I DON'T RECALL ANYONE ever telling me there were goblins in our basement, but I knew they were there. Not that knowing this caused me any worry as long as the sun was shining. Our goblins only came out at night, and I doubt I ever went down there after dusk over all the years I lived in my childhood home. But goblins weren't the only thing to worry about down there in our grungy dungeon of a cellar. Day or night, I was always terrified of the nameless beings that sat watching among the old suitcases heaped up under the creaky wooden basement steps. I never knew what they were or what they could do to me, but I could always feel them breathing and shifting beneath my feet, biding their time.
I never saw the goblins. But I did dream of them once, and the image has stuck with me ever since. They all looked exactly like the plaster copy of the famous chimère of Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral that my father kept on a shelf in his study. There were hundreds of them, all ranging in size from tiny thumb-sized figures on the basement shelves to eight-foot tall monsters crouching on the floor. They didn’t do anything to me, they simply stared… but that was enough to make me jump out of bed, screaming for my life.
My goblins looked a lot like this
The Midwest may seem pretty prosaic to people living on the two coasts, and yet my hometown was as spooky as medieval Prague when it came to spirits and scary things that were liable to snatch you away at the dead of night if you didn’t stay under the covers. My own bedroom was swarming with them. The worst of all was The Old Man, a short and entirely hairless greenish imp who lived under my bed and who would have reached up and yanked me down if I had ever let even a single toe stray over the edge of my mattress. This made things difficult if you had to get up in the middle of the night. In this case, the trick was to set your feet down together and then just keep moving.
The Old Man was a cousin to The Hand, which was liable to rise out of the plumbing while you were seated on the toilet and then pull you down into the depths, never to be seen again. I don’t remember if I really believed in The Hand, but the idea was just plausible enough to teach me not to waste time in the bathroom.
My bedroom closet was infested by restless ancestral spirits. The right half was given over to storing old clothes belonging to my parents, including my father’s old army uniform from World War II. For some reason the most horrifying of all was my mother’s white wedding dress, which hung there in a torn paper wrapper and had yellowed with age. My parents had married in a remote and baffling era – 1954, in fact – and the twelve or so years between then and my childhood terrors seemed more like twelve centuries.
I strongly suspected that the walls and the floor of my bedroom were inhabited by tribes of pixie-like figures who had created an entire civilization of their own just beyond my reach. I would catch an occasional glimpse of their dwellings whenever I pulled up the heating vent on my floor and inspected the hollow spaces beneath the floorboards, but I never saw the pixies themselves. The pixies were benign, however. They led a carefree life and may have served as a buffer against the darker spirits of my childhood. No wonder Mary Norton’s The Borrowers was one of my favorite books later on in the fourth grade.
The attic was a sinister place. Most of its scariness stemmed from a baffling apparatus known as “the attic fan,” that supposedly cooled our upstairs bedrooms on hot summer nights, although I never felt any effect. In any case, I was certain that ghosts lived up there and only the rumbling of the attic fan kept them at bay. The fact that the attic was completely inaccessible except by ladder made it all the more mysterious. Once my parents and older siblings allowed me to poke my head through the trap door. All I saw was a barren space of rafters and insulating material, a region of utter desolation. Once my parents had found an ancient document up there pointing to the great antiquity of our home. I studied it with complete amazement. It was a newspaper dating from 1948.
The only jarring note in my indoor world was a kitschy Jesus picture on my bedroom wall depicting Christ in a garden surrounded by little children who were dressed in 1950s clothing and carrying 1950s toys (including, most irritatingly of all, a wooden airplane). With his blow-dried beard and soft white robe – which I was sure was scented – the man just didn’t look dignified. His miracles were boring too, such as turning perfectly good water into yucky wine. He didn’t even throw thunderbolts. My favorite Saturday morning cartoon was The Mighty Thor with his magic hammer. Talk about cool! Sunday morning, when the sun always seemed to be shining the brightest, was reserved for boring organ music and incomprehensible prayers recited by men in skirts. Jesus just didn’t have much to offer me at that age, and that's the simple truth. I doubt I was the only one who felt that way.
The Norse god Thor as I knew him: No competition!
When the sun went down, the spirits flooded our backyard, right along with the fireflies. It was a paradise by day, a death zone by night. I tried not to imagine what beings lurked out there, although I was fairly sure that, whatever they were, they had a lot in common with the beasts in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.
While I never entirely bought into the idea of fairies, it was easy to imagine them flitting from the roses to the lilac bushes to the apple blossoms on the great tree at the end of our yard. In a cleft of the apple tree lay a permanent puddle of stinky water – what Mark Twain vividly called a “spunk hole” in hisTom Sawyer. This puddle, a meeting place for a variety of small beings, had magical properties, but was simply too stinky to touch.
Our genteel small-town neighborhood was filled with spirits, both benign and malignant, along with other terrors. At the end of our street stood a tiny red brick house which, I was certain, was inhabited by three witches who were liable to capture and eat little children. I have no idea whether this was really true, since I never went close enough to find out. (While visiting my old neighborhood a year or so ago I was intrigued to find one of its outer walls decorated with terracotta figures of the sun and moon, which gave this charming cottage a pagan appeal that evoked a friendly sort of witchcraft.)
Our house stood next door to a sprawling high school campus, with a castle-like WPA high school building smack in the center. The school’s practice fields were strewn with scrubby patches of forest and obscure pieces of sports equipment. This fantastical landscape was a realm of dragons when I was little and endless Star Trek scenarios a few years later.
A human-size copy of the Statue of Liberty stood at the entrance to the high school campus. Now already at age six or so I knew for a fact that the real Statue of Liberty was located in New York City. Why was there another one in front of the school? I mean… how did it get there? Mysteries upon mysteries. In any case, the statue was a meeting place for spirits. If you walked around it deosil (clockwise) and spat on all four sides of the base, your wishes could be granted. I could have wished to be free of evil spirits, but this never occurred to me. Perhaps I feared losing the blessing of the good ones as well – and there were plenty of those too. They just weren’t as memorable, probably because they left me alone at night.
Evolutionary biologists will tell you that fear of goblins, ghoulies and ghosties, long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night is merely an adaptation to the true horrors our ancestors regularly encountered on the primeval savanna. But those of us who made their nightly acquaintance know better. In any case, our cohabitation was brief. I moved across town at age twelve and left all of these spirits behind. In the meantime, I’ve lived around half my life in Europe, most of that in Berlin, and despite my travels there’s been nary a spirit in my life ever since. I’ve come to believe that, for most of us at least, spirits of this kind - both bad and good - are linked to the places of our childhood and rarely put in an appearance later on. One more reason why the loss of one's home and country as a result of war and natural disaster leaves behind scars that can never fully heal.
Looking back on my own low-tech childhood I can't help but wonder if children still experience visitations of this kind in an age of PlayStations and the mighty Wii, effortlessly portable innovations that do not require native soil but merely a freshly charged battery in order to work their magic. If they don't, I can't help but suspect they are unwittingly giving away a vital part of their lives that they can never get back.
Reposted from Open Salon, July 27, 2009