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 pate