Wednesday, April 29, 2009


The glaciar knocks in the cupboard
The desert sighs in the bed
And the crack in the teacup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

There is no death in California, not in the human sense we have known elsewhere, which is final. There is fog. There is arthritis. There is being sucked away by the sun, dram by dram. But the dominion of deathis modified by the Pacific. Here, we might say, the dead are not dead but fluid,a part of the atmosphere, always coming and going. This is whyI dream of stairs at night. They evaporate behind me as fast as I can climb them. They drop into some place deep but I can not look back. Instead I climb higher and higher.

What prompted Sarah Winchester to settle in Santa Clara county and immediately begin building, unbuilding, and rebuilding a mansion dayand night until her death nearly forty years after is not known. Legend has it that her grief at the death of an only child, a daughter, and of her husband fifteen years later lead her to conclude she was under the influence of malign spirits. As heiress to a fortune built on rifles( "Winchester:the rifle that won the west")she was especially vulnerible to their influence according to a medium she consulted in Boston. The ministrations of wild Indians slain in the western expansion were to be particularly dreaded. The only remedy was to ceaselessly build a dwelling, one in which good spirits were to be housed, the malevolent were to be evaded. As long as she built, she would not die.

Sometimes the dead climb with me. These are more or less polite society, including General Grant, who tells me of his terrible experiences duringthe War between the States, and Mary Todd Lincoln, cross-eyed and oddly flighty. They belong to an entirely different caste from the pariah ghosts, who conspire to thwart me. They are genuine historical personages, not grey shades making mischief. They don't snatch the space from under my feet like a rug, just for spite, or amalgamate themselves into a sort cushion ball, forming a slow but steadily increasing pressure, as if dough was engulfing your soul. At these times I can scarcely lift a finger. I must summon all my will to ring the bell and hope the servants find me. I must think cheering thoughts, not such paralysing notions as maps inside maps inside maps but fields and fields of daisies in the sun.

At its largest, the mansion consisted of approximately seven hundred and fifty rooms. This was before the earthquake of 1906, which damaged the mansion extensively. Sarah Winchester was trapped in the front rooms for manyhours, after which she determined that the spirits were angry with her for expending so much effort on these quarters, whereupon she had them sealed off, Tiffany windows and all. The house as it stands with one hundred and sixty rooms is quite enough to get haplessly lost in. De-mystified by the shopping mall surrounding it, the cavernous gift shoppe with its videogame arcade and food court, it seems distinctly unhaunted. Inside is another matter;there it is obsessive in the bright light of day.

Servants are no better in California than anywhere else of course. They take their time finding me. They take their time. I hear them whisperingon the staircase knitting their doilies, trying to cheat me. I will account for every nail and penny. I will account for every penny and nail.

This not due to Gothic effects of the decor, which is smart in the best late nineteenth century fashion, notable chiefly for the great expenseof the materials employed--hardwood parquets in five rare woods, windows of optical glass, inch thick hand carved wall paper. Nor is it due to the delivery of our guide, statistical and straightforward. What disorients at first is purely spatial. En route from the first to second floor, we take a stair way of several hundred four inch risers which meander and then turn back on themselves, doubling over again. Humans are accustomed to the plumb lines of streets and sidewalks. This is like being compelled to move as a knight does in chess. Other stairs lead into the ceiling, just as chimneys rise fours stories and then terminate thirteen inches below the roof. There are ten thousand windows, many viewing other windows or span of windows. There are two thousand doors, quite a few which lead to a blank wall or a three-floor vertical drop.

Sometimes I suspect that they are in cahoots with the thieving Sioux. but this is an ungenerous supposition. They are unillumined. Made of dense inert matter in training for some more advanced incarnation.I must be kind. I, too, am on the path. What is self-evident to me is seldom perceived by mortals. The dead understand. Wide unclasp the tables of their thoughts. These same thoughts people the little world.

If the Winchester mansion, a maze without a center, can be said to have a heart, it is in the seance room which only Sarah entered. There are thirteen hooks for thirteen robes on the wall. She supposedly communed with her inner-circle there from midnight to two a.m., summoning and dismissing them with the tolling of a bell. Following these seances, she would choose the one of forty bedrooms best suited that night for eluding her ghostly tormentors. How successful she was can only be conjectured. It may have been a harrowing enterprise at times, if the array of tiny doors throughout the house are evidence. Sarah, who was 4'3'', was said to dash through them, causing tall ghosts to bump their heads on their lintels. The number thirteen also had some magical effect--there are thirteen palms in the driveway, a room with thirteen windows and thirteen wall panels, chandeliers with thirteen lights, thirteen glass cupolasin the greenhouse.

My twelve dearest companions belong to the optical ball: I waltz with them only, because they are essences, distilled spirits, distinguished guests who honor me with their prescence, those who it is a privilege to converse with on a variety of subjects, ranging from theosophy to Wagner. What is truly spiritual is not to die. Soon it will be as obsolete as the horse drawn carriage.

All societies have a belief in one form or another that the dead can be detained, controlled, exorcised, or communicated with. This primitive belief, according to Georg Groddeck, the "wildman of psychoanalysis", was responsible for the practise of putting headstones at the tops of gravesites, a wreath of flowers at the foot--meant, he says, originally as traps. In a sense, Winchester mansion is the world's largest ghost trap. It did not grant Sarah Winchester immortality. She died in her sleep at the age of eighty two. She left a will with thirteen codocils signed thirteen times. Only a fraction of her twenty million dollar estate remained after the building, and this was the time of the gold standard and almost no taxes. The contents of the house were auctioned after the house was emptied. It took thirty wagons with a team of workmen each working eight hours a day six days a week for six weeks to do this.

It was for this reason that I came to California. The great unificationis only possible here. There is a key and a combination which I will impart to you, though you can not understand it:the world is upside down and we are its reflection. When enough passages are made between the dead and the living, the two will be one. This is why I build, until all are brewed. The membrane is thin. Guest are arriving at this minute. I must receive them. The wicked must be banished before the ball continues. Cowboys must use spittoons.

Geo. Herbert:"After building your house, leave it."