Haunted House in the Woods
I cried when I first stood on the porch of the rustic house hidden in the woods at the base of the Shawangunk mountains. My tears were joyful: the place was amazingly like the dream house I’d drawn in an art therapy workshop in New York City the year before. I instantly knew I wanted it, and I skulked around, hiding behind dark glasses because I didn’t want Doris, our real estate agent, to know how desperately smitten I was.
My husband had a strong reaction too. He liked the house, with its sixteen acres of woods and wetlands, but he picked up strange, negative vibes when we began exploring the interior, especially in the enormous light-flooded stairwell. But the place had a funky, cobbled-together feel reminiscent of the Prince Street loft we’d decided to sell. I’d gotten a job as a creative arts therapist at Hudson River Psychiatric Center in Poughkeepsie. SoHo was becoming too commercialized, with glitzy upscale shops replacing the artists who’d pioneered loft living.
In June of 1979, we were renting a raised ranch in the Poughkeepsie suburbs, and we turned on the TV news. Suddenly I saw a familiar face: Etan Patz, a six-year-old boy, had disappeared without a trace. We were friends with Etan and his parents, Julie and Stan. They lived in the same coop loft building we did, and Julie ran a small daycare operation, which our four-year-old daughter Stacey attended frequently. The shocking news of Etan’s disappearance was the death knell to our dreams of artistic success in the Big City.
By October, we’d moved into our dream house, but Robb still had uneasy feelings about the place. He sensed ghostly presences, especially in the stairwell, and we enlisted the help of Charlie Thom, a Native American shaman from Mount Shasta, California, who was staying in Ulster County with photographer friends. He conducted a cleansing ceremony, padding throughout the house waving an eagle feather and filling the air with the heady scent of burning sage.
Our house, with its board and batten siding of rough-hewn pine stained reddish brown, was cut off from the road by a stream, the Kleine Kill, which we crossed via a rickety bridge, and the few houses nearby were invisible through the trees. But eventually we met our neighbors, who filled us in on some interesting background the realtor hadn’t disclosed. We knew the house had been designed and built by a man who had died, and that the sale had been handled through his estate. Now we learned that he had shot himself and died inside the house, Suddenly Robb’s ghostly forebodings made a lot more sense.
The man had been a psychology professor at SUNY-New Paltz, and the neighbors said his behavior had become increasingly bizarre and hostile in the past couple of years. He’d built a north-facing walkway between the two stories, where he could pace and survey the driveway to guard against intruders. Eventually he’d been hospitalized at Hudson River.
I visited the dead records department, telling the secretary I wanted to check on a former patient. My own patient, she assumed, and she pulled the file. The admission and progress notes were thorough: he’d been there just over a month, was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, then discharged as improved. Soon after that, he committed suicide.
Our first winter there, we discovered the house was horribly cold. Heated by a wood stove and electric baseboard heaters, it was poorly insulated and drafty. Feeding the wood stove was a never-ending hassle, although there was plenty of wood surrounding the place, in the form of spindly pin oaks. Robb felled them with a chain saw, then split them. I helped stack and drag the wood inside. With all the lumberjacking efforts, he. grew stronger and more skillful. Watching him work, I felt my heart hammering in my chest—not from lust, but from sheer panic at the thought of prematurely losing my husband.
The wood was green, didn’t catch easily, so we began buying seasoned wood trucked in by the cord. Still, feeding the stove was a dirty drag, and the electric bills for the baseboard heat were astronomical, but we persevered through several winters. I worked at the hospital and Robb at home as a freelance writer, churning out photography books for Amphoto and press releases for Nikon. Stacey embarked on her journey through the public schools in New Paltz.
Robb’s writing assignments were dwindling, and he was suffering from cabin fever, so he landed a job in Albany as a public relations specialist for New York State’s Department of Economic Development. What a come-down, from two adventurous artists, we’d become two indentured civil servants. The regular paychecks and health insurance were a boon, but Robb’s long commute was exhausting. We agreed he could rent a studio apartment in Albany, a place to crash on weeknights.
I issued an ultimatum: no way could Stacey and I survive being marooned in an isolated cabin in the woods, wrestling with a wood stove. We needed central heating. Robb agreed, and within a month we had a gigantic oil tank and a new system ready to fire up.
But the house didn’t like the new-fangled changes, and it took its revenge. On a cold winter night, when I was feeding the wood stove for what might be the last time, the chimney suddenly started whooshing and roaring. A chimney fire? We’d never had one; Robb was careful about keeping it free from creosote. I rushed outside—sure enough, flames were shooting out of the chimney. I was terrified they’d soon ignite the roof, and we could lose everything. Could a fire truck make it over the rickety bridge? There wasn’t time to wonder. I called 911, and a few minutes later, a truck rumbled over the bridge and up the long gravel driveway to the house.
The hours that followed are a blur. I remember standing in the yard with Stacey and our golden retriever Shawna, huddled in our winter coats and shivering as we watched the firemen fight the flames. Before long, they brought the fire under control. Aside from some damage to the roof, nothing was lost—nothing except our dreams of dwelling in idyllic isolation deep in a northern forest.
Bio: Julie Lomoe received an MFA from Columbia University. Her paintings were exhibited widely in Manhattan and exhibited at the Woodstock Festival of Music and Art in 1969. They are currently on display at the Bethel Woods Museum. She has published three novels of suspense as well as short stories and poems. Visit her at www.creativecrone.net.