Introduction by Emma Timpany
The inspiration for ‘A Haunted House’ came from Asheham, the house near the South Downs where Virginia and LeonardWoolf lived before their marriage at weekends and during holidays to be close to her sister, Vanessa Bell, at Charleston. Leonard said, ‘I have never known a house which had such a strong character, a personality of its own.’
In the story, a couple notice strange sounds echoing through their home’s interior, as though a ghostly couple were walking in and out of the rooms, searching for something while whispering to each other, but the noises, when explored, turn out to be the ordinary things of the world: a threshing machine at work, wood pigeons ‘bubbling’. The windows of the creaking rooms reflect no ghostly faces but rather apples, leaves and roses.
Virginia Woolf’s interest in the glimpse, the feeling of something just on the edge of hearing or vision, allows the story to revel in its mysteries, capturing those encounters on the periphery of waking, sleeping, reading, and daydreaming, the shifts in perception that occur when the mind is wholly or partially elsewhere. As the story’s narrator says, ‘So fine, so rare, coolly sunk beneath the surface the beam I sought always burnt behind the glass.’
Ghost stories are found in most cultures, and ghosts are the ultimate outsiders, symbols of exclusion, paradoxically absent presences. ‘A Haunted House’ is unusual in that there seems no immediate threat or danger from the ghostly couple who roam through the house, even when, at the story’s end, they bend over the living man and woman asleep together in bed. The rhythmical prose shimmers, folding and unfolding, while the repetitions such as ‘… safe, safe, safe …’ are as soothing as a heartbeat. Even more unusual is the revelation of the nature of the lost jewel for which the ghosts are searching, thetreasure which they once shared.
Virginia and Leonard stayed at Asheham between 1912 and 1919, entertaining friends and holding their wedding party there, before moving to Monk’s House after their marriage. ‘A Haunted House’ was included in Woolf’s 1921 short story collection Monday or Tuesday. Fittingly given its themes, this brief, strange story feels timeless; although written over a hundred years ago, it could have been written yesterday. Despite much local protest, Asheham was demolished in 1994.
A Haunted House
Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure—a ghostly couple.“Here we left it,” she said. And he added, “Oh, but here too!” “It’s upstairs,” she murmured. “And in the garden,” he whispered “Quietly,” they said, “or we shall wake them.”But it wasn’t that you woke us. Oh, no. “They’re looking for it; they’re drawing the curtain,” one might say, and so read on a page or two. “Now they’ve found it,” one would be certain, stopping the pencil on the margin.
And then, tired of reading, one might rise and see for oneself, the house all empty, the doors standing open, only the wood pigeons bubbling with content and the hum of the threshing machine sounding from the farm. “What did I come in here for? What did I want to find?” My hands were empty. “Perhaps it’s upstairs then?” The apples were in the loft. And so down again, the garden still as ever, only the book had slipped into the grass.
But they had found it in the drawing room. Not that one could ever see them. The window panes reflected apples, reflected roses; all the leaves were green in the glass. If they moved in the drawing room, the apple only turned its yellow side. Yet, the moment after, if the door was opened, spread about the floor, hung upon the walls, pendant from the ceiling—what? My hands were empty. The shadow of a thrush crossed the carpet; from the deepest wells of silence the wood pigeon drew its bubble of sound. “Safe, safe, safe,” the pulse of the house beat softly. “The treasure buried; the room . . . ” the pulse stopped short. Oh, was that the buried treasure?
A moment later the light had faded. Out in the garden then? But the trees spun darkness for a wandering beam of sun. So fine, so rare, coolly sunk beneath the surface the beam I sought always burnt behind the glass. Death was the glass; death was between us; coming to the woman first, hundreds of years ago, leaving the house, sealing all the windows; the rooms were darkened. He left it, left her, went North, went East, saw the stars turned in the Southern sky; sought the house, found it dropped beneath the Downs. “Safe, safe, safe,” the pulse of the house beat gladly. “The Treasure yours.”
The wind roars up the avenue. Trees stoop and bend this way and that. Moonbeams splash and spill wildly in the rain. But the beam of the lamp falls straight from the window. The candle burns stiff and still. Wandering through the house, opening the windows, whispering not to wake us, the ghostly couple seek their joy.
“Here we slept,” she says. And he adds, “Kisses without number.” “Waking in the morning—” “Silver between the trees—” “Upstairs—” “In the garden—” “When summer came—” “In winter snowtime—” The doors go shutting far in the distance, gently knocking like the pulse of a heart.
Nearer they come; cease at the doorway. The wind falls, the rain slides silver down the glass. Our eyes darken; we hear no steps beside us; we see no lady spread her ghostly cloak. His hands shield the lantern. “Look,” he breathes. “Sound asleep. Love upon their lips.”
Stooping, holding their silver lamp above us, long they look and deeply. Long they pause. The wind drives straightly; the flame stoops slightly. Wild beams of moonlight cross both floor and wall, and, meeting, stain the faces bent; the faces pondering; the faces that search the sleepers and seek their hidden joy.
“Safe, safe, safe,” the heart of the house beats proudly. “Long years—” he sighs. “Again you found me.” “Here,” she murmurs, “sleeping; in the garden reading; laughing, rolling apples in the loft. Here we left our treasure—” Stooping, their light lifts the lids upon my eyes. “Safe! safe! safe!” the pulse of the house beats wildly. Waking, I cry “Oh, is this your buried treasure? The light in the heart.”
Emma Timpany is a writer from the far south of Aotearoa New Zealand who lives in Cornwall. Her publications are the short story collections, Three Roads, and the Edge Hill Prize longlisted The Lost of Syros. Her novella, Travelling in the Dark, is one of the Fairlight Moderns series. She is co-editor of Cornish Short Stories: A Collection of Contemporary Cornish Writing and editor of the forthcoming Botanical Short Stories: Contemporary Writing about Plants and Flowers.
Emma's writing has won awards including the Hall and Woodhouse DLF Writing Prize 2019 and the Society of Authors’ Tom-Gallon Trust Award 2011. As well as writing fiction, she works as a ghostwriter. emmatimpany.wordpress.com