This is story I read at Penguin Plays Rough at the State Library earlier in the year. PPR do the most innovative and fun events in the literary world. You should give them your first borns.
To the Frighthouse
The lighthouse squatted over steep cliffs like a drunk woman in high-heels peeing in a gutter. Years of high winds and crashing waves had shattered the once proud architecture, until it looked like nothing more than an old cupcake. Thick mist curled around the grounds, obscuring the horizon and seeping into the lawn. Walking through the fog was like being licked by a giant ethereal tongue. Somewhere in the distance echoed the call of ravens suddenly taking flight.
A lesser man might sprout goosebumps like a fertile box of cress. A weaker man might feel that squirming sensation deep in his gut, like a tiny cat was trying to get comfortable in his stomach, but which was actually fear. But not I – for if there’s one thing a writer of the genre of horror can withstand, it is the puny emotion known as fear. If fear was fire, then I would be a fireman, able to stride through the roaring flames, chuckling madly and rescuing fistfuls of babies, completely immune to the burning heat. As a horror writer, I would routinely face terror unfathomable to others, and also knew enough to identify the tropes and cliches with ease.
Which is why I have chosen to write my next book – ‘Night of the Living Sled’ about an innocent sled ride which swiftly becomes less innocent – in an abandoned lighthouse in Maine, USA. I’ve found myself able to save bucketloads of money by taking my writing vacations in places that others, who are not lords of the chill, would go mad simply to behold. So as the storm clouds roll in over the foreboding architecture, and lightning flashes illuminate the tracks of giant dogs and velociraptors, I only laugh. Because it’s nothing that I don’t automatically expect. I even think I see, for a split second, a pale woman’s face staring out of one of the top windows. Amateurs.
Later that night, I am writing by the light of the open fire. ‘“There’s no such thing as a cursed sled” screamed Molly, the chambermaid, blood streaming from her eyes and pooling in her frilly little apron and staining her feather duster.’ I dipped my quill into my inkpot, and finished the line. “Oh really” rasped Grandpa Jonathan, the racist ex-banker. “Have you ever seen a little film called… Citizen Kane?”’ I am interrupted by a rapping at the window. I open the door to discover a dripping wet elderly gentleman, covered in a large raincloak. Thunder cracks and in the distance a wolf howls.
‘Boy, ye must leave this place, for ye are in grave danger.’
I sigh, and identify him. ‘You must be the caretaker.’
‘Nay, boy. I am the caretaker, and let me tell ye, this place is host to a spirit malevolent and spiteful, that has plagued humanity since -‘
‘The dawn of time’ I suggest, cleaning my glasses with my cravat.
‘Nay, the 1970’s.’
I fixed the caretaker with a stare, and packed my pipe with more tobacco. The old man had skin like an unfashionable leather purse, and stringy grey hair like the pubic thatch of Beelzebub himself. He lifted a shaky arm and scratched at his neck with his hook for a hand.
‘The old hook for a hand’ I chuckled. ‘Classic caretaker.’
‘I’ve got two!’ the man exclaimed, brandishing his other hook wildly.
‘Tis why I don’t use an umbrella.’
‘So what’s the story. Indian burial ground, terrible murders? Are you a ghost? You’re the ghost, aren’t you.’ I started prodding him in the face, his skin as dry as the inner sole of a shoe.
‘I am not a ghost’ the caretaker said, somewhat sullenly.
‘Well, prod me then.’ I told him.
‘What?’ he answered, slowly.
‘Prod me, and then we’ll know that neither of us are ghosts. It’s called the Shyamalan Protocol.’
Reluctantly the old man prodded me, and I gave him a satisfied nod. None of us were ghosts. Although, I was now bleeding, thanks to being prodded by a hook-handed monstrosity.
‘If ye really want to learn the truth, ye must follow me into the basement. But I warn ye, everyone else who has even gone into the basement has…’
I finished his sentence. ‘Died horribly? Gone mad?’
‘Gotten wet shoes. The plumbing is none too sturdy. You tool.’ he mumbled the last part, and I asked him to repeat what he had said.
‘Uhh, I simply said – you fool!’ and chuckled malevolently as we descended into the bowels of the lighthouse.
The basement was indeed uncomfortably wet, and apart from hosting a mixed family of raccoons and cats, there was nothing strange about it. That is until the caretaker opened up yet another set of stairs.
‘Yes, this basement has a basement!’ and cackled wildly. ‘Spooky’ I said glumly, starting to recognise there was a little more to this place than the same old tropes and idioms that I was used to.
Holding up a flickering lantern which barely illuminated the mould covered walls, the caretaker began speaking in a long monotone.
‘They say that one night the devil came here and gave birth to a dog, aye, but not just any dog, a devil dog from Hades with glowing eyes and a preternatural ability to do sudoku puzzles. Did he do them well? Nay, but better than most dogs. And others say that something, something unknowable crawled from out of the ocean and nested in the roots of this lighthouse, and now it’s working on Mitt Romney’s campaign staff, and yet others claim that this is the lighthouse where Virginia Woolf wrote her story ‘To the Lighthouse’, yet the original title was ‘To the Frighthouse’ and in the end of that manuscript someone got stabbed all up in the vagina, but then the editors changed it. Oh aye, they say a lot about this place. They have a lot of opinions.’
In the third basement of the basement, we ran smack into a group of teenagers and a dog.
‘Let me guess, you guys are here solving mysteries?’
The youths, a lot skinnier, tattooed and pierced than the Original Scooby-Doo gang, gave each other shifty looks, until one said.
The caretaker was trying to pat the dog, a mangy German Shepherd with bloodshot eyes and tattered ears.
‘Old man – I probably wouldn’t pat Scooby over there, he looks fairly rabid.’
‘Not to worry’ said the old man, through a locked, frothing jaw. ‘I’ve got me own rabies to worry about.’
‘So, kids, what’s your verdict. Is there really a ghost, or is it just old Mr Jenkins in a monster mask?’ I asked.
‘Umm, dude, have you got any meth?’
I was starting to think they weren’t mystery solvers at all, unless the mystery was how much meth they could take. And I was also starting to feel… uneasy. There was something about this entire situation that didn’t quite add up. Was there mystery and suspense? Yes. But the clues were more baffling than illuminating. Sometimes I regretted this foray into the realm of horror – my first book had actually been some Australian Literature, a novel called ‘Secret Rural Family Town’. It was a prize winning tale about a young man who seeks to understand the meaninglessness of it all but instead finds out a series of secrets about his family and the small town that he finds so suffocating. But then I was drummed out of the lucrative Aust. Lit market by Peter Carey in a violent fistfight in a small Melbourne pub. David Malouf gambled on the fight and won fifty dollars as a result. Ever since then i’d been forced to earn my coin in the world of spooky thrills.
‘Through this door, master, lies the answers that you seek. The dark shadow that lies over this lighthouse.’
I hesitated, mind racing furiously like an angry horse. Now was the climax, the twist at the heart of every ghost story. What could possibly be beyond the door that I wouldn’t be prepared for in some way. The ghost of a tiny girl, banging her fathers dismembered head against the door of a car. Or something more literary, perhaps, like the ghost of my own humility, which takes the form of Jim Belushi from either Ghost Busters or Blues Brothers, or a strange mashup film called ‘Ghost Brothers.’
I pushed open the door, and discovered a tableau that I will never forget until my dying day. At a table, playing a robust game of Dungeons and Dragons, was Stephen King. He was rolling a handful of dice and staring down a forlorn looking George R.R. Martin. Terry Pratchett was making margarita’s. Stephen King looked surprised at my entrance, and then shamed. He scuffed his foot against the floor, looked me in the eye and said ‘Happy Halloween.’
I looked back at him and said ‘It’s not Halloween, Stephen King. Halloween was last week.’