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Travel

I Stayed in Norman Mailer's House and His Ghost Haunted Me

He doesn't like it when you ride a bike around his living room blaring the Forrest Gump soundtrack.

by Tom Ward
30 April 2013, 11:00am

I didn’t really know why I'd been invited to stay at Norman Mailer’s house. My knowledge of the late writer was limited to what I’d gleaned from a quick skim through The Fight (Mailer’s excellent account of Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s Rumble in the Jungle) and the obligatory Wikipedia scan. 

Even going on these limited preconceptions, there were certain things I didn’t expect to find in Mailer’s former home. For example, an attic study full of hundreds of books on Hitler, the Forrest Gump soundtrack on cassette and the complete set of Dave Sim’s Cerebus the Aardvark graphic novels all seemed like unusual cultural touchstones.

But the thing that I was most surprised to find there was myself. Somehow I had ended up with free reign of Mailer’s Provincetown home for the entire month of November. Surreally, I cooked in Mailer’s kitchen, ate at his table, reclined on his sofas, slept in his bed, tried to write a book at his desk and bathed in his en-suite for 30 days.

When you live in someone’s home for a month, you get a strong sense of what their life was like; which sofa they liked to sit on, which films they watched on repeat (his own films, incidentally) and what music they enjoyed (the Forrest Gump soundtrack, apparently). I also learned that the interior decorator must have had profoundly severe glaucoma or been a Grateful Dead fan – the only explanations I could fathom for the mustard coloured wallpaper patterned with large blue flowers.


The view from Mailer's deck.

I gradually settled into a routine in Norman’s house and it wasn’t until a week into the trip that I was struck with my first Stephen King scenario. I was sleeping off my first hangover of the week, when a voice yelled up the stairs and shook me awake. I listened carefully, unsure of whether it was the semi-naked Arabian princess calling to me from my dream, or just the storm screaming at me through the walls. I climbed out of bed, completed a quick circuit of the house and found neither a smutty royal or that the weather was particularly bad outside. I was alone, so I poured a glass of water and went back to bed.

If the voice had been Mailer’s ghost trying to make contact, the prospect didn't scare me. Not because I’m tough – because I’m not. As a child, I couldn't sleep for weeks after watching ITV's laughably unfrightening Strange but True, a show predominately made up of middle-aged men in rural British villages recounting their experiences of stuff they thought might have been supernatural. No, I wasn’t afraid because it seemed natural that Mailer would turn up and try to have a bit of fun with me.

In The Fight, Mailer can’t help but insert himself into the story, writing, "Now, our man of wisdom had a vice. He wrote about himself." So it didn't seem too unlikely that he'd hang around and continue making himself known in real life, even after he'd died. Mailer’s spirit was already omnipresent in the house – not hard, considering the piles of his books in every bedroom and a huge photo of him smirking over the dining table – and now he'd appeared to keep an eye on me while I drank beers on his deck and swanned around like I owned the place.

After this first incident, I didn’t hear from Norman for a couple of weeks, but Provincetown in autumn is a place full of ghosts. Occasionally I’d walk down to one of the nearby bars, past rows of wooden houses, each one looking like the kind of place the infamous American bodysnatcher-cum-murderer Ed Gein might have bought as a summer house if he wasn't so busy killing people and making keepsakes out of their skin.

I hadn’t realised that the bars you see in American films – the ones with the sad, lonely men slouched at the bar, muttering to the bartender – actually existed, but they do. And they all seem to be in Provincetown. Each of the regulars had a story to tell and the ghosts of local legends came to life on their tongues. The best story I heard was that of Skippy, a local vagabond who'd once broken into a bar, drank it dry, then passed out on the counter top. Instead of throwing him in jail when he opened up in the morning, the owner gave him a job.

My own rebellious streak involved occasionally riding my bike around Mailer’s lounge while blasting the Forrest Gump soundtrack out of his old soundsystem. It was on such a night that I had my second encounter with Mailer's ghost. I'd abandoned any hopes of writing something good and was heading upstairs, feeling along the yellow wallpaper as I went. Norman’s sixth and final wife, Norris, had been a model, and ageing beauties don't normally get along with dazzling overhead lighting. To remedy this, Norris had installed lamps everywhere, making a trip along the corridor at night a bit like island hopping along an archipelago of dim, not very effective lightbulbs.  

I managed to find the first light switch just as the Forrest Gump soundtrack slipped into "California Dreamin’". Suddenly, the song flared up and a deafening cackle dragged me out of my skin, carried me to the top of the stairs and slammed the bedroom door behind me. It was Norman, howling at me from beyond. After that, I promised him I would never ride my bike indoors again.

This seemed to appease Norman and we got along well for the last few days. It wasn't long before my final night came that, after being turned out of the last bar, I invited the locals back to see if we couldn’t tempt Norman into making a final appearance. That way I could make peace with him and he hopefully wouldn't stay mad at me, follow me back to England and continue to mildly fuck with my life. 

We went back to the house and crowded around the dining room table. Norman’s portrait smiled down at us, knowingly, as black waves sloshed against the shore, just yards from the window. I found an old bust of Tutankhamun and we got to work on the whiskey inside. Once this was empty, we placed Tut’ in the centre of the table and linked our hands in the candle light. There were eight of us and for half an hour we did our best to contact Norman’s spirit, chanting words I can’t remember and could never repeat as our shadows flickered across the bookcase.

Mailer, however, was having none of it. He wasn’t about to appear, like a spectral sealion, for the entertainment of a bunch of drunken idiots drinking his whiskey and dicking about in his dining room. I was no longer sure I even wanted Mailer to appear, to be honest. He was my ghost; I was the one staying in his house, so why should the two of us provide anyone else with a good story to tell?

Norman knew what I was thinking and we decided that he would stay out of sight that particular evening. The others didn't seem to mind and they slowly drifted away from the table until it was just me and Norman’s portrait alone in the candle light. I nodded at him, then slipped off to bed.

There was no ghostly wake-up call the next morning, but spirits of another kind were kicking at the back of my eyes and dancing around on my queasy stomach. I lay in bed and glanced around the room, searching for something to help fight the hangover. I was flying home later that day and would miss Norman’s house. Before I could leave, there was one thing I still had to do, so I slouched downstairs, stepped out onto the porch and swam out into the bay.

My hangover began to drift away on the tide and all was well with the world, until a thick rope of seaweed wound about my leg and began to pull me under. As the grey waters sloshed past my nose, I began to pray to Norman. "Norman, we’re friends!" I said. "I’m sorry we drank your Egyptian whiskey. I’m sorry we disturbed you. I’m sorry I stole a pencil from your study and rode my bike around your lounge. I’m sorry!"

I was about to promise Mailer I’d dedicate my life to studying his works, when I realised I was able to stand up in the very shallow water I was thrashing about in.

I waded to the porch, brushing seaweed from my chest and spitting sand out of my mouth. Just inside the door stood a table bristling with pictures of Mailer and his family. My favourite was Norman standing out on the porch in the middle of summer, his stomach jutting proudly over a small pair of blue trunks. I stood and stared at the picture and Mailer grinned back at me.

We were friends again. Norman had enjoyed haunting me and, now it was my last day, he wanted to impart a great piece of wisdom to me. It might have been the water in my ears, but suddenly I was able to hear a faint whispering. I leaned closer and turned my ear towards the photograph. "You fool," a distant, husky voice whispered. "Get the hell out of my house, you fool." So that’s what I did.

Tom's first novel, A Departure, is out now. Follow him on Twitter: @renegadeviper

More stuff about dead authors:

Hemingway Was a Lousy Writer

How Will the David Foster Wallace Legacy Survive Itself?

The Cat Offers Itself

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