Allendale: A Shunned House Part 7

We never—not even in our wildest Halloween moods—visited the basement at night. But sometimes, during the day, we were brave enough. And during those times, we sometimes thought we saw a cloudy white pattern on the dirt floor, a vague, shifting deposit of mold spreading like ringworm across the ground near the huge brick fireplace that had been added in the 1815 renovation. Once in a while we thought that the patch resembled a doubled-up human figure, like a grown person curled in the fetal position. Generally it looked nothing like that and often there was no whitish deposit at all. I do remember once, though, on a rainy afternoon when this illusion seemed exceptionally strong, I thought I saw a kind of thing, yellowish, shimmeringness in air, rising from the moldy area, perhaps either making its way or being pulled by air currents toward the fireplace.

I told my uncle Elias about it and he smiled, not as if my childish imagination had gotten away from me, but as if he were remembering something himself. Later, I learned that a similar notion was shared by the hunters and fishermen who were the only regular passersby of the house. They swore they sometimes saw smoke coming from the chimney in the oldest part of the house and that this smoke often took on a strange, almost wolfish shape as it slowly rose in the air. The great tree at the front of the house, too, they disliked, saying that the roots were shaped to suggest bad omens.

Allendale: A Shunned House Part 6

An air of desolation hanged over the place. The wainscoting was only precariously held to the walls, the wallpaper was peeling off and an aura of plaster dust seemed to hover over everything. The staircase, though it held our weight, creaked and moaned under our feet. Cobwebs draped most surfaces.

Only the bravest among us–almost never me–would voluntarily ascend the ladder to the attic, a vast dark hollow filled with a wreckage of chests, chairs and spinning-wheels which, in the shaky light from our flashlights, appeared in monstrous and hellish clumps emerging from the dark in quick flashes.

But the attic was not the worst part of the house. More than that, we hated the dank, humid basement, even though it was wholly above-ground facing the river, with patio doors and a line of windows separating it from the lane that ran down to the waterfront. We argued constantly about whether we were obliged to go into the basement in order to fulfill our unspoken familial duty to patrol our ancestral home or whether we owed it to our parents and our sanity to stay out of it.

For one thing, the bad odor of the house was strongest there. For another, the basement wasn’t finished. The newest part had concrete walls and a concrete floor, but then, the middle part had an uneven brick floor with brick walls. The oldest part, which you were obliged to walk through, as that’s where the basement stairs led you had rock walls filled with rickety shelves of ancient pickles and preserves no one dared eat, and a bare, dirt floor. Here is where, in the spring and late fall, strange white fungi sprang up from the earthen floor and sprouted from the walls. They rotted quickly, though not so quickly that we failed to notice that they became slightly phosphorescent. Hunters and fisherman who passed the house in the early morning dark sometimes claimed they saw witch-fires glowing in the house.

Allendale: A Shunned House Part 5

It seems obvious to me now that, considering the times and the relatively remote location—it took us almost forty-five minutes to get out to the house on our bikes—that we should have seen evidence of others in the house. But there were no beer bottles , no graffiti, no empty Dairy Queen bags, no cigarette butts. No evidence that anyone was using the house for parties, let alone squatting there.

The small-paned windows were largely broken, so clearly people were getting close enough to the house to do some vandalizing, but now that I think back on it, they were not coming into the house. Only we boys dared do that.

Allendale: A Shunned House Part 4

When I was a child, the house was vacant, accompanied only by one gnarled old enormous catalpa tree which stood about halfway down the hill, though its roots crept along the ground almost to the foundation. The daffodils which grew near the house were scraggly and their blooms sparse and pale, and though my mother said, repeatedly, that she intended to go dig up some of the bulbs and plant them at our house to see if they would do better in better soil, she never could bring herself to go up close enough to the house to actually complete this gardening quest. We boys felt some proprietary terror when we thought of the house and so, even though we didn’t want to go to the house, we felt as if it were our obligation as Allens to explore it.

I can still remember the long, slow walks to the front door, which we often entered on some quest fated to end in shudders. The door was never locked. We had often talked locking the front door and exiting out of the house through the walk-out basement, but we couldn’t bear the what we felt was the certainty of coming back days later to discover that the house was open again.

Allendale: A Shunned House Part 3

Peach Valley Road used to curve closer to the bottom of those slick stone steps and a small pioneer cemetery sat on the other side of the road. When the county decided to widen the country lane and take out the sharp curve, the old families were moved to the Gallatin city cemetery.

What I heard about the house when I was a young man was merely that people died there. A lot of people. That was, I was told, why our family didn’t live there still. It was plainly unhealthy, though whether this was from tainted well-water, the dampness in the cellar, the strange molds that grew up the walls, the general unpleasant smell that permeated the house even when the windows were open, or the draft that seemed to follow visitors throughout the house, or something else who can say? These were each bad enough, and among my family, people had different pet theories for the house’s “true” problems, all of which were quite ordinary.

The files of my antiquarian uncle, Dr. Elias Allen, were the only source for the darker, vaguer rumors which spread among the old-time servants and country folks; stories which never travelled far, and which were largely forgotten by the time Gallatin grew out to the river. If our family knew of them, they never spoke of it.

The truth is that the house was never regarded as haunted by my family or by the good people of Gallatin. There were no widespread tales of rattling chains, extinguished lights, or faces at the window. Some might have been willing to concede that the house used to be unlucky. But what, really, had happened? The people who died weren’t struck down by some common cause. They seemed to die sooner from whatever they had already been sick with than they would otherwise. Among those who did not die, they did seem somewhat weak and confused, which seemed to indicate a mold problem. Even that’s not so unusual in this climate.

That is as much as I knew before I finally compelled my uncle to show me his notes on the place.

Allendale: A Shunned House Part 2

The house was—and for that matter still is—noticeably different than its neighbors. Older by almost sixty years than what we think of as the grand, old antebellum mansions, Allendale was, in its day, a grand home for a man who has succeeded in taming the frontier. It started out, as so many houses back then did, as a one room cabin built by men for men to stay in. Once the women and children were sent for, a cellar was dug, a second room across an open breezeway was added, and the home took a familiar dog-trot shape. Later, though no later than 1815, a second story and a grand staircase were added and the whole thing was enclosed in white siding. The logs of the original cabin were, it’s said, left in place under the lathing and the plaster, so that traveling through the house is a bit like traveling back through time—one can travel from 1815 to 1790 just by going downstairs and entering the front room on the right, though it should be noted that the slight difference in sizes of the two front rooms, which otherwise appear to be mirror images of each other, might account for some of the sense of unease the house causes. Your mind is aware that something is wrong with the proportions, if not what.

An addition was put on in the 1960s, which juts out from the back of the house like the back of an uppercase L. This was when they dug the walk-out basement, from which you can see views of the river only slightly less spectacular than those viewed from the front of the house. This was supposed to update the house and make it more fitting for the modern families who might want to rent it, though no family lived in it again after the people for whom the addition was put on broke their lease. The new addition sits against the older part of the house like two drunks on a park bench, though perhaps the fact that the house is not square was only noticeable from the driveway.

The yard had a peculiar quality in that all the rocky surfaces seemed always to have some condensation on them. In the middle of a hot August afternoon, when the grass was brown and crisp, the stone steps that stretch down almost Peach Valley Road were slick, as if it has just rained, the moss that grew on them deep and lush. Even the stone chimneys sparkled most of the day, as if you have just missed a passing thunderstorm.

Allendale: A Shunned House Part 1

Allendale

A Shunned House

in the way of HP Lovecraft

The ironic thing is that Stephen King must have passed by Allendale a hundred times in the late 70s. It’s a well-known, but little-repeated bit of gossip around Gallatin, Tennessee, that, in those days, he was rich enough to afford to have his own strain of marijuana grown in his precisely preferred soil and light conditions. Like later connoisseurs of high-end coffee, artisanal chocolates, or hand-crafted beers, King had definite and persnickety ideas about what circumstances occasioned the best weed.

It turned out the best pot, in King’s opinion, grew on a hill overlooking a particular bend in the Cumberland River, back behind a rotting shed on a farm closer to the old lock than you’d think a man trying to avoid the attention of authorities would be comfortable with. Perhaps there were enough stills in operation out there that there was some kind of mutually-assured-destruction agreement in place. If no on narced on the moonshine, no one was going to narc on the creepy Yankee and his wacky tobaccy.

I won’t mention the name of the farmer who supplied King, but that small plot, just ten plants, and King’s willingness to pay to have his needs met, put that farmer’s three children through college—the two of whom everyone thought would amount to something went to Vanderbilt and the one without a lick of sense went to UT. Perhaps the UT graduate had been underestimated, since he’s now a wealthy auto executive, but when the other two siblings are doctors, how can that not be slightly disappointing? It’s like the Frists, having to accept that Bill would go into politics.

Back then, there were only a few houses along Peach Valley Road and so King would often park his rental car right at the bottom of the rise Allendale—my ancestral home—sits at the top of and walk into the farmland of his “friend.” Whether he looked up into the unkempt yard or even noticed the slightly dilapidated old farmhouse with the stone chimneys at either end? He seems to have never written or spoken of it, and yet, for the three of us who know its true nature, Allendale equals or outranks in horror the wildest fantasy of the genius who so often passed it unknowingly.

A Few Things Before We Start

As is tradition, we’re going to do something spooky around here for October. This year, it’s a retelling of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shunned House.” I have never been a huge Lovecraft fan. I mean, I respected that the man managed to convince people The Necronomicon was a real thing, but tentacled horror doesn’t really do it for me. I just couldn’t slog through those stories.

But earlier this year I realized that too many writers I respect were too influenced by Lovecraft for me to continue to be like “eh, whatever” and I would have to dig in and at least get the gist of what he was up to. And so I came across “The Shunned House,” which is such an amazing haunted house story that I about couldn’t stand it. You know when you hear a new song you instantly love? How you want to learn it and sing along with it and then sing it in the shower and then sing it in an opera version and a bluegrass version and the imagine what it would sound like if Mick Jagger sang it?

That’s how I felt about “The Shunned House.” I wanted to learn it. I wanted to tell it in the shower. I wanted to tell it in a Tennessee version. I wanted to tell it to you in a way that would let you see what it is about this story that hit me right in the gut.

And so I shall. Starting tomorrow night at 6 o’clock in the evening and continuing until Halloween.

Just a few notes before we get started. First, I want to openly and clearly acknowledge that this is a retelling of Lovecraft’s story. I think what I pulled off is pretty cool, but it’s just a redecoration of Lovecraft’s house. If you like my story, please, please, go back and read the original.

Second, I postulate a pretty extensive backstory for Joseph Deraque in this story. Since I know this blog is occasionally visited by the descendants of ole Joe and the story strives for a certain amount of historical verisimilitude, let me be clear–I made up every single thing pertaining to any part of his family. I don’t know his father’s name. I don’t know where in French Canada Joseph was from. There’s not a single hint of any rumors of this specific ailment being associated with the family. I’ve not found any evidence that Deraque would have been known at Fort de Chartres. If anything, he was probably operating out of St. Louis (where his boss, Mr. Fagot was from) before he made the move permanently to Nashville. He wasn’t living up in what would be Gallatin with his father. It’s all made up. And therefore none of the rest of us should hesitate a moment to sleep with any of Joe’s descendants if they prove lovely, nor to sleep above their graves, if they prove dead.

Third, along those same lines, no one from Maine needs to come to Tennessee to find good pot. That also is obviously made up.

Okay, I think that’s everything. Let’s meet back here at six tomorrow evening to get started.