My husband and I were married while he was still in college (wiser heads did not prevail) and during this period he worked at a little garden center with a trailer behind it, where he lived as a sort of caretaker. I decided to join him there (once again wiser heads did not prevail). After two years of living in this cracker sleeve, as my husband called it, with the mountain winds rattling through the porous, Barbie camper-like walls, we decided, with great fanfare, to move to a real house. Still a rental, but a real house. We found an old farmhouse, the most beautiful, if dilapidated, farmhouse both of us had ever seen, 15 miles from Boone, North Carolina, the town which defines civilization in those parts. Going deep into the mountains 15 miles from Boone is the local equivalent of heading off the map into “here be dragons” territory, and Vera, a native of the region who lived next door to our trailer gave us an ominous warning about our new neighborhood. Vera cautioned us to stick the main roads. If it ain’t paved, don’t take it should be our new motto. Vera claimed she knew of people who tried to cross over the mountains to Boone using back roads who never quite showed up at their destination. While we considered her neighborly advice well-intended, we certainly didn’t take it seriously. This was the 21st century after all. The mountains were flooded with tanned Floridians throwing money around like candy and the days of squealing like a pig, so to speak, were long gone. Or so we thought.
To get to our new home, which we imaginatively called the Farmhouse, you had to drive up a long lane, across a bridge built over a picturesque creek, until you arrived at the house, which presented itself in a regal fashion, clad in white clapboard with porches all the way around, anchored by not one, but two gazebos at the corners. An old tobacco barn along with another huge barn were on either side of the house, and cows grazed in the front yard. The farmhouse hadn’t been properly lived in for a long time. It was in a rundown state — the last family member to live there had only used three of the downstairs rooms, the rest of the house left to its own devices. But what devices. It had been built by someone who knew what he was doing, the house perfectly sited on a small rise in between two mountain ridges, surrounded by 165 acres of mountain streams, woods and pastureland with thickets of berry bushes. When we moved in the blackberries were ripe, as big as our thumbs, practically falling into our buckets as we picked them. Blackberry cobber followed, along with baths in the vintage clawfoot tub and mornings where our only alarm clock was a cow, nuzzling the glass window of the vast bedroom, which we furnished with all the washed-out spareness of an Andrew Wyeth painting. We only had access to the ground floor, which was so vast, abundant with multiple unused rooms, the idea of not using the upstairs was a relief. It was all a sort of paradise, except for one thing. The man who owned the house, our landlord, was totally mad. Completely crazy. Early in our tenure he just happened to mention that the upstairs hadn’t been touched since his grandmother died, decades before. He took me upstairs to see the rooms, and I can still picture her bedroom, heavy with matching Victorian oak furniture, stained a dark brown. The room was exactly as she had left it when she died, except for the fact that the furniture was now in disarray, everything was covered in thick layers of dust and cobwebs, it was infested with mice, and the linens were rotted — the curtains just long, extended rags. And then there was the fact that the upstairs had no electricity. This was all weird enough, but then our landlord followed with an offhand tale about something that took place just before we moved in, before we turned on the downstairs electricity. The landlord’s car broke down during a visit to the farmhouse, and although he was flush with cash (he was someone who lived off the interest of his father’s investments, bully for him) and nearby relations, he chose to stay upstairs in the house — for four days. He would go to bed early, before it was dark, when he could still see well enough to make his way upstairs, where he slept in his grandmother’s ancient wheezing bed, with mice running across him and only the pitch darkness of the entire house for company. And it would get very, very dark there. When a house is nestled between two ridges, with mountains looming from every side, darkness comes fast and deep, and your lamps cast tiny, futile little pools of light. To add to the sense of doom every dusk would bring, a massive cloud of bats would pour out of the top of the tobacco barn and flit around in their signature unnerving manner. Dusk would turn into night and it would soon grow too dark to see them but you knew there were there, flying just outside your curtainless windows. But all of this we could live with, we told ourselves. The bats, grandma’s furniture, the sagging 19th century wallpaper in the front room, the circa 1940s toilet, the cattle storming the house. We were even willing to live with a few ghosts, as just a quick glance around during our initial visit to the house was a sort of full disclosure that the place might very well be haunted.
It turns out that the house was, indeed, haunted. But not by ghosts. It was haunted by the specter of that landlord. Always hanging around, the threat of his craziness ready to descend on us at any moment, far more oppressive than darkness and a lot less predictable. Among other signs of confusion, he seemed to confuse his grandma’s bed with his own, and he seemed ready to camp out at a moment’s notice. He had a strange, paranoid preoccupation with keeping everything exactly the same as he imagined it had always been. And not just the parts of the house that were original, no matter how sagging or torn. He kept totems of each inhabitant, and after each downstairs tenant — usually pot-smoking, mattress-on-the-floor tenant — would move out, every thrift store addition they made to the house (and they only added junk, never took it away), seemed to, in our landlord’s mind, become part of the place itself, subsumed in its history, never to be altered. After two weeks of living there, during which I was home alone all day long with the landlord hovering, making strange pronouncements in between ordering around his own personal work crew of two toothless, leering, spitting mountain day laborers, their jaws bulging with chaw (who were supposedly building a fence) I began to get used to the idea of being dismembered, hopefully after being murdered first, surveying the situation as though I was watching it all take place on screen, in one of those Lifetime movies. The ones where you yell at the main character to get it together and hightail it out of there. Our infatuation with the house, with its potential and the idea of rescuing it, began to fade, and we realized that the only thing that would change about the situation was the state of our own mental health. Which, in its current, lucid condition, we began to appreciate more and more, especially in contrast to our madman of a landlord and his increasingly common bouts of wild-eyed screaming. I began to wish that the spirit of our landlord’s grandmother did, in fact, roam around upstairs, so that I might summon her to the first floor to give her grandson a good talking to. But instead it became clear that the only entity haunting the house was our landlord, who was never, ever, ever going to truly go away. Two more weeks passed after this revelation, and we decided to basically flee, in the time-honored manner of haunted house inhabitants everywhere. We left our furniture (which is no doubt still there), left the house, left the mountains, left North Carolina and kept driving until we reached the Northeast, where even the native hillbillies still able to afford Vermont have a certain New England charm.
We still think of that beautiful farmhouse, and wonder if any tenant ever came along powerful enough to save the place, a tenant with a power greater than the energy it takes to wander from room to room waving a bundle of smoldering sage, clearing out more conventional spirits. Maybe someone came along with enough clout to demand that the landlord turn over a deserving house to a deserving soul, someone whose resolve was strengthened by the fact that some hauntings are nothing more than the work of flesh-and-blood. And no entity manages to wreak more havoc than man.