16 March 2017

A House is Always Interesting

by Eve Fisher

For a variety of reasons (AVP, amenities, doctors, and the fact that we go down twice a week minimum) my husband and I are moving from our small town to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, 50 miles down the road.

Sioux Falls, photo courtesy Wikipedia
Sioux Falls is growing by leaps and bounds.  There are whole villages of suburbs stretching south and west (mainly because our airport is in the northeast, btw).  Condos have grown up around the interstates.  However, we don't like suburbs much, and all the condos we saw were too small, and we wanted to live central Sioux Falls, which is a hot, hot, hot! market.  There were at least 3 houses that we wanted to see but couldn't even get in to view - they were no sooner on the market than bought. We put in offers on three, yes, three different places:  the first one turned our bid down, and upon reconsidering, we didn't rebid.  The second one failed inspection (huge foundation problems).  But the third, hopefully, is the charm!  I am working on the mortgage papers (everything's on-line these days, dammit!) probably as you read this.

House shopping is interesting and exhausting.  I remember back when we first house-shopped in 1991 (we'd rented the place we were living over the phone), and it was an educational experience. One memorable house had a room with bright orange and green plaid vinyl wallpaper, with orange shag carpet, and, in the kitchen, vintage orange appliances.  No, we did not buy it. Another place was beautifully done, until you opened the basement door and the reek of mold and mildew was enough to knock you down.  Another place was obviously the future home of someone who would formally entertain at the drop of a hat.  (We're the pot-luck or pizza types.)

Old houses are fun.  The history, the charm, the leftover stuff.  In our last house, we found an old-fashioned cream-skimmer that dropped behind the kitchen sink in the summer kitchen out back, decades ago.  I remember once I visited a friend in Chicago, who was remodeling an old house into apartments, and found 4 old books tucked away in the attic, including a first edition Harriet Beecher Stowe's "The Mayflower".  He was going to throw them away, so I leaped up and claimed them. They've had a good home ever since. And I remember living in an urban neighborhood in Atlanta, decades ago, with a bunch of roommates (starving artists all), and visiting with the little old lady who lived in the bungalow next door - turned out she'd been born in that house, and had never moved in all her 81 years.  I remember being gob-smacked by that.  I couldn't imagine staying anywhere 81 years.  I still can't.

Roderick Usher,
by Aubrey Beardsley
(note - not creepy enough)
Old houses can also be creepy.  I know of two houses in our small town that have had suicides, and at least one with a murder.  One of the original morticians' houses was bought and transformed into a family dwelling, and the owners put their master bedroom where the viewing room used to be.  There are also a couple of houses that just look WEIRD:  you know, the kind where you get the feeling that Roderick Usher uses it as his summer home.   I remember one house we looked at in Tennessee:  we walked into the back room, I turned to Allan and said, "Redrum", and we walked out. Quickly.

A lot of mysteries and thrillers have been written about what happens after the house is bought and/or inherited.  One of the great disappointments of such novels is Agatha Christie's "Postern of Fate", which is - well, the only way I can put it is that it's a real mess.  The Beresfords are too old, as was, sadly, Ms. Christie.  On the other hand, I love Christie's "Sleeping Murder" - which is NOT Miss Marple's last case by a long shot. The slow reveal of the fact that Gwenda Halliday Reed actually lived, as a child, in the house she bought in case of love at first sight still makes the hair stand up on the back of my head. Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House" has the house itself as a central character, and God help all who stay in it.  And, speaking of Roderick Usher, the House of Usher went down with a pretty spectacular crash, didn't it?

"Northanger Abbey" -
1986 BBC production 
But that's often the point.  Gothic fiction, whether classics from the 18th century, like "The Mysteries of Udolpho", "Otranto", "The Monk", etc., all the way down to modern Gothic romances, all revolve around mysterious old houses.  Some are spookier than others:  the whole point of Catherine Morland's joy in being invited to the eponymous "Northanger Abbey" is that, to her eyes, it looked likely to have had a murder or two done in it, and she could hardly wait to find the body.  God knows her reading literature had taught her that if you can't find a dead body, or a hidden tunnel with an instrument of torture or two, or the remains of the missing first wife in an old ruin, where can you find one? Instead, being Jane Austen's creation, she found a husband, and the main mystery turns out to be the laundry bills left behind by Eleanor Tilney's secret love.

In true Gothic fiction there are always dark castles, dungeons, tunnels, empty graves, full graves, murders, rumors of murders, supernatural events, monsters, and sometimes all of the above.  ("Dark Shadows" captured all of these in one magnificently campy afternoon soap opera from my early teen years:  click on the picture above to see Barnabas Collins finally set free from his coffin...)

There is always a young, virginal heroine (even in modern Gothic romances) with a mysterious past, who is often revealed to have been born noble.  The hero is always courageous, although he is often a suspect (at least for a while) in the shenanigans going on around the place.  The villain of the piece is a control freak tyrant who will have things his own way no matter what (calling Mrs. Danvers...).  If the villain is married, his wife is completely under his thumb (Countess Fosco in "The Woman in White").  There is often a crazy relative, usually locked up. There is always a mystery.  And the heroine always feels that there's something seriously wrong, then that something's wrong with her, then that she's under threat, and, at various stages, worries about her own mental health...

How the heroine gets to her location varies.  Sometimes the heroine is a relative (Maud is practically willed by her father to Uncle Silas), sometimes she's the governess ("Jane Eyre", "Nine Coaches Waiting"), sometimes she's an invited guest (Catherine Morland).  But I believe - although I could be wrong - that "Rebecca" is the only one where the heroine marries the owner BEFORE she arrives at the house.  

But it's always about the house.  As Jo Walton says, "The essential moment every gothic must contain is the young protagonist standing alone in a strange house. The gothic is at heart a romance between a girl and a house."

So, the next time you go house-hunting, consider...  you might be looking at your next mystery, your next ghost story, or your next romance.

Will keep you posted on our move.


  1. Fun post, Eve! And when we were last looking for houses we came on one that we really liked where there had been a suicide. It didn't stop us from putting in a bid, but the seller was really stubborn, considering there was a lot of work to be done, oh, and a suicide in the house! Good luck with your house hunting!

  2. Very best of luck with your new house, may it be quite without mystery inspiration- save that for a suitably atmospheric house just down the road in your new neighborhood!

  3. Thanks, Paul and Janice. Actually, the building we live in now is haunted - benignly - and I've seen the ghost/spirit, once, looking at a pile of Christmas stuff in a corner in the hallway. I blinked, and he was gone. You never quite know what's going on.

  4. I hope all goes smoothly with your move to Sioux Falls. Our family lived there for eleven years, in a very modest little house practically across the street from Edison Middle School (which each of our daughters attended in turn). We've lived in several larger, more up-to-date houses since then, but I think that house will always be my favorite, because that's where we lived when both our daughters were at home. My favorite room was a converted garage that doubled as our dining room and my study--I have lots of fond memories tied to that room, both of family times and of writing times. When we moved to Ohio, though, we had a hard time selling the house because it didn't have a garage--as you know, there are solid reasons for wanting a garage in South Dakota. The people who finally bought the house converted the dining room/study back to a garage. So if my ghost returns to my favorite room some day, I'll have to put up with cold temperatures and gas fumes.

  5. Enjoyed this, Eve. I drove through the town I was police chief in a few months ago, and was struck by how many homes I drove past that were death scenes I had responded to as a police officer. Good luck with the hunt, and I agree with Janice--stay away from the haunted. It's better to just walk by and enjoy the shiver from a distance.

  6. I lived in a haunted house in New Jersey years ago. I never saw the ghost but heard him many times. My landlady's daughter told me about him & said there was a painting of him in the attic. Of course her mother denied it altogether. Eventually I got my boyfriend to go up to the attic with me & sure enough, there was the picture. The boyfriend had already lived in a haunted house himself, so he didn't laugh at me.

    I don't have ghosts here, but we do have a secret room in back of the living room which it took us a day or two to discover. And the house gave us some things right when we needed them ... a kerosene heater & an old vacuum cleaner come to mind.

  7. Mercy! Your article is haunted by numerous literary and cultural references! My dad loved Beardsley. Besides 2 or 3 Beardsley art books, I think we had a literary collection or two illustrated by him. These days, exposing children to art would be scandalous.

    You may prompt me to write about the houses I grew up in, one with Wilbur, a family ghost dating back to the early 1800s, another with secret rooms.

    The best thing about old houses is personality. It can also be the worst thing about old homes, but at least they’re not boring.

  8. BK - That's still a nice neighborhood. If you want, send me the address and I'll let you know how it looks these days.
    David, Elizabeth, and Leigh - it's amazing how many of us have lived with ghosts, isn't it? But think about it, considering how many people have lived on this planet, and how few houses there are, there's got to be a lot of overlap...

  9. Eve, I sent you the address in a private message on Facebook. (Chances are the current owners--whoever they may be--couldn't sue me for revealing the address on SleuthSayers, but these days I don't feel like taking risks.) If you get a chance to drive by, it would be fun to hear your impressions. Thanks!

  10. Nice post, Eve. Sorry for this delayed response. I like the idea of a romance being between a girl and a house. Maybe that's why I'm still single. I've been looking for a man when I should have been looking for a Realtor. ;)

  11. Actually, Barb, I think that, when it comes to landed gentry throughout the ages, the real love affair is and has always been with the house / estate. Love comes and goes, land lasts.


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