When it comes to short fiction, Orrin Grey is a magician, a practitioner of an arcane art inspired by the likes of Méliès, Welles, and Bradbury. Through literary legerdemain and stylistic sleight-of-hand, he takes the well-told weird tale into a realm of the supernatural, the uncanny, the theatrical, and, most importantly, the entertaining. And entertainment is what you’re sure to find in this collection of stories, provocatively entitled How to See Ghosts & Other Figments. Through the magic of the written word, you will see ghosts. And so much more! The strange! The sinister! The superlative!
“You were his friend, right?”
His granddaughter’s voice on the other end of the phone, her words clear and free from static. I wait to answer, don’t want to, because how do I say, “I don’t know?” For months now, he has been coming over to my house to play xiangqi two or three nights a week while we drink hard cider and talk about bullshit. Does that make us friends, or just two lonely old guys with nobody else to talk to?
Whatever I feel in my heart, what comes out of my mouth is bound to be an affirmative, because what else can I say? And besides, she is so far away—London, of all places, with children of her own that I can hear in the background—while I am so close, his own townhouse just two doors down from mine, only empty spaces between us, because this neighborhood is dying, just as he was dying, just as we all are dying. One uncomfortable phone call at a time.
She hasn’t said the words, but the implication is clear in her voice. If I don’t do it, men will come. Strangers. Impersonal men who will throw it all into boxes and, from there, who knows? The Goodwill? The landfill? No place where it matters. No place where it will be appreciated.
Am I the old man’s friend? I don’t think so. Do I want to do it? No. So why do I say yes into the receiver, my voice bounced across thousands of miles to his granddaughter in London?
The answer is guilt. No more noble a motive than that.
I think that I know what to expect, when I open the door. He came to my house so often, after all. I couldn’t help but smell it on him. Dust, old food smells, stale cigarettes, the scent of clothes left too long in a closet. All the aromas of a college professor gone to pot.
That there are drifts of paper and take-out food containers keeping the door from opening all the way comes as no surprise, either. The old man was a hoarder. No shock there. Piles of things in every corner. A microwave, door hanging partway open. One blender, another. A DVD player still in its original box, the tape unbroken.
The layout of his house is identical to mine, and so stepping inside feels both familiar and strange; a post-apocalyptic movie in which well-known landmarks lie in ruins, or are half-consumed by plant life run riot.
Just as in my place, the living room is the largest one in the house, eating up much of the ground floor. Books lie piled on the carpet, along with cup noodles, coffee filters filled with old grounds, overflowing ash trays. There is almost no furniture in this room. Just an amber floor lamp and a purple recliner that looks to be made of lichen, as if I would sink into it forever were I to sit, sending up a cloud of recliner spores in my wake.
In the fireplace, where my TV sits, he has piled empty bottles, jars, old photographs, hand-written letters. A nonsense shrine, built by a man whose religion was his own and no one else’s. In one bottle, a beetle crawls, too large to ever escape its prison.
My eyes skim it all but they settle, of course, on the masks. I knew, dimly, that the old man had once worked in Poverty Row Hollywood, but I had forgotten what job he did: makeup, set painting, and masks. He said once, “Whenever a detective or a tortured academic stood in front of a wall of masks—masks from Bali, from Africa, from wherever the studio thought conjured the exotic—those might have been mine. I was cheaper than shipping something in. Easier than doing your own homework.”
The masks on the living room wall aren’t those, though. No studio in the ’40s would have let even Patric Knowles or Ann Sheridan stand in front of these things. The faces, trapped somewhere between human and monster, between being faces at all and being something else: stars, galaxies, other organs. Melting, running, racing from one to the other and back again, only to become lost somewhere in the middle.
In the dim light struggling in through faded, half-closed blinds they seem damp, alive. Many tongues twitching, many eyes darting. Where did these masks come from? How did the old man come by them? Do they predate the old movie masks, or did they inspire them? Did they come from the old man or did they come to him? Muse or creation?
These are the questions that assail me as I stand in the quiet of the house, dust motes surrounding me as I breathe in the smell of rotting food and spores and who know what else. When my house is quiet, I can hear the traffic on the highway, but in his living room I seem to hear something else. Scuffling. Breathing. Panting. Clawing.
I walk nearer to the masks, and the sound rises. Do they see me, as I see them? They look agonized, starving, desperate. They remind me of the old man. I reach up my hand, let it hover in the air in front of the nearest mask, and I know that its features recede even as they also creep closer, though I could never prove it.
I feel the purple recliner against my thigh, and when I look down it seems so inviting. I could sink into it, I think, chair spores floating up and into my lungs. I could wait there, keeping the masks company until someone else comes to try to take them down. An hour, a minute, a second ago the idea would have appalled me, but now?
Now it sounds so fine …
Excerpt from How to See Ghosts & Other Figments
Orrin Grey is a skeleton who likes monsters, as well as a writer, editor, and amateur film scholar who was born on the night before Halloween. How to See Ghosts & Other Figments is his fourth collection of weird stories.