As promised. This excerpt is from my own haunted house yarn, in anticipation of the upcoming thriller, THE CONJURING. It is my belief that every haunted house story is a mashup of all the genre tropes in the book, but that the writer can and should — ahem! — conjure a result as individual as a snowflake.
Here we find a spiritual cleanser attempting to get to the bottom of what ails the recently purchased cottage of former Brooklynites Sunny and Andrew. Sunny’s friend Pat, who babysits for her toddler daughter, is on hand. Shepherd, the enigmatic caretaker at the church grounds next door, makes a brief appearance at the end. And a reality TV crew is on hand to capture the event.
Pat was in full-on little kid anticipation mode. Sunny suspected that her friend’s life had never been more exciting than when she herself had entered it, trailing her troubles behind her. (And her suspicion, in point of fact, was correct.) They’d left the littles at Pat’s place with the teenager Matt, whom the children had greeted with delight; he’d recently taken up the hobby of magic and sorcery, and immediately began to practice his tricks on this, a captive audience.
The women were sipping tea at the kitchen table when they heard car doors slamming, voices, the doorbell. Pat jumped to her feet, her eyes dancing. She grabbed the Flip camera and switched it on; they’d decided to document the meeting.
“Steady on,” Sunny told her. “Let me get it.”
There were half a dozen people milling on and around the porch. A compact woman of a youthful fifty stepped forward with an outstretched hand. “Hello,” she said brightly. “I’m Felice Champagne, The House Whisperer. Please don’t mind all of us — I’m shootin’ a reality show and your case is perfect, sounds like you got the real thing goin’ on around here.”
She was not at all what Sunny had expected (a dithering old hippie oozing an ersatz spirituality); instead, she was garbed in business casual (a fitted navy and white pantsuit with a jaunty scarf at the neck), and was in full hair and makeup, sporting a smoky eye and a crimson lip. Sunny immediately disliked her way of dropping her g’s. It seemed, well, patronizing, just us folks, except I’m the one with a reality show. A little in your face.
“Hang on,” Sunny said, trying to be polite. “I’m not sure about shooting this. Nobody ever even mentioned the possibility to me!” She glanced at Pat, who shook her head definitively. A young woman holding a clipboard stepped forward officiously.
“Felice, let me, please.” She took Sunny’s hand (although it had not been offered) in a vise-like grip, shaking it vigorously. “I’m field producing.” Without even introducing herself by name. “This show is a great concept, Mrs. Quinn, really fresh and engaging. It’s meant to assist people like you, and at the same time enlighten an audience about the paranormal without ever getting, um, cheesy.” She beamed at Sunny encouragingly. “Trust me — Felice is top of the line, the best in her field. And, Mrs. Quinn? You’re gonna love this, the network’s picking up the tab for you, our compliments!” She was frantically motioning toward the other young woman, the skinny hipster with the backpack and the sheaf of papers on her clipboard, and then she was thrusting one of said papers at Sunny. “Mrs. Quinn, this is a release form, and we’re gonna need you to just sign here at the bottom –“
“I know what a release form is,” Sunny informed her. “And it’s MS. Osborne, actually, but you can call me Suzanne.”
“Oh, TERRIFIC,” the field producer enthused. “By the way, I’m Amy.” From the corner of her eye, Sunny could see that the cameraman was already shooting, and the sound guy had put on his earphones and was dicking around with his equipment, lowering the boom mic toward the group on the porch. A kid who looked like he was still in high school, all gangly wrists and giraffe-like neck, was shooting cutaways with a lightweight DV cam. The House Whisperer herself had retreated briskly to the front walk, where she was looking over the exterior of the cottage.
Sunny put a hand up, palm out. “Quit,” she said to the crew. “I didn’t say you could shoot this.”
Pat interrupted eagerly. “But Sunny, if THEY shoot it, I won’t have to! And I can be much more involved with the process in the moment!”
Amy craned to see into the cottage. “Who all is participating?”
“Just us!” Pat said brightly.
The House Whisperer was back on the porch now. She looked disappointed, as did Amy. “Just the two of you? Where’s the husband? I mean, uh, Andrew, isn’t it? And didn’t someone say there was a baby?”
“Felice!” Amy looked aghast. “You told me–“
“No, no, we’ll make it work,” The House Whisperer said hurriedly. “It’s just that you really want EVERYONE who DWELLS here to participate. It’s all part of the ritual.”
“Well, you may as well come in,” Sunny said. “It’s too cold to stand here arguing.” She hugged herself with a shiver. Not necessarily from the cold outside, either; she felt an actual rush of freezing air from deep within the house, a sensation so essentially wrong it seemed almost mad to continue. No good can come of this.
The living room seemed suddenly miniscule as the crew members filled it, discussing staging areas, where to interview, setups. The soundo looked to Amy, who nodded at him. “Yes, Eddie, go ahead and load in the equipment. Try to find a place where it won’t be in the shot.” Looking around doubtfully. To the hipster and the highschooler she added, “Help him. But first give me the fu–the releases. Please.” She took a deep, cleansing breath and blew it delicately out through her mouth. “Now. Can we sit a moment, talk about how it’s gonna go down?”
Sunny shrugged. What the hell. At this point there seemed little to lose.
“I think,” Amy said fussily. “I think it’s best to just dispense with this bit of business.” Again, she presented the release form, along with the clipboard to rest it on, and a sharpie finepoint. “THIS gives us permission to use your image, and that of the house, but ONLY in connection with this show, of course. THE HOUSE WHISPERER, working title.” Sunny signed. “And you, too, if you will, Miss?”
“Oh, sorry,” Pat said. “I’m Pat, Sunny’s friend, and sure I’ll sign.” Sunny could see her mounting exhilaration. She was in TV land! OMG, OMG!! For the benefit of The House Whisperer she added, “Actually, when I spoke with Felice she said it was essential to bring together people who have a significant relationship with the homeowners. Well, I look after Sunny’s daughter — it doesn’t get any more significant than that, right? Plus, I can honestly say I really love this family!” In a warm, full tone.
“What a cute house, by the way,” Amy commented. “I just love the color palette.”
Sunny said, “We’ve done a bunch of work on it. Since we moved in. Thank you.”
The cameraman, Marty (for that was what he was called, though he would not be introduced by name this day) inquired, “Are we starting with interviews or the Sanctification Ritual?” He was holding a light reflector.
“Ritual,” Amy snapped, not looking at him. “Officiant? Will you brief us here, please? Crew, stand by.”
The House Whisperer seated herself on the couch, crossed her legs in a businesslike manner. “First,” she said. “First I’d like to collect a little background. A little history of the house. Is it just the HOUSE, or is it the land that’s sending you messages? Or is it both? THEN, I’d like to do a walkthrough — inside and out. Then we’ll do the ritual, which I’ll explain when we get to that part. Clear?”
Pat jumped right in (rather annoyingly, Sunny felt.) “OK, according to my research the house was built in 1850 by a miserly farmer. The miser part is MY theory,” she added proudly. “Because we know he owned a bunch of land and a much bigger house, probably built by his father or grandfather. He sold it all off parcel by parcel, including the property the church was later built on. Name was Yancy — Silas Yancy. Oh, and the town has no records prior to 1900, so this is all on the say-so of the Historical Society. Kind of pieced together from other records, events, news items, and of course the grave markers in the cemetery. The woman I spoke with said they only know this much because Yancy was at one time the neighbor of an important political family.”
“A-plus, Pat,” Sunny said. To the others, she continued, “Let’s just say from the moment we moved in things were…not as they should be. Inside and out. Why don’t I show you around and we’ll take it from there?”
“I need to warn you about one thing, dear,” The House Whisperer said to Sunny in a soft, sympathetic tone. “This may well not be a one-stop shop. You need someone who will really work with you for as long as it takes. Maybe even multiple cleansings. Think of me as a sort of an interior designer, if you will, but with the emphasis on INTERIOR. What lies beneath.”
“I surely will,” Sunny said. But The House Whisperer apparently did not pick up on irony.
“And please be aware that sometimes you CANNOT get rid of whatever is troubling you here. Sometimes you can only hold them — it — off, long enough to get the hell out. Clear? With me? Good. Let’s start at the top and work our way down.”
The party trooped then up the stairs, trailing the camera crew. Tatty, who had been sleeping on the marital bed, was shocked awake and disappeared into the closet with a plaintive cry and a hugely puffed tail. On the third floor The Whisperer stopped, holding up a hand to halt the others. She closed her eyes, opened them again to look piercingly at Sunny. “Is there a writer in the house?”
Sunny said, “No, but…I’m — that is, I WAS — an actor. So was my husband.”
“OK. Good. I do sense enormous creative energy. But I’m still feeling writer. Very powerfully, coming through clearly, WRITER WRITER WRITER. Just like that. Maybe you write on the side? A hobby? A diary? A blog?”
Sunny was already shaking her head. “I’m actually a miserable writer,” she said. “I love to read, but writing–? Forget it. My worst subject through school.”
The Whisperer had moved into the sitting room, her nostrils twitching a bit. It was beginning to feel hot and crowded here under the roofline, despite the approach of winter. The crew was very quiet, their breathing audible.
“Wow.” The Whisperer stopped. “I’m picking something up here. Picking something up.” Her arms outstretched, at the ready to catch every last vibration. Lowered her voice to a near whisper, which struck Sunny suddenly as hilarious — not for nothing do they call her ‘Whisperer.’ “I’m smelling smoke, fire. Sewage. I’m sensing seepage. If a house is a container, there is seepage down the years, negative, even dangerous energy left behind from troubled souls; it’s chaos theory, random, entropic. Forces can remain embedded in the vessel of a house, and become unleashed for various reasons, affecting every future tenant of the space.” Her eyes were tightly closed in concentration. Marty the Cameraman eased gracefully around her in the tiny room to go close on her face, as the second camera held steady on Sunny’s. Amy nodding, unable to hold back a broad smile. Good TV!
In the nursery The Whisperer reacted again. “Where’s the baby? A one-year old, is she?”
“Thirteen months,” Sunny began.
“They’re at my house!” Pat interrupted. Reality television did peculiar things to the personality, this was abundantly clear. “We have the sweetest kid from the high school watching Bunny along with my two.”
The Whisperer nodded tersely, not looking at Pat. “Ms. Osborne,” she said. “Suzanne. You need to watch out for your baby. I don’t mean to frighten you, but I’m deadly serious. I’m strongly sensing some kind of threat to your child.”
Sunny’s arms all a-tingle now. “You are scaring me,” she said.
“Let’s continue,” said The Whisperer. She made no comment about the first floor, but when Sunny threw open the basement door she stopped. “Down there,” she said. “Down there is the worst part of the house. There’s disease there. There’s malignancy.”
They went on down, the many footfalls thudding on the wooden stairs. The Whisperer said sharply, “Prisoners. Imprisonment.” Gestured toward the makeshift barricade Shepherd had installed to block the crawl space. “What’s back there? What’s in there?” The bare bulb in the ceiling flickered and went out, went on again immediately, once more shedding a murky light.
“It’s a crawl space,” Sunny told her. “I’ve never gone in there.” I can’t go in there. It’s all I can do to come down and do the laundry, but there–? This she did not share.
Detective Pat was back. “The gal at the Historical Society said this MIGHT have been a stop on the Underground Railroad. Certainly the political family I mentioned were active abolitionists, famous for it. Maybe that’s what you’re picking up on?”
“More than that,” The Whisperer muttered. “Worse than that. Something else. No way to get in there?”
I’d prefer not to remove the barricade. The wall containing IT. “I’d just as soon leave things as they are,” Sunny said. “Can we just sort of work around it?”
“Absolutely. Of course.”
“But — ” Amy began, and The Whisperer put up her hand. STOP.
Marty interrupted. “The light down here sucks,” he said. “Can we just throw one or two lights up? I’m really only getting shadows and silhouettes.”
“Do it!” From Amy.
“Maybe for the actual ritual,” The Whisperer said. She shuddered visibly. “For now, let’s just check the grounds outside, and then we’ll begin.” Let’s get the HELL out of this place, Sunny clearly heard her think.
Outside, the group strolled the periphery of the property. Sunny was silent about the convent; she wanted to see if The Whisperer picked up anything without input. She did not. Nor did she comment on the graveyard, though Amy insisted that Marty climb over the stone wall to shoot within. Amy LOVED the graveyard. She had him pay special attention to the children’s little stones.
“So, are you getting anything from the grounds?” Amy asked of The Whisperer. “I mean, this is seriously spooky!”
“Nothing. I sense nothing at all. In my professional opinion, Ms. Osborne, the situation is as I said — the issues are a seepage matter concerning the negative energy trapped in the house. Now, let’s get to work.”
“What about next door?” Sunny asked at last. Her voice sounding very small in her own ears. “The old convent? The nuns are gone now, but we have some interesting new tenants. Eccentric, you might call them.”
“Nothing,” The Whisperer repeated firmly. “In fact, one can usually pick up some sort of vibe from any building, but this is almost an oddity for me. It’s like a blank. Like some sort of force field preventing me from picking up any signals. Why? You have any trouble with the convent?”
“Oh, NO,” Sunny said. “Just curious.”
Back inside, The Whisperer assembled the things she would need for the cleansing. “I use components of nature’s elements,” she explained. “A sage smudge to represent fire and air; from ancient times smoke was used as sympathetic magick, in order to affect the unseen, the untouchable. I use sea salt and seawater too. Candles. Fruit for earth’s abundance. If the energy feels compacted, I’ll use a drum and rattles. We’ll seal the doors and windows — figuratively of course — with the salt, and we’ll use our imaginations to visualize any negativity washing down the drain. We’ll take it room by room. You’ll pick up the cues from the sacred words I shall speak. We’ll repeat the ritual three times, all around the house.” She paused, looking at Sunny. “You OK with this so far? Pat? You too?”
“Sometimes,” The Whisperer added. “SOMETIMES I’ll use a deer head or a snakeskin to represent the allowing to die. But we’ll just see how it goes.” She was busy unpacking her talismans. “I do wish your husband or some other family member could be here,” she said regretfully, as an afterthought.
And three times through the house did the cleansing party go, with special attention paid to the spaces The Whisperer had reacted to. Intoning the sacred words, almost chanting, with Sunny and Pat repeating after her. Like an incantation. Or a conjuring, a summoning, even. Sunny felt her skin crawl again. She really wanted this to be over soon.
At length, the final trip to the basement was made. (Well-lit now, as Eddie had set up a couple of additional lights; Marty had recommended it, but Amy had simply insisted.) An unpleasant electricity in the air. Even the crew felt it — the production assistant, pale as a corpse, had asked to wait outside, claiming nausea, and was permitted to.
“IN THE NAME OF THE GOD AND GODDESS,” The Whisperer sang out, deep and throaty. “IN THE NAME OF THE GOD AND GODDESS, MAY ONLY LOVE, PEACE, AND ABUNDANCE ABIDE IN THIS HOME. ALL ELSE IS BANISHED.”
And with that her eyes went blank and dark and a conversational male voice issued from her mouth, “When I was just a lad and my Father instructed me to drown a litter of pups I was an obedient boy and though my Father surely burns now in hell I thank him still, for it was at his bidding that I had found my calling and vocation.”
The basement grew very, very still. Amy said, “Who is speaking? Who ARE you?”
“Go fuck yourself,” the voice invited formally. The Whisperer’s eyes rolled up in her head, showing only the whites, and a bit of foam fizzed about her lips.
“Don’t you DARE stop shooting,” Amy shouted. “I know CPR! She’s fine, she’s fine, keep rolling!”
But it was over. The Whisperer’s eyes dropped back down into their orbits and she looked around wonderingly. A damp spot was widening about the crotch of her pantsuit, and there was a sudden rancid smell of fresh shit, mingling with the foul stink that the crawl space emitted from behind its flimsy wall of boxes, so silly, so absurd in retrospect. She didn’t even ask what happened; she had to know. At least on a certain level.
“I’m thinking we’ll have to repeat the ritual,” she told Sunny, her voice shaky. “I think we’re gonna need the drums and rattles.”
Shepherd loomed suddenly on the staircase. “The bells and whistles,” he said. “By the way, have you ever considered the possibility that you might be full of shit?” This cracked him up, for obvious reasons. “I’m here to fix the flatscreen, Chica,” he told Sunny, still smiling broadly.
DISCLAIMER: Stephanie Silber owns the copyright to the foregoing and gives permission only for the writing sample herein to be distributed free of charge, and without alteration.