By the second month of the Goth House Experiment, David wanted to shoot Oscar Wilde dead. Trouble was, Oscar Wilde was already dead. Had been since the fin de siècle. But here he was, gray and translucent in a velour smoking jacket, drifting behind as David wandered through the drafty house, trying to get inspired.
Wilde appeared the very first night that David spent in the old Victorian mansion his mother left him. David had been sleeping in the biggest bedroom in the house, an oblong, wood-paneled cavern with thick fleur-de-lis drapes and a curtained four-poster bed—the bed on which which his mother had spent her last days, her veins clogged with cancer.
That first night after the funeral, David fell asleep in the creaking, whistling house under fresh sheets, and woke to the ghostly face of Oscar Wilde hovering above him and saying, “You’re in my spot.”
“Excuse me?” David asked.
“That’s my spot,” Wilde said. “I sleep there. Though if you promise to never treat me like I’m ordinary”—and here Wilde raised an eyebrow toward the other half of the bed—“you’re welcome to share my bed.”
If he had been more alert, David would have challenged Wilde on the assertion that ghosts sleep at all—which they don’t, David found out later. But every night since then, Oscar Wilde lay down beside him on the four-poster bed. David suspected the ghost was still perfectly cogent, but Wilde wouldn’t respond to most noises and would even toss about as if he were struggling to find a better position.
And so David, baffled but still monumentally tired from moving earlier that first day, had scooted over and fallen asleep on the other side while Wilde pretended to sleep in the bed with him. In the morning, Wilde was still there, even more transparent in the sunlight, smirking at David as one would at a particularly handsome one-time lover.
On David’s first day in the Goth House, Oscar Wilde had followed him around from room to room, until finally David had snapped. Wilde simply made a shushing motion and said, “Your mother wants me here.”
“What do you mean my mother wants you here?”
“She told me to keep an eye on you. We were friends, your mother and I.”
Wilde then told David of how he’d gotten to know her in her last months, how he’d slept next to her as she faded away, how he’d promised to take care of David. David didn’t know whether to believe it or not, but he didn’t want to take the chance that Wilde was telling the truth.
From then on, Wilde had stuck by David, sleeping beside him at night, even following him to the bathroom and chatting inanely about how ghosts don’t have bowel movements while David did his business. The only place in the house Wilde refused to go was what he called the dead poets’ room—a small reading room in a corner of the second floor that was covered in hand-sized portraits of writers. Wilde said the room creeped him out. But even if David went in there and closed the door in order to be alone, Wilde would hover just on the other side of the door and periodically stick his head through to tell David just how selfish he was being.
On this particular late morning, two months into the Goth House experiment, David was trying to write a poem alone. Wilde floated on the other side of the door. David could hear the ghost’s throat clearing and muttering through the walls. David was hosting a salon that night, in the fashion of the goal for the Goth House—that is, to live out a decadent lifestyle in the twenty-first century, lives of the mind, drinking mead and having late-night talks about symbolism and the postmodern condition. It was what his mother would’ve wanted, his mother who for thirty odd years, despite being stubbornly committed to her practice as a lawyer, typed out a secret novel on a Remington 5. She had paid for David’s MFA, and had also made David burn her 400-page manuscript in her bedroom fireplace a month before she died.
David poised his fountain pen above his open journal. Dirty New England summer light filtered through windows. He made a note on the corner of the page: “clean poet room windows.” He sat at a large oak desk stacked with leather-bound books by Baudelaire, Huysmans, and Rimbaud. He imagined his mother sitting right where he was, reading transcripts from depositions. The house had belonged to David’s mother’s third husband, which she had inherited after that husband’s untimely death a few months after their wedding. When the deed passed to David, he had decided that he would move in and live here full time in his quest to be a poet.
A drop of ink fell onto the journal page.
“Pathetic,” Oscar Wilde said. Wilde had stuck his head through the wall, and the neck of a sconce was impaling his forehead like a unicorn horn. He didn’t seem to notice.
David tried to ignore him. He had exactly five hours to write a poem for the salon.
“Not everyone has the creative faculties to be an artist,” Wilde said. “Maybe you’re a critic.”
David hadn’t written a poem in over six months. Not a real one anyway. He’d made an erasure poem using pages from Brave New World that he had hung in the entryway of the house:
London’s finest / cats / glared / in silence / at / the conductor / They always / wanted / slow Malthusian Blues / but veiled / what they wanted / in ignorance
Alex and Julia, the only two human beings in the world David still liked, and who consequently happened to be the two other writers he had picked to live with him, had both been annoyingly prolific. If David didn’t produce a good poem for tonight, everyone would know that the Goth House experiment was a failure.
Wilde shook his head and the neck of the sconce wobbled. “The world needs its critics.”
David capped the pen and stood up. Maybe it was the house. It was too flammable. He’d gotten a letter from the city of Bedford the week after he’d moved in, with a list of renovations he had to make for the house to pass the town’s fire code. There was just too much to do, too much to fix or clean. The thick rugs had to be taken out one by one and beaten over the wrought iron balcony railings. The stone fireplace in the dining hall needed a screen. Three crystal chandeliers had to be rewired. Every time he tried to write, he heard his mother’s voice in his head, repeating to him the list of chores that had to be done now that he was master of her house.
David walked up the steep attic stairs to Alex’s room. It was already past noon, but Alex often slept until evening. David needed Alex to help get the house ready for the salon.
Wilde floated behind him, fixing the gray rose in his jacket button.
David opened Alex’s door without knocking. Blackout curtains were drawn shut over the gable windows. That had been one of Alex’s two conditions before agreeing to move into the Goth House: he would get blackout curtains and all of the opioid pain medication David’s mother had left behind. As her cancer progressed, she had stocked up on enough Fentanyl for a year, but the disease had spread through her faster than the doctors could track it and she was dead inside of four months.
Stale smoke filled the room. Behind David, Oscar Wilde breathed in deeply.
“I do miss the singe in my lungs,” Wilde said.
“Why?” David asked.
“It’s heaven to be able to buy oblivion.”
David squinted through the dark. Among the clothes crumpled all over the floor, the books stacked at least seven deep on every surface, and the slab of sheepskin Alex used as a mattress, lay the rounded peaks of a white butt.
A couple of steps closer and David smelled the vomit that surrounded Alex’s sleeping body. Alex didn’t seem bothered by it. His breathing made little ripples in a pool by his mouth, disturbing bits of tomato from last night’s dinner.
David shook him.
Alex was completely naked, his pale body the only thing glowing in the room.
“Such a beautiful lad,” Wilde said.
David shook him harder. “How can you write like this?”
“Jealousy is the pastime of the uninspired,” Wilde said.
Alex groaned and blinked his eyes open.
“We need to set up for tonight,” David said.
Alex blinked again.
“Such eyes,” Wilde said.
“Where am I?” Alex asked.
“Home,” David said. “What did you do last night?”
“No idea.” Alex sat up, not bothering to cover himself. He didn’t seem to notice that he had smeared vomit all over his forearms.
“You need a poem for tonight, too. You promised everyone something new.”
Alex gestured vaguely at a piece of notebook paper on the bed. “Finished the last one yesterday.”
“Hard work is the refuge of people who have nothing to do,” Wilde said.
David picked up the paper ball and smoothed it out. Alex’s handwriting—tall and spindly like he had choked out the air in between the letters—made it impossible to read more than a few words. David threw it back onto the bed.
Downstairs, Julia was waiting for David in the dead poets’ room. Her mousy hair sat messily piled on top of her head, and she was wearing a dress, which meant something important had happened. In the dirty light from the Queen Anne windows, she reminded David of a picture of his mother at thirty.
“Good news,” she said. “Connor said Paramount might option the first book.”
Connor was Julia’s agent, the one currently negotiating her two-book contract.
David tried to smile. It was painful. So he kissed her instead. Deeply. He wanted to kiss her into the wall and through the other side.
Julia pulled away. “Where’s Alex?”
“He just woke up in his own vomit.” David pushed a few strands of hair off her face in what he hoped was a gentle, loving gesture. “It was grotesque.”
“I should check on him,” she said.
Wilde stuck his head in through the wall and said, “Women are meant to be loved, not understood.”
She looked at the door leading away toward the hall. “You should see the poem he wrote for tonight. It’s hypnotic.”
“You read it?” David asked.
“He showed it to me last night. While you were writing.”
David attempted a smile again.
“How’s your poem?” she asked.
“It’s done,” David said. He sat back down at the desk.
Julia adjusted her bun and kissed him on the forehead. He wanted to call her back as she walked away, but Wilde was shaking his disembodied head with something that looked like pity, and David thought better of it. They weren’t dating, not officially. She could do whatever she wanted. He was trying not to have attachments in his life.
It was Julia who had suggested the séance. David had been careful not to tell anyone about Wilde’s ghost. But a week into the Goth House Experiment, Julia had become fond of the dead poets’ room, and she proposed a séance to call forth the spirits of long-gone poets to gather inspiration.
Alex had balked at her, sitting at their breakfast nook with a plate full of waffles in the middle of the afternoon on a Tuesday.
“David’s just lost his mother,” Alex said. “How insensitive are you?”
But Wilde nodded vigorously behind Alex’s head, passing his hand back and forth through the waffle stack.
“I think it’s a good idea,” David said. He watched Alex pour a splash of bourbon into each of their coffee cups. He held his hands behind himself so no one would notice them shaking. “What’ve we got to lose?”
They’d held it that very night, though in retrospect David admitted to himself that perhaps a séance had been a terrible idea after a full day of drinking and smoking. They had pulled the drapes in the dead poets’ room tight over the high arched windows. The thinnest slice of moonlight cut a ravine through the floor. They lit a single candle and placed it near the fireplace.
Alex lay on the blue Persian rug, pressing his face into its texture. “Feels like clouds.”
“Let me feel,” Julia said. She got down on her belly next to him.
Wilde sighed loudly and crossed the threshold into the room. His ghostly countenance shivered as he passed through the doorframe. He took a seat by David, floating an inch above the floor.
“Are we going to do this or what?” David asked.
Alex sat up. “Of course, of course.” He crossed his legs and offered a hand to Julia and David. “I’ll be the medium.”
“Why are you the medium?” Julia said.
“I think we can all agree that I’m the most psychically open person in this group.”
“Shouldn’t David be the medium? His mother just died.”
Alex started humming. David and Julia took his hands and hummed with him.
“Clear your minds,” Alex said. “Breathe. It’s all in the breathing. Breathing lifts your soul.”
David clenched his teeth and tried to clear his mind.
“This is all so very exciting,” Wilde said.
They waited. An owl hooted outside. They hummed along with Alex, harmonizing in increments until David thought he felt the air vibrating with them. He opened his eyes. Wilde was over by the candle, trying to blow out the flame.
“Stop that,” David said.
“Stop what?” Julia asked.
“Never mind. Let’s keep humming.”
Alex hummed. “Who are we calling first?”
“How about my good friend Mallarmé?” Wilde asked.
“Mallarmé,” David said.
“We call upon the spirit of Stéphane Mallarmé,” Alex said. “Father of poets.”
They hummed and waited. The owl kept hooting. Nothing happened. They waited and waited for over an hour, calling Mallarmé’s spirit and humming.
“You shouldn’t be trying to disturb him,” Wilde said.
“We’re just showing appreciation,” David whispered.
Wilde shrugged in a noncommittal way. “The best way to be worshipped is to die.”
After a couple of more tries, Alex suggested they drink more.
“Wait, just a little longer,” David said.
“It’s no use,” Alex said.
Julia started to get up.
“There is no wisdom in the spirits,” Wilde said.
“I—I feel the spirit of Oscar Wilde,” David said. “He’s here with us.”
Julia sat back down.
Alex leaned back on his hands. “And just what is Oscar Wilde saying to you?” he asked.
David looked at Wilde, but Wilde sat with his arms folded neatly on his lap, looking resolutely out the window.
“He says there is no wisdom in the spirits,” David said.
“Don’t steal my lines,” Wilde said, “if you haven’t the talent to write your own.”
Alex laughed. “You’re shitting me. That’s the best you could do?”
He stood up and Julia followed. They disappeared through the door.
David lay on the rug. He wanted to burn the house down. Instead he called his mother’s spirit and hummed. Wilde lay down next to him and said, “You’re an orphan now. It’s what you are. An orphan.”
On the day of the salon, David worked until evening. That is, he pretended to write and stared out the window of the dead poets’ room while Julia and Alex set up for the salon. David knew they would screw it up. He had given them explicit written directions, but they shooed him away every time he went to check up on them. When he asked Wilde to go and make sure it was all going well, Wilde huffed and said, “I’m not your servant.”
Eventually David gave up writing and went down to help. The salon would be held in the dining hall, a large space with a frescoed ceiling, walls paneled in cherry wood, and three crystal chandeliers. Alex and Julia had already lit the wood-scented candles that David had bought. When he entered, Julia was kneeling on the rug by the stone fireplace, lighting a starter log that was covered in neatly cut firewood.
The dining hall had come with a long teak table but the three of them had moved it out. Alex was now slowly moving in all of the smaller tables in the house. There were a handful already there, placed strategically throughout the room.
“Does this mean you’re done writing?” Julia asked. She blew on the starter log.
“Yes,” David said.
Wilde, floating into the room behind him, scoffed.
David found the folded swatches of black silk he had bought at the fabric store. With Julia’s help, he spread a piece on each table. The silk pooled over the Persian rugs, and under the candlelight, seemed to move like waves.
Over the next hour, the three of them attended to each minute element. Silver menorahs strung with crystals. Black ceramic places just big enough to fit in a palm. Neat sushi rolls catered from David’s favorite restaurant (the delivery boy’s eyes had gone wide and vacant at the sight of the room). Crystal goblets David’s mother had bought and shipped from California. Bourbon and red wine decanted into cut glass. Tiny Bluetooth speakers hidden all around the room, playing a ghostly violin melody. By the fireplace, on a table covered in thick silk, a large tortoise shell painted gold. And all along one wall, floor-to-ceiling windows that opened out to an overgrown, messy garden. David had purposefully not called the landscaper his mother had recommended by way of email a few days before her death. He thought the opulence of the inside contrasted well with the chaotic nature outside. He knew it was all in the details.
By the time the first guests arrived, an hour late as David had predicted, all he had written were the three lines from the morning. Three beautiful lines—Oscar Wilde had read them over David’s shoulder when they were alone, and nodded. Rather curtly, but David hadn’t hoped for any more out of him. David tore the page out of his notebook, making sure to get a jagged enough edge that people could see it in the dim candlelight. He could add to it throughout the night and read last. After all, wasn’t a poem just a collection of beautiful lines? It would seem experimental and daring. Avant-garde.
He folded the page and tucked it into the inside pocket of his gray suit. He’d special-ordered the suit, European cut of course, with a close herringbone weave, matching vest and trilby. Wilde watched him get dressed, nodding approvingly when he brushed himself down with a Kent brush from the 1910s.
“Those,” Wilde said, pointing to a pair of black perforated wingtips.
David laced them up, put on the trilby at a slight angle, and checked himself in the mirror.
“Slick back your hair,” Wilde said. “It’s only unfashionable if other men do it.”
David ran some pomade through his hair, noting that it was starting to thin at the top. The other day, he had counted fifteen gray hairs, though Wilde had said that the gray made him look distinguished. He put the trilby back on, smoothing the red feather tucked into the band.
“Well,” Wilde said, looking him up and down, “you may not be an artist, but you look the part of a true benefactor.”
“Why can’t you ever just be supportive?”
“Now, now. Don’t be cross. The guests are arriving.”
Wilde followed him down the curved staircase as he made his entrance. The French doors of the dining hall were thrown open. The three of them had done a decent job, he decided, or else the candlelight hid the mistakes.
Twenty or so writers from the New England area milled around the makeshift bar table. Everyone had dropped their phones into a soundproof box in the foyer, so no one’s face was lit by the glow of a screen. That had, David thought, been one of his more brilliant ideas.
“Ah, what I wouldn’t give for an iced champagne,” Wilde said.
Alex stood in the middle of the crowd, gesticulating wildly with a glass of whiskey. Julia leaned against the wall, talking in a low voice to Katherine, a girl from their MFA that David had been hoping they could convince into a ménage a trois. Katherine was tall and moved like a blade of grass. David walked over.
“Katherine,” he said. “Thanks for coming.”
Katherine smiled between her dark-stained lips. That was a good sign. She raised her glass of pinot at him and drank. Another good sign.
A crash of glass on the wood floor announced the dismissal of Alex’s sobriety for the night. Julia went to help clean up, and David cursed himself for not hiring any servers. He’d wanted to hire women who would be nude living sculptures, becoming waitresses and maids as needed, but Julia had nixed the idea as misogynistic. He’d even offered to hire a mixture of men and women, which he thought was a fair compromise, but she had simply given him an ugly look and told him she wouldn’t attend. Fiction writer or not, her new book deal was the reason some of their guests had agreed to come from as far away as Brooklyn, so David had relented.
“Are you reading tonight?” David asked.
Katherine took another sip of pinot and ran her tongue over her teeth. “How long does this go?”
Over her shoulder, Wilde was floating in the middle of the bar table, looking moony-eyed at a young poet whose book had recently won a big prize.
“We have plenty of room if you want to stay the night,” David said.
“I have work in the morning.”
“Mallarmé always hosted his salons on Tuesdays.”
Katherine downed her drink and gave him the glass. “Nice fedora,” she said.
“It’s a trilby,” he said as she walked away.
A handful of guests came in, looking impressed. It was time for David’s welcome speech. He made his way to the stone fireplace and cleared his throat. The conversation continued.
“You must command the room,” Oscar Wilde said, floating up next to him.
“Your attention, please,” David said.
“Don’t beg. Command.”
Alex caught his eye from across the room.
“Hey,” Alex shouted.
Everyone turned to look at him.
“David has something to say.”
Everyone turned to look at David. He realized he was still holding Katherine’s empty goblet. “Welcome to the first mardis of the Society of Postmodern Decadent Writers,” he said.
“SpoDew,” Alex said.
Some people laughed. David continued.
“As Neo Aesthetics, we take up the torch of our forefathers”—David looked at Julia—“and foremothers of the fin de siècle. Our aim is to pierce through the cloud of modern drudgery toward a nobler goal. In fact, the only noble goal—Art.”
Alex drunkenly pumped his fist into the air.
“Tonight we share our writings. Each artist shall attempt to stir the frozen lakes of our mundane souls. As Plato said, true beauty should produce in us a passion so profound that it makes our very nerves sing.”
David saw Katherine chuckle into her hand.
“Actually,” Wilde said, “both Plato and Plotinus viewed passion as an essential component of Beauty. In fact, my dear colleague Walter Pater perhaps said it best…”
“Fuck off,” David said.
The guests looked at each other, confused. David’s face grew warm. Someone laughed.
“This—this is a place to talk about literature,” David said. The words were starting to leak out of his head. “And and and—and about our own writings.”
The guests stared at him. Katherine still had her mouth covered with her hand, possibly laughing. Julia’s look was full of pity.
“Shots!” Alex said.
The guests turned back toward the bar. Conversation started again.
“That was only slightly painful,” Wilde said. “I’m sure everyone will remember.”
David fished a pipe out of the pocket of Alex’s coat where it hung haphazardly on a high-backed chair. He took a hit.
“Opium?” Wilde asked. “Best cure.”
David chewed on the pipe. He’d been meaning to look up exorcisms again but hadn’t gotten around to it.
“Do you actually know my mother?” David asked. He took another hit. The beating in his chest didn’t calm. “Be honest.”
“Writers!” Alex shouted from atop a small, spindly table that rocked back and forth with his weight. He had another whiskey glass in one hand and a piece of crumpled paper in the other.
The guests quieted.
Alex balanced on the table and read, his breathing heavy, his hands shaking, his words a little slurred. But it was beautiful. His lines landed, and David watched the guests gasp and laugh at all the right moments. Even Wilde stopped ogling the prize-winning poet and stood so still that the tips of his feet brushed the ground.
When Alex finished, the guests all clapped. David turned back toward the fireplace and took another hit. He felt every corner of the folded-up paper in his pocket, beating along with his heart that wouldn’t slow down. The flames tilted and blurred.
The readings continued. Julia, Katherine, the prize-winning poet, so many others who had won awards, for whom writing just came easy. David hated them all. Under their words, his three lines were nothing. He was nothing. He took more hits, and the walls melted away.
“You should be careful with that,” Wilde said.
“No one asked you,” David said.
“Your mother wants you to be careful.”
David watched the flames make a conga line this way and that, and for a moment, the redness stitched together into a wavering image of his mother’s face, not wasted like it had been when she died—cadaverous and sunken—but full, nodding, saying something to him. She was holding her mouth like she’d tasted something sour. He crouched down on the rug near the fireplace.
“What do you see?” Wilde asked.
His mother’s face sputtered, flickered, disappeared. David threw the pipe into the fireplace, where it landed with a thunk and a hiss.
“Now, now,” Wilde said. “An artist must have the right temperament.”
Julia walked up, asked him if he was okay. In response David pulled her into the darkest corner and kissed her so hard that the straps of her dress fell away. The opium had numbed him. He could barely feel her lips. Her face was close and yelling something but he couldn’t focus on the words, just the volume of her voice circling him, squeezing into his pores.
Someone shook him. Alex.
David pushed Alex hard, sending him stumbling backward. Alex kick-scattered the pile of burning wood onto the rug. Wilde tried to catch him, but Alex fell through and landed on the floor. Behind the commotion, David thought he saw his mother again in the fire. The flames expanded outside the bounds of their stone enclosure, engulfing the rug on the floor. Her lips moved as if she was trying to talk. But the room was too chaotic, too loud, for him to hear.
“Get out,” David shouted. “Everyone. Get the fuck out of my house.”
The guests were running, clamoring everywhere, coughing from the smoke. People all over, scattered to the wind like so many pollen. The rug fire spread to a table, where it flashed onto the silk cloth.
“Get out, I said!”
The guests ran out through the doors, their screams buzzing in a fog close to the floor. Julia and Alex were left, both crouching next to him, dragging him away from the burning table. The gold tortoise shell shivered in the fire. His mother was still in the flames, still talking.
“Get out,” David said again.
Alex and Julia looked at each other with something like silent understanding. They tried to pull at him again.
David was losing energy. The anger that had catapulted him was gone, dissipated into the night air. His mother’s face was fading. “Please,” he said, “just go.”
Together, Alex and Julia followed the other guests out the door. David sat in front of the burning table. His mother was gone, lost to the flames. Somewhere far away, sirens. He took the notebook paper out of his pocket with his three lines. Wilde sat down next to him.
“I’m almost jealous,” Wilde said. “A truly decadent party if I ever saw one.”
“You don’t know my mother,” David said. “You lied to me.”
Wilde shook his head but didn’t answer. The tortoise shell was burning, its gold paint fuming in a column of smoke.
David read his three lines out loud into the empty room.
I spin around you like a glass moon you breathed into life
We lack synchronicity, orbits beating out of time
Tell me who doesn’t believe in infinity
Only cicada music and scorching wood answered from the night air. Wilde stayed quiet. David crumpled up the paper and threw it into the flames, and they both watched the words burn into dust.
SJ Sindu’s debut novel, Marriage of a Thousand Lies, is forthcoming in 2017 from Soho Press. Her hybrid fiction and nonfiction chapbook, I Once Met You But You Were Dead, was the winner of the Split Lip Turnbuckle Chapbook Contest, and will be published in early 2017. Sindu’s creative writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, The Normal School, The Los Angeles Review of Books, apt, Vinyl Poetry, PRISM International, VIDA, Fifth Wednesday, and elsewhere.