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Hainthouse: Abandoned But Remembered
There exist two kinds of empty buildings: abandoned ones and haunted ones. Textbook definitions aside, when I say abandoned, I mean in essence forgotten. Nobody forgets haunted. Haunted is abandoned but remembered. This ignores the idea of any parapsychological phenomena, but I’m not convinced of those yet, so when I say ‘haunt’, I mean what is abandoned but remembered. Songs, movies, all that ends, but when the notes remain and the celluloid imprints itself on your memory, you are haunted."
A haunted house isn’t one full of phosphorescent orbs and bloody maidens carrying their own heads. It’s a place that wears the weight of its history. The walls can’t forget history, and you can’t forget the walls.
By nature of having a memory, you’re a haunted house with a soul attached. Some more than others.
Growing up, everyone I knew believed in ghosts. There wasn’t an argument. Either you could have disbelief or you could have war and with disbelief you would have war.
I heard about nuns walking through hospital walls from my mom and stepdad who worked at the St. Mary’s. The cellar at my dad’s place, the big country house in Abingdon, something lived in that that I never had the gumption to face. According to my dad it set the kitchen table one night while he wasn’t looking. Middle school years, I was supposed to see Bloody Mary in our home bathroom mirror Friday at midnight. I visited our weird sisters, a group of cheerleaders, to lift the curse off me. They said light as a feather, stiff as a board wouldn’t work on me. I was too heavy. When I cried at home, my parents blamed my reading. Showing King and Rowling the door wouldn’t be as effective as a new zip code. Kids everywhere tell ghost stories, but I can’t help but feel our environment acted as a multiplier. But the region would have came with me.
Southern lit traditionally approaches the environment with one message: the land is oppressive and the heat does not care. Heat killed the colonel in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” and in the woods Isaac Mcaslin witnessed Boon Hogganbeck claiming squirrels were his. A goon gets devoured by pigs in Pickney Benedict’s Dogs of God and the protagonist falls through a sinkhole only to see a hallucination of Protean creatures living at the bottom of the cave. When I watched Aguirre, The Wrath of God on my desktop computer in high school, it made sense to me that Aguirre lost it. The jokes you make about Werner Herzog talking about the madness of the jungle are funny, but they’re real. When I read “Children of the Corn” I thought about the reclaimed strip mine land and the high gold grass. Things grew, but only so much, and if you scraped away the vegetation it would look like the harsh alien west, more The Gunslinger or Blood Meridian, less Little House on the Prairie. This is land a Japanese vine devoured.
But there’s comfort in knowing the land doesn’t care. You can embrace or fight but the land will continue being the land, as indefatigable as single always meaning one. I found limestone cliffs, the few cattle in those fields, stagnant creeks, and gnarled briar bushes comforting.
What I found sinister was the architecture. Drive up a road. One side is Edenic and untouched. Between 7pm and 8pm Malick could film it. On the other side there’s ruin. Not Abandoned in Virginia ruin, though there’s that. But different kinds of ruin. Without impinging on taste, which is too often a class issue, houses are cramped together, grey siding and ugly brick, struggling with the land to maximize the space. The houses aren’t bad on their own, but squeezed together?
Wise is a tragedy of commercial planning. This is necessity, but necessity rarely births beauty. Otherwise, sliced bread tattoos would be everywhere. This planning is an admission: the coal was here, so here we settled.
Climbing through the classes things don’t get much better. Then it’s mediocrity, lack of imagination. Ruin college students don’t look for beauty in; ruin they run from, into ruins they find poetic.
The irony of that stark beauty, the woods thick and dark, dirt roads with shards of gravel, nobody settled there for that. They settled here because the land was something that could be used. But time has gone; the area’s usefulness has been outlived.
To diagnose: the region is haunted, obsessed with a glory it never achieved it thinks it could have. Our ghosts are foreclosed buildings, houses sinking into discolored grass and overgrown bushes , machine yards, gas stations, garages. But I wouldn’t call these remembered. It’s impossible to really remember what you accept. These are just abandoned. Those who remember them don’t give them much thought.
But what’s haunted? My old high school, J.J. Kelly, where so many memories of mine replay every time I drive past that brick despondence of asbestos and tile, will remain haunted. High school is a sort of introduction to real horror anyway, the place where you learn what people are capable of, not to mention all the weird stuff growing out of everyone’s face, chest, and groin.
There’s the hospital, no matter how many mergers take place.
And there’s the orphanage. We were a few years in the wake of every horror movie antagonist being a ghost girl with straight black hair and ragged clothes, always stuffed down a sinkhole or a boiler room. This was the Columbine era. The monster you went to school with wore black, kept to themselves, and listened to music your parents hated. Every generation makes a monster out of what they birthed and the prior generation invented a tool that could teach you how to make bombs just by a search while we shouted out, where are the parents? Of course it was orphans.
This isn’t my first time writing about the orphanage. I wrote a Faulknerian rip-off about it in my Appalachian History class. I wasn’t obsessed with the prospect of ghosts, I said, but people’s perceptions there might be.
One night I saw video footage. After older kids held me down and forced me to watch what equated to snuff films (we were in the halcyon days of 4chan’s /b) in a hazing attempt, the night I drank my first beer without any supervision, we watched some video an acquaintance of my first kiss filmed. We all swore at the bottom of the stairs that we saw a red headed kid in sack clothes. It wasn’t the only time we swore that night.
Rumors I’ve heard about the Wise County orphanage:
1) The Wise Police Department has someone guarding it 24/7. If this is true it’s a fantastic waste of resources but wouldn’t surprise me.
2) There’s a weed grow in the basement.
3) It’s full of telephone books.
4)A guy named Bob from Roanoke caught herpes there.
5) It’s not actually haunted. Someone tested it. The soup cans didn’t ring hard enough.
I posted something about the orphanage on Topix. No answers as to who owns it. As far as esoteric obsession goes, somebody supposedly saw Bigfoot. They all call him the Woodbooger. I could get an entire collection of greasy spoon foods based off The Woodbooger, t shirts, everything. Somebody else can get an essay out of that. I strictly stick with specters as metaphor.
When my time in Wise began winding down, Christine Stoddard asked me if I could get myself in that orphanage. I saw myself with a machete in my teeth, cutting jungle away, or were it a more bespoke adventure, like Rust Cohle, tie loosened in the heat, holding a stick figure to the light. True Detective, real journalism.
I had the operation in my head. First there were dobermans to deal with. According to a guy named DJ I had math with who got expelled for bringing a knife to a football game, who bragged about how he plastered nudie pics in his closet, said when he went there, there were dobermans everywhere . I was going to buy a sack of McDoubles and a box of Benadryl for the dogs. Put a Benadryl in each burger, and toss them to the dogs like frisbees. Roll in with a phone, an Opinel knife, wearing a denim jacket and a henley with a maglight in my back pocket. Brian Layne was going to play look out. Bring along Anthony Vanover, maybe. A last shenanigan. Eat any remaining McDoubles.
It took me three tries to try and find it. My family finally drove me by it and showed it to me. It sat far from the road, dilapidated as I thought it would be, but there was no getting through the overgrowth. Like all haunted houses, this one was supposed to have easy access. Instead, there it was, wearing its history.
When I was in Wise I had a hairdresser who kept asking me about my last name. There are Sloces down there somewhere and I don’t relate to any of them. She wanted to know how I got my name. I told her, “long story”, even though I could make it short, if I had the time. I wanted no one to find me.
I landed an Americorps position in Richmond. The date was set for me to leave, the announcement made on Facebook. When I learned I was leaving it was like I had broke my way through thick glass, out of the museum display. Ennui over. Dreams of reading the New York Times, going out for a beer, meeting locals, seeing my friends again.
On VCU’s graduating day, one of my last days in town, I realized: I hated graduations. I hated the pomp and circumstance but more than anything I realized that the diploma I had was a receipt on thick paper, not a degree, there was nothing worth celebrating for. Now time went long when you had to live it and short at the end. Other than birthdays, there would never be a moment ever again where I would be cause celebre.
I needed a haircut that day. I went to the hairdresser and she started to cut my hair and asked again. My granddad is Ray Sloce of Norton, Virginia fame. Pastor. A shepherd to his flock and absentee grandfather. My dad was his son. We have the same name. We don’t talk anymore. It’s been five years. She nodded. I told her I didn’t like to talk about it. She said she wouldn’t press and wished me good luck in Richmond.
I decided I was going to try to get into the orphanage that day. I drove there and parked and looked and saw the overgrowth.
So I drove along the backroads. As you drive further into Southwest Virginia back roads, they seem to be a Mobius strip, like traveling further into a wormhole. And I just drove. I went from ATLiens to Johnny Cash’s American Recordings. I wanted away from myself and I went into those roads to escape it. My car was blood the road’s veins pumped.
I pulled out in a town 15 or 20 miles away, older than I was before, and I drove home. I knew I was never going to get inside that orphanage. I laid in bed that night angry I was myself and saddened I would never be anyone else, that my little soul was dragging around this corpse who only knew those roads and didn’t want to be in Wise, but in a way always was.
It’s those roads and that orphanage that stick out in my mind, their eyes staring back at me with no answer. I know ghosts better than I know myself and when I think of my year in Wise, a time I was on ice, everyone I love growing and getting and making new love, I think of me haunting a structure with crumbling walls, showing wear and tear, until I make peace with that one thing.
But I think of how I never went in the orphanage. I will not know if inside are my parents shriveled away and their eyes gone, phone books, Clytie and Henry Sutpen, devil traps, the disjecta membra of a Great House, Kurtz, or a surprise party for myself. If I ran away from that hainthouse it's because I didn’t want to recognize myself.
Or maybe in the full interest of self-destruction I left behind business so I could stay in Wise forever, keep myself a preta out of interest of comfort.
Whether it was the overgrowth or the shamble or the cops that kept me from going inside, it sticks with me. If it was a box I didn’t check that will put me back there again, revert me back to a spectre to wait until I die my second death.
Salt over my shoulder, milk overturned in the road, I don’t plan on living there again. But it lives in me.
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