In my father’s childhood, during the emerging spring when the dogwoods were blooming white and gold in the long blue mountains, his father would drive the family down a meager dirt road over and around the wooded hills to the farmer’s market and back. At the apex of one of the hills, the woods cleared away to the west and the hillside fell into a great valley and climbed steeply up again to reveal the stone-gray face of Ben Hennom, an ancient mountain worn smooth and dark by the weathers of time. On a high shoulder of the mountain, half hidden by a row of wraithlike trees as old as time itself, sat an immense house of black iron and glass. During the day, it was an odd architectural curiosity. Due to a subtle trick of the mountain’s folding ridges, it seemed always to be in shadow, even when the sun blazed in a cloudless sky above it. From morning to night, it was cloaked in a slowly swirling mist as thick as smoke from a fire. At night, it brooded in darkness like an ember-eyed bird of prey on the edge of the mountain. Never before had a house been built like it, and never would another be built. The children would scramble to the windows of the car to marvel in awed silence at the great and mysterious structure.
It was brought into existence in 1918 by a vice president of the J. Reynolds Tobacco Company in Winston-Salem who no doubt wanted to escape the oppressive summer heat of the Piedmont and found relief in the high elevations of Old Buckram. He bought the hundred acres surrounding the house for next to nothing—at that time land was inexpensive and plentiful—but on the structure he spared no expense and gave little regard to prevailing attitudes on architectural taste. The house was designed floor to ceiling by the man’s brother-in-law, who was a full architect and half an occultist. To say he had a penchant for the macabre is an understatement. As a younger man, not more than a year out of Princeton, he had traveled to Palenque by virtue of the generosity of his wealthy father. The purpose of the trip was to derive inspiration for his nascent career, for he was far from satisfied with the unimaginative state of American design in the south. After a frightful encounter with a large black bird that pecked at him viciously and tried to take his eyes, he came down with a horrid fever that shook his body for weeks. He nearly died before leaving Mexico and was never the same thereafter. A dark cast had taken his soul. Upon returning home, he commenced work on what would simultaneously be his first and last creation and his magnum opus: the great house on the hill. The fever returned and his last breath turned to vapor in the cold mountain air before he could see his drawings brought to life—but yet it would be built.
The house saw little use or occupation for decades, and in 1963 it was sold in a dilapidated state to an eccentric hotelier named Kaeron who envisioned it as a recherché bed-and-breakfast that would give his wife something to do to pass the time other than wait for him to come home in the evenings. When that went the way of all bad ideas, he and his wife moved in and lived there with their three children, Mary, Tebah, and Abigail. They built a gate at the bottom of the hill and slowly disappeared from public life. Later the house and grounds fell back into disrepair, and it was whispered in town that the hotelier had an exotic disease for which there was no cure. Then someone noticed that all the lights in the house had been turned on and were never turned off, day or night. As the weeks passed, the lights went out one by one. Eventually someone called the police, the gate was scaled, and the premises were searched. No one appeared to be home. When the fifth mortgage payment didn’t arrive, the bank sent someone out to inquire. After knocking and looking in all the windows, the man who lost the bet kicked through a pane of glass and went inside. The house was completely furnished and in order, as if company were expected. He called out, but no one answered. After a terrifying exploration through the cold and darkling fortress, he ran out of the house and called the police.
The detective assigned to the case wrote in his initial report: “Something horrible has happened here. I can’t tell exactly what. It’s strange. Two adults are dead. The three children are missing. No indication of their whereabouts. Cause of death for the parents is undetermined (analysis pending), but could have been self-inflicted, either voluntarily or involuntarily (under duress). Excavation of the grounds to begin this week.” And then three weeks later: “Children found today. Buried face-up in a pit in the woods behind the house. Lined up (not piled in). Multiple broken bones apparent.” A supplemental report indicated the cause of death for the children was drowning. The police were never able to put together a coherent explanation of how or why the killings occurred.
Five years later the bank still owned the house and no prospects for its sale had materialized. That was the state of things when my parents returned to Old Buckram, Eleonore great with child, and moved into the cramped little farmhouse at the end of the dirt road with Helton and Maddy. They took up residence in a room that was just large enough for a sagging twin bed and a small desk, upon which my father placed his typewriter. Before six months had passed, the desk was removed and replaced with a mildewing hand-me-down crib from the attic that was vigorously cleaned, painted, and structurally reinforced. My parents named me Henry, after my father.
Because there wasn’t room elsewhere, my father’s desk and typewriter were both unceremoniously relegated to the back porch, where all of Maddy’s painted ceramics were stockpiled on dusty shelves. For hours, then, in the lowering night while the house slept, my father would sit outside by lamplight, surrounded and besieged by fluttering white moths and what might have been items for sale at a roadside flea market, and try to write.
Upon their arrival in North Carolina, after finding no teaching jobs within a hundred miles that were of interest to him, my father commenced a brief legal career with one of the two law offices in town. A lawyer’s salary is rarely as exorbitant as many people think it is, and this is especially true for lawyers whose practice consists in part of “dirt law,” particularly in the more rural parts of the state. There were months when it seemed he was barely breaking even. Most of the work he did was for folks who couldn’t pay. So in order to augment the income he was making from mundane real-estate closings and simple criminal matters, he used his crushing intellect and took a few complex malpractice cases on a contingent-fee basis, pursuant to which he was entitled by agreement to receive a third of any recovery. The first three cases cost him money and nearly got him fired. The fourth one settled before trial for just over three million dollars. His first thought was, Now we can get Eleonore a horse. Shortly after collecting his hard-earned fee, he reluctantly accepted a position on the board of the Old Buckram Bank to serve as an adviser. It was in this latter capacity that he learned the great house on the hill was for sale and could be acquired for far less than market value. He ascended the steep gravel driveway for the first time exactly four and a half hours after this propitious discovery and beheld in proximity what he had hitherto only seen from a distance. He was amazed at what he saw. The house towered black and malefic into the gray of the cindered sky and it terrified him. It was a monstrous gothic skeleton. From the courtyard looking to the east he could see the few town lights of Old Buckram, and to the southwest the aged mountains of the Blue Ridge could be seen blue and distant. He pushed open the leaden front doors and wandered wide-eyed into a mausoleum of a foyer that greeted him with curtains of cobwebs and a cadre of scurrying mice. Slowly he was drawn into the core of the house, where he discovered a great wood-paneled library on the second floor with high windows and endless shelves running up to the vaulted ceilings above. Books lined the walls and were piled in every corner. He was instantly determined to make the house his own, no matter the cost. Here, I can write, he thought.
Far below the crags and a vertiginous decline, the property accompanying the house leveled as it neared the road, and a black barn as old as the mountain hid in a grove of birch and black oak. At least thirty acres of this lowland area had been cleared and fenced, although the fence was down in more places than it was up. That night Henry went home to Helton and Maddy’s and said to Eleonore, “We’re moving, and we’re getting a horse. I want to name it Annabel Lee.” It took them less than a day to move in and the rest of their lives to leave.
If all the wood had been stained and polished to a high, elegant gloss, the interior of the house would have been opulent beyond imagining. With eyes half-closed, you could look and see what the maddened architect had intended, although the structure could bear that likeness no more.
The scowling face of the house looked east toward the rising sun. The first room entered from the front through a massive oaken door was the aforementioned foyer, tiled in somber slate and more than twice the size of the Baltimore apartment. Arched hallways ran off in all directions, and a sweeping staircase with steps the color of venous blood curled asymmetrically up and out of sight. To the right, through a succession of doorways, was at first a dour sitting room (forever unused), a dining room with space enough for fifty people, and a smoking room, drab and drear. We didn’t use it in this way, but plainly this was its purpose in the former life of the house, as evidenced by two waist-high granite obelisks, the pyramidic tops of which could be removed so that spent cigars and cigarettes could be placed in the canisters inside.
The exterior walls of this room were floor-to-ceiling glass, matching a similar room on the southeastern corner of the house. From this point of vantage looking toward town, the old dirt Avernus Road was intermittently visible, winding over the hillside opposite—the same road my father’s family traveled on the way to the farmer’s market so many years before.
Behind the smoking room was an open chamber we called the Painted Parlour. In a well-intentioned yet futile attempt to bring some much-needed cheer to the otherwise cadaverous ambience, one wall had been painted olive green; the second wall, paprika; the third, canary; and the fourth, lavender. The mixture of colors was arresting. Eggshell picture-frame molding ran high along the top of the walls and tried without success to tie the room together. Bleak pictures depicting despairing winter scenes in the mountains hung on the walls in bizarre contrast to the tsunamis of color. In each corner was a high-backed armchair, colored and striped vertically in opposition to the walls joining behind it. Father continually threatened to whitewash the whole affair, but Mother found it charming, and so it remained.
A small door in the southern wall of the Painted Parlour gave entrance to a corridor which, at its end, climbed three steps and opened at last into a sprawling room in the exact geometric center of the house. This was the Great Room. It was half the size of a modern gymnasium and, with its dark woods and baroque carvings, instantly gave the impression of an old English cathedral. Along one wall was a burnished oak bar with a set of six silver stools. Behind the bar were dozens of bottles of every kind of consumable spirit you can imagine, along with tumblers, wine glasses, mixers, and the like. Next to the bar on a recessed surface sat a glittering phonograph with a speaker of the cornucopia variety. Opposite were four arabesque planters the size of Volkswagens and painted Aztec oranges and blues. The room was heated by four stone fireplaces with mantels of carved wood.
At one end of the Great Room sat a goliath of a square grand piano. Originally built in 1889 by Henry F. Miller and J. H. Gib- son of Boston, it was later painstakingly restored piece by delicate piece by Fendom Bower, the eccentric owner of Old Buckram’s one music store who made a living selling rebuilt instruments and tuning the few local pianos. Whether by design or by happenstance, the piano, when played, would fill every room in the never-ending house with sound.
A most remarkable feature of the house was a giant elliptical opening in the ceiling of the Great Room that spanned thirty feet by the major axis, twenty by the minor. Through this vast portal the room was open from the ground floor all the way to the ornate iron-and-glass roof three stories above—similar in some manner to a rotunda except that instead of a pleasing parabolic dome on top, it was all oblique angles and irregular vertices. Thus, one could stand at the bar and, while waiting for a drink, look up and watch a waxing crescent moon in a field of stars pass by far overhead.
Immediately above the Great Room and orbiting the elliptical aperture was the famous library. It was this room that my father had seen on his first visit to the house, and that which had brought him there. It was indeed the dark heart of the dwelling. One could reach the library by a spare spiral staircase that climbed up from the Great Room, as well as by the Dali-esque stairway from the foyer.
The walls of the library were bookshelves twelve feet high, with gothic windows of stained glass and wide-set ledges in each wall of shelves. Between the windows were four doors standing alone, one in each of the four bookshelfed walls, and positioned at the four points of a cross. Each door opened to a hallway that led down to a series of bedrooms. At the southern end of the library was an apsis containing a simple sitting area with leather chairs and a small rolling bookcase that had at one time belonged to a clergyman. A door at the base of the apsis led to my parents’ room.
An iron railing with patterns of irreducible complexity ran unbroken around the oblong chasm in the floor. If you were to get lost in a book whilst strolling about, this barrier would keep you from accidentally plunging headlong and surprised into the Great Room below.
On the third floor of the house, more modest in dimension than the floors below, were several smaller rooms of cold, creaking wood connected by narrow passages and hidden stairways that ran arterially about in an altogether mystifying fashion. Offset among these was a simple glass observatory facing east, with a small reflecting telescope mounted on a brass swivel in the floor. After being sent to bed on the rare nights my parents had company, I often made my way from my bedroom up the back staircase to the observatory, where for a time I would lie on the floor, unseen, peering down through the library into the Great Room, as my parents entertained and bright voices and laughter drifted up and played auditory tricks with the ornamental glass architecture. Then I would turn to the telescope and spend hours on end searching with amazement all the illimitable wonders of the night sky. Fond memories, indeed.
And yet despite all the foolhardy extravagance and excess, there was inescapably an emptiness, a bleak chill, and a hostility to the house that could never be ignored or forgotten. No matter what efforts were undertaken in the way of decoration and the quaint placing of personal effects, the house had a way of communicating its chronic malaise. There were far corners and hallways that refused to be illuminated. There were rooms that couldn’t be heated, and wintry drafts from no identifiable source that numbed your feet and breathed a cold and unwelcome omen down your neck. There were closets the tops of which always harbored imperturbable spiders with thick irrational webs, and in all seasons chittering black bats, excited by the tethered moon, circled high on the chimney spires at twilight.
In the full context of this haunted estate, let’s go back now to the second floor and walk around the library together. You hold on to the railing and let it slide through your fingers, a faint trace of rust accreting on your fingertips and in the palm of your hand. Looking at the towering shelves, you think, How many books can this hold? Could I read that many books in a lifetime? As we walk around, we come to a small hallway in the corner of the room that breaks off into darkness. You didn’t see it at first; it’s almost hidden from sight. When I show it to you, you see that it leads to a small cubical chamber, a prison almost, inside of which is a desk, a chair, and a lamp. This was my father’s space. It was here that he would sit and write, and where all his hours vanished.
From THE BARROWFIELDS. Used with permission of Hogarth. Copyright © 2017 by Phillip Lewis.