“EMBRACE THE LIE,” scrawled in six-foot letters along the neglected hallway, gave warning. The strong odor of dampness and mold was intensified by the sepulchral chill defying the July temperature outside. I swore to myself that I wouldn’t get involved again, but here I was standing at the door of Vincent Crudelle’s studio. A phone call from someone identifying herself as a “friend of Vincent” provoked me to return. She said something horrible was happening to his work, but refused to elaborate.

A half hour earlier, as I slowly drove past the mill’s parking lot, a mob of adolescents, lost in the intoxication of vandalism, smashed away with sticks, pipes and rocks at fragments of heads and figures arranged around a dumpster. I recognized a number of the fragments as belonging to what Vincent had referred to as his “Grotesques.”

Had I been braver, I might have attempted to stop them. A few years back I tried to break up a similar crowd cheering on a fight at this very same lot. It was then that a child of no more than twelve or thirteen lifted his sweatshirt to expose the handle of a pistol stuffed in his sweatpants. I didn’t pause to question whether it was real.

In light of that incident, this time I drove around to the far side of the mill and found another entrance. I carefully picked my way along halls that were dark and dangerously cluttered with trash and abandoned industrial machinery. It was a labyrinth and I feared getting hopelessly lost. Each hallway seemed another dead end. It was only when I found Vincent’s declaration “Embrace the Lie ” that I knew I had found his studio. The door was open and in the dim light coming through gaps in the boards that were nailed over the broken windows, I saw the studio was nearly empty. It was in this studio, a number of years ago, that I had first met Ada Crudelle, Vincent’s sister. She had originally enlisted my help with the project.

I remember feeling that I had entered someone’s private nightmare. Enormous figures, freakishly distorted, frozen in silent screams of anguish, peopled an otherwise dark, featureless, environment of black painted stucco backgrounds. Half-finished figures hung from the exposed I beams like so many sides of beef in a slaughterhouse.

“It was a way Vincent had of conserving space. You get used to it after a while.”

Her voice startled me. I hadn’t seen Ada sitting in a corner. I was at first
struck by how small she appeared among the larger than life grotesques. I was soon to learn her size belied an intimidating persona. She stared at me with the cold, clinical look of an anatomist about to dissect a lab specimen.

“The more you see them, the more normal they seem,” she stated.

“And the more bizarre the outside world must seem.” I regretted these words from the moment I said them.

Ada offered no response but seemed annoyed by my clumsy attempt at levity.

She continued, “A few weeks ago I had a gas heater installed. The heating provided by the mill is inadequate and unpredictable. I overheard the plumber’s helper say to his boss, ‘It looks like a freakin’ House a Horrors in here.’ ”

I began to laugh.

“No, Mr. Janello,” she corrected me as one would a child. “You don’t understand. This was an honest man’s honest response. It was exactly that which Vincent most respected, a reaction more than a response, unrehearsed, without thought or hesitation.”

She went on, “Vincent liked to tell the story of how a professor at art school reacted to one of his sculptures with the unguarded exclamation, ‘Jesus Christ!’ Then, upon composing himself, he began a dust dry academic examination of the work with strong emphasis on what he perceived to be its flaws.” I found her pause condescending, calculated to allow me time to grasp the significance of the statement.

“It was that ‘Jesus Christ!’ that Vincent was after.”

“It’s okay if you laugh, Mr. Janello. Laughter is a means of releasing nervous discomfort. My mother often told us that when her mother started laughing, all the kids would hide.”

“You see, Mr. Janello, when Vincent and I were young we became aware of our father’s impatient intellect although we would have never dared call it that. He would immerse himself in a subject and then, having gotten what he wanted from his studies, would abruptly abandon it. His memories of the classroom were of boredom where he was painfully aware of the slow passage of time. To him, the classroom was a prison.”

“Our father hated elitism, pretension. He sought to cast his lot with the common man but, of course, in this he would fail also because he was anything but common. Vincent and I were raised to be suspect of elitism, whatever its guise. The reaction by the apprentice plumber was honest.”

“My father saw himself as a tradesman of sorts. He was skilled in many areas as his work demanded. On any given day he might be called upon to repair a broken linkage on the roller coaster, to reroute an electrical line, to paint signs for a new attraction, to rebuild a figure or perhaps even create a new one for the façade of the House of Horrors. He worked for over three decades at the Rocky Point Amusement Park and as the facility went into a decades long decline and management was reluctant to hire new help, he took on more and more responsibility for the park’s upkeep.”

“He would bring Gabriel to work with him on weekends. Gabriel was my older brother, the firstborn and my father’s favorite. His death was sudden, an accident at the amusement park. My father never stopped blaming himself. His spirit was consumed by guilt. He became irritable and withdrawn. I’m told his friends gradually fell away from him and he spent more and more time alone at the park or in his workshop. ”

“One day, about a year after Gabriel’s death, in a very uncharacteristic gesture, Dad decided to take Vincent to see the figures in the House of Horrors. The amusement park had by now been abandoned, was condemned and scheduled for the wrecking ball. Dad had become aware that he had created an icy distance from his children, especially Vincent. Dad decided that it was now or never to take Vincent to see, firsthand, the work of the Crudelles.”

“For three generations, this family of artisans had lent their formidable skills and imagination to scaring willing teenagers. My grandfather was the first, then, of course, Dad and finally Gabe. Dad took great pride in the work and saw beyond its superficial aspect. To him, at a deeper level, it expressed an inner torment which was, in its own terms, a profound expression of beauty.”

“I know, had Dad anticipated Vincent’s reaction, he would never have brought him. They left near dawn on a Saturday morning. Mom and the rest of us were still sleeping. None of us knew of Dad’s plan. Dad wanted to slip in between the security guard shift change. On the drive to the park, Dad said something to Vincent like ‘You will see the Crudelle spirit there.’ To the seven-year-old’s mind, this was a literal statement. He began to imagine ghosts and, more to the point, the ghosts of Gabriel and his grandfather, both of whom had died in the previous year.”

“As Vincent described it to me, the House of Horrors was dark, damp, and cold. It stank of rotted wood, mold and putrid water. The dim morning light issued through cracks in the rotted roof. Pale figures were barely visible in the half-light. Like a painting by Correggio, their forms gradually emerged, their edges softly blended with the surrounding blackness. Foul water dripped onto the figures washing away their garish paint. Their ghostly whiteness was terrifying. Vincent thought he could see one move. Dad called to him, ‘Come here. I want to show you something.’ As Dad moved ahead and was lost in the shadows, Vincent believed he saw the ghost of Gabriel gesturing for Vincent to follow him. Vincent screamed. Dad, like a sleepwalker abruptly awakened and suddenly fully and awfully aware, grabbed Vincent up in his arms and fled the building.”