It sounds so impressive when I put it like that, doesn’t it? Less so when I reveal that I’m talking about the Winchester Mystery House, a place I had heard of in a roundabout way but never expected to actually see.
So: background. Many years ago, a chap I knew only vaguely brought round his entire, dearly-cherished collection of Swamp Thing comics for me to read, then disappeared off the face of the earth, leaving no contact details. (Rather embarrassingly, he showed up again many years later, just as we were having a clear-out of the whole, seven-person flat, including the ‘lost and found’ collection. His comics were literally being divvied up as he rang the doorbell. He was less than impressed, and I haven’t seen him since. But at least he got them back.)
However, in the pages of Swamp Thing, I found an interlude about ‘the Cambridge House’, a deserted haunted house where two couples go to explore one night. Naturally half of them are devoured by the ghosts; but I did comment to one of my flatmates that I found the set-up rather implausible – a house built a hundred years ago by the heiress to a fortune derived from the ‘Cambridge’ repeating rifle? On which carpenters worked day and night for 38 years so that the sound of hammering would keep the ghosts of everything killed by this brand of gun at bay? With stairs to nowhere and doors to nowhere (and herds of buffalo stampeding out of the wardrobes, but I gave that part a pass on account of It’s Supernatural, go figure).
It was promptly explained to me that this was Based On A True Story, and there really was such a house built by such an heiress, except the names had been changed to protect the innocent (from copyright law) and the real moniker attached to the story was ‘Winchester’.
And now, it turns out I am right in the vicinity of it!
Maybe 2011 being the year of the Occupy movement helped, but I found it interesting that someone would go to such lengths to atone for something that wasn’t really their fault, per se. And I like guns and feel a bit guilty about it; I could go do some atoning too! So I came up with the plan of having a pilgrimage to it, mainly on foot. (Plus, nice little practice run for actually getting a functioning train in this part of the world.) And it was due to rain today, so it would be nicely moody and atmospheric (or something) and then I could go for a swim! In the rain!
Well, it was a bit further than I thought. The train part went okay, however, but I ended up slogging a long and tiring road through the suburbs. And the graveyards. And a whole host of coffin-vending premises. To pass the slog, I amused myself practising my photographic composition as I went. There was an interesting bit with ranks of mausoleums among the palmtrees, and a Roman-style red-tiled building in the background with solar panels charmingly anachronistically plastered on top, and the sunlit mountains behind that, and I was getting right into it when I got caught being blatantly ghoulish by a Local. Oops. She said she was in a hurry, but would I like some photos of me with the graves? I was ever so embarrassed.
However, I finally reached the house, paid my money and we were off. One hundred and ten of the hundred-and-sixty rooms, and a mile and a half of walking. And the backstory on Mrs Winchester. Who designed a rather awesome house – there were indeed stairs to nowhere, and doors to nowhere, and rooms branching back on themselves, and the guide said she was well into spiderweb patterns and the number thirteen (Mrs Winchester: possibly the First Goth!) And almost immediately, we were shown the room where she died. It was all a bit spooky and vertiginous, although that might have been the swaying floors, but I was greatly mindful of the Swamp Thing bit where someone dies of having buffaloes stampede out of a wardrobe all over her, and hoped something similarly spectacular didn’t happen to me. But there were also several conservatories where she could tend her plants – Mrs Winchester was also a great innovator in Ways To Conserve Water, god she sounded fab – three lifts and sparkly crystal windows. Both on the outside and inside of the rooms, so she could check up on what the servants were saying about her. Fair play, she apparently paid everyone twice the going rate; and sacked them on the spot if they even looked up to see if she was watching them.
Actually, I very much sympathise with the ‘don’t trash-talk me in my own home‘ bit, especially as I’m not sure she got out much. Apparently the deaths of her baby and husband hit her quite hard – hard enough to, say, move to an unfinished house and deliberately plan to spend the rest of your life and fortune on still not finishing it, say. The deaths were a good few years apart, especially for those times, but I’m fairly sure being part of the main herd on the bell curve doesn’t magically prevent heartbreak. Her (unending) supply of money certainly didn’t seem to have done.
So we went on and on, up and down the low-riser stairs she had put in because of her terrible arthritis, and the story got sadder and sadder: here’s where she held a séance with the ‘good spirits’ every night and came out with the plans for the next day’s building; here’s where she got trapped in the front rooms by the 1906 earthquake damage for hours and subsequently bricked up the lot, leaving the damage as it was; here’s the front door where nobody ever came in except her and the two guys that made it; here’s the world’s most expensive inlaid floor in a reception room nobody but her and the servants ever saw; here’s where she ate dinner every night for thirty-eight years. On her own. And here is where she kept her most treasured possessions, and when she died and the servants broke down the series of vaults, they found a lock of her husband’s hair, and one of her child’s*.
By this time roughly all of my ‘woo! I am in a scary haunted house!’ had disappeared and I felt really bad for poking around the place like a ghoul. A ghoul in the company of hundreds of other ghouls that day, which didn’t really make me feel better. First time I’ve been glad to have aching legs and partially-skinned feet – I felt I deserved it. And no, it did not stop me buying lots of souvenirs for my friends on the way out.
*(The Bossman later ruined this for me by telling me that of course that would be what the servants said as they ran off with bulging, clinking pockets).
The journey home was a miracle of transport link-ups, and followed by a rather depressed nap. I did my best to conceal my depression from the Bossman, however, since he had been in a frustrating office environment all day and took me out for Mongolian food, and did not need to hear that my plan for the day had worked triumphantly except for the ‘breaking my heart’ bit.
In conclusion: has anyone written a rock song about Mrs Winchester? Because she’s totally the best subject for one ever! I can’t write music, but I have made a start on the words-
For years two score, no-one used the front door
Except you and the guys who put it up
But now you’re gone, your wishes live on
Cos we all traipse in through the gift shoppe.
Okay, maybe I’ll leave it to the professionals.