Monday, February 6, 2012

an old adventure

In 2008, not many months after I'd begun blogging and was already running out of things to talk about, it occurred to me it might be fun to try writing down a few remembered stories. To make it extra appealing as a project I decided that drawing some quick illustrative pictures would be a good thing. Months later when there were half a dozen of them I opened the 'Adventure's Ink' blog where the stories continued regularly for a while. That blog has been pretty quiet for the last year or so mostly because I ran into some stories not easily told or honestly left out. None of us are always the heroes of our lives and I've been the goat of mine often enough.

I still think about writing and drawing more of them but while I do I thought some of you might be interested in reading the one that began it all. My pen and ink illustrations did improve over time but this is still one of my favorite Adventures and nobody has seen it for a while - out of the five people who read and commented the first time only two are still blogging. It's called:

True Housekeeping

When you work as a housekeeper the second worst thing you can find when you open the door for the first time is a clean house; the worst thing is to find a clean house that's also creepy. I ran into one of those unsettling homes many years ago in Providence, RI, one of the oldest cities in the US. The agency had called me that morning to say they had a new client who wanted a regular housekeeper for their place on the city's east side. When I stopped by to pick up the key it was noticeably different from the usual ones most of us carry - this was a heavy and very old fashioned skeleton key.

I had a map, since I wasn't all that familiar with the city yet, and found the place where the streets are mostly steep, narrow, and cobblestoned. The houses left there are big but often built deep into the properties with narrow fronts facing the street. Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design are both in the neighbourhood as is the amazingly enormous Swan Point Cemetary. Providence had also long been famous as the junk jewelry capital of the country but many of the little factories that specialized in associated metal work were closing back then as even cheaper stuff came in from other countries. The house I'd been hired to clean was in a wasteland of boarded up buildings.

After climbing the outside stairs and opening the creaky front door I found myself in a dim foyer just able to make out the living room further along a narrow hall. Inside, everything appeared to be clean but the atmosphere was musty and dark since the inside doors were all closed and what few windows there were faced the buildings on either side. The floors were dark oak, the lower walls covered in over varnished wainscot above which was faded wallpaper of disturbing design. The furniture was old and heavy and a black marble fireplace under a distorted glass mirror dominated the room. If you get the feeling I was already uncomfortable you'd be right.

The main floor also had a long, narrow dining room filled with cumbersome Victorian stuff - table, sideboard, curio cabinets and chairs. It was hard to imagine more than one person fitting the space. Further along the hall was a library that looked similar to the rest. It was a big house.

There was a stairway to the upper floors off the foyer so up I went only to find another dark corridor with closed doors on either side. One door was locked so I passed on that but found four bedrooms and two old fashioned bathrooms - clawfoot tubs and ten gallon toilets. I'd been turning lights on where I could find them but the place wasn't bright and neither did it look inhabited. There was no dust, the fireplace was clean, the bathrooms were unsoaped, unstained, and unsullied. The beds appeared to be made up but there were no sheets or blankets under the spreads. The next flight up led to what had been servants quarters - tiny rooms and almost no light at all. As my habit was to clean from top to bottom I decided to go back down and look for supplies so I could begin.

Back on the main floor I found another set of narrow and enclosed stairs  leading down from the dining room to where it seemed logical I'd find a kitchen. That was clean too but while I looked for the vacuum cleaner and other stuff I also found a wine cellar, another fireplace with a couch and a couple of chairs, a completely walled-in courtyard beyond some new glass doors, and best of all, a radio which I turned on.

Have I mentioned I'd been reading H.P. Lovecraft? He lived on the East Side of Providence all his life and is buried at Swan Point. Every year on Hallowe'en an unknown group has celebrated a black mass at his sepulchre.. or at least signs of that have been found the next day. Lovecraft is easily laughed off if you read one or two of his books at the beach but my experience was reading him while living in Providence and he was very knowledgeable about the old city and its foundations and architectural history. So when he wrote about tunnels and underground chambers inhabited by pale, slimey, slithery, sucking beasts it started to gain a subconscious hold.

So there I was in the kitchen with the lamps lit and the radio playing. The house felt heavy and portentous above me but there was a job to be done so, ready or not, I picked up the vacuum cleaner and carried it up the stairs. The lights had gone out so I turned them back on as I went all the way to the top.

I worked up there doing the usual things even though nothing looked cleaner as I worked but I needed glass cleaner so went back down to the kitchen to find some. All the lights were out on the main floor again and once again I turned the switches back on. As I went down the back stairs to the kitchen the lights went out behind me. When I got to the foot of the staircase the lights down there went dark and the radio clicked off. I stood stock still and looked all around but could see nothing different and nobody was there. I would almost have been happier if someone was there but there wasn't. I'd had enough.

One minute later I was up the stairs, down the hall and out the front door. I decided to cut through the river park on my way back to the agency to return the key. It was only later I realized a duster was still hanging out of my back pocket. I've often wondered whose house that was..

ps: The original story has been edited a little for clarity. (I'm a better writer now too)


Life As I Know It Now said...

Maybe it was Lovecraft's old haunt?!?!

I don't think I would have lasted as long as you did :)

jams o donnell said...

And the moral of the tale is NEVER take a job in Innsmouth! Good to see a great story again Susan

marja-leena said...

I remember this story, wonderful! When I first found you, I read each one in your archives. So nice to revisit it and your delightful drawings, Susan. I hope you find inspirations for more.

susan said...

lib - I started getting afraid something nastier that HP's skeleton was lurking somewhere.

jams - That was the lesson I learned. Happy you liked it both times.

marja-leena - I never guessed you'd read it but I should have done. You're most kind.

susan said...

lib - I started getting afraid something nastier that HP's skeleton was lurking somewhere.

jams - That was the lesson I learned. Happy you liked it both times.

marja-leena - I never guessed you'd read it but I should have done. You're most kind.

Randal Graves said...

I'd wager everything's silly at the beach except maybe Jaws or watching the Harryhausen Clash of the Titans (and the Call of Cthulhu, you just made Zombie HPL cry).

I wonder if this house is still there.

Spadoman said...

susan.. what a fabulous recount of an experience. Sometimes there just isn't an explanation or "ending". We call that life I guess. Everyday life, many things may happen and not explained.
You're so funny. This well written. I look back at my earlier attempts at telling of life's experiences and think I'm a better writer too now that I've had a little more practice. You do fine. And I will like your pencil sketches always. I like these. You cut a fine figure back in those days, and you set the scene extraordinarily well with the drawings.
So, this had to be a special place to someone. I feel they were holding on to the past, waiting for the spirit, (or ghost), of whoever. As for the lights? Weird, unless it's fiction.

Much Peace

Francis Hunt said...

Did you say Providence? I think you may have been transported temporarily to Arkham, or maybe Stephen King's Castle Rock :-)

Oh well, it's all New England anyway!

Gina said...

Thanks for reposting this, Susan. I missed it the first time.

A very long time ago, I had an evening job vacuuming the third floor of an old, three-story department store. I was only slightly spooked up on the third floor with the mattresses and lamps, until one day I accidentally walked into the closet where the mannequin parts were kept! Eeeeeek!

Between the monotony of the job and the mannequin parts, I only lasted two weeks!

susan said...

randal - Seeing the Harryhausen skeleton army show up would be fun too. That was one of the best b-movie scenes ever.

I never went back to check.

spadoman - Im glad you got to see it this time around. Most stories probably have straightforward explanations but not all. Whoever it was who lived there I didn't want to meet them.

francis - There are parts of Providence that are very strange indeed. For a while we lived just a few doors away from HP's old house on Angell St. and the Swan Point cemetary is creepy even in bright sunshine on a summer's day.

gina - I'm very glad you got to see it this time. I'd never done this kind of drawing before so it was good to look at it again to see how much improvement came with practice.

Being alone in old buildings can be very disturbing and when one has an active imagination things can feel very weird. The mannequin parts would have given me a turn as well.

Rob-bear said...

I would call that an interesting misadventure. And, no, I wouldn't have go back there, either.

gfid said...

the hair on the back of my neck stands up as I read this. You were heroic. I'd have made a fast exit through the nearest wall or window the first time a light went out. A friend of mine cleaned at the Dunvegan Historic site on the banks of the Peace River. She quit because strange things were happening. It was an isolated location where a horrible massacre had happened long ago. ....and she was working late at night, after the tourists went home.

Lydia said...

Weeeuuuuuw! I have the creepy-crawlies after reading this story. I couldn't have taken it if you had stayed one paragraph longer!!!

I love the drawings. Your drawing was wonderful then, too. And I'll take your word for it about your writing having improved....but I sure do love the way you write, Susan.

susan said...

rob bear - I needed the money but not enough to go back.

gfid - Oh I wasn't heroic so much as I needed the work and it was taking some time to build up my own clientele. At another place I did clean for a while I found a note one morning telling me they were very impressed with my work but had noticed I hadn't dusted the cup hooks in the kitchen cupboards. That was my last time at that place too.

I just read a little about the Dunvegan massacre. It sounds like a pretty remote place and that alone would put me off working alone after hours.

lydia - I'm glad I was able to translate the experience that well. Since Providence is so old there were a number of strange old houses and buildings but probably the scariest in a real sense was that it had been the long time home for the families of some big time mafia types. There are several good stories about them I remember.

Thanks for your kind and generous assessment about my abilities. They're very much appreciated especially from a writer as talented as you.

anita said...

I'm wondering if they had an early version of motion detectors in that house? But then again, if that were the case, the lights would have gone back on when you walked into the room.

I LOVE your drawing and painting by the way ... oh, to be so talented.

susan said...

anita - Nice to see your note. Nah, the place had no motion detectors (it was 1978) but I wouldn't have been surprised at rats chewing the wires. Whatever the cause I didn't investigate.

I'm glad you like the art. Talent has less to do with any decent results than sheer persistence.

Lisa Golden said...

I was riveted again. I've been a fan of your work for four years now. That time flew and I'm still grateful to Scarlet Blue for linking to you.

Lisa Golden said...

I wonder if that house still stands. They don't tear down things in Providence, do they?

susan said...

lisa - Old buildings in Providence usually either fell down or burned down.

I miss Scarlet too.

linda said...

hi, sweet susan,
i was spellbound the whole time i read this even tho i knew you were going to scare the daylights[not pun intended;] out of me. i would not have lasted more than 5min. you really were a tenacious cleaner in those days, my dear. your drawings are stupendous...i don't know how you do much detail all squeezed in and they were perfect for your tale!! apologies for being tardy here but have had hands full ... of whatever i know not. xoxoxoxo

gfid said...

I googled the Peace River / Dunvegan massacre story... didn't know there was anything in print about it. This account appears to be history as written by the winners. I heard about the massacre from a friend who is the granddaughter of the last Beaver Cree chief. Dunvegan (the name given the location by the Hudson's Bay traders) was a sacred meeting place for the Beaver people, and the traders took it over, eventually refusing them access to it for anything but fur trading. There were also some very bad feelings because the fur traders wouldn't be respectful to the Beaver women. Then, finally, there was a smallpox epidemic which killed almost all of the remaining Beaver people. There is a communal gravesite near the town of Fairview, just 'inland' a few miles from the Dunvegan site, where heaped wagonloads of Beaver people who died in this epidemic were buried. A fellow I worked with tells of his father's stories of the dead stacked like cordwood, wagon after wagon full of them. There were thousands of Beaver people living there then. Very few survived. There are only a handful left now.

susan said...

linda - I'm glad you got to read the story and liked it even if it was a trifle scary. I'd never done this kind of drawing before and had no idea of the tricks used for shading etc. with pen and ink but eventually I got a bit better at it.

Delighted to see you back.

gfid - You're right that the version I read after googling wasn't at all the same as the one you've told me. This one is infinitely more sad and not too different from a number of stories I've read about the fates of the native populations of North America. From what I've come to understand just about the only tribe who made out half decently were the Haida and that's because they were so far away and had more time to understand the invaders and prepare. I was stunned when I learned that there were originally millions of native peoples when the Europeans arrived but most of them didn't last long.

gfid said...

According to 'Stolen Continents' by Ronald Wright, and a few other such books, there were many, many large communities of first nations people all over north america when the first spaniards arrived further south, long before Columbus made his trip. the smallpox they (sometimes intentionally) introduced spread uncontrolled through vast areas of the continent long before the indigenous people ever even saw a white person. what the Europeans found when they began to 'discover' much of Canada and the U.S. was a pathetic remnant of what had once been substantial populations and cultured societies. My friend's family survived the smallpox epidemic in northern alberta because her great grandfather had a dream warning him to get away from the white people - that they brought death with them. Only his family and a few others would listen, and relocate deep in the trackless wilderness with him, and only they survived.

clairesgarden said...

oh I looked at the last picture before reading the line below about the duster and I thought it was a tail as in 'hightailing it out of there' ....

susan said...

gfid - That's such a sad story and typical of a long and complicated history. The Europeans brought diseases to the Americas the native populations had no resistance to as well as weapons that were terrifying besides being deadly. It's sad to read that later explorers found empty villages and decimated populations across both continents. One can only imagine how different things might have been had smallpox, measles, and typhoid not been among the first of the aliens to arrive. I also read a few very interesting stories about some of the European settlers joining native bands.

We watched a Terence Malick film called 'The New World' about the clash of Captain John Smith's party with the Native Americans in Virginia. Much of the film is incredibly beautiful but the story itself is brilliantly told.

claire - That's funny. Actually, the thing really was dragging on the ground behind me and must have looked much like a tail.

Steve Emery said...

Wow. Remarkably creepy. The idea that someone I can't see is doing things behind me (like switching off lights and radio...) is one of my worst nightmares. Life is stranger than we know.

susan said...

steve - I must admit that locked door on the top floor did disturb me. You're right and I know I was right to leave that place.