American Remake Of A Japanese Ghost Story
There’s a curse in folklore known as a geas. That’s when a witch, or a fairy, or the supernatural entity of your choice, compels a hapless mortal to undertake duties on the creature’s behalf. Woe betides the mortal who shirks the quest; increasingly worse calamities befall them until they relent or die.
Somebody, somewhere, laid one on me.
A much younger, blissfully ignorant, Jessica Mace would’ve glibly asserted that fairytales are bullshit hoodoo made up by gullible peasants. Problem is, when I neglect to investigate the various mysteries in my path, I get epic migraines and nightmares. The more I rebel, the more intense my misery until it becomes debilitating. “Debilitating” sounds dry—I suffer projectile vomiting induced by the sense fire ants are hollowing my skull. Exactly as the legends describe, right? Call it a form of madness or a kind of placebo-effect. Odds are Hamlet told Horatio the truth about the denizens of his undreamt philosophy. Whatever, whichever, however: the world shows you its dark side, you take notice. That fucking needle starts skipping, you’re a true believer.
Beasley, a boon comrade and sometime lover, once questioned my motives. We were dumping the corpse of a serial killer down a mineshaft in eastern Montana. The killer, a Richard Ramirez lookalike, had picked me up at a roadside tavern. RR Jr. chauffeured me to his favorite dump site while I batted my lashes and stroked his thigh. Thank whichever patron saint is in charge of such details that I’d managed to open the passenger door and light the cab for Beasley to take his shot. I’d only been half-strangled before the bullet came through the windshield. As the late, great Al Davis would say, just win, baby.
In the aftermath, we recovered with a bottle. Beasley said, Jessica, you’re a bright woman. You got an education. Why schlep all over the USA looking for horrors to battle? Why live your life as bait in a trap?
I recall pouring another healthy dose of whiskey into our glasses and lighting a cigarette. I drank the booze and smoked most of the cigarette before coming up with a succinct answer. If I don’t, the horrors tend to come looking for me. Bless him, he caught my drift.
Ever consider the possibility you’re cursed?
Halfway into the bag, it was probably a throwaway comment. I had, in fact, never entertained the notion. A pit opened in my mind. A pit with all manner of darksome surprises at the bottom.
Shortly after wrapping the horror mockumentary, Torn Between Two Phantom Lovers, which was based on archival footage of a tragedy in Japan’s Sea of Trees circa 1977, director Gil Finlay and his wife Rikki bought a defunct farm near the Catskills. The way I heard it, the previous owners, a retired couple, passed away unexpectedly and their lawyer unloaded the deed for a song. A big American Gothic structure updated to resemble something Argento might’ve used as a set in the heyday of vinyl and exploitation cinema. Gil invited a few of us to the housewarming. I rode along with a sound tech and a gaffer. Cold and starry, but not quite winter. Basically my mood writ large.
The creepy part was when we pulled into the yard and the place perfectly resembled my recent bad dreams right down to the peaked roof, nearby shed, and fields and woods. The dreams themselves were vague and disjointed as dreams are wont to be. I recalled wandering fields by moonlight, then an endless maze of dim hallways. Occasionally, someone or something on my periphery plucked at my hair . . .
“Jessica, baby!” Rikki hugged me on sight. Almost didn’t recognize her in a cocktail dress, her hair done up and face put together. Bowie-level glam. She usually dwelt in the background, organizing Gil’s life and dousing fires as his unofficial publicist. She was a genius at it, too. Otherwise, I sincerely doubt he would’ve remembered which direction his pants went on in the morning.
She apologized for the mess. Renovations were behind schedule—carpenters had knocked down a wall here and there, drop cloths covered half the furniture, and a crew of electricians hadn’t finished rewiring the house. Lamps shone in the main areas while outlying rooms were either strung with plastic bulbs or left utterly dark. “A housewarming isn’t a party, it’s a get-together, right?” she said. “Like casual Friday, but for a house.”
I advised her not to worry—as long as she kept the booze flowing and nobody fell into an open pit, guests would let the decor slide. She nodded gratefully, then dashed off to holler at Gil who’d tramped in from the muddy backyard (in reality, a pasture) while still wearing a pair of clodhoppers. Plenty of his homies had made the scene, including assorted C-listers and a couple of LA suits. The suits in particular seemed bemused by the rustic location.
It promised to be a long grind of an evening. I lurked on the stairs, not far from the front door, weighing the pros and cons of abandoning my mission and doing a French leave even if it meant trudging down the dirt road that led here. This dude in a starched shirt handed me a can of beer and said running wouldn’t do any good—he’d tried it once or twice. I introduced myself and waited for him to recognize me; either from my striking features or the jagged scar on my throat. His expression remained neutral. Apparently, enough years had passed people didn’t recognize me on sight. Twenty-four-hour news cycle was erasing our collective memory like California shoreline. I popped the top (ensuring the seal hadn’t been violated) and drank to the continued decline of civilization and my own celebrity.
“I’m Lee,” Starched Shirt said. “How are you associated with Mr. Big Shot Film Director?”
Instead of a wiseass response like Where do ya think he gets his blow? or I’m the entertainment, bitch! I played it straight. “PA for Phantom Lovers.” Not a lowkey brag so much as a confession. Production assistant was a polite showbiz definition of lackey. Fetch doughnuts, tote equipment, hold a character actor’s hair back when she puked after a bender; whatever old job came along. “You?”
“We’ve been through the wars.”
“I scouted locations for Gil on Bleeding Mansion and The Ornithologist.”
“The Ornithologist, huh? Nasty.”
“You screened the whole thing? Impressive.”
“Between my fingers.”
“The critics did too,” he said. “An eight-minute scene of a dying naturalist getting his asshole pecked out by vultures is a bridge too far for normies. Great writing, nonetheless.”
“Okay, my burning question: was The Ornithologist an homage to Hitchcock or snide commentary?”
“Snide homage. Getting even on behalf of Tippi Hedron, maybe. Should ask him yourself. Or Rikki. Saw her squeezing the literal shit out of you earlier.”
“She’s a sixteenth grizzly bear.” Another swallow of cheap, warm beer and then I slipped it in. “Somebody said the old owners died. That true?”
He nodded with sagacity borne of incipient drunkenness. “Gil says the husband dropped dead in the yard. Brain aneurism? Heart attack? I don’t know. Wife clicked her heels and went back to wherever. Gil and Rikki were looking for a country retreat . . . ”
“That explains the frantic renovations.”
“Rikki needs to make it her own—”
“She needs to exorcise the ghosts.”
“Well, again, the guy died in the yard . . . Does that count toward a haunting?”
“If you’re the kind to put stock in hauntings, then yep. It counts.”
He nodded the way one does when one doesn’t mean it. Then he stiffened with his mouth quirked oddly. “Weird, I wanted to say something. It’s gone.” He shook himself and his eyes unglazed. “Maybe it’ll hit me in a minute.”
“Five minutes after you get home,” I said. “That’s how it always happens.”
Lee nodded another polite nod and raised his beer and sipped. His eyes darted with an animal’s dismay.
We stood there as the silence grew awkward. Because I was suffering a combo of boredom and edginess, I said, perhaps a trifle stridently, “My opinion about The Ornithologist? Gil’s subconscious was broadcasting a public service message: leave Mother Nature the hell alone. Fuck them loggers. Fuck them tourists and farmers. Fuck them Richard Attenborough types, too. She didn’t ask for any of it.”
“Okay, then,” he said, glancing toward the other guests as if one might beeline over to rescue him.
Meanwhile, I’d already drifted miles away, scoping the layout once more and reassessing avenues of escape. Yeah, pulling stakes for town was tempting. I wouldn’t do that; not while afflicted with a geas, or my compulsion, or call it what you will. What were my options? The aforementioned stairs at my back, climbing into the unknown. Front door and farmland. Brightly lit kitchen through an archway where the hardcore extroverts instinctively gathered. Dark passage on my left, a cluster of green bulbs glowing at the far end.
“Adios. Gotta powder my nose.” I handed Lee my mostly empty and left him mildly befuddled with longing. Beasley could’ve, would’ve, commiserated.
Something was wrong. My plastic divining ball had decreed it so.
Divining ball, you ask? Best way to describe it would be as an off-brand Magic 8 Ball, way smaller than the original. I could palm it, easy. Several years ago, a circus strongperson named Mary stuck it into my pocket; a parting gift at the conclusion of a harrowing adventure. She’d inherited it from a fortuneteller who’d met an unforeseen demise. Mary warned me to restrict myself to a couple of questions per week. You fight the forces of darkness with forces of darkness. Beware, kiddo. This is a portal to the void. Previously I’d relied upon chance to guide my quixotic journeys as a professional final girl. These days, the mini-oracle and my innate gifts combined to ensure I never missed the chance to become embroiled in the most bizarre and dangerous circumstances.
To that point: upon receiving the housewarming invitation (and subsequent nightmares), I’d casually rattled the ball and said, Dear Oracle, is anything fucked up happening at Gil’s house, and if so, should I be concerned? Which, I presume, is how the petitioners at Delphi phrased their entreaties regarding love, life, and invading Spartan armies. The pocket oracle generally responded with yes, no, or maybe. Occasionally, it escalated to cryptic phrases and symbols. This time, its little window flickered and red-limned letters coalesced to spell SHE WAITS. A bit disquieted, I pressed my luck and asked if people were in danger. Upon shaking the ball, a skull bobbed to the surface.
Damn. I should’ve asked if I personally was endangered. It probably went without saying.
After ditching Lee, I ducked outside and smoked a cigarette. The stars were still twitching; the moon had made some progress. Their supreme indifference to the insignificant horrors of human drama was pleasant, emotionally stabilizing. Back indoors, I began my tour of the premises by skirting the living room. None of the clustered guests struck me as a round character much less a serial killer. I’ve an unerring sense regarding these matters. Two girls were bumping and grinding to classic era Depeche Mode. I recognized them from craft services; they’d dutifully arranged sandwiches and refilled carafes day and night, rain or shine. Illumination was funny here; it made bands across their eyes. Straight out of a giallo flick.
I left them, too.
Prickling neck hairs and the queasiness in the pit of my gut acted as faulty Geiger counters—the physical manifestation of hyperactive intuition. Lacking clues, besides a vague, but escalating sense of danger, all I could do was bumble around waiting for one or more of my alarms to trip. Dowsing for evil, more or less. I moseyed along the hall toward the rear of the house, projecting myself into shadow. Part of the weirdness was a natural consequence of transition—white patches on the walls where old photos once hung, not yet covered by the new. To walk through an abandoned home is to traverse the confines of an open grave. The floor lamp beckoned me with its wan light. I ignored doors on either side. This was a mundane adult party, which meant unlike the barn burners we had in high school and college, people hadn’t gathered to do keg stands, nor paired off to fuck on piles of coats.
Swim to me, swim to my shoal, the lamp said. A metal door let onto the back porch. Half-bath on the right—I peeked inside. A bearded guy camped on the toilet, pants around his ankles, chin cupped a la The Thinker. Candles burned on the sink. He nodded. I reversed with a quickness. Another door, on the left, ajar. A chain of plastic bulbs twisted in descent, nominally illuminating old, grooved steps that had weathered the drag and scrape of many feet.
Down, down into a brick and beam cellar because what goes up, and so on. Three women sat on the floor near the furnace, each haloed in crawling green light. They hunched over a homemade Ouija board. Which figured. Two men perched on a matched washer-dryer set, sharing a joint. Looked like bros to me.
“Shh! It’s a séance,” Dryer Bro shushed before I could even get my loud mouth in gear.
I don’t know why some people assume raised voices are antithetical to communing with spirits while others are full speed ahead with hymns and hosannas. “Oh, that’s stupid.” I lit a cigarette. “You don’t screw around in a house where somebody recently kicked.”
“I thought you didn’t screw with the infinite,” Dryer Bro said.
Washer Bro apparently hadn’t heard the news. He almost dropped the joint. “Somebody died here? Totally uncool. Hey, Shelley. Maybe you should ixnay—”
The brunette leading the “séance” was probably three or four years past her high school goth peak. She opened her smokey eyes and shot daggers at Washer Lad. “Maybe you should cram it, Ashton.”
“Hey, Shelley,” I said. “Your boy here is on the money. Ixnay.”
“Who the hell are you?” Smokey Eye Chick said.
“Last of the red-hot Samaritans. I’m curious. Where’d you call?”
“Activate a witchboard, you’re making a call to a random payphone across the veil. Could be a bad neighborhood. Anybody can pick up. Scary part is, whoever’s on the other end has deluxe caller ID.” I tapped my head. “Mr. Ghost of a Psycho Killer’s got your name, number, and home address.” True as far as it went, although I might’ve overstated the danger a wee bit.
“There’s a psycho in here, for sure.” Her smirk reminded me of every foe I’d dreamed of socking in high school and a couple I’d actually punched.
“See? This shit is already going sideways, kid.” My heart wasn’t really into yanking her chain. Didn’t have to consult the oracle to confirm I’d hit a dead end. The sense of dread had faded to a dim background thrum. “Your funeral,” I said with as much menace as possible while exiting the basement.
Back in the living room, somebody lowered the stereo volume and cued Bleeding Mansion, Gil’s debut feature film, on a wall screen. As the title credits rolled over a still of the eponymous giallo mansion, I realized it was a ringer for this very house. Gil’s mansion possessed slightly different angles, yet the spirit of it unnerved me. The house in my nightmare was a composite of both; I didn’t like that, either.
Bam! Dread restored to one-hundred percent. An impression spiked into my brain, a vision, if you will, of a slack-faced man being pulled by his hair up through a hole in the ceiling. I leaned against the wall, playing it casual as a wave of dizziness receded. This kind of destabilizing, traumatic sense of collocation rarely occurred, but when it did, boy, howdy. The image faded like a pop flash, imprint wavering, wavering, gone. The room I’d glimpsed was small and lighted by afternoon sun. Second floor bedroom or office? Only way to know was to poke around, even though I really, truly, abso-fucking-lutely wanted to do anything but.
I pivoted, left hand resting on the knife under my jacket. A formidable blade; slim and easy to conceal. Smokey Eye Chick had apparated out of the shadows on my six. She stared an owlish, luminous stare as if trying to drink my soul.
“Lady,” she said again with a flat affect. “I was supposed to tell you something. You should go upstairs now.” Her lips kept moving after she finished. She regarded the ceiling, turned, and walked off; neck craned so far backward her head flopped as if the vertebrae had come undone. Our inverted gazes locked as she wobbled down the hall.
Frankly, I was at a loss. The million-dollar question: how much did I care for the fate of Gil and Rikki? Followed by: will you wind up wearing adult diapers if you defy the curse and bail? The answers were, a lot, and, probably even worse.
We, the cynical audience, hunker in seats of a darkened theater and mock the heroine who fumbles around, shining a feeble light into corners while meekly calling, Who’s there? Where’s that cynical movie-going wisdom for those who reenact variations of that scene in scores of homes every evening? Yeah, we scoff at heroines and then stumble into our own fates at the first point of crisis. It’s because we’ve trained ourselves to ignore the little warning voice that says, Don’t investigate the noise that woke you. Don’t cross the empty parking lot after hours. Don’t be a fool.
Speaking of fools. The second floor was dark. Party echoes were muffled; a warning that I’d drifted from shore into deep waters. I tried a wall switch to no avail. Then, before I resorted to my penlight, fifteen or twenty feet directly ahead, a floor lamp (cousin to the one downstairs) snapped on. Off. On. Off. On. Faster and faster until it strobed. I approached and crossed into a small office—desk, file cabinet, bookshelf, couch. Another wall switch, also dead. The strobing lamp eroded my composure. I glanced up and saw the inevitable ceiling panel partially ajar. An invitation.
I pushed a footstool beneath the gap and, penlight clenched in my teeth, levered myself into the attic. Warm and musty. Cobwebs, exposed rafters, and fiberglass insulation. Stacks of cardboard boxes and bundles of magazines and newspapers. Home for mice. Home for termites. Home for something else, too.
My feeble penlight probed edges, traced contours of a larger, obscured geography; a midnight continent waited for its latest pilgrim to venture a step too far. Among the detritus, a wooden placard lay propped against boxes. I gleaned just enough kanji to deduce someone had smuggled it from J?ren Waterfall in Japan. J?ren Falls, famous for its natural beauty, was also the origin of the legend of a beautiful spider demon who, in bygone days, lured travelers to their doom. Occasionally, the gods dispense with omens and hand you an actual fucking sign.
A millisecond after I shined my light on that placard, metaphorically speaking, the piano music ceased mid-note. Someone sighed, followed by a sound like cartilage separating. A shape developed like a photographic negative among the rafters—broad, softly angular. Bulky, but nimble. She. Nothing else to call her except she. Her pale visage glimmered against the black frame of her hair, the black of her body. Her eyes were enormous like those of Smokey Eye Chick last I glimpsed her in the hall.
“What do you want?” I said. As if I didn’t have a good guess. As if I wasn’t stalling, hunting for a crucifix, some magic words of protection. Could I take her on with a knife? Could I take on a bear with a knife? May as well ask, could I leap off a cliff and survive?
“Final . . . girl,” she said. “My dream.” Her voice was mine by way of a child’s mimicry. “Dream . . . ”
“Same. You summoned me. Why?” I sensed the only thing keeping me alive was our shared uncertainty. Some power, perhaps the one that cursed me to unravel mysteries, had brought us together. On this occasion, perhaps she craved an answer as much as she craved other forms of sustenance.
Her long, segmented arm that was not an arm unfolded. She brushed my cheek, once, then withdrew. “Sad,” she said. “Hungry.”
I froze. Everything in my bladder wanted to escape. The flesh of my cheek felt abraded and raw. And yet. Years before, I’d seen news footage of a man in a hot, dusty village, extending his water bottle to a cobra dying of thirst. A gesture of humanity in a moment of tremendous peril. I clung to that notion of compassion now. I clung to the notion that even in this impersonal, inscrutable universe, there exists a purpose. “You’re lonely.”
“Alone.” A correction or confirmation. Her bloodless expression gave nothing back. Pitiful, tiny me reflected in her eyes.
“Is this really where you belong?” I said as an idea bloomed. “Hidden away in an attic?”
“Waterfall,” she said and gave me another jab with her psychic stinger.
A falling curtain of water misted me; it boomed against stone. I glimpsed the silhouette of a lovely woman enfolding weary passersby to her bosom. Men, usually. Faithless, straying men.
“We could find a new fall. Would that make you happier?”
She leaned forward. Roofbeams creaked and sagged. “Happier.”
The face of the killer back west floated in my mind’s eye, attached to a mobile of a bunch of other creeps cut from the same bolt of cloth. Men who’d tried to do for me and failed. Stranglers. Shooters. Slashers. She regarded my thoughts and saw them too.
I raised my arm a bit. This took more resolve than I can properly convey. Instinct more than courage, honestly. “So you know, I meet a lot of assholes in my travels.”
Didn’t take long for her to decide. She crawled across the beam, contracting, diminishing from colossus to a speck, from an imminent hazard to a threat, and alighted on my palm. I gently nestled her into my coat pocket. She curled around the oracle.
Trembling, I clicked off the penlight and stood in the heart of the void. “Are you a force of darkness?” I asked my new friend.
“Darkness,” she said, almost a whisper.
“It was a rhetorical question.” I smiled with the euphoric dregs of terror and lowered myself down into the light.
About the Author
Laird Barron, an ex-pat Alaskan, is the author of several books, including The Imago Sequence and Other Stories; Swift to Chase; and Blood Standard. Currently, Barron lives in the Rondout Valley of New York State and is at work on tales about the evil that men do.
About the Narrator
Kaitlyn is a former Marine intelligence officer and current SFF writer living in Japan with her spouse and four kids. She is a graduate of Viable Paradise and an associate editor at PodCastle. Her first story was published in Silk & Steel: A Queer Speculative Adventure Anthology, and you can find more of her work at Cast of Wonders and earlier this year on PseudoPod with the phenomenal “The Child Feast of Harridan Sack.”