When I was seventeen, my father decided that we would move from the flat above his town centre pub in Stratford-Upon-Avon to a thatched cottage in a hamlet called Wixford.
“It’s our Magic Cottage,” he said, indicating his second wife, a chancer from East London who was pretending to be a conceptual artist. “Just like that James Herbert book.”
The fact that James Herbert is known as ‘the British Stephen King’, only with extra perviness, did little to convince me that my family were making anything other than a massive lurch in the wrong direction.
“It’s got two fireplaces,” my Welsh grandmother had said, disapprovingly. “That’s a bad omen, that is. You’ll have nothing but trouble.”
The cottage was five or six hundred years old, thatched and stuck on a main road where juggernauts thundered past in the early hours, its lead-lined windows with their original tiny panes offering very little sound protection.
As we were on the main road, curious passers by would sometimes peer in through the tiny windows.
“Have a good fucking look, why don’t you!” my father would bellow at them from the sofa, their startled faces registering shock and dismay at the ogre whose cottage this was.
– – –
It wasn’t long after we moved in that we realised the place was haunted and whatever the presence was, it wasn’t entirely friendly.
My sister noticed it first as it centred itself on her bedroom, across the landing from my own. She was watching a horror film on TV when she felt the bed covers start moving. The bedroom light started flickering also.
A few days later, my father and his wife went away for the weekend.
On the Sunday morning, my sister woke me up, calling for me from the living room.
“Rick! Rick! Come and look at this- oh my God.”
I got out of bed about as quickly as is possible for a seventeen-year-old (i.e. not that quickly at all) and went down the stairs, wondering what could possibly have happened.
“Look at the curtains!” she was saying, a horrified look on her face, gesturing up at the curtain rail.
“Are you tripping or something?” I asked. It was a reasonable question. She was doing a lot of clubbing at the time.
“No, no- really LOOK at the CURTAINS,” she repeated.
I shook my head, sadly. Another victim of rave culture.
It was only when she pulled on the curtains to close them that I realised she wasn’t being leader of the lost-it posse at all. In fact, the curtain rings had been somehow removed and replaced on the outside of the curtain rail stoppers, so that the curtains could no longer be closed at all. This had happened in the night when we were
both asleep and for sure nobody had been in the house except us: the back door was chained and the front bolted.
“Whoa. That’s pretty scary.”
My sister moved out soon after, going to live with some friends back in Stratford. I didn’t see much of her for a while.
– – –
My father was sad to see her go of course, being a control freak, but happy that there was now a spare room for guests.
But it was an undeniable fact that many of these guests reported strange and unwelcome occurrences in the night: the sensation of someone sleeping in the bed next to them; the sound of breathing; the lights not working.
A school friend who came to stay claimed he had been picked up and thrown violently out of the bed. He refused to ever stay again.
My grandmother, equal parts psychic and psycho, claimed it was an old woman who had owned the cottage many years- possibly centuries- before. She said she had felt her physical form manifest next to her when she stayed one night.
My father breezily brushed aside all the troubling aspects of there being an unquiet spirit in the house. “Isn’t it great that we’ve got a ghost?” he’d exclaim. “It makes me feel safer, if anything!” He had always had an affinity for spirits, of course: mainly vodka and rum.
One evening, however, he was sat on the postage stamp-sized lawn out the back, enjoying a finger or four of Stolichnaya, when he saw the top half of a shadowy figure cross the bottom of the garden and disappear behind the newly-built garage.
“Well, we’ll just have to learn to share, I suppose” he eventually said, but you could tell he was freaked out about it.
– – –
Although not a supernatural occurrence, one night I was nearly killed when a flatbed gypsy lorry slowly trundled through the hamlet, the lads on the back casually firing metal balls from catapults through the windows of all the Wixford homes. I was going into the kitchen for something when I felt and heard the pellet buzz right past my ear before smashing through the glass of a painting on the wall.
– – –
After we had been there a few months, my father announced that he and his wife were going away for two weeks and that I was to housesit. I hadn’t been on my own for a period of time like this before and particularly not in such a spooky place.
Being from a broken home, I was something of a teenage horror aficionado and so had had prior experience of bad omens. Omen III, in particular, was dreadful.
I had actually rented out the VHS of Evil Dead II over thirty times at the age of thirteen, back when video stores didn’t care much about the age of their customers. It is a joyous hoot of a movie and one of my favourite films of this period.
Then came the rerelease of the original Evil Dead on home VHS (i.e. 10 quid for the tape), after having been banned since 1985 in the UK. This coincided with my father and his wife’s holiday. And despite all my instincts telling me it was a foolish thing to buy when I was staying in such a spooky place on my own, when I saw it on sale in WHSmith, I simply couldn’t help myself.
– – –
In comparison to the second Evil Dead, the first tries hard to be scary and, despite the special effects being made of stop-motion Plasticine in places, Sam Raimi effectively conjures up a sense of dread and foreboding. Particularly if you’re a teenager alone in a demonstrably haunted ancient thatched cottage in the middle of nowhere.
– – –
Although I managed to go to sleep after watching it okay, despite being a bit scared, I was woken in the middle of the night by a thumping sound on the stairs outside my bedroom door.
I lay there for a while, praying that I didn’t hear anything else. But of course I did.
Then a slithering kind of sound, followed by a louder thump, this time downstairs.
I could hear footsteps coming from the dining room directly below my bedroom and figured I had to investigate, although naturally I was fairly terrified.
I turned on my bedroom light and opened the door a little. Outside, the landing light had been turned on. I knew I had definitely switched everything off when I had gone to bed.
I opened the door further.
The door to my sister’s old bedroom was wide open, all its lights on. The light on the stairs was on. The door at the bottom of the stairs was open and all the lights were on downstairs.
I could still hear footsteps.
I decided I had to confront whatever it was, so walked downstairs with some trepidation, but mainly anger: anger that I had been woken up; anger at my father for leaving me here with this thing; and a large dose of anger for having been forced to move to this cottage in the middle of nowhere just at a time when all my friends were busy doing all those exciting late-teen things (underage drinking on Shottery Fields; hanging around Bell Court; molesting grammar school girls at the Brass Rubbing Centre; that kind of thing).
The dining room was empty and the noises stopped as I entered.
“For fuck’s sake!” I began “Don’t you know what time it is? I’ve got school in the morning and YOU’VE woken me up!”
I was pointing my finger, shaking with mild rage.
“Now, get to FUCKING BED!”
At this, I felt a kind of breeze brush past me, out of the room and upstairs.
– – –
That was pretty much it for nasty manifestations as far as I was concerned, though guests still complained periodically that they felt something sleeping next to them in that room.
Regardless, and whether it was connected to my grandmother’s feeling of foreboding or not, the fact remains that Bank Cottage, Wixford brought about the ruin of my father and his premature death at the age of fifty-three.
But that is another story and shall be told another time.