Flotsam: Self-Examination, Plot Holes, Halloween-ness, and a Joke

1. I notice that I have a bad habit (and perhaps you do as well) that when I start to pray and try to meditate upon God that I tend to fall into criticism of modernity: thinking of how far the contemporary world is from the majesty of the Divine plan and how many ways we depart from this holy road.

Of course, what I should be thinking about is how far I am from all that. If we’re to do comparisons under such a circumstance, it ought to be regarding the one thing we can actually control and bring a little close to the standard in question. Endlessly thinking about how horrible other people are – however true that may be – is spiritual junk food; it’s momentarily satisfying, but empty at best, harmful at worst. At the end of the day, it’s only ourselves and our own that we’ll be held finally responsible for.

2. Re-reading The Lord of the Rings. Something that occurred to me this go-round is that Peter Jackson introduced a significant plot hole in Fellowship. Namely, that there’s now no reason for Gandalf not to accompany Frodo from the Shire to Rivendell.

In the book, the plan is for Frodo to slip quietly out of the Shire after settling his affairs so as not to attract notice, and Gandalf fully means to accompany him for safety. About midsummer, though, Gandalf is away in Bree when he meets Radagast, who warns him that the Nine are abroad and that Saruman has something he urgently needs to speak to him about. Since he knows it will take the Nazgul many weeks to reach the Shire, Gandalf considers running back to the Shire to warn Frodo to change his plans and leave sooner, but decides he doesn’t have the time since Radagast was already late in finding him, so he tries to send a letter instead. Saruman reveals his true colors (so to speak) and imprisons Gandalf, ad the innkeeper forgets the letter, and the result is that Frodo leaves the Shire much too late, with no help from Gandalf, and with the Nazgul are almost literally at his doorstep.

In the film, Gandalf has Frodo leave almost the moment he confirms what the Ring is, saying that he’ll run off to Isengard to consult with Saruman and then meet him at the Prancing Pony in Bree.

Now, first off this is an example of Jackson’s rather absurd telescoping of Middle Earth, which is severely shrunken from its book form (if you look at a map, Isengard is several hundred miles from the Shire, away at the bottom of the Misty Mountains: that would be like telling someone in Ann Arbor to make for Detroit and that you’ll be waiting for them there after you run to Nashville and back).

Not to mention that Rivendell, obviously the safest place for many miles, is on the way to Isengard. Given how important the matter is, and how much he cares about Frodo, there’s no adequate reason for Gandalf not to first accompany him to safety and then go see Saruman.

3. None of this is to say that the film is bad, of course (though honestly the compression of Middle Earth – and consequently of the timeline – is one of my biggest criticisms, even though I understand why they did it). Just something I thought was interesting to note.

4. Alas, it is again Halloween and I’ve not had the time or attention to sample any good horror films or get into the spirit of the season. I do like Halloween, but it’s a holiday that really takes time and attention to properly soak in: the atmosphere of autumn leaves rustling in a chill wind, cloud-wrapped moons, graveyards, and creaky old houses where, if anything walks there, it walks alone. It’s hard to really feel ‘Halloweeny’ in a populated suburb. You need a small, semi-rural town with woods about it and at least a few hundred years of history to do it properly. Or at least be somewhere you can forget about modern cars and strip malls and the like.

5. Though you could conceivably make a good strip-mall-based horror film out of ‘Five Nights at Freddy’s’, assuming you find a way to correct the plot hole of “why would anyone go back for another shift once they realize what the score is?” I don’t think they will, but it could be done (me, I would have it be that the guard realizes something bad happened / is going to happen and is trying to solve the mystery before he gets his head bitten off by the jump-scares. Simple and obvious, so they probably won’t do it).

6. And to finish off, I heard a version of this story many, many years ago and it stuck in my mind, though most of the details are long lost so I had to fill them in myself.

There was a married couple who planned to vacation in Florida one summer. Then, at the last minute, the husband found he had some work to take care of and had to miss the trip. But he insisted that she should go on anyway, since they’d already bought the tickets and she’d been really looking forward to it.

So, she went on the trip. But her flight had hardly left when the husband learned that the work wasn’t going to be nearly as bad as he thought and he decided to text her that he’d be able to follow her almost immediately. Only, he then remember that she’d just gotten a new phone and he couldn’t remember the number. But they had some friends living down there, who were to meet his wife and take her to the hotel, so he called them and asked them to let her know that he’d be coming soon.

The woman landed and was met by the friends, who told her the good news. She was, of course, delighted and as soon as she got to the hotel she went and texted her husband on her new phone.

Trouble was, she couldn’t quite remember his number either, since she’d just been using the stored contact all this time. But she was a hopeful kind of woman and, after thinking about it a bit decided she could remember it after all and confidently sent her text.

Unfortunately, it was the wrong number. Even more unfortunately, it was actually the number of a preacher whose wife had just passed away. They were holding the wake at his house, and everyone was being very decorous and sad, when suddenly he looked at his phone and screamed.

This is what he read:

“Beloved,

Just arrived. Delighted to hear you’ll be joining me soon.”

Then, just as the assembled guests were wondering what to make of this message from the other world and whether they dared respond, her next text came in.

“It sure is hot down here.”

For Halloween: ‘Don’t Drop That Knife’

(To the tune of ‘Last Friday Night’…though more directly ‘Don’t Mine at Night‘)

There’s a voice upon the breeze
There’s a screaming from the trees
Bodies all around the room
Last one left, girl, you are doomed!

Just no way to reach the car
Someone’s moving in the yard
Walls are dripping wet with gore
Now he’s pounding at the door!

Your life flashes by
And you start to cry
You’re doomed!
Oh, well.

He was caught off guard
And you hit him hard
He’s down!
(Whew!)
But don’t drop that knife

Refrain:
You just whacked him on the head
And it sure looks like he’s dead
But remember what they said
Don’t drop that knife!

I know he’s lying on the floor
But he’s been that way before
Only one way to make sure
Don’t drop that knife!

No one’ll think it is a crime
If you just stab him ten more times
Don’t hesitate and you’ll be fine
Don’t drop that knife!

Girl, it’s just the only way,
If you wanna live ‘til day – hey woah!
Don’t drop that knife!
(Here he comes again)
Don’t drop that knife!

Hiding underneath the bed
Found your boyfriend’s severed head
Think the cops are on their way
Hours left until the day!

Bleeding from a dozen cuts
Hear that chainsaw starting up
This might really be the end
Now he’s coming back again!

There’s nowhere to run
Now your life is done
You’re doomed!
This time

One more clever trick
And you hit him quick
He’s down!
(Whew!)
But don’t drop that knife

You just whacked him on the head
And it sure looks like he’s dead
But remember what they said
Don’t drop that knife!

I know he’s lying on the floor
But he’s been that way before
Only one way to make sure
Don’t drop that knife!

No one’ll think it is a crime
If you just stab him ten more times
Don’t hesitate and you’ll be fine
Don’t drop that knife!

Girl, it’s just the only way,
If you wanna live ‘til day – hey woah!
Don’t drop that knife!
(Here he comes again)
Don’t drop that knife!

(ki ki ma ma
ki ki ma ma
Ki Ki Ma Ma
KI KI MA MA)

Don’t drop that knife!

You just whacked him on the head
And it sure looks like he’s dead
But remember what they said
Don’t drop that knife!

I know he’s lying on the floor
But he’s been that way before
Only one way to make sure
Don’t drop that knife!

No one’ll think it is a crime
If you just stab him ten more times
Don’t hesitate and you’ll be fine
Don’t drop that knife!

Girl, it’s just the only way,
If you wanna live ‘til day – hey woah!
Don’t drop that knife!
(Here he comes again)
Don’t drop that knife!

Brief Thoughts on ‘The Shining’

Last night I watched The Shining for the first time with my family. Though obviously I’ve been familiar with it for a long time and I’ve seen many clips of it (which, unfortunately, meant that I kind of went in knowing more or less what was going to happen).

Quick take: it’s pretty good. I can’t say I thought it was amazing, certainly not one of my top horror films, but it’s pretty good.

The best part: definitely the camera work and set decoration. I haven’t seen a camera move as much and in the way this one does in a long time; maybe ever. Especially the way it’ll hang over the character’s shoulders, following them from room to room as though something’s watching them. The suspense scenes are very well set up as well, like when Wendy is dragging Jack to the storeroom, and we can see he’s beginning to wake up as she fumbles with the doorknob. And the Overlook Hotel is a masterpiece of design. It looks very much like a real hotel, but something about the way it’s shot and the ambiance conveys a strong sense of isolation, of that particular, specific feeling of being alone in a place meant for crowds.

The performances are great all around. Danny Lloyd, who plays little Danny is a stand-out in the ranks of creepy children in horror films. Shelly Duvall has to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and props to her for pulling off the terrified wife role so effectively. I also really liked Scatman Cruthers as the kindly chef who shares Danny’s gift and tries his best to help them (his exit was kind of annoying, though: all that work and time to get him there, and he’s just bumped out of the movie). The smaller roles were excellently cast as well: particularly Barry Nelson as the hotel owner, trying to put the best possible spin on “one of your predecessors went nuts and murdered his family” so as not to scare off a potential employee, and Joe Turkel as Lloyd the bartender, who manages to be one of the most unsettling things in the hotel with nothing but a piercing smile (who was also Dr. Tyrell from Blade Runner: dang, that’s a resume right there).

(There is one big exception to the cast, which we will get to. Though you’ve probably already notice who I’ve left out)

The scares were nicely done for the most part. I thought some of them dragged on for too long (the nude woman in the bath for instance could have stood to have been tightened up a bit: come on, movie, we know something’s going to happen here). And I really liked the creeping sense of uncertainty of just what the hotel wants and what really is happening here. That famous final shot, coupled with some earlier lines, leaves us feeling we’ve touched the edge of a world of rules that we don’t understand, which is what many good horror films aim to achieve (definite Lovecraft influence there, as he was the master of this effect).

Speaking of influences, I saw quite a bit of DNA from Robert Wise’s The Haunting, especially the creative camera work and the specific scare of having a crucial door which had previously been locked suddenly be found open. Actually, upon reflection, the film is more or less the same story as The Haunting, only with a family and ax-murder angle and more heavy-handed manifestations. This is not a bad thing at all; most stories are variations on older ones. Just so long as you do something creative or interesting with it, and I’d say this one does.

The biggest liability to the film is definitely Jack Nicholson. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great actor and he’s extremely entertaining here. But that’s kind of the problem; he’s more entertaining than scary. When he goes nuts, I couldn’t help laughing because it’s Jack Nicholson gnawing at the scenery like a sugar addict set loose in Willy Wonka’s factory, bugging his eyes, arching those famous eyebrows of his, and twisting his face like rubber. Take the scene where he’s talking to his son (a genuinely uncomfortable scene, admittedly). When he says, “I would never hurt you,” I just laughed because he says it in the most insane, non-reassuring way imaginable. It wouldn’t have been out of place in a cartoon.  

Who would believe this guy could become an ax murderer?

That, and he’s too obviously crazy from the get go. If I’m supposed to be disturbed and shocked by a normal family man dissolving into an axe-wielding psychopath, he can’t start off looking like an axe-wielding psychopath. Nicholson’s many things, but he’s not the everyman. Intentional or not, he comes across like a nutjob from almost the moment we meet him (about a half-hour in I commented “this is basically ‘I Married the Joker’”).

I also didn’t care much for the roller-coaster of scares in the climax, with Wendy running around the hotel and encountering different ghosts. Throwing weird stuff at her like a guy in a bear costume giving a blow-job to a butler feels way too desperate and…well, just random. Like they collected a lot of different weird ideas and just pulled a few out of the hat. Not like, say, the Shape’s surreal tableau of jack-o-lanterns, a tombstone, and the body of one of its victims at the end of Halloween, which was atmospheric as hell while tying in with the opening and giving disturbing hints at the inner workings of its mind. This just feels like they were trying to be shocking for shock’s sake.

Actually, that’s another problem; the manifestations throughout the film are too random. They actually remind me of the scares in House on Haunted Hill: that sense of just throwing anything at the screen in the hopes of getting a reaction. They seem to me to lack any kind of thematic through line, or to have any real depth to them. They could have had with a few small tweaks, but they don’t (I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how much this applies there as well). Like, the bear-costume bit could have been ten times as effective if, say, Danny had carried a teddy bear around with him or been particularly attached to such a toy. That would have linked it to the rest of the story, would have been a scare with some real bite to it, instead of just a “what the heck?” moment. Likewise the woman in the bath would have worked better if we’d established that Jack and his wife were no longer being intimate (playing on the idea of isolation and confinement), but nothing suggested that to me. Wendy is warm and affectionate to Jack, if a bit of a frumpy nag, and the friction comes primarily from his end.  

The best scares are simply the sense of isolation and cold created by the visual style: the crushing sense of loneliness, of boredom, of confinement. The film excels at this, and I think it’s the best thing about it.  

Overall, I’d call The Shining a good horror movie, but not a great one. The directing and acting are exemplary, it’s amazingly atmospheric, and it’s highly entertaining, but a lot of the scares are pretty shallow upon reflection and it’s handicapped by a tremendous miscasting in the lead role. But whatever its flaws, it’s definitely one that needs to be seen by anyone who enjoys horror films or wants to understand the horror genre.

Never going to be a favorite, but clearly canon status.  

It Came from Rifftrax: ‘House on Haunted Hill’

Life’s been busy lately, but I wanted to make sure we got this one up for Halloween (more or less: it’s late, but under the wire). In another live show (I really like grabbing these when I can; you get shorts, ad-libbing among the riffers, and the added energy of the crowd), Mike, Kevin, and Bill tackle one of the most ‘Halloween’ films ever made: William Castle’s 1959 classic House on Haunted Hill, starring the unique Vincent Price.

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“I think everyone wonders what he’d do if he saw a ghost.”

Before that, we get not one, but two Halloween-style shorts, both of which are absolutely brilliant. First is Magical Disappearing Money (“The story of the trillion-dollar stimulus package!”), in which a witch uses her dark magic to show people at the grocery store how they can save a small amount of money by putting in some extra work and severely lowering their standards (e.g. she recommends condensed milk as an alternative to regular milk: “Not just for war time conditions anymore!”). She also doesn’t consider ideas such as “part of the price is for the saved effort” or “if you want pudding for a school lunch, it’s probably not practical to just make your own pudding from scratch.” Of course, the real fun comes from the witch’s bizarre, ditzy behavior along with her dubious recommendations. The Riffers delight in interpreting her as a demonic harbinger of evil, sending milkmen to hell and swiping the souls of the innocent (Kevin’s skit of being trapped in the milk fridge was particularly great).

-“Hm, ‘Beard Completer.’ Worth a shot…”
-“Satan’s oats only cost you your soul!”
-“Meanwhile, Fred the cat makes his escape.” “I can has freedom?”
-“You know, she’s pretty pathetic, but not nearly as creepy as the witch who lives in the adult video store.”
-“You know, drainage runoff is cheaper than everything here. Where do you draw the line, you harpy?!”

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“Join me in the abyss of savings!”

Next up is Paper and I, which features a living paper bag instructing young Willy about the paper industry, in the process turning him into a dead-eyed fanatic who thinks only of paper, and eventually they combine their dark powers to remove all paper from the world to teach people not to take it for granted. I am not really exaggerating at all. Then it ends with Willy euthanizing the bag. Again, that happens. The information is kind of interesting, but the whole thing is so nuts that it gets lost amid the insanity (Watch out for the kid who randomly decides to imitate a chimpanzee in the background of one scene. Again, not kidding: that happens).

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“You’ll never be rid of me, Willy!”

This is possibly one of the funniest shorts they ever did, for the combination of the utterly insane storyline, the paper bag’s hilarious, nasally voice, and the fact that they barely have to exaggerate the content at all to turn an educational short for kids into the tale of a boy’s descent into madness (also watch for the bit where the Nashville audience cheers the information that the South provides most of the nation’s paper).

-“Now I will show you your sins, Willy!”
-“Why didn’t we just say ‘plastic’ at the grocery store? Now our boy’s a lunatic!”
-“Here I am, Willy!” “I’m just serving some gruel to the other captured children.”
-“We’ll grow and grow! Stronger and stronger.” “And then we will march on Saruman!”
-“Oh, no; someone invented the internet!”
-“We’ll blot out the Moon, Willy! We’re gods!

Both these shorts are so strange that they barely need any riffing to make them funny, but the jokes just push them from ‘funny’ to ‘painfully hilarious’ territory. Not to mention the unintentionally dark content set a perfect tone for Halloween.”

Which brings us to the main feature. Vincent Price plays an ultra-rich man who, together with his wife, hosts a party in a giant house on ‘haunted hill’ (actually a Frank Lloyd Wright house), in which the five guests will each earn ten-thousand dollars if they spend the whole night in the house. The party, as it turns out, seems to be primarily a pretext for a murder, though who will be trying to kill whom remains to be seen.

The film is a pure delight, from the lushly gothic cinematography and set design to the deliciously arch dialogue between Price and Carol Ohmart, who plays his equally devilish wife (she claims he murdered his three previous wives, he claims she’s tried to poison him. The audience has no trouble believing both).

Price’s trademark hamminess is, of course, the chief asset of the film. The man was simply a joy to watch whatever he did, and when he did horror he was truly one-of-a-kind; equal parts ghoulish and elegant. For instance, there’s a bit in the film where he shakes up a champagne bottle and aims it at his wife’s head like a rifle before commenting on what a good headline it would make. That’s the Price character: the kind of man who will cheerfully poison you with a fine old wine and then discourse on the vintage while he watches you die.

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“Arsenic on the rocks.”

(Needless to say, he was also a master actor whenever he ended up in a ‘straight’ role: he just enjoyed the horror persona he developed too much to stray far from it most of the time).

The film also includes prolific character actor Elisha Cook Jr. (best known as Wilmer from The Maltese Falcon and nicknamed “Hollywood’s lightest heavy”) as the fidgety owner of the house, who fills in the history of the ghosts while chewing any scenery left by Price and his wife. The rest of the characters are pretty standard: the innocent young heroine, the stalwart and rather dense young hero, the skeptical doctor, and so on.

The scares are completely over-the-top and contrived as all get-out, though sometimes rather effective for all of that, especially a very well-executed jump scare. Said scare then gets a ‘natural’ explanation that raises far, far more questions than it answers. As a matter of fact, revelations at the end raises the question of just how much we saw was supposed to be supernatural and how much an elaborate hoax, though quite frankly given the things we saw, the supernatural explanation would have been much more credible.

The movie could be described as a “Weird Tales” cover brought to life, or a young boy’s idea of a haunted house made into a film. It’s cartoony, but for that very reason is absolutely dripping with atmosphere and is spectacularly entertaining to watch.

The riffing, like with Jack the Giant Killer, only adds to the fun, and it’s clear that both the riffers and the audience are enjoying the film immensely even as they roast it. Vincent Price in particular gets a full cheer when he first shows up. Many jokes also revolve around how ridiculously sexy Carol Ohmart was (“Is your face on yet?” “Her face but not her shirt!”). One particularly amusing joke deals with Vincent Price actually using the line “It’s close to midnight,” which the riffers imagine him turning into the opening of ‘Thriller’ before thinking, “I should tell that to that young…” An early gag involves drunk Frank Lloyd Wright. Later they get the entire theater chanting for heads (“Aw, it’s just frilly underwear!” “Boo!”).

-“Doctor Trent…” “May I call you ‘Council of’?”
-“Have you ever tried to get rid of four tons of acid in your basement? You know how expensive that is?”
-“$10,000…” “Invest that in Edsel, I think we’ll be set.”
-“You know how blind people’s senses sharpen to compensate for lack of sight? She grew wheels.” “Blind people are cool!”
-“Fear makes people do amazing things.” “Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel due to crippling fear of spiders.”
-“He tried to kill me!” “Did it work?”
-“You all right? You look like you just saw a talking paper bag.”
-*thunder* “Damn neighbor must be counting things again…”
-“And if you run into some meddling kids and a dog that ‘kind of’ talks, shoot to kill!
-“In the meantime I’ll be emptying the cash from my mattress and fleeing to Mexico if you need me. Not an admission of guilt!”

During the actual live performance itself, there’s some fun to be had with the trio dressing up (Kevin with a gorgon wig, prompting questions about the other end of the snakes, Bill as a ‘sexy kitten’, etc.). Not to mention many MST3k-themed costumes in the crowd.

They’re also joined for the second short, and a brief sketch during the film, by comedian Paul F. Tompkins, who I personally didn’t find all that funny, except when he’s threatening to replace Kevin during the film, though your mileage may vary.

In any case, this is a great show from Rifftrax, and perfect viewing for Halloween.

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“Damn it, Bones, leave her alone!”

Aleteia Post on Halloween

My first Aleteia post is up, and it’s about Halloween!

However, I also must confess a dislike for the usual proposed alternative of “All Saints Night,” in which children are encouraged to dress as their favorite saints and all the spooky trappings of the holiday are avoided. To paraphrase Jane Austen, that may be more Catholic, but it is much less like Halloween. An alternative that removes the defining elements of a thing is not a very appealing alternative.  

I would like to propose another approach — one that lets Halloween remain Halloween, while placing it in its proper context.

In the first place, we should keep in mind that the grotesque, macabre, and horrific have always been a part of Christian culture. Side-by-side with the celebration of the high and the holy has been the contemplation of the dark and the frightening. Christians traditionally do not shy away from facing evil; we carve monsters on the sides of churches, compose ghost stories and legends of the unquiet dead, hold danses macabre in cemeteries, and even build whole chapels out of bones. What we are to fear makes as much a part of the Christian story as what we are to desire.

This is because the greater the fear and the greater the danger, the greater the triumph. The path to glory leads through the dark valley; Good Friday precedes Easter Sunday; Dante descends into Hell before he can view Heaven.

Read the rest here.

Horror Short for Halloween

Below is short piece I wrote up for the holiday. Enjoy!

Room 312

            Nothing had happened to Room 312. No grisly murders or occult rituals ever took place there. No workers died during its construction, or were entombed alive in its foundation. Nor was there anything at all unusual about the ground upon which the hotel stood. It had been run profitably for years, and as far as I have been able to discover, no one has ever reported any strange occurrences there outside the confines of that one room.

I arrived at the Garden Gate Hotel late on a rain-swept evening, tired and wanting nothing more than a good night’s rest. To my dismay, however, it seemed it wasn’t going to be that simple.

The Garden Gate Hotel has what its brochure describes as a ‘charmingly old fashioned aesthetic’, right down to the fact that the rooms had actual keys rather than keycards, and the keys were hung on pegs behind the front desk. This had the added benefit of displaying at a glance how many rooms were available. I saw, to my relief as I approached the desk, that there was at least one key left.

“I’d like a room for the night,” I said.

“I’m sorry, sir,” said the desk clerk, a pale, soft-looking man with the most perfectly round head I’ve ever seen. “We’re full up.”

I did a double take. The lone key was still on the wall.

“Are you sure?” I said, nodding at it.

“Yes, sir,” said the clerk. “I’m very sorry.”

“What about that key right there?”

He didn’t look round. Instead, his eyes dropped slightly, as though it were something he didn’t like to talk about.

“That room is not available, I’m afraid.”

“Why not?”

“It…it’s hotel policy, sir.”

By now I was getting angry. I had just had a long journey, and was facing another one the next day. The last thing I wanted was to be told I had to get back on the road in the rain and look for another hotel, especially for what seemed to me no reason at all.

“I’d like to speak with the manager if I could,” I said.

The clerk seemed relieved.

“Right away sir,” he said, and disappeared into the inner office. I waited, silently marshaling my debating powers. Whatever was wrong with that room, be it mold or noise or whatever, I intended to have it.

A few minutes later, the clerk returned with the manager in tow. The manager was a tall, soldierly-looking man, who I at once pegged as being more straightforward and intelligent than his employer. We shook hands and he explained that, he was very sorry, but they never rented room 312 out to anyone.

“So I have been told,” I said. “But why? What’s wrong with the room?”

“That’s rather difficult to say,” the manager answered.

“Is it a health hazard?”

“N-no,” said the manage hesitantly. “Not exactly, though I believe it could be dangerous.”

“No mold, no toxic chemicals, no gas leaks, nothing of the kind?”

“Of course not,” said the manager. “If it were, I’d have it fixed. I’m afraid I’m not doing a good job of explaining, but the trouble is the thing is so darned hard to explain.”

Another idea occurred to me. It almost made me want to laugh.

“Is it haunted?”

He hesitated.

“Again, not exactly,” he said. “Though that’s closer to the mark.”

He thought about it a moment, stroking his chin.

“Put it this way,” he said at last. “Every man who has spent a night in that room has called it the worst experience of his life.”

I stared at him.

“What happens to them?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve never spent a night in that room, and the people who have won’t describe what happened. They just say it was hell.”

Strange though it is to say, especially knowing what I now know, all this only made me more eager to have the room. I wanted to know what was strange about it. We are infallibly drawn to the forbidden; the best way to make sure someone touches something is to put a sign over it saying ‘do not touch.’

“Well, look,” I said. “I don’t believe in ghosts or whatever else it is, and I’m not going back out in this weather trying to find another hotel. If you don’t intend to offer the room, why keep the key out?”

The manager gave me a rather twisted smile.

“I don’t,” he said. “Most of the time it’s locked in my desk. But somehow or other, it always finds its way back onto the peg just in time for someone like you to come along and ask for it.”

That made a chill run down my spine, but at the same time I thought “maybe this is a gimmick of the hotel: a way to make the stay more memorable.”

“Be that as it may,” I said. “I’d still like to have that room tonight.”

The manager sighed. He could see I didn’t believe him.

“Very well,” he said, nodding to the clerk, who took down the key. “Wait here a moment, sir.”

He disappeared into his office again and returned with a sheet of paper.

“This is a waiver signifying that I warned you of the dangers of Room 312 and that you will not hold this hotel responsible for any trauma or injuries that may occur.”

“Wait, seriously?”

“I’ve been sued twice by people who have spent the night in that room, and nearly lost my business. Either you sign this waiver or I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

I rolled my eyes and signed. The clerk handed me the key.

The manager himself accompanied me upstairs to the forbidden room. After all that build up, I expected something strange; maybe full of dust and cobwebs. But no; the room looked perfectly ordinary. The door opened on a short hall that ran past the closet and bathroom. There was a queen-sized bed, a desk, dresser, two nightstands, and a chair. The window looked out on the highway, now hidden by the mist and rain.

I admit, there was something about the very ordinariness of the room that struck me as slightly ominous. If the management had merely been attempting to create a memorable experience, then wouldn’t they have gussied up the room a bit?

Nevertheless, I went inside and deposited my bag on the bed. I looked in the bathroom and closet and found they were perfectly normal, as everything else, and my initial sense of unease abated. It seemed clear there was nothing at all to worry about.

“Well, sir, if you’re still determined…” the manager began.

“I am,” I said.

“Then I’ll say good night, and I wish you luck. If you need anything, dial nine for the front desk.”

With that, he bowed and departed, shutting me in as he did so.

I chuckled to myself a little, and dismissing the idea of ghosts and hauntings from my mind, started to unpack the few things I would need for the night.

First of all, I wanted a shower after my long drive. The spray was weak, but at least the water was warm. I’d certainly had worse hotel showers.

As I was leaving the bathroom, I paused. Something struck me as…off. The room appeared much as I had left it; there was my suitcase on the desk, my folded clothes on the dresser, and everything else in its place. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that, somehow, the room was different.

I shook myself; that was absurd. I was letting the manager’s spooky talk get to me. With a shrug, I packed away my dirty clothes, got into bed, and settled in to read for a while to settle my mind.

Nevertheless, that sense that something had changed kept nagging at me, so that I had trouble focusing on my book. I set it face-down on the bed and looked about, frowning at the furniture, carpet, and walls, wondering what it could be that had so caught my attention…

Something twitched inside me, as if I had missed a step going downstairs. For it suddenly occurred to me that the wallpaper, with its cheap, miniature floral pattern, had been blue when I came in, but was now green. And not the kind of green that could be mistaken for blue: rather, what had been a light baby blue was now a bright leafy green.

Upon realizing this, I caught my breath. But then I told myself I couldn’t have seen it properly on my way in; the light was dim, after all, and I hadn’t paid it any particular notice. For all I knew, it could have been green when I came in. I forced myself to chuckle and returned to the book.

I forced myself to read without glancing up at the room. After a little while I became absorbed in the story and ceased to think about the wallpaper. About a half-hour later, as my eyes began to itch with tiredness, I finally set the book aside, yawned, and went to turn out the light.

Before I could, however, I froze.

There was no question this time. The carpet, which had been a dull gray when I came in, was now red.

For a long time, I didn’t move. I had, I think, been prepared, after a fashion, for ghosts: spectral figures, strange noises, phantom touches and the like, but this…this was like nothing I could have anticipated. It was, like the manager said, just strange. There was nothing threatening, or in the ordinary sense, frightening about it, except that it couldn’t happen. Carpets and wallpaper do not just spontaneously change colors behind your back. Yet, here they were, so softly and so quickly that I hadn’t even noticed it. It was so simple, so small, and yet so impossible that I had no idea how to react.

But I had to do something. Slowly, I reached down and felt the carpet, perhaps expecting to find that my hand would come away stained with dye. No such luck; the carpet felt as it had when I came in. Feeling wide-awake now, I got out of bed and began pacing on the strange carpet. What was I to do now? Go down and tell the manager he was right and I didn’t want the room after all? That probably would have been the smart thing, but even in such circumstances stubborn pride and an unwillingness to show weakness before others maintained its grip upon me. Really, was I about to go out again, in the rain, looking for another hotel just because of a color-changing carpet? No, that was absurd. It was too late for that. I was here and I was in for the night.

By now, though, I was very interested in the room. I wondered what secrets it might conceal. I started meticulously searching it, going through all the drawers in the dresser, the nightstands, and desk, as well as the closet. Nothing out of the ordinary. There was even a Gutenberg Bible in the nightstand. I rifled through it just to see if anything was concealed inside, but nothing fell out.

Then I stopped. Glancing idly over the pages, something caught my eye; the heading of the page I had flipped open to identified it as the Book of “Belial.” Though I’m not a religious man, I was pretty sure that wasn’t part of the New Testament. Moreover, from movies and books I’d read, I’d always heard ‘Belial’ used as an evil name.

I started to read a passage at random. My half-remembered Sunday school lessons told me it was the famous parable of the sower. Since that night I looked up the original to remind myself what it’s supposed to be like: Jesus likens Himself to a farmer planting grain, where some lands on a road where it’s eaten by crows, some lands on shallow ground where it withers, some lands among thorns, and some lands on good ground.

This version started out like that. But it didn’t end that way. Instead, the crows came all four times and ate up the seed no matter where it landed. The parable ended with the line “And the crows grew fat upon the seed.” Then this version of Jesus began abusing the crowd, using language that would never have been in a real Bible. I won’t repeat it here, but it made me feel rather sick. I stopped reading and put the ‘Bible’ away.

I was half afraid to look up, but as though the room were rationing itself, there was no visible difference that I could detect. Again, I considered just getting dressed and leaving, right now. But again I rejected the idea. After all, color changes and a nasty fake Bible weren’t all that bad: nothing to really keep me awake all night.

With that thought, I laid back down on the bed. But it took me a while to resolve on turning out the light. I had a nasty feeling that as soon as I did, the walls and floor would start flicking through the entire color wheel around me. I don’t know why, but that thought made me uneasy.

I lay there for a while, trying to nerve myself to turn out the light, until I realized that I was afraid of the dark. This made me angry enough at myself that I switch off the lamp without another thought, rolled over, and shut my eyes, determined that if the room wanted to go changing colors about me, it was welcome to as long as it didn’t wake me up.

What a damn fool I was.

 

It took me a long time to fall asleep, as you may imagine. Indeed, if I hadn’t been so very tired, I doubt I could have slept at all. All the time I lay awake, I was listening, for what, I don’t know, though I heard nothing. But my exhausted body eventually overcame my troubled mind, and I slept.

A noise awakened me with a start. It sounded as if something heavy had been dropped onto the floor. The room was in total darkness, so that it made no difference whether my eyes were open or shut. I reached for the bedside lamp…but couldn’t find it. I felt all along the side of the bed, growing more and more uneasy as I did so, for I sensed there was someone in the room, and the longer I spent groping in darkness, the more certain I became of it. There was no other noise, but I could sense it.

Meanwhile, I discovered that, not only the lamp had vanished, but the whole nightstand had apparently been moved and was no longer within reach. I hurriedly crawled to the other side of the bed, but again, I found nothing.

By now I was definitely alarmed. Someone was in the room; I was sure of that, and they had somehow moved both nightstands, with their lamps, out of my reach. The only thing to do now, I thought, was to make for the door.

I crawled back to the right side of the bed and swung my feet out. They landed, not in carpet, but in something soft, warm, and wet. I cried aloud at this, then tried to feel for solid ground with my feet, but to no avail. Deciding I had no choice, I nevertheless stood up, feeling my feet sink into the foul-smelling ooze. Feeling one hand along the wall for support, I staggered for the door. It was like walking through deep mud.

I hadn’t gone more than three steps before I ran flat into a wall. I pounded on it in desperation: this was wrong. I remembered the layout of the room, and the hallway to the door should be right here.

I began to grope my way along the wall, seeking the door, which I now thought must have moved somehow. I felt my way along two whole sides of the room before I realized that the door wasn’t the only thing missing; the dresser was gone, as was the desk. Moreover, the wall didn’t feel like wallpaper; it felt more like stone.

Then, on the third wall, about where the window had been in the normal room, I found it; the door. I almost exclaimed in relief as I felt for the handle and turned.

A blast of icy wind met me as I opened it. It certainly did not open into the hallway. I had the impression of vast, empty space: endless and cold. The air I now breathed was as sharp as on a winter night.

But it wasn’t absolutely dark. There was a light directly in front of me; a pale, almost greenish light, perfectly round and, from what I could see, about the size of a basketball. Though since there was no frame of reference and it cast no illumination on its surroundings, I suppose it might have been any size and any distance. It didn’t move or change in any way, and yet, the longer I looked at it, the more uncomfortable I became. I felt nauseous, depressed, and terrified all at once.

I don’t know how long I stood there, staring at the orb, but eventually I came to my senses enough to slam the door shut. With nowhere else to go, I felt for the bed. The only way I could think to end this nightmare, apart from entering that endless, cold chamber, was to go back to bed so that I could wake up.

To my slight surprise, I found it, just where it should have been. I crawled in and buried myself under the warm covers like a child hiding from a nightmare.

The relief of the warmth and comfort of the bed was such that, for a while, I didn’t even realize that there was something in there with me.

I froze, not daring to move for fear the thing should grab me. We were close enough that the stiff hairs on the thing’s body were just tickling my back. I had the impression that its body was long and thin and vaguely human, though I can’t be sure of that. It made no sound, nor did it move, yet it was there, just touching me.

I lay like that all night, not daring to move a muscle, while the thing lay beside me in the dark. I suppose I must have drifted off at some point, because the next thing I knew it was morning. The room was normal, except that my suitcase lay on the floor by the bed on the other side of the room from where I had put it.

Though I no longer felt the hairs in my back, it was a long time before I dared to look around to see if I was alone.

Needless to say, I left the hotel as soon as I could. The manager wasn’t there when I checked out, but the clerk said he had orders not to charge me for the night’s stay. I got on the road and drove to the nearest town, where I went into a small restaurant to order breakfast and coffee and stayed there the whole morning trying to collect my scattered nerves.

Since that night, I’ve tried to find out everything I could about the Garden Gate Hotel, and especially Room 312. As I said, I haven’t found anything in either the history of the building or the site that might give a clue as to what happened in that room. A year or so later, I even went back to discuss it with the manager, but he had no more idea than I did. The room had always been like that since it was built, and no one knew why.

I’ve never had another night like that in any other hotel. Though, ever since that night, I have sometimes awakened in the small hours of the morning, feeling stiff hairs tickling my back and the undeniable sensation that something was in bed with me.