“Boys and Bad Hunters”: Domestic Ruin and Violence
An explosion of drywall and splinters an inch from my head—
Skiddy had picked up a heavy steel chain that was lying amongst other junk and started beating the walls with it.
Itch snapped a leg off the broken kitchen table and tossed one of the jars filled with brown mystery liquid up in front of him. He tried to hit the jar like a baseball about five hundred times and finally clubbed it where it fell to the ground so that the room was heavy with the smell of motor oil and maple syrup.
Skiddy whipped the walls with the chain and Itch threw his club aside and started hurricane kicking his foot through where old drywall was crumbling.
Then a competition to see who could put their fist through the wall the easiest. Itch went first and then Skiddy wound up like a hammer and me and Permafry howled while Skiddy danced around gripping his hand screaming— we could barely breathe and were falling over one another howling to the music of chains, table legs, drywall crumbling, wood splintering, howling, dancing, kicking—
* * *
The above is an excerpt from another project of mine that was twenty years in creation, my interminable Arcade Project, a story about the small-town arcade scene in the mid 1990s, the time just before the internet deluge. It was cobbled together from letters, notes, and a story I began writing when I was fifteen. In the excerpt, a group of fifteen-year-old boys are getting high and drunk in an abandoned shed, one of the many haunts they have in the fictional town called “The Hole”. After all:
“There’re tons of abandoned buildings like that around The Hole, most of them boarded up with the NO TRESPASSING signs we ignore. There’s the abandoned railway station with the old rail cars that sit unused in the lot. There’s the garage behind the Hotel, which is sort of a second hideout for us when we get chased out of the shed. There’s the old public school that became a furniture store that became a shagging den because after the furniture store’d closed up for good the owner left behind a lot of nice comfy couches. … There’s the water tower, which isn’t abandoned but is still a cool place to go get baked because it has a good view, the old farmhouse on the edge of town, the car graveyard. We have an endless supply of places to get toasted and hang out except the farmhouse on the edge of town isn’t there anymore. It got levelled pretty soon after Itch and Fil set it on fire.” (Bob’s Arcade; an online version can be found here: https://www.blankspacep.com/bobs-arcade)
I feel it’s an apt introduction to this next section on domestic ruin—abandoned houses, stores, garages, sheds, train stations, etc.—and the violence perpetrated by what American poet Robert Frost called “boys and bad hunters” who encounter such domestic spaces in transition. While the now defunct arcade scene of the 80s and 90s warrants an archival examination in itself, it’s the many abandoned domestic spaces decorating the backdrop of the small town that offer a space for “delinquents” to enact (self)destructive tendencies.
Thus, my question is not simply “What is it about an abandoned house that is so intriguing?” Rather, it is: “What is it about an abandoned house that facilitates both destructive and archival impulses?” My answer: It is all about storytelling. In a way, those who destroy are contributing a little piece of themselves, as if to say “I was here.” They are contributing to the story of the ruin.
Highway Scenes. Photograph, 2011. Taken along Highway 401 just outside of London, Ontario. Exhibited in Toronto at Ryerson University’s Literatures of Modernity Symposium (March 2011), at More Please: Explorations of Excess Free-Exchange Conference at the University of Calgary, Alberta (March 2012), and at the Canadian Pop Culture Conference in Niagara Falls, Ontario (May 2013).
Take this abandoned silo for instance, the kind where corn and silage and other animal feed would have at one time been stored. The farmhouse and barn to which it would have been an adjunct are absent, their remnants likely archived in the subsoil of the local landfill. The idea that this structure has maintained any existence, jutting out of a bare field next to a busy stretch of provincial highway, is an intriguing whodunit—or who-didn’t-do-it. Its preservation is either premeditated or a pariah. The once tall grass enveloping the structure, having withered and receded under the burden of autumn frosts, is nest to a trove of artifactual remains. Upon closer inspection I discover evidence of recent visitation. This silo, waste material in itself, has become a repository for discarded, mass-produced goods: a broken, white plastic patio chair; a red disposable drinking cup; a metal drum, enigmatic, grey and bare, whose former contents are a mystery; an old television reception antenna, barely perceptible, used before cable and satellite (and now streaming) were commonplace.
Upon entering the structure, one will find signs of appropriation and gratuitous self-expression. It has become a haunt for what my father would call gallivanting, wayward youth, whose occupancy is evidenced by empty plastic pop bottles converted to bongs, and who have claimed the space in the name of Anarchy, Satan, Hitler, et al. Such inscriptions are the fringe archivists’ method of exerting authority over the things they wish simultaneously to preserve and destroy.
Rural Abstract 4 or I Claim This Silo in the Name of Anarchy, Satan, Hitler, et al. Photograph, 2011. Exhibited in Toronto at Ryerson University’s Literatures of Modernity Symposium (March 2011), and at the Canadian Pop Culture Conference in Niagara Falls, Ontario (May 2013).
As a side note: According to the Trespass to Property Act it is perfectly legal to enter a property to ask for permission to enter a property: “There is a presumption that access for lawful purposes to the door of a building on premises by a means apparently provided and used for the purpose of access is not prohibited” (R.S.O. 1990, c. T.21, s.3.). One cannot be held liable if, upon approaching a structure to ask for permission, one discovers that the door on which he might have knocked has disintegrated. And one certainly should not be held in violation of the Act if, upon discovering a lack of occupancy while exercising that legal right of access, he or she snaps a few pictures of the scenery. It is a product of our litigious age that I feel the need to offer this disclaimer; poets like William Wordsworth and Robert Frost would have ignored a no trespassing sign in their rural escapades, or would have incorporated it into a poem as they defiantly crossed the invisible threshold demarcating private property. As Richard Brautigan puts it in Trout Fishing in America, a “NO TRESPASSING” sign represents “4/17 OF A HAIKU” (7). See Section 6 of the Ontario Trespass to Property Act, which covers signs and property demarcation, accessible at: http://www.e-laws.gov.on.ca/html/statutes/english/elaws_statutes_90t21_e.htm.
Without a doubt, my interest in these enigmatic sites is a way to satisfy an archiving impulse I also had in my “wayward” youth, to achieve what these anarchistic appropriators have accomplished through imbuing a wall with traces of spectatorship and collaborative enterprise (through scrawling, ironically, the symbol for anarchy). At the same time I seek to inscribe my own narratives, however, the impulse to disassociate myself from hyperbolic and ostentatious evidence of my tampering persists—and I should likely make it very clear that I am responsible for only the photograph, and not the graffiti, of Rural Abstract 4. To some, sifting through and cataloging the haunting remains of former habitation is fascinating on its own, while others find that contributing to the eventual ruin is a better indicator of authorship.
When I say that contributing to ruin has a sort of authorship, I am not referring directly to an aesthetics of destruction—that demolition is also a (pro)creative act—but rather to how we stamp our subjectivity (or physical presence) on a space and the objects within it. As a young man predisposed to wandering who grew up in a rural area, I witnessed how the abandoned dwellings of ruburbia, beset with the slow asphyxiation and reclamation of nature, became clubhouses for local children acting as amateur archivists. While I was off sifting through the itemizable remains of these “clubhouses”—yellowing hand-written letters, newspapers browned with water damage, rusty cans with corroded labels, a moldering school workbook preserved by the deceased ex-inhabitant, discoloured toys, ancient figurines, moth-eaten articles of clothing left hanging in a bedroom closet… a wedding dress…—some of my acquaintances would indulge the overtly anarchic archiving impulse by kicking or punching holes through deteriorating drywall, making improvised clubs from table legs to aid their contributions, lighting fires to smoke out the bats sleeping in the exposed rafters, or simply for the sake of lighting fires for the off chance that something beyond our control might happen. I sometimes participated in that overt destruction. Such was my adolescent predisposition to speed up the deterioration of a thing abandoned and left to the whims of the public.
This destructive behaviour, on the surface, contradicts my current impulse to preserve these sites as they appear caught in the transition to obsolescence. There is a certain authenticity, or perhaps a cultural vignette, that I strive to represent through intervening at a particular moment of decay. However, I have come to believe that there is more potential for violence to be done in my invasive academic and creative archiving practices than by destroying that which former inhabitants did not want prying eyes to witness. Interpretation is an act of theft, and every time an archive is opened to the gaze of the spectator, or is re-presented as an ostensible yet anachronic narrative, the archivist both preserves and destroys by inscribing tradition and self onto the interior. We must be wary of the things we leave behind, and how tradition, or what T.S. Eliot calls the “historical sense” (“Tradition” 40), is relative to the living gaze. The archivist roves through the contested space of the archive, (re)configuring here and defacing there. The archivist at times is no better, perhaps worse, than wayward youth who punch holes in water-damaged drywall as evidence of being-there.
Destruction is a co-authored venture. It necessitates narrative remodelling as part of its machinations, the adaptation of space and place into something unique to the destroyer. As an example of narrative remodelling via destruction, we can look to modern period works such as Robert Frost’s “A Fountain, a Bottle, a Donkey’s Ears and Some Books,” a poem about the aforementioned poet breaking and entering into an abandoned rural dwelling situated in the wilds of the Kinsman Mountains, New Hampshire. (Who knew Robert Frost, responsible for sentimental meditations like “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” could be such a shit disturber?) An abandoned home, particularly surrounded by wilderness, is hortus conclusus (enclosed garden); it is a microcosm both restricted yet unguarded, and flirts with the spectator through the aura of mystery. A house decaying in the middle of nowhere has its viscera visible on the outside. While it conceals its obsolescence, at the same time it invites the silent, skulking intervention of “Boys and bad hunters” (line 102)—the archivist, the story-teller, the destroyer.