An excerpt from ‘Starstruck in Lodi Again’, set for release in August, 2016…
It’s one o’clock in the morning and outside the window, the moon is bloated—a pustulant boil in the sky.
When you are just falling asleep, the way the sound of a distant train works is this: The whistle is as mournful as an owl’s cry, evoking images of other places and other people with destinations beyond familiar horizons; it lulls you into dreamland filled with imagined stories of unique, exotic lives and a nagging, nostalgic melancholy.
When you are already asleep, the sound of a train a single block away works like this: You are jolted awake by the screech of an gargantuan angry beast—an entity bigger than life shrieking with inconceivable wrath at someone or something or no one at all; you are wrenched back to reality with a sense of horror in the pit of your gut and it takes a while before you realize that it is merely the San Joaquin connection, not a Talmudic shedim loosed from the bowels of Hell.
I assume that, given time, circadian rhythms would allow me to ‘get used to it’. I’m not there yet, which is why I’m wide awake at one in the morning, trying to accomplish something, anything, at my lonely keyboard while glancing over my shoulder at the fat, infernal moon.
I’m inside an old boarding house that has has been around since… well, nobody knows how long it’s been around. And believe me, I checked. It used to be called the Del Rey Hotel, and nobody from the Lodi Historical Society had ever heard of it, nor did a Google search turn up a single hit. There are a couple of old photos on the wall that seem to be from around 1940; they show a somewhat featureless street lined with clunky Chryslers and bulbous Plymouths and a sign for ‘Del Rey Rooms’ opposite the Lodi Theater and Rexall Drugs. Since the Del Rey building is directly across the street from the formerly swank Lodi Hotel, I am assuming that this place must have catered to a run-off crowd that couldn’t afford the luxe, and I am assuming that a boarding house this old has many strange and squirrely stories hiding within it. People do desperate things inside boarding houses given enough time and booze and sufficient despair, and I felt wicked vibes inside the place from the moment I walked through the door.
What makes it creepier still is that I am the only person in the entire building.
The room on the ground floor is being gutted and refitted as a tasting room for Scotto Family Cellars, the good folks who spirited me across the country to write this book about Lodi. They stashed me comfortably in the old boarding house above the future tasting outlet—this upper story had already been refitted by a family who once lived up here.
They moved awhile ago, for unknown reasons, and when they left, they took everything with them but the bed where I try to sleep and the desk where I sit when sleep won’t happen. The only thing thing missing when I wander down the long spooky boarding house hallway at one o’clock in the morning, where eight rooms snake off into their own dark and private microcosms, each door shut tightly and too horror-show to consider opening, is furniture and company.
You feel that the place is waterlogged with stories and that there’s nobody left to tell them.
So on my last day here, I sought out Janice, a retired volunteer from the Historical Society, and she broke protocol and invited me to the town’s ‘museum’, even though it was supposed to be closed and she was supposed to be at whatever work a person does when they say they are retired. Janice has lived in Lodi on and off since the 1940s, when the town was a whistle stop with a population of around ten thousand. I figured if anybody could shed some light on my haunted hotel, it was Janice.
So, what do you do when the place you go to find out about paranormal activity in your century-old boarding house is itself a sprawling, empty, eerie Victorian mansion built in 1900 and named… wait for it… Hill House? You bound up the boards and knock eagerly at the door like Eleanor Vance did in Shirley Jackson’s iconic 1959 horror novel ‘The Haunting of Hill House’.
As a Hill House caretaker, Janice is diminutive and precious; a small, white-haired historian who was eager to help track down any information on the Del Rey she had in the moldering archives of Lodi’s records, and in fact, she began to pore through volumes of old directories and telephone books while I wandered through period room filled with faded wedding dresses hung on manikins, empty highchairs in forgotten kitchen nooks, spooky porcelain dolls in childrens’ rooms, grinning and vacant, perhaps waiting for the return of daughters who have since grown old and died and are now themselves porcelain-colored bones in Lodi Memorial Park. Whether the tintype portraits that ring the halls of Hill House are more ghastly than most, I will not speculate, but they portray sunken-eyed, sober-faced specters whose silent vigil over the empty rooms is reminiscent of the opening lines of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’:
‘Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.’
There was, it turned out, virtually no mention of the Del Rey Hotel in any of the endless records; it was as if it never existed. Finally, a single ad turned up in an old Lodi newspaper from 1956 list ‘Del Rey Rooms’ at the address, managed by a woman with the unlikely and unsettling name of Dorothy Rott.
But if I was unsuccessful in mining for Del Rey background, I did manage to unearth the true motherlode of Lodi’s supernatural face and as it happened, I was standing in the parlor of the very crucible. Hill House, on 826 Church Street, is haunted.
At least it is if you trust the professionals. Janice was happy to bring out a clipping from the Lodi News-Sentinel (the same paper with the Del Rey advertisement) from March 22, 2011 that chronicled the experiences of Kimberley Phillips of Lodi Paranormal Investigators over six post-midnight hours she spent within the house along with video cameras, recorders and EMF meters to detect fluctuations in electro-magnetic energy.
“I was blown away by it,” she told Sentinel reporters. “I wasn’t expecting anything like this.”
The occurrences over that span of hours—which Phillips described as happening on ‘a stormy night’, itself an anomaly in Lodi—can be measured in varying degrees of inexplicability. In the master bedroom, the one with the wedding dresses, a man’s voice was heard to utter, “Help me.” In context of an impending marriage, that is perfectly understandable. Indeed, a woman’s voice was heard to say, “Try my dress on,” and a child replied, “Why, thank you. Within the disquieting silence of the doll room, a male voice referred to one of the investigators as ‘an idiot’.
The corresponding secretary of Lodi’s Historical Judy Halstead was initially skeptical, but having been the chaperone for the late night séance, she changed her tune. “A couple of things happened that made my jaw drop,” she said.
Among them, and one that the docent Janice mentioned, involved a small container of face powder sealed within an acrylic display case. Halstead bore witness to Kimberley Phillips discovery of a small pile of the powder that had appeared without explanation beneath the case following the camp-out.
I couldn’t track down Kimberley Phillips, even using a Ouija Board, but I did manage to find a guy named Tom Presler who runs a parallel universe of paranormal investigations, and although he had not been involved in the Hill House spook-fest, he did point out something that I guarantee most Lodi residents are not aware of:
Lodi, even before the town had been incorporated, and even before Steven Spielberg was born, was the site of the world’s first Close Encounter of the Third Kind.
Fifty years before Roswell, in the November 19, 1896 edition of the Stockton Daily Mail, Colonel H.G. Shaw reported having seen a landed spacecraft near the Mokelumne River from which a trio of aliens emerged. In his words:
“…They resembled humans in many respects, but still they were not like anything I had ever seen. They were nearly or quite seven feet high and very slender. We were somewhat startled, as you may readily imagine, and the first impulse was to drive on. The horse, however, refused to budge, and when we saw that we were being regarded more with an air of curiosity than anything else, we concluded to get out and investigate. I asked where they were from. They seemed not to understand me, but began – well, “warbling” expresses it better than talking. Their remarks, if such you would call them, were addressed to each other, and sounded like a monotonous chant, inclined to be guttural. I saw it was no use to attempt a conversation, so I satisfied myself with watching and examining them. They seemed to take great interest in ourselves, the horse and buggy, and scrutinized everything very carefully…”
He also offered this as verification:
“Were it not for the fact that I was not alone when I witnessed the strange sight I would never have mentioned it at all. I went out to Lodi in company with Camille Spooner, a young man recently arrived from Nevada.”
The real Colonel H.G. Shaw was the officer portrayed by Matthew Broderick in ‘Glory’.
Tom Presler also directed me to a copy of the San Francsico Bee from the day before, November 18, 1896, in which residents reported seeing mysterious lights in the sky at an estimated 1,000-foot elevation. Some witnesses reported the sound of singing as the craft passed overhead and a man named E.L. Lowrey claimed that he heard a voice from the craft issuing commands to increase elevation. San Francisco is a hundred miles from Lodi, and by conventional means of locomotion, excluding high speed rail or flying saucer, there was a day’s travel time between the two cities. The likelihood of statistical coincidence for these two juxtaposed accounts I leave to math majors.
Beyond his work in the paranormal,Presler is the founding father of the Lodi Zombie Walk, now in its eighth consecutive year. On the Saturday before Halloween, hundreds of undead wannabes from all over Northern California dress up in rags and prosthetics and take over downtown and various participating wineries in a city-wide stumble rumble.
If possible, on October 29th of this year, I’d like to bring the whole thing around full circle and have the Zombie Walk stop at the Lodi Memorial Garden and see if anyone can summon the spirits of Nellie Hill and Dorothy Rott. They left behind some loose ends and it’s high time they tied them up, if for no reason other than posthumous posterity.
Shirley Jackson’s ghosts may walk alone, but with Presler’s gang, there is no reason why Lodi ghosts should have to.