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Abandonded Spaces Wait for Our Stories

How many stories pop into your head when you look at this picture? I saw this photo in a collection of abandoned WWII bunkers (the Coolist shares my obsession with abandoned spots and buildings) and I can’t turn off the flow of mental pictures and storylines. Such a rich image.

I think abandoned spaces suggest so much story because they no longer have their own function. They sit, awaiting new occupiers. They wait for us to fill them, with people, with earth, with meaning. They are empty vessels, with their own aborted usefulness setting the tone of any tale. They could be any world, any time, anyone’s home or prison or palace. The dust that’s settled on them is us, tomorrow. And that’s as beautiful and sad and true as anything we know.

  • Amber Sparks's work has been featured or is forthcoming in various places, including New York Tyrant, Unsaid, Gargoyle, Annalemma and PANK. She is also the fiction editor at Emprise Review, and lives in Washington, DC with a husband and two beasts.

14 thoughts on “Abandonded Spaces Wait for Our Stories

  1. Among abandoned spaces, ruins are especially evocative, and I’ve often found myself lost for hours within them. One of the best passages about ruins that comes to mind is found in Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which might be considered a variation of the old question wondering “if these walls could speak,” the claustrophobic putridity of the reflection resulting in a kind of horror:

    Will people believe that such houses exist? No, they will say that I’m making it up. This time it is true, nothing left out, of course nothing added, either. Where would I have got it from? One knows that I am poor. One knows it. Houses? But, to be precise, they were houses that were no longer there. Houses that have been torn down from top to bottom. What was there were the other houses that had stood behind them, high neighboring houses. They were obviously in danger of collapsing since everything next door had been removed, for a whole scaffolding of long, tarred tree-masts had been rammed diagonally between the exposed walls and the area of debris on the ground. I don’t know whether I have already said that these are the walls I mean. But not the outer wall of the houses still standing (as one would have had to assume), but the interior wall of the former houses. One saw its inner side. One saw on the various floors the walls of rooms to which the wallpaper still clung, here and there the stump of a floor or ceiling. Beside the walls of the rooms there was along the entire wall a dirty white space, through which crawled in indescribably repulsive, worm-soft, so to speak digestive movements the open, rust-spotted gutter of lavatory pipes. Of the paths taken by illuminating gas gray, dusty spaces remained at the edge of the ceilings, and here and there they bent around quite unexpectedly on the floor and ran into the colored wall and into a hole that was black and had been ruthlessly punched out. But the most unforgettable things were the walls themselves. The tenacious life of these rooms had not let itself be stamped out. It was still there, it hung on the remaining nails, it stood on the hand’s breadth of floor that was left, it had shriveled into the stubs of the corners, where there was a little bit of interior space. One could see it in the paint that had slowly, year after year, transformed this space: blue into moldy green, green into gray, and yellow into an old, stale white that was putrefying. But it was also in the fresher places that had been preserved behind mirrors, pictures, and cupboards, for it had drawn and redrawn their outlines and had also, along with spiders and dust, been in these hidden places that now lay exposed. It was in every scraped-off strip, it was in the damp bubbles at the bottom edge of the wallpaper, it fluttered in the hanging shreds and sweated from the nasty spots that had formed long ago. And from these walls that been blue, green, and yellow, framed by the trusses of the destroyed inner walls, the air of these lives stood out, the tenacious, sluggish, moldy air that no wind had yet dispersed. There remained the noons and the illnesses and the exhalations of the smoke of years, and the sweat that breaks out in the armpits and makes clothes heavy, and the bad breath of mouths and the oily smell of yeasty feet. In it remained the sharpness of urine and the burning of soot and gray potato odor and the heavy, smooth stink of rancid fat. The sweet, long smell of neglected infants was in it, the odor of fear from children going off to school, and the sultriness from the beds of putrescent boys. And much had mingled with all this that had risen from below, from the abyss of the narrow, transpirating street, and other smells that had trickled down from above with the rain, which over cities is not clean. And many had been brought by the weak, tame house-winds that always stay in the same street, and there were many other odors whose origin one did not know. I said, didn’t I, that all the walls had been pulled down except for the last? Now this is the wall that I have been speaking about all this time. One will say that I stood before it for a long while; but I will take an oath on it that as soon as I recognized the wall I began to run. For that is the terrible thing, that I recognized it. I recognize all the things here, and that is why it enters me so readily: it is at home in me.

    Three books that I’ve wanted to read, but haven’t yet, are Rose Macaulay’s Pleasure of Ruins (which William Gass talks about here); In Ruins: A Journey Through History, Art, and Literature, by Christopher Woodward; and The Ruins and the Law of Nature: Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires, by C. F. Volney. Check out the invocation, where Volney writes: “Hail solitary ruins, holy sepulchres, and silent walls! you I invoke; to you I address my prayer. While your aspect averts, with secret terror, the vulgar regard, it excites in my heart the charm of delicious sentiments—sublime contemplations.”

    Perhaps you’ll get to these books before I do.

  2. Evocative image, Amber, and cool post. And to state what might be obvious, the pall of death hangs over any abandoned place, especially wartime bunkers. It strikes me how much like graves those are, and that if you hadn’t told me otherwise I would’ve assumed they were some sort tombs.

    When I was working on my first novel, I got really into the idea of urban spelunking, i.e. slipping into abandoned mills, prisons, hospitals, etc., of which there is no shortage where I live in New England. There was a book called Access All Areas and a thriving subculture (emphasis on “sub” and “cult”, oh hell, emphasis on the whole thing). I had a buddy that was going to go with me, but then I started reading about asbestos hazards and got a little bit skittish about actually venturing into some of these places. But it didn’t stop me from setting a pivotal scene in an (almost) abandoned piano factory.

    As a kid I can remember zipping by abandoned subway stations underground and finding them incredibly powerful somehow. Now along comes the Underbelly Project, which seems like a sort of milestone in terms of filling abandoned spaces with art and then re-abandoning them. So that you get the storied aspect while at the same time retaining something of the ruin’s mystique. I think it’s pretty fascinating. Some pics here: http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2010/10/29/arts/design/20101101-underbelly-ss.html.

    1. I thought they were graves, too, until I saw the caption. I am fascinated by the idea of urban spelunking, by abandoned subway stations, and my particular favorite: old tuberculosis hospitals. I absolutely will check out those links–the Underbelly Project sounds RIGHT up my alley, so to speak.

    2. I share your fascination Tim, when I was young I used to visit a VW bug that had ended up under a tunnel, directly under a railway bridge. What’s the term for that? A lot of refuse there.

      To riff off the subway project do people know about the NYC subway zoetrope on the B, D, N and Q lines between Atlantic and Dekalb and the Manhattan bridge? It’s pretty cool to watch we the train is going at the right speed, but often the trains there are tangling because 4 lines are fighting to go over the bridge.



      1. Wild, Greg. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the connections between film and trains, some of which wound up in a story. This is also a cool example of what Stephen Jay Gould describes as spandrels, those accidental byproducts of something made which turn out to be so striking that it appears as though someone must’ve planned them. Robert Boswell then picked up on this concept and applied it to fiction writing–how we sift our own work for potential spandrels lurking within.

  3. John: That’s a beautiful passage. Rilke’s _Notebooks_ is just an incredible text. It’s likely you’ll get to those books before me — you’re a reading machine.

    Tim: Definitely the pall of death hangs over the ruined places you mention — and, more particularly, the ugly “underbelly” of modernity is made really palpable.

    Amber: The link that Tim posted is worth checking out. The She Kills He piece is my favorite.

  4. O yes Rilke. And Amber, if you have checked out WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, it’s all about ruins. The narrator is recalling walking down the English coast and visiting old manor houses and abandoned railways, one built for a Chinese Emperor, though she never visited in the end.

  5. Found some evocative renderings of ruins and abandoned spaces in my recent readings:

    From Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady:

    Isabel took a drive, alone, that afternoon; she wished to be far way, under the sky, where she could descend from her carriage and tread upon the daisies. She had long before this taken old Rome into her confidence, for in a world of ruins the ruin of her happiness seemed a less unnatural catastrophe. She rested her weariness upon things that had crumbled for centuries and yet still were upright; she dropped her secret sadness into the silence of lonely places, where its very modern quality detached itself and grew objective, so that as she sat in a sun-warmed angle on a winter’s day, or stood in a mouldy church to which no one came, she could almost smile at it and think of its smallness. Small as it was, in the large Roman record, and her haunting sense of the continuity of the human lot easily carried her from the less to the greater. She had become deeply, tenderly acquainted with Rome; it interfused and moderated her passion. But she had grown to think of it chiefly as the place where people had suffered. This is what came to her in the starved churches, where the marble columns, transferred from pagan ruins, seemed to offer her a companionship in endurance, and the musty incense to be a compound of long-unanswered prayers.”

    From Bradford Morrow’s The Diviner’s Tale:

    Uninhabited houses, derelict houses, always have some kind of unwritten symphony going on in them, and this one was no different. Tiny crumbs of sound, dim little cracks and creaks made by nothing other than the walls talking to one another. I once heard a recording of what was purported to be the sound of solar winds and was reminded of it as I took a few steps inside. The furniture was old, springs corkscrewed up through the upholstery. The musty air itself seemed tired.

    1. Thanks for sharing those, John. It’s been a long time since I read Portrait of a Lady, and I was probably too young to appreciate it–but I just love this sentence: “She had long before this taken old Rome into her confidence, for in a world of ruins the ruin of her happiness seemed a less unnatural catastrophe.” Perfect.

      1. Perfection, indeed. James’s probing depiction of Isabel Archer’s consciousness, her motivations, and especially her uncertainties toward the end of the novel is a writing lesson in itself.

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