He' sure got a lot of gall / to be so useless and all / muttering small talk at the wall . . . [Dylan]
Some Autobiographical Notes: A List of Six
I spent the formative years of my childhood about halfway between the Mystery Spot (Santa Cruz) & the Winchester Mystery Houseâ„¢ (San Jose), so it is no wonder that I developed--& have held onto over decades--a feel for the occult. Add to these theÂ RosicrucianEgyptian MuseumÂ Â & you have a recipe for addle-headed New Age bunkum I feel lucky to have escaped.
2. Looking back, I can't imagine why my step-father, a fundamentalist Christian of the restricted type, took me to such places. His brand of Christianity has a terrorÂ of the occult that goes back to the burning of "witches" & continues into the present with Jack Chick'sÂ manichÃ¦an vision of the supernatural battle between God & Satan as it plays out among human beings: they were--& still are, I guess--very big on the doctrine of original sin, especially as it applies to children. Chick's tracts were all over the church we attended, but they failed to take hold of my spiritual imagination. Even aged 10, something told me not to be taken in.
3. But that makes my resistance to my parents' fundamentalism appear more heroic & far more coherent than it was. As a child, I was often filled with fear.[1. In retrospect, I think that composing &/or distributing those tracts to children should count as a form of child abuse.] It didn't help that we lived in a large Victorian house--not the Mystery House by any stretch of the imagination, but big & old enough to contain spooks. The place had been converted to a "rest home" for the ambulatory elderly & my mother had been hired by some Christian organization to run the place. We lived upstairs, though I spent a lot of time in the kitchen, the only place my mother ever seemed happy.
4. There was a stained glass window on the landing of the main stairs thatÂ depicted an abstract floral design & beneath the flowers, a scroll with the name Elsie. The local lore--passed along by a neighbor when we first moved in--was the man who built the house had given the window to his young bride on the occasion of their wedding. The story grows dark, though, as the owner is increasingly jealous. First, he locks Elsie upstairs & tells the neighbors she is ill. Eventually, he grows so possessive that he restricts her to the master bedroom. She refuses to eat & dies--she dies in the room where I sleep from age 6 to 12. There is reason the believe, then, that the house was haunted--at least in the imagination of an anxious child.
5. I had a precocious vocabulary & saying my prayers at night, I would run through the standard list of praying for my mother & father, but would always end by praying that "no catastrophes befall us in the night." I was afraid of Elsie's ghost, afraid the place might burn down, afraid of burglars, & just blankly afraid, especially at night.
6. They say that the Winchester Mystery House is haunted--& well it may be. It was built by the widow of William Wirt Winchester, the treasurer of the eponymous manufacturer of firearms. William was the second generation of the family to work for the company founded by his father. After William's death, his wife Sarah built the Mystery House, which, some say, is haunted by the ghosts of all the people killed by Winchester firearms. That would be a lot of ghosts, but being incorporeal beings, perhaps a million of them could walk up & down the staircase that led only to a blank wall.
Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.
View all posts by jd