But that’s the other thing about stories: They have a way of catching up with you.

They came: the sick and the dying, lured by the patent medicine salesmen, to bathe in the sulfurous mineral springs of Alum Rock. The tubercular, the malarial, the polio stricken… anyone who had reached the end of what limited help science could offer. They took what rest they could, along with laudanum and cocaine, as the blights chewed away their insides—other stories eating away their own. Eventually, they built a sanatorium on the site. It was a place for those who were too ill to travel. They’d bathe in the stinking water and pray they would be healed, that they’d stop coughing up blood or that their withered limbs would move again someday.

Thernardite, which is what the “alum” actually was, has no known medicinal qualities: They had built a place for people to die. A century later, my father would wander those same fields and feel their eyes upon him. Like the skulls of Jericho, the dead lived on beneath the stony earth, and their stories crept into his. He saw ghosts everywhere. Perhaps some of us are doomed to live haunted lives like him, haunted by the choices we’ve had to make. My own life has been considerably less haunted. To make up for this, I’ve tried to serve as a kind of bridge between other people’s hauntings, curating and classifying legends. By writing scary stories, for instance.

“Finally, a day off! I haven’t seen you in forever,” Alex said as he switched off the lights and bolted the door of the craft store where he worked. He blew on his hands, rubbing them together in the midnight chill. He stopped, sniffed the air, and frowned. “You’ve been smoking,” he said. “Shhh…” I put a finger to his lips, leaned in, and kissed him. I could smell a faint hint of sweat, and I tasted salt. He brushed past me and collapsed into the driver’s side seat, leaned his wiry, runner’s body back and closed his eyes, emitting a groan of animal delight. “Sitting. Sitting is good. Even if it does smell like smoke in here.” “I’m sorry.” He continued as if he hadn’t heard. “I haven’t sat down since noon. Picking up these extra shifts is killing me.” “I know. It’s only until I can finish this book.” I found myself not meeting his eyes. He chuckled. “All in the service of art.” I squeezed his arm. “What would I do without a muse?” “Have to get a real job like me, I imagine.” He slapped the steering wheel. “What do you want to do?” “Whatever you want. Let’s make it your night.” “Anything, so long as I can sit. Maybe we could just go for a drive.” “Sounds good to me. It’s been a long day for me.” He gave me a sidelong glance, and I felt a spike of anger. There were forms of effort that didn’t involve heavy lifting, whether or not the heavy lifters chose to believe that. There were days I had to fight just to convince myself that my work had any meaning at all: When all was said and done, would any of it be remembered? Or would all of my shouting be swallowed by the silence that waited at the end of all stories? Boo, indeed, I thought. “I want to get away from people for a while,” Alex finally said. “Hey—let’s go up by Alum Rock Park.” I said, waiting for that half-horrified, half-delighted shriek of his. I’d tried and perfected all my stories through Alex before putting them out into the world. His mind was a canvas on which I painted all my darkest thoughts, and his delight in being scared was part of why I loved him. Of course, I never thought that he’d agree to go. “Okay,” he said, gesturing for the keys.

Despite the late hour, the downtown streets were crowded. There was money to be made in Silicon Valley, and the programmers, engineers, and entrepreneurs weren’t about to let darkness stop them from making it. The noise slipped behind us as we drove into the shadow of the past, out into the outskirts of town, up the slopes of the sere and summer-scorched foothills where cattle still roamed and deep creek-cut ravines isolated little pockets of derelict, purposeless buildings. These building marooned an older world among a sea of tan and stucco development. Soon we were alone on the road as it twisted its way up towards Penitencia Creek. We weren’t heading for the park proper, which was closed at night, but for the road that ran along its now suburbanized edges. Once, those roads had offered a panoramic view of the city glittering below, but gentrification had found its way there, too, and multi-million-dollar tract homes now sprouted like tumors along the hillsides. Streetlights arced over the mottled beige stone sound walls that formed a canyon down which we drove on a deserted two-lane road. Pools of light flickered past us like strobes: miles of suburban emptiness, flat and empty without the organic growth and living detritus of a real city. It was a moonscape, even with the trees that loomed over the backyard walls. “Ooh, this is so creepy!” Andrew squealed with delight, squirming in his seat. “Sure is dark,” I said, looking up at the sky which seemed a lifetime away. The road widened as it rose, snaking through the steep hills. As we reached the peak, it narrowed again, the trees to either side almost touching at some points. I frowned. I’d thought this area was newer than that. There shouldn’t have been time for the trees to grow so old; these gnarled sentinels were more like the ones that had stood here when it was still part of the park. Their shadows plunged the road into deep gloom. I turned to Alex. “We’re all alone,” I said in my sexiest voice, although parking along this barren stretch of asphalt would offer no real privacy. I wasn’t planning on making out, anyway: I just wanted his mind to swerve from sex to horror as suddenly and sharply as possible for maximum effect. “It feels like we’re in a horror movie,” he said, almost as if he was reading from my script. Then, in a stage whisper, “I wonder what it would look like if I turned off the headlights?” With the flick of a switch, we plunged ourselves into near-total darkness. He slowed down, creeping along the deserted streets. The next light seemed impossibly far away. It was now or never. I was glad he couldn’t see my evil smile. “Hey Alex?” I whispered. “Yeah?” he whispered back, excited as a kid at Christmas. “Do you remember what I told you about this place?” But he didn’t have the chance to answer. Our headlights burst on, flooding the street before us—but not the same street we’d just been on. Though there was no single change that I could name, this street was edged in menace, and disturbing shadows seemed to dance among the pools of piebald darkness. My eardrums echoed with Alex’s scream, a tocsin ring that went on and on. He slammed his foot on the gas.

In a horror movie, the smart kids always go to the library. Horror doesn’t reward a short memory. Electronics are unreliable, misleading, and full of spurious rumor, but what gets written in blood and bone and human feeling—that’s real.

The world tilted in actinic freeze-frame as he swerved hard to the right and lost control. We smashed into a protective metal bollard, halting inches before we crashed through the brickwork façade of the sound wall. I was snapped forward, the seatbelt digging hard into my shoulder as the front end crumpled in a hiss of steam, and the awful, crushed tin can sound of dying aluminum. The airbag burst, and I was blinded. I sat dazed for a moment, trying to get my bearings. “Alex?” I called. I could barely make out the figure to my left. He groaned feebly. “You scared me,” he said simply. Flatly. I saw a trickle of red from his scalp and shoved the airbag out of the way to wrench door open. I stumbled into the road, nearly falling. “Help!” I shouted down the empty streets. There was no life to be seen. The houses were distant, hidden behind the moats of their walls. Their windows—glowing a homely yellow—might have been stars. I fumbled for my cell phone, knowing even before I checked that there would be no signal. Service was spotty at best in the foothills—too many narrow arroyos and signal-blocking hills looming overhead. Alex’s door was wedged shut by the bent front end of the frame. I braced myself and tugged at the handle until it creaked open. “Come on. We need to get help,” I said, reaching out to him. “Yeah,” he said, unmoving. I knelt down, unbuckled his seatbelt, and positioned his dead weight beneath my shoulder. My knees creaked alarmingly as I wrestled him out. I released my support, ready to catch him if he fell. He wobbled as he stood but kept his footing. Despite the noise, no one came out to investigate. I peered into the darkness, but I couldn’t see a cross street ahead, only the glow of a distant streetlight. These new developments were built for a world filled with cars, and they stretched on seemingly forever, rivers of cold, sodium light in the chilly darkness: No one in their right mind would walk one. My best—only— hope was that pool of light. I thought of walls, but what I knew of them brought no comfort.

Suppose Jericho had stood. The invaders were repelled, driven off into the wasteland. The walls had held. Then the night of fire that had drawn a bloody line between then and now would have been postponed, perhaps indefinitely. One story wouldn’t have ended so another could begin. We’d know, then, who was buried in those houses, as we know the names of the Pharaohs—there are no ghost stories from Egypt. But we don’t. That’s not what happened. And so, to cross that threshold is to trespass—to agree, unknowingly, to abide by the rules of a different sort of logic. But each trespass is also an invitation: We offer ourselves to whatever might be waiting. The clock strikes twelve. The Ouija board is taken out, someone chants "Bloody Mary" into a bathroom mirror. Or someone turns off the headlights. Whatever we do, whatever invitation we give to the nameless things that live in the dark, it draws a line. It allows now to become then once more.

Alex stumbled next to me, gripping my arm for support, his breathing coming in ragged gasps. “Hey, baby, you hanging in there?” “Yeah,” he panted. “Just thinking.” “About what? Talk to me.” I hunched before him, urging him on, gesturing with my hands as if he’d forgotten how to walk. “We should get married.” I stopped, laughed too loud. “Oh, no. You can’t do that.” “What?” he said after a moment. His gaze was still focused on the distance. We’d been walking for several minutes, but that pool of light seemed no closer. The walls trapped the sound of our footsteps along with my cries for help. “You can’t talk about the future when we’re in a crisis. That’s like, rule one of survival. Trust me, I’m a professional.” “Are we in a story then?” he asked. “Is it true? What you said?” “About the park? No, of course not. I made it all up.” “Oh.” He stood silent for another moment. “You scared me.” “Help!” I shouted. I looked up at the dark branches that loomed overhead, but there was no way to reach even the lower ones. I shouted again, jumped as if it would extend the reach of my voice, stumbled and fell. I lay on the ground, catching my breath. “Do you see them?” Alex asked. He was staring upwards at some vague point on the horizon. I followed his gaze, though my vision was blocked by the trees. “They’re looking at us. They want us to see them.” “Come on,” I said, struggling to my feet. “We need to get going. Can you walk?” I pressed my fingertips to his forehead. He didn’t resist. He wasn’t too warm or too cold, but as we continued down the street that now gently sloped downward, he wobbled, remaining upright only with my help. I put my arm around him, and he leaned his weight into me. We needed to find help and soon, but there were no cross streets, openings, or endings on the block, although the downward slope was becoming more pronounced. The streetlight… …had we passed it? I didn’t think so. Ahead was a patch of deeper darkness, formed by a cluster of trees that overhung the road. None of this seemed at all familiar, and I was tempted to turn around just to check our progress, but some more primitive emotion warned against it.

In a haunting, the environment becomes subject to sudden, unexpected changes, enlargements and rearrangements of ordinary geometry. We enter an ancient space, more a memory than a place: the history of all the spaces enclosed by that larger space, as if time were another axis along which we could travel in any given direction. We enter what we might, in the theory of horror, call the ghost space.

The road narrowed further as we approached the trees, and faint cracks appeared in the asphalt, became jagged openings. These filled with bits of green and brown—weeds, then shrubs, until the road petered out in a dirt path thickly lined with trees. I blinked, wondering if I’d also hit my head, but despite a low throbbing at my temples, I felt normal. Alex fell from my grasp onto his knees. He coughed, drew in another ragged breath, paused, and coughed more violently. Something splattered faintly on the ground, and I knew, even in the darkness, that it was red. I grabbed his elbow and urged him up, half-lifting him. “We have to keep going.” His breath was a desperate bellows, and he coughed again and again. I held him there, draped across my back, as I dragged him to the trees that seemed to loom above now, inviting us into their embrace. Despite the lack of streetlights, I could still see well enough to maneuver. I began to hear a faint whispering, and I shook my head to clear it. Alex fell once more, a back-hacking spasm wracking his body. Exhausted from carrying him, I collapsed too, falling against the ground as I tried to catch my breath. I lay on my back panting, my hand reaching out for his. “We took a wrong turn, that’s all,” I muttered to him. “You know I can’t tell directions. We must have gone farther than I thought.” Each sentence was a breath, air chasing panic as I tried to counter spell the darkness with my words. “We’ll be out soon if we keep going. There’s got to be a house. We can call for help. It’s just a story...” Then I saw the faces. They leered through the branches, pieces of sky given shape by the trees: gaunt and skeletal with yawning mouths, eyes open wide in shock or screwed shut tight in agony. There were no stars above them, and I realized I was seeing by the will of the forest alone.

Like physics, horror has its own ways with light. “Thought you...” Alex wheezed. “What?” I turned to him. He lay on his side, cheek pressed to the ground, a stream of bloody drool coupling him to the dirt. I tugged my sweater over my hand and wiped it away. “Oh, baby,” I said, moving closer to comfort him, but he withdrew from me, pushing himself against a tree. “...beyond stories...” “Born and raised,” I said loudly, feeling guilt about raising my voice to him, but knowing I wasn’t arguing with him, not really. “Born and raised. If there are ghosts here, they’re mine.” “Not yet,” he said. He coughed. “Soon.” “Enough. We’re leaving even if I have to burn the forest down.” I produced the illicit lighter from my pocket and flicked it on. A sulfurous flare cast the woods into a sinister darkness, and the shadows seemed to draw back, clinging tighter to the trees. I had power here, then. I wasn’t just a victim of their stories: I could burn my own across this haunted land. “Let us go,” I demanded. Alex chuckled, ending in a wheezing rasp. “The Ranger wouldn’t like that, Yogi,” he said in his normal voice. He reached out toward me, but neither of us had the strength to move. “It wouldn’t work anyway.” He lowered his hand and closed his eyes. “You’d lose all these stories.” I paused, the flame guttering in my grip. I could hear the hiss of propane burning away. I could bring catastrophe here, but there would be a price. It takes tragedy to turn a place into a legend, but a second one destroys it. At the end of the story, the house falls into ruins as the survivors escape, the sunlight working its quantum will upon narrative. What flood preserved, fire would destroy. But I would be burning more than the trees—my father’s story was here. My stories were here. They buried their dead beneath the floors of Jericho and made it their own. A familiar pair of ocher-rimmed eyes looking back at you from the darkness. A promise to stay here, always. I let the lighter flicker out. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. Whether to Alex or the forest, I wasn’t sure. I closed my eyes just for a moment, rubbing my hands over my face and trying by mental effort to restore sanity to the night. When I opened them, Alex was gone.

A breeze began to blow, shaking the branches and rustling the few dead leaves that clung to the memory of spring. On the susurrus, I almost thought I could make out names, pushed through ghostly, clenched teeth, shut tight against the pain. “Alex!” I shouted as the whispering grew louder. So many names, gone. Now, demanding I say them. I, thief. I braced myself against a trunk, pulled myself to my feet, and ran, hands held protectively in front of me. “Alex!” I shouted, but the night air swallowed my words. I couldn’t hear anything above the voices, rustling like dead and dying leaves. I ran until I fell, and then I crawled. I shoved dirt into my ears to drown out the torrent of names, but to no avail: They were the dirt now, and the dirt was in me, and I was in the land, a piece of me. A heart of my heart. I fell further and further, down into the blackness that divides then from now. Then a clear, sharp whisper in my ear: Boo.

The sound of traffic woke me, and I came to in the pearly light, lying on the sidewalk a few hundred yards from the wreckage of our car. I stumbled to my feet. The road stretched level and gray as far as I could see. Alex didn’t come down from the hill. He never will. Like the others before him, Alex went there not knowing that the passage was only one way. He’d never looked back, not understanding why he’d needed to until it was too late. Many nights since, I have driven that road, riding above the lights that still shimmer somewhere below me—travelling on the border between the town and the city, the past and the future—thinking about the liminal places we pass through, transgress upon, inhabit briefly, and then abandon. A number of us, leaving behind some token of our presence, however brief it might prove to be. Even though this story is true, it still can’t be True. What’s True is this: There are many forms of trespass—some of space, some of time—but all involve an intrusion into a hallowed place. A place not hallowed by us.

Originally from Silicon Valley, DON RAYMOND now lives in the tiny hamlet of Alturas, CA, where he works as an accountant for the county in addition to writing poetry and horror. His work has appeared in Cthulhusattva, Ghastly Gastronomy, and Bourbon Penn. He once didn’t make a left turn at Albuquerque.

*A note on "The Theory of Haunting": Alum Rock Park still spreads across the forgotten eastern foothills of San Jose, a breaker against time’s inevitable tide. There was a sanatorium there where the terminally ill went to die, although no one else has reported any ghosts. Visiting hours are 8 am - 8 pm in the summer.

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