Haunted Houses

On bad dreams, working in publishing, & the fear of the unknown

Photo by m wrona on Unsplash

During the years I worked a full-time job in book publishing I used to have a recurring dream about a rotting house.

No matter how a dream might begin, at some point I’d find myself back in the attic of the house: ceiling sloped down, dark decay, floorboards grotesquely soft and sinking into sludge under my feet, sickly pinkish-orange stains on the walls. In the way of dream logic, I was unable to leave this house and I desperately wanted out, yet at the same time I was bothered that there was always an unsecured opening—a door I couldn’t close, a gaping hole in the wall—and that other people could get in.

It is said that dream interpretation isn’t meant to be literal, but the feeling of being simultaneously trapped and not being secure does seem glaringly obvious to me now, in hindsight.

During the years I was having this recurring dream, I spent a lot of my time and energy working at my day job, taking work home from my day job, and freelancing side projects to help pay my Manhattan rent and bills because my day job never seemed to bring in enough. I call it my day job because my aim was to become a writer of books myself, but when night came around I was too tired from the day working in book publishing to do much else. I had less and less time for writing. My finances were in disarray. At one job in particular, I was so overwhelmed by my workload of urgent projects we used to call Red Folders—it sometimes seemed that everything was routed in a Red Folder, and so everything was urgent—yet I wanted to do a good job, so I would often take work home, unpaid, just to drown a little less the next day. I didn’t realize that this, in fact, made it seem like I could handle things I could not, setting unrealistic expectations for myself, and for anyone who came after me once I burned out. One of my happiest memories of that time was sneaking into the office on a Sunday to get a jump on work in time for Monday morning. I remember hiding in my office on the empty 14th floor with the door closed, carefully marking proofs of children’s books in a sharp red pencil. I felt such a sense of accomplishment, even though what I should have been doing with my day off was writing.

I had built a house for myself as a Writer in the City, but it was rotting all around me because I made everything else more important than my writing. And so, again and again in the night, that rotting house, that open trap, that dream.

I don’t remember when I stopped having the dream, only that it seems connected to when my life shifted and I started prioritizing my writing again. At some point I went away to a writing residency, so maybe it was then. Or maybe it was the job I took after that, when I stopped taking work home. Or maybe it was near the date my calendar reminds me of every year: May 1, 2009, the day I signed with my literary agent and a new kind of career began.

When I sold my book, I entered a new house. Shiny glass in the windows, walls on all four sides still standing, a roof that kept out the weather, a warm room with a comfortable bed. It wasn’t a sustainable livable wage by any means, because security is not a reality of being a published author, but it was an absolute palace to me.

What did I dream about then? Oh, the usual author nightmares: losing my laptop, missing trains and planes, turning in my manuscript late by accident, being surprised with the cover for my next novel by a creation everyone said was beautiful but was just a mass of overgrown hair. “We love it,” the publishing people in my dream said. “Don’t you?”

I didn’t have the dream about the rotting house for years. I had completely forgotten it until recently.

Because, earlier this month, I had the dream. Fifteen or so years later.

There I am inside the rotting house again after all these years. There are the shadowed walls, that same panicky pinkish-orange, and the roof sloping down in the corners, the soft grotesque blooms of mold everywhere I step. The doorways that have no doors and the stairs that caved in. There are people on the other side of an unlocked door and I don’t want them to come in and see this place, but also all I want is to get down those stairs somehow and get out.

Why is this so familiar? I think. Then from inside one dream I remember another dream. And the memory of all my houses connects across time and space and we are one.

The dream coming back makes me think there’s something I’m putting off from doing, something I’m allowing to go stagnant as I did before. I suspect I know what that is. It has to do with my writing—with something I want to write and have wanted to write for a long time.

In the neighborhood where I live now, there is a house behind ours that is empty. What I mean is it’s really the shell of a house. The windows are gaping holes with shreds of plastic flapping in the wind. There are never any lights on. I’ve never seen anyone go in and I’ve never seen anyone go out. It is always here, this small empty house facing our backyard, probably 100 years old like the house we rent, here on this block so long it remembers everything. I don’t know who owns it, I don’t know what might happen to it, but sometimes I find myself watching it, wondering.

I check for movement in the dark windows. I look for a change in the draping of the plastic. Just this morning I found myself staring at it while standing in the kitchen, the way you can lose yourself in the mirror for a second, forgetting who and what and where you are.

When the time comes, will that house be knocked down, or will it be repaired and filled up?

How many people lived here while it stood, saying they were going to do something and not doing it because other things got in the way, and then it was too late?

The dream coming back out of nowhere is making me ask myself questions like that.

How many times can you shake yourself awake in one life?

Once, I had a speaking engagement on an old campus where I gave a talk about writing and shared my book with an auditorium full of college students. I stood at the lectern looking out at a sea of faces and realized this was a moment to hold on to and remember, as something like this may not ever happen to me again.

Then came the Q&A. There was a long line at the microphone and then a number of questions about the book I never feel comfortable answering, one by one by one. I said more than I usually do, and regretted it after. There was a book signing, students who confessed they secretly wanted to become writers even though their parents insisted they study something else, questions, connective moments, a series of names and voices and my head spinning, all beautiful and rewarding things.

Still, I felt exposed. I was a raw nerve walking around in her blue dress and lucky shoes. As soon as I was alone, I knew I’d crumble.

A friend and fellow writer who lived nearby had attended the event, and she and her husband brought me back to the guest house on campus where I’d be staying the night before my flight home the next day. This was an old house, large and elegant and completely empty… as I was the only campus guest for the night. The house was built in 1888, and it felt like it had witnessed many things and held many secrets, waiting for night to let some of those out. I was grateful my friend and her husband stayed at first and chatted with me before leaving me alone in it for the night.

After, I went upstairs toward my room, climbing the grand staircase, and sifted through the guestbook. Many names of visiting families, guest speakers, guest faculty, and the one innocuous entry that caught my eye:

“This place is haunted. I’m scared. Bye.”

The handwriting seemed like it could be a young girl’s, which told me the entry might be a joke, meant to mess with someone like me. And yet. Here I was, the guest author who just spoke about her book full of ghosts now to sleep in a house of ghosts, and it couldn’t be a more opportune moment.

But I was raw from the talk, from all I shared about the book and myself, from being seen. I spoke out into the empty house, letting my voice carry over the sweeping staircase, into all the dark corners and shadowed rooms, feeling ridiculous but still doing it.

If there is anything or anyone in this house right now, please don’t come out tonight. Please let me sleep, I said.

The house was quiet but for the creaks. The walls breathed, listening.

I’m tired, I said. That was a lot tonight. If there’s anything to see here, please don’t show me tonight, please.

The shadows coiled.

I’m not ready, I said.

I felt silly, I laughed at myself, but it was done. I went to my room and closed and secured the door. I tried not to let my imagination run away with me, which tends to happen in dark and unfamiliar places when I’m left to my own devices, even as a fully grown adult.

But that night the house listened, keeping its footsteps on the stairs and its shadows in the corners and its ghosts who stand at the end of your bed watching you sleep to itself.

I closed my eyes. When I awoke, the sun was shining through the curtains.

I don’t think I had any dreams that night. No rotting houses, no lost laptops, no computer screens bursting with ropes of hair. At least I don’t remember any. I didn’t hear any of the things I’ve since read about that students and faculty have witnessed in this historic campus house: the patter of feet walking the hallways, the opening and closing of the doors. I told the house I wasn’t ready and I was spared.

In the morning I put my name in the guestbook, packed my suitcase, and took my raw and exposed self all the way back home. I saw nothing, even if the house saw me.

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