Every town has its skeletons in its closets. Riverdale’s just happened to be buried six feet down, two hundred years ago and across the ocean.
Long before the maple syrup was the soil. Red. Blood red. Fortunes were minted on it. Money always attracts attention to itself. The eye is always drawn to the brightest, quickest moving thing in the room. And money, in those days, moved quickly indeed.
Attention brings gossip along with it. Envy, occasionally. Envy and gossip go hand in hand too often. In some parts of the world they call this the evil eye. In the Enlightened World, they called it the truth.
So when the Sharpes began minting their fortune on blood red soil, it wasn’t long before the rumours started flying. It wasn’t long after The Event that the rumours became the truth.
The red clay was unnatural. This was a fact.
Consider the etymology of a name. Sharpe as in keen, as in clever, as in intelligent, perceptive as in: sharp. Smart. Too smart.
Blossom, as in to Blossom, as in to thrive, as in spring, as in flowers unfurling in the field, as in: life. As in: the lifecycle of the plant, set in soil.
They say, of course, the fruit rarely falls far from the tree.
Nana Rose was not quite all there.
Penelope often said this to Clifford, usually loudly. Penelope was the kind of woman who was determined to be overheard. Who liked to stand with drinks in their hands, eyes flitting around the room slyly till they found a crack in the neat facades. They would then take the nail, the hammer and drive the blow home until the crack widened, until the facade disappeared.
They remained intact. It was an old primitive instinct, she supposed. In their youth, it had won them a fortune. Now that she was old, she was part of the wallpaper: a relic of the past, another miscellaneous object in a house full of miscellaneous and aging objects. Nana Rose, unfortunately, could not be labelled antique and therefore, could not be presented to guests in hushed but loving accents. A Landseer , yes really, a Landseer - from? - yes, quite historical . Or perhaps: oh yes, real silver art deco - Boucheron, you know .
So, Penelope exacted revenge.
“Yes Nana dear,” she would say. And then, outside the door, “She’s slipping, Clifford dear. I do love her, but I wonder -”
Or sometimes: “Nana Rose. Such a brave, wonderful woman. But not fully -”
The truth, you see, filled the rest of the blanks in for her. Nana Rose. Not entirely there.
If it wasn’t so insulting, Nana Rose might have been amused.
“But Nana,” said Cheryl. “The fire.”
“Don’t be silly, dear,” said Nana, patting her hand. “Blossoms don’t die.”
It made sense at the time. Jay-jay was dead, but he wasn’t. Daddy was dead and he wasn’t. Nana Rose should have been dead, but wasn’t. Blossom stock, you know. They just didn’t die. She’d known. She’d tried it on for size.
Ghost-hunting, as a sport, only grew in popularity at the fin-du-siecle as aristocrats and charlatans alike discovered the joys and terrors of spiritualism. The Blossoms, naturally, had followed the fashion. Seances replaced card parties. The occult replaced dreary dances. Blossom forbears ooh’d and aah’d good-naturedly at the bangs and knocks supplied by an endless stream of eccentric and modish mediums. Etta Wriedt, paid the princely sum of one hundred and thirty seven dollars precisely (three and seven for good luck, one hundred for good business) to attend a seance hosted by a Blossom forbear, manifested her spirit guide - a dour Jacobite revolutionary called John Sharp - and began a generational long feud between the Blossoms and the Andrews. It was generally felt to be in bad taste, to manifest a Scotsman and a Social Reformist Revolutionary Jacobite, when the Blossoms were descended from sound and very Protestant Cumbrian stock. Allegations of bribery were made. The young town of Riverdale lost its appetite for seances and settled for the more mundane do-it-yourself ouija boards and plasma manifestations.
This was nonsense. Ghosts unequivocally were not plasma. Perhaps in the New World, where everything was new and synthetic: polyacrylonitrile, polyethylene terephthalate, rayon, zylon, nylon. Perhaps here ghosts were wispy plasma, drifting between this world and the next. Ghosts everywhere else were more than this. They were here, but not here. Living, but dead. Tangible but intangible. Rotting and breathing.
The spiritualists had the rules all wrong. Ghosts were sentimental creatures just like the living. Maybe a little more morbid. People hated moving from homes they’d grown up in. Ghosts hated moving from the homes they’d died in. But circumstances changed. Children fought their parents, or sometimes they just grew up and moved on. Stock markets fluctuated. Trust funds evaporated. Sometimes the houses themselves grew old. Peeled paint. Dry rot. Fungus. Acts of God, or if you were Enlightened, acts of nature.
Ghosts, like the people who made them, moved on too. They just did it quietly. You wouldn’t know when they’d gone. Usually, inevitably, because their resting places had been razed, erased and replaced. Usually by one of those hypermodern glass buildings, or a parking lot for someone’s new town council. Or worse, a supermarket.
Sometimes - just sometimes though - the living exacted spiteful, cruel revenge on their ghosts.
She’d met Richard III once, wandering the Dent Fell on a foggy night in 1920. They’d bought his grave out and built a boys school on one side, a bank on the other and something they had the audacity to call a Council Office over it.
At least, that was what she’d understood. He had some difficulty expressing himself. Modern life had unsettled him and shattered his ability to explain himself. This was why he’d picked the Fell. The Fell was as unmodern as you could get.
She further understood: he was looking for London and could she point him in the right direction.
She considered advising him against it. The Tower of London was an unsuitable place for a haunting. It oozed ghosts. Too many of them vengeful. Too many Tudors. Could she advise a king? Her father had locked himself up in his sinking house and never bothered with social niceties. The etiquette books were vague and unhelpful. No one, it seemed, had ever advised a king.
If a king, she reflected, wanted to stir up trouble in the between-life, she was hardly the one to stop him. The urge to finish the feud never quite went away. It persisted in the between-life. She knew this all too well. Sometimes her fingers would twitch with how well she understood it. And hers was only twenty years old. Six centuries was a long time to wait for revenge, even for a ghost and a king.
In the end, she pointed vaguely southwards. He misted away, carried by a biting northerly. Then she stood there, in the burnt out ruins of Allerdale Hall, and realized there was no reason at all for her to stay either.
So: she boarded a steamer headed for the New World where the past was waiting for her.
The house in the New World was charming. Not Allerdale, but charming in its own modern way. New, mostly. The money stayed, but locked behind large iron gates. In the New World, they thought money was a sign of virtue. They’d thrived, naturally. They had lots of money and so, plenty of virtue to go around building facades. Parking lots over history; faux gothic mansions over the truth.
In the end, the foundations always showed.
A few other scientific notes on the nature of ghosts, commonly overlooked by ghost-hunters, spiritualists and mediums:
Morphology is not absolute.
Ghosts, like people, bear grudges. They carry them longer. They have exceptionally good memories. Elephants cannot compete.
A ghost’s life is drudgery. Patience is a virtue best cultivated in the between-life.
The intangibility of ghosts is a myth perpetuated by charlatans and ignorants. Ghosts are tangible, just like sunshine, fog and the mirage oasis shimmering on the desert horizon.
Ghosts don’t care much for the afterlife. On the contrary. Ghosts are fond of the living. But the living are prone to mistakes and ghosts are notorious perfectionists.
For the longest time, she’d thought Nana Rose was a witch.
Point one. Nana Rose had always been there. Daddy called her Nana. So did her string of uncles, aunts, cousins and the distant pretenders who turned up every maple-tapping season to get fat on their maple surplus and bitch about them for the rest of the year. Nana Rose was an institution. A part of Thornhill’s fabric.
Point two. Nana Rose was a terror. Nana Rose was firm about things like family history, telling the uncomfortable truth and predicting the future with ghoulish bloodthirsty glee only as long as someone died gruesomely.
“Now tell me how we came here,” she would say to Cheryl.
“On the Mayflower, Nana,” Cheryl would reply, even though she knew this would throw Nana into a temper.
Nana would grab her by the wrists then and shake her. “No, you stupid girl,” she would screech, “it was a steamer, your great great grandmother was a whore and a parvenue who murdered her husband and stole his title and his fortune before fleeing to the New World.”
And if Cheryl said: “but Nana, you’re hers too.” Nana would screech and dig her nails into the soft undersides of Cheryl’s wrists.
“ You ,” she would hiss, “It’s all in your blood.”
Then she would disappear and no one would be able to find her for hours and hours on end. Once she reappeared just to say: “No, you stupid girl, the blood built these walls.” And disappeared again until midnight.
But if Cheryl said: “yes Nana,” Nana Rose would hold her very, very close and hiss “little girls who tell lies get their tongues cut out,” before releasing her.
Then Nana would make her write I will not tell lies in cursive one hundred times.
Once, Cheryl told her, “But Nana, you know perfectly why we came. It was maple tapping season.”
“ Maple this ,” Nana had screamed. “ Maple that .” And then all the taps on their barrels opened all at once and Cheryl had watched fascinated at the syrup dripping stickily all over the floor, over Nana and herself.
They lost that year’s entire crop. In retrospect, this was less funny than it had been at the time.
Point three. Nana Rose’s hands were always cold. Summer or winter, her hands were always cold and rubbery. And Nana never seemed to need cold cream or anti-ageing cream to keep them from wrinkling further.
Cheryl wrote I will not tell lies in lavish, looping cursive one hundred thousand times before she finally understood Nana Rose. Nana Rose was not a witch. Nana Rose was a delusional narcissist and sociopath, with the impulse control of a five year old child tantruming for murder. Once she’d diagnosed the problem, it was easier to treat Nana Rose like a whimsical and valueless antique.
“Oh,” she’d say, whenever Nana was acting up, “It’s just Nana’s gypsy blood.”
Nana hated it. Cheryl loved it even more.
Such a pity. The girl understood. She wore blood red. She was not quite all there.
“It’s a pity,” she said, snipping roses in the garden.
The Boy opened his mouth and made a hoarse rattling noise. Drowning had ruined his vocal chords. Or maybe it was the air. He was not used to fire. She, on the other hand, had already lived through one.
“A smart girl,” she said to Clifford. The rope burns made him look like a child’s least favorite toy, broken and dissected and then discarded. “Almost one of us. But then you had to go and ruin her.”
“But in the end,” she told Jason, “blood runs true.”
“Such a shame,” she told them both. “I nearly liked her.”
“Oh,” said Cheryl, when she realized. “You’re just a dollar store Nana.”
“Undead, dear,” she said.
Allerdale Hall burned down in 1903. They talked about it all day and all night for two weeks running down at The Stranger’s Home. No one had lived at Crimson Peak for a whole year. No one had visited. No one went to clean. No one went near it.
The young red haired American went unremarked in all the excitement.
“Such a tiresome habit, burning ghosts out of their homes,” said Nana Rose and held her head down in the clay, till she went still.
Lucille Sharpe stood in the black hulking ruins of Thornhill. Thornhill was a poor copy of Allerdale. The New World fantasy of the old. Charming, but a mimeographer’s poor copy. Allerdale had centuries of history. Ghosts. Blood. Thornhill was a pale shadow. A ghost house. It was all dead. Great houses had appetites. They were living, breathing things and they needed to be fed.
Allerdale used to be the hungriest house in the Great North. Trippers came from all over England just to marvel at it. The last of the Great Hungry Houses of England. Haunted - that was what they used to call it. Haunted. As though Allerdale was dead, as though Centuries of Sharpes hadn’t fed it. As though she hadn’t fed it.
The money was an hors d’ouevre . An appetizer. The money kept Allerdale standing. The blood fed its bones . The blood kept its mines rich, its soil thick and clayey. Some said, infertile. She liked to call it selective. Allerdale Hall bred Sharpes and only Sharpes. No weeds. No wildernesses. Only the barest, essential life.
Even as it burnt down all around her, Lucille had stood at Allerdale’s heart and felt the soil ooze up sticky and ferrous between her toes. Allerdale groaned. The soil heaved. Its bones snapped. More soil, more ooze, until it was at her knees, until it was bubbling, bubbling, bubbling, until Allerdale was just ash in the wind and Lucille stood alone on the windswept moor.
Thornhill was a dead house. But the foundations were just the same. The Blossoms had done everything they could to quench its hunger. Blood showed. In the end, it always did.
Standing in its heart, surrounded by its charred and smoking ruins, Lucille closed her eyes and called on the hunger lurking beneath Thornhill. And something heard. Not quite Allerdale Hall. It was too young. It was too hungry. But it was there.
The soil all around her heaved. Then bubbled. Then, finally, turned a bright crimson red.
Sometimes, you just had to bring home to you.
“Ugh Nana,” said Cheryl, when she woke up on the other side. “Haunting. So eighteenth century pulp.”