January 12, 2012
Most people are familiar with the Brontës, if only through osmosis. Their novels—which include “Wuthering Heights” and “Jane Eyre”—have left an indelible mark on English literature. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne were extraordinary women, writing at a time (the Victorian era) in which proper women did not indulge in such intellectual pursuits.
Lurking in the background of the sisters’ lives was their black sheep brother, Branwell. A painter and poet of some promise who never truly developed his skills, Branwell was a hedonist who paid dearly for his pleasures. He achieved some small measure of success when a number of his sonnets were published in prestigious papers of the day, but his literary ambitions were thwarted by his own fecklessness and failure to follow through. His business pursuits were marked by rash and reckless decisions, and he left a trail of debt that would never be repaid.
Branwell’s final shame occurred when he was dismissed from a tutoring position due to the discovery of an affair he was having with the married mother of one of his pupils. He returned to the Brontë home in disgrace. Here he lapsed into inconsolable despair and surrendered his tormented soul to alcohol and laudanum. His verse, when he attempted it, was invariably self-pitying. No one wanted to read poems called “When all our cheerful hours seem gone for ever”, especially in the rural Yorkshire village of Haworth, the Brontë family home.
Branwell Brontë died of tuberculosis in 1848 at the age of 31. We now know as much about the anguish that drove him to an early grave as we are ever likely to know. In history, as in life, Branwell was a minor character in a much larger drama. Branwell Bronte exists today as a result of his sisters’ success. Whether or not he consciously compared himself to them is not known, and is really not important. Having developed over a period of time a fascination with human folly, my own hypothesis is that Branwell was a victim of his own mediocrity in every endeavour that he pursued. And it was his awareness of that mediocrity that led to his demise. He could not live up to his own ideal.
Back in the early ’90s, a friend and I visited Haworth as part of a larger literary tour of England. I was pleasantly surprised to find that one of Branwell’s old haunts, the Black Bull pub, was (and remains) a thriving business. There was nothing in the place to suggest that Branwell had ever stepped foot in it. My friend and I raised several glasses in his honour. We drank until closing time.
I do not recall leaving the Black Bull, and that missing time remains my tribute to the memory of Branwell Brontë.
Thanks for reading.
September 24, 2011
Here are a few old Windsor postcards that I picked up at the Aberfoyle Antique Market a couple of months back. I’ve been able to confirm that the Detroit/Windsor tunnel postcard was printed in 1949, so the others are likely of a similar vintage. The first three cards really don’t require any explanatory text, but even longtime Windsorites might need a little help with the fourth (and last) postcard.
This last postcard shows the grotto (a “cave-like shrine”) at St. Mary’s Academy. St. Mary’s was constructed between 1927 and 1929 and then blown to smithereens to make way for a new subdivision in 1977. A few friends and I were playing football on the side lawn of my house when we looked up to see it implode. It was like watching some bullies trip an old man. Kind of pathetic. An ignoble end to such a majestic place.
My mother was a student at St. Mary’s back in the ‘40s, and she would tell my brothers and I of her and her friends’ attempts to outwit the Sisters. There are some great photos and more background information about St. Mary’s at http://www.internationalmetropolis.com/?p=96.
The grotto postcard is also the only one of the bunch that has writing on the back:
We finally landed. I really like this place. Wouldn’t mind living here. This is the grotto at St. Mary’s Academy. It’s clearly haunted by angry spirits who see the grotto as a sort of portal back into this dimension. Kind of creepy, but no place is perfect!
Okay, I made up the part about the angry spirits.
Thanks for dropping by!
May 3, 2011
Once upon a time, I believed that it might be possible for a man to imprint his thoughts onto Polaroid film using only the power of his mind. Oh, dear.
The following article was published in Skeptic magazine, in an issue that included an article by Richard Dawkins and a whole slew of pieces about artificial intelligence! We also completed the short (30 minutes) documentary film, and I hope to figure out a way to post that before too long.
Thanks for reading!
Going to Meet the Man With the Camera Brain
While I didn’t exactly soar effortlessly through my teens and twenties, seizing the day and welcoming every sunrise and whatnot, life still unravelled mysteriously and with a charming lack of purpose. And then, at thirty, I wandered into a spiritual wilderness. Where a certain spontaneity had once been a fun if sometimes fickle guide, gray reason now usurped my ideals, and I became mired in a state of solipsistic glumness that was like teenage sorrow without the redeeming passion. With mortality now an increasingly real if distant reality, many in similar straits turn to religion, raising a family, or other similar time-honoured sources of succour. That is, people grow up. But for some of us, there lingers a spark of hope that we have not been entirely abandoned by that more innocent, childish age. And so we enter into a race with that old devil Time — a frenzied determination to find something to believe in again before the clock runs out.
In the early 1960s, in Denver Colorado, psychiatrist Jule Eisenbud was wrestling similar demons. A firm believer in the untapped potential of the human mind, Eisenbud’s frequent forays into the paranormal had nevertheless produced nothing in the way of concrete results. As long as empirical evidence was lacking, he said, no amount of anecdotal evidence could ever budge the stubborn fact that parapsychology would forever remain “the stepchild of science.” Shortly after reaching this gloomy conclusion, he got wind of Ted Serios, an ex-bellhop from Chicago who claimed to possess the remarkable ability to imprint his thoughts onto Polaroid film using only the powers of his mind. The doctor and the psychic met one evening in room 1320-W at Chicago’s ritzy Palmer House hotel. Between double-orders of Scotch (“for my cold,” said Serios), the impish psychic clutched a Polaroid Land type 100 camera, pointed the lens directly into his own face, clicked the shutter and restored the doctor’s faith. Ted’s thoughts seemed to bleed miraculously onto the film. Photograph after photograph slowly came to uncanny life, rendering the impossible in black and white: the Chicago Water Tower, a hotel that had burned down years before, haunting suggestions of other unknown structures. Eisenbud emerged from the meeting convinced that Serios could somehow seize a fleeting thought and materialize it for all to see.
Now it was the late 1990s, and for my old friend Dennis and I, merely contemplating the existence of a character like Serios was a salve for our shared spiritual dread. A self-described bum whose humble goals consisted of drinking, womanizing, and (without forsaking the first two goals) obtaining the occasional psychic photograph, Serios was the embodiment of hedonistic surrender. And yet, whether through some fluke of fate or a strange sense of duty, he was also man enough to take on the very laws of nature. And as far as we knew, no one in the thirty-odd years since he first made his mark had anyone successfully debunked his claims. Was Ted Serios living proof that one could stagger through life, stumble on a great discovery, and find fame, all without losing one’s seat at the bar? Was Serios the guardian of a metaphysical miracle that would turn science on its head? With fingers crossed — and possibly while inebriated — we decided to contact Dr. Eisenbud.
“As far as your interviewing Ted, he’s never cared for interviews.” Jule Eisenbud’s ancient voice crackled over the line. He relinquished Ted’s phone number, but balked at surrendering his location. “He doesn’t want to be disclosed. He has a bad police record.” A new layer of intrigue arose. For a man on the lam, Ted was recklessly eager to jump back into the spotlight. In a series of lengthy, often rambling telephone conversations, he reassured us that his powers, dormant for nearly thirty years, could erupt again at any time. And he wanted us to bear witness. With an old Polaroid camera and as much film as we could afford, we hit the highway, determined to resurrect the reputation of the man whom science had so cruelly neglected.
In 1967, Eisenbud published the results of his extensive experiments with Serios in a book entitled The World of Ted Serios: ‘Thoughtographic’ Studies of an Extraordinary Mind. It is wonderfully written, full of humour, thoughtful analysis, and provocative ideas. It is also an unequivocal endorsement of Ted Serios’s wondrous thoughtographic brain. The book attracted legions of both believers and skeptics, and the little man who likely would have languished as an intriguing barfly and sodden supernatural footnote suddenly expanded his circle of influence beyond the local tavern. Soon, the world of Ted Serios counted scores of scientists, skeptics, and other respectable folk among its inhabitants. Thirty years later, that world was little more than a ghost town. Serios’s proponents had been driven underground. The skeptics had long since dismissed the phenomenon. Why?
In the beginning there was the gismo. Perhaps never before has such a fuss been made about something so crude and seemingly innocuous. Perhaps never before has humanity’s understanding of the natural world been challenged by a small roll of cardboard. Ted’s apartment, when we at last met him on a sizzling summer day in 1997, is littered with them. When obtaining a thoughtograph, Ted holds the gismo up to the camera lens to help him focus his psychic energy. I’d always thought of the gismo as a sort of bridge between the supernatural aether and the mundane reality of Ted’s gray matter, but the skeptics were never so broad-minded. They seized upon the gismo as evidence of legerdemain — a simple optical device that permitted any light-fingered charlatan to duplicate Ted’s “psychic photographs.” It was their smoking gun, the undeniable proof that Serios was nothing more than a very talented con artist who had either duped or been in cahoots with the good doctor. In their unyielding leeriness, they saw the gismo as a bridge between wild claims and harsh reality.
Ted turns out to be an amiable host. We’re all a bit awkward. Pleasantries are dutifully exchanged, and the meeting starts out like a visit to the psychic grandfather I never had. And then Ted spots our Polaroid camera. His affected smile transforms into a lusty grin. His eyes flash, and he begins stroking the camera. “This thing brings back a lot of memories,” he says wistfully.
Back in Ted’s heyday — when, as he says longingly, “there was no shortage of booze, women, nothin’” — he made scores of converts by capturing thoughtographic representations of images that were tightly sealed from his sight: abstract paintings, famous buildings, historical figures. When Ted got one of these “targets,” another affidavit attesting to his authenticity was as good as signed. He’s happy to hear that we’ve brought along our own targets. “When I want to get a target, I make love to that camera,” he explains, his hands still exploring the old Polaroid. “That’s all there is to it. If I talk nice to the damn thing like I talk to a woman, the thing will give in, you see?” Where Eisenbud got downright esoteric in his analysis of Ted’s abilities, the thoughtographer himself clearly isn’t much for theorizing. Indeed, shortly into our interview, it becomes painfully obvious that peppering Ted with our carefully prepared questions — “How do you explain the slight variations between the target and the image that appear in some of your thoughtographs? Do you feel that you have finally gained the acceptance by the scientific community that you desired?” — isn’t going to get us anywhere. He stares blankly or deflects each question, spinning it into a tale of his bawdy youthful adventures.
Fair enough, I think. I’ve long since come to the conclusion that Ted is something of a holy fool — remarkably gifted and simultaneously oblivious to the profound effects that his abilities will have on our understanding of ourselves and the world. We’re here as guests, not disinterested scientific observers, so it only makes sense that Ted should call the shots. After numerous attempts to capture our targets result only in blurry pictures of Ted’s grunting face, frozen in various unflattering expressions of mental exertion, the weary thoughtographer announces that he’ll need some beer to grease the psychic gears. “I work the best when we sorta make a party out of it,” he confesses. “Everybody is having a good time. Then it seems like it comes real easy. Otherwise, it’s a grind. It really is, and that’s all there is to it.” As I get up to head off to the liquor store, Ted jams the camera against the back of my head and takes a picture. This strikes me as a pretty crude way to photograph someone’s thoughts. It’s also irritating as hell. Dr. Eisenbud once told us, “I was actually fond of Ted, but at other times, believe me, I could have taken a swing at him or broken his neck. He was just a pain in the ass.” I understand.
With a beer in each hand and a fair amount flowing through his veins, Ted’s flagging determination is soon renewed. “I’m gonna get that damn target if it kills me,” he says, lighting up his tenth cigarette in as many minutes. He tries to read my mind, confidently announces that he’s picked up its contents, and draws a quick sketch. With a knowing chuckle, he shows me the scrap of paper on which are scribbled two stick figures and a box. It could represent anything, including my target picture, a photograph showing my friend and his wife walking down the aisle at their wedding. I’m impressed, but then Ted adds a third stick figure. He looks up from his work. “If I don’t get the target, the whole thing’s kaput. It’s a do or die thing,” he says dramatically. I feel uneasy. While I want to give Ted the benefit of the doubt here — he’s always professed to be a Catholic, and that third figure could be God, I think — I’m under the distinct impression that he’s been trying to read my facial expressions, not my thoughts. But Ted is no parlor room swindler. I think at the time that his abilities have been well-documented. He’s been subjected to batteries of tests, all of which have ruled out the possibility of fraud. Some of the brightest lights in academia have testified to his authenticity. And I myself am no sucker, I remind myself, though not without wincing.
At some point during the proceedings, a young woman of indeterminate age (though decades younger than our thoughtographer) wades through the sea of empty cans and seats herself next to Ted. He introduces “this broad” as Arlene, his girlfriend and “America’s next great country and western singer.” According to Ted, speaking now in a slurred though solemn voice, Arlene is also a Christian in good standing with the Lord. He slaps her butt and asks her to pray for him. Apparently heedless of any moral conflict in asking for God’s help in such an unholy enterprise, Arlene bows her head. Ted mumbles an oath to his earthier Lord and silently communes with two more beers. The deity intervenes, and soon Ted is churning out thoughtographs at a truly awe-inspiring rate. He produces more of them in the next hour than in the thirty years since he mysteriously lost his powers. Now that prayer — that most unscientific of variables — has entered the picture, I bid farewell to even the pretence of “controlled conditions.” Her entreaties to the Lord completed, Arlene uses her body to throw interference while Ted fiddles with the camera. For what seems like an eternity of awkwardness, we stare at Arlene’s back. Their barely audible murmuring is occasionally punctuated by Ted’s cursing. The distinctive whirr of the camera is never far behind, and Arlene dutifully hands us yet another thoughtograph.
With the help of beer, God, Arlene, and two increasingly inattentive witnesses, Ted’s thoughtographs are beginning to take on a definite form. “I think it’s Christ,” I say listlessly. Stifling a yawn, Dennis concurs. Our combined will to believe can no longer withstand such blatant chicanery. But the show must go on. The curtain won’t drop until the last beer is finished and Ted has either obtained our “goddamned targets” or forgotten that he’d promised to do so. As he lurches to his feet and launches into a tipsy version of “You Oughta Be In Pictures,” I open one of the few remaining beers and watch as Ted unwittingly lampoons my dark night of the soul. Before he descends into abject drunkenness, I ask him to reveal the secret of his remarkable gift. “You got to have an imagination,” he says. “And that is the gospel truth. If you don’t have an imagination, then you ain’t gonna see nothing!”
As we prepare to leave, Ted approaches us sheepishly, eyes downcast. He’d brushed off earlier attempts to discuss a particular dream that had plagued him for years — the dream of the giant camera — but now seems eager to get it off his chest. “It seemed like the damn thing was walking to me. I don’t know how to describe it. It waddled towards me like a human walking. It was one of those old-fashioned cameras. I’ll tell you one thing: it was as big as a house when it came at me. There’s times when I get scared of the damn thing. If that happened to you, wouldn’t you be scared a little bit?” It certainly seems like a confession — a heavy heart caused perhaps by a certain lightness of the fingers — but I’m in no position to grant absolution. I feel too much a party to the game.
For a couple of years after our meeting with Ted Serios, Dennis and I avoided talking about the incident. And if the subject did arise, we did our best to avoid eye contact. But now we can laugh about how two credulous friends believed they had discovered a psychic Messiah who might turn the natural world topsy-turvy, but who instead spent a day with a strange little man who, if he couldn’t exactly save our souls, could at least save us from the clockwork tedium of a world that never changed its routine.
Postscript: On March 10, 1999, Dr. Jule Eisenbud died at his home in Denver. Whatever secrets he held — or thought he held — passed away with him. During our last phone conversation with Eisenbud, in 1998, he told us, “Ted will outlive anything. He may last to the year 2500.” While speaking to Ted on the phone not long ago, he informed us that he had recently been struck by a car, but had made a complete recovery that baffled the doctors who had treated him. Ted Serios may yet defy the laws of nature.
March 2, 2011
If you read my previous entry about M.R. James, you’ll know that his fascination with the ghost story began as a result of seeing a particularly disturbing Punch and Judy puppet set as a child.
Punch and Judy give me the creeps, too. More so even than clowns. The characters are nasty, even grotesque, and the narratives are frequently violent. Here is a brief description from Wikipedia: “In the British Punch and Judy show, he is a hunchback whose hooked nose almost meets his curved, jutting chin. He carries a stick as large as himself, which he freely uses upon most of the other characters in the show. He speaks in a distinctive squawking voice… “ A typical show is usually described as “anarchic”. “The tale of Punch and Judy… typically involves Punch behaving outrageously, struggling with his wife Judy and the Baby, and then triumphing in a series of encounters with the forces of law and order (and often the supernatural), interspersed with jokes and songs.”
With that in mind, here is James’s quote, from his later short story, “A Disappearance and an Appearance”. I’ll return to these unnerving caricatures when I discuss the documentary film that I’m currently working on.
“It [the dream] began with what I can only describe as a pulling aside of curtains: and I found myself seated in a place—I don’t know whether in doors or out. There were people—only a few—on either side of me, but I did not recognize them, or indeed think much about them. They never spoke, but, so far as I remember, were all grave and pale-faced and looked fixedly before them. Facing me there was a Punch and Judy Show, perhaps rather larger than the ordinary ones, painted with black figures on a reddish-yellow ground. Behind it and on each side was only darkness, but in front there was a sufficiency of light…
I believe someone once tried to re-write Punch as a serious tragedy; but whoever he may have been, this performance would have suited him exactly. There was something Satanic about the hero. He varied his methods of attack: for some of his victims he lay in wait, and to see his horrible face—it was yellowish white, I may remark—peering round the wings made me think of the Vampyre in Fuseli’s foul sketch… But with all of them I came to dread the moment of death. The crack of the stick on their skulls, which in the ordinary way delights me, had here a crushing sound as if the bone was giving way, and the victims quivered and kicked as they lay. The baby—it sounds more ridiculous as I go on—the baby, I am sure, was alive. Punch wrung its neck, and if the choke or squeak which it gave were not real, I know nothing of reality.
The stage got perceptibly darker as each crime was consummated, and at last there was one murder which was done quite in the dark, so that I could see nothing of the victim, and took some time to effect. It was accompanied by hard breathing and horrid muffled sounds, and after it Punch came and sat on the foot-board and fanned himself and looked at his shoes, which were bloody, and hung his head on one side, and sniggered in so deadly a fashion that I saw some of those beside me cover their faces, and I would gladly have done the same. But in the meantime the scene behind Punch was clearing, and showed, not the usual house front, but something more ambitious—a grove of trees and the gentle slope of a hill, with a very natural—in fact, I should say a real—moon shining on it. Over this there rose slowly an object which I soon perceived to be a human figure with something peculiar about the head—what, I was unable at first to see. It did not stand on its feet, but began creeping or dragging itself across the middle distance towards Punch, who still sat back to it; and by this time, I may remark (though it did not occur to me at the moment) that all pretence of this being a puppet show had vanished. Punch was still Punch, it is true, but, like the others, was in some sense a live creature, and both moved themselves at their own will.
When I next glanced at him he was sitting in malignant reflection; but in another instant something seemed to attract his attention, and he first sat up sharply and then turned round, and evidently caught sight of the person that was approaching him and was in fact now very near. Then, indeed, did he show unmistakable signs of terror: catching up his stick, he rushed towards the wood, only just eluding the arm of his pursuer, which was suddenly flung out to intercept him. It was with a revulsion which I cannot easily express that I now saw more or less clearly what this pursuer was like. He was a sturdy figure clad in black, and, as I thought, wearing bands: his head was covered with a whitish bag.
The chase which now began lasted I do not know how long, now among the trees, now along the slope of the field, sometimes both figures disappearing wholly for a few seconds, and only some uncertain sounds letting one know that they were still afoot. At length there came a moment when Punch, evidently exhausted, staggered in from the left and threw himself down among the trees. His pursuer was not long after him, and came looking uncertainly from side to side. Then, catching sight of the figure on the ground, he too threw himself down—his back was turned to the audience—with a swift motion twitched the covering from his head, and thrust his face into that of Punch. Everything on the instant grew dark.”
Thanks for reading!
February 25, 2011
(this is a slightly altered version of an article that didn’t quite see print)
I really must tell you about Montague Rhodes (M.R.) James. James—born 1862; died 1936—remains unchallenged as the “Father of the Modern Ghost Story.” Not only did he single-handedly revive the moribund ghost story genre, he also laid the groundwork for what we recognize today as the modern horror story.
James wrote his tales during a period in which ghost stories had devolved into thinly veiled Victorian morality tales packaged in a supernatural wrapper. The ghosts of these stories are generally benign, and the stories themselves are crafted to generate sentimental wonder and yearning rather than fear. In his very first collection, “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary” (1904), James banished this sanitized spirit, placing in its ethereal stead a ghost of immediate and palpable danger. Boldly dismissing the conventions of his day, James restored the well-worn genre tale to its visceral roots. “The ghost should be malevolent or odious,” he said. “Amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story.”
In “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook”, the first story in James’s landmark collection, a lone English tourist visiting a crumbling French cathedral purchases a strange book comprised of odd accounts and images plundered from numerous volumes in the cathedral’s library. For James, whose life was one long love affair with mediaeval manuscripts, this alone must have constituted an outrage. Dennistoun, a fairly typical Jamesian protagonist, pores lustily over his unique find, curiosity blinding him to the nightmare into which he is haplessly falling. The exact nature of the horror is withheld until Dennistoun encounters the vengeful form of Canon Alberic himself. The spectre’s appearance is sudden, unannounced, and very real. As H.P. Lovecraft correctly noted, “The average James ghost is usually touched before it is seen.”
Pacing was another of the keys to James’s success, and his narrative trajectory has been well-travelled—whether consciously or not—by nearly every horror writer since. “Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are,” he wrote, “the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo… Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.”
Most of the eight stories that comprise “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary” were originally presented by James as a series of annual readings for his Cambridge friends and colleagues. But what he called his “Christmas amusements” so enthralled the members of the Chitchat Club (as they called themselves) that his small but loyal following was soon pressing him to publish his ghost stories in book form. He reluctantly acceded, unaware that his diversions would prove to secure his immortality, outliving even his great contributions to myriad antiquarian disciplines. The first small print run of “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary” sold out quickly, and the book has never since been out of print. It is widely considered to be the most-read collection of twentieth-century ghost stories.
Many have wondered how the gentle Cambridge don—a staunch Anglican who was by all accounts affable and highly extroverted—could exhume such nastiness from his own kind heart. James was, after all, a decidedly stable and good-natured man. He feared spiders and loved cats; he was a man who liked jigsaw puzzles, detective novels, and playing solitaire. He helped friends in need.
Although numerous theories have been set forth (some of the more obscure ones take a psychoanalytic approach), James himself provided the most likely answer in a 1931 interview: “What first interested me in ghosts? This I can tell you quite definitely. In my childhood I chanced to see a toy Punch and Judy set, with figures cut out in cardboard. One of these was The Ghost. It was a tall figure habited in white with an unnaturally long and narrow head, also surrounded with white, and a dismal visage. Upon this my conceptions of a ghost were based, and for years it permeated my dreams.”
Let James permeate your dreams. Order the book or read an e-text of the collection at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/8486.
(As a sort of appendix, I found a chilling description of just such a dream as James likely experienced. The passage is from his story, “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance”, which appeared in his collection, “A Thin Ghost and Others”. I may include it in my next entry, as I think I’ve said enough for now…)
Thanks for reading.
February 13, 2011
The following is the beginning of a short ghost story that I’ve been working on for some time. Comments, criticisms, and suggestions are all welcome.
Harold did not want anything interesting to happen. It wasn’t part of his evening plan. He wanted only to drink his port and let his mind meander in its predictable fashion: back to childhood memories, perhaps, or forward to future accomplishments. Fantasies. But when he happened to glance into the otherwise unremarkable antique mirror that he and his wife had recently purchased at auction, and saw himself as thin, graceful, and dashing, it occurred to him that this was not a matter that could be easily ignored. Fully aware that even in his finest youthful moments he had never looked so roguish, he could discern from his reflection that he was wearing what appeared to be a very fine silk chemise. The same image was reflected in each of the tri-fold panels. This itself might be attributed to a trick of the light, except that the figure in the mirror bore absolutely no resemblance to himself; rather, with its regal features, the reflection clearly constituted another person entirely.
Harold diverted his attention by focusing his eyes out the window, where a jet stream faded against the emerging harvest moon.
He returned to the reflection (curiosity being that sort of beast) and studied again the handsome face with its aristocratic nose, as well as the slim figure’s Gallic attire: plum velvet breaches, red waistcoat, ruffled white silk shirt, and pointed shoes—all displayed in faded colours that projected antiquity. The man inhabited a parlour done up in the style of the French Baroque. The room was dimly lighted, and its decor appeared unfinished, like a sketch for a theatrical backdrop. Real enough, though, Harold concluded, and then fell into a protracted silence.
“It’s preposterous,” he said at last. “Ridiculous. I’m dreaming. Or I’m hallucinating.” But the sound of his voice was no match for that sense which lords itself over all others: sight. Something was happening. Did the borderland of sleep permit the unfolding of a narrative? Were hallucinations so coherent? For now, as he watched the reflection pacing the floor of the old parlour with obvious anxiety, Harold realized that he had joined some drama in media res. What had caused the anxiety? Where would it lead? What is my part in it? An oblivious bird twittered away on the window ledge of the garret. The figure in the mirror jabbed the dagger-like tips of his shoes into the carpet.
“I’m of sound mind,” said Harold. He smiled to prove it. Never before had he questioned his sanity. Clutching the bottle closely, he looked again into the glass, where the mise en scene had undergone a dramatic transformation. It was nighttime now in the mirror man’s world. A single candle guttered on a writing desk, where sat the Frenchman, ferociously scribbling on scraps of paper. Hyper-vigilant, he wrote as though taking dictation from an inspired but unseen muse. The man was insane. But only if the man were real.
Harold backed away, meditating on his minimal knowledge of the nature of time, and the theory that a haunting—of which thousands were supposedly well-documented—was in fact a simple recording of an incident that had become entangled in the aether; trapped, and ultimately transmitted to the haunted as an endless loop. Like a film clip with no beginning and no end. If this were a haunting, it was a truly peculiar one, for events within the loop had not yet begun to repeat themselves. It was more like peeping through a keyhole into another time and place.
The door opened and Eleanor entered the room. He recognized her perfume immediately. But she did not appear in the mirror. In lieu of his wife stood the maniac scribe, his hair matted and his expression, at best, obscure. Harold felt oppressed by the writer’s yearning, and his ceaseless fatigue. Felt it like a ravenous gravitational pull.
Eleanor moved breezily past him to the far end of the garret.
“Come look at this, Eleanor,” said Harold. “I think there’s something very wrong with my mind. Or the mirror.”
“That’s easy,” she said with easy sarcasm. “Your mind.”
“I think we’re at some sort of intersection” said Harold. He did not want to use the words “ghost” or “haunting”.
Eleanor sighed. “Is this one of those dreadful jokes in which I must provide the punch line?”
“Nothing of the sort,” said Harold.
“Are you grappling with mortality again?”
“Maybe. In a strange way, maybe.”
“Talk sense, man.” She breezed past him in the other direction.
“It doesn’t make sense, Eleanor. We’re being haunted.”
“Well, Harold, we have our problems like every couple, but–”
“No,” said Harold. “I think something is very wrong.”
“Will you listen to yourself?”
“Listen to me!” Harold realized that he believed that the ghost might in some way be aware of hisown presence, though it had not yet acknowledged him. He continued in a whisper: “As I look in the mirror now, I see brief vignettes featuring a man—or some sort of simulacrum of a man; no, aman—or the memory of a man who is—”
“Stop it,” said Eleanor. “Stop it, Harold. You’re frightening me.”
“Eleanor,” said Harold weakly. “It’s because I’m very frightened.”
Eleanor kissed him gently on the head.
“I will look into the mirror,” she said. “I will look because I love you and I want to put your mind at rest.” She put the stopper in the port bottle and knelt next to him, turned toward the mirror. Her fingers gripped Harold’s shoulder. Nothing in the glass was familiar. It was not a reflection at all. Her eyes flitted across the panels of the mirror, trying to assemble the disjointed narrative as it unfolded in the three panes. For each pane now showed a separate scene. The scenes were related, part of a greater story, but they played out in an order that was clearly not chronological. In the left-most panel, a chambermaid was murdered, her throat slit with consummate skill. The glass washed momentarily crimson. The spirit captured the blood in a small gilded chalice, turned, and raised it high above his head.
“It’s a trick,” she said. “There must be some kind of projector or—”
“No, no,” said Harold, his tone revealing an unwanted epiphany. The spectre dipped a finger in the blood and scrawled sensuous symbols in the air. “Each sign is a different kind of devil.”
“It’s madness,” she said. “We’re both insane. It’s called folie a deux; a shared delusion that—”
“What does it want?” he blurted.
“What can it want?” wailed Eleanor. “It’s nothing!”
The figure turned abruptly. Tight-lipped, suspicious.
“He heard you,” whispered Harold.
They waited, paralyzed, as the figure strode toward the mirror, seemed to scrutinize them, then rapped on the glass.
He beamed, a sick and sallow portrait of hard-won triumph.