Editor’s Note: All of Vague Visages’ short stories are free-to-read.
Jem wasn’t sure how long he’d been gazing into his scotch glass, but he came back to reality at the sound of Raymond’s cough.
According to Jem’s educated guess, Raymond was at least twice his age, but tonight the man looked even older. The aged fellow’s vast torso heaved under a shirt and dinner jacket, his bloated face gleaming red over a bowtie. Occasionally, Raymond ran an arthritis-knotted hand through the sparse gray strands floating on his skull; his reach extended just as often toward the dwindling bottle of whiskey, which he’d kept within close proximity for the majority of the evening.
Jem’s living room was a space of uncertainty: diamond orbs without visible purpose collected dust on the coffee table, a rare Edvard Munch awkwardly shared wall space with discount wall art. Raymond glanced listlessly at one particularly horrid sea turtle print, coughed his bookish cough and swilled scotch in his cheeks.
Jem broke the silence, finally broaching the topic that had inspired this visit in the first place. By now, they’d consumed enough whiskey; yes, he decided, now was the time.
“What if I told you there’s a ghost living in my storage room? What would you say?” he asked.
The truth: he did have a ghost living in his storage room. Last Saturday, he’d gone in there to retrieve a jar of pickled beets (stone sober, if you must know), and a hideous apparition had drifted from the dark corner, seized a handful of his hair and thrown him at the shelf. He’d knocked nearly every jar of perishables onto the laminate floor, his ass splatting in a puddle of vinegar and glass shards.
Later that week, he resolved to consult a past colleague and good friend about the matter: Dr. Raymond Block. Raymond was a double PhD (Philosophy and English Literature) with a specialty in 18th-19th century Gothic fiction. Jem figured once he’d poured enough whiskey into the man, the man would talk… and talk… and then talk some more.
Yes, Raymond would get impossibly loquacious. What Jem hoped for, though, was a lowering of Raymond’s guard, an opening of his mind.
Jem hadn’t re-entered the storage room since his encounter with the poltergeist (for it was a poltergeist; his limited internet research had taught him that much), and he badly wanted to clean the mess of pickle juice, shattered glass and splintered shelving. Someone was bound to get hurt in there.
Raymond made two smooth blowfishes of his cheeks and harrumphed. “Before I respond to the basis, as it were, of your query,” he said, “I might urge you to verify that you did in fact state your storage room as the location, the residence, as such, of this ghost, so to speak.”
Jem stared into the man’s eyes: watery beads set into a massive, doughy face.
“Who cares about the goddamn room, especially considering the fact that I’ve just now confessed my belief in life beyond the grave — don’t you think you might be focusing on the wrong thing?” Jem said.
Just like Raymond to zone in on the most inane details. To redirect. To reframe.
Raymond looked toward the ceiling and smirked, as if Jem had said the funniest thing he could possibly imagine. “While you might be inclined to pose such a rebuttal, I should like to believe that the room itself does make a difference, especially if we are to acknowledge the fact that I have come to know this house very well over the perpetuating annum, if one can know a house as such, and, ostensibly, I have come to know all of the rooms within it, if one can know a room as such, which, I should think, leads me to develop entirely contrastive, varying, and altogether disparate relationships and associations depending on my position within the house, that is to say that so much depends upon my physical orientation, as it were, which is to say that I might feel something, an aura if you will, an ambience, a certain sense, in one room, let us say the storage room in this case, that I might not be inclined to feel while simply savouring a glass of fifteen-year single malt in your living room which, at this moment, I am doing, and it is truly lovely scotch, by the way, truly lovely, I have no qualms with this vintage a-tall, and I feel quite confident at this particular juncture, physically, spatially, intuitively, and otherwise, in my assumption that there is no apparition sipping invisible whiskey beside me, to put it rather crudely.”
So the room might make some kind of difference, Jem determined. A fleeting thought expanded into an essay; thank you, Raymond. Typical.
Jem leaned forward in his chair and set his glass on the table. “What you’re suggesting, uh, is that the goddamn viability of supernatural existence depends on a certain sort of, like, geographically organized set of criteria, right?”
“No, I do not believe that that is necessarily what I am intending to say, although I conjecture that you might be gesturing toward my sentiment in a vague sort of way, that is to say, I think that you might be on the right track, as it were.”
“Not geographical, then, but, uh, what’s the goddamn word, uh, spatial — is that right?”
“I should like to imagine that what I am suggesting is something else entirely and, moreover, that your inquiry requires a certain amount of rephrasing or, as it were, a certain amount of clarifying, that is to say, I do not believe that you have arrived at the basis of my reflection a-tall.”
“Okay, let me ask you if what you’re referring to is a certain sense of, uh, absence… or presence, depending on environmental specifics at any given moment — is that what you’re referring to?”
On Saturday, Jem had felt neither a vacuous, chilly sense of absence nor a foreboding sense of presence. He’d entered the storage room and been promptly clouted on the head. When he’d stared up from the floor, his butt cheeks soaking pickle-juice, he’d seen the translucent and relentlessly staring face of a woman he’d never known in his life, and in that instant he’d intuited, somehow immediately, that she was a ghost. Maybe it’d been the abyssal look in her staring eyes, or the impossible way she shone — as if a powerful light was housed inside her body.
Raymond cleared his throat. “I think what you are now gesturing toward is an understanding of the ghost, the ghoul, the specter, the spirit, the spook, what have you, as an embodiment of either presence or absence, or perhaps as a paradoxical braiding of both.”
Jem thought that maybe he could rope Raymond into a more detailed discussion if he could incorporate some philosophy. Deciding the French post-structuralists were as good a place to start as any, he asked, “What would our old friend Derrida have to say about that? Should we call up ol’ Jackie D?”
The nickname was stupid, even juvenile, but the two of them had taken a jokey liking to it over the years.
“I should like to believe that, for the moment, Jacques Derrida’s theoretical input would have very little to contribute to any potentially productive results of this conversation and, as such, I think it might be best for us to leave his hyper-stylized musings on the backburner for the moment, as it were, for our friend Mr. Derrida never writes of the body and, consequently, I might argue that he is utterly incapable of conceptualizing what might exist beyond the body, and I should also like to state that I can rather jovially do without his obsession with différance, puckish wordplay and the like.”
“Derrida’s always already, like, asking the question before the question, don’t you think?” Jem pressed.
“What you are suggesting, then, is that there exists a question that precedes your original query, that is to say, that there is an investigation predating the implications of one asking, ‘What if I told you that there is a ghost living in my storage room,’ which, I might add, is in itself a paradox, that is to say, the ghost as we understand it does not live, as it were, but occupies a space of nonliving life wherein the ghost does not inhabit our preconceptions of life as such.”
“Wouldn’t you say that the room itself is of little, uh, consequence?”
“I should like to question whether or not it can be argued as such and, moreover, how exactly we might decide to define the term consequence within this particular context.”
“What if?” Jem said, not quite sure what he meant by it.
“I might be inclined to ask, ‘What if what,’ and, furthermore, I might be motivated to drain the remainder of this glass of scotch in a single gulp, as such,” Raymond said, and did so presently.
“Okay,” Jem said, “To rephrase: what if I simply, you know, told you that there’s a ghost?”
“I should be inclined to ask what in the preternatural fuck you might be talking about, to put it rather crudely or, in the event that I had not yet consumed what some might consider a copious amount of fifteen-year single malt, I might politely inquire as to what it is, exactly, that you are attempting to address, as it were.”
Jem rose from his seat and stood over Raymond with a wavering smile. “What if I told you that I knew for a goddamn fact that there’s a ghost in this house? Huh?”
“I might be inclined to ask exactly where in the house you believe this ghost to be or, perhaps, in the event that you had not originally specified the actual location of the ghost, I suppose I might first address the question on its own terms without considering the spatial specificities of this ghost’s nonliving existence.”
Jem felt that he might be getting somewhere, finally. “And what would you ask?”
“Well, first and foremost, as it were,” Raymond said, “I might be inclined to turn to the original sources of our respective fascinations with phantoms, wraiths or ghosts, so to speak.”
“Ah, I have been unclear, my dear friend, so if you will kindly allow me to top up, yes, four or five fingers should be splendid, that is just perfect, perhaps another finger or two, I think this glass is quite capable of containing a good seven fingers, which, in the case of a drink with such complex notes and such a delightful whisper of peat, as it were, would be irrefutably…”
“Ah-hem,” Jem said, watching the majority of the bottle’s contents make its way into Raymond’s glass.
“Ah, yes, I have been deterred from the central focus of our discourse by what some might refer to as a problematically intense preoccupation with scotch or, more broadly, with any sort of liquid that is aged, blended, distilled or, to put it rather crudely, alcoholised.”
“What did you say about, uh, sources?”
“Ah yes,” Raymond said. He glug-glug-glugged some whiskey, raising a meaty finger as he did so. “The sources that I refer to can be traced genealogically, perhaps as far back as to the Bible itself which, in our case, is probably most well understood in the King James version; however, what I am actually getting at, as it were, is a certain persuasive influence by practitioners of the Gothic tale, or, to be more specific, writers such as Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Matthew Gregory Lewis, Charles Robert Maturin, Ann Radcliffe and Horace Walpole, to name only a very select few of the most culturally and historically prominent proponents of such a widespread and eventually ubiquitous fictional medium.”
Jem tensed. Raymond had avoided the involvement of theoreticians, and here he was reducing the subject to a discussion of literature.
“What do these, uh, writers of fiction have to do with the, uh, assertion that there’s a ghost living in my storage room?” he asked.
Raymond, now looking much like a grinning tomato, said, “I should like to believe that the breadth and history of logical and scientific evidence, as it were, as well as what some might call common sense, to put it rather crudely, points us in the direction of rationality which, ultimately, eschews what you apparently presuppose to be a plausible aspect of your waking reality and, as such, I am inclined to gesture to the fictitious influences of your literary research as possible impetuses for such a radically unfathomable suggestion.”
The ghost was as real as the very fresh scars adorning Jem’s bony ass. The suggestion that he’d imagined the whole thing was nothing short of maddening. “I still don’t see how, uh, an overview of these, what’s the word, these canonized Gothic writers is relevant at this moment, but, you know what, uh, I’ll ask you something else instead — what do you think of parapsychology?”
Raymond huffed. “I do not, as it were, think of it a-tall.”
“What I’m still wondering, then, is what you meant when you referred to relationships with rooms — what, uh, were you trying to get at there?”
“At this moment I feel it may be appropriate to recognize the fact that I am rather inebriated, as it were, drunk as a spotty skunk, fucked, to put it crudely, loaded, sloshed, soused, and, as such, I cannot at this time seem to recollect the particular instance in our exchange to which you refer.”
“You said that you had different relationships with different rooms, uh, comparing the storage room there to this living room, uh, as an example — with that in mind, would you consider continuing our conversation in the storage room? You know, moseying on down there with the fifteen year and polishing that puppy off?”
“In response to such an utterly befuddling suggestion, I might be inclined to admit that my head is currently spinning in a manner akin to your average carousel, as it were, and that my ass, my backside, my buttocks, my gluteus maximus, to put it rather medically, feels particularly comfortable and well supported in this lovely leather recliner, and consequently, I am openly and decidedly averse to the idea of relocation at this juncture.”
As Raymond spoke, Jem thought he saw something stirring in the front hall. A whisper of movement. A glowing. And he knew, just knew, that the ghost had returned.
That the ghost had moved.
“Are you scared to go into that storage room?” Jem said. “You, uh, chicken?”
“I might be inclined to retort to such petulant juvenility with a liberal amount of animosity, that is to say, I might be inclined to advise you to go soak your head, as it were, suck an egg, or, to put it rather crudely, I might employ colloquialisms that suggest self-fornication, wherein the masturbatory action is reduced to a broader euphemism with profane and perhaps even aggressive connotations, inasmuch as the phrasing of the suggestion can effectively be summarized rather crudely as, go fuck yourself.”
Jem saw a blue and dimly luminous flickering, saw the shadow of something making its way closer. A smile pulled the corners of his mouth. “You’re scared to go in there, aren’t you?”
Raymond downed another third of the glass; how many fingers was that? Two? Three?
“The man that I am, that is to say the man who might be described as a scholar, an aesthete, a learned man, an academic, as it were…” The shape drew nearer, and Jem knew very well what it was. What she was. “…might be inclined to take offense at this rather shrewd and antiquated demonstration of masculinity, machismo, phallogocentric musing, as it were…” And she was so close now that Jem could see her face, and his whiskey-drunk mind took intense pleasure in the fact. “…and while the current bottle still remains unfinished, as such, the man that I am might be prone to…” But the shape kept moving, drifting through the couch, drifting through Raymond, and Jem could see her casting a non-shadow on the hardwood as she moved slowly toward him, Jem.
“No,” Jem said. “No.”
Raymond cut his own ramblings short, his mouth a wet and silent hole in his crimson face; yes, he could see her, too.
The ghost, the shape of a woman with a face of nightmares, drew back and plunged like an icy arrow into Jem’s abdomen. He lurched up, like a pole-vaulter played in motion-lapse, and hurtled backward, crashing through the window and sailing through the backyard, landing with a splintering thump against the recently repainted fence.
Jem was dead.
Raymond poured the remainder of the bottle into his gaping mouth, not bothering to use his glass, and stared blankly into the hole where the window had been mere moments ago. He saw a lilting light, like floating bedsheets concealing a flashlight, sailing in his direction, and he made the only decision that a man like him could make:
First, he screamed; then he turned, and without further consideration for the theoretical, metaphysical or epistemological implications of his experience, he ran.
Ran like hell without a destination in sight.
Mike Thorn’s film criticism has appeared in numerous journals and publications, including MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage, Bright Lights Film Journal and The Seventh Row. His fiction has been published recently in DarkFuse #5, Turn to Ash Vol. 0 and Straylight Literary Arts Magazine. Darkest Hours, his debut short fiction collection, is slated for a November release with Unnerving. For more information, visit his website mikethornwrites.com and follow him on Twitter @mikethornwrites.