How to Live in a Haunted House
Feeling stuck? Why not turn down a couple fully-funded PhD offers, the likes of which you may never see again, and hoof it on down to the hometown you swore never to return to! Ah, hometown. Nestled in the foothills of the Ozarks, everything green and rolling and picturesque. But nothing is ever as it seems, dear student. This strawberry field forever was also named the Early Death Capital of the World by a very famous newspaper! Not sold yet? Live in your father’s blue house in the woods, the one he *mimes laying in a coffin* in! Experience spirits! phantoms! ghosts! folkloric creatures beyond your very imagination! Survive and you might just learn something. Might.
opening non-denominational secular prayer
Okay, so your father dies. Isn’t that sad? You don’t know how to be any other way. Your sadness is a gift from the ancestors, a tool. Usually, tools can be discarded at will, not this one. Be grateful. Close your eyes. You remember how to do this, surely. It’s not even in a Southern Baptist way so stop shivering. List your fears one by one. There you go. We’re gonna be here awhile.
He wasn’t even a good father, so you don’t know why the heaviness lingers. You loved him, sure. You can admit that now. You’re a twenty-five-year-old [REDACTED]. Your sister is a really good person. She hands you the keys. She calls it your house. The first night, you can’t sleep. You’re getting ahead of yourself, again. Okay. The worst thing you’ve ever done to another person — your dying father — happens in the spring and he dies in the fall. You question what it means to admit this to the internet, then think better of it. You basically told him to kick rocks. You meant it. Your own meanness, open-wide and yawning, exhilarated you. Like all good feelings, it came with a plummet straight into the abyss. Happy now?
It is sky blue. There is spraypaint on the carport and spraypaint on the barn and spraypaint on the giant red circle that covers up a large, looming hole. No one knows how it got there. The barn that your mother’s money paid for is filled with a pool table and ratty couches and a strange, metallic scent. More holes in the wall in your bedroom, or the bedroom you are staying in. You stuff paper towels in them so nothing peeks out. There are noises you can’t explain, so you turn your fan on high and ignore them. You use the giant wood stove as a place to put your keys, phone, purse, candles. Eventually, you buy a couch cover, so you don’t have to keep a fitted sheet precariously on and sweep up leather shavings every time you breathe. You realize, heart pounding, that if you were to truly scream, that no one would come for you. Rather they would think, what a loud coyote. Or, worse, nothing at all. Welcome home.
notes on style
This course isn’t supposed to be a negative experience! Sometimes the truth just comes out that way. Wipe your tears, sit up straight. Let me teach you something. Some people think the second-person is a gimmick, and, you guess, sometimes it is. Sometimes things just happen. Sometimes it’s a lesson, sometimes it isn’t. You are very loved and always will be. See now. Doesn’t that soothe the sting?
Dreams are a kind of migration from what lies beyond to what is in the here and now. That is why they come easily to you, that is why they fill you up until they trickle out of your mouth like a mountain spring. A long time ago, you knew that your gift was dreams. Interpreting them, seeing them, tasting them, slipping into them like water through a sieve. No one told you this, but it seemed the most obvious solution to the truths you knew about them, the ones you had yourself, the constant, pulsing pressure of the —
You dream about the house before you go back to it. These dreams feel like a heavy omen, a winter coat, but you are adept in the ways of these things, so you swallow it whole and let it join the rest of the miscellania stuffed down inside you. You’ve been puzzling and twisting with them since you can remember. You, eventually, will run a semi-regarded newsletter about dream interpretation. You will give advice to readers and to public figures. It will be good advice, too, though you cannot apply the same focus to your own life. Your own dreams are frantic, pulsing. You have never gotten away from them, nor will you ever be able to. This is fine. Just another part of life. When writing fiction, you sometimes forget to lie.
In your dreams, your father calls you maple leaf and little bird. In the context of your culture, this seems important.
ghosts (see: course guests)
An old whispering woman, a large black dog, someone who strokes your hair until you fall asleep, then does the same when you wake up. A cold (only in temperature) cat, a howling porch spirit, a quieter, yet still howling, porch spirit. Something that looks like a panther, a grandmother, an old-timey Amish doctor. A child, another child, another child — all happy, laughing. They want you to come into the woods, but you only stand on the edge. They remember that time you brought them candy and played a clapping game, won’t you do that again? A blue specter, a white specter, a technicolor specter. A sister and a brother, disco era. A man who tells you, loudly, that he doesn’t believe in ghosts. Yourself, in the mirror, until you shake yourself out of it. Everyone but your father who has been sent by his children Somewhere Else.
This is probably the clearest we’re going to get, so pay attention. You’re the only person that has to live — to suffer through, to endure, to find joy in, to experience ecstasy with — your life, so no one else’s opinions matter on this. If you need a second opinion, ask your sharpest friend. They will sow you a pragmatic shape, thank them for it. Still, don’t feel as though that conversation was a map, it so rarely is. The ghosts are everywhere. They feel like dreams, which is perhaps why you become so comfortable with them. At first, they are like a nightmare — the worst one you had as a child. But like anything, you learn to survive them. They have forgotten the capsule of the body, the confines of the flesh. You understand this, somehow.
Of course, there are ways to ward against. Carry a book with you always. Learn to listen to the wind. Touch water from a spring at least once. Kiss someone with passion-fruit flavored lip balm on and don’t be embarrassed afterward. Remember that no one is looking at you in the grocery store. Think, for once, that you are so very lucky to be alive, despite it all. Keep thinking it until it feels true. One day, when you least expect it, it just might.
index of images
recommended reading & listening list, until the good dreams come back + notes
BTS, anything, an unexpected but much-needed pleasure
Lord Huron, Strange Trails, ghosts galore
“Rich Spirit” by Kendrick Lamar on repeat
“If We Were Made of Water” by Banks, ditto
Normal Gossip, podcast, feels like small-town life
This American Life, podcast, when you’re laying in bed (morose)
Fresh Air, podcast, same but while driving
Selected Stories, Alice Munro, if Alice Munro has ten thousand fans, etc.
The School for Good Mothers, Jessamine Chan, heartbreaking & excellent
Disorientation, Elaine Hsieh Chou, did this make you scream in recognition? Maybe!
Anything, literally ANYTHING, by Akwaeke Emezi
Calypso, David Sedaris, a tiny guilty pleasure?
Gumbo Ya Ya: Poem, Aurielle Marie, won a bunch of award and also written by someone you love! A win-win!
Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, Avery F. Gordon, what more can you say?
a final note
Thank you for participating in this syllabus with me. I hope you took joy in reading what was not joy but was not not joy. It feels a little weird to break the wall, but whatever. I went to an MFA program that was lauded as Experimental so I think I deserve to do it at least once, for all I’ve suffered. And lived. The living was definitely there, too.