I’ve maybe never gotten writing retreats completely right. In collaboration with my dear friend, colleague, and occasional internet doppelgänger Marianne Kirby, I have tried more than once, but the writing has usually been somewhat less forthcoming than the local explorations, and the expansive and deliberate meals, the antique shops and the needless yarn purchases to add to the stack of needless yarn I keep in expectation of many years of leisurely crocheting time in my declining years. We do get some writing done. But it’s never been the explosion of work that I always envisioned coming out of writing retreats, before I went on one.
That’s probably not a surprise, given Marianne and I haven’t gone for strictly-regimented retreats with instructors and group sessions, favoring instead the luxury of self-direction. We find a neat-looking place, and we meet up there, and see what writting happens. And that is how we wound up in the circumstances I am about to describe.
I will be purposely vague on details because I am not writing this as an indictment of the retreat space in question. And I don’t want to hurt their business if it’s doing well. It’s possible our visit was an anomaly. According to many people on the internet, most visitors to this location have a wonderful experience there, and none have publicly described the bizarre scenario we found ourselves in. (Or at the least, they haven’t done so and survived. Perhaps even now, as I write this, a dark-haired demon girl is cracking her knuckles behind my laptop screen, readying herself to lunge onto my desk and disappoint me to death. Let’s watch and see.)
We arrived at the retreat location, which is somewhere in New England, in the spring. The building itself seemed normal enough from the outside as a typical historic New England structure, with the kind of character that can easily veer between charming and vaguely threatening. Our knock at the door did not stir any response at first, which was probably the first red flag, given that we had put down deposits on two rooms and were expected.
Eventually a frazzled-looking woman answered the door, peering suspiciously at the two of us. I introduced myself, and Marianne, and after a moment’s hesitation, we were allowed entrance to the house, although it was hardly the warm welcome I’d expected from the reviews I’d read.
Immediately I felt weird about this place. And not just because you had to take your shoes off at the door and leave them there. I don’t want to say that I am universally opposed to no-shoes households. I understand the no-shoes idea in principle, particularly as a person with mild germ anxiety who grapples daily with the fact that I am probably getting fecal matter of all kinds on the bottoms of my shoes, my beautiful shoes, oh god. But I am also invariably weirded out when I enter a stranger’s home and confronted with a demand to remove part of what I’m wearing.
(Also some part of my deep instinctive self-preservation lizard brain may have thinking, “What if I have to make a run for it? What if taking off my shoes is a trick to slow me down if I try to escape? Or to keep me psychologically off balance? AAAAHHHH.” I couldn’t say for sure.)
In the kitchen, frazzled woman — we’ll call her Desdemona — consulted a clipboard and queried us on who we were and why we were there. “There are two of you,” she cleverly observed. “But you’re together? You want to share a room?” She seemed a little uncomfortable with this prospect. No, we explained, we had reserved two rooms. I was already feeling weird about our reception and thought about suggesting that if they were full up, we could go find a hotel for the night. Desdemona ruffled through her papers and I noticed that the bay window facing the driveway from the kitchen was positively stuffed with a robust selection of houseplants. I don’t mean there were five plants. There were probably twenty of them, crowded on the sill and hanging from hooks above. And like everything that had happened so far, I couldn’t decide if this was quirky and charming or deeply forboding. Just thinking about watering all those little pots made me woozy with boredom.
Desdemona sorted out her documents and seemed satisfied with the result. The place wasn’t full up. Actually there was only two other people there. Ooookay then. Desdemona proceeded to give us an awkward and halting tour, explaining how to keep our food in our own personal baskets in the pantry and fridge, leading us into the large living room, which looked comfortable and cozy with its sofas and upholstered chairs. She then showed us the enclosed porch, where artists apparently paint, but the space was literally covered in dirt, with a few cardboard boxes about, and looked unused. Also my socks were collecting a lot of crud and I wanted my shoes back. I was really getting weirded out now. The space I was looking at was so different from the testimonials I’d read online that I was half convinced I’d slipped into the Twilight Zone, or worse, some Silent Hill universe and Desdemona’s head was going to turn into a pyramid and I’d be running for my life.
We went upstairs via a narrow, steep, unnaturally dark staircase, while I tried to avoid knocking art off the walls with my bags. I was assigned a room with a single bed at the top of the stairs; Marianne got a room at the end of the hall with a double. There were two bathrooms. The one right across from my room had a huge open room with sinks, a single stand-up shower, and a toilet in its own little alcove behind a door. The second bathroom was across from Marianne’s room and was more typically-sized, with the addition of a clawfoot tub. There were several rooms for residents; Desdemona pointed out the door to her own little apartment behind the stairs, explaining we could knock if we needed something, but not to knock after 10pm. There was an upstairs sitting room with more couches. Oh, and there was a doll. A big porcelain doll sitting primly on a child-sized chair at one end of the hallway. Red flag number a billion.
Desdemona, having fulfilled her hostessing duties, left us to our own devices then, and Marianne and I went to our rooms to settle in. My room was small, but quaint, with painted wooden floors, a low wood dresser on which I put my suitcase, a nightstand with a tiny lamp, a bed, a small desk, and a chair that seemed just barely sturdy enough to hold me if I sat down verrryyyy slooooowwllyyyy. A row of high windows featured on one wall, bordering the ceiling. It was bright and quiet and seemed functional enough.
There was no phone service. The house had wifi, but as soon as we stepped outside the front door, all connection with the wider world evaporated. Desdemona had directed us to a small convenience store just down the road for anything we might need. I’d realized I had forgotten my headphones, so off we went to get snacks for our stay, and hopefully a cheap pair of earbuds.
The store had a VHS rental section. This was 2014, for the record. I approached a pert teen behind the counter, and she seemed eager to help. But when I asked about headphones or earbuds, her brow furrowed. “No,” she said thoughtfully, and somewhat confused, “You can’t buy that kind of thing around here.” Ooookay. I rapidly accepted that earbuds were rare accoutrements in these parts and rejoined Marianne in the grocery section. We decided to get peanut butter and jelly to tide us over for lunch the next couple days, figuring we’d find our dinners out. Marianne landed on some local home-canned jelly and we brought all our choices to the checkout counter.
The woman there immediately plucked the jelly out and set it aside, a good twelve inches away. “The jelly doesn’t go through the register,” she explained to… I don’t know who. Marianne was delighted by this. I wondered what was in the black market underground tax-free jelly we were buying.
When we returned to the house, we met Desdemona in the kitchen again, and she hastily introduced us to Angry Guy, who did maintanance work around the place. A dark-haired man in his early twenties, he didn’t seem particularly angry at the time, and greeted us both with a smile. Don’t worry, the name will make sense later.
Marianne and I decided to find a comfortable space to sit together and work, and chose the living room downstairs. But as soon as I sat on the inviting-looking couch, I discovered it was less of a couch than it was the gaping blunt-toothed maw of some bony nightmare creature draped in blankets and knitted throws, hoping to lure unsuspecting visitors into death by ragged upholstery. I moved quickly to a chair was was only marginally more comfortable in the respect that I did not believe it actively wanted me to die, although if I happened to expire while sitting in it, it would be very open to that outcome. At one point, our only other visible writer comrade, a middle-aged woman of nondescript appearance, came downstairs and silently took something from the kitchen, ignoring us. Marianne and I sat downstairs until the sun went down, trying to work while cradled by murderous furniture, and finally, feeling tired from the day’s long drive, we went to our rooms early.
The Night of the Fuckshits
I couldn’t sleep, so I stayed up doing research for the story I was meant to be working on while we were here. Because of the rickety nature of the desk and chair, I sat on the bed, laptop on my knees, trying to ignore that merely BREATHING too deeply caused the aged iron bed to shriek like a tortured cat in the otherworldly silence of that house.
At some point I started to hear a voice — I don’t mean in my head, although frankly at that point, it wouldn’t have suprised me. But no, I heard a man’s voice distantly, from somewhere else in the house. There was an odd, rhythmic quality to it, not like someone talking to another person, or on a phone. It sounded like it was repeating something, forcefully. Over and over.
I got off the bed as delicately as possible, and hoped the creaking wasn’t as loud outside my room as it was within it. I moved to the door and put my ear to the crack. No. No way. I had to be hearing wrong. With the greatest care, I slid back the lock and opened my door the tiniest bit. Clear words, in a man’s voice, came ringing into my room from somewhere downstairs.
“FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT! FUCK! SHIT!”
Okay. So I was legit terrified by this extremely aggressive dude yelling fuck and shit downstairs. I freaked out. Still, I have this thing, where when totally bizarre stuff happens to me, I IMMEDIATELY try to normalize it. It’s a super fun coping mechanism that has more than once resulted in me being dismissive of experiences that, told later to a second person, elicit abject horror and shock. In this case, I went straight to a positively Sherlockian “There HAS to be a rational explanation for this!” skepticism. And in the midst of freaking the fuck out I started chiding myself for my ableism. “That could be coprolalia! This guy could have Tourette Syndrome! LESLEY, YOU MONSTER, FEELING THREATENED AND AFRAID OF A STRANGE MAN YELLING OBSCENITIES VERY LATE AT NIGHT IN A WEIRD HOUSE IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE WITH NO PHONE SERVICE AND YOUR SHOES ARE DOWNSTAIRS!!!!!!”
I made sure my bedroom door was locked. I carefully returned to the Creaktastic Sleeptacular 1889 and went back to my research, trying to ignore the continuing fuckshits that just kept floating up from downstairs like a depraved lullaby. I don’t even have headphones because they don’t sell those here. I did my best to focus on my work. When I did get distracted, I started to analyze the cadence; was it fuck-SHIT, as I had initially thought, or shit-FUCK? It went on for about half an hour when I noticed the fuckshits were getting closer. The fuckshits were on the stairs.
I froze, willing myself to cross the veil between realities and disappear into an alternate universe, one where a random dude was yelling “CUPCAKES ARE DELICIOUS!” instead. The fuckshits came up the stairs and went right by my door — in a quite loud, totally unrestrained tone of voice, understand, in spite of this happening at 3 o’clock in the morning in a house with walls that had all the sound-reduction of a layer of broken Saltines and at least five other people sleeping in it, four of whom were paying for the privilege.
I heard the fuckshits go into the bathroom, which of course meant I was instantly overwhelmed with a desperate urge to pee. But — I didn’t hear the door close. What? Really? The next thing I heard, forming harmony with the fuckshit chorus, was the unmistakeable plunging whisssshhhh of a dude standing and pissing into a toilet.
I crept back to the door to my room and literally looked through the keyhole, which I could do, because this door was probably a hundred and fifty years old. I couldn’t see the guy peeing, but I could hear it, and I could see the bathroom door was open.
What is going ON?
I moved away from the door. For a moment, I surveyed the room for anything I might use to defend myself should a profanity-spewing open-door urinator plunge into my room. The rickety chair? I guess I could beat someone with my laptop, but then I’d be out a laptop. Meanwhile, the fuckshits, thus unburdened, merrily fuckshat their way out of the bathroom, past my door again, through the upstairs sitting room, and ended behind a closed door somewhere else in the house.
I sat down on the edge of the bed, which screamed like a demon freshly emerged from hell. I could hear the other writer-resident two rooms down shifting in her own screaming-demon bed. Had she heard the fuckshits too? Was this just a thing that happens here?
So basically I should leave, I thought firmly. Right now. But I couldn’t abandon my dear friend in Stephen King’s New England, so I’d have to go wake Marianne up; being at the far end of the hall it was unlikely she’d heard much of the night’s fuckshit parade. And then what? I’d wake her up at 4am, and be all yo, grab your stuff, we are getting the everloving fuck out of here, and just trust that she wouldn’t be angry, or think I had gone insane?
“I totally wouldn’t have been angry or thought you were crazy,” Marianne told me in the morning, after I’d related my story. We had temporarily escaped the house in search of a Target or something approaching rational civilization where earbuds exist. I had slept maybe two hours, and those restlessly, given the lengthy screech-based conversation taking place between my bed and the bed of the guest two doors down, coupled with my lingering fear that Fuckshits was going to burst into my room wielding a machete and wearing a jaunty hat made of human skin.
I had gotten up early and secured the bathroom, checking the lock on the door three times before preparing to take a shower. The first thing I noticed was that there were spiders in the little toilet-alcove. Lots of them, having a big spider party around the high window over the toilet. I hadn’t noticed them the night before, and I had a brief flicker of understanding about Fuckshits leaving the bathroom door open; I would not be keen to shut myself into a tiny toilet-space in the dark with this many spiders either. I mean, I would, because who the hell leaves the door open to pee in a communal house with strangers, but I wouldn’t like it.
“I would have left, if you wanted. If you’re still freaked out, we can leave now,” Marianne told me. “It IS kind of a creepy house, even I thought so.” Marianne was so reassuring, and I felt so ridiculous in the light of day. The surrounding area was lovely, and maybe last night was just a weird fluke. And there was lots of stuff to do outside the house! It just wasn’t writing. We were going to make it work.
We returned to the house in the late afternoon to meet a pretty young blonde woman standing expectantly in the kitchen, a small rolling suitcase at her side. Marianne and I both greeted her cheerfully and she sheepishly asked who she ought to talk to about checking in.
“Oh, you want Desdemona,” I explained. “We’re just guests here too.” Desdemona was nowhere to be found. We met Angry Guy on the stairs heading back to our rooms; he seemed markedly more surly than he had the day before, and he practially snarled when I told him there was a guest downstairs looking to check in.
Marianne and I settled into the upstairs sitting room to do some writing, which was slightly less horribly uncomfortable than downstairs — I tell you, I have never felt so judged by furniture — and at least the room was warmly lit by the late-day sun. After talking for a bit we quieted down and focused, and so when Angry Guy started up the stairs muttering furiously to himself about “fucking assholes, fucking assholes, fucking assholes,” over and over again, he could be forgiven for not realizing we were there.
When he rounded the corner into the sitting room and saw us, mid-”assholes,” he burst out, with exaggerated friendliness, and clearly surprised, “OH HEY, look at you guys! How are you doing?”
“We’re great!” I replied too fast and with forced cheerfulness, barely restraining myself from adding, “Please don’t kill us in our beds as we sleep tonight!” I expected Angry Guy to turn down the hall, but instead he disappeared around a bookshelf, where there was apparently a door to a room or apartment we hadn’t noticed before. Wait, I thought, are Angry Guy and Fuckshits the same person? Are the fuckshits coming from inside the retreat space?
The Missing Blonde
Even though it was barely 5pm, I went to my room to lie down for a bit, still feeling exhausted from my lack of sleep the night before. I woke from a nap to a bizarre cacophony of banging pots and pans. It wasn’t the typical clanging of someone moving things around; it was determined, forceful smashing, choices of crashes made carefully for maximum noise effect. I went into the upstairs sitting room where Marianne was already working, and she looked at me wide-eyed.
“He’s been doing that for half an hour,” she explained in a whisper. She had gone downstairs at one point and even then, he didn’t let up. Angry Guy was bashing pots around a kitchen like a sugar-addled toddler with a prodigal gift for muttered profanities. It turned out he was just making dinner as loudly as possible, because eventually the smell of cooking food drifted up from the kitchen to where Marianne and I sat upstairs. I wondered, who was Angry Guy’s noisy cooking supposed to punish? I realized we hadn’t seen Desdemona all day. We had only caught a glimpse of the retreat’s director once, as we left that morning.
Late that night, still unable to relax enough to sleep, I left my room to use the bathroom and noticed that Pretty Young Blonde, who had been given the room next to mine, still had her light on at 3:30am. Was she just up writing, I wondered, or was she freaked out too? There had been no fuckshit pageant this night, so any creepiness was just the baseline variety.
Then, as I approached the bathroom, a petite middle-aged woman — not the same middle-aged woman we’d seen yesterday — emerged suddenly from the darkness within, scaring the shit out of me. “Oh, excuse me!” I said quietly and smiled sheepishly as I stepped out of her way. She scowled at me and said nothing, bumping me as she passed. The bathroom reeked of urine. She hadn’t flushed.
Oh my godddddd why didn’t we leeeeaaave?
I went down the hall to use the bathroom across from Marianne’s room instead.
It was maybe thirty minutes later that I heard footsteps on the stairs. Odd, as the house had been so quiet, and it was so late, I assumed everyone was asleep, or at least in their rooms. Still, heavy, slow, methodical (masculine?) footsteps plodded up the stairs and I can’t honestly say I freaked out, because I had been freaking out all night already and I think all the adrenaline I was capable of producing was already coursing through my body. I was sitting on the bed, laptop on my knees, and my blood actually ran cold (just like they say in books!). The footsteps reached the top of the stairs and paused right outside my door. My light was on, and I had a momentary panic that someone might try to look in that fucking keyhole, but because the bed was on the same wall as the door, at least they wouldn’t be able to see me.
A minute passed and I genuinely started to doubt that I had heard the footsteps at all, or that they had stopped by my room. Whoever it was probably just went to the bathroom or something and in my constant sleep-deprived state of panic I’d heard what I wanted to. Put on your overpriced Target headphones, listen to music and stop imagining things, I told myself, You are acting like a complete baby. I leaned down beside the bed and reached into my laptop bag, giving the bed a good loud creak as I did do, to prove that I wasn’t scared.
Except just then the footsteps started walking away from my door.
I mounted the wall and crawled into a corner of the ceiling like a spider. I mean, obviously I couldn’t really do that, but my soul did. My soul crawled into a corner of the ceiling like a spider, drawing its legs in and rocking itself back and forth and whispering in deep shuddering breaths, “EVERYTHING IS FINE, EVERYTHING IS FIIIIIINE, EVEEERRYYYYYTHIINNNGGG ISSSS FIIIIINNEEE.” I didn’t sleep at all until the sun came up. When I went to the bathroom again (I was constantly drinking an extreme amount of tea from a 32 ounce Klean Kanteen to quell my anxiety) shortly before sunrise, I saw that Pretty Young Blonde’s light was still on too.
I finally fell asleep as the sun came up, waking around 10, again trying to convince myself that what had happened the night before was only my imagination. Worst yet, the sleep deprivation was getting to be a problem. I kept dropping things in the bathroom while trying to get ready. And then I bashed myself in my own head on the sink trying to retrieve the bottle of conditioner that had fallen, compounding my existing headache and giving myself a lump. Or maybe the evil spirits of a hundred vanquished unknown poets devoured by fuckshits in the night had pushed me into that sink. I couldn’t say for sure.
I left the bathroom and immediately noticed that the door to Pretty Young Blonde’s room was open. Thinking an open door might mean receptivity to human interaction, and that I might say hello in a hey-neither-of-us-slept-last-night-I-guess supportive way — and also given that no other guest at this space had spoken a friendly word to me, except for Marianne — I popped my head in to see if she was there.
She wasn’t. In fact, her stuff was all gone. Her rolling suitcase, which I’d seen her unpacking the evening before, was missing. The bed was carefully made, a spindly wooden chair sat tucked beneath a spindly wooden desk, the lamp and the vase on that desk stood at equidistant points from parallel corners, the rag rug beside the bed was set at sharp right angles to the painted floorboards. The room looked prepped for its next resident, as though she had never been there.
I went downstairs to the kitchen, where Marianne was sitting at the table, beset by vaguely menacing houseplants.
“MARIANNE!” I whispered loudly, trying to sound not like a person who thinks the woman in the next room has been disappeared by an unknown evil, “The blonde woman is GONE!”
Neither of us felt safe discussing this subject further inside the house, so we gathered our stuff to leave for the day and we put on our contraband shoes and went to the car, where we began formulating scenarios that would explain the blonde woman’s sudden absence. Had she only planned to stay one night? That seemed unlikely, as these kinds of retreat spaces typically host residents for a few days at least, and usually a week or more. Had she fled in terror? Given that I’d considered doing the same on the night of the fuckshits, it was possible. Had she met with some terrible fate? Did that doll in the hallway kill her? Was it Angry Guy, in his Mr. Hyde persona? Of course, Marianne and I hadn’t technically been attacked, but I reasoned that maybe that was only because either of us would prove very bulky to carry downstairs while unconscious or dead.
Finally, with no answers, I backed the car from its space and began inching down the long dirt driveway. On our left we could see Angry Guy digging roughly with a shovel in the house’s expansive front garden; the director of the retreat, a man whom we had seen only once so far, and who had firmly ignored our efforts to say hello, was looking on from the porch.
“You know there are corpses buried in that garden,” Marianne said quietly.
Ha, I thought, ha ha ha ha ha ha ha oh god what if there ARE?
We went to a yarn store, and an antique store, and a used book store; we visited an old cemetery (we’re aging goths, so this isn’t weird), and saw a magnificent tulip garden, and met a very friendly dog. We had dinner at a restaurant overlooking a glass-flat lake. In all fairness, everything about this trip that happened away from the house was great. By now we had all but given up actual writing and were instead spending time exploring the surrounding towns in search of inspiration for stuff we’d write later. (It worked out pretty well, in the end.)
Still, we had to go back. That night, the house was quiet for the first time since our arrival. There were more residents in place by then — I think only one room was vacant — and the paradoxical result was a far more relaxed atmosphere. I slept, more or less, reassured by the knowledge that tomorrow we would be leaving.
The next morning, as I finished packing, the guestbook on the desk of my room caught my eye. What had others said about this place? Were there clues? Were we the only ones who had had such a weird experience? I thought there had to be some coded messages in there, something only a fellow resident would know to look for — a comment about the lively nights, maybe, or the passionate internal struggles of the staff running the place? I lowered myself gently into the rickety desk chair I’d been avoiding and read.
“Desdemona was so warm and helpful. From the moment I arrived I felt at home.”
“Angry Guy was great! We had a fascinating conversation about poetry over dinner my first night.”
“The staff — Desdemona and Angry Guy — have created an incredible and supportive atmosphere for creativity. I can’t wait to come back.”
“I’ve never felt so relaxed, or so inspired.”
“The best writing I’ve done in years.”
I closed the guestbook. These sounded like different people than the ones we had met.
The chair under me shifted slightly; I stood and noticed that one of the crossbars underneath was loose and on the verge of giving way. I very carefully replaced the chair — clearly a last-ditch trap — and gathered my bags, dragging everything down the narrow death stairs in one trip to avoid ever having to go back up there again. I met Desdemona in the hall; we had to pay the balance on our stay. The number she gave me seemed off but in my eagerness to leave I scribbled out a check without asking questions. (I would later realize we had been slightly undercharged, which normally I would follow up on, but in this case I took it as a Sorry-About-The-Fuckshits-and-Everything-Else discount.)
We drove away from the retreat house that morning with a relief so overwhelming it turned into deranged giddiness. Had we actually survived? Were we ever in danger? Marianne and I are writers, after all, which in our case makes us as imaginative and fanciful and prone to elaborate storymaking as your average third grader, and we do egg each other on. Still, it sure seemed like something strange had been going on during our visit. The profanity, the weird behavior of pretty much everyone we met, the creepy late-night footsteps, the general tension of the house overall, the corpse garden.
Part of me wonders if I should give that place a second chance; the reviews online are consistently positive, so much so that I continue to suspect that we passed through some kind of portal into the Silent Hill version of the retreat space — one that, instead of being peaceful and filled with inspiration, is populated by perverse twisted horror versions of all the good things former visitors had described. If nothing else, I got a story out of it, even if it wasn’t the story I expected or wanted. Sometimes life gives you lemons. And sometimes life gives you fuckshits, and you’re like, “what, I can’t even make lemonade out of these things. Also please don’t kill me in the dead of night.”