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.

September 9, 2013

The Starr Interview

The following was sent to me anonymously. As far as I can ascertain, it is the transcript of an interview conducted by George Knope, a reporter for KTNV News in Las Vegas in 2007.  It was never aired. My attempts to verify the assertions made below have met with little success.

George Knope: I’d like to begin with you stating your name and your position at the facility.

Mr. Starr: Well, you can call me Mr. Starr, that’ll be my name for now. As far as my position goes, I was an engineer at a top secret military research facility in the Nevada desert.

Knope: And what was the name of that facility?

Starr: We just called it the base, but you might know it as Area 51.

Knope: And what did you see there at Area 51?

Starr: I worked on UFOs.

Knope: Right, so I’ll ask you straight out, where did these machines come from?

Starr: Well, we were never briefed on their origins per se, but it was understood that we did not build them.

Knope: Maybe the Soviets?

Starr: No, you misunderstand. By we, I mean humans didn’t build them.

Knope: All right, then. Could you tell what they were exactly? What did they look like?

Starr: They were disc-shaped, about 70 feet in diameter. They were made from an odd material that the metallurgists called an exotic alloy, but I don’t know much more. They looked somewhat clumsy – fragile –  for what were ostensibly interstellar craft. 

Knope: How many craft did you see?

Starr: There were five total at the base, each in its own hanger with separate workstations.

Knope: Do you have any idea how they ended up at Area 51? Did they crash?

Starr: Again, conversations about the origins of the crafts were, how should I say, frowned upon. I assume that they were recovered from crash sites, but I never saw any evidence of damage from a crash landing. I do know they had been there for a long time.

Knope: How long?

Starr: We weren’t supposed to attach dates to our files and I thought this was an odd way of doing things. One day I was looking over some old test results on the engines in order to see if there had been any sort of change over time and the dates I saw ran back to the 1950s. I guess they kept dates on the files at first before they discontinued the practice. 

Knope: Okay, wow. So, tell me about those engines. That’s what you worked on, isn’t it?

Starr: Yes, that’s right. We called it the box. It was simple really, almost too simple. You wouldn’t think it could do much of anything, least of all travel to other planets.

Knope: Was it just a plain old box then?

Starr: Yes, it was a box. It was about two feet tall, same alloy as the ship, with a chamber inside for what we assumed was some kind of fuel. The speculation was that the craft was powered by element 115 and then 120 after it was discovered that 115 was unstable. Now we can’t just go and put those elements into the engine. I mean, they were only theoretical at the time. But then we had a big break.

Knope: You had a breakthrough?

Starr: Not exactly. There was one day when the base closed down, we were told to stay home and come in the next day. Well, when we returned I could tell right away that they had had another research team in there working on the crafts. I’d been there long enough to know when someone’s been tinkering with my project. Then they told us we were going on turn on the engine that day.

Knope: Who did they bring in? Someone from Google maybe?

Starr: Uh, no. I don’t know who they were exactly; however, one of the lead project managers made a comment that to this day I still have not been able to adequately explain. 

Knope: What did he say?

Starr: The day before the base closed, he was speaking to one of the generals in charge. The general asked if the hanger was safe and the manager said, “You bring the kids in and I’ll make the room safe.”

Knope: What does that mean? Who are the kids?

Starr: I don’t know. My guess is that they weren’t talking about making the place safe against eavesdropping or spying or something like that; the base was already extremely secure. I think what they meant was some kind of environmental security, that whoever these kids were, they needed specialized conditions in order to survive in an ordinary room.

Knope: Uh, do you mean like they couldn’t breath our atmosphere?

Starr: It could be something like that, yes.

Knope: Wow, just wow.

Starr: This is all speculation on my part you understand.

Knope: Right, so what happened when you fired up the box? Did you take her for a spin?

Starr: Not exactly. That day was quite hectic. A lot of excitement was building. There were people – dignitaries and special guests, I guess – crowding all the hallways and observation rooms. I took a look at the box on the craft we were going to use that day and there was nothing about it that I could tell was different from the day before. I didn’t know why my superiors were convinced it was going to work.

Knope: So, how did you turn it on? Was there some control panel or a big switch?

Starr: There was this sliding panel that traced a half-circle along on the top of the box. That was the switch, the only switch.

Knope: What happened when you flipped the switch?

Starr: I’m still not sure that I can account for what happened. There were three of us in the craft at the time. My colleague did the honors. He slid the switch about an inch and immediately you could feel it in your teeth. This was the magnetic field charging up. He slid it another inch and all the monitoring equipment we had inside the craft gave the strangest readings. I didn’t know if it was malfunctioning or not.

Knope: What about outside? What was going on outside the ship?

Starr: We were in radio contact for a while and we were told that the ship had lifted off the ground a few inches at the first turn of the switch. At the second, it started to glow.

Knope: Did you guys go further?

Starr: Yes, we did. My colleague turned it a third time, nearly to the maximum setting. The vibration in the floor was building to what felt like dangerous levels and I was very afraid the craft might tear itself apart. Then suddenly everything quieted down, the vibration dissipated. I tried to ask my colleagues what was happening, but I found that there was no sound in the craft, my mouth was moving but there was no noise.

Knope: What about outside, were you flying at this point?

Starr: I don’t believe so. I tried to use the radio, but of course, there was no sound. I looked behind me because we had left the craft’s hatch open, but all I could see outside the door was something like a swirling fog. I was very afraid at that point. 

Knope: I bet. So, did you power down?

Starr: Not then. Not before we saw them.

Knope: Saw them? Saw who?

Starr: My theory is that the box is a kind of distortion engine.

Knope: Distortion engine? What does it distort?

Starr: Space, time, everything. In the sense that gravity is a force that can distort space, the box could disrupt gravity, manipulate it in a fashion that allowed travel.

Knope: Travel from different stars, right?

Starr: That’s one place. But gravity can distort time as well as space, so in the proper hands, there’s the possibility that the box could propel the craft to different places and times.

Knope: It’s a time machine?

Starr: I wouldn’t call it that, but I did witness this effect at the very end of the experiment.

Knope: You traveled through time?

Starr: Just as my colleague dialed back the box, the distortion effects that I was seeing outside the craft were manifesting inside.

Knope: The fog?

Starr: Exactly. Only up close, I could see things in the fog.

Knope: Things?

Starr: A distortion field appeared in front of me and I saw several soldiers in gas masks and a figure inside the ship, bent over the box. I thought I was seeing another engineer, but then he turned around. I would describe its face as vaguely reptilian but that would only serve to apply a narrow set of criteria to something that was truly otherworldly. It was terrifying and wonderful. And even though its eyes were black and glassy, I got the intense feeling that it was looking at me, looking at me through time.

Knope: Through time?

Starr: I believe that this being was one of the kids, the builders of the craft, the ones who knew how to turn it on. The distortion effect was revealing the events of the day before, when the base was closed and these so-called kids were brought in to show the monkeys where the keys to the car were kept or something. 

Knope: Wow, fascinating.

Starr: Yes, but then –

It would seem that the interview was abruptly ended at that point and there the transcript ends. I can only imagine the reason why. Does the government really possess such an extraordinary craft? Does it keep an alien being a prisoner in some remote lab? We may never know the answers until more brave individuals like Mr. Starr step forward with the truth.
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