09 Jun Fog in the Fir Trees
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"Fog in the Fir Trees"Written by
Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
The collection of mountains that make up Oregon’s Cascade Range, due west of Portland, have a particular quality. They hold the promise of incredible vistas and secret vantage points. Each forested crag invites climbing like few other places in the world.
This promise is rewarded when, travelling west, the country suddenly opens out and presents, almost casually, like it was no big deal, the Pacific Ocean: gigantic, listless, iron grey.
The coast is stark; monstrous cliffs slowly dissolving into the surf. The trees that line the cliffs are, like most in the area, firs. These are bent and staggered however, having grown against the wind for years until the woods themselves resemble waves. And when the fog rolls in, as it does with solemn regularity, the cliff tops become islands in the mist. As remote and unknowable as anything in the sea below.
On a jutting outcrop of land, long since reduced to a fingernail by the relentless Pacific, is a house. Stately and dignified, it seems to evoke images more suited to the other side of the country — somewhere in Connecticut, or Rhode Island.
The building is a faded white weatherboard, the roof shingled. Gabled and majestic, it clings tooth-and-nail to its tiny splinter of cliff, long since uninhabitable. After surveyors declared that the building was on borrowed time and several opinions were voiced on how best to deal with the problem, it was finally decided to simply let the thing fall into the sea on its own.
Local knowledge is dim on when the house was constructed. Some say the late 19th century; others say it’s far more modern, built in the post-war depression as a refuge for reclusive old money. The community is far more verbose on the subject of the house’s notoriety. Apparently re-purposed as a brothel in the fifties and sixties, before being sold as a family home in 1970, it has attracted a reputation as an unsavory place, and many of the locals seem quite happy to let it join the ocean.
The house holds shadow well; its angles don’t amplify light the way modern architecture seeks to, but instead creates a sense of cavernous space like a miniature gothic cathedral. Inside you can hear the ocean below¬ — right below — as it grinds and chews at the limestone; slowly edging towards bringing the whole structure down.
Walking around inside the house, on the ground floor there is the usual initial sense of unfamiliarity as one travels through strange rooms, from the front hallway to the kitchen, parlor, dining room and others, taking in the curtains, the wallpaper, the sense of settled space. Finally alighting in a beautiful wood-paneled library, redolent of cigar smoke and dust. It is a comfortable, pleasing room, warmed by the sun, and the sense of unfamiliarity is replaced by a quiet enjoyment.
That sense of unfamiliarity returns however when, walking back out of the room and into the rear hallway, one finds that the shape and size of the corridor have subtly altered, become more confined. It seems likely that simply walking from the other direction changes the sense of the space, making it seem different. But it’s usually about this point that visitors start to subconsciously count the moments until they can leave.
The constant roar of the sea is another problem. Although the house is built upon solid and (for now) un-moving foundations, the tidal sound of the ocean causes a strange seasickness in many guests. Some have to vomit before leaving, as though they were not on dry land at all but somehow at sea.
Some visitors to the house have reported becoming lost or disoriented while finding their way back from the bathroom or quickly heading outside for a cigarette. After leaving a dinner party early in 1982 Mrs Lena Cullthorpe wrote a letter to the then owners of the house:
I am SO sorry for leaving early. I hope Steve didn’t scare you. It’s the weirdest thing, I was already beginning to feel a bit strange by the time we sat down to eat, and I know you thought it was simply because I didn’t want to be there. But that’s NOT TRUE, Cheryl. Really, it’s not.
The hallway went strange. That’s the only way I can put it. I came out and I was drying my hands and suddenly I didn’t know where I was. Isn’t that odd? The wind was getting up and I heard it beating against the windows and I thought I was back on the cruise Steve and I took when we were on our honeymoon. That was eight years ago — I got food poisoning from something and spent a good day-and-a-half throwing up. I felt like I was back on that boat. Isn’t that crazy?
Anyway, sorry again for leaving early. I know I worried you. But I’m fine, really. You and Henry must come to ours next month, though I know it’s a long drive.
Love and kisses,
P.S. It’s weird, I could swear the house was rocking, Cheryl.
This letter is typical of the response the house provoked in some people. A sense of nausea and disorientation, but coupled with that a stronger sense that they have to leave to preserve their sense of the ordinary, of the real, evidenced by this transcript of an emergency telephone call in 1989, written down here by emergency services, who classified the call as “suspicious.”
911: Hello, 911, what is the nature of your emergency?
Caller: The ceiling won’t fuck off.
911: I’m sorry?
Caller: It keeps trying to crush me. It won’t stay where it’s supposed to.
911: Sir? Have you been drinking?
Caller: First I think the floor is the ceiling, then the whole thing reverses and I’m on the wall… Who built this place? Jesus fucking Christ.
911: Sir, if you’d just calm down…
Caller: I don’t think it wants me to get back…
Caller: Are you a Jew? You sound like a fucking Jew.
-End of transcription-
In 1990, the property was put on the market once again, this time at an insanely low price. It was snapped up by a couple from Portland looking to open a bed-and-breakfast by the sea, something they had always wanted to do.
Their names were Geoff and Daisy Gorman. Thoroughly modern, mid-thirties, childless but trying. They bought the house and spent the best part of the year doing the place up before opening the doors in the summer of 1991. The sea change was perfect for them, and for a while the small hotel seemed to be doing well.
Until one of the guests went blind.
It happened very suddenly, and strangely casually, on a warm July evening. A family had just checked in, on holiday from California. While they were upstairs unpacking and turning the family room into a nest, Daisy heard a shriek. She ran upstairs to find the youngest child, a girl of nine, lying on the floor screaming. The mother and father attempted to calm her, but being terrified themselves took over an hour to get the girl to stop shrieking; by then her voice had been reduced to a croak and it was apparent that she had lost her sight.
The family left in a storm of tears and rage, with promises of lawsuits and damnation. The girl’s sight returned while in the car, a little over an hour later. But the fortunes of Daisy and Geoff’s guesthouse were not so lucky, and did not recover. They attempted to sell the place in 1993, with no success. Eventually, the house was simply abandoned.
As for Geoff and Daisy, they claimed to have never experienced anything odd in the house at all.
There is a draft of a book, never published, and certainly of extremely limited interest to most, that contains a chapter devoted to the house. Helen Lewski, a graduate of UCLA 1997, intended to write a study on the supposed ‘haunted houses’ of the West coast — in particular Northern California and Oregon.
The book was to be, in her own words, a ‘gentle, fun thing’. Mainly concerned with the moods, hues and background emotions elicited by the buildings, rather than a particularly scientific exploration of phenomena.
She visited the notorious ‘Red House’ in Berkeley, San Francisco; Three stories of burgundy weatherboard erected in 1867 and re-purposed variously as a guest house, bordello, speakeasy and finally the scene of one of the bloodiest massacres of prohibition-era America.
Helen found the building charming and architecturally thrilling. In her manuscript, she wrote… ‘The ghosts in this beautiful and stately mansion are peaceable, if they even exist at all. It is possible they’re just quietly enjoying the attention.’
Travelling North, she spent the night in ‘The Oaks’, Crescent City’s reputably haunted bed and breakfast, and did experience some bizarre events in the middle of the night, including her television randomly turning itself on, heavy breathing outside her door and what sounded like children running up and down the hallways giggling.
These turned out to be the owner’s two children playing ‘ghosts’ (as they put it) as per their parents request. The television mysteriously turning itself on was the owners themselves in the next room over, armed with a remote.
By the time Helen arrived at the Oregon coast to visit the house on the rock, she was close to sick of the whole project. The only uncanny thing she had encountered in two weeks was the baffling insistence of those devout believers in the paranormal, that despite the evidence of their eyes and ears, despite all rational thought, the spirits of the unquiet dead really did occupy their particular drab and threadbare halls.
Arriving at the abandoned and now rather forlorn looking house, she let herself in with the key lent to her by the district’s sheriff’s office. Broken glass crunched under foot and she noticed the place had the unmistakable smell of neglect; dust and gentle decay.
She wrote… ‘The interior of the building is faded and rotting, but retains an echo of the invigorating seachange whoever built it was obviously after. The huge windows looking out over the Pacific, the tall ceilings, the tang of salt.’
The stairs were beginning to splinter, but intact and sturdy, and Helen made her way upstairs to the section of the house the Gormans had re-purposed as accommodation.
Here she found more dust, and a solitary seagull skeleton. No ghosts, just the faint sound of the ocean far below and the persistent wind. It was stronger on the second floor, moaning through the broken windows and shaking the frames.
Helen paced her way to the end of the upstairs corridor and stood looking out at the sea. A full ten minutes went by, according to her phone, while she eyeballed the horizon; until, sighing, she turned to head downstairs and make her way back to the car.
It was at that moment that the front door slammed and she heard, clearly and distinctly, footsteps on the ground floor below.
‘In my mind I heard myself calling “Hello?” Saw myself descending the stairs to meet whoever had entered the house, explain my purpose for being there. But I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t even move. The fear just dropped onto me like a spider. It was as though the house had been waiting for me to get as far from the front door, as far from escape, as I could before it let me feel what it really was.
The hallway suddenly reeked of seawater and rot, like some exploded thing you find on the beach at low tide, and I knew — knew! — that I was going to die there. Because I could still hear those thumping footsteps and they were coming up the stairs.’
Helen doesn’t recall the subsequent moments clearly, only vague suggestions remain. She remembers the hallway darkening as the footsteps climbed the stairs, the sound of the sea growing to a deafening roar. And above all, a profound and paralyzing fear. A fear so intense she would only become fully conscious a full half hour later, finding herself curled into a ball on the landing, eyes squeezed shut, muttering nonsense under her breath.
It was only two hours later, on the drive back to Portland, with the sun going down in a bloody watercolor smudge over the mountains, that she realized what it was she had been saying. Over and over again.
Seed. It’s a seed. Only needs water.
New Years Eve, 1999 — several local teenagers staged a small but elaborate turn-of-the-millennium party in the house. By then several of the lower windows were missing and it was an easy thing to break in, accompanied by candles, a portable stereo and three kegs of cheap beer.
The party was, by all accounts, a great success. Enormous quantities of alcohol were consumed, several terrible dances were invented, a couple of virginities were lost, and no one reported anything particularly out of the ordinary.
At least until a couple of days later, when two of the teenagers committed suicide, throwing themselves into the ocean.
Grace Stephens’ (aged 17) and James Kelly’s (aged 16) bodies were discovered in a neighboring fishing village up the coast, to the north, washed up on the shale beach; both had been dead for only a few hours. Around about the same time, Grace’s mother discovered their mutual suicide note taped to the fridge.
‘Mom, this is going to be hard for you to understand, but remember IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT. I think you know James and I have been together for a while now. I think everybody does!
I keep having the same dream. I’m back in that house, and through the window I see the ocean wash out past the horizon and the dry seabed is covered in bleached white shipwrecks, hundreds of them. There’s a rumbling sound and I see a huge wave coming, I think they’re called mega-tsunamis? But this is bigger than they could ever be, bulking up to the sky.
I told James about it, he said he has the same dreams… since the party.
I’m starting to see it when I’m awake, that huge wave coming. I can’t eat, feel like I can’t breathe half the time.
James said we should go swimming. But I know what he really means.
I keep thinking about how dry life is. Like it’s waiting for something.
P.S. Not your fault!!!!’
Then something else, which apparently had been scribbled over so heavily with Biro it was impossible to make out, the paper almost cut in half. Investigators could recognize only two words:
Grace’s life had apparently been typical of teenagers in the area — no real issues at home, although the mother was frequently described as ‘highly strung’ by some members of the community. The girl herself was described by her friends as restless and excitable, but generally happy. The supposedly ‘hidden’ relationship with James Kelly came as a surprise to precisely nobody.
Meanwhile the ocean continues to wash away the limestone. The house hangs on for now, nestled amongst the firs — but its future looks grim. Soon, there will come a day when the small cracks and imperfections in that cliff join together to create larger ones. Gravity and time will have their way and the whole thing will collapse into the Pacific, taking the house with it. Most people living locally now agree that this will be a good thing.
Except for one.
Grace’s mother, quiet and haggard in the years following her daughter’s death, speaks rarely. Certainly she has never discussed the suicide more than required for the police to rule out her involvement; but she has a habit of campaigning for the renovation and preservation of the house on the cliff.
She writes letters, creates petitions and calls radio stations in an attempt to gather regional support for saving the building, ostensibly because it is an ‘important piece of local heritage’ — and not, as she is rumored to have said on more than one occasion, that ‘while the house remains intact, it cannot reach outside its own walls…
If it is allowed to fall, to integrate, it will poison the whole ocean.’ A theory that, when pressed, she refuses to comment on.
This change in character is certainly not because she wakes each night from dim dreams of the ocean rising like a waking giant, leaping up and over the quaking earth. Dreams she can barely recall, but which paint her days with a peculiar sense of waiting.
Dreams where two diminished but familiar, dragging figures walk slowly out of the ocean with eyes like green fire, their hair full of seaweed.
Credit: Joe Nuttall
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