Lo these many years ago, a friend shared her glee over the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose. She brought back a video tape, and we watched it together.
This, I thought, would make a book… if I could only learn more. But I lived in western New York state and the Winchester Mystery House lives in San Jose, California… and I am a very poor traveler indeed. Ne’er the twain shall meet and all that.
A handful of years passed, and who knew? I moved to Flagstaff, Arizona. Not so far away now, eh? Another year or two later, and the World Science Fiction Convention turned up in San Jose: ConJose.
I was so there.
On Dead-Dog Sunday of the convention, I was con-lagged, bleary-eyed, and barely sentient, but by golly I made it out to the Winchester Mystery House. I paid my fee, I ogled through the gift shop, I bought my own video, and I played very happy tourist in the house itself.
At this point, there’s nothing non-touristy about the house. The gift shop should be subtitled, “Give us your money!” The café should be subtitled, “Give us your arteries!” Everything is bright, freshly painted, beautifully maintained, and publicly glossy. The grounds— in the middle of dry, brown San Jose—are an oasis. The guides and staff are delightful. And those who handle it all keep the non-public details of the house as closely guarded as Mrs. Winchester once kept her privacy.
But the overwhelming impression is one of affection. Sarah Winchester was driven by fears and anxieties that some might call irrational (and some might not); she did her best to assuage those fears, creating a home that would occupy any spirits who came looking for her—specifically, those who had died at the hand of the Winchester rifle, a fearsome weapon of its time which helped change the landscape of the West.
Eccentric she might have been; lacking for creativity, she was not. Doors to nowhere—sometimes by way of wall, sometimes by way of gaping hole or simply no house beyond that door at all—bizarre staircases, lavishly appointed rooms available only through twisty little hallways… the house is a marvel of engineering and imagination (and heavily spent money).
It’s also the archetype for every ghost house ever made, every spooky mansion ever written, and definitely every Scooby Doo chase just plain ever.
So when I took my tour, it was with bouncy glee, my scribbly little notebook in hand and an eye for detail. “Want more!” I told the guide, who soon enough figured out what I was up to. Not terribly impressed at that. They are, after all, protective of the house’s secrets; it’s their bread and butter. They’re protective of Sarah Winchester’s memory. And I can’t have been the first person to go through those halls with the intention putting the house in a book someday.
And it took a while, but I did. Once I realized I wanted to write Garrie and Trevarr and the Reckoner team, where else could I possibly take them for a first adventure but the world’s best ghostie mansion? It suits Garrie’s dry humor; it suits Trevarr’s plethora of secrets. And by golly, it was fun.
I hope Sarah Winchester, if she’s here and tangled up in that maze of her own making, also finds herself amused…
The Reckoners (978-0-7653-6164-6; $6.99) by Doranna Durgin is available from Tor this February.
From the February 2010 Tor Newsletter.
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