Square House, Door in Front: Kiera Lesley’s “Concerning the Upstairs Bathroom”


Welcome back to Reading the Weird, in which we get girl cooties all over weird fiction, cosmic horror, and Lovecraftiana—from its historical roots through its most recent branches.

This week, we cover Kiera Lesley’s “Concerning the Upstairs Bathroom,” first published in Nightmare Magazine in September 2022. Spoilers ahead!

Summary

“I’m sorry to inform you I was not very upfront with the terms of sale and would feel guilty if I didn’t leave at least this letter in forewarning.”

Being the text of a letter left by the unnamed former owner of a townhouse for the purchaser:

Former owner (FO) congratulates the purchaser on the acquisition of their new home, then wastes no time getting to an epic apology. The purchaser may have wondered why no seller’s name was listed on the contract and why the price of the property was so low. In FO’s defense, standard contracts don’t cover supernatural problems, nor do most inspectors have the expertise to detect them. Admittedly a little too late, FO must explain what’s wrong with the upstairs bathroom.

Shortly after FO moved in two years ago, they accidentally caught a monster. They had just finished installing a hose attachment to the bathtub and were cleaning the tub when they slipped, dropping the hose shower head and falling through the world. Something spiky thrashed in the in-between space along with them, “spraying howls of obscene colours.” When FO came to, the room smelled of ammonia and ash, and hammering filled the household pipes. The howling of neighborhood dogs added to the racket. After a restless night, FO called in a plumber, Dean.

The twisted shower hose in the tub and the droplets from FO’s nosebleed told Dean the problem: FO had got “one of those.” See, before these townhouses went up, building code changes allowed builders to lay pipes more cheaply. The area was always “a bit thin,” but the plumbing shortcuts made it much easier for accidental snares to catch the demons that normally used pipe angles to skitter between dimensions. The demons weren’t interested in hanging around humans, because they fed on “extended pain vapours,” and humans didn’t suffer long enough to be worthwhile prey. Dean could almost sympathize with FO’s demon, just out hunting only to be suddenly imprisoned in a St. Kilda townhouse!

FO was less sympathetic. Dean recommended a priest. Father Trevor came, but all his holy water and Latin chants had no effect. He recommended trying not to irritate the demon. So FO shut up the bathroom and tried to go about their business.

A closed bathroom door didn’t stop the nightmares. From vague but overwhelming feelings of doom, sadness, and “half-remembered agonies,” they transitioned into specific horrors of dismemberment, evisceration, imprisonment in foreign lands, family members murdered. It was the demon’s way of reminding FO that it was “stuck and hurting.”

FO called in other religious leaders, to no avail. Psychics wouldn’t enter the house. Scientists denied anything weird was going on. Therapists offered cognitive-behavioral treatment for FO’s sleep dysfunction and anxiety. FO faced an unprecedented ethical dilemma.  Freeing the demon from its plumbing prison would be as simple as removing the shower hose from the upstairs tub, but what if the demon didn’t pass on to another dimension? That could amount to loosing a pain-feeding monster on humanity. Suggestions for killing the thing required stuff like plutonium and extra-dimensional cursed objects, neither of which FO had ready accessible.

FO decided to at least be a compassionate jailer, and started to feed the demon by torturing animals. Some “sacrifices” relieved FO of their terrible dreams, but only briefly. After an excruciating eighteen months, FO realized that they weren’t feeding the monster with the animals’ pain but with FO’s own emotional suffering from inflicting torture.

They also realized that while the demon was stuck in the house, they were not.

They hope that the purchaser won’t hate them. Maybe the demon, angry only at its summoner, will leave the purchaser alone, or the purchaser will prove smarter and braver than FO.

Anyhow, FO has left the purchaser Dean’s phone number. His emergency visit rates are very reasonable.

Libronomicon: Scientists deny the bathtub demon because they can’t think of any way to get publications out of it. This seems… unimaginative.

Madness Takes Its Toll: Phantom pains are usually pains that you feel in an amputated or otherwise nonexistent limb, so I have to ask: in what part of their body, exactly, does Previous Owner get them during those first nightmares? Their tail?

Ruthanna’s Commentary

Sometimes Nightmare Magazine really does live up to its name. I wanted an easy week of real estate horror, and got animal torture instead. My cat Pippin says that if you hold him over a tub screaming, that ain’t compatible with keeping the contents of the tub in their current configuration for long. He also says that cats make better pets than demons. On both these counts he’s one hundred percent right.

If you need a quick pitch for this story, my immediate reaction is Little Shop of Horrors meets The Good Place. I adore both, and feel like the Previous Owner could profitably take lessons from either.

Lesson 1: Never feed the extraterrestrial horror. Not even if it begs. Not even if you can start with something all-but-harmless. Not even if it gets you fame, fortunate and a cute girl. (I’m also pretty sure guinea pig torture isn’t getting Previous Owner any such rewards.)

Lesson 2: The solution to the trolley problem is almost never to accept the basic terms of the trolley problem.

Lesson 3: As long as you’re studying moral philosophy to try and figure out how to deal with the horror, consider inviting the horror to your classes. You never know what it might learn, and it’s unlikely to make the situation worse.

The bathtub demon lacks the singing chops of Audrey II, and likewise the Faustian promises. The best it can do is nudge with nightmares and guilt—I assume the guilt is partly it’s doing, although maybe Previous Owner is just inclined to overthink everything Chidi-style, and thus talk themself into committing atrocities lest they be a bad jailor to the non-Euclidean ponophagic horror from beyond. I’ll admit that I feel guilty if I’m not able to properly feast uninvited guests, but this is taking things a bit far.

Ultimately, though, Previous Owner does take Lesson 2 to heart. The basic terms of the trolley problem are that you’re the one with your hand on the lever, the only person who can make the no-win decision. But we live the era of Buyer Beware and too-long-to-read Terms of Service—why not take the obvious out offered by capitalism? And so we worsen the initial inescapable horror by adding the escape clause of real estate horror.

It’s a ring on the old trope of cursed objects that can only be abandoned by foisting them on others; it’s also a very recognizable fear for any new homeowner. There will always be something: a basement that leaks during storms, a furnace ready to die on the first day of winter, undiscovered lead or radon. And anyone who’s sold a house knows the guilty relief on the flip side: however much you loved that patio, those leaks are someone else’s problem now. Forever, or until they decide what to reveal to the next buyer.

And who knows: maybe that buyer has more than the number of a good plumber and a mediocre priest. Maybe they know where to get plutonium or cursed objects. Maybe they have contact info for Doctor Silence or Doctor Strange, or a Miskatonic library card, or previous experience with exorcisms. Hell, maybe they just moved out of Hill House, and will be grateful to deal with one specific haunt that wants one specific thing.

If your rolodex is lacking, though, you might want to bring through more than one flavor of inspector next time you’re looking at a new house. In the current market, even if it turns out that your choices are an eye-watering imminent furnace replacement versus a haunted bathtub, at least you’ll have some clue what you’re getting into. Caveat emptor, but remember not to feed the horror—no matter how well it sings and/or designs nightmares.

Anne’s Commentary

I wasn’t surprised that Dean immediately identified the cause of FO’s bathroom problem. Plumbers often make excellent paranormal investigators. Look at Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson of Ghost Hunters fame, who by day worked as plumbers for Roto-Rooter and by night checked out hauntings in everything from private homes to public buildings, lighthouses, closed-down prisons, and abandoned hospitals. Whether they rolled up to your place in a Roto-Rooter truck or one of their iconic TAPS (The Atlantic Paranormal Society) vans, you could rest easy – these guys would soon send your troubles down the drain or back into the afterlife. Come to think, though, if they did think you had a supernatural being in your domicile, they never did boot it out. Mostly they reassured you that ghosts didn’t mean any harm.

Too bad for Lesley’s letter-writer, their supernatural housemate wasn’t benign, what with it being an interdimensional demon that fed on the sufferings of its prey. Trapped in FO’s plumbing, it had no choice but to feed off FO, and if FO wasn’t suffering on their own, never mind, the demon could take care of that.

“Do not call up any that you cannot put down,” one wizard warned another in Lovecraft’s Case of Charles Dexter Ward. In FO’s case, that would be “Don’t call up any that you cannot flush down,” except they, poor sap, summoned their demon by total accident. How could they have known how perilous it was to install a handheld shower, and then to slip and drop the showerhead, and then to bash one’s nose and get blood on the tiles? In S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors, it is written that one can inadvertently summon a Dimensional Shambler by performing three mundane actions in a certain order. Maybe that’s what happened to FO: (1) Install hand-shower; (2) Drop hand-shower; (3) Bleed, as if in sacrificial offering.

Maybe what FO experienced as falling through the world and disintegrating, then coalescing in “ways [their] joints grind to remember” was not them interdimensionally shifting but them entering the demon’s consciousness as it did so. Be that as it may, FO came to in the upstairs bathroom no worse for the trip. No worse physically, that is. The psychic damage already manifested as acute anxiety, and that damage would worsen as the demon’s hungry grip tightened, until FO was driven to actions they found morally abhorrent and emotionally devastating.

To return to the triggering episode in the bathtub. One might wonder (as Father Trevor does) why FO needs a tub hand-shower when they have a standalone shower right across the room. FO retorts that his personal sanitary preferences are hardly relevant. But does Father Trevor know something about the three consecutive mundane actions that can invite demons into one’s plumbing? He might, given that he performs his pastoral duties in or near an area that, as Dean puts it, has “always been a bit thin.”

Now we’re getting to the people who really deserve the blame for FO’s dilemma: Who else, as usual, but greedy real estate developers trying to cut their construction costs! Oh, and the greedy politicians who change building codes to suit the greedy real estate developers, allowing them to install plumbing without adequate transdimensional firewalls! Let’s not forget the commission-hungry realtors who must have known about supernatural happenings in this subdivision—FO isn’t the first to experience one. I asked myself, and Google, whether a seller or his representatives have to disclose to potential buyers that a property is haunted or otherwise paranormally undesirable. This article proved helpful, the gist of it being that sellers and realtors may be legally required to disclose such “emotional defects” as on-site deaths, murders, suicides, or criminal activities but not paranormal activity unless the seller has shared a belief in such activity with “the public at large.” Or unless the potential buyer specifically asks if the property’s haunted, in which case sellers and realtors must tell the truth.

Which truth could only be that sellers and/or their agents and/or the public at large believe in the haunting. I mean, what constitutes legal proof of the paranormal? Unusual local fluctuations in temperature or electromagnetic fields? Photographic or audio recordings of spectral visitations? Witness testimony? Enduring legends?

Could one argue it as proof that only the devil could make FO, presumably a decent person with no prior history of animal abuse, torture animals?

No to all the above, I guess.

Though I’ve roleplayed a few, I’m not a lawyer. My understanding as a layperson and pretty casual researcher is that the doctrine of caveat emptor or buyer beware applies to contract law. FO didn’t beware enough as a buyer. Nor I presume did their own buyer specifically ask about haunts or anomalies. Here’s a big however, however. Say property laws in St. Kilda, New Zealand, do require disclosure of paranormal defects if the seller is shown to believe in said paranormal defects themself. In that case, FO has screwed themself by leaving that letter for the new owner – especially since they admit that the defects may pose significant dangers to occupants, or even to the entire world. Nor do I believe as a LARP-lawyer that there are no public records of property ownership for the outraged letter-recipient to access in preparing their suit against FO for fraud most foul.

As most foul any fraud involving demonically possessed plumbing must be!


Next week, we’re back on the road with an only-slightly-malicious sapient car in chapters 29-30 of Max Gladstone’s Last Exit. icon-paragraph-end



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