The Shadow’s Curse: A Tale of the Ombú

Backstory Biernes #6, Friday, June 12th 2015: Dream House

Probably one of my most important stories is Dream House and its remake, aptly named, Dream House (Revisited). But I won’t go into that here. This is Backstory Biernes, your weekly peek into the history of a great many things, but mostly of my published fiction, which of course you can find in the Short Stories section of this site.

Before I go on, I would like to warn you, as usual, that there are a couple of spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t read the story, please do so now.

I started writing Dream House in 2011 while I was reading about the Minuane people of South America. I was fascinated by their particular struggles with European conquest and by the way they are remembered today. At the same time, I was reading about the geography of South America, specifically Argentina, and learned about the Ombú tree.

Being a writer obsessed with horror, I began to delve into the darker sides of these elements to use in a story.

The original idea survived my many edits and obsessive revising of the story. It is about a fairly decent and very wealthy young couple, Amanda and Michael, who have the means to get anything they want in life. They are not bad people, but they are selfish–something all of us can be guilty of at times. So after getting married and instead of buying a prefabricated home, they decide to use their considerable resources to design and build their perfect house, their dream house. They import many things from all over the world, including wood from the Ombú tree, native to the Pampas of Argentina.

Among the several revisions of this story, there is one that goes into greater detail about how they get the wood and the superstitions that surround it. I decided to gloss over it in the final version, because I wanted to focus on the characters and their ultimate downfall.

The story implies that it was their selfishness and not their poor choice of haunted wood that lead to their demise.

In that version, they are actually looking for wood to build their entire house, not just the door to the master bedroom. Many years earlier on their honeymoon, they had fallen in love with Argentina with its varied landscapes and in particular, the mysterious and storied Ombú that symbolizes the country. So they return and find someone to cut down the trees and ship them to be used in building the home of their dreams.

I scrapped that idea, because I later learned that the wood of the Ombú is absolutely terrible for construction.

The people they speak with tell them that the trees are part of a sacred tradition and should not be disturbed. This is about all you get in the final version, but the earlier version goes into deeper detail about the so-called sacred tradition. I created a fictional relationship between the Minuane and the Ombú tree using the concept of Huaca or sacred object. While it is true that the Minuane have a real relationship with the Ombú tree, they do not really have a direct relationship with the word Huaca which is from the Quechua language.

I used that word mostly because I liked the way it sounds.

The characters offer increasing amounts of money to the locals until they can no longer refuse and agree to uproot the sacred trees.

As I said, the majority of the story is fiction, but there is a real relationship between the Minuane and the Ombú. In the city of Victoria, in the province of Entre Rios, Argentina, there are two historical landmarks that involve the Minuane and the Ombú. The first is the Monte de los Ombues (the Ombú Forest), which is a rare example of large numbers of Ombú growing together, as they usually grow spread out from each other. The second is the Cerro de la Matanza (Massacre Hill), which was the site of a bloody conflict between the Spanish invaders and the indigenous people which included the Minuane.

They are located adjacent to one another, and it is hard not to make associations between the rare conglomeration of trees and the site of a terrifying genocide.

Another element of the story based on truth is the nefarious reputation of the Ombú tree itself. It has long been considered to be a portent of bad things to come. It has been said that spending too much time in the shade of the Ombú can drive you crazy. It has also been said that a house built under the Ombú’s shade is doomed.

That fact was enough for me to base an entire story around it.

That reminds me of yet another version of the story where the couple imports an actual Ombú forest to transplant it in their backyard. I thought that was a good idea but scrapped it as being a bit too unbelievable (I know–this coming from the guy who wrote A Mug in My Coffee).

So, as in all the versions, whatever they do with the Ombú, it brings a curse to their new home and strange things begin to happen to the point that they are transported to another world where they reap the fruits of their selfishness.

Aside from all these historical and fictional details, Dream House is a haunted house story with a twist. As with many of my stories, I take elements from history, legend and even rumor to sculpt a setting into which I place characters with traits I believe we all possess. Including such elements is important not only for entertainment, but for reflecting on things we take for granted.

In horror writing and in real life, it is when we take things for granted that even simple details can become terrifying.