From even the greatest of horrors irony is seldom absent. Sometimes it enters directly into the composition of the events, while sometimes it relates only to their fortuitous position among persons and places. The latter sort is splendidly exemplified by a case in the ancient city of London, where in 2017 the street artist Banksy painted murals at the southern end of Golden Lane. For many this site holds a peculiar fascination because it was for many years it was home to the City of London mortuary, a veritable palace for the dead.
Now the irony is this. A minute’s walk from where the UK’s most famous street artist painted murals designed to attract visitors to the City of London’s Barbican Art Gallery, lay a modernist police section house that was in the process of being demolished to make way for The Denizen, a ghost home development of luxury flats being flogged off-plan in Hong Kong to investors who would leave them empty, in the belief that London’s over-heated property market would generate a profit on their purchases. Before long, The Denizen was erected and these cursed luxury apartments were soon shunned by everyone associated with them – and many more who had no connection to the block. It does not appear that Banksy ever wrote or spoke of The Denizen, nor is there any evidence that he even noticed it. And yet those safe deposit boxes in the sky, to persons in possession of certain information, equal or outrank in both economic and other horrors the wildest protests of Banksy, who must have passed this site unknowingly; and now the development stands starkly leering as a symbol of all that is unutterably hideous in a political system ‘progressive’ street artists claim to oppose.
The development was – and for that matter still is – of a kind to repel the attention of the curious. Generically designed by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris in the bland contemporary style favoured by developers hoping to get rich from investment flats that will never be lived in, there was absolutely nothing of interest about the block beyond the reprehensible political manoeuvering and money-grabbing that led to it being built. 110 social housing flats for key workers had been replaced with 99 ghost homes for investors with no on site social or affordable housing, not a single flat, not one! The new building was much taller than the old one and between September and March blocked all afternoon sun from the neighbouring and heavily used Fortune Street Park. In short the entire development was a disaster for local people. And that is before factoring in that the malevolent spirits living beneath it were disturbed by the construction of the development and angry about it. Which resulted in terrible events shaking the building. These mostly took place in the basement housing the private cinema and games room.
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What I first heard about Taylor Wimpey’s cursed Denizen development, I was merely aware of the fact that visitors to this luxury apartment block died there in alarming numbers. That, I was told, was why the flat’s owners stayed in local hotels when they came to London for a few days on business or shopping sprees, and not in the ghost apartments they owned. The place was plainly unhealthy, and because it was unlived in there was much dampness and even fungous growth in the private cinema and games room. The general sickish smell in the building, the drafts of the hallways, and the quality of air and water were also cause for alarm. These things were bad enough, and this was all that was talked about among the locals who conversed with me about The Denizen. Only the notebooks of my antiquarian uncle, Doctor John Whipple, revealed to me at length the darker, vaguer surmises which formed an undercurrent of folklore among old-timers in Tudor Rose Court, whose retirements had been ruined by the construction of The Denizen; surmises which never travelled far, and which were largely forgotten among the modern metropolis of London with its ever shifting population.
The general fact is, that The Denizen was never regarded by the solid part of the community living in social housing on the Golden Lane Estate immediately to the north, or various neighbouring Peabody Housing Association flats, as in any real sense “haunted”. There were no widespread tales of rattling chains, cold currents of air, extinguished lights, or faces at the window. Extremists sometimes said the building was “unlucky,” but that is as far as even they went. What was really beyond dispute is that a frightful proportion of persons died there; or more accurately, had died there, once the sheer impossibility of renting it out through operations such as Air B&B became apparent there were no more fatalities. These who died were not all cut off suddenly by any one cause; rather it seemed their vitality was insidiously sapped, so that each one expired from whatever tendency to weakness they may have naturally had. And those who did not die displayed in varying degree a type of anemia or consumption, and sometimes a decline of the mental faculties, which spoke ill for the salubriousness of the building. Neighboring council flats, it must be added, seemed entirely free from the noxious quality. The same goes for those living to the south in The Barbican.
This much I knew before my insistent questioning led my uncle to show me the notes which finally embarked us both on our hideous investigation. The shunned development was entirely vacant, and birds never lingered in the private pocket park at its rear. Local boys sometimes overran the place, but never for long because their youthful terror at the morbid strangeness of the pocket park’s sinister vegetation, and the eldritch atmosphere and odor of the recently constructed building, which was rarely entered through a smashed window in quest of shudders. Despite it being new, a nameless air of desolation hung round The Denizen. Dust and cobwebs added their touch of the fearful; and brave indeed was the boy who would voluntarily ascend to the penthouse where eerie shadows formed themselves into monstrous and hellish shapes.
But after all, the penthouse was not the most terrible part of The Denizen. It was the dank, humid, private cinema that somehow exerted the strongest repulsion on everyone. Local boys scarcely knew whether to haunt it in spectral fascination, or to shun it for the sake of their souls and sanity. For one thing, the bad odor of the building was strongest there; and for another thing, they did not like the white fungous growths which occasionally sprouted from its hard concrete shell. Those fungi, grotesquely like the vegetation in the pocket park outside, were truly horrible in their outlines; detestable parodies of toadstools, whose like I have never seen in any other situation. They rotted quickly, and at one stage became slightly phosphorescent; so that trespassers sometimes spoke of witch-fires glowing down there in the enclosed private cinema.
Local boys never – even in their wildest Halloween moods – visited this cellar cinema by night, since the dark space was enclosed and even if the lights had been switched on – that is when they still worked – the naked eye could see this phosphorescence. There was also a subtler thing my uncle and I often thought we detected – a very strange thing which was, however, merely suggestive at most. I refer to a sort of cloudy whitish pattern on the rotting carpet on the floor – a vague, shifting deposit of mold or niter that we sometimes thought we could trace amidst the sparse fungous growths at the far end of the basement cinema. Once in a while it struck us that this patch bore an uncanny resemblance to a doubled-up human figure, though generally no such kinship existed, and often there was no whitish deposit whatever.
On a certain rainy afternoon when this illusion seemed phenomenally strong, and when, in addition, I had fancied I glimpsed a kind of thin, yellowish, shimmering exhalation rising from the nitrous pattern toward the tattered screen in the cinema, I spoke to my uncle about the matter. He smiled at this odd conceit, but it seemed that his smile was tinged with reminiscence. Later I heard that a similar notion entered into some of the wild tales of the common folk – a notion likewise alluding to ghoulish, wolfish shapes taken by steam belched out by The Denizen’s air-conditioning system, and queer contours assumed by certain of the sinuous tree-roots that thrust their way through the loose foundation-stones of the vanished warehouse that stood on the site before it was obliterated by Luftwaffe bombs on 29 November 1940; that terrible raid during the Nazi blitz that razed all of Cripplegate. Those weird roots are said to have grown and grown for twenty years until the spirits beneath were more or less encased by the building of Bernard Morgan House in 1960, which as I’ve already noted provided housing units for 110 key workers until 2015.