My Grandad was one of the most fascinating, yet innate beings I have ever known. He had an intellectual mystique of which he called upon on demand, sometimes to enlighten one of a particular topic subject, often to contest and correct a previous remark. It was the most sinister form of rhetoric, but usually went untested still.
What I knew of the man was right in front of me and that would never change. The local family would come together each Saturday afternoon till late. I would always find him sat at the table in ‘his chair’, instantly recognisable by the smoggy tobacco stain left on the ceiling directly above, resembling near-on twenty years of pipe smoking activity. Even on the seldom occasions where he wasn’t to be found (usually mid-afternoon before he would retire to his comfort zone) you could tell he wasn’t far away, judging by the thriving activity on the partitioned section of the table. Burning embers and a railway magazine were usually the giveaway. I’d go find him, half out of courteousness, half of intrigue. If the weather flattered, the sun would cast into the garden, illuminating what someone of my age at the time may seem as an unattainable jungle. On closer inspection, it was an intricately kept botanical miracle, compiling of various organisms collected and grown over the years. I had no idea that Lancaster could provide a suitable climate for these types of plantation, but under the rigorous observation of himself and my Nanna, they not only coerced them to docility, but made them feel privileged to be there. Amongst them were either my Nanna or Grandad (the overpopulated environment could not incorporate the presence of both at any one time), and they would sit on a miniature stool or the stone step which led into the kitchen.
I’d talk to them about school, the default subject between family members who don’t see each other often. I was more captivated by the enormous graveyard beyond the wall and across the alleyway, which ran adjacent to the whole of my grandparents’ street. Naturally it was haunted, as was the common opinion of my two Uncles who had grown up under the same roof as my mum. Together they were extremely devilish, and clearly saw me as an impish pawn to whom they could play their dastardly tricks on. In doing so, they planted the seed in my mind, the idea of which was that the only place more haunted than the graveyard was my Grandad’s cellar. The cellar itself was out of bounds when my Grandad himself wasn’t down there. Of course, to a child, ‘out of bounds’ as a statement was nothing but a supplement for daring adventure.
As part of their iniquitous deed, I was told by one of my Uncles that the previous owners of the house had an argument at the entrance of the cellar, which began verbally but ended physically when the husband pushed the wife down the stone stairs and into the bleakness. He left her down there for days, presuming she was either knocked unconsciousness or worser still while his guilt became more and more unbearable. Eventually he ventured down the stairs in a mournful sob, expecting to find his deceased beloved at the bottom. The basement floor scantily came into view as he neared the bottom step, but she wasn’t to be seen anywhere. As his curiosity and panic flooded him, he wandered further into the abyss, unaware that he was about to be struck from behind by the very entity he was opting to seek.
When I first heard the story, I was petrified, but also stumbled into cognitive dissonance over the tale, pondering if it was passed down by my Grandad onto my Uncles to keep them from exploring where they shouldn’t explore. Nonetheless, I wasn’t ready to find out whether my hypothesis was correct, as the iconography was suitably present to convey the realism that my Uncle’s story suggested. The door to the cellar was barely on its hinge, splintered to such a degree that I could have sworn Wendy Torrence was cowering on the other side. The stone stairs had no indication of diligent masonry, wildly varying in width and depth. The walls undecorated and smelled of damp plaster, and above all, it was freezing. The point of any good ghost story is to describe the darkness of the environment, and Stephen Tobolowsky mentioned that darkness is a pretty good indicator of somewhere you don’t wanna be. Well here, at the zenith of the cellar looking down, there was lots of it. Also, like any good basement, the light switch is at the bottom of the stairs, out of sight. This made the decent slightly less agreeable. It was at this point that my atheist-like reflex kicked in, in the form of adaptive preferences. Suddenly I had nothing to prove any nobody to prove wrong. I was the fox who didn’t care for the grapes (only after he couldn’t jump high enough to reach them).
We like to extenuate ghost stories for narrative purposes, to scare our friends and fraternize fundamental unbelievers, but more often than not the results of any given experience are disappointing. It doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a good scare though, I have bags of ghost stories to tell. It’s just that the movie protagonist doesn’t have the rational I possess, so the outcome is generally more gruesome and gratifying. At the end of the movie, I’m the one who always remarks “well if the house was haunted, why didn’t they go stay with their friends?” The person next to me always gives me a daring glare and replies “what kind of movie would that be?”