They look out onto the world through hollow, broken eyes. Shudder in the wind as their bones crack and dissolve. Those abandoned houses on the back roads of Atlantic Canada may be eyesores to some people, but to me they’re every bit as alluring as a castle keep in Europe or a Mayan temple in the jungles of Central America.
I discovered my first abandoned house when I was nine years old. Red-bricked, choked in vines, the two-storey farmhouse stood in an open field on the edge of new suburbs west of Toronto. Lilac bushes surrounded it, and I inhaled the heady fragrance of the blossoms as I slipped through a broken back window. The interior of the house was fragile: Exposed laths. Matted horsehair insulation. Layers of peeling, flocked wallpaper. I entered that house with the notion that I might find some “treasure” there—a stamp album, or a journal that would provide clues about the home’s occupants. The results of my search were disappointing—a blue plastic barrette and several stacks of brittle, yellowed newspapers. The disenchantment didn’t last, however. As always, imagination came to the rescue.
In Alyda’s Bluff, Rianne Tavener dreads the slated destruction of the Whitfield house, an abandoned house on a bluff at the edge of the Bay of Fundy. The house abounds with memories of the times that she and her childhood friend Ben explored it together.
Ben’s heard about the fate that awaits the Whitfield house. I want to pay my respects and conduct one last search through it, and he agrees to accompany me. He understands my love for it, but he’s also always willing to play devil’s advocate. He points out that we tore it apart over the years, that we never did find anything interesting.
“What about the spyglass?” I challenge him. The brass telescope was an early find, high up on the top of a kitchen cupboard. Ben had laced the fingers of both hands and boosted me up to take a look.
“One item of interest in seven or eight years of exploration.”
“That’s not why I want to go. I like the atmosphere. You know I like imagining things.”
Imagination is the ideal companion on a journey through an abandoned house. It joins forces with the spirits that still linger there. An old cast-iron stove may conjure the cook standing over a pot of stick-to-the-ribs stew. A parlour could invoke a family playing charades after Sunday dinner. A dormer window may summon a child contemplating the wonders of the universe from the safety of its world.
Imagination leads to creation. Dan Steeves of Sackville, New Brunswick, uses his discerning eye to bring to life both physical detail and atmosphere in abandoned houses. An artist, who teaches in the Fine Art Department of Mount Allison University, he has done several intaglio prints of Gothic Revival buildings in the Tantramar Marsh area of Sackville. Two of his prints from the 1990s hang above my living room sofa. The stark black-and-white images are hauntingly beautiful, evoking both physical decay and the decay of traditional values. The landmarks that he chose are reminders of socio-economic forces in play throughout Atlantic Canada. Sadly, the 21st century continues to see young people migrating to other areas of Canada for job opportunities and the older generations downsizing or moving to retirement facilities. The houses—slowly returning to the land—have become symbols of a society in transition.
The abandoned house of my novel is not allowed to return to the land. This is what Rianne has to say about its destiny: Yes, the Whitfield house is old, but it does not deserve its fate. It’s an historical artifact. It should disintegrate over time, on a schedule imposed only by the winds of the bay.
I was privileged to explore a good number of abandoned houses on Canada’s east coast. Most of them weren’t impressive from an architectural point of view, nor did they reveal any secrets or artifacts. I was content to journey through the dusty, echoing hearts of these buildings and absorb their ambiance.
Ghosts need a place to roam. So do our imaginations.