Sunday, October 30, 2005

What Fear Was

It's possible to spend too much time in the company of the dead — even the fictive dead. I feel caught in some kind of festival of the dead that seems to exist in the world as a whole these days, but probably exists nowhere but in my own little mind and the immediate space around it.

Exhibit A: These past weeks I've noticed, not all at once but gradually, that there are more programs on TV devoted to the otherworldly (ghosts, UFO's, haunted places, fucking sea serpents) than ever before. I know it's the run-up to Halloween, but this year the horror-themed programming has gone well beyond the standard annual showing of Dracula and It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. I'm talking a subtle slew of ha'nts, creeps and monsters running up and down the cable grid. One new show's entitled simply Supernatural; another, consisting of reenactments of real-life ghost and poltergeist encounters, is called A Haunting. Medium and Ghost Whisperer are star vehicles for, respectively, Patricia Arquette and Jennifer Love-Hewitt. Even the old Night Stalker has been revived, though sadly without the old Night Stalker himself, Darren McGavin. There's World's Most Haunted Places, and something called Most Haunted Live! My favorite title is Possessed Possessions, in which people display their ghostly knick-knacks, heirlooms, and collectibles. Kind of Poltergeist meets Antiques Road Show.

Remember ten years ago, when The X-Files was a TV novelty? Or ten years before that, when Unsolved Mysteries was pretty much the tube's only outlet for true spooks?

We haven't seen most of these new entries, but we did watch an interesting reality show a few weeks ago about an East Coast Roto-Rooter man who moonlights as a ghost-hunter. With his crew of tech-brats and intrepid investigators, he creeps around famous spooky places like the Queen Mary, the Lizzie Borden house in Falls River, Massachusetts, and Shawshank Prison in Ohio, wiring them for sound and video. Roto-Rooter Man struck, it seemed to me, just the right attitude that of a sensible skeptic who wants to see the unbelievable, but refuses to see it where it ain't. None of the spook-traps into which they descended yielded anything beyond vague whispering sounds and one pretty good hoax involving the bedspread in a Queen Mary stateroom. Don't remember the name of the show or what channel it was on, and I haven't found it again in running through the schedules. Maybe it was a one-timer. Maybe it was ghosts. Boo.

Exhibit B: The New York Times today has an article about the infiltration, or perhaps the return, of Goth style into mainstream fashion. "A traditional outcast look suits scary times," runs the tag to Ruth La Ferla's story: "Books, movies, stage productions, photographs and, perhaps most emphatically, fashion are all evoking those familiar Gothic obsessions: death, decay, destructive passions and the specter of nature run amok. They've surfaced at times before, of course. But rarely since the mid-19th century, when it became a crowd pleaser, has the Gothic aesthetic gained such a throttlehold on the collective imagination." Rag designers, clothing buyers, and an English professor from upstate New York are brought in to consult on the phenomenon, and the professor says "We're somehow trying to deal with calamity and death ... Revisiting Gothic themes might be one way to embrace those things and try to come to terms with them."

Might be. Maybe it's just another manifestation of our recurring popular infatuation with entertaining forms of death and diabolism, like Bridey Murphy in the '50s and exorcism in the '70s. I don't know, but I think something is going on. All I know for sure is by early next year we'll be on to other things and most of these ghost shows will have dried up and gone the way of all flesh.

Exhibit C: It's my wife's birthday today and I got her the first four albums by Goth-rock originators The Cure, remasters of which have been issued with bonus discs full of demos and live material. She's been a huge fan of theirs since adolescence and we spent part of the day doing our doings with the Pornography bonus disc as accompaniment. Grim, often groaning, dark, dank, and desperately depressed music. One of The Cure's best and most typical songs is called "A Forest." Its lyrics go like this:

Come closer and see
See into the trees
Find the girl
While you can
Come closer and see
See into the dark
Just follow your eyes
Just follow your eyes

I hear her voice
Calling my name
The sound is deep
In the dark
I hear her voice
And start to run
Into the trees
Into the trees

Suddenly I stop
But I know it's too late
I'm lost in a forest
All alone
The girl was never there
It's always the same
I'm running towards nothing
Again and again and again

Exhibit D: While listening to The Cure, I was trying to get into a book I've tried to read many times before and failed at, that being Beyond Belief: A Chronicle of Murder and Its Detection by Emlyn Williams also author of Night Must Fall, the great creep-out murder play of the 1930s, and The Corn is Green, about his boyhood in the coalmines of Wales and the teacher who nurtured his brain and aspirations. (I acted in that play in high school, by the way. Played the Squire. Thought you'd enjoy knowing that.)

Beyond Belief, published in 1968, is the story of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, the most infamous and hated British killers of the 1960s. Brady and Hindley were lovers who kidnapped, tortured and murdered a series of children on the outskirts of Manchester in 1963-65, burying their bodies on the Yorkshire moors. They were caught when they killed their last victim, a 17-year-old boy, in front of Hindley's brother-in-law, who managed to escape and alert the police. Brady and Hindley were convicted of everything possible and locked up for eternity. Hindley died of lung cancer in 2000, and Brady has gone on periodic hunger strikes in the hope of killing himself, thus robbing his jailers of the chance to watch him rot. At present he goes on living, though often with a tube down his throat.

The Williams book is sporadically brilliant and often banal. In both modes it gets deeper into wormy, depraved states of mind than most other murder books I've read, and I've read quite a few. But that's only a comparative judgment and doesn't get behind the larger question. The nature of the crimes is so disturbing that I wonder again why I am so interested in depravity. In his prologue, Williams says something to the effect that, just as no physical aberration should be beyond the interest of science, no psychological illness, however horrible its results, should be ignored by the student of humanity. Maybe that ought to be answer enough. Though it still doesn't explain the frosting of pleasure one gets from that illness, from those horrible results. Really, it doesn't explain anything; it only justifies.

There's no dearth of horribleness in this horrible case. But the most awful detail, for me, is this. Brady and Hindley tape-recorded the torture session they performed on one of their young female victims, 10-year-old Lesley Ann Downey. As the girl screamed and begged, Christmas music played in the background: the Ray Conniff Singers' version of "The Little Drummer Boy," from the album We Wish You a Merry Christmas. Emlyn Williams describes the experience of hearing the tape played back in open court as the murderers were tried.

Exhibit E: I was reminded of all these things Beyond Belief, screaming children, voices in forests just last night, while rereading The Blair Witch Project: A Dossier. Along with the soundtrack CD, the website, the video game, the stick-man necklace, the baseball cap, and the oven mitts, this book was released as a tie-in to the enormously successful horror movie of 1999. Unlike the usual tie-in, this one was actually worth the money. It's an imaginative, absorbing, and frightening extension of the movie, just as the website was a meticulous and chilling prelude, just as the Curse of the Blair Witch documentary was a spot-on simulacrum of the Discovery Channel and History Channel docs that creep around real-life mysteries.

The Dossier takes the movie in directions, and to extents, you'd never guess. Among the things you learn:

The unique knowledge of the case held back by Sheriff Cravens, whose stubborness on certain points belies his insistence that the student filmmakers' disappearance and found footage are parts of an elaborate hoax;

The encounter that Heather's grandfather, Randy, had with the Blair Witch as a boy;

The "energy" that Heather has been sending out to Elly Kedward for two years, long before she and her two-man crew ever ventured into the Black Hills Forest.

Exhibit F: Midway through the Dossier is the transcript of a faux-interview between a faux-investigator and a faux-scholar of regional American folk tales. I get the idea you don't believe in the Blair Witch, the investigator says. "No," the scholar answers. "Not in some woman who lives in the forest and eats children."

Doink! It was one of those moments you literally hear a sound in your head — the sound of something hitting the floor in some other part of your memory mansion, some dusty and distant antechamber that's gone untouched and unopened for years.

That room contained the Brothers Grimm and their marvelous, horrifying little fables. Like most of us, I read and heard sanitized versions as a child. The fables as the brothers began collecting them in 1812 actually began as folk tales not intended for children, and are far more graphic and frightening than was thought fitting for American youth in the 20th century, even we progeny of Dr. Spock's enlightened counsel. But thanks to our postmodern fascination with the muck beneath the rose garden, there are a number of unexpurgated Grimm collections available. I put down the Blair Witch book, went to the shelf, and pulled down mine.

"Some woman who lives in the forest and eats children." That's Hansel and Gretel. The Blair Witch is their witch. No blazing insight there. But among the other tales was one called The House in the Forest. Now there was a connection I hadn't thought of. (A house in a forest, if you don't know, is where the movie's climax occurs and where the whole legend leads — specifically to the basement of the house, where several children were murdered.) So I refreshed myself on the Grimm story, which is a characteristically, though uniquely, grisly narrative of three sisters and their serial experiences in the house of the title. I won't tell the story. Enough to say that it involves an old man, some talking animals, a cellar, and a climax which — after Freud, modernism, and the householding of words like "incest" and "child abuse" — we cannot help but read as a deeply horrific allegory of violence upon children.

And finally, Exhibit G: I read the Blair Witch Dossier because last week, drawn no doubt by the shift of season into cold wind and autumnal beauty, I'd watched the movie for the umpteenth time. It's something of a major project with me to re-view that picture. I have to get myself up for the experience; the simple reason being that whenever I do watch it, its creepiness creeps outward in every direction to touch, seemingly, virtually everything else I do or think of for the following week — or however long it takes the spell to dissipate. If you wonder what I mean by that, reread this post and retrace the long path we've followed to rearrive at Exhibit G, G for genesis — the starting point of the morbidity that's pervaded my thoughts this past week.

It was a weird night last night. Weirder than most by far. I went to bed thinking of Brady and Hindley recording the screams of their victim; the children's screams that terrorize the students in The Blair Witch Project, as they run through the forest toward a voice that isn't there; the screams that we may only imagine issued from the cellar of the house in the Grimm story.

As I said at the start of this post (back before the sun went down), you can spend too much time in the company of the dead — even the fictive dead. The morbid threatens to colonize your mind. Everything that enters it, even music, even sunlight, is put in the service of dark thought. As intellectually exhilarating as it can be to chase centuries-broad connections between folk narratives and documented horrors, between Brothers Grimm and Brady and Hindley and Blair Witch myth, there is such a thing as too much darkness. Too much darkness and your soul might moss over.

While perusing the Grimm book and reminding myself of the stories I knew so well as a child, I spotted this title: A Tale About the Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was. I'm not familiar with this story, and haven't brought myself to read it yet.

Sunday, October 23, 2005


I'm pleased to say that outside of cats I've had no intimate relationship with the smaller, furrier animals of our world, with one exception.

When I was very young I stood beside a lake in Iowa and did something I've never done since. Upon finding myself confronted with a dead, prostrate beaver -- an enormous one, easily three and a half feet long, and weighing a good 60 pounds -- that had been killed by a hunter, I spontaneously grasped it by the wrists and lifted it as high as I could. Not very high, since I was, as I say, very young, and a huge dead beaver is an unwieldly bulk for even a strong, well-proportioned man in full charge of his limbs to heft manually.

Why did I do this? Ah. I did it, I remember, to impress the people who were standing around me, all of them adults except for my sister, who was two years older than me. I wanted to appear objective and only abstractly interested in the question of dead beasts, unafraid of death or of incipiently rotting animal corpses. I wanted to appear a little man, and little men like big ones never pass up the chance to hoist a dead beaver.

There was nothing pleasurable, let alone scintillating, about the contact, but undeniably there was a sensation to it. That was of dull fascination at holding something so large and so dead. I've never seen a dead person (though I've walked past one or two covered in sheets) and certainly never lifted one: this was the closest I've come in 40 years to holding death in my hands.

Though there was a follow-up to that. The same hunter responsible for the death of the 60-pound beaver presented me with the severed paw of yet another -- one which, judging proportions from the paw alone, had to have been, in its wholeness, at least the size of the one I'd lifted. It was a reasonably fresh kill, since the fur upon the paw was still smooth, the bones inside firm, the skin black, leathery, and supple. It was only a glorified rabbit's foot or other prosaic dime-store charm, but I discovered it had one magical quality: If you applied the right pressure at the right point, the talons of the hand would extend and the paw would appear to flex, as if alive. Release the pressure and the paw would go lifeless again. Press, flex; release, die. It was a little god-like, life-giving, death-dealing, Frankensteinian action you could perform in your hand upon the hand of another organism, so recently warm-blooded and animate, now skinned, sectioned, and disseminated to a half-dozen places and purposes.

The dead beaver thing (as we may as well call it) had a weird resonance with me, for two reasons:

Firstly, I was well familiar even by this young age with the story of the monkey's paw. Though the little plot itself had doubtless been around for eons, W.W. Jacobs got the royalties for setting it down in 1902, in a story that somehow turned up in every ghostly collection I had as a youngster, and to this day is anthologized as a classic story of the macabre. That it is. A husband and wife come into possession of a monkey's paw, which they're told was once charmed, or cursed, by an Indian fakir, so that each successive owner will be granted three wishes. They're warned, of course, to use their wishes wisely: "Be careful what you desire, for you may receive it," et cetera.

The first wish, for money, is granted, but in the most terrible manner. The husband and wife lose their beloved son to an industrial accident -- a factory worker, the boy is mangled in some monstrous mangling machine -- and receive a windfall in the form of a settlement from the company. The second wish: that the beloved son might return from the dead.

If you've never read the story, give yourself a shudder.

What I always recalled was that, in the Jacobs story, the utterance of each wish causes the monkey's paw to flex and vibrate in the speaker's hand: the dormant thing comes alive to work its evil magic and draw a startled shriek from the maker of the wish. So I always thought of this when holding my beaver's paw, making it flex with subtle digital movements so that it looked independent, possessed of disembodied life. And of course I made my wishes, and fancied that one might come true, and that the beaver's paw might move of its own power, and that a startled shriek might be drawn from me. I was always tensed against the horror I couldn't help but enjoy imagining.

None of my wishes came true, and no shriek was inspired. Soon enough the paw shriveled, lost its suppleness and flexibility, and began to emanate a noxious aroma. It had always been a dead thing, and now it was visibly, palpably dead. With some reluctance, I threw the paw away, fearing I'd never know miracles through the agency of a furry creature's dismembered member. And to date I haven't.

I said there were two reasons.

The other, more extensive and strange, also came from a story I'd read, dating from the early 1930s. It was that of a talking creature which some believed had taken up residence in a remote farmhouse on the Isle of Man, a tiny archipelago in the Irish Sea, two hours' boat ride from the west coast of England. The farmhouse was inhabited by the Irving family, James, Margaret, and daughter Voirrey. In September 1931 they began to hear animalistic noises of scuffling and chattering emanating from their attic. These were followed by the incomprehensible sounds of a high-pitched voice. The voice began to mimic the Irvings' words, and soon had garnered full use of the English language.

In response to the Irvings' questions, the presence began to explain itself in detail. It called itself Jef (or "Gef," in the version I first read, in a thin Scholastic Books paperback by Margaret Ronan called House of Evil). Jef claimed to be a marsh mongoose born in New Delhi in 1852, who had been purchased and transported to England many years before. He refused to show himself at first, but gradually assented to sliding a tiny hand -- again, the creep of the paw! -- through the rafters of his attic perch so that the family might examine it. (Jim Irving described it as resembling an intensely miniaturized human hand.) Eventually Jef came into full view and moved about the house more or less freely, becoming close with the Irvings despite causing no end of poltergeistian mischief involving midnight noises, food gone missing, and general irascibility with regard to visitors and other inconveniences.

I'd only ever seen the story of Jef in the Ronan book, and, since this was a collection of brief, anecdotal entertainments for preteenagers and not a footnoted work of scholarship, believed the story to have been largely invented by the author herself. But come to find out later in life (much later -- just last week, in fact) that Ronan got her facts down with essential accuracy, and that, no matter how ridiculous, the story was not her invention but quite well-known by many. Believe it or not, in its time this story was taken with, if not general credulity, then surprisingly broad interest: the famed English ghost hunter Harry Price conducted an investigation, and many newspapers sought out the Irvings for interviews and Jef for demonstrations.

Suffice to say, nothing to satisfy either science or common skepticism was ever produced, or we most certainly would have heard of it somewhere. Jef mischievously refused to perform when called upon, and only one photograph was ever taken -- Voirrey Irving's gray, skewed shot through tall grass of something that could be a log just as easily as it could be a talking 80-year-old Indian mongoose. Another photo is supposed to show Jim Irving pointing out Jef's humanoid paw as it creeps through the rafters. But this image too makes the Loch Ness photos (the first of which would appear in 1933-34 and all but wipe Jef off the UK's monster map) appear detailed and revealing.

So Jef was an entertaining hoax, and my beaver's paw had no otherworldly powers. Both are in the garbage, more or less. But both bespeak the same story-telling instinct, the need felt by many of us to fill gaps in reality with fancy and invention, to supply a bit of whatever life and excitement seem missing in an Isle of Man farmhouse, or beside an Iowa lake, or in a house with a loved one now gone. Sometimes, to fill those gaps, we outright lie; sometimes, we write it down and call it fiction; sometimes, against every kind of evidence and sense, we merely leave open the chance that the impossible could be possible. But if that dissatisfaction with mere fact is placed in a person by psychological quirk, behavioral model, or some other factor, it will be powerful, undeniable, present throughout one's life. To deny it would be, to those of this mind-set, to surrender to reality, the dullest levels of what is factual, observable, inarguable, and therefore pointless to discuss or discover.

The story-telling impulse, even shading into the hoaxing impulse, is not to be downgraded as a positive influence, a bold act of pure imagination in a world often scornful of anything not preapproved by mass acceptance (or merely mass resignation). After all, if animals talked in real life, we wouldn't need Bugs Bunny; if children didn't have a natural instinct for believing the unbelievable, we wouldn't have rabbit's feet; and if real life answered our every wish, we'd have no compelling reason to live.

Here endeth the lesson, and you may now converse amongst yourselves. Meanwhile Jef's humanoid mitt reaches out even now at his own tribute page; W.W. Jacobs' story of the monkey's paw will always be with us; and I still remember the weight of that poor beaver, the feel of that paw in mine.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Mr. Stapleton's Secret

Lord Clive Bilk-Wallinger
(“ A Man of Insufficient Continence,” et al.)

Being a weird Narrative once briefly Celebrated and summarily Forgotten, and now an Archived Document of the Utmost Obscurity; first distributed under imprint of Meinhof Bros., Oxford Street, London; redistributed here with Apologies and Humble Thanks to the still-existing Heirs of that Most Distinguished firm

* * *


It has been many years since my friend told me of these experiences, but I have never forgotten the rapt intensity with which he related them. He told me then that it was without qualification the strangest set of circumstances he had ever encountered, and that because of them he would be quite happy to pass the remainder of his life in utter silence and dull safety. He had, he said, lost his entire taste for intercourse with the dark and fantastic side of life.

He also asked that I not pass on this account to any other ear or eye until after his death, and that I apply pseudonymous names to the principal figures in the horrible narrative. I have complied with both of these requests.

Here, then, is my late friend’s story. The transcription is mine, but the words, etched in my memory as they have been these forty years or more, are his.


Upon my graduation from the prestigious medical school at Luxembourg, I was eager to return home to England and take up my practice there. As you well know, I am an Englishman in every particular of character and manner; and I had entertained no hope other than to offer my humble ministrations to the good denizens of my native Blackburn.

One of the more obligatory responsibilities of a country doctor newly established is that of touring the estates of his district, making introductions with those who are to be served. I say “obligatory” merely because one English landowner, whatever his peculiar qualities in private life, tends, in outward manner, to be quite like another: the crippling handshake, the roaring laughter, the well-fed bonhomie are traits common to those in gentrified life, so that making the acquaintance of three squires a day can never be thought of as an adventure in the diversity of human character.

It was, then, with only a modest enthusiasm that I knocked at the baronial mansion of one Mr. George Stapleton. Had I possessed a premonitory bent of mind, I might have noted more closely the subtle differences marking this house and its surrounding grounds from those of the landowners whom I had previously visited. Here, one was instantly aware of a certain decrepitude in the aspect of the great house: cracks branching upward through the stone facades, pillars with entire pieces missing from upper and lower escarpments, and viney foliage falling unchecked in thick masses. In addition to this, a certain darkness pervaded the premises, a darkness not entirely attributable to the late afternoon hour, nor to the season, which was autumn. One felt an ineffable discomfort at this gray spectacle of dissolute grandeur, and I resolved to make my visit a crisp one.

Then the immense door groaned and opened, and this resolve was shaken by the sight of my respondent. It was a girl, and she possessed a loveliness I have yet to see surpassed, or even equaled. She stood in the gathering darkness with the luminous aplomb of a destitute angel, regarding me innocently with slightly bowed head and deferential aspect, awaiting my statement of purpose.

I confess to being so enchanted with my taciturn hostess that I found it difficult to myself speak for several seconds. But I regained the power of locution sufficiently to tell the lovely creature my name and the business which had brought me to her door.

“Yes,” the young woman said, “I expect my father will want to meet you. Please come in.”

I entered, and she closed the door behind me. The interior of this strange abode was quite as redolent of faded elegance as its exterior: fine marble floors through which cracks ran like rivulets of black water; oil portraits and wall hangings dingy with accumulated dust; a grand spiraling staircase with several chipped steps. And throughout the cavernous environment, an all-pervading gloom barely qualified by the candles which flickered from the wall fixtures.

“Your father is Mr. Stapleton?” I asked the girl.

“Yes. If you’ll wait here, I’ll alert Father you’d like to see him.” She moved off and disappeared down a shadowy passage, a dolorous figure in ghostly white. As I languished in the silent hall I noticed on one wall an enormous oil painting which had the appearance of a family portrait. In a red velvet chair sat a woman with an infant in her arms, while towering over her was a man with a face the like of which I had never seen. His eyes burned with a malignant ferocity, and his expression generally appeared scarred by the striations of a perpetual scowl. Looking at the visage I was gripped by a nameless panic, a presaging of some dread I dared not articulate even to myself.

“This is my father, Mr. Stapleton.” The girl had returned, and her thin voice crept up on me from the rear like the fingers of a spectral hand. I turned to face my visitee.

I drew breath at the sight of him, for as surely as I know my own name it was the man in the portrait! True, he was approximately twenty years on in age, with gray hair and reading spectacles to signal the fact. But the essence of his pocked face remained unchanged by the interregnum, save that time had deepened the creases of his scowl, giving it even more the appearance of a piece of stonework. I fancied it reminded me of the marble pillars and the floor beneath me, with their deep-set cracks and rifts.

“Doctor,” this man said gruffly, gravely. He stepped to me and extended his hand. His eyes flamed with distrust and hostility.

“Mr. Stapleton.” I shook the thin white hand; the touch of a corpse could not have chilled me more profoundly.

“My daughter has informed me of the reason behind your visit,” Mr. Stapleton said.

“Yes, it has been my pleasure -- ” I began.

“Quite so,” said Mr. Stapleton distractedly, whereupon he glanced cursorily at his daughter. “Emily, go to your room so that the Doctor and I might conclude this business privately.”

Emily, a docile wraith, mounted the spiraling staircase without a word. She ascended into an upper reach of shadows so deep and thick that it might have been the passage to some unspeakable abyss.

Upon her disappearance Mr. Stapleton said, “Doctor, I shall be blunt. We are not in the habit of receiving visitors here.”

“I apologize for my unsolicited appearance -- ”

“Be so good as to allow me to finish.” The man’s voice was clipped and cruel; his eyes continued to glow like cinders in the shadows. “This is a private house, and we are private people. The sole reason I speak to you now is to inform you of these facts, so that you may be mindful of them in the future.”

Quite taken aback by his brusqueness, I was at a loss to articulate my indignation, except feebly. “I’m sure I am very sorry to have invaded your sanctuary, sir. I only sought to advise you of my presence in the district so that you might avail yourself of my services when and if the need arises.”

“We have no need of physicians,” Mr. Stapleton said with unveiled contempt. “We are from hearty stock and not given to maladies untreatable by simple domestic remedies. Your services, sir, will not be required here.”

I took a moment to absorb the impact of his pointed rudeness, and then drew myself up with as much impressiveness as possible. I fitted my hat and said, “Very well, Mr. Stapleton, you have made your position clear. If you and your daughter are as sound in body as you say, then indeed my presence is redundant.” I moved to the door, almost feeling Stapleton’s eyes sear me as I went. “I dare say that if your good health is at all in proportion to your lack of manners, you may expect a life longer than most.”

Except for a small tightening of the lips Stapleton seemed unmoved by my barb.

“I shall not be back, Mr. Stapleton, have no worry on that score. Good day to you, sir.”

I opened the door and was near to quitting the fetid, dying house when a high, resonant sigh, its sound like a midnight wind, issued from the darkness at the top of the winding staircase. Stapleton and I turned toward the sound; whereupon our astonished eyes were met with the sight of Emily tumbling down the stairs in a cloud of white to lay supine and unconscious upon the fractured and dusty floor.


Fully an hour passed before the poor injured girl stirred among murmurings of pain. Her father and I had taken Emily to her room and laid her abed; I had made an examination of her vital functions and concluded, with no small amazement, that the fall had not inflicted extensive damage. There were, however, slight wounds, and employing a few household chemicals I prepared a medicated poultice for Emily’s lacerated forehead and a cold compress for her twisted ankle.

Now she roused, and looked from Stapleton’s face to mine with an expression of inquiry. I explained what had occurred.

“Oh,” she said weakly; “I fell on the stairs. Yes.”

“You’re all right, daughter,” Stapleton virtually spat out. I raged silently at his conspicuous lack of tenderness, not to mention simple gallantry.

“Father,” Emily whispered, “I wonder if I might have some tea. Is it all right, Doctor?” I indicated that in fact it would be most appropriate just now. Stapleton looked at the two of us with a fierce suspicion, but slowly stood and went to the door. Then he pointed a finger at Emily and said, as if it were a threat, “I’ll be back in ten minutes, daughter.”

She shivered when he had gone, and we passed a healthy interval in silence before she spoke.

“I must talk to someone,” she whispered hoarsely, in tones of barely repressed hysteria. Clutching the sleeve of my coat, she said, “I can tell you’re a decent man, and you’ll help me.”

I was, perhaps, more shocked by her urgent entreaty than I had been by her father’s untoward hostility.

“I tumbled on the stars intentionally,” she said. “I had to find a way of holding you here. You are the first person my father has allowed inside the house in several years. Most accidental visitors he turns away before they can lift the knocker. And accidental visitors are the only ones we receive here. No one who knows this place will come. Oh, the many times I have prayed for someone who would listen to my tale of woe!”

There was something about the fervency of her words that made me wish I had never entered this house myself. And yet it was that same fervency, joined to the desperate helplessness which illustrated Emily’s angelic face, that convinced me to hear her.

“How is it I might help?” I managed to ask.

She reclined a bit on her pillow, and her eyes wandered from mine as she spoke. “My father is a widower; I, a motherless child. When he deemed me of proper age my father told me of my mother. He explained that one day when I was but an infant she had left the house in a rented carriage which was supposed to convey her to a luncheon in the town. But she never came back.

“My father told me of his agonies, the searching, the failure of the officials to turn up any indication as to my mother’s fate. It was as if the hand of God Himself had snatched her from the earth. And it was from that time, my father explained, that he determined to shun the society of people, to curse the world itself, to make every day a fresh rejection of the Lord who would allow such misery to befall an honest Christian man. For many years, I believed what my father told me, and I honored, as a dutiful daughter must, his resolution to blacken the days with spite and resentment.

“But then, near the time of my fourteenth birthday, I had an experience so horrifying that even now I blanch at the remembrance of it. In cleansing myself with soap and water I began to feel the trickling of a substance which was thicker than the water. It was indeed blood, and it ran to the floor in a dark puddle as I stood amazed and horrified -- ”

Emily shut her eyes in pain and turned from me at this point, and her hands gripped the bed covers. She continued in a voice nearly choked with shame.

“At that moment I knew I was marked for a singular doom, for I had been anointed by Satan. I saw that my days were destined for the blackest horror, and that my mind would be beset by visions -- demons, the faces of the dead and damned. For these were now to be my familiars.

“Very soon I suffered the vision I so dreaded and yet fully anticipated. But this vision was of double horror, since the specter who visited me was that of -- my mother! She appeared to me one night in a mist of white, sighing pitifully and regarding me with tenderness and fear. I recognized her face from the family portrait which yet hangs downstairs and was painted I was a mere six months old. To see the insubstantial form and face of my dead, unknown mother -- what can be the sin that warrants such a cruel and melancholy encounter?

“My mother’s wavering form sat at the foot of my bed and, as I shivered in fright, spoke to me. ‘I’ve come so that you will know the truth,’ it said. ‘I did not leave you, as you have been told. I suffered the wickedest, the meanest of all ends. I was murdered by your father -- by my husband.’

“Words have no power to express the horror I felt at this ghastly revelation. But it was only worsened when my mother explained that her body lay buried in a grave near the arbor in the west garden -- on these very grounds.

“’You must avenge my death,’ my mother implored me. ‘Your father has committed evil, and will do so again. For you, my daughter, the alternatives are but two: you must either become the slave and prisoner he demanded that I be, or you must expose his crime and set both our spirits free.’ My mother smiled regretfully and said that she was sorry she could not linger, but that we would meet again. With that, her form vanished, leaving the room dark and me alone with my terror. That was six years ago, and I have not escaped the terror since.”

I had no immediate response to this astounding account. But something in Emily’s manner convinced me that she believed all she had said, irrespective of its objective truth.

“Again I ask -- what help can I give you?”

“You can help me to lift the horror that veils my entire life. Help me to free myself and my poor mother. Help me to expose that man’s evil.”

The nature of her request was by now more than clear, and I attempted to be reasonable in weighing the sense of my options. Being a man of science I am not inclined to extol the virtues of grave robbing -- for surely this was her implication. But this realization led to questions, the most pertinent of which was this: Was there in fact a grave to be found near the arbor in the west garden?

My puzzling was disrupted with Mr. Stapleton’s bustling entrance. He bore a tea service and a deeper scowl than previously. Setting down the tray he said, “Doctor, she is doing well enough now. The time has come for your departure.”

I pulled on my overcoat and retrieved my hat. I stood at the bedroom door and took a moment to study the two of them together; I was surpassingly moved by what I saw. Stapleton was standing over his daughter as if he were a great tree prepared to block the sun’s rays from falling upon the tender bud below. Emily’s eyes, wet and sad in the dim yellow lamplight, held out to me a desperate question.

I nodded my assent to her, cloaking it in the noncommittal politesse of a farewell, and left the room.


A brief time spent in the gardener’s shed produced a lantern and spade, and with them I moved west in search of the garden and its arbor. The night was brightly moonlit, so I was wary of being espied from the house. A ferocious wind slapped at my face and slowed my progress.

After some time I reached the garden. I circled the foliage and found the small arbor of white latticed wood. The grass surrounding it was fairly uniform in height and thickness, but there was a patch to the rear that seemed, in the lantern light, distinct from those patches on either side of it. I set the lantern down and began to shovel earth with the spade, not fully convinced that the present scene was not some particularly vivid and horrific dream.

I dug steadily and patiently. Soon I had created a hollow of about two feet in width and depth. Then the spade hit an object of some solidity -- perhaps a rock. I set aside the spade, picked up the lantern, and with my jaw shaking from fear as much as cold bent down to see what I had discovered.

Just then I was gripped from behind by thin but powerful fingers. They pulled me up and brought me face to face with their owner -- Mr. Stapleton.

In the raging wind his face bore a look more feral and less human than I would have thought supportable by the physiognomy of man.

“You forgot to hide your horses, you fool!” he shouted at me. “You should have left, damn you! You should never have come!”

I fell back in shock when I saw him lift a pistol and aim it squarely at my heart. I was certain George Stapleton’s loathsome countenance was the last earthly thing I was ever to see.

Then we heard a cry from a distance, mangled by the wind. Stapleton spun about at the sound. Behind him, standing white and solitary in the moonlight, was Emily, dressed only in her bedclothes.

“Mother!” she cried out.

Stapleton was suddenly paralyzed, the impotent pistol now hanging limply from his hand. He stared off in the direction which seemed to attract Emily’s gaze.

“There!” Emily called. “Do you see her, Father? Do you see her!”

George Stapleton’s jaw went slack. He croaked out the words “Good God,” and fell to the cold ground with the lifeless weight of a stone.

The moment I regained my senses I ran to Emily and embraced her. Her skin was ice cold, and yet she did not shiver. She seemed contained within some inviolable membrane of calm. Her eyes remained fixed on the same spot. I looked, and saw nothing.

I shook Emily and shouted, “You’re free now! You and your mother -- both of you are free!”

She did not respond to me, nor did she seem cognizant of any other external condition. Her body, though still possessed of life and breath, was rigid and insensate in my grasp.

Her whole being had been sapped by the horror of a vision perceptible only to her and to the late murderer lying dead near the arbor -- that vision which was now and forever safely locked in the deepest chamber of her lost, tormented mind.


March 1888