The hotel was gabled stone building, fitted with a conical turret and Gothic Revival windows. We found it on a narrow curving highway, just under the south side of a high truss bridge we crossed accidentally several times because the combination of left-side driving and roundabouts are like kryptonite for my father.
The weather was bleak, even for the Scottish Highlands. We trundled in, dripping, over the threadbare floral carpet. The walls were high, papered over the chair rail in an overgrown baroque garden pattern against a visceral red, and hung with tiny framed prints of Renaissance portraits entirely of pale, terrified looking children.
Dad leaned in, “This place looks like a seedy French cathouse,” he said.
I boggled. French cathouse? Who says that?
The desk clerk appeared. He was young and reasonably attractive, which would have already been suspicious enough if he hadn’t welcomed us in a voice eerily similar to The Count from “Sesame Street.” I expected him to raise a lavender hand and announce Two! Two American Tourists! Ah-Ha-Ha-Ha-Ha. Instead, he gave us one room key attached to a bedazzled Victorian murder weapon and and cautioned us about not getting lost upstairs.
“The halls are long and winding. People have a funny habit of getting lost up there.” He raised a pointy eyebrow. “Also don’t forget to check out our gift shop.”
He pointed at a glass-fronted, heavily-carved china cabinet behind us, which was not full of spiders, eyeballs and vials of blood, but hotel-branded mugs and several elderly packages of Walker’s shortbread.
Dad thanked him. We went up the stairs, each step creaking in several tones at once, like a choir of souls squealing in anguish. We passed under an oil painting of an sneering albino child with protruberant eyes and a Elizabethan ruff.
“Scale of one to Get The Fuck Out, how haunted do you think this hotel is?” I asked Dad.
“At least Jack Nicholson wasn’t running the front desk,” said Dad.
“That’s because Dracula was running the front desk,” I said.
Dad walked past a warped, smaller-than-average door marked FIRE EXIT, padlocked, with scratch marks and gray fingerprints all along the edge. The floor beneath was blackened with ash and smoke damage. We wound down half a dozen, increasingly narrow, increasingly dark corridors to arrive at our room at the dead end beside another ominously marked FIRE EXIT, which opened onto a rainy metal landing with no obvious way down.
I turned on the light switch. Nothing happened. The room was large-ish and peculiarly furnished, two beds, heavy, oversized furniture, ancient lamps that teetered in a phantom breeze.
I went in the bathroom to stare down the clawfoot tub. I turned on the faucet. It sputtered once, but did not issue streams of plasma. “Good news,” I said. “I think I can maybe take a bubble bath later without the blood of the innocent being involved.”
“Cool.” Dad nodded, then noted, reasonably, “But keep in mind, it is still daylight.”
This was Dad’s and my second trip to the Scottish Highlands, and coincidentally, our second stay in a cautionary tale. Last time around, the bed & breakfast was externally charming, a little stone cottage with ample gardens, run by a polite elderly woman who sounded like a cashmere cardigan might if it decided to invite you up for tea. But beneath the starched doilies beat a dark and wicked heart. The rooms were cinderblock cells two iron camp beds and a high window that wouldn’t open. Our bathroom was controlled by a bipolar water heater, whose two temperatures were respectively Glacier and Interior of Volcano. Showering required toggling between the two in a mostly futile attempt to rinse in the few seconds of transition between the extremes. This resulted in a fair amount of shouting and jumping around. Throughout the nights, we endured the sound of Dolores’ furious adult son banging down the hallway, threatening to kill people over his cell phone. We’d arrive traumatized to breakfast—a stale toast and weak tea affair, served over a Muzak version of “Rule Brittania” at nightclub volume in a room packed with a probably four-dozen matched sets of terrier figurines. In the corner, Dolores smiled beatifically, stirring her tea in time the music as all her hollow-eyed, terrified prisoners considered whatever horror she had cooked up next.
We survived Dolores, but the experience had left us as wary of gingerbread cottages as Hansel & Gretel after a camping weekend. On the plus, Dad was more open to staying at actual hotels, vetted by multiple sources, and not just offhandedly recommended by Dad’s ex-girlfriend’s sister who went to Scotland in 1987 for a Wiccan jazz festival. We tipped into luxury. In fact,we’d come to the haunted hotel by the loch from Gleneagles, a five-star resort, where Dad fulfilled a lifelong dream of golf while I’d sat around various hotel pools and bars, surrounded by monsters of less supernatural provenance—gym rat hedge fund managers, jowly Trumpists and Brexiteers, and obliterated bleach-blonde Trophy wives that projectile vomited brunch bellinis all over an impossibly posh pink powder room while yours truly stood, horrified, at the sink (that really happened). I’d been both relieved and disappointed when we decamped for less swanky environs, eager to venture away from manicured golf courses and well-tended garden paths, and set forth on the road to wilder landscapes and less apocalyptic breakfast room chatter.
The bar was empty at 6:30pm, which felt like an ominous note on a rainy Friday evening in the Scottish Highlands, but good for us, as we were able to secure a table beside a roaring fire to watch the sympathetic fallacy blow in over the loch.
The bartender, a pale young woman with an extravagant amount of black eyeliner asked if we would like to make dinner reservations.
I looked around the empty pub, the vacant dining hall, and asked, “Do we need them?”
She nodded and poured me a Guinness. I was pretty sure I hadn’t even ordered yet, but, “On the bonus, our vampire bartender not only reads minds, but respects my taste,” I said to Dad.
Dad looked out over the water. From his side of the table, I imagined he could make out the close edge of the bridge, but, everything else—the far side of the loch, the road up into Glencoe, the lights of the village—were disappearing behind a great wall of obliterating fog.
I posted something witty about the hotel being haunted on Instagram. A friend wrote back:
Oh Snap! That place is totally haunted. It gave me such bad nightmares I couldn’t sleep. Good luck!
Great, I thought. That’s not at all going to keep me awake tonight.
“We’re 100% going to get eaten by demons tonight” I asked.
“Don’t be such a worrywart” said Dad, as an audible groan registered from the fireplace. “I haven’t even seen Jeremy yet.”
“You know, the guy” he said, making a stabbing gesture.
“Jason?” I asked. “From Friday the 13th?”
“Jack Nicholson in The Shining?”
Dad shook his head.
“Jack the Ripper?”
“No, bud, you know, Jeremy with the mother and the shower.”
“Exactly what I said,” said Dad, looking up as the vampire waitress appeared with two bowls of soup.
“For a snack,” she said.
“This looks terrific,” said Dad.
I watched him have a couple bites. When he didn’t die, I tucked in, thinking, Jeremy?
When I was about eight years old, I spent a season convinced that the dark space of wall across from my bedroom door was a gateway to an underworld carnival (“Scarborough Fair,” in point of fact, which I misheard as the place “where the dead live and die”) that opened after midnight and let pass a wicked cadre of spectral evildoers intent on dragging me back to hell. As an easily distractible, mostly secular child, with psychology-obsessed, spiritual, but not religious parents child I had no real concept of hell, save what my friends told me. And my neighbor Seaneen said that hell was pretty much just like an amusement park for torture. “They have a merry-go-round that peels your skin off,” she said. “It’s in the Bible. You’re probably going there, by the way.”
Even at eight, I knew this strained credibility. I didn’t even believe in Santa Claus, for Christ Sake. A teleporting death carnival based loosely on a Simon & Garfunkel song? I could already hear my mother’s exhausted sigh, her Alison, seriously. But what sounds ridiculous in the light of day can be very convincing when the bathroom door shadows the wall just so on the dodgy side of the wee hours. And all the superstitious woo-woo that, no doubt, comprised 80-90% of my genetic profile had instilled in me a rock-solid believe that if I told anyone what I was afraid of that it would come to pass, so I kept quiet and sat rigid, eyes wide open staring at the wall until dawn.
Eventually, Mom broke down my reserves and got me to admit to the whole portal to the undead thing. We had a good long metaphysical discussion in the mall parking lot, in which clarified the following:
- “Hell is a place that is perhaps a metaphor where some people believe that bad people go after they die. But as I said, probably a metaphor. Do you know what a metaphor is?”
- “Ghosts are not real. They are way people channel their fears, anxieties, lack of closure, grief, etc. They are real only if you want to believe they are real, otherwise they’re just a trick of light and a lot of useless psychological baggage.”
Mom’s case was compelling. It neatly dovetailed with my long-held suspicion that, among other things, Seaneen was completely full of shit. Hell probably wasn’t real. Ghosts almost certainly weren’t real. And though Mom certainly didn’t intend it, my faith was foundationally eroded in fairies, witches, demons, Jesus Christ, unicorns, werewolves, God, Satan, and astrology, as well. It was a hell of a day. I set forth on the path to godless, blasphemous heathen armed with some bitchin’ new literary terms. And I’m pretty I got a hairbow and an Esprit sweatshirt to boot.
All of this is to say, I don’t believe in ghosts, at least outside of the whole post-colonial, Southern ghost-haunted landscape as metaphor for the history we cannot escape definition of ghosts. But having spent an adolescence drunk on dumb vampire novels and black eyeliner, I like to hedge my bets. I maintain a veritable pantheon on her mantle despite long-held certainty that the atheists, though boring as all get out, are probably right. I frequently mistake rocks for phantom towers and dead trees for ancient amphibious gods when I go for a run in the park. Sometimes I go to desert for a wedding and end up talking to poems. And it’s been a rough couple of years. I’ve been sick a lot. I was not in top form—physically, emotionally, financially—when I landed in Scotland. On the train between Edinburgh and Stirling I’d picked up a chest cold, that left me, three days later, hacking through the highlands like a tubercular chain-smoker. Things I could typically brush off with a smile and a quip felt threatening. And everybody knows, the person who dies first in a horror movie is usually the guy that says, “I don’t believe in ghosts.”
I didn’t want to be that guy.
After dinner, the vampire bartender poured me a whisky, intuiting my preference for peat. I spent some time in the empty downstairs parlor, trying to discern prophetic warnings in the sounds of the walls settling around me. We’d spent part of the afternoon enduring the fierce weather in Glencoe and I reflected on its mythic scope and brutal history. It was the guests, not the hosts, who’d famously been the murderers in this neck of the woods. I wasn’t sure whether the ghosts present were inclined toward any massacre-related karmic reprisals. I didn’t think so, but assured the chattering fire that I wasn’t related to any Campbells, just in case.
I found Dad upstairs on the sofa, watching a late period “Die Hard” sequel and eating a box of shortbread he’d stolen from Gleneagles. I announced that I’d be taking a bubble bath.
“If I’m not out in an hour, call an exorcist,” I said.
He gave me the thumbs up. I stoppered the tub. The complimentary bubble path purported to be “Purple Water”-scented, which sounded like either a bad translation of something innocuous or the sort of thing you’d find at a Superfund site. Whatever the case, it smelled like a place you’d buy incense and Lisa Frank unicorn stickers in 1986. So, nostalgia.
I took a deep breath and stepped in. The floor groaned theatrically. I thought, this would be a hilarious way to bite the farm. With my head propped against the ceramic, I could feel a tremor that seemed to grow more insistent and take on the character of language if I moved any part of my body. It took me about five minutes of sitting frozen in terror before I worked out that it was the sound of the overflow drain. But by that point the pull flush on the toilet was swinging in an invisible breeze and the light over the sink was flickering, so I figured I should cut my losses before I accidentally summoned Cthulhu or something.
I crawled into my bed and turned out the light, as Bruce Willis hollered from the front of the room. I tossed and turned. I had headphones, but couldn’t settle with the strobing tv light. After an hour, I rose and found Dad sitting straight up on the sofa, but snoring. I turned off the movie and crawled back into bed.
In the silence, the shadows grew. A silvery light shivered down from the window above my bed, catching the angular ridge of the witch-hatted mountains just to the southeast. I closed my eyes. I heard my own ragged breath. Then I heard the steps and the scratching. A long step. A handful of frantic scratches. A long step. A scuttle of frantic scratches. I sat up carefully, I must be imagining this, but from beneath the crack of the door, I saw an unmistakable shadow. I thought about those ominous scratches on the outside of FIRE DOOR. And I knew those scratches were coming for me.
I considered calling out to Dad, but I didn’t want to draw attention. I didn’t want to make any sound. I didn’t want to open the door. I reached over and grabbed the hotel phone and found that it was not connected to anything. Scratch. Scratch. I made joking plans to ask the ghost about underwear and birth control. Scratch Scratch. I made desperate plans throw things. Scratch Scratch. I made cowardly plans to hide under the blankets. And then, as quickly as it had begin. The shadow moved away. The scratching ceased. The ghost had moved on.
And somehow, despite it all, I finally fell asleep.
I woke at dawn, showered quickly and left Dad in the room when I went down for tea. Outside was dreamy pink, a landscape so exquisite it bordered on trite—Maxfield Parrish meets The Hudson River School. I stepped out into the morning. It was cold and wet, the fog rolling down down the ridges. My cold was worse, but I didn’t care, because some things are beautiful enough to make you forget all the bad stuff. I walked across the road to watch a rainbow resolve over the loch until I started to feel the wet ground through my boots.
I told dad I’d wait for him for breakfast, so I went in the parlor, poured some tea and sat in front of the fire. As I sat, I heard a family noise. A step. Scratch Scratch. I froze. Certainly this sort of thing wouldn’t happen in daylight? Not with the inn stirring and the smell of coffee and bacon and woodfire in the air. Scratch. Scratch. I looked toward the door and saw Dracula from the front desk staring in at me. He opened the door and in came the spectre, a small black and white cat with extravagant whiskers. He plodded over the carpet, sat politely at my feet, and without encouragement, jumped from the rug onto sofa beside me.
“That’s Julio,” said Dracula. “He likes the fire in the morning. Do you mind?”
I did not. Julio was quite friendly, very soft. “He’s adorable, I said, because he was.
“He’s a good hotel cat. He has the run of the place.” Dracula smiled, a warm, extremely human smile. “Would you like some more tea?”
I shook my head. He shut the door. Julio nuzzled my hand.
I thought, you, you were outside the door last night.
I said, “Sorry I didn’t let you in.”
He purred. Which I took to mean, No worries. I had a total blast freaking out the tour group ladies in 112.
Dad and I spent the day wandering the glen. Theoretically together, but experienced individually. That’s how our trips are. We share details over dinner later of places the other never saw, me half-listening to the synopsis of his golf game, or the exhibit he studied over for hours. Himself visibly drifting off during my breathless recounting of all twelve miles of history and architecture I managed between curries and cocktails. Most of my travel pictures of dad are of him sitting across the table in pubs and restaurants, distracted, sometimes bemused. His pictures of me are captured from behind, a semi-recognizable blur another quarter of a mile up the side of a heathered glen, or a faceless, rumpled traveler on a rainy sidewalk caught at her least forgiving angle.
We returned the the inn that night, again exhausted and soaked with rain. I let the bartender pick an ale for me and returned the parlor to find Julio waiting by the fire.
My sister called from the US.
“I dreamed about you last night,” she said. “I dreamed you got engaged to someone whose last name was Quinn and didn’t even tell me until you decided the hold the wedding in that haunted hotel you’re staying in. Crazy thing is, in the dream, the hotel wasn’t that scary.”
I reached over to stroke Julio and heard a family with children come laughing down the stairs. Dracula poked his head in the glass door to give me a wave and confirm that he’d gone ahead and made us a dinner reservation in the dining room.
“The hotel is not really scary at all,” I said. “In fact, I’m starting to find it sort of whimsical.”
I saw Dad coming down the stairs. I gave Diego a last pet and headed for the lobby. I hardly noticed that the lights flickered and the gaze of the portrait over the fire seemed follow me out into the hall. I barely even heard a whisper, soft as cat paws, saying something that was almost, not quite, but maybe my name when the door closed behind me.