Hollow House came to them as such events befall orphans in tales, unexpectedly, and in the hour of their greatest need: salvation in the form of a long blue envelope shoved in among the day’s haul of pizza-delivery flyers, catalogs, and credit card solicitations. That’s how Charles would pitch it to Erin, anyway, sitting across from her in the night kitchen, with the envelope and its faintly exotic Royal Mail stamp lying on the table between them. Yet it felt to Charles Hayden like the culminating moment in some obscure chain of events that had been building, link by link, through all the thirty-six years of his life ?— ?through centuries even, though he could not have imagined that at the time.
Where do tales begin, after all?
Once upon a time.
In the months that followed, those words ?— ?and the stories they conjured up for him ?— ?would echo in Charles’s mind. Little Red Cap and Briar Rose and Hansel and Gretel, abandoned among the dark trees by their henpecked father and his wicked second wife. Charles would think of them most of all, footsore and afraid when at last they chanced upon a cottage made of gingerbread and spun sugar and stopped to feast upon it, little suspecting the witch who lurked within, ravenous with hungers of her own.
Once upon a time.
So tales begin, each alike in some desperate season. Yet how many other crises ?— ?starting points for altogether different tales ?— ?wait to unfold themselves in the rich loam of every story, like seeds germinating among the roots of a full-grown tree? How came that father to be so faithless? What made his wife so cruel? What brought that witch to those woods and imparted to her appetites so unsavory?
So many links in the chain of circumstance. So many stories inside stories, waiting to be told.
Once upon a time.
Once upon a time, at the wake for a grandfather he had never known in life, a boy named Charles Hayden, his mother’s only child, scrawny and bespectacled and always a little bit afraid, sought refuge in the library of the sprawling house his mother had grown up in. “The ancestral manse,” Kit (she was that kind of mother) had called it when she told him they’d be going there, and even at age eight he could detect the bitter edge in her voice. Charles had never seen anything like it ?— ?not just the house, but the library itself, a single room two or three times the size of the whole apartment he shared with Kit, furnished in dark, glossy wood and soft leather, and lined with books on every wall. His sneakers were silent on the plush rugs, and as he looked around, slack-jawed in wonder, the boisterous cries of his cousins on the lawn wafted dimly through the sun-shot Palladian windows.
Charles had never met the cousins before. He’d never met any of these people; he hadn’t even known they existed. Puttering up the winding driveway this morning in their wheezing old Honda, he’d felt like a child in a story, waking one morning to discover that he’s a prince in hiding, that his parents (his parent) were not his parents after all, but faithful retainers to an exiled king. Prince or no, the cousins ?— ?a thuggish trio of older boys clad in stylish dress clothes that put to shame his ill-fitting cords and secondhand oxford (the frayed tail already hanging out) ?— ?had taken an instant dislike to this impostor in their midst. Nor had anyone else seemed particularly enamored of Charles’s presence. Even now he could hear adult voices contending in the elegant chambers beyond the open door, Kit’s querulous and pleading, and those of his two aunts (Regan and Goneril, Kit called them) firm and unyielding.
Adult matters. Charles turned his attention to the books. Sauntering the length of a shelf, he trailed one finger idly along beside him, bump bump bump across the spines of the books, like a kid dragging a stick down a picket fence. At last, he turned and plucked down by chance from the rows of books a single volume, bound in glistening brown leather, with red bands on the spine.
Outside the door, his mother’s voice rose sharply.
One of the aunts snapped something in response.
In the stillness that followed ?— ?even the cousins had fallen silent ?— ?Charles examined the book. The supple leather boards were embossed with some kind of complex design. He studied it, mapping the pattern ?— ?a labyrinth of ridges and whorls ?— ?with the ball of his thumb. Then he opened the book.