While Researching A Horror Story...
by Neil Crabtree
part 1 of 2
The car began to screech and bang as soon as he turned down the dirt road that led from the highway to the old farmhouse. Steam poured out from under the hood with a high-pitched shriek. Sounds of mechanical injury clanged and banged from the engine compartment. Wounded, the car burrowed a path into the thick weeds around the looming structure.
The house was bigger than he expected. Its red bricks were covered by creeping ivy that moved in the breeze like tentacles. This was the look the driver had hoped for, old and gabled and decrepit. Broken shutters hung from the second story windows where shadows hid behind tattered curtains. The car, its path cut off by this monstrosity, shuddered and died. The smell of steam and burnt oil rose from its cadaver.
“We’re hee-yer,” the man said, mimicking the sing-song voice of the little girl in the movie about poltergeists that he wished he’d written.
The driver, Louis Pensa, writer of film scripts and popular thrillers, was a New Yorker all the way. Now he found himself out in the boonies at a dilapidated old country house said to be haunted. The publicity stunt seemed a crazy idea. The violent deaths twenty years ago of an entire family were to be the subject of his new book. Pensa climbed out of the car and stood in the weeds. There was no choice but to go ahead and enter his destination.
The inside of the house was perfect, like the set of a horror movie. Heavy antique furniture. Draperies and Persian rugs with the patterns worn through to the cross-stitching. Stand-up lamps in the corners behind the sofa and chairs. Light filtered through layers of dust on the windows and threadbare curtains. There were doilies in place on the backs of the armchairs and an afghan across the sofa. On the wall hung a needle-point on framed cloth bearing the message:
THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME
Pensa felt a tingle of delight at its homespun irony in this scene of past murder and mayhem. A brass chandelier hung like a spider from the ceiling in the front room. It had eight arms mounted by little lamps in the shape of candle flames and was covered in cobwebs. The thick brown banister of the stairs led up into the shadows of the second floor.
On the faded wallpaper of the stairwell, Pensa saw an ugly brown smear. Looking more closely, he could see a handprint further up made of the same brown stain. Realizing this was dried blood made Pensa shudder. But a part of him appreciated the placement of this ghastly detail. Could a writer ask for more?
He could sense this experience would produce the scariest book he had ever written. The reviews and ad blurbs could be seen as plainly as the light through the dirty front windows. He could see the cover of the paperback and the teasers:
“Terrifying. You’ll lose plenty of sleep over this one.” — Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Pensa’s masterpiece of horror. His best yet!” — San Francisco Examiner
“Leave the lights on! Pensa’s latest will have you seeing things in the dark for weeks.” — Publisher’s Weekly
“Louis Pensa spent three nights in the actual haunted house, and the nightmare he brought back with him will be remembered for years.” — Kirkus Reviews
The house had been decorated thoughtfully by a mean old man with a butcher knife and the blood of his wife, his mother-in-law and her sister. He touched the bloodstain, even climbed the stair and put his own hand over the one imprinted on the wall. It was a perfect fit. He had to turn facing back down the stairs to make the fit.
Had old man Mayberry leaned here for support? Then with his other hand stabbed and slashed at whichever woman had died there? Spurting blood, had she fallen, slid along the wall, collapsed at the foot of the stairs? And were the others upstairs yet alive, awakened by the noise, the screams, the terror?
Turning, he climbed higher, acting it out, his hand upraised as though he clutched a knife. The stair creaked on cue as he climbed, and his footfalls sounded heavy and ominous in the deserted hall. Coming to the first door, he turned the knob ever so slowly, and then pushed the door open.
He entered a large bedroom. There was a bed frame holding bare springs to a queen bed, no mattress. One of the women, the mother-in-law, he remembered, had been stabbed to death in bed, still wearing her sleeper’s blindfold. She was so deaf she probably did not hear anything before the first blow punctured her sleep, followed by six more in quick succession. Until it was over and she slept forevermore.
Sensing something, he turned, and screamed aloud as he saw a figure standing there. But it was only a dressmaker’s dummy, standing in the corner. The form still wore a faded, moth-eaten dress. On the head was an old woman’s hat, the veil down, masking features that were not there.
There was something disquieting about the figure and the blankness behind the veil. Something too intimate, too personal. The poor old woman’s clothes, made by her skilled hands, on a form like her own. Standing there mute and inanimate, a forlorn reminder that the victim had once been alive, made of real flesh and blood even as he was.
He felt guilty. She had valued her privacy. She’d never admitted a man who was not her husband or her murderer into her bedroom in all the long years she had lived. This was her space that he had violated.
There was a dresser with a candle on it, and a vanity. He saw the room reflected dimly in the mirror, saw himself standing, hand still upraised, near the bed. For some reason, he felt profoundly embarrassed.
“Pardon me,” he apologized to the figure, and turned and left the room, closing the door behind him.
At night, he made himself comfortable with his supplies, particularly the Scotch. With his notebook computer and his tape recorder, he waited for signs of those who had passed beyond. He investigated all strange noises at once, hoping for bizarre apparitions, ectoplasmic manifestations, encounters with the supernatural.
It was frustrating to find simple sources for the sounds. A broken shutter. Birds in the attic. A nest of mice in a hole in the wall. Each could inspire scenes for a story or two, but he could have imagined them as easily from the comfort of Manhattan.
After a while, it became ridiculous. Here he was in the perfect setting to be scared by something outside his imagination, something real and spooky that went bump in the night. Millions of people believed in ghosts and spirits and worlds beyond the grave. Surely the old house could come up with something to justify their faith.
He climbed the stairs, deeply disappointed that all this potential for horror was going to waste. This was a haunted house, he’d been told. The real deal.
He started down the hall to explore the rooms. Then the lights went out. All of them.
He stood not moving in the pitch darkness. The sound of his heart beating seemed very loud. He could smell dust and mildew and decay. His mouth became suddenly sticky, his throat dry. He had the sense of standing on the edge of something and felt dizzy but afraid to lean in any direction. He took a big drink from the glass in his hand and the ice clinked against his teeth and he looked and waited.
As his eyes adjusted, he could see moonlight coming in the hallway window. Remembering the position of the window, he was able to orient himself again to where he was in relation to the stairwell, the bedrooms. He needed a flashlight or a candle. He had seen a candle in the house... where? In the old lady’s bedroom.
In the dark he shuffled along the wall until he found the doorsill, the door. As he started to turn the knob, a noise came from inside the bedroom, a noise of metal moving or being moved. Then it seemed there was a small sound closer, right by his hand. He tried the knob. The door would not open. It was locked from the inside.
Copyright © 2009 by Neil Crabtree