Dusk at Marsden Towers
(A Christmas Ghost Story)
Written December 24, 2017 by Jeff Baker
I was sixteen in 1978, and my little brother Todd was thirteen the year we spent Christmas in Los Angeles where my father was from and where my grandmother lived. We were supposed to stay in a suite in the old Marsden Hotel, which was just a few blocks from the big downtown area and dated back to the 1930’s. It was in what they called the Art Deco style, and isn’t there anymore, but it was there in 1978. When we got there, we found the big suite with the adjoining rooms had been given to somebody else and the hotel manager apologized all over to us and offered us the only rooms left. They were four separate rooms but they were right across the hall from one another on the fourteenth floor. The hotel had seventeen floors (I know because in the years since I have read every word ever written about the Marsden Towers, formerly the Marsden Hotel.)
Mom and Dad took a room across the hall (my Aunt and Uncle were driving down from Hayward the next morning and would have the room next to theirs) and Todd and I each had a room to ourselves across the hall. I had to admit, for the two of us it was an adventure, almost like camping out. We had been up early driving in from Kansas, so we ate and went to bed around dusk. Todd and I spent some time running back and forth from each other rooms, then we settled in for the night.
Our rooms were the same, table, chair, small bathroom and a single bed right by the window. The windows had been refurbished so they wouldn’t open. My Dad joked that we could see a glimpse of the ocean or check out the California girls through the window. They didn’t know that I wasn’t interested in girls. I would guess we were in bed by about five-thirty. I dozed eyeing the L.A. skyline.
I was awakened a few hours later by somebody crawling in bed with me. I recognized him immediately as Todd. I knew him and I knew his voice. We’d each had a key to the other’s rooms. He was whimpering and telling me to shut the drapes. He kept talking about a face.
I got him to calm down and tell me what had happened.
He had been dozing when he woke up from an awful dream, a dream of an awful face with wide eyes and a mouth open in a big 0 just inches away from his. He had woken up, stared out the window, seen nothing but the city, gotten up, gone to the bathroom, drank some water and went back to bed. He lay down, stared out the window for a few minutes, he guessed, and started dozing again, when he opened his eyes and saw the face again, for an instant. He blinked and it was gone. It had been the same face and Todd realized it had been upside down. He thought he was having a nightmare. He sat up in bed. He was breathing hard. He had a thought; maybe he’d seen somebody jumping off the roof, past the window. He pressed his face against the glass and stared down at the street. No crowd, no police, no sign of anything unusual. He looked up. He could barely make out some stars in the light from L.A’s streetlamps. He sat back in bed. In a minute, he laid back down, still staring out the window. He was absolutely sure he was awake. He glanced up at the ceiling for an instant. When he glanced back at the window he was staring into the face.
Todd lay there frozen. The face was on the other side of the window. Upside down, lit by the light from the streetlamps, its mouth and eyes open wide. The face wasn’t moving, but the hair, which was a dark reddish color, was streaming out from behind the forehead. There was no body visible, just a hint of shadow above the chin where the body should be. It was frozen in an instant, Todd realized. And Todd took it all in in another instant and then the face, the hair and the shadow were gone.
The rest is quickly told; Todd talked me into going into his room and watching out the window, but he didn’t want to go back in there or be left in my room alone, so he ducked into Mom and Dad’s room. I stood in the hallway with my hand on the doorknob of Todd’s room but I didn’t go in. I went back to my room; made sure the door was locked behind me and went to bed after closing the drapes tightly. We spent Christmas Day at Grandma’s apartment and headed back home that evening, staying at a motel.
And only later did I find out about Zachary Marsden, who had built the hotel and lost all his money gambling and had thrown himself from the roof in 1936, from the side of the building facing west. Yes, he’d had red hair.
And yes, he’d done it on Christmas Eve.
NOTE: My attempt to write a Jamesian ghost story for Christmas; my unconscious inspiration (besides the picture) may have been the image of the mask at the window in M.R. James’ essay “Stories I have Tried To Write.”
——Jeff Baker, Dec. 24, 2017