PseudoPod 703: Dream House

Show Notes

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Creepy Podcast
Channel Zero: Candle Cove
Kris Straub

Dream House

By Orrin Grey

It was the last night of the Festival, and we were all sitting around one of the long tables out behind the Moon and Sixpence. It was cold enough that my feet were freezing and my hands were shoved into the pockets of my jacket when not gesturing or picking up a drink. Above us, a suitably gibbous moon dipped in-and-out behind clouds that would’ve otherwise been invisible.

There were still a couple of movies playing, so the back patio wasn’t too crowded yet, but I’d talked Simon out of watching Curse of the Crimson Altar on account of it being five minutes of awesome and an hour-and-change of people walking around in dark houses, so we were staking out the table ’til the Festival ended and the last movies let out. Simon was telling me about some French movie he’d seen this year that came off as a poor man’s John Carpenter, one that seemed to get worse every time he mentioned it.

As the table gradually filled up, the conversation twisted and turned—as conversations like that, in places like those, always do—and somehow or other we got on the subject of Lovecraft in old TV shows. Maybe there was a panel on it, or someone was suggesting one for next year. They’d showed the Stuart Gordon “Dreams in the Witch House” that year, and Nick mentioned that “Pickman’s Model” episode of Night Gallery, which I’d always loved. I told him it was my favorite adaptation of the story, and someone else—probably Ross—agreed. Sooner or later, of course, somebody brought up Dream House

There wasn’t anyone at the table who hadn’t seen at least a few episodes—some back when it was still on the air, most of us on reruns on Saturday afternoon when we were kids, or on those two-episode VHS packs that floated around video stores for a while—and nobody had much that was nice to say about it, beyond that it had “potential,” the faint praise with which we damn things that we want to like but can’t quite. Mostly, we all agreed that it barely counted as Lovecraftian, for all its swinging and missing in that direction, but then a voice brought up the lost episodes.

I didn’t recognize the woman doing the talking, but by then that was true of about half the people around the table. She was sitting on the other side of Jesse, and I thought I remembered her coming back with him from one of his trips to the bar for drinks. The corner she was sitting in was the darkest on the patio, her back against the bulbous tree the broke up the back fence line. Her features were mostly lost to shadow, but she was smoking a cigarette, and when she took a pull the glow from the cherry would flare up enough to illuminate the edges of her face, which seemed a little worn and creased, not that any of us were looking our best in the dim patio lights at the dregs of the Festival. I asked around afterward, but nobody seemed to know her name, or remember seeing her anyplace else during the weekend.

When she mentioned the lost episodes, someone at the other end of the table laughed and said something like, “Yeah, they’re probably great, since nobody’s ever seen them.” She let out a sigh, the cherry on her cigarette bobbing like the bouncing ball in an old sing-along. “They’re around,” she said. “They were on YouTube for a while, but they got pulled down.”

“The story goes,” Cody said, because of course, if anybody knew the story, it was going to be Cody, “that they used to circulate them on recorded tapes, back in the pre-Internet days. Some kid supposedly watched them and then cut up his family and asphyxiated himself with a garbage bag taped around his head. That got more press than the show ever did, even if it’s probably not true.”

“Early days Marilyn-Manson-made-me-do-it stuff,” someone else said, nodding, remembering the legend now. “Wonder if anyone ever got sued over that.”

The initial speaker shook her head, ground out her cigarette on the tabletop so that the shadows swallowed her face again. “Naw,” she said, “nobody ever got sued, because there wasn’t anybody left.”

The next morning, most everybody besides the locals flew out, and I drove up with Simon to spend a couple of days in Seattle before heading home. We stayed up late watching The Lurking Fear and Virgin Witch in his apartment, but I couldn’t get the conversation about Dream House out of my head. I’d seen maybe seven or eight episodes over the years—it used to play late at night on one of the channels that we got when I was growing up, after Renegade and Kung Fu but before Beauty and the Beast with Ron Perlman, so I usually didn’t stay up late enough to catch it.

Now, though, my curiosity was piqued, so I looked it up on Wikipedia, skimmed through episode synopses and cast lists until I came to a headline that simply said “Tragedy” in big black letters.

It seemed that a fire had broken out on set during principal photography. All told, ten people died as a result of the blaze. Investigators expected arson, but according to Wikipedia no arrests were ever made in connection with the disaster, which was partially responsible for the show folding after shooting less than a season worth of episodes. A couple of the main actors died in the fire, or at the hospital later as a result of smoke inhalation, including Judy Becker, the woman who played Jennifer Cristain/Lady Jenny, the show’s main star.

Digging a little deeper, I found that our nameless Dream House fan hadn’t been wrong. Nobody involved in the show was still alive. A few people who had played bit parts in individual episodes were still around, some of them had even gone on to have real acting careers, and the actress who played a little girl in the third episode was going to be in a movie opposite Ryan Gosling next year. But anyone who had played a recurring character or been involved in writing, directing, or shooting the show was dead. Not one had survived the show’s cancellation by more than five years.

The reasons for those that I could find reasons for spanned the range of typical Hollywood causes of death—from cancers to car accidents, drug overdoses and suicides, and at least one disquieting mass-homicide about which I could find almost no detailed information online. I was reminded of the rumors about the various fates of the people involved in making Manos—famously the “worst” movie ever shown on MST3k, though for that particular plum my pick might have to go to Hobgoblins. This, though, seemed a little more real, the tragedies and mysteries a little easier to verify.

Before I closed my laptop and turned in for the night, I sent an email to Shawn, asking him about the so-called “lost episodes.” He’d helped me track down hard-to-find flicks for my Vault of Secrets column before, so I figured if I knew anyone who could find the Dream House episodes, it’d be him.

I didn’t hear back from Shawn until after I’d gotten back to Kansas, but the email he finally sent me had links to two of the “lost episodes” in it. “The most innocuous ones, I’m told,” he said. “There’s supposed to be one more, the really bad one, but I couldn’t find hide nor hair of it. Not even a plot synopsis. Seems like it disappeared into the wild blue yonder.”

It took a few days of post-trip recovery and catching up on work before I managed to queue up the episodes. I watched them downstairs in my office, on my laptop, with all the lights out and my headphones on. They looked like shit and sounded worse, and had obviously been recorded by hooking two VCRs together. The picture swam and shifted, like when we used to try to pirate pay channels on my friend’s cable when we were kids. One minute the dialogue was so muted that I couldn’t make it out, the next I was snatching my headphones off to keep from being deafened.

The first episode seemed like a pretty standard series entry. It focused on the Jennifer/Lady Jenny character, one actress playing both the young woman who came to open Dream House back up and turn it into a bed and breakfast, and the young wife of the slave owner who ran it back when it was still a plantation. It was the main thing I remembered from late nights watching the series as a kid, lots of flashing back and forth between the past and the present. It got a lot of mileage out of that portrait-in-the-entryway-looks-exactly-like-me trope that Gothic movies love so much.

In this episode, Jennifer was having nightmares about Lady Jenny’s life, and when she woke in the mornings, the sheets all mussed alluringly, her bare feet and the hem of her nightdress were dirty. As the episode progressed, she found damp, shapeless footprints on the stairs of the house, and saw bulbous shadows moving along the wall. In my notes I wrote down, “Fungus people?” and circled it. Eventually, the episode culminated in what was maybe supposed to be another dream sequence. A door opened in the corner of Jennifer’s bedroom, spilling out a weird greenish light. She rose from the bed and crossed the room, though a close-up shot of her face made it very clear that her eyes were staring, vacant and asleep.

On the other side of the secret door she descended a spiraling hidden staircase until she came to a basement. There, half-glimpsed figures awaited her, surrounding something that I couldn’t make out in the murky darkness of the terrible video transfer. A shape that might have been a man knelt on the ground before her, and she was suddenly holding a knife. The scene cut to darkness, like a commercial break, and when it came back up it was daylight, birds were singing in the trees outside, and Jennifer was lying safe in her bed, but with those same tell-tale dirty feet.

The second episode introduced a new character, a reporter named Wayland whose grandfather had been a slave on the plantation. Wayland was planning to write a book about the strange things that went on at Dream House back in the day, and to that end he convinced modern-day Jennifer to rent him a room, even though the bed and breakfast didn’t seem to be technically up and running yet. He snuck around the place a bit, saw some ominous stuff, and found a secret graveyard out behind the main house, but then the episode got really weird.

A door opened into Wayland’s room while he was sleeping, spilling that same green light as in the previous episode. A woman came out of the door. It looked like she might have been played by the same actress who played Jennifer/Lady Jenny, but there was something wrong with her face, and the picture was too low-res for me to tell for sure. Whoever she was, she was pale as death, and she had what looked like a man with her, albeit on the end of a leash and walking on all fours. It was either wearing some kind of suit—a bondage suit, on TV in the 60s?—or it was supposed to be an ape or something, because it was so dark that it blended into the shadows.

Wayland got up and followed the woman down the stairs, and in the middle of the same dirt-floored basement that Jennifer had ended up in during the other episode, he found an idol of green stone. It stood roughly the height of a man, and was carved in the shape of a crouching figure, its head spreading out into, well, tentacles, I guess, though their angles were sharper than that word usually calls to mind. There was a noise on the soundtrack like clanking chains, and then Wayland started to scream and the episode cut to black.

That would’ve probably been the end of it, if I hadn’t hit a dry spell. I finished catching up on the work that I’d missed while I was in Portland, and there was nothing waiting on the other side. Just doldrums, and streaming movies on Netflix. I knew that I should take advantage of the slow days to chip into my to-read pile or work on some of my own projects, but I just found myself feeling listless, re-watching old episodes of The Simpsons and drifting.

I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t gotten the second email from Shawn. I guess he hadn’t been able to leave well enough alone either, and sometime in the midst of my fallow period I got a message from him saying that he’d tracked down the place where they shot the exteriors for Dream House on one of those websites that show you the shooting locations of movies and TV shows.

The website showed a screen grab from the show, and below it, a photograph of the actual house from the same angle. It said that some fans of the show had bought the house back in the late 90s and actually turned it into a bed and breakfast for real. They even kept the sign from the show: DREAM HOUSE, Est. 18–. Which, of course, those of us who had seen even a few episodes knew that while the house itself may have been built in 18–, the basement was much older. Hewn from the earth, not by the hands of white settlers, nor by the native tribes who once lived on the land, but by some older race. Knowing Lovecraft, probably serpent men or something.

At the bottom was the address, and a link to the website of the bed and breakfast. Before the end of the day, I had called and booked a room.

I told Grace it was a research trip, that I figured I could get something substantial out of this whole “lost episodes,” visit-to-the-actual-house thing. Something I could maybe sell to Rue Morgue or some website that paid more than $50 an article. Maybe I even believed it at the time, or maybe I knew better, even then. “If nothing else,” Grace said, “it’ll be a tax deduction.”

She almost went with me, but then her work signed on a big new client and that meant long weeks that she couldn’t skip, so I ended up going alone. That’s maybe the only good thing that came out of any of this, that she wasn’t able to come with me. That she, at least, was spared.

Driving to the place took a couple of days, and I spent the night in a nice suite at a Holiday Inn watching old episodes of Night Gallery and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In a story, there would have been a rerun of Dream House on, or at least the “Pickman’s Model” episode of Night Gallery, but in real life nobody shows Dream House anymore, and the Night Gallery episode maybe had something to do with a lady vampire on a house boat, I was mostly asleep already by the time it came on.

That night I had a dream where I stood outside the front of the bed and breakfast. Someone had spraypainted over the sign, adding the letters “s in the witch” between the words “dream” and “house.” My eye was a camera lens taking a time-lapse photo, and I watched the clouds scud across the sky too quickly, the light changing in jerky, stop-motion switches.

In the dream there was a blink, and I was looking at the house from behind and above. It looked strangely innocuous, like a dollhouse, and between me and it there was a field where cars were parked, car after car, from different ages. Old Packard’s and 50s convertibles with big fins. Nature was gradually erasing their distinguishing features, sun and time scouring the paint from their hoods as kudzu grew up around them, devouring them as it would one day devour everything else.

I woke up feeling unrested, and almost turned the car around then and there, but the website for Dream House had said there was a fee for last-minute cancellations, and I was already so close.

By the time I pulled up in front of the house it was the middle of the afternoon. The sunlight was golden and soft, and everything looked almost exactly like the opening titles of the show. The golden light, the old plantation house with its white paint and columns. I could almost hear that tinkling theme song playing somewhere off in the distance.

When I walked in through the front doors, I expected to find a big painting of Lady Jenny looking down at me, but of course, that had been filmed on a set, and instead I walked in to find the front desk with a painting hanging above it showing some kind of hunting scene, something brought over from the Old World.

The woman behind the counter looked like the mother from a TV show about a pioneer family, her black hair just beginning to go iron-gray at the roots. She wore a blue dress with white flowers—magnolias, perhaps, which would seem appropriate.

She introduced herself as Irene and had me sign in, and I asked her a few questions about the inn, and about the show. It turned out that she and her husband had bought it from the fans who’d originally converted it after they’d gone under, and she wasn’t a fan of the show, though she knew a little. “Some of it was shot right here,” she told me, “at least that’s what they say. I can give you her room, if you want.”

I didn’t have to ask to which “her” she was referring, and said that yes, I’d love to have Lady Jenny’s room, if it was available. She asked if I needed any help with my bags, but I declined. Years of attending conventions had taught me how to pack light.

My room was, in fact, Lady Jenny’s, down to most of the furniture, though the knick-knacks on the shelf were different. There was the dressing mirror where Lady Jenny combed her long brown hair. Irene told me that some of the scenes of the bedroom were shot at the house, while others were shot on a sound stage somewhere else. I had the disorienting feeling that comes with walking into a place you know intimately but have never visited; a feeling, I imagine, that is unique to the generations who have grown up with TV and movies.

The room had a window that faced the back of the house, and when Irene left I peered out beyond the lacy curtains, holding my breath in case I was presented with a field of rusting cars. Instead, I saw only picturesque trees strung with Spanish moss. I resolved to go exploring tomorrow, and spent the night setting up my laptop, typing up notes from the road, and responding to emails and Facebook messages. I called Grace and told her goodnight before falling asleep to black-and-white Dragnet episodes on the little TV that they’d archaically stuck in the corner of the room.

In my dream it was like I was a camera again, mounted on a tripod in the corner, watching myself sleep. I saw a door open in the wall, the wainscoting and Victorian wallpaper sliding apart to reveal a gap, first of darkness, then filling with a familiar green light. I watched as I rose from my bed and followed the light through the door and down the stairs, my dream-camera coming unmoored and drifting over my shoulder.

The basement was clearer in the dream than it had ever been in the show, the shadows sharp and in high definition, the blackness crisp and hard-edged. Shapes waited for me in those shadows, figures hooded and cowled, shambling things and squirming things that made me think of the rubber suited ghoul from that Night Gallery episode, or the Toho mushroom people in Matango. I wanted to look closer, to peer into the shadows and pick out the comforting fakeness of their suits, the seams and zippers, but I was a camera, and I had no free will, so I saw them only peripherally, my gaze fixed ahead.

What I could see were the manacles and chains affixed to the stone columns that held up the ceiling. Generations of blood had seeped into the earthen floor and changed its color forever, and I thought of Jennifer’s dirty feet in the lost episode, the rusty red that hadn’t translated well to the color palette of 60s TV.

In the center of the basement was a statue that I had seen before, its bulk almost human but hunched like a toad up on its haunches, its face a mass of angular tentacles. It was limned in the same sickly green illumination that engulfed me, a light that seemed to sweat from the statue’s surface. Next to it stood a figure draped in a black robe, a figure that I recognized as Lady Jenny, though her features were askew, like a mask poorly fitted over some shifting form beneath. Beside her crouched a darker shape which she held on the end of a chain, and when she spoke it wasn’t with the voice of Judy Becker. It was the voice of an old drunk, dying from tuberculosis. The voice of a thousand worms, suddenly given the power of speech.

I woke with her words on my tongue, though I couldn’t fit them to human vocalization, couldn’t make any sense of them, even to write them down. I’ll spare you any Lovecraftian attempt at approximating the sounds, which began to die in my memory even as I scrambled for pen and paper.

Irene confirmed my suspicions that many of the rooms in Dream House—my own included—had once had servant’s entrances that let onto back stairways winding down to the kitchens and, of course, even the larder in the basement. The doors themselves had been lost to one of the building’s renovations, but some of the stairs remained buried behind the walls, and she confirmed, when I pointed to the spot where my dream door had been, that it was about where the servant’s entrance appeared in old photographs of the room.

I asked her about the basement, but she said that most of it had been filled up and bricked over since before her time there. “If there’s any way into it,” she smiled, “I’ve never seen it.”

So here’s the lightning round bonus question: When you’re dealing with things that exist outside of our normal conception of either space or time, is a dream sequence really any less real than anything else? I think we both know the answer to that one.

That morning, I went out to walk the grounds. I picked my way along a trampled-down path that led around the side of the house, past the trees with their almost staged moss, and across a footbridge that spanned a small stream. The sun was shining, but there was no birdsong, and the farther I walked the more I began to notice kudzu creeping up the trunks of the trees, crowding in on the sides of the path.

I was almost unsurprised when I rounded the corner and saw the rusted shell of the first car. It wasn’t a field, like it had been in my dream. Trees grew up among them, hiding them from view from the air or the windows of the house, but here they were, car after car, when you could find them among the foliage run riot. What’s more, I’d paid attention on the walk, and I knew that I’d taken more or less the same path that Wayland had in the lost episode, when he’d stumbled upon the secret cemetery.

I didn’t get immediately back into my car and drive away, leaving all my stuff up in the room, like I would have encouraged a character to do had I been watching a movie. It wasn’t stupidity that drove me back inside—remember that, the next time you’re watching a scary movie and someone goes down into the basement—it was curiosity, maybe the only emotion in our repertoire that’s capable of overpowering our fear.

Inside the house, I scrutinized the painting on the wall behind the front desk, looking for subtle changes. I asked Irene, casually, about her husband, and she said that he was around there someplace, that he usually tended the grounds while she kept up the house itself. She looked straight at me as she spoke, her eyes brown and deep as wells, and I thought of the scene in In the Mouth of Madness, the kindly old lady behind the counter with her husband shackled to her leg, the bloody ax waiting out in the greenhouse.

I went upstairs, packed my bags, and checked out of my room a day early. I drove home without stopping except to fuel up and buy sodas, deleted the lost Dream House episodes from my computer, kissed my wife, and lived happily ever after. But of course you and I both know, dear reader, that’s not how these stories end. I called yesterday to make my second reservation at Dream House. Irene didn’t sound at all surprised to hear from me.

I’ll kiss Grace goodbye one last time—I wonder if she’ll know, if she’ll try to stop me, but I’m beyond stopping now. I’ll return to the Dream House, and when I get there I’ll drive around the side, along the road I’ve never taken, to the parking lot that I shouldn’t know about, and pull my rental car up alongside the other rusting hulks that lie beneath the kudzu. I’ll collect my key from the front desk, and I’ll go up to my room—the same room as before—and I’ll lie down on the bed and go to sleep, perchance to dream.

About the Author

Orrin Grey 

Orrin Grey

Orrin Grey is a writer, editor, tabletop game designer, amateur film scholar, and monster expert whose stories of monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year. He’s the author of several books, including Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts and Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales.

Find more by Orrin Grey 

Orrin Grey

About the Narrator

Orrin Grey 

Orrin Grey

Orrin Grey is a writer, editor, tabletop game designer, amateur film scholar, and monster expert whose stories of monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year. He’s the author of several books, including Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts and Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales.

Find more by Orrin Grey 

Orrin Grey