October 14, 2011
Folklore has always fascinated me. I love old tales, but I’m especially interested in stories of creatures that inhabit the shadowy realm between our world and the next. Their origins are as mysterious as the creatures themselves, but I sometimes speculate as to where stories of certain creatures came from. Take banshees, for instance. It’s not much of a leap to imagine people huddling down on a bitterly cold winter night and thinking the howling wind was a living thing, and on such a night if someone died in the dark hours between twilight and daybreak it wouldn’t be hard to blame the wind. How the banshee became a beautiful woman is a bit more of a mystery, although perhaps the explanation lies a bit closer to home.
Ray Bradbury has a story called "The Banshee" about a young scriptwriter who’s teased and tormented by an older film director at the director’s Irish country home, where they both have an encounter with a banshee. The director’s name in the story is John, and the story was based on Bradbury’s real experience with working with John Huston, who subjected Bradbury to everything from jokes to emotional abuse while Bradbury was working on the screenplay for Moby Dick. One night at Huston’s house Bradbury turned the tables on Huston, telling the director there was a girl out in the woods and that she wanted to take Huston away. The director, jokester that he was, turned out to be pretty superstitious and was unnerved. So Bradbury got revenge twice: first in real life and a second time in fiction. Mean-spirited as it is I do understand the kind of satisfaction Bradbury must have felt. Although I was never able to exact such direct revenge I did have a similar feeling once, following an encounter with something similar to a banshee. My family regularly went down to Florida where we’d stay in a house my grandfather had left my parents. On one occasion one of my uncles and one of my cousins joined us. This cousin and I were avid science fiction fans and for reasons I don’t exactly remember he and I were both reading the same book at the same time. Well, not exactly. I’d read it while he was doing something else and he’d read it when I was doing something else. Except he was a faster reader than I was, and he was always giving away major plot points.
My cousin was one of those people who was book-smart but completely clueless about everything else, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but his obliviousness made him kind of a jerk. "Oh man," he’d say, "you won’t believe what happens on page two-sixteen." At one point I finally snapped, "Yeah? Is it anything like the shut-your-big-yap that happened on page one thirty-two?" And because he was oblivious he said, "I don’t remember that. So, what happens is…" And then he raised his voice and followed me around the house to make sure I could still hear him even though I had my fingers in my ears, was going "la-la-la-la", and walking away from him. That wouldn’t have been so bad, though, if I hadn’t had to worry about finding my place in the book every time I got the chance to pick it up again. Even though my cousin was well past the parts I hadn’t read yet for reason I never understood he always took out my bookmarks and threw them away while he was reading the book. I explained to him what the purpose of a bookmark was and he’d said, "Oh yeah," and then kept throwing mine away. In frustration I did something I’d normally never do to any book-I dog-eared the pages where I’d stopped reading. My cousin, sharing my respect for books, would unfold the page corners. How he found them I don’t know, but he still left me to try and figure out where I’d left off when I finally got the book away from him. Anyway, this was an older house with plumbing that hadn’t been updated since the Victorian era. Most bathtubs that have a shower have a lever that you turn or a knob that you pull to make the shower come on, and in most of them all you have to do is turn off the water to make the knob or lever go back to its original position so the next person to turn on the water doesn’t get their head soaked by the shower.
The bathtub in this house, though, had a sticky lever or knob so it was very important to remember to turn it back off after you were done with your shower. Except I kept forgetting to do this, and it didn’t seem to be a big deal because nobody complained. Then, the last day, while we were packing up and getting ready to go, my mother announced that she was going to clean the bathtub. She went in the bathroom and turned on the water, and a strange, wailing cry went up, a plaintive yet angry sound that seemed to circle the house and must have reverberated up and down the street, striking fear into the hearts of Florida’s retirees. My mother stormed out of the bathroom, water dripping from her hair. For some reason the rest of us were all gathered in the living room, so we witnessed a strange and extraordinary thing. My mother stood in the middle of the living room and her whole body glowed with energy. She lifted three feet off the floor, and darkness radiated from her as her whole body turned crimson while her eyes burned white with rage and her hair stood out in every direction, forming a dark halo around her head. When she spoke it was with a deep, guttural voice that caused the floor to vibrate. "Who left the shower on in the bathroom?" she asked. We were all too terrified to speak. Then she raised her arm and pointed with a long, sharp talon and said, "IT WAS YOU!" And I would have died on the spot if she hadn’t instead pointed at my cousin, who, that morning, took a shower after I did. My cousin collapsed in a heap on the floor, and then spent the next half hour scrubbing the bathtub himself while I finished packing and finally finished the book. The next summer we visited my uncle at his house, and my cousin was still kind of a jerk, so I dog-eared pages in all of his books.
Bonus: If you enjoyed this tale of terror I hope you’ll also enjoy this tale from the original American master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe: