Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Fire Revisited

G. brought up the haunted house. The old Gable House, which burned to the ground ages ago. But the place still stands vivid in my mind, horrible and thrilling, like a close shrill scream in the night. But I was surprised at the conversational turn.

G. was visiting from my hometown. We had been talking about our plans for dinner, a foursome with my husband and G.'s beautiful wife. I had been thinking about home since getting his voicemail, hearing him call me by my high school nickname. No one here calls me that. So, hearing it sent me tumbling back in time.

And then he brought up the old house. Talking to G. is an exercise in free association. I've known him for four decades, at least. He's a lawyer and a Civil War buff. We have lots to talk about. And I never know which century we'll be visiting.

That day he implied he knew who burned down the old house built in the 1800s in the heart of a 500-acre plantation. G. is brilliant, connected. But he was wrong on this one.

I spent lots of time at that house. It was huge, gothic, nightmare-inspiring. It sat on an ancient Indian burial mound with a history that revolved around an owner who was a Maryland aristocrat, daughter of a Revolutionary War soldier. A woman said to have married -- and murdered -- seven husbands.

In more civilized times, the modern woman of the house babysat my sister and me. That meant she turned us over to her twins, who were a couple of years older. They took their mission seriously: To terrify their young charges.

I was in heaven.

They took us into rooms, slammed doors, turned off lights and showed us "blood" glowing in the dark. They gave us solemn tours of the hallway with seven lonely nails hammered into the wall for the hats of the doomed spouses. They took us outside and showed us spaces underneath the house and stones they claimed were the headstones for the victims.

My younger sister cried. I begged for more. I loved that old house, and not just for the horrors. But for the endless, unused rooms, high ceilings and more staircases than I could find uses for. This is what I see now in my mind's eye: Long white gauze curtains billowing in the soft breeze on the landing, halfway up the front staircase, just at the curve. The spot where a ghost could pause and watch a visitor coming into the foyer from the heavy door. After the ride down the long straight drive from the road to the gabled house on a high hill.

Before someone burned that house to the ground.

My babysitter twins were renters. I don't know who lived there after they moved. It had been abandoned for a long time when it burned all those years ago.

The story was a familiar one. The house was not cared for and quickly became an eyesore and a magnet for teenagers and miscreants, who drove onto the neglected grounds to party and steal anything not nailed down.

The person rumored to have set fire to the house was a teenage boy. He was the older brother of my friend P. I spent quite a few weekends with her as a kid. Their mother was often sick, spending most of her time tucked away in her first floor room in their home, another large white "haunted" house filled with antiques on a hill.

We were on the second floor. He stayed in his room playing loud music, growling at us when we did get a glimpse of him. He would boobytrap her bedroom door with firecrackers while we were inside playing Elvis records. He hated us and we didn't know why. There were rock-throwing incidents involving trucks, dark things.

But, he grew up. He became a successful businessman in another town. He married, appeared to have it all, to do well in life. He appeared to be fine.

But he wasn't fine.

Years after the Gable House burned, he set off one more round of fire. His marriage in ruins, alcohol a factor, he walked onto the deck at the back of his beautiful home and put a gun to his head. He pulled the trigger. He died.

Finally, burning down the Gable House made a strange sort of sense to me. That rage-filled boy couldn't burn down his own "haunted" house on a hill with his parents and sister inside. So he burned down the empty one. The Gable House. But it wasn't enough.

So he set another fire, this time to himself.

He caused terrible hurt along the way, to himself and to others, something I know about first hand. He was my brother's best friend.


  1. never realized you had such a southern gothic childhood! it's starting to sound like william faulkner wrote the script for your youth.

    (keep 'em coming!)

    ps/going to a retirement party for wiessler this afternoon.

  2. But you KNOW where I grew up! Gothic R Us. I just enjoyed the ride, well, most of it. Lots more where that came from.

  3. What an intriguing story - very well told! Thank you for visiting my blog and sharing. And that let me find your blog, which I will now visit often. Isn't that fun?

  4. I agree, Rebekah. Tina and Paris, now your blog and mine. I love it!

  5. Wow! I decided to go back to the start of your blogs and could you please write a book? I don't want it to did indeed have the Southern mystery of lives and places. This was an amazing story!!! Having been inside some old Southern homes you can feel that they are alive...and you want to know more about what makes them breathe like they do. Oh yes....

  6. I love that you want me to do this. That anyone wants to read anything that I write. I will just have to do it then!