When their daughter leaves for college, newly minted empty nesters Cookson and Ellen Selway decide to escape the eerie quiet of their home and take a trip to London. But not long after arriving, it becomes apparent that the Selways have traded one unsettling locale for another.
Like Cookson, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, the Hotel Willerton has a disturbing past. Fifty years ago, a young girl fell to her death from one of the hotel’s windows, and her ghost is haunting Cookson, slowly drawing him back toward the darkness that once consumed him. As Cookson descends into a spiral of self-destruction, he is joined by two more apparitions, each reflecting the worst parts of himself and forcing him to confront the mistakes of his past that have tormented him for years.
From the celebrated author of the Washington Post Best Book of the Year Nostalgia and the New York Times–bestselling The Music Room, this is “a gripping, stylish, consistently entertaining novel” that offers a literary spin on the traditional ghost story (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution).
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A Face at the Window
By Dennis McFarland
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1997 Dennis McFarland
All rights reserved.
One monday morning about a year and a half ago, in late autumn, I woke with a vague awareness of a long dullish instrument of some kind, maybe the butt end of a medieval halberd, being alternately inserted and withdrawn at the small of my back. It was rhythmic and hot, and had I been sedated in just the right way—my personal choice: a bolus of morphine popped into an IV—I could have learned to live with it quite peaceably. I rose from the bed and walked into the bathroom, placing my hand at the pain's nucleus and uttering some low, unidentifiable animal noises. It was not yet dawn, and I had to turn on a light. I was naked, and when I stood before the full-length mirror on the inside of the bathroom door, I was stunned by the extreme list of me. Overnight, I had changed from a reasonably vertical person into someone I hardly recognized—the offspring perhaps of an incestuous union, escaped downstairs from his mirrorless attic cell to view his deformity for the first time.
A half-asleep Ellen pushed open the door, displacing the ghoul in the mirror. She was wearing my favorite nightie, a tiger print. "Oh, honey," she said. "What's happened?"
"I don't know," I said, turning down the corners of my mouth in mock sadness, though I really was sad. "Look at me."
She tried to match the expression on my face and, after a moment, said, "Sweetie, you're bent."
I felt a paradoxical rush of pleasure—despite the grim diagnosis—at having been properly diagnosed.
Later in the morning, I telephoned a friend, famous for his back trouble, who gave me the number of his chiropractor in nearby Lexington. Forthwith, I was examined, x-rayed, and interrogated about my recent movements, which included, by my lights, nothing remarkable. The day before, Sunday, I had raked leaves in the yard for a good part of the morning, read the Times for a good part of the afternoon, then Ellen and I had gone for an early dinner of rainbow trout at our favorite wood-grill restaurant, returned home, and made love before falling asleep. This roster seemed to me incriminating only in the degree to which it reflected a life of shameless luxury. But the chiropractor, a man about my own age, who wore the white turban and white tunic of what I assumed to be a Muslim sect, nodded knowingly and smiled at me with just the slightest hint of pity. With no apparent concern for the pain I was in, or for the difficulty I had driving a car, he told me to return the next day and we would look at the "film" (the X rays). He asked me to write a check.
The following afternoon, he put me stomach-down on his table and made a few painful adjustments to my spine—the usual chiropractic techniques—and to distract myself, I asked him some questions about his life. My face rested in a kind of face-size padded doughnut, through which I could study the arrangement of the tricolored tiles on the floor of his treatment room. I learned that the chiropractor had been born and raised in Minnesota, but his peculiar path had led him to become a Sikh. In keeping with the ritual observances of this sect, he'd grown his beard down to his belly button. His Panjabi name meant "tiger." (It was he who introduced me, that morning on the table, to the concept of one's growing into one's name.) All in all, he seemed quite ordinary for someone who was dressed the way he was, his costume and his down-home Midwest way of talking (his garb and his gab) collided comically, as if he were en route to a Halloween party.
When we were finished, he invited me into his office, where we sat across from each other in identical black leather swivel chairs and looked at the X rays, a frontal view and a lateral, which he'd clipped up onto a light box. He told me that my sacroiliac joint on the right side was "all jammed up." He accounted for the extreme deviation in my spine this way: "You are leaning away from the pain."
I thought this explanation logical in spite of its New Age timbre, and though he went on a minute longer, I hardly heard a word: Immediately, I had been strangely moved by the portrait of my errant insides, and what demanded my attention now—all my attention—was the vivid image, in the frontal view, of an infant's face, centered in the cavity of my pelvic girdle, a small face wise beyond its years, serious and purposeful, lips pursed just so, as if, in the moment of X ray, it had been on the brink of articulating some critical truth. I realize how this sounds, and the fact that the child appeared to be outfitted for commedia dell'arte clouded rather than clarified anything—my hip joints the padded shoulders of the child's dress coat, the extravagant wings of my pubis bones a high-starched, bright-white Elizabethan collar.
I interrupted the chiropractor. "Excuse me," I said, "but do you see that face—that child's face—right there in the area of my sacrum?"
It was impossible to avoid the thought of male pregnancy, and from somewhere in the back of my mind I seemed to recall an Islamic belief that Muhammad, when he returned, would be born of a man. I think, in fact, that this is balderdash, insulting to Muslims around the world. I knew Sikhism to be an amalgam of Muslim and Hindu elements, but I didn't know which Muslim elements it actually embraced. I hoped my question had not offended the chiropractor. He looked at me, not in an unfriendly way, but not entirely amused either.
He said, "You're not one of those weirdos who see the face of Jesus in tortillas and such, are you?"
I admired the correct agreement between subject and verb in his question.
"Not yet I'm not," I said, by which I meant simply that, so far, I had not seen the face of Jesus in a tortilla. I suddenly thought of the chiropractor's Presbyterian parents, somewhere in the low green hills outside Minneapolis, still trying to figure out where they'd gone so terribly wrong. And I was fighting an urge to reach across the short distance between us—between me and the chiropractor—and give his long, long beard a little rank-pulling tug.
But driving home—or, more accurately, daydreaming in a bottleneck on Route—I thought, I am the kind of person who sees the face of Jesus in tortillas and such. That's exactly the kind of person I am.
Over the next three weeks, the mysterious back pain slowly went away. I interpreted it as a rite of passage: in case I hadn't already noticed, I was fully inside the door of middle age. I requested and acquired my X ray (the interesting, frontal-view shot) from the chiropractor. I had already told Ellen about the face of the child in my sacrum, and when I first brought the X ray home and showed it to her, she said, "Oh, yeah ... I think I see what you mean ... right there," pointing to a different area entirely. I sometimes hauled the X ray out at Ellen's dinner parties and showed it to the guests, but no one was ever especially taken with it, let alone awed or flabbergasted, as I expected and wanted them to be. I began to develop a sophomoric philosophy around the fact that I could see the face clearly when others apparently couldn't—a philosophy involving questions about "reality" and the nature of seeing.
One night, after we'd had Ellen's publisher and his wife over to dinner, I said to Ellen, "Isn't it amazing that so much of what we see—so much of what we can see—is determined merely by what we're inclined to see?"
We were in bed. She had been reading. I had been thinking, the blank, white-painted bedroom ceiling for a muse. "And so much of what we're inclined to see," I added, "is determined by what we have a talent for seeing."
Ellen doesn't especially like to be interrupted when she's reading. Without shifting her eyes from the page, she said, barely audibly, "Yeah, life's just one big Rorschach test, isn't it."
She didn't want me to bring out the X ray at her dinner parties anymore, I could tell.
I had grown up with a father, a murderer, who made no distinction between religion and superstition, and rejected both as the weak stuff of women. My mother, on the other hand, who also made no such distinction, heartily embraced both. She believed (and still believes, I suppose) in an Orwellian God who sees all our actions, hears even our thoughts, and remembers everything. We will be judged at the end of time and punished for our sins, sin being just what you would think: lying, stealing, cheating, taking the name of the Lord in vain, sex outside marriage, sex inside marriage if you enjoy it, wishing to lie, steal, cheat, or take the name of the Lord in vain, wishing for sex outside marriage, wishing to enjoy sex in marriage. She believed very strongly in the devil and explained to us children that my father's powder-keg comportment and his other flaws were the result of his being possessed of the devil. She tended to see signs of the Apocalypse—unusual weather, the conflicts in the Holy Land—and to be actively waiting for it: not living, but waiting. She sensed vague forebodings and would cancel trips and even brief outings at the last minute because she had a "bad feeling." Once, shortly after my oldest brother had gone off to college in Kentucky, I accidentally knocked his framed photograph off the piano in our living room, breaking the glass. My mother, nearly hysterical, beat me with my father's belt, convinced that "something bad" would now befall my brother—and, as if shed caught me sticking pins into a voodoo doll, his ill fate would be my fault, the fault at least of my carelessness. To her, the invisible world was something you had to be constantly on the lookout for, something requiring extra vigilance. Most things were a great deal more than they seemed, having two lives: the apparent one and what the apparent one stood for.
This was an easy concept for a child to grasp—I gave myself to it thoroughly—because it spoke to how I experienced much of the world, as very large and layered, and full of marvels and horrors in which there was always more than met the eye. It was a childlike understanding, a newly immigrated understanding (young children are like immigrants), and it was unseemly in my mother only because she was supposed to be an adult. I don't mean to say that a mature person doesn't have religion or believe in the supernatural. I only mean that a mature person is able to distinguish between what's genuinely spiritual and what's hokum, and that the ability to distinguish is one of the things that define us as mature.
There was nothing especially supernatural about my sixteenth-century child of the X ray, my sacral prodigy. He was mainly, as Ellen had so subtly implied, a Rorschachian thing. But in his wake, some strange and forgotten moments from my childhood began to surface. I recalled, for example, a night when I was awakened by my father and told to go sit with my mother, Mother was sick, he was trying to phone the doctor (the only telephone in our old farmhouse was in the kitchen), and he didn't want to leave her alone. Before I reached her bedroom—separate from my father's—I could hear the frightening sound of her moaning. She lay on her bed, on her back, under the covers, her eyes boarded up by fear, uttering an alternately expiring and resurgent wail of pain, not exactly human, not exactly animal, more like a wind trapped in a cave, and every once in a while she would ride out words over it, always the same: "Oh please God don't let me die, oh please God don't let me die, oh please God don't let me die ..."
It turned out that one of her fallopian tubes had got twisted somehow, a problem that, like a great number of things in the South, led eventually to surgery.
I should say that I was seven years old. I never lost the memory of that night, striking as it was, and recalling it later in life, I reasonably concluded, from the fact of my father's fetching the youngest rather than the oldest child, that she had specifically requested me. But inside the memory there was a moment I had mislaid, a moment when she reached for my hand and I withheld it, a moment when I exploited her extreme weakened state and refused, just this once, to let her touch me. For an instant, her eyes "opened," for they were already open, and I saw, not shock or hurt or reprimand, but something like compassion. The room grew glaring white, we seemed to sit somewhere on a vast beach—white sand, white sky, the sibilance of a distant surf—and I could hear my mother's voice inside my mind, compassionately, it said, I will not leave you though you want me to, and then we were back in the room, my father leaning over her, telling her that he'd been unable to reach her doctor and had therefore sent for his own. "I don't want that quack ... I don't want that quack ... I wouldn't send a dog to that quack," my mother bawled, and my father, having failed again, said, "Well, what the hell do you want me to do, Frances?" real, historical hatred in his eyes.
When I recalled this night from time to time over the years, it could be that these recollections included the weird transportation to the vast white beach. If so, I probably assumed that I'd dropped off to sleep for a minute on my mother's bed and only dreamed the part about the beach. In my most recent recollection, however, shortly after my back trouble, this did not seem to be the case: I saw the fleeting vision of the beach as linked with the intensity of my mother's pain and her extreme psychic energy at the moment of my refusing her hand, it seemed to me that we'd been pushed by the significance of the occasion into another spectrum, where we were afforded a kind of poetical elaboration of the actual, accessible events.
Then I recalled another, similar experience, in which I was "spoken to" by a young man on a bus. I was probably about twelve and was taking the county bus downtown to the Roxy, which was running a horror film festival, spotlighting Vincent Price, today's bill a double feature of House on Haunted Hill and Horrors of the Black Museum. Though I had made this trip on the bus a few times with my mother or older brother, this was my first solo flight, and I was preoccupied with the need to signal the driver and get off at the right stop. I wasn't a fan of Vincent Price—frankly (may he rest in peace), I thought he tended to ruin whatever movies he was in by overplaying every scene. I suppose I had already begun to recognize that ghoulishness wasn't truly scary. Scary was the surprise lurking beneath the altogether ordinary surface, the earwigs writhing inside the mailbox. (What I remember of Horrors of the Black Museum—which didn't have Vincent Price in it—is the moment when a character lifts a pair of binoculars to her eyes and two tenpenny nails pop out, stabbing her blind.) On the bus, a frail-looking black boy, a teenager, sat several rows behind me; he wore a white dress shirt, buttoned primly at the neck. Near the end of the ride, he and I were the only passengers left on the bus. Secretly, I had begun to panic, for nothing I was seeing out the bus window seemed the least bit familiar to me; I feared that I had missed my stop already, and though I could have simply asked the driver to let me off at the Roxy, some shyness bordering on paralysis prevented me. Several times I turned around and looked at the teenager—I don't know why, I felt compelled in some way—and sure enough, on the fourth or fifth glance, the sound of the bus's engine grew muffled and distant, there was a change in the light as if the sun had gone behind a cloud, and the boy leaned out from the waist, tilting his head toward the center of the aisle. It suddenly seemed to me that I was at the bottom of a well, looking up, and that the sides of this well were lined with shelves, the boy, perched like a bird on one of these shelves and looking down at me, spoke to me without moving his lips. "Next stop, sonny," was all he said—not exactly something to inscribe in stone, but just what I needed at the time—and then everything went quickly back to normal. I pulled the cord to signal the driver. Before getting off, I looked once more at the boy, he was smiling a kind of pointed, naughty smile, as if something taboo had passed between us.
Excerpted from A Face at the Window by Dennis McFarland. Copyright © 1997 Dennis McFarland. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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