Friday, October 10, 2008

Haunted Houses

The Songwriter has an unabashed love of classic ghost stories which has resulted in an impressive collection - more than enough of the scary tales to satisfy each and every dark October night. Sometimes on especially wicked evenings, he reads them aloud to us.
M.R. James, Ambrose Bierce, Edith Wharton, Dinesen and Poe - all masters of chilling lore and frightful fable. We often gather round the orange glow of a fire to listen, snuggling down in soft blankets, with comforting pillows at the ready in case I happen to need something to clutch tightly and still a pounding heart. I am not sure if Edward listens all that closely to the plots of each tale, but if there were an actual ghost in attendance, he would, no doubt, be the first in the room to notice him. I am certain he sees things I cannot. And after all, I do happen to believe in haunted houses.
Once, on a golden autumn afternoon I stood in the dining room at Hammersmith Farm in Newport, Rhode Island, watching as the late afternoon sun streamed in through the huge floor to ceiling window. Hammersmith Farm was the childhood home of Jacqueline Bouvier and served as a family retreat after she married John F. Kennedy. During his presidency, Kennedy’s helicopter would often land on the expansive back lawn and he would stride up the hill to enter the house through that very dining room window. Standing there, I could almost hear the helicopter blades whirring overhead and catch the whispers of happy, echoed welcomes on the air. There was hardly anyone else in the rambling seaside house the afternoon of my visit and unlike many famous houses, there were no restrictions, I was free to wander anywhere I chose. The rooms were unchanged, frozen in faded time. Jackie’s wicker-filled childhood bedroom, the large, serene room she later shared with her husband, the floral walls of the gracious staircase where, in a familiar photograph, she once lifted her arms in delight on the night of her debutante ball, the grassy sunlit hill where the famous photographs of the Kennedy wedding reception were taken - all remained just as they had been then. I felt like a most reluctant fortune teller in that place, as I knew what lay ahead for these large-spirited people who still seemed so very present in the glow of that sunlit afternoon. I could feel the muted rustlings of history in every room, down every hallway. There was an undeniable melancholy to the atmosphere, as if the grand old house itself had absorbed something essential one grey November day, a sadness that now permeated the very air inside its shingled walls.

Hammersmith Farm was sold not long after my visit there, the floral wallpaper stripped, the furniture carted away. I have always felt fortunate to have been there when I was, for I believe I visited more that just a house that afternoon. There were spirits present there, shadows from history still dancing in the setting sunbeams that shone through a tall dining room window.
A haunted house? Absolutely.

"Our revels are now ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on..."

William Shakespeare from The Tempest

Painting Above: The Haunted House by Atkinson Grimshaw