Early in 2010, I was invited to join a retreat of horror writers at a historic mansion in Northern California. I knew several of the other authors by name and reputation, but the only other person I knew personally was Rain Graves, the retreat’s organizer.
Once I paid for the first Haunted Mansion Writers Retreat, I worried what I’d do if the mansion really was haunted. I wasn’t able to drive to Mount Tamalpais, since I couldn’t leave my family without a car for the long weekend. If I caught a ride with a stranger, I would be trapped at the mansion. What if things got really bad and I was afraid to sleep? I wouldn’t be able to slink out to my car and sleep in it.
I also couldn’t call my husband—assuming the isolated mansion got cell reception—to come and get me in the middle of the night. No way could I ask him to get our seven-year-old up, put her in the car seat, drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, and rescue me from the ghosts. If I went, I had to stick it out.
Probably, I told myself, if it got that bad, someone else would have the sense to want to leave. I could ride back to the ferry or a bus stop with them.
Of course, I was pretty sure that we wouldn’t face a full-on Poltergeist-style freak-out. As I packed for the weekend, my new worry became that I’d spent a couple hundred dollars to write for a weekend in a haunted mansion—and nothing would happen. The ghosts would ignore us, or they’d prowl around downstairs while we were all upstairs asleep. How disappointing would that be?
See, I have a healthy respect for ghosts. I’ve seen their shadows since I was a kid. Generally, they don’t do anything more than make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I feel cold and slightly jittery. Most of the ghosts I’ve seen were people I knew, or at least people I recognized. They weren’t trying to scare me. My body’s reaction to them was scarier than anything they ever did.
Rain, the hostess of the retreat, hadn’t told us much about the ghosts that she’d encountered in the mansion. She wanted us to have our own experiences, to form our own opinions. It was hard to go into the retreat blind, knowing no one other than her.
I met S. G. Browne and E. S. Magill for the ride over to Mount Tam. Eunice had come up from Southern California; Scott would drive the two of us from San Francisco’s Marina District across the Golden Gate. I was relieved to find them your typical very nice horror writers. They made me feel comfortable, like I wasn’t making a terrible mistake going away with strangers to a haunted house for the weekend.
We arrived at the Haunted Mansion in the middle of Thursday afternoon. As we carried our bags into the mansion, Rain was standing in the grand staircase. She offered to give us a tour, so we could pick our rooms for the weekend. We hurried to move our luggage into the first-floor parlor and followed her up the stairs.
The second floor was a maze of interconnecting rooms that encircled the stairway. Almost everyone else had come with a friend with whom they planned to share a room. Since I was solo, I wavered between asking to share a stranger’s room or taking a room of my own. Would the ghosts be more or less likely to mess with me if I slept alone?
There were only eight of us there that first night, rattling around in a house that seemed able to sleep a hundred. Rain said we would all stay on the second floor, even though that was where she’d had the most intense of her ghostly encounters.
Most of the second-floor rooms were pass-throughs: each dormitory-style room connected to the next. I don’t sleep well at the best of times, so I wasn’t eager to choose a room where people might walk through in the night to use the bathroom. Since I wander a fair amount when I can’t sleep, I also didn’t want to wake anyone else.
Rain’s tour paused outside a little blue room tucked between a suite—reserved for the one married couple among us—and dead space. I’m not sure what lay on the other side of the wall: maybe a linen closet? It wasn’t another guest room, anyway.
The blue room felt very restful to me, very welcoming. It helped that it only had one door, which faced the foot of the bed, and a window that looked out on Mount Tam. The room’s energy felt inviting. When I stepped inside and saw the artwork hanging above the vanity—a piece of white silk featuring a bright Chinese phoenix—I had to have that room. I wear a phoenix tattoo on my left arm. The room and I shared a kinship.
After midnight, my little room proved to be a great haven, especially after I set my suitcase in front of the large walk-in closet. Not that I thought anything was going to come through there—or felt that a suitcase provided much of a barricade—but I’ve seen Poltergeist too many times. You never know with big empty spaces.
I settled into the double bed, feeling safe in a way I wouldn’t have in a room with more doors. I closed my eyes, exhausted and slightly drunk from Rain’s good Argentinean wine.
Sleep wouldn’t come.
I thought I heard whispering voices, then a man speaking, but Yvonne Navarro and Weston Ochse had the suite that shared the minuscule balcony outside my spider-guarded window. I gladly put on my earbuds to block the voices out.
As I lay there in the dark, trying to sleep, the light in my room kept changing. Smudges and smears of light flashed through the well of shadow that lay between the bed and the vanity. The sliver of light coming in around the door grew wider toward morning, as if the door inched open, but it hadn’t. Even so, I didn’t turn my back toward the center of the room.
Finally, about 4:30 a.m., I told myself that I really needed to get some sleep. I rolled onto my stomach, clutched the pillow, felt myself relax. Sleep was washing over me when someone touched my hair.
Electricity thrilled through me. I knew I was still alone in the room, but opened my eyes anyway. The room remained silent and empty, holding its breath to see what I would do.
It occurred to me that a spider might have fallen from the ceiling on to me. However, the sensation of being touched hadn’t felt like something practically weightless dancing across my head. My hair is just not that sensitive. Something the size of a hand compressed the hair on the right side of my head. Without a doubt, someone touched me.
“Hello,” I whispered softly. “It will be dawn soon. I’d really like to get some sleep before then. Can we talk in the morning?”
I waited, but nothing more happened. Sleep was remarkably easy to find.
After a few hours of sleep, I went downstairs to find Scott in the parlor, quivering with fear. He told me a ghost story that made mine pale in comparison. Apparently, after the spirits couldn’t get much reaction from me, they went down the hall to find someone else to play with. Scott’s experience inspired the black shadows in “A Curiosity of Shadows.”
Even before the weekend had finished, Wes hatched a plan to create an anthology of stories inspired by our stay in the Haunted Mansion. The collection, edited by E. S. Magill, was published by Damnation Books in 2012. Parts of this essay were originally published in a piece called “Touched” in that book.
“A Curiosity of Shadows” also appeared in that book. The only character in the story with a direct analogue to the real retreat is Iris, who was modeled on Rain Graves. The other authors in the story are composites of types I’ve met at horror conventions over the years. They are not meant to represent any of the real authors who attended either of the Haunted Mansion Writers Retreats. Alondra’s attitude toward them does not mirror my own.
Several investigations of the house (which prefers to keep its anonymity, rather than advertise itself as haunted) were done by the GhostGirls. They recorded multiple voices and captured several ominous shadows moving through the house. You can see all their investigations here: http://www.ghost-girls.org/investigations.html.
When I was preparing to write the story, I research Mount Tamalpais, hoping to discover some Miwok or Ohlone legends about it. The best I could come up with was a record of the first white adventurer to climb the peak. Apparently, the Native Americans left the mountain alone, considering it the abode of the dead. That led to my explanation of things that ghosts fear.
Here’s a clickable link to Amazon: https://amzn.to/2r8F7XR. The book is available for the kindle and all kindle readers.