October 1, 2014

Google Bus From Beyond

The following account was sent to me three months ago by a young man known to me only as Ramon. His story is fantastic and horrific; I, however, cannot testify as to its veracity. Despite my attempts to reach him, I have not had contact with Ramon since his first email. I reprint it here in full.

“I do a lot of freelance work for a weekly in San Francisco. As you may have heard, one of the big stories right now is the shuttle buses that take tech workers from SF to Silicon Valley for companies like Facebook and Google. Residents complain about the buses blocking traffic and idling in city bus stops. It’s really a story about gentrification and income inequality, and everybody loves to dump on the techies, too.

This stuff has been covered to death in San Francisco, so I wanted to find a different angle. I thought if I talked to some of the shuttle drivers, I could sell an editor on a story about a difference in culture and income between the riders and the drivers.

It sounded a lot easier than it was. When I approached the shuttle companies, they wouldn't even talk to me. At first I thought they were trying to avoid publicity, but now I know the real reason.
I considered staking out the bus stops in the city, but I really wanted to talk to the drivers alone, without the tech workers around. To do that, I needed to know where the buses went, I needed to know their route, I needed to follow them home.

It wasn’t hard to get on the trail of these buses; Interstate 280 is full of them. My plan was to follow the last of the buses up from the valley to San Francisco, catch the drivers after they make their drop offs in the city.

So, one early summer evening I sat in my car on Page Mill Road just off of 280 and, around 7 PM, I pulled into the evening traffic behind a large white bus. You can always pick out the tech buses because, unlike those gaudy tourist buses, the tech buses are plain white and black with no markings at all.

We pulled onto 280 and started the crawl north to San Francisco. The sun was just going down and, with the light behind the bus, I could almost make out the silhouettes of the passengers inside, their heads bowed in concentration of their numinous screens.

It wasn’t long before the traffic began to thin and soon, it was just me in my little Camry and the sleek white bus prowling the lanes like a killer whale. As we got about halfway to the city, the bus moved to the exit lane and I thought for a moment it was going to pull over.

It was just before the junction for 92. This stretch of road is pretty barren, but I knew there was a rest stop coming up somewhere. If the bus was stopping there, it would be a great chance to talk to the driver. Suddenly, the bus was exiting the freeway and I was following close behind.

Then I did something and I’m still not sure why I did it.  I turned off my headlights. I know it was pretty dangerous, but I just had this feeling that something was about to happen. I kept my distance behind the bus.

The exit road curved up and away. It didn’t look like a rest stop at all. The bus climbed up and up and I never saw the usual parking lot or buildings for restrooms or even any other cars.

I had never seen this exit before. My best guess at the time was it was one of the scenic vista exits that they have around there; a place to stop and check out the view of the bay. But what would a commuter bus be doing there?  We drove for a few more minutes on the unlit road. The bus never slowed down.

I wasn’t sure I could keep following the bus because there weren’t any lights on the road. The only light I had to go by was what came off the bus itself. The bus turned a corner, however, and it suddenly seemed that the night turned to day.

I pulled off the road and slammed on the brakes. In front of me was a parking lot, a huge parking lot lit up with banks and banks of stadium lights, surrounded by a high chain link fence. The entire lot was filled with buses identical to the bus I had just followed. I watched as that bus pulled into the lot through the open gate.

It drove through without stopping, disappearing behind rows of similar buses. I didn’t see a guard or intercom or anything at the gate. I knew this was my best chance to get up close to these buses and talk to their drivers.

I marched straight through the gate and stopped. The lot was like a still picture, it was lit up, alive, but nothing moved, nothing made a sound. I couldn’t even hear the bus I had followed in; it had joined its brethren and become a part of the picture.

I followed the path that the bus had taken as best I could. The other buses had arranged themselves in rows at odd angles, making it difficult to make out where the other bus had gone. The whole place was deserted and quiet except for the sound of my sneakers against the gleaming black asphalt.

I knew I might never find my bus, but I wondered what could have happened to the passengers and the driver. Was there something else here in the parking lot as well? If I couldn’t get an interview, I would settle for some pictures of the inside of a bus. My editor would buy that.

I approached the nearest bus in a state of agitated caution. Not being versed in the laws regarding unattended vehicles in California, I didn’t know if I was breaking a law or not. I reached for the door with trepidation, but before I touched the cold steel of the handle, the door sprung open of its own dreadful volition.

The driver’s seat was empty. I called out a timid greeting, but the darkness beyond the yawning cavity did not respond. Curious, I placed a tentative step on the black plastic step and raised myself up to peer beyond the towering passenger seats.

The seats were unoccupied and darkness seemed to rule the empty bus. I paused in frustration, not knowing if photographs of an empty bus were enough to excite my editor. Then, in the darkness, I heard what I thought was a whisper drifting over the brightly-colored fabric of the sepulchral bus seats.

It seemed to come from somewhere far away, yet it could only have originated from inside the cavernous bus, if not in front of me, then on the unseen second floor. I took another cautious step into the darkling aisle and approached the staircase that wound above.

The sibilant whispering grew louder and I thought I could discern within it the peculiar rhythms of a ritual chant, like something I had heard the swarthy Palo Altans call to their idol-capped screens. I turned away from the steps as I perceived at their summit the coalescing of a strange form loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from our own.

I ran from the bus in a rush of delirium, my thoughts a jumble of nameless plasticity. I staggered in my madness among the bone-white buses until I could locate the lonely gate from whence I made my escape from the parking lot.

In my feverish agitation, I fled past the spot where I had left my car and up until I summited the hillside. I found myself overlooking the hellish lot and its fleet of monstrous implications. I could see now for the first time that the buses were arranged in a very curious pattern not unlike the frightful elder signs that the crazed Menlo Park idolaters use in their blasphemous rites. The revelation of the profane symbol sent my thoughts careening on the edge of non-Euclidean angles.

And in my reverie, I felt as if I was carried far from this benighted shore to a strange, nethermost space so distant, so forsaken, it was hard to say whether it had ever really existed. And there beyond the vagaries of time and space, in a chamber unlit, there was something that moved, something boundless in its cruel hunger, something that saw me and knew me! It whispered its blasphemy to me, in maddening murmurs, it muttered its madness! It was the center of infinity, the boundless place where all things, known and unknown – the information – were collected and entombed; the place where one could seek and uncover all the secret knowledge of the universe. All one had to do was search! And it seemed that this place was reaching out and touching our plane of existence, collecting all that was known, draining dry our very thoughts and adding them unceremoniously to the black spirals of infinity that swarmed in the occult gulfs outside of time.

I awoke in the driver’s seat of my Camry. My clothes were disheveled and I smelled terrible. The sun was rising. No fleet of hellbound busses met its light. No perverse parking lot stretched to the reaches of furthest space. I was alone on a hill overlooking a highway.

I present my account to you in the hope that someone, somewhere will be able to make sense of it, or at least, find some small grain of comfort in the confirmation that the struggles of this world are transitory, that something strange and terrible is waiting for us in the dark. Remember: what was driven may be parked, and what was idle may drive again.”

October 25, 2013

The Halloween House

The following story is found in The Hamlyn Book of Ghosts by J. Allen Randolph, published in London in 1969:

Of the many strange encounters I have had over the years, there is one that stands out to me as a testimony to the oft-forgotten human side of the supernatural, the normal, as it were, of the paranormal. When I was a student at university, I was acquainted with an elderly, eccentric professor. I should stop now and say that there were, in fact, any number of elderly, eccentric professors at university, but the strangeness of Professor James stood head and shoulders above the rest.

Professor James taught anthropology at Yale University in the United States. He had studied with some of the greats like Radcliffe-Brown, Malinowski, and Lévi-Strauss. But James was a standout in that crowd for the extreme lengths that he would go to prove his theories. His specialty was European folklore from the Iron Age to the Early Modern. He was especially interested in its material culture.

Professor James took a special liking to me I think because I grew up in Britain, site of some of his specialized research. In those days, it was not uncommon for professors to dine with their students, and Professor James had invited me to his home for just such an occasion. I should mention that the date in question was October the 31st, All Hallows’ Eve, or as they call it these days, Halloween Night.

As I approached the wide front porch of Professor James’s old Victorian home, I stepped over a curious line of white powder that snaked across the stately lawn. Professor James met me at the door in a state of extreme agitation. I was quickly hustled inside to an empty house. It was then that I learned that I was to be the only guest that evening. He had even dismissed his man for the night.

I was rather dismayed as Professor James could monologue at length on the subject of Roman charms and Celtic tomb mounds and it was so much easier to escape when one had an accomplice. Even so, I sat in the chair offered and girded myself for an enlightening, if not lively, evening.

Professor James stood at the great fireplace hanging his head. The flickering shadows on his face carved lines of worry and even fear. The fire’s soft sputtering was the only sound. After some time he turned to face me.

“Do you know what day it is, Randolph?” he asked me.

“Of course, sir,” I replied. “It’s the last day of October, the 31st.”

“Do you know what happens on the last day of October, Randolph?”

Back home in England, the modern Halloween tradition was not widespread, but I had been in the states long enough to know about the practice of guising-up and asking for treats.

“It’s the night when the youngsters dress up and ask about for sweets,” I answered.

“Yes,” he said. “But it’s also the night when the world of the dead coincides, as it were, with the world of the living. Do you think that’s true, Randolph?”

“No, sir, I do not,” was my reply but I admit I was lying because even then I had already seen some strange things in my short life.

“Maybe it’s a metaphor, Randolph,” he said. “Some days, I wish it were. Tonight the dead live again, the meek become the powerful, the king goes begging in the streets, and,” he paused and turned away from me, “all debts must be paid.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of this statement; it was rather dramatic for Professor James. I didn’t have time to respond as I was whisked away to the dining room for a surprisingly truncated dinner of ham sandwiches and nearly cold soup.

James sat and watched as I dined. In his hand he fingered a trifle, a small coin that caught the dim light. He saw me looking at it. “Do you know what this is, Randolph?” he asked me.

“I must confess that I do not, sir. A lucky coin perhaps?”

“A good guess. You always were a most perceptive student.” Professor James held the coin up to the light. “It’s called a touch piece. It’s a kind of sympathetic magic, in it operates on the basis of its association with something else. This particular piece was once owned by Emperor Vespasian.”

“Good heavens, sir!” I nearly spit in my soup. “Vespasian’s amulets are a myth; they’ve never been found!”

James put the coin in the pocket of his smoking jacket. “Never reported to have been found.” He smiled coldly and stood. “Nevertheless, its power to protect its bearer is quite real.”

I quickly finished my soup under Professor James’s quiet stare. He led me back to the study and we settled into a pair of overstuffed chairs. The fire crackled, sending shadows across the walls. James stared into the flames and asked “Do you believe in witchcraft, Randolph?”

“There are some interesting –” I began but was quickly cut off.

“Necromancy, conjuring, sorcery, Randolph. The power that turns the wheel of the universe. Magic.” James quickly rose and pointed to the window. “There, you see?” he asked. A thin, scruffy flower hung suspended in the curtain. “The wild rose, it repels evil, just like the line of salt that encircles the house. You saw it, no doubt.”

Professor James retrieved a small stone from the mantle. “This stone was painted by the ancient Picts and infused with a power.” He pointed to a larger rock that rested on the hearth. “This is a fragment of a Punic betyl that once protected the great temple at ruined Carthage.” He glanced my way with a wild smile. “It may not have been a complete success.”

I returned the smile and tried to interject but James was already off on another subject. “Do you know the Merseburg Incantations? Eiris sazun idisi, sazun hera duoder; suma hapt heptidun, suma heri lezidun! Do you think it will work?”

I was beginning to suspect that James was more unhinged than usual, and that it was now my responsibility to see that he didn’t hurt himself. Is that why he had asked me to come, I wondered? James struck a match and lit a small bowl. A sickly sweet incense permeated the air.

“It’s kyphi from ancient Egypt,” he told me. “Used to placate the dead and their pagan masters. I also have a small pot of mummia, ground from the bones of ancient Egyptian mummies, although I am not sure it will be of use to me.”

Professor James patted his coat pocket. “I have here the bone of a black cat. I have it on good authority that it is a powerful mojo, but I have my doubts.”

He opened a small box on a side table and picked up a thin, curved rod with great reverence. “And this is my prize, this is a 2,000-year-old ivory wand dedicated to Hecate Chthonia, mother of witches.” I could see the fine lines of airy script delicately carved along the yellowing surface.

Suddenly, we heard the sound of a quick knock on the front door. Professor James jumped and nearly dropped his beloved witching wand. Seeing his fear, I rose to answer it, but the professor caught my sleeve. “Do not answer the door tonight,” he commanded.

“But, sir,” I began, “it’s only the local children asking for their sweets. Must we disappoint them?”

James’s eyes screwed together in disbelief. “Children? They are most decidedly not children, although they may wish that you think them harmless.” My befuddled stare impelled him to add: “The door is made from the wood of a rowan tree; it cannot be breached by the forces of darkness.”

I knew that the poor professor was having what we call a breakdown, but being a student, it was not at all clear from whence I would derive the authority to intervene. I was, as they say now, along for the ride.

James was now waving his wand and reciting something in Old English: “Sitte ge, sīgewīf, sīgað tō eorðan, næfre ge wilde tō wuda fleogan.”

I could hear more knocking now, not from the front door, but from the back of the house.

“Beō ge swā gemindige, mīnes gōdes, swā bið manna gehwilc, metes and ēðeles.”

Now they were knocking on the windows and I knew that Professor James was right: they were not children. Something sinister was afoot. Amidst the rattling and knocking, James fingered the old Roman touch piece and waved the ivory wand in the kyphi smoke. He cut a figure both mad and wild, an ancient wizard born of standing stones and dragon’s blood.

I went to check the doors, to make certain whomever was attacking the house was not breaking in. I found the ground floor to be secure and as I returned to the study, both the knocking and the professor’s chanting suddenly ceased. I found Professor James slumped in his chair, his hand clutched to his chest. He was not breathing.

I raced to the telephone and told the operator to send a stretcher. I knew it was probably too late for old Professor James, that whatever it was that was after him had succeeded in finding him. I wondered if I had somehow let him down, if in my ignorance of the ancient practices, I had inadvertently let the door open for evil.

In retrospect, I can say that it has been my experience that men do not ward off evil by trying to keep it outside, that evil exists already inside of all of us, that we are in fact, the source of much of the evil that plagues the world, and the best that we as weak and imperfect humans might be able to do is keep the evil in our hearts locked up securely inside.

In postscript I must add that as I waited for assistance to arrive, I spied something on the floor in front of Professor James. It was the touch piece that had belonged to Vespasian. A priceless artifact, if it could be authenticated, or merely a trinket. A fool’s burden in either case. There was a knock on the door.

It was not a knock like before. This was a quiet rap, a child’s knock. Without fear, I opened the door and there on the step stood a child of no more than nine or ten. He was dressed in a ragged red suit and to his face had been applied a red pigment and on his head he wore a crown of paper horns.

He held out a limp brown sack. “Trick or treat,” the little Devil said.

“Neither,” I responded and tossed the ancient touch piece into his bag. “Happy Halloween.”

October 8, 2013

So true, it's scary!

Scary True Stories has transmogrified into a cunning new ebook! Twenty-five true stories of terror! Get it at Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Smashwords. Watch the spooky book trailer below.

October 2, 2013

The Screaming Skull

We have always lived with the skull. The first time I laid eyes on it, I was just seven years old. One night just before Halloween, my dad took a small wooden box out of the cabinet in the living room. He laid it on the dining room table and carefully opened it up. My brother and I looked inside and there was a little yellowish skull. I think my dad had too much wine. Mom made him put it back.

The story of the skull is the story of the house I grew up in. It was – and still is – one of the oldest brick homes still standing in the country, probably the oldest in that part of Illinois. The house was built in 1810 just outside of St. Louis by a French businessman named Nicholas Jarrot. The house is called the Jarrot Mansion.
My parents both came from well-to-do families, but don’t get the impression that our house was some sprawling estate. The Jarrot Mansion was small and cramped for something called a mansion, but I guess it was pretty spectacular at the time it was built.

Nicholas Jarrot, the guy who built it, was an interesting fellow. He started out as a fur trader, became a land developer, and sat as a judge where he hanged more than a few men. He ended up as one the most respected and richest men in the county.

He built the house with solid bones, my dad would say. It was built to last. My dad said that it was Jarrot’s skull that sat in the box in the cabinet, that it came with the house, that it would always stay there. My mom wasn’t so sure.

The story goes like this: my dad was related to Jarrot and inherited the house. He and my mom were both teaching at the University of Illinois when they got married and moved in. They were young and newlyweds and they fell in love with the place. My dad thought it was beautiful and scary. My mom just thought it was scary. They were both weird like that. This was in the 1970s.

I don’t know who told the story about the skull to my dad, probably my grandfather, but he died when I was young. My mom wanted to throw the skull away, but my dad convinced her it was just a family heirloom and it stayed. So, the skull came with the house, as my dad liked to say.

When I was seventeen years old, my parents had some new colleagues from the University over to the house for dinner. They were talking about local history and my dad couldn’t resist breaking out the skull. My mom told me they were a little shocked to see a human skull in the house, but being professors, they were more interested than outraged.

One of them was an anthropologist and as soon as he saw that skull he knew it wasn’t from old Nic Jarrot. He said there was no way it was from the 19th century. My mom told me she thought maybe it was more recent, maybe from some kind of murder, but the anthropologist didn’t think so.

My dad said bye to the skull and the anthropologist left with it to run some tests and figure out where it had come from. My mom was happy to see it go, but my dad was strangely uneasy. It was his family’s skull, I guess, but it’s not like he was really attached to it. The tests were going to be two weeks, three tops.

That night after the dinner, the house felt weird. It’s hard to describe, but when I went to bed, it was like the walls were gone, like the air outside was just blowing through the house. The place was old, so it was drafty, but this was different; there was a different quality to the house, an unsettling one.

The next night it was still weird. I had the strangest dream that I was walking through a fog and the ground was really muddy. It was getting harder and harder to walk and, just as I couldn’t go on anymore, I saw a figure through the haze. Someone was walking towards me and I had the strongest sensation of fear that I’ve ever felt. Just as I woke up, I heard the end of a woman’s scream. I don’t know if it was in my dream or not.

The next few days were worse. More dreams and this time when I woke up, the screaming was still going on. It was downstairs or it was outside or it was in my closet. But, no matter where I looked, there was nothing. My parents heard it, too. I could tell by the looks on their faces in the morning.

At the end of the week, I finally confronted them. We had all heard the screams, yes, but what freaked me out – freaked all of us out – was that we had all had the same dream. I don’t think my parents were ready for that one, but they couldn’t deny it.

My dad was an engineer; he liked to figure things out. Although, he didn’t really believe in a lot of paranormal stuff, he was convinced that moving the skull had angered Jarrot’s ghost or, as he put, “an intentional energy field manifesting as information in local space-time.” I thought he sounded like Doctor Who.

My dad set up an old camcorder and some other equipment that could read energy fields and stuff. That night, we all have the dream, we all hear the screams. I can barely wait to check to see what we got. It’s like Christmas morning.

I come downstairs and my dad’s already there, watching the tape. Back and forth, back and forth, he keeps playing this one scene. I’m looking, squinting at the screen, but I’m not seeing anything. “There,” he says, and in the corner of the screen, behind the couch and in front of the drapes is the outline of a figure, what appears to be a woman with her hands clenched in fists raised to the sky. She doesn’t have a head.

There’s only a second of footage that the figure appears in, but it’s certainly enough for us. We hit the library and the local historical society for more information about Jarrot. It was a real ghostbusting adventure. My dad could be fun and weird when he wanted to.

What we found in all the old documents was a little scary. Jarrot had a housekeeper named O’Malley who worked for him for twenty years. There was some stuff that the people in the historical society told us that suggested she had been very close to him, close enough to get pregnant, I guess. That was the story anyway.

In December 1842, O’Malley the maid disappeared unexpectedly and some people said that Jarrot had bought her off and sent her back to Ireland. Some other people, however, said it would be highly unusual to take a trip in the dead of winter and that if O’Malley went anywhere, she went to her reward at Jarrot’s hands.

Of course, there’s no evidence for any of it; we don’t even know if O’Malley ever existed. Dad, however, is convinced. I think he liked the elegance of the solution. It all makes sense: the skull is the housekeeper’s and Jarrot had to keep it in the house in order to placate her restless spirit. Classic ghost story, right?

We get home and we start preparing for that night: cameras, recorders, we’re all going to stay up and try to talk to the ghost of O’Malley. I have my Ouija board. Then the phone rings. It’s the anthropologist who took the skull. He has some results for us.

Even though it had only been a week, the anthropologist was so excited he wanted to call us right away. Turns out the skull was far older than any of us imagined. As my dad told me afterwards, the anthropologist knew right away that the skull was ancient.

Where my house is, I guess there used to be a city. Not just any city, but a city built by ancient native Americans. The anthropologist called it Cahokia. A thousand years ago it was the New York City of the Midwest.

The thing about Cahokia is that they may have practiced human sacrifice. See, they built these giant dirt mounds that were a lot like what the Aztecs did in Central America. Later, in the 19th century, they found a lot of bones around here, but when people started building buildings and houses, they just knocked the mounds over to fill in parts of the river. A lot of Cahokia got levelled, including the part that Nicholas Jarrot built his fine house on.

So we lived on top of an ancient city, maybe the part of the city where they killed a lot of people. The anthropologist said that the skull was from a young woman who lived in the area at the time that Cahokia was thriving. Did Jarrot find her skull when he built his house? Did he keep it in a box? Is that bad?

We got the skull back from the anthropologist. He didn’t want to return it, but he had made a deal with my dad, a deal my dad insisted on keeping. All the strange stuff cleared up when the skull came home. No more dreams or sounds in the night. I don’t know if I would want my skull kept in a box in a house full of strangers, but maybe that wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to a person. Maybe if that girl whose skull it is was a sacrifice, maybe she was sacrificed to protect the city or her family. Maybe in some way she’s still doing that; maybe she’s trying to protect us.

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