Pictures from Afar

By Devin Welch

Loveland Mancini made haunted houses. The American kind. I’m not sure what they look like in Scotland or Tokyo, or if they even have them, but where I come from, they’re built into old warehouses or barns and pop up the week before October. 

He designed the monsters and mossy chain-link fences, the tears and rips and masks and fake chainsaws too. He would lock himself in his lab all year long to design experiences from head to severed toe, only escaping to swim laps at the rec center. Nearing his sixties, Loveland had hair from the seventies and organ problems from partying in the eighties. He was one of Dad’s closest friends. One of only two, in fact, both of whom died on the same day. 

Dad never finished much of what he started. Not the leatherwork or the Mustang restoration, not even the eight-part Sal Herns documentaries. He had left his contracting job to give his own house restoration business a go, but ultimately, it struggled. The only thing he did consistently was swim at the rec center. That’s where he met Loveland. 

Teens were the main clientele of haunted houses, as they were good date spots. And since most sixteen-year-olds had only enough cash to visit one or two each year, they picked depending on the local paper’s rankings. So each September, on a typically windy night with the mountains behind us, Mom, Dad, Lulu, and I would stand bundled outside of abandoned barns and warehouses near the cornfields to see Loveland’s newest haunted house before it opened to the public. Loveland liked to watch our reactions as we walked through so that he could tweak the experience before opening night. That helped him to get the best reviews possible, and in turn, the most money to do it again the next year. Lulu was Loveland’s wife. She wore animal print, had tousled hair, and spoke to me like I was an adult. She even offered me cigarettes when my parents weren’t looking.  

We’d hear a bang against the entrance and the doors would open, oozy light and deep howls seething from within let us know it was time to enter. I always sandwiched in the middle to protect myself from my overactive imagination in these playgrounds of goblins, talking babies, lost children, shrines, slimes, red lights, flashing brights, and all the frights from the mind of Loveland Mancini. But I can only imagine to this day what was actually inside those haunted houses because, in all the years of walking through them, I barely opened my eyes at all. I was never mommy or daddy’s girl, but I would hold whichever parent was in front of me tightly and follow them. Haunted Houses sounded good on paper, but the truth was, I scared easily. For an aspiring horror illustrator like myself, this was tricky. 

Everything I drew was derivative of Bernie Wrightson, except it wasn’t scary or well done. My heads weren’t proportionate, and I ignored drawing feet altogether. My monsters were too simple in a post-Hellraiser world (which I was afraid to watch all the way through); they were too classic.

Loveland died alone in hospice. Things had gone bad quickly. Lulu was running errands and didn’t make it back in time to hold him while he went. This was before everyone had cell phones. He’d been medicated and didn’t suffer. This was what my parents latched onto. Lulu gave us a ring soon after she found out. When the news came, I watched Dad try to cry, or try not to—I couldn’t tell which but wished he would have either way. 

Her call was only the first of the bad news to come on May 2nd, 1994. I remember the date because I was a freshman then, and school was out in a few weeks. Within half an hour of hanging up with Lulu, ambulances and police cars pulled onto our street and parked in front of the house next door—our neighbor Phil’s. They found him in his garage. 

Phil was Dad’s only other friend. Even outside of his volunteer neighborhood patrolling, Phil was always first to help the community: flooded basements, lost pets, or charcoal for a grill-out. When he wasn’t lending himself out, he was in his garage tinkering with his truck or motorcycle all by himself. I guess it’s best to say that he had the will to help everyone but himself in the end. Maybe he gave all his help away. Or maybe he just didn’t like being in that house all alone.  

Dad, on the other hand, was quiet. Not one to walk miles to lend a cup of sugar, but this wasn’t because he didn’t care. On the contrary—his heart barely fit inside his chest. You could see it when he pet a small dog or smiled through a hard time, but he was paralyzed by certain traits, certain bits of the past that I still don’t fully understand because he wouldn’t ever talk about them. Not to me at least. But he talked to Phil. Mom said Phil had rough teen years like Dad and Loveland and that’s why the three got on. 

My parents waited on the curb for word from the paramedics, but when the ambulance, police car, and firetruck—the standard response to a 911 call reporting a gunshot—pulled away, the only vehicle left was a coroner’s van. Virginia Craxford from down the street had been walking her dog and heard the bang come from inside his garage. She was the one who called. 

At dinner that night no one spoke. Dad kept a writing pad near his hand, jotting quick notes here and there with his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth. I was the only one that seemed to notice. I walked out the front door after washing my plate.  

I’ve always needed fresh air after a meal, and that was true then too. I didn’t have many friends, but I’d been spending time with a girl I met at school. Her name was Thea. That night when I went to meet her, no one asked where I was headed. Thea told me to meet her at the park, near the paddle boathouse on the lake. There was a dock there with the only light the city kept on late. We liked to sit there together, even before the nights got warm. 

As I walked to the park, I passed by Phil’s house. It was dark and empty, and the garage was closed. His dogs didn’t bark. I considered what it looked like inside the garage. At the time, we didn’t know yet how Phil did what he did, but for whatever reason, I couldn’t imagine it filled with his tools, neon beer signs, and race car banners anymore. Rather, I wondered if Phil’s energy took a new shape, if it changed everything inside. I imagined the garage walls melting, or flowing. 

That night in bed, I stared at the ceiling fan and thought of Loveland’s creations: the robotics and sticky synthetic fog in his dark warehouse lab near Old Wadsworth Street by the train tracks. Someone would have to unload it all eventually—likely Lulu. I wanted to stop thinking about the space, but I couldn’t. I tried to picture anything else, like the kiss I’d had that night by the bridge when Thea and I said goodnight. But everything led back to Loveland’s props scattered in his black studio. I hoped that if Lulu had to empty it, she’d close her eyes until she turned the lights on. In fact, I hoped she’d hire someone else to empty it out for her—a professional who would go in the daytime. Anyone but her.

Mom stayed up late that night. I had snuck downstairs to take a pull from a wine bottle—something that I’d discovered helped me sleep—but saw a light on near the back porch. She was sitting over a puzzle. I didn’t disturb her; I liked just watching. Did she think of Loveland’s haunted houses too? I went back to bed and tried to picture Thea. 

The next morning, Mom brought Dad the phone. 

It’s Phil’s brother, she said, he wants to ask you something. 

Dad took the phone, mmhmm’d, said that’s fine a handful of times, then hung up and sat back at the table with us.

Well? Mom asked. What did he want?

He asked if I’d be interested in fixing up Phil’s place, Dad said, sort of bouncing in his seat when he said it. He said he can’t sell it in the condition it’s in, so he’s sending me an offer. If I like it, he’ll get me the keys. 

Mom leaned over to kiss him and put her arms around his neck. 

He said he couldn’t stand to be there, Dad added.  

Poor thing, said Mom. Can’t imagine being in there either. 

Dad wrote another note on his new pad.

That week, I thought of Loveland’s lab often. I imagined him in there, designing and building. I wondered where his inspiration came from. What place in him stoked his creations? Was it healthy, or did those monsters come from a dark place? As I sketched, I thought of his mad science and his experiments—his Island of Dr. Mancini—and I wondered if my art needed darkness too. I began to wonder if good art had to come from a dark place. Whenever I thought this, I’d go downstairs and take a pull from Mom’s wine bottle, then try to draw again. 

Dad agreed to the offer and began work on Phil’s house. He would get his agreed upon pay, plus a small cut of the equity when it sold. The only catch was that Phil’s brother wanted it on the market before Christmas. So, Dad was there night and day, often only stopping home to have dinner with us before heading back to work late into the night. He told Mom and me not to come over because there were hazardous materials. 

He seemed to smile more those days. It was exciting at first to see him happy like that, but then he smiled through the two memorials, which didn’t feel so right. Everyone grieves in their own way, Mom said. She encouraged him, but never pried much into his work otherwise. 

By July, I was lovedrunk. I began sneaking out to meet Thea after my parents went to bed each night so that we could stay out as late as we wanted. We’d meet at our park under our light on our dock and let our legs hang off. We could talk all night, and sometimes we did. It hurt when we said goodbye. When I’d get home, I’d hop the fence, then crawl through the retired dog door to get inside without waking anyone. One evening, it was hotter than usual as I climbed the fence, so I sat at the top awhile before coming down the other side. There was rarely much to see in our neighborhood at that time, but that night, a blue glow shone through the otherwise humdrum darkness. It was coming from upstairs at Phil’s. 

The blue pulsing light made the hairs on my arms rise, and on many nights that followed, as I scaled the fence to return home, I saw that same glow from inside his house. 

The swimming pool had closed for the summer but the leaves hadn’t yet changed when I returned to school in late August. I was growing insecure about Thea. It was different when others were around, and we seemed older than we’d been when the summer started. I felt her eyes wandering. To be honest, I wished she would stop wearing makeup. I know that’s fucked up, but I couldn’t stand for anyone else to look at her like I did. 

In mid-September, Mom got a call. Phil’s brother was coming to town at the beginning of November to see the progress on the house. Dad was smoking near the window, staring at the TV when Mom relayed the message to him. 

If he calls back, Dad said, tell him I need more time. 

A few days later, I was walking down our street after school when I saw Dad knocking on a neighbor's door. I stopped to watch him go from one house to the next. He didn’t notice me. Whenever someone answered, he turned, pointed towards Phil’s house, and told them something I couldn’t hear. One neighbor shook her head, then he went to the next house and did it again. 

When October came around, talk of Halloween plans came up around school. There would be a party to go with Thea to, but I didn’t want to be a tagalong. I was starting to feel like one more often than not. Instead, I wanted to go tell ghost stories on Riverdale Road, like I used to when I was younger. Not that I had friends to tell them to. Plus, I sucked at storytelling—that’s why I drew. 

My monster sketches were getting tighter though—at least, the heads were proportionate, though I still struggled with feet. The wine helped my drawing. I thought the illustrations were beginning to look scarier too, but maybe that was just my opinion. 

Loveland had always liked my monsters. He’d encouraged them, and sometimes told me ways to make them creepier. The facial features counted: everything long, he’d advise, arched. Eyes needed to be void, always. But most importantly, he’d say, they had to be imperfect. 

The leaves finally fell two weeks before Halloween, after changing color for only a few days. Thea had grown tired of my smothering. I thought of her constantly and the thoughts hurt. We stopped meeting at the dock; she said it had gotten too cold. I felt our magic waning, and each time she avoided me I pushed the sad thoughts down and clamped to her more tightly when I saw her. But that week leading up to Halloween, I didn’t see her at school at all. She didn’t answer my calls and I took the hint, though it drove me mad, just like everything else between us. I felt sick thinking of her with someone else. 

The night before Halloween, Dad didn’t come home for dinner. When Mom told me to go get him from next door, I didn’t want to. I wanted to be alone and thought Dad probably did too, but I did as she asked and went out to the sidewalk, toward Phil’s. 

It was already dark. The blue light pulsed in the window above. I knocked at the front door, softly, then a bit harder. Dad didn’t answer. It had been a few months since he had told me not to visit because of the chemicals and I wanted to know what he was doing in there. I wanted to know what the glow was. The door was unlocked. I let myself in.

I’d never been inside Phil’s house. It was dark in there, but I could make out white and cloudy pink sheets hung along the walls, blocking every direction except up the staircase directly in front of me. The floors didn’t seem refinished either—perhaps he was saving them for last. The house looked terrible, honestly, as if no renovation work had been completed. I called out to Dad but not as loudly as I could have. The blue light was coming from a room at the top of the stairs.  

With an overwhelming urge to move like a ghost, I made my way up towards it. I didn’t call to Dad again. Speaking felt wrong, though screams felt appropriate. The creaking sounds of the wooden steps can be avoided by stepping closer to the wall, an old trick I learned while sneaking in and out at home. I suppose part of me wanted to catch Dad off-guard. To witness the human side of him, whatever that might look like. And to trick anything else that might be inside—ghosts maybe, though I didn’t believe in them. Maybe all that haunted that place was me. 

Near the top of the stairs, I smelled plastic. The sort of cheap kind that Halloween popup shops smell of. Garbles of squelching mud and sounds of wind-gust came from the room. The pulsing light was just before me, behind a sheet. I moved it aside with my hand and entered.

More sheets hung around the perimeter of the bedroom and I saw shapes behind them that seemed inhuman. Dad was on his knees in the center of the room, his back to me, hunched over a sphere from which the blue light beat like a drum. It became many thin beams shooting each and every way, playing across the sheets, then became one glowing ball, like a moon. As it changed in nature, the shapes behind the sheets changed, too. The room seemed to move in the dizzying light of the sphere. Dad still hadn’t noticed I was standing in the doorway behind him in the house that felt wounded, haunted, but not dead. Smoke rose, which startled me, but it didn’t smell like fire. It smelled sweet. Then I didn’t know what to feel when something touched my shoulder from behind. 

I jumped, and swatted at it, shrieking. An animatronic hand, which had been reaching out from between two broken fence posts, fell to the floor. Dad turned and saw me. All at once, the pulsing orb and the sound effects shut off. He swore under his breath and stood. There was no fright on his face, just a bit of embarrassment. We both looked at the sphere, its blue light dimmed. The hand on the ground was still moving.

What is this? I asked, but I already knew. Loveland’s props. I was suddenly uncomfortable and told him I’d see him at home. It was all I could come up with. 

Please don’t mention this to your mom, he said over the stair railing as I left through the front door.

When I reached the sidewalk, I turned and looked up at the window where I had seen the blue light nearly every night for the past few months. It didn’t come back on.

On Halloween, I snuck out to sit on the fence top. I needed to relieve the claustrophobia I was feeling inside. Dad and I had been avoiding each other all day. It scared me what he was doing in that house. There was no glow in Phil’s window and hadn’t been since my visit the night before. 

After a while, I grew cold and went back inside. Dad was on the couch, smoking and blankly watching TV. I hadn’t seen him smile since I’d left him at Phil’s with the orb. I was beginning to feel guilty about it and I didn’t know why. 

I asked him why he wasn’t working next door. He smiled a sad, sweet smile, one he tried to put on for me, and said it had all just been for fun and that he couldn’t mess around over there anymore. He needed to get to work. 

Come on, I said, do you want a hand with the floors? 

He smiled again and said no thanks. 

I asked if he was ever going to tell Mom. 

Nothing to tell, he said, Phil’s brother will be here any day now. They’ll all find out soon enough. 

He asked how my comic was coming.

I shrugged and said it was taking too much time, and that no one liked them. The truth was that I’d quit when Thea and I ended. One night, I’d gone to take a third tilt of wine and hadn’t picked up the pencil since. 

Dad dashed out his cigarette and stood. He left the TV on and told me to follow him. 

The night sky was clear. We walked around the corner, toward Phil’s. When I realized where we were going, I told him I didn’t want to go, but he didn’t listen. He pulled out a key that he’d hid for himself in a loose board of the house’s siding and opened the front door. 

The house looked terrible, no different than it had the other night. Dad began pulling down the sheets on the main floor, exposing blood-splattered walls and spider webs. He flipped a generator switch, and the room came to life. The lid of a burial vault across the room moved. Artificial breath came out of a steel grate on the other side. A muddy bog on the floor—made from a children’s swimming pool—bubbled. A blistery claw reached out of it and grabbed at my leg. I jumped away and closed my eyes, but found myself laughing. When I opened them, Dad was too. 

We toured the rest of the house, laughing together at the attractions and scares. Dad had created an experience. The whole house had been converted and as he pulled down more sheets, uncovering his work, the depth was endless and beautiful. 

When we came to the last room—the room upstairs—Dad ran ahead and grabbed the doorknob. 

You really have to use your imagination for this, he said, I never finished this part.

He was nervous and excited and turned the knob with his whole body to open the door. He moved to the orb on the floor where we’d left it and turned it on. 

A galaxy of lights shone around him. Dad’s hunched figure became a silhouette and cast a large shadow across the wall and ceiling. It moved, this star system I hadn’t ever imagined my father being a part of. He’d only ever existed on our little street in our little town on earth. For a moment I was not in the house or even on the planet, but in a new infinite space with him. I wasn’t scared anymore. I didn’t know how I could have ever been. 

He made an adjustment, and the light began to spin. The shapes behind the sheets showed themselves once again in the light. It manipulated their shadows, creating thousands of faces. 

Dad began pulling down the hanging sheets. Behind them were ghouls and beasts that nobody had ever seen before. No one except Loveland and I—and now Dad. 

There, in the room, were replicas of my drawings. My monsters, life-sized and animatronic. There were only a few and they were unfinished—their faces long and arched, just how I’d drawn them, their lack of feet covered up in clever ways. They all had bits of exposed electronics or machinery and patched up parts with mismatched materials. 

He was going to surprise you, Dad said. 

The creatures were pieced together in a way I could have never imagined. I saw them now how he saw them—Loveland, and Dad. Imperfect. From a dark place, looking for light.