Saturday, October 22, 2016

Horror: A True Tale by John Harwood - Best Horror Short Story 15 from 1850-1899

Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine was very popular in its day. Edgar Allan Poe even lampooned some of its over-the-top stories in his How to Write a Blackwood's Article. It should be pointed out, however, that Poe was never published in the British magazine.

The magazine was not afraid to publish scary horror short stories. Its January 1861 article was no exception. That issue brought the world "Horror: A True Tale" by John Berwick Harwood (1828-1899), a British author known for his horror and supernatural tales. Harwood was known in popular English writing circles of his day and even collaborated with Charles Dickens on the short story Picking Up a Pocketbook.

"Horror: A True Tale" was published anonymously in Blackwood's perhaps because of its subject matter. It is, after all, Harwood's most horrific story. Given its story backgrounds and character generation, I am placing it at position 15 in my countdown of the best horror short stories from 1850-1899 in the English language. The top ten are contained in my latest classic horror anthology for which the cover is shown below the story.

Horror: A True Tale
John Harwood

I WAS BUT nineteen years of age when the incident occurred which has thrown a shadow over my life: and, ah me! how many and many a weary year has dragged by since then! Young, happy, and beloved I was in those long-departed days. They said that I was beautiful. The mirror now reflects a haggard old woman, with ashen lips and face of deadly pallor. But do not fancy that you are listening to a mere puling lament. It is not the flight of years that has brought me to be this wreck of my former self: had it been so, I could have borne the loss cheerfully, patiently, as the common lot of all; but it was no natural progress of decay which has robbed me of bloom? of youth, of the hopes and joys that belong to youth, snapped the link that bound my heart to another's, and doomed me to a lone old age.

I try to be patient, but my cross has been heavy, and my heart is empty and weary, and I long for the death that comes so slowly to those who pray to die. I will try and relate, exactly as it happened, the event which blighted my life. Though it occurred many years ago, there is no fear that I should have forgotten any of the minutest circumstances: they were stamped on my brain too clearly and burningly, like the brand of a red-hot iron. I see them written in the wrinkles of my brow, in the dead whiteness of my hair, which was a glossy brown once, and has known no gradual change from dark to grey, from grey to white, as with those happy ones who were the companions of my girlhood, and whose honoured age is soothed by the love of children and grand-children. But I must not envy them. I only meant to say that the difficulty of my task has no connection with want of memory--I remember but too well. But as I take the pen, by hand trembles, my head swims, the old rushing faintness and Horror comes over me again, and the well-remembered fear is upon me. Yet I will go on.

This, briefly, is my story: I was a great heiress, I believe, though I cared little for the fact, but so it was. My father had great possessions, and no son to inherit after him. His three daughters, of whom I was the youngest, were to share the broad acres among them. I have said, and truly, that I cared little for this circumstance; and, indeed, I was so rich then in health and youth and love, that I felt myself quite indifferent to all else. The possession of all the treasures of earth could never have made up for what I then had--and lost? as I am about to relate.

Of course, we girls knew that we were heiresses, but I do not think Lucy and Minnie were any the prouder or the happier on that account. I know I was not. Reginald did not court me for my money. Of that I felt assured. He proved it, Heaven be praised! when he shrank from my side after the change. Yes, in all my lonely age, I can still be thankful that he did not keep his word, as some would have done, did not clasp at the altar a hand he had learned to loathe and shudder at, because it was full of gold--much gold! At least, he spared me that. And I know that I was loved, and the knowledge has kept me from going mad through many a weary day and restless night, when my hot eyeballs had not a tear to shed and even to weep was a luxury denied me.

Our house was an old Tudor mansion. My father was very particular in keeping the smallest peculiarities of his home unaltered. Thus the many peaks and gables, the numerous turrets, and the mullioned windows with their quaint lozenge panes set in lead, remained very nearly as they had been three centuries back. Over and above the quaint melancholy of our dwelling, with the deep woods of its park and the sullen waters of the mere, our neighbourhood was thinly peopled and primitive, and the people round us were ignorant, and tenacious of ancient ideas and traditions. Thus it was a superstitious atmosphere that we children were reared in, and we heard, from our infancy, countless tales of horror, some mere fables doubtless, others legends of dark deeds of the olden time exaggerated by credulity and the love of the marvellous. Our mother had died when we were young, and our other parent being, though a kind father, much absorbed in affairs of various kinds, as an active magistrate and landlord, there was no one to check the unwholesome stream of tradition with which our plastic minds were inundated in the company of nurses and servants. As years went on, however, the old ghostly tales partially lost their effects, and our undisciplined minds were turned more towards balls dress, and partners, and other matters airy and trivial, more welcome to our riper age.

It was at a county assembly that Reginald and I first met--met and loved. Yes, I am sure that he loved me with all his heart. It was not as deep a heart as some, I have thought in my grief and anger; but I never doubted its truth and honesty. Reginald's father and mine approved of our growing attachment; and as for myself, I know I was so happy then, that I look back upon those fleeting moments as on some delicious dream. I now come to the change. I have lingered on my childish reminiscences, my bright and happy youth, and now I must tell the rest--the blight and the sorrow. It was Christmas, always a joyful and a hospitable time in the country, especially in such an old hall as our home, where quaint customs and frolics were much clung to, as part and parcel of the very dwelling itself. The hall was full of guests--so full, indeed, that there was great difficulty in providing sleeping accommodation for all. Several narrow and dark chambers in the turrets--mere pigeon-holes, as we irreverently called what had been thought good enough for the stately gentlemen of Elizabeth's reign--were now allotted to bachelor visitors, after having been empty for a century. All the spare rooms in the body and wings of the hall were occupied, of course; and the servants who had been brought down were lodged at the farm and at the keeper's, so great was the demand for space. At last the unexpected arrival of an elderly relative, who had been asked months before, but scarcely expected, caused great commotion.

My aunts went about wringing their hands distractedly. Lady Speldhurst was a personage of some consequence; she was a distant cousin, and had been for years on cool terms with us all, on account of some fancied affront or slight when she had paid her last visit, about the time of my christening. She was seventy years old; she was infirm, rich, and testy; moreover, she was my godmother, though I had forgotten the fact, but it seems that though I had formed no expectations of a legacy in my favour, my aunts had done so for me.

Aunt Margaret was especially eloquent on the subject. "There isn't a room left," she said; "was ever anything so unfortunate? We cannot put Lady Speldhurst into the turrets, and yet where is she to sleep? And Rosa's godmother, too! poor dear child! how dreadful! After all these years of estrangement, and with a hundred thousand in the funds, and no comfortable warm room at her own unlimited disposal--and Christmas, of all times in the year!" What was to be done? My aunts could not resign their own chambers to Lady Speldhurst, because they had already given them up to some of the married guests. My father was the most hospitable of men, but he was rheumatic, gouty, and methodical. His sisters-in-law dared not propose to shift his quarters, and indeed he would have far sooner dined on prison fare than have been translated to a strange bed. The matter ended in my giving up my room. I had a strange reluctance to making the offer, which surprised myself. Was it a boding of evil to come? I cannot say.

We are strangely and wonderfully made. It may have been. At any rate, I do not think it was any selfish unwillingness to make an old and infirm lady comfortable by a trifling sacrifice. I was perfectly healthy and strong. The weather was not cold for the time of year. It was a dark moist Yule--not a snowy one, though snow brooded overhead in the darkling clouds. I did make the offer, which became me, I said with a laugh, as youngest. My sisters laughed too, and made a jest of my evident wish to propitiate my godmother. "She is a fairy godmother, Rosa," said Minnie; "and you know she was affronted at your christening, and went away muttering vengeance. Here she is coming back to see you; I hope she brings golden gifts with her." I thought little of Lady Speldhurst and her possible golden gifts. I cared nothing for the wonderful fortune in the funds that my aunts whispered and nodded about so mysteriously. But, since then, I have wondered whether, had I then shown myself peevish or obstinate, had I refused to give up my room for the expected kinswoman, it would not have altered the whole of my life? But then Lucy or Minnie would have offered in my stead, and been sacrificed--what do I say?--better that the blow should have fallen as it did, than on those dear ones.

The chamber to which I removed was a dim little triangular room in the western wing, and was only to be reached by traversing the picture-gallery, or by mounting a little flight of stone stairs which led directly upwards from the low-browed arch of a door that opened into the garden. There was one more room on the same landing-place, and this was a mere receptacle for broken furniture, shattered toys, and all the lumber that will accumulate in a country-house. The room I was to inhabit for a few nights was a tapestry-hung apartment, with faded green curt ins of some costly stuff, contrasting oddly with a new carpet and the bright fresh hangings of the bed, which had been hurriedly erected.

The furniture was half old, half new, and on the dressing-table stood a very quaint oval mirror, in a frame of black wood--unpolished ebony, I think. I can remember the very pattern of the carpet, the number of chairs, the situation of the bed, the figures on the tapestry. Nay, I can recollect not only the colour of the dress I wore on that fatal evening, but the arrangement of every scrap of lace and ribbon, of every flower, every jewel, with a memory but too perfect. Scarcely had my maid finished spreading out my various articles of attire for the evening (when there was to be a great dinner-party), when the rumble of a carriage announced that Lady Speldhurst had arrived. The short winter's day drew to a close, and a large number of guests were gathered together in the ample drawing-room, around the blaze of the wood fire, after dinner. My father, I recollect, was not with us at first. There were some squires of the old hard-riding, hard-drinking stamp still lingering over their port in the dining-room, and the host, of course, could not leave them. But the ladies and all the younger gentlemen--both those who slept under our roof, and those who would have a dozen miles of fog and mire to encounter on their road home--were all together. Need I say that Reginald was there? He sat near me--my accepted lover, my plighted future husband. We were to be married in the spring. My sisters were not far off; they, too, had found eyes that sparkled and softened in meeting theirs, had found hearts that beat responsive to their own. And, in their cases, no rude frost nipped the blossom ere it became the fruit; there was no canker in their flowerets of young hope, no cloud in their sky. Innocent and loving, they were beloved by men worthy their esteem.

 The room, a large and lofty one, with an arched roof, had somewhat of a sombre character from being wainscoted and ceiled with polished black oak of a great age. There were mirrors, and there were pictures on the walls, and handsome furniture, and marble chimney-pieces, and a gay Tournay carpet; but these merely appeared as bright spots on the dark background of the Elizabethan woodwork. Many lights were burning, but the blackness of the walls and roof seemed absolutely to swallow up their rays, like the mouth of a cavern. A hundred candles could not have given that apartment the cheerful lightness of a modern drawing-room. But the gloomy richness of the panels matched well with the ruddy gleam from the enormous wood fire, in which, crackling and glowing, now lay the mighty Yule log. Quite a blood-red lustre poured forth from the fire, and quivered on the walls and the groined roof. We had gathered round the vast antique hearth in a wide circle. The quivering light of the fire and candles fell upon us all, but not equally, for some were in shadow. I remember still how tall and manly and handsome Reginald looked that night, taller by the head than any there, and full of high spirits and gaiety. I, too, was in the highest spirits; never had my bosom felt lighter, and I believe it was my mirth which gradually gained the rest, for I recollect what a blithe, joyous company we seemed. All save one.

Lady Speldhurst, dressed in grey silk and wearing a quaint head-dress, sat in her armchair, facing the fire, very silent, with her hands and her sharp chin propped on a sort of ivory-handled crutch that she walked with (for she was lame), peering at me with half-shut eyes. She was a little spare old woman, with very keen delicate features of the French type. Her grey silk dress, her spotless lace, old-fashioned jewels, and prim neatness of array, were well suited to the intelligence of her face, with its thin lips, and eyes of a piercing black, undimmed by age. Those eyes made me uncomfortable, in spite of my gaiety, as they followed my every movement with curious scrutiny. Still I was very merry and gay; my sisters even wondered at my ever-ready mirth, which was almost wild in its excess. I have heard since then of the Scottish belief that those doomed to some great calamity become fey, and are never so disposed for merriment and laughter as just before the blow falls. If ever mortal was fey, then, I was so on that evening. Still, though I strove to shake it off, the pertinacious observation of old Lady Speldhurst's eyes did make an impression on me of a vaguely disagreeable nature. Others, too, noticed her scrutiny of me, but set it down as a mere eccentricity of a person always reputed whimsical, to say the least of it.

 However, this disagreeable sensation lasted but a few moments. After a short pause my aunt took her part in the conversation, and we found ourselves listening to a weird legend which the old lady told exceedingly well. One tale led to another. Every one was called on in turn to contribute to the public entertainment, and story after story, always relating to demonology and witchcraft, succeeded. It was Christmas, the season for such tales; and the old room, with its dusky walls and pictures, and vaulted roof, drinking up the light so greedily, seemed just fitted to give effect to such legendary lore. The huge logs crackled and burnt with glowing warmth; the blood-red glare of the Yule log flashed on the faces of the listeners and narrator, on the portraits, and the holly wreathed about their frames, and the upright old dame in her antiquated dress and trinkets, like one of the originals of the pictures stepped from the canvas to join our circle. It threw a shimmering lustre of an ominously ruddy hue upon the oaken panels.

No wonder that the ghost and goblin stories had a new zest. No wonder that the blood of the more timid grew chilI and curdled, that their flesh crept, and their hearts beat irregularly, and the girls peeped fearfully over their shoulders, and huddled close together like frightened sheep, and half-fancied they beheld some impish and malignant face gibbering at them from the darkling corners of the old room. By degrees my high spirits died out, and I felt the childish tremors, long latent, long forgotten, coming over me. I followed each story with painful interest; I did not ask myself if I believed the dismal tales. I listened, and fear grew upon me--the blind, irrational fear of our nursery days. I am sure most of the other ladies present, young or middle-aged, were affected by the circumstances under which these traditions were heard, no less than by the wild and fantastic character of them. But with them the impression would die out next morning, when the bright sun should shine on the frosted boughs, and the rime on the grass, and the scarlet berries and green spikelets of the holly; and with me--but, ah! what was to happen ere another day dawn? Before we had made an end of this talk, my father and the other squires came in, and we ceased our ghost stories, ashamed to speak of such matters before these newcomers--hard-headed, unimaginative men, who had no sympathy with idle legends. There was now a stir and bustle.

  Servants were handing round tea and coffee, and other refreshments. Then there was a little music and singing. I sang a duet with Reginald, who had a fine voice and good musical skill. I remember that my singing was much praised, and indeed I was surprised at the power and pathos of my own voice, doubtless due to my excited nerves and mind. Then I heard some one say to another that I was by far the cleverest of the Squire's daughters, as well as the prettiest. It did not make me vain. I had no rivalry with Lucy and Minnie. But Reginald whispered some soft fond words in my ear, a little before he mounted his horse to set off homewards, which did make me happy and proud. And to think that the next time we met--but I forgave him long ago. Poor Reginald! And now shawls and cloaks were in request, and carriages rolled up to the porch, and the guests gradually departed. At last no one was left but those visitors staying in the house. Then my father, who had been called out to speak with the bailiff of the estate, came back with a look of annoyance on his face. "A strange story I have just been told," said he; "here has been my bailiff to inform me of the loss of four of the choicest ewes out of that little flock of Southdowns I set such store by, and which arrived in the north but two months since. And the poor creatures have been destroyed in so strange a manner, for their carcasses are horribly mangled."

Most of us uttered some expression of pity or surprise, and some suggested that a vicious dog was probably the culprit. "It would seem so," said my father; "it certainly seems the work of a dog; and yet all the men agree that no dog of such habits exists near us, where, indeed, dogs are scarce, excepting the shepherds' collies and the sporting dogs secured in yards. Yet the sheep are gnawed and bitten, for they show the marks of teeth. Something has done this, and has torn their bodies wolfishly; but apparently it has been only to suck the blood, for little or no flesh is gone." "How strange!" cried several voices. Then some of the gentlemen remembered to have heard of cases when dogs addicted to sheep-killing had destroyed whole flocks, as if in sheer wantonness, scarcely deigning to taste a morsel of each slain wether. My father shook his head. "I have heard of such cases, too?" he said; "but in this instance I am tempted to think the malice of some unknown enemy has been at work. The teeth of a dog have been busy no doubt, but the poor sheep have been mutilated in a fantastic manner, as strange as horrible; their hearts, in especial, have been torn out, and left at some paces off, half-gnawed. Also, the men persist that they found the print of a naked human foot in the soft mud of the ditch, and near it--this." And he held up what seemed a broken link of a rusted iron chain.

Many were the ejaculations of wonder and alarm, and many and shrewd the conjectures, but none seemed exactly to suit the bearings of the case. And when my father went on to say that two lambs of the same valuable breed had perished in the same singular manner three days previously, and that they also were found mangled and gore-stained, the amazement reached a higher pitch. Old Lady Speldhurst listened with calm intelligent attention, but joined in none of our exclamations. At length she said to my father, "Try and recollect--have you no enemy among your neighbours?" My father started, and knit his brows. "Not one that I know of," he replied; and indeed he was a popular man and a kind landlord. "The more lucky you," said the old dame, with one of her grim smiles. It was now late, and we retired to rest before long. One by one the guests dropped off. I was the member of the family selected to escort old Lady Speldhurst to her room--the room I had vacated in her favour. I did not much like the office. I felt a remarkable repugnance to my godmother, but my worthy aunts insisted so much that I should ingratiate myself with one who had so much to leave, that I could not but comply. The visitor hobbled up the broad oaken stairs actively enough, propped on my arm and her ivory crutch.

The room never had looked more genial and pretty, with its brisk fire, modern furniture, and the gay French paper on the walls. "A nice room, my dear, and I ought to be much obliged to you for it, since my maid tells me it is yours," said her ladyship; "but I am pretty sure you repent your generosity to me, after all those ghost stories, and tremble to think of a strange bed and chamber, eh?" I made some commonplace reply. The old lady arched her eyebrows. "Where have they put you, child?" she asked; "in some cockloft of the turrets, eh? or in a lumber-room--a regular ghost-trap? I can hear your heart beating with fear this moment. You are not fit to be alone."

I tried to call up my pride, and laugh off the accusation against my courage, all the more, perhaps, because I felt its truth. "Do you want anything more that I can get you, Lady Speldhurst?" I asked, trying to feign a yawn of sleepiness. The old dame's keen eyes were upon me. "I rather like you, my dear," she said, "and I liked your mamma well enough before she treated me so shamefully about the christening dinner. Now, I know you are frightened and fearful, and if an owl should but flap your window tonight, it might drive you into fits. There is a nice little sofa-bed in this dressing-closet--call your maid to arrange it for you, and you can sleep there snugly, under the old witch's protection, and then no goblin dare harm you, and nobody will be a bit the wiser, or quiz you for being afraid."

How little I knew what hung in the balance of my refusal or acceptance of that trivial proffer! Had the veil of the future been lifted for one instant! but that veil is impenetrable to our gaze. Yet, perhaps, she had a glimpse of the dim vista beyond, she who made the offer; for when I declined, with an affected laugh, she said, in a thoughtful, half abstracted manner, "Well, well! we must all take our own way through life. Good night, child--pleasant dreams!"

And I softly closed the door. As I did so, she looked round at me rapidly, with a glance I have never forgotten, half malicious, half sad, as if she had divined the yawning gulf that was to devour my young hopes. It may have been mere eccentricity, the odd phantasy of a crooked mind, the whimsical conduct of a cynical person, triumphant in the power of affrighting youth and beauty. Or, I have since thought, it may have been that this singular guest possessed some such gift as the Highland "second-sight", a gift vague, sad, and useless to the possessor, but still sufficient to convey a dim sense of coming evil and boding doom. And yet, had she really known what was in store for me, what lurked behind the veil of the future, not even that arid heart could have remained impassive to the cry of humanity. She would, she must have snatched me back, even from the edge of the black pit of misery. But, doubtless, she had not the power. Doubtless she had but a shadowy presentiment, at any rate of some harm to happen, and could not see, save darkly, into the viewless void where the wisest stumble. I left her door. As I crossed the landing a bright gleam came from another room, whose door was left ajar; it (the light) fell like a bar of golden sheen across my path. As I approached, the door opened, and my sister Lucy who had been watching for me came out. She was already in a white cashmere wrapper, over which her loosened hair hung darkly and heavily, like tangles of silk. "Rosa, love," she whispered, "Minnie and I can't bear the idea of your sleeping out there, all alone, in that solitary room--the very room, too, nurse Sherrard used to talk about! So, as you know Minnie has given up her room, and come to sleep in mine, still we should so wish you to stop with us tonight at any rate, and I could make up a bed on the sofa for myself, or you--and--" I stopped Lucy's mouth with a kiss. I declined her offer. I would not listen to it. In fact, my pride was up in arms, and I felt I would rather pass the night in the churchyard itself than accept a proposal dictated, I felt sure, by the notion that my nerves were shaken by the ghostly lore we had been raking up, that I was a weak, superstitious creature, unable to pass a night in a strange chamber. So I would not listen to Lucy, but kissed her, bad her good night, and went on my way laughing, to show my light heart. Yet, as I looked back in the dark corridor, and saw the friendly door still ajar, the yellow bar of light still crossing from wall to wall, the sweet kind face still peering after me from amid its clustering curls, I felt a thrill of sympathy, a wish to return, a yearning after human love and companionship. False shame was strongest, and conquered. I waved a gay adieu. I turned the corner, and, peeping over my shoulder, I saw the door close; the bar of yellow light was there no longer in the darkness of the passage. I thought, at that instant, that I heard a heavy sigh. I looked sharply round.

No one was there. No door was open, yet I fancied, and fancied with a wonderful vividness, that I did hear an actual sigh breathed not far off, and plainly distinguishable from the groan of the sycamore branches, as the wind tossed them to and fro in the outer blackness. If ever a mortal's good angel had cause to sigh for sorrow, not sin, mine had cause to mourn that night. But imagination plays us strange tricks, and my nervous system was not over-composed, or very fitted for judicial analysis. I had to go through the picture-gallery. I had never entered this apartment by candle-light before, and I was struck by the gloomy array of the tall portraits, gazing moodily from the canvas on the lozenge-paned or painted windows, which rattled to the blast as it swept howling by. Many of the faces looked stern, and very different from their daylight expression.

In others, a furtive flickering smile seemed to mock me, as my candle illumined them; and in all, the eyes, as usual with artistic portraits, seemed to follow my motions with a scrutiny and an interest the more marked for the apathetic immovability of the other features. I felt ill at ease under this stony gaze, though conscious how absurd were my apprehensions, and I called up a smile and an air of mirth, more as if acting a part under the eyes of human beings, than of their mere shadows on the wall. I even laughed as I confronted them. No echo had my short-lived laughter but from the hollow armour and arching roof, and I continued on my way in silence. I have spoken of the armour. Indeed, there was a fine collection of plate and mail, for my father was an enthusiastic antiquary, In especial there were two suits of black armour, erect, and surmounted by helmets with closed visors, which stood as if two mailed champions were guarding the gallery and its treasures. I had often seen these, of course, but never by night, and never when my whole organization was so over wrought and tremulous as it then was. As I approached the Black Knights, as we had dubbed them, a wild notion seized on me that the figures moved, that men were concealed in the hollow shells which had once been borne in battle and tourney. I knew the idea was childish, yet I approached in irrational alarm, and fancied I absolutely beheld eyes glaring on me from the eyelet-holes in the visors. I passed them by, and then my excited fancy told me that the figures were following me with stealthy strides. I heard a clatter of steel, caused, I am sure, by some more violent gust of wind sweeping the gallery through the crevices of the old windows, and with a smothered shriek I rushed to the door, opened it, darted out, and clapped it to with a bang that re-echoed through the whole wing of the house. Then by a sudden and not uncommon revulsion of feeling, I shook off my aimless terrors, blushed at my weakness, and sought my chamber only too glad that I had been the only witness of my late tremors.

As I entered my chamber, I thought I heard some thing stir in the neglected lumber-room, which was the only neighbouring apartment. But I was determined to have no more panics, and resolutely shut my ears to this slight and transient noise, which had nothing unnatural in it; for surely, between rats and wind, an old manor-house on a stormy night needs no sprites to disturb it. So I entered my room, and rang for my maid. As I did so, I looked around me, and a most unaccountable repugnance to my temporary abode came over me, in spite of my efforts. It was no more to be shaken off than a chill is to be shaken off when we enter some damp cave. And, rely upon it, the feeling of dislike and apprehension with which we regard, at first sight, certain places and people, was not implanted in us without some wholesome purpose. I grant it is irrational--mere animal instinct--but is not instinct God's gift, and is it for us to despise it? It is by instinct that children know their friends from their enemies--that they distinguish with such unerring accuracy between those who like them and those who only flatter and hate them. Dogs do the same; they will fawn on one person, they slink snarling from another. Show me a man whom children and dogs shrink from, and I will show you a false, bad man--lies on his lips, and murder at his heart. No, let none despise the heaven-sent gift of innate antipathy, which makes the horse quail when the lion crouches in the thicket--which makes the cattle scent the shambles from afar, and low in terror and disgust as their nostrils snuff the blood-polluted air.

I felt this antipathy strongly as I looked around me in my new sleeping-room, and yet I could find no reasonable pretext for my dislike. A very good room it was, after all, now that the green damask curtains were drawn, the fire burning bright and clear, candles burning on the mantelpiece, and the various familiar articles of toilet arranged as usual. The bed, too, looked peaceful and inviting--a pretty little white bed, not at all the gaunt funereal sort of couch which haunted apartments generally contain. My maid entered, and assisted me to lay aside the dress and ornaments I had worn, and arranged my hair, as usual, prattling the while, in Abigail fashion. I seldom cared to converse with servants; but on that night a sort of dread of being left alone--a longing to keep some human being near me--possessed me, and I encouraged the girl to gossip, so that her duties took her half an hour longer to get through than usual. At last, however, she had done all that could be done, and all my questions were answered, and my orders for the morrow reiterated and vowed obedience to, and the clock on the turret struck one. Then Mary, yawning to answer No, for very shame's sake; and she went. The shutting of the door, gently as it was closed, affected me unpleasantly. I took a dislike to the curtains, the tapestry, the dingy pictures--everything. I hated the room. I felt a temptation to put on a cloak, run, half-dressed, to my sisters' chamber, and say I had changed my mind, and come for shelter. But they must be asleep, I thought, and I could not be so unkind as to wake them. I said my prayers with unusual earnestness and a heavy heart.

I extinguished the candles, and was just about to lay my head on my pillow, when the idea seized me that I would fasten the door. The candles were extinguished, but the fire-light was amply sufficient to guide me. I gained the door. There was a lock, but it was rusty or hampered; my utmost strength could not turn the key. The bolt was broken and worthless. Baulked of my intention, I consoled myself by remembering that I had never had need of fastenings yet, and returned to my bed. I lay awake for a good while, watching the red glow of the burning coals in the grate. I was quiet now, and more composed. Even the light gossip of the maid, full of petty human cares and joys, had done me good--diverted my thoughts from brooding. I was on the point of dropping asleep, when I was twice disturbed. Once, by an owl, hooting in the ivy outside--no unaccustomed sound, but harsh and melancholy; once, by a long and mournful howling set up by the mastiff, chained in the yard beyond the wing. I occupied. A long-drawn lugubrious howling, was this latter, and much such a note as the vulgar declare to herald a death in the family. This was a fancy I had never shared; but yet I could not help feeling that the dog's mournful moans were sad, and expressive of terror, not at all like his fierce, honest bark of anger, but rather as if something evil and unwonted were abroad. But soon I fell asleep. How long I slept, I never knew. I awoke at once, with that abrupt start which we all know well and which carries us in a second from utter unconsciousness to the full use of our faculties. The fire was still burning but was very low, and half the room or more was in deep shadow. I knew, I felt, that some person or thing was in the room, although nothing unusual was to be seen by the feeble light.

Yet it was a sense of danger that had aroused me from slumber. I experienced, while yet asleep, the chill and shock of sudden alarm, and I knew, even in the act of throwing off sleep like a mantle, why I awoke, and that some intruder was present. Yet, though I listened intently, no sound was audible, except the faint murmur of the fire,--the dropping of a cinder from the bars--the loud irregular beatings of my own heart. Notwithstanding this silence, by some intuition I knew that I had not been deceived by a dream, and felt certain that I was not alone. I waited. My heart beat on; quicker, more sudden grew its pulsations, as a bird in a cage might flutter in presence of the hawk. And then I heard a sound, faint, but quite distinct, the clank of iron, the rattling of a chain! I ventured to lift my head from the pillow. Dim and uncertain as the light was, I saw the curtains of my bed shake, and caught a glimpse of something beyond, a darker spot in the darkness. This confirmation of my fears did not surprise me so much as it shocked me. I strove to cry aloud, but could not utter a word. The chain rattled again, and this time the noise was louder and clearer. But though I strained my eyes, they could not penetrate the obscurity that shrouded the other end of the chamber, whence came the sullen clanking. In a moment several distinct trains of thought, like many-coloured strands of thread twining into one, became palpable to my mental vision. Was it a robber? could it be a supernatural visitant? or was I the victim of a cruel trick, such as I had heard of, and which some thoughtless persons love to practise on the timid, reckless of its dangerous results?

And then a new idea, with some ray of comfort in it, suggested itself. There was a fine young dog of the Newfoundland breed, a favourite of my father's, which was usually chained by night in an outhouse. Neptune might have broken loose, found his way to my room, and, finding the door imperfectly closed, have pushed it open and entered. I breathed more freely as this harmless interpretation of the noise forced itself upon me. It was--it must be--the dog, and I was distressing myself uselessly. I resolved to call to him; I strove to utter his name--"Neptune, Neptune!" but a secret apprehension restrained me, and I was mute. Then the chain clanked nearer and nearer to the bed, and presently I saw a dusky shapeless mass appear between the curtains on the opposite side to where I was lying. How I longed to hear the whine of the poor animal that I hoped might be the cause of my alarm. But no; I heard no sound save the rustle of the curtains and the clash of the iron chain. Just then the dying flame of the fire leaped up, and with one sweeping hurried glance I saw that the door was shut, and, horror! it is not the dog! it is the semblance of a human form that now throws itself heavily on the bed, outside the clothes, and lies there, huge and swart, in the red gleam that treacherously dies away after showing so much to affright, and sinks into dull darkness. There was now no light left, though the red cinders yet glowed with a ruddy gleam, like the eyes of wild beasts. The chain rattled no more.

I tried to speak, to scream wildly for help; my mouth was parched, my tongue refused to obey. I could not utter a cry, and indeed, who could have heard me, alone as I was in that solitary chamber, with no living neighbour, and the picture-gallery between me and any aid that even the loudest, most piercing shriek could summon. And the storm that howled without would have drowned my voice, even if help had been at hand. To call aloud--to demand who was there--alas! how useless, how perilous! If the intruder were a robber, my outcries would but goad him to fury; but what robber would act thus? As for a trick, that seemed impossible. And yet, what lay by my side, now wholly unseen? I strove to pray aloud, as there rushed on my memory a flood of weird legends--the dreaded yet fascinating lore of my childhood. I had heard and read of the spirits of wicked men forced to revisit the scenes of their earthly crimes---of demons that lurked in certain accursed spots--of the ghoul and vampire of the East, stealing amid the graves they rifled for their ghostly banquets; and I shuddered as I gazed on the blank darkness where I knew it lay. It stirred--it moaned hoarsely; and again I heard the chain clank close beside me--so close that it must almost have touched me. I drew myself from it, shrinking away in loathing and terror of the evil thing--what, I knew not, but felt that something malignant was near. And yet, in the extremity of my fear, I dared not speak; I was strangely cautious to be silent, even in moving farther off; for I had a wild hope that it--the phantom, the creature, whichever it was--had not discovered my presence in the room. And then I remembered all the events of the night--Lady Speldhurst's ill-omened vaticinations, her half-warnings, her singular look as we parted, my sister's persuasions, my terror in the gallery, the remark that "this was the room nurse Sherrard used to talk of".

And then memory stimulated by fear, recalled the long forgotten past, the ill-repute of this disused chamber, the sins it had witnessed, the blood spilled, the poison administered by unnatural hate within its walls, and the tradition which called it haunted. The green room--I remembered now how fearfully the servants avoided it--how it was mentioned rarely, and in whispers, when we were children, and how we had regarded it as a mysterious region, unfit for mortal habitation. Was It--the dark form with the chain--a creature of this world, or a spectre? And again--more dreadful still--could it be that the corpses of wicked men were forced to rise, and haunt in the body the places when they had wrought their evil deeds? And was such as these my grisly neighbour? The chain faintly rattled. My hair bristled; my eyeballs seemed starting from their sockets; the damps of a great anguish were on my brow. My heart laboured as if I were crushed beneath some vast weight. Sometimes it appeared to stop its frenzied beatings, sometimes its pulsations were fierce and hurried; my breath came short and with extreme difficulty, and I shivered as if with cold; yet I feared to stir. It moved, it moaned, its fetters clanked dismally, the couch creaked and shook. This was no phantom, then--no air-drawn spectre. But its very solidity, its palpable presence, were a thousand times more terrible. I felt that I was in the very grasp of what could not only affright, but harm; of something whose contact sickened the soul with deathly fear. I made a desperate resolve: I glided from the bed, I seized a warm wrapper, threw it around me, and tried to grope, with extended hands, my way to the door. My heart beat high at the hope of escape. But I had scarcely taken one step, before the moaning was renewed, it changed into a threatening growl that would have suited a wolf's throat, and a hand clutched at my sleeve.

I stood motionless. The muttering growl sank to a moan again, the chain sounded no more, but still the hand held its grip of my garment, and I feared to move. It knew of my presence, then. My brain reeled, the blood boiled in my ears, and my knees lost all strength, while my heart panted like that of a deer in the wolf's jaws. I sank back, and the benumbing influence of excessive terror reduced me to a state of stupor. When my full consciousness returned, I was sitting on the edge of the bed, shivering with cold, and bare-footed. All was silent, but I felt that my sleeve was still clutched by my unearthly visitant. The silence lasted a long time. Then followed a chuckling laugh, that froze my very marrow, and the gnashing of teeth as in demoniac frenzy; and then a wailing moan, and this was succeeded by silence. Hours may have passed--nay, though the tumult of my own heart prevented my hearing the clock strike, must have passed--but they seemed ages to me. And how were they spent? Hideous visions passed before the aching eyes that I dared not close, but which gazed ever into the dumb darkness where It lay--my dread companion through the watches of the night. I pictured It in every abhorrent form which an excited fancy could summon up: now as a skeleton, with hollow eye-holes and grinning fleshless jaws; now as a vampire, with livid face and bloated form, and dripping mouth wet with blood. Would it never be light! And yet, when day should dawn, I should be forced to see It face to face. I had heard that spectre and fiend are compelled to fade as morning brightened, but this creature was too real, too foul a thing of earth, to vanish at cock-crow. No! I should see it--the horror--face to face! And then the cold prevailed, and my teeth chattered, and shiverings ran through me, and yet there was the damp of agony on my bursting brow. Some instinct made me snatch at a shawl or cloak that lay on a chair within reach, and wrap it round me. The moan was renewed, and the chain just stirred. Then I sank into apathy, like an Indian at the stake, in the intervals of torture. Hours fled by, and I remained like a statue of ice, rigid and mute.

I even slept, for I remember that I started to find the cold grey light of an early winter's day was on my face, and stealing around the room from between the heavy curtains of the window. Shuddering, but urged by the impulse that rivets the gaze of the bird upon the snake, I turned to see the Horror of the night. Yes, it was no fevered dream, no hallucination of sickness, no airy phantom unable to face the dawn. In the sickly light I saw it lying on the bed, with its grim head on the pillow. A man? Or a corpse arisen from its unhallowed grave, and awaiting the demon that animated it? There it lay--a gaunt gigantic form, wasted to a skeleton, half clad, foul with dust and clotted gore, its huge limbs flung upon the couch as if at random, its shaggy hair streaming over the pillows like a lion's mane. Its face was towards me.

Oh, the wild hideousness of that face, even in sleep! In features it was human, even through its horrid mask of mud and half-dried bloody gouts, but the expression was brutish and savagely fierce; the white teeth were visible between the parted lips, in a malignant grin; the tangled hair and beard were mixed in leonine confusion, and there were scars disfiguring the brow. Round the creature's waist was a ring of iron, to which was attached a heavy but broken chain--the chain I had heard clanking. With a second glance I noted that part of the chain was wrapped in straw, to prevent its galling the wearer. The creature--I cannot call it a man--had the marks of fetters on its wrists, the bony arm that protruded through one tattered sleeve was scarred and bruised, the feet were bare, and lacerated by pebbles and briers, and one of them was wounded, and wrapped in a morsel of rag. And the lean hands, one of which held my sleeve, were armed with talons like an eagle's. In an instant the horrid truth flashed upon me--I was in the grasp of a madman. Better the phantom that scares the sight than the wild beast that rends and tears the quivering flesh--the pitiless human brute that has no heart to be softened, no reason at whose bar to plead, no compassion, nought of man save the form and the cunning. I gasped in terror. Ah! the mystery of those ensanguined fingers, those gory wolfish jaws! that face, all besmeared with blackening blood, is revealed!

 The slain sheep, so mangled and rent-the fantastic butchery--the print of the naked foot--all, all were explained; and the chain the broken link of which was found near the slaughtered animals--it came from his broken chain--the chain he had snapped, doubtless, in his escape from the asylum where his raging frenzy had been fettered and bound. In vain! in vain! Ah, me! how had this grisly Samson broken manacles and prison bars--how had he eluded guardian and keeper and a hostile world, and come hither on his wild way, hunted like a beast of prey, and snatching his hideous banquet like a beast of prey, too?

Yet, through the tatters of his mean and ragged garb I could see the marks of the severities, cruel and foolish, with which men in that time tried to tame the might of madness. The scourge--its marks were there; and the scars of the hard iron fetters, and many a cicatrice and welt, that told a dismal tale of harsh usage. But now he was loose, free to play the brute--the baited, tortured brute that they had made him--now without the cage, and ready to gloat over the victims his strength should overpower. Horror! Horror! I was the prey--the victim--already in the tiger's clutch; and a deadly sickness came over me, and the iron entered into my soul, and I longed to scream, and was dumb! I died a thousand deaths as that awful morning wore on. I dared not faint. But words cannot paint what I suffered as I waited--waited till the moment when he should open his eyes and be aware of my presence; for I was assured he knew it not. He had entered the chamber as a lair, when weary and gorged with his horrid orgie; and he had flung himself down to sleep without a suspicion that he was not alone. Even his grasping my sleeve was doubtless an act done betwixt sleeping and waking, like his unconscious moans and laughter, in some frightful dream.

Hours went on; then I trembled as I thought that soon the house would be astir, that my maid would come to call me as usual, and awake that ghastly sleeper. And might he not have time to tear me, as he tore the sheep, before any aid could arrive? At last what I dreaded came to pass--a light footstep on the landing--there is a tap at the door. A pause succeeds, and then the tapping is renewed, and this time more loudly. Then the madman stretched his limbs and uttered his moaning cry, and his eyes slowly opened--very slowly opened, and met mine. The girl waited awhile ere she knocked for the third time. I trembled lest she should open the door unbidden--see that grim thing, and by her idle screams and terror bring about the worst. Long before strong men could arrive I knew that I should be dead--and what a death! The maid waited, no doubt surprised at my unusually sound slumbers, for I was in general a light sleeper and an early riser, but reluctant to deviate from habit by entering without permission. I was still alone with the thing in man's shape, but he was awake now. I saw the wondering surprise in his haggard bloodshot eyes; I saw him stare at me half vacantly, then with a crafty yet wondering look; and then I saw the devil of murder begin to peep forth from those hideous eyes, and the lips to part as in a sneer, and the wolfish teeth to bare themselves.

But I was not what I had been. Fear gave me a new and a desperate composure--a courage foreign to my nature. I had heard of the best method of managing the insane; I could but try; I did try. Calmly, wondering at my own feigned calm, I fronted the glare of those terrible eyes. Steady and undaunted was my gaze--motionless my attitude. I marvelled at myself, but in that agony of sickening terror I was outwardly firm. They sink, they quail abashed, those dreadful eyes, before the gaze of a helpless girl; and the shame that is never absent from insanity bears down the pride of strength, the bloody cravings of the wild beast. The lunatic moaned and drooped his shaggy head between his gaunt squalid hands. I lost not an instant. I rose, and with one spring reached the door, tore it open, and, with a shriek, rushed through, caught the wondering girl by the arm, and, crying to her to run for her life, rushed like the wind along the gallery, down the corridor, down the stairs. Mary's screams filled the house as she fled beside me. I heard a long-drawn, raging cry, the roar of a wild animal mocked of its prey, and I knew what was behind me. I never turned my head--I flew rather than ran. I was in the hall already; there was a rush of many feet, an outcry of many voices, a sound of scuffling feet, and brutal yells, and oaths, and heavy blows, and I fell to the ground, crying, "Save me!" and lay in a swoon. I awoke from a delirious trance.

Kind faces were around my bed, loving looks were bent on me by all, by my dear father and dear sisters, but I scarcely saw them before I swooned again.... When I recovered from that long illness, through which I had been nursed so tenderly, the pitying looks I met made me tremble. I asked for a looking-glass. It was long denied me, but my importunity prevailed at last--a mirror was brought. My youth was gone at one fell swoop. The glass showed me a livid and haggard face, blanched and bloodless as of one who sees a spectre; and in the ashen lips, and wrinkled brow, and dim eyes, I could trace nothing of my old self. The hair, too, jetty and rich before, was now as white as snow, and in one night the ravages of half a century had passed over my face. Nor have my nerves ever recovered their tone after that dire shock. Can you wonder that my life was blighted, that my lover shrank from me, so sad a wreck was I? I am old now--old and alone. My sisters would have had me to live with them, but I chose not to sadden their genial homes with my phantom face and dead eyes. Reginald married another.

He has been dead many years. I never ceased to pray for him, though he left me when I was bereft of all. The sad weird is nearly over now. I am old, and near the end, and wishful for it. I have not been bitter or hard, but I cannot bear to see many people, and am best alone. I try to do what good I can with the worthless wealth Lady Speldhurst left me, for at my wish my portion was shared between my sisters.

What need had I of inheritances?--I, the shattered wreck made by that one night of horror!


Best Horror Short Stories 1850-1899 Annotated

I have published my latest horror anthology - Best Horror Short Stories 1850-1899: A 6a66le Horror Anthology. For a limited period you can purchase it on Kindle for $2.99. Order today!

#HorrorATrueTale #JohnHarwoodHorrorStory

Sunday, October 16, 2016

On Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize and Why Robert Smith of The Cure is a Far Greater Poet

This week it was announced that Bob Dylan won the nobel prize for literature. This came as a surprise to many seeing how the award appears based on his song lyrics for having “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

I, for one, gave pause and rubbed my chin.

I have no issue with Dylan getting the award as some of my other author friends. His lyrics are poetical and speak to the human condition in pointed folkish terms. Raw emotion flows through them and in my view great poetry cannot be created without it.

There are certainly others more deserving than Dylan, however. In the music field alone Robert Smith of The Cure penned a much greater body of work that towers over that of Dylan's.

In terms of volume (not that sheer number has anything to do with literary merit), Dylan has written around 375 songs. Robert Smith has given us around 150 with The Cure and his side projects. Dylan has more than doubled his output.

Many times Dylan clings to didactic poetical methods in his songs by delivering a moral. These preachy songs include "Trust Yourself" and "The Times, They are a Changing." There is nothing didactic in hardly any song by Robert Smith. He tells it like it is and leaves moral implications to the reader as any good poet should.

A host of Dylan songs are junior-highish in their over-handedness and chintz rhyming doggerel. Consider these lines from "Hurricane" (1976):

“How can the life of such a man
Be in the palm of some fool’s hand?
To see him obviously framed
Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed
To live in a land
Where justice is a game”

Now read the deep image lyrics of one of Robert Smith's water-themed songs "The Same Deep Water":

Kiss me goodby
Pushing out before I sleep
Can't you see I try
Swimming the same deep water as you is hard
The shallow drowned lose less than we
You breathe the strangest twist upon your lips
And we shall be together
And we shall be together

Kiss me goodbye
Bow your head and join with me
And face pushed deep reflections meet
The strangest twist upon your lips

And disappear the ripples clear
And laughing break against your feet
And laughing break the mirror sweet
So we shall be together
So we shall be together

Kiss me goodbye pushing out before I sleep
It's lower now and slower now
The strangest twist upon your lips
But I don't see and I don't feel

But tightly hold up silently
My hands before my fading eyes
And in my eyes your smile
The very last thing before I go
The very last thing before I go
The very last thing before I go

I will kiss you, I will kiss you
I will kiss you forever on nights like this
I will kiss you, I will kiss you
And we shall be together

A number of critics cite "Forever Young" as the finest of Dylan's lyrics. Do you feel there is a certain tongue-in-cheek plonk being delivered here? You be the judge:

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
And may you stay forever young

Robert Smith also addressed the physical world in "The Hanging Garden" where he again delights our Gothic sensibilities:

Creatures kissing in the rain
Shapeless in the dark again
In the hanging garden please don't speak
In the hanging garden no one sleeps

Catching halos on the moon
Gives my hands the shapes of angels
In the heat of the night the animals scream
In the heat of the night walking into a dream

Fall fall fall fall
Into the walls
Jump jump out of time
Fall fall fall fall
Out of the sky
Cover my face as the animals cry
In the hanging garden

Creatures kissing in the rain
Shapeless in the dark again
In the hanging garden change the past
In the hanging garden wearing furs and masks

Fall fall fall fall
Into the walls
Jump jump out of time
Fall fall fall fall
Out of the sky
Cover my face as the animals die
In the hanging garden

In the hanging garden

There is little comparison between the two and the world should take notice. Bob Dylan's overriding limitations as a poet is that the New York School of thought is tied to him like an anchor when it used to be his hot air balloon. Robert Smith's poetry rarely knows time or place and for that it should live forever.

#DylanNobelPrize #RobertSmithPoetry

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Best Ghost Short Stories 1850-1899 Anthology by Andrew Barger is Published!

October is the month for ghosts. That's why I'm happy to announce my latest anthology: Best Ghost Short Stories 1850-1899: A Phantasmal Ghost Anthology is now published! It contains the best ghost stories from the last half of the 19th century. It includes shocking tales from popular American and Victorian authors.

Andrew Barger (that would be me), award-winning author and editor of Phantasmal: Best Ghost Short Stories 1800-1849 and The Divine Dantes trilogy, has researched the finest ghost stories for the last half of the nineteenth century and combined them in one haunting collection. He has added his familiar scholarly touch by annotating the stories, providing story background information, author photos and a list of ghost stories considered to settle on the most frightening and well-written tales.

Victorians: Victors of the Ghost Story (2016) by Andrew Barger - Andrew sets the stage for this haunting ghost anthology.

The Upper Berth (1886) by Francis Marion Crawford - You will never think of cruising on a ship the same way after reading "The Upper Berth."

In Kropfsberg Keep (1895) by Ralph Adams Cram - A gothic setting yields a nightmare for a couple of "ghost hunters."

Lost Hearts (1895) by M. R. James - This early M. R. James classic ghost story is one of his best.

The Familiar (1872) by Joseph Le Fanu - Ever feel like you are being watched?

The Haunted Organist of Hurly Burly (1886) by Rosa Mulholland - You will never view an organ the same way again.

No. 1 Branch Line: The Signal Man (1865) by Charles Dickens - Are the nervous habits of a train tracks operator all in his mind?

Hurst of Hurstcote (1893) by Edith Nesbit - A moldering house and--of course--ghosts.

The Judge's House (1891) by Bram Stoker - The author of Dracula never disappoints.

The Yellow Sign (1895) by Robert Chambers - A painter sees someone watching him from a busy New York street.

The Haunted and the Haunters (1859) by Edward Bulwer-Lytton - The oldest and most haunting ghost short story in the anthology and one that H. P. Lovecraft deemed the best haunted house story ever.

I am deeply and horribly convinced, that there does exist beyond this a spiritual world--a system whose workings are generally in mercy hidden from us--a system which may be, and which is sometimes, partially and terribly revealed. 
"The Familiar" 1872 by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Buy today at Amazon: Best Ghost Short Stories 1850-1899

#BestGhostShortStories #BestGhostStoriesBook

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Fiend of the Cooperage by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) in Hat

In 1897 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published his best jungle horror story called “The Fiend of the Cooperage.” It is one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s best horror stories along with “The Brazilian Cat.” The scary short story is also his only jungle horror tale. It's full of snappy dialogue a pervasive sense of hot, sticky dread.

As Richard Burton said in the November 14, 1908 issue of The Bellman’s Bookshelf, in reference to a Doyle collection that contained the scary horror story, “If you read these of an evening, as I did, the creeps are guaranteed. Whatever may be the wholesomeness of such attacks upon the nerves, a reviewer would not be just if he overlooked the cleverness with which a strange complication is managed and a quite unlooked for denouement sprung upon the expectant reader.”

While the reviews of Doyle’s 56 Sherlock Holmes tales are legion, much less focus has been placed on his horror stories. It’s sad that nearly 120 years after its publication, the scholarly reviews of “The Fiend of the Cooperage” are almost nonexistent. Not only does this jungle horror need more visibility, it is one of the best horror short stories for the last half of the nineteenth century. That's why I place it at number 16 in my countdown of the best horror short stories for the last half of the nineteenth century.

Along with H. G. Wells’s “Pollock and the Porroh Man” found in Best Horror Short Stories 1850-1899: a Phantasmal Horror Anthology, this Doyle spine-tingler is one of the best horror stories set among the sticky palms of the jungle. It was published October 1, 1897 in The Manchester Weekly Times.

I like this story so much I annotated it and included them in the brackets sprinkled throughout the story. So sit back, have a “quinine cocktail”  and enjoy!

The Fiend of the Cooperage

IT WAS NO easy matter to bring the Gamecock up to the island, for the river had swept down so much silt that the banks extended for many miles out into the Atlantic. The coast was hardly to be seen when the first white curl of the breakers warned us of our danger, and from there onwards we made our way very carefully under mainsail and jib, keeping the broken water well to the left, as is indicated on the chart.

More than once her bottom touched the sand (we were drawing something under six feet at the time), but we had always way enough and luck enough to carry us through. Finally, the water shoaled very rapidly, but they had sent a canoe from the factory, and the Krooboy pilot [The definition of Krooboy is a skilled African seamen typically from the coast of Liberia] brought us within two hundred yards of the island. Here we dropped our anchor, for the gestures of the negro indicated that we could not hope to get any farther.

The blue of the sea had changed to the brown of the river, and even under the shelter of the island the current was singing and swirling round our bows. The stream appeared to be in spate, for it was over the roots of the palm trees, and everywhere upon its muddy, greasy surface we could see logs of wood and debris of all sorts which had been carried down by the flood.

When I had assured myself that we swung securely at our moorings, I thought it best to begin watering at once, for the place looked as if it reeked with fever. The heavy river, the muddy, shining banks, the bright poisonous green of the jungle, the moist steam in the air, they were all so many danger signals to one who could read them. I sent the long-boat off, therefore, with two large hogsheads, which should be sufficient to last us until we made St. Paul de Loanda. For my own part I took the dinghy and rowed for the island, for I could see the Union Jack [British flag] fluttering above the palms to mark the position of the Armitage and Wilson’s trading station.

When I had cleared the grove, I could see the place, a long, low, whitewashed building, with a deep verandah in front, and an immense pile of palm oil barrels heaped upon either flank of it. A row of surf boats [Long narrow boats that ride low to the water] and canoes lay along the beach, and a single small jetty projected into the river. Two men in white suits with red cummerbunds [Wide bands] round their waists were waiting upon the end of it to receive me. One was a large portly fellow with a grayish beard. The other was slender and tall, with a pale, pinched face, which was half-concealed by a great mushroom-shaped hat.

“Very glad to see you,” said the latter, cordially. “I am Walker, the agent of Armitage and Wilson. Let me introduce Dr. Severall of the same company. It is not often we see a private yacht in these parts.”

“She’s the Gamecock,” I explained. “I’m owner and captain—Meldrum is the name.”

“Exploring?” he asked. “I’m a lepidopterist—a butterfly-catcher. I’ve been doing the west coast from Senegal downwards.”

“Good sport?” asked the doctor, turning a slow, yellow-shot eye upon me.

“I have forty cases full. We came in here to water, and also to see what you have in my line.”

These introductions and explanations had filled up the time whilst my two Krooboys were making the dinghy fast. Then I walked down the jetty with one of my new acquaintances upon either side, each plying me with questions, for they had seen no white man for months.

“What do we do?” said the Doctor, when I had begun asking questions in my turn. “Our business keeps us pretty busy, and in our leisure time we talk politics.”

“Yes, by the special mercy of Providence Severall is a rank Radical and I am a good stiff Unionist, and we talk Home Rule for two solid hours every evening.”

“And drink quinine cocktails,” said the Doctor. “We’re both pretty well salted now, but our normal temperature was about 103 last year. I shouldn’t, as an impartial adviser, recommend you to stay here very long unless you are collecting bacilli as well as butterflies. The mouth of the Ogowai River will never develop into a health resort.”

There is nothing finer than the way in which these outlying pickets of civilization distil a grim humor out of their desolate situation, and turn not only a bold, but a laughing face upon the chances which their lives may bring. Everywhere from Sierra Leone downwards I had found the same reeking swamps, the same isolated fever-racked communities and the same bad jokes. There is something approaching to the divine in that power of man to rise above his conditions and to use his mind for the purpose of mocking at the miseries of his body.

“Dinner will be ready in about half an hour, Captain Meldrum,” said the doctor. “Walker has gone in to see about it; he’s the housekeeper this week. Meanwhile, if you like, we’ll stroll round and I’ll show you the sights of the island.”

The sun had already sunk beneath the line of palm trees and the great arch of the heaven above our head was like the inside of the huge shell, shimmering with dainty pinks and delicate iridescence. No one who has not lived in a land where the weight and heat of a napkin become intolerable upon the knees can imagine the blessed relief which the coolness of evening brings along with it. In this sweeter and purer air the doctor and I walked round the little island, he pointing out the stores, and explaining the routine of his work.

“There’s a certain romance about the place,” said he, in answer to some remark of mine about the dullness of their lives. “We are living here just upon the edge of the great unknown. Up there,” he continued, pointing to the northeast, “Du Chaillu penetrated, and found the home of the gorilla. That is the Gaboon country—the land of the great apes. In this direction,” pointing to the southeast, “no one has been very far. The land which is drained by this river is practically unknown to Europeans. Every log which is carried past us by the current has come from an undiscovered country. I’ve often wished that I was a better botanist when I have seen the singular orchids and curious-looking plants which have been cast up on the eastern end of the island.”

The place which the Doctor indicated was a sloping brown beach, freely littered with the flotsam of the stream. At each end was a curved point, like a little natural breakwater, so that a small shallow bay was left between. This was full of floating vegetation, with a single huge splintered tree lying stranded in the middle of it, the current rippling against its high black side.

“These are all from up country,” said the Doctor. “They get caught in our little bay, and then when some extra freshet comes they are washed out again and carried out to sea.”

“What is the tree? “ I asked.

“Oh, some kind of teak I should imagine, but pretty rotten by the look of it. We get all sorts of big hardwood trees floating past here, to say nothing of the palms. Just come in here, will you?”

He led the way into a long building with an immense quantity of barrel staves and iron hoops littered about in it. “This is our cooperage,” [Place for making barrels] said he. “We have the staves sent out in bundles, and we put them together ourselves. Now, you don’t see anything particularly sinister about this building, do you?”

I looked round at the high corrugated iron roof, the white wooden walls, and the earthen floor. In one corner lay a mattress and a blanket. “I see nothing very alarming,” said I.

“And yet there’s something out of the common, too,” he remarked. “You see that bed? Well, I intend to sleep there tonight. I don’t want to buck, but I think it’s a bit of a test for nerve.”


“Oh, there have been some funny goings on. You were talking about the monotony of our lives, but I assure you that they are sometimes quite as exciting as we wish them to be. You’d better come back to the house now, for after sundown we begin to get the fever-fog up from the marshes. There, you can see it coming across the river.”

I looked and saw long tentacles of white vapor writhing out from among the thick green underwood and crawling at us over the broad swirling surface of the brown river. At the same time the air turned suddenly dank and cold.

“There’s the dinner gong,” said the doctor. “If this matter interests you I’ll tell you about it afterwards.”

It did interest me very much, for there was something earnest and subdued in his manner as he stood in the empty cooperage which appealed very forcibly to my imagination. He was a big, bluff, hearty man, this doctor, and yet I had detected a curious expression in his eyes as he glanced about him—an expression which I would not describe as one of fear, but rather that of a man who is alert and on his guard.

“By the way,” said I, as we returned to the house, “you have shown me the huts of a good many of your native assistants, but I have not seen any of the natives themselves.”

“They sleep in the hulk over yonder,” the doctor answered, pointing over to one of the banks.

“Indeed. I should not have thought in that case that they would need the huts.”

“Oh, they used the huts until quite recently. We’ve put them on the hulk until they recover their confidence a little. They were all half mad with fright, so we let them go, and nobody sleeps on the island except Walker and myself.”

“What frightened them?” I asked.

“Well, that brings us back to the same story. I suppose Walker has no objection to your hearing all about it. I don’t know why we should make any secret about it, though it is certainly a pretty bad business.”

He made no further allusion to it during the excellent dinner which had been prepared in my honor. It appeared that no sooner had the little white topsail of the Gamecock shown round Cape Lopez than these kind fellows had begun to prepare their famous pepper-pot—which is the pungent stew peculiar to the West Coast [Beef stew including potatoes, onions, chilies, sweet potatoes and coconut milk]—and to boil their yams and sweet potatoes. We sat down to as good a native dinner as one could wish, served by a smart Sierra Leone waiting boy. I was just remarking to myself that he at least had not shared in the general flight when, having laid the dessert and wine upon the table, he raised his hand to his turban.

“Anything else I do, Massa Walker?” he asked.

“No, I think that is all right, Moussa,” my host answered. “I am not feeling very well tonight, though, and I should much prefer if you would stay on the island.”

I saw a struggle between his fears and his duty upon the swarthy face of the African. His skin had turned of that livid purplish tint which stands for pallor in a negro, and his eyes looked furtively about him.

“No, no, Massa Walker,” he cried, at last, “ you better come to the hulk with me, sah. Look after you much better in the hulk, sah!”

“That won’t do, Moussa. White men don’t run away from the posts where they are placed.”
Again I saw the passionate struggle in the negro’s face, and again his fears prevailed.

“No use, Massa Walker, sah!” he cried. “S’elp me, I can’t do it. If it was yesterday or if it was tomorrow, but this is the third night, sah, an’ it’s more than I can face.”

Walker shrugged his shoulders.

“Off with you then!” said he. “When the mail-boat comes you can get back to Sierra Leone, for I’ll have no servant who deserts me when I need him most. I suppose this is all mystery to you, or has the doctor told you, Captain Meldrum?”

“I showed Captain Meldrum the cooperage, but I did not tell him anything,” said Dr. Severall. “You’re looking bad, Walker,” he added, glancing at his companion. “You have a strong touch coming on you.”

“Yes, I’ve had the shivers all day, and now my head is like a cannonball. I took ten grains of quinine, [Drug used to prevent and treat malaria] and my ears are singing like a kettle. But I want to sleep with you in the cooperage tonight.”

“No, no, my dear chap. I won’t hear of such a thing. You must get to bed at once, and I am sure Meldrum will excuse you. I shall sleep in the cooperage, and I promise you that I’ll be round with your medicine before breakfast.”

It was evident that Walker had been struck by one of those sudden and violent attacks of remittent fever which are the curse of the West Coast. His sallow cheeks were flushed and his eyes shining with fever, and suddenly as he sat there he began to croon out a song in the high-pitched voice of delirium.

“Come, come, we must get you to bed, old chap,” said the doctor, and with my aid he led his friend into his bedroom. There we undressed him, and presently, after taking a strong sedative, he settled down into a deep slumber.

“He’s right for the night,” said the doctor, as we sat down and filled our glasses once more. 

“Sometimes it is my turn and sometimes his, but, fortunately, we have never been down together. I should have been sorry to be out of it tonight, for I have a little mystery to unravel. I told you that I intended to sleep in the cooperage.”

“Yes, you said so.”

“When I said sleep I meant watch, for there will be no sleep for me. We’ve had such a scare here that no native will stay after sundown, and I mean to find out tonight what the cause of it all may be. It has always been the custom for a native watchman to sleep in the cooperage, to prevent the barrel hoops being stolen. Well, six days ago the fellow who slept there disappeared, and we have never seen a trace of him since. It was certainly singular, for no canoe had been taken, and these waters are too full of crocodiles for any man to swim to shore. What became of the fellow, or how he could have left the island is a complete mystery. Walker and I were merely surprised, but the blacks were badly scared, and queer Voodoo tales began to get about amongst them. But the real stampede broke out three nights ago, when the new watchman in the cooperage also disappeared.”

“What became of him?” I asked.

“Well, we not only don’t know, but we can’t even give a guess which would fit the facts. The niggers swear there is a fiend in the cooperage who claims a man every third night. They wouldn’t stay in the island—nothing could persuade them. Even Moussa, who is a faithful boy, enough, would, as you have seen, leave his master in a fever rather than remain for the night. If we are to continue to run this place we must reassure our niggers, and I don’t know any better way of doing it than by putting in a night there myself. This is the third night, you see, so I suppose the thing is due, whatever it may be.”

“Have you no clue?” I asked. “Was there no mark of violence, no bloodstain, no footprints, nothing to give a hint as to what kind of danger you may have to meet?”

“Absolutely nothing. The man was gone and that was all. Last time it was old Ali, who has been wharf-tender here since the place was started. He was always as steady as a rock, and nothing but foul play would take him from his work.”

“Well,” said I, “I really don’t think that this is a one-man job. Your friend is full of laudanum, [Drink comprising alcohol and morphine] and come what might he can be of no assistance to you. You must let me stay and put in a night with you at the cooperage.”

“Well, now, that’s very good of you, Meldrum,” said he heartily, shaking my hand across the table. “It’s not a thing that I should have ventured to propose, for it is asking a good deal of a casual visitor, but if you really mean it—”

“Certainly I mean it. If you will excuse me a moment, I will hail the Gamecock and let them know that they need not expect me.”

As we came back from the other end of the little jetty we were both struck by the appearance of the night. A huge blue-black pile of clouds had built itself up upon the landward side, and the wind came from it in little hot pants, which beat upon our faces like the draught from a blast furnace. Under the jetty the river was swirling and hissing, tossing little white spurts of spray over the planking.

“Confound it!” said Doctor Severall. “We are likely to have a flood on the top of all our troubles. That rise in the river means heavy rain up-country, and when it once begins you never know how far it will go. We’ve had the island nearly covered before now. Well, we’ll just go and see that Walker is comfortable, and then if you like we’ll settle down in our quarters.”

The sick man was sunk in a profound slumber, and we left him with some crushed limes in a glass beside him in case he should awake with the thirst of fever upon him. Then we made our way through the unnatural gloom thrown by that menacing cloud. The river had risen so high that the little bay which I have described at the end of the island had become almost obliterated through the submerging of its flanking peninsula. The great raft of driftwood, with the huge black tree in the middle, was swaying up and down in the swollen current.

“That’s one good thing a flood will do for us,” said the doctor. “It carries away all the vegetable stuff which is brought down on the east end of the island. It came down with the  freshet the other day, and here it will stay until a flood sweeps it out into the main stream. Well, here’s our room, and here are some books, and here is my tobacco pouch, and we must try and put in the night as best we may.”

By the light of our single lantern the great lonely room looked very gaunt and dreary. Save for the piles of staves and heaps of hoops there was absolutely nothing in it, with the exception of the mattress for the doctor, which had been laid in the corner. We made a couple of seats and a table out of the staves, and settled down together for a long vigil.

Severall had brought a revolver for me, and was himself armed with a double-barreled shotgun. We loaded our weapons and laid them cocked within reach of our hands. The little circle of light and the black shadows arching over us were so melancholy that he went off to the house, and returned with two candles. One side of the cooperage was pierced, however, by several open windows, and it was only by screening our lights behind staves that we could prevent them from being extinguished.

The doctor, who appeared to be a man of iron nerves, had settled down to a book, but I observed that every now and then he laid it upon his knee, and took an earnest look all round him. For my part, although I tried once or twice to read, I found it impossible to concentrate my thoughts upon the book. They would always wander back to this great empty silent room, and to the sinister mystery which overshadowed it. I racked my brains for some possible theory which would explain the disappearance of these two men. There was the black fact that they were gone, and not the least tittle of evidence as to why or whither. And here we were waiting in the same place—waiting without an idea as to what we were waiting for. I was right in saying that it was not a one-man job. It was trying enough as it was, but no force upon earth would have kept me there without a comrade.

What an endless, tedious night it was! Outside we heard the lapping and gurgling of the great river, and the soughing of the rising wind. Within save for our breathing, the turning of the Doctor’s pages, and the high, shrill ping of an occasional mosquito there was a heavy silence.

Once my heart sprang into my mouth as Severall’s book suddenly fell to the ground and he sprang to his feet with his eyes on one of the windows.

“Did you see anything, Meldrum?”

“No. Did you?”

“Well, I had a vague sense of movement outside that window.” He caught up his gun and approached it. “No, there’s nothing to be seen, and yet I could have sworn that something passed slowly across it.”

“A palm leaf, perhaps,” said I, for the wind was growing stronger every instant.

“Very likely,” said he, and settled down to his book again, but his eyes were forever darting little suspicious glances up at the window. I watched it also, but all was quiet outside.

And then suddenly our thoughts were turned into a new direction by the bursting of the storm. A blinding flash was followed by a clap which shook the building. Again and again came the vivid white glare with thunder at the same instant, like the flash and roar of a monstrous piece of artillery.
And then down came the tropical rain, crashing and rattling on the corrugated iron roofing of the cooperage. The big hollow room boomed like a drum. From the darkness arose a strange mixture of noises, a gurgling, splashing, tinkling, bubbling, washing, dripping—every liquid sound that nature can produce from the thrashing and swishing of the rain to the deep steady boom of the river. Hour after hour the uproar grew louder and more sustained.

“My word,” said Severall, “we are going to have the father of all the floods this time. Well, here’s the dawn coming at last and that is a blessing. We’ve about exploded the third night superstition anyhow.”

A gray light was stealing through the room, and there was the day upon us in an instant. The rain had eased off, but the coffee-colored river was roaring past like a waterfall. Its power made me fear for the anchor of the Gamecock.

“I must get aboard,” said I. “If she drags she’ll never be able to beat up the river again.”

“The island is as good as a breakwater,” the doctor answered. “I can give you a cup of coffee if you will come up to the house.”

I was chilled and miserable, so the suggestion was a welcome one. We left the ill-omened cooperage with its mystery still unsolved, and we splashed our way up to the house.

“There’s the spirit lamp,” said Severall. “If you would just put a light to it, I will see how Walker feels this morning.”

He left me, but was back in an instant with a dreadful face. “He’s gone!” he cried hoarsely.

The words sent a shrill of horror through me. I stood with the lamp in my hand, glaring at him.

“Yes, he’s gone!” he repeated. “Come and look!”

I followed him without a word, and the first thing that I saw as I entered the bedroom was Walker himself lying huddled on his bed in the gray flannel sleeping suit in which I had helped to dress him on the night before. “Not dead, surely!” I gasped.

The doctor was terribly agitated. His hands were shaking like leaves in the wind. “He’s been dead some hours.”

“Was it fever?”

“Fever! Look at his foot!”

I glanced down and a cry of horror burst from my lips. One foot was not merely dislocated but was turned completely round in a most grotesque contortion.

“Good God!” I cried. “What can have done this?”

Severall had laid his hand upon the dead man’s chest. “Feel here,” he whispered.

I placed my hand at the same spot. There was no resistance. The body was absolutely soft and limp. It was like pressing a sawdust doll.

“The breastbone is gone,” said Severall in the same awed whisper. “He’s broken to bits. Thank God that he had the laudanum. You can see by his face that he died in his sleep.

“But who can have done this?”

“I’ve had about as much as I can stand,” said the doctor, wiping his forehead. “I don’t know that I’m a greater coward than my neighbors, but this gets beyond me. If you’re going out to the Gamecock —”

“Come on!” said I, and off we started. If we did not run it was because each of us wished to keep up the last shadow of his self-respect before the other.

It was dangerous in a light canoe on that swollen river, but we never paused to give the matter a thought. He bailing and I paddling we kept her above water, and gained the deck of the yacht. There, with two hundred yards of water between us and this cursed island, we felt that we were our own men once more.

“We’ll go back in an hour or so,” said he. “But we need a little time to steady ourselves. I wouldn’t have had the niggers see me as I was just now for a year’s salary.”

“I’ve told the steward to prepare breakfast. Then we shall go back,” said I. “But in God’s name, Doctor Severall, what do you make of it all.”

“It beats me—beats me clean. I’ve heard of Voodoo devilry, and I’ve laughed at it with the others. But that poor old Walker, a decent, God-fearing, nineteenth-century, Primrose-League [A conservative organization formed in Great Britain during 1883] Englishman, should go under like this without a whole bone in his body—it’s given me a shake, I won’t deny it. But look there, Meldrum, is that hand of yours mad or drunk, or what is it?”

Old Patterson, the oldest man of my crew, and as steady as the Pyramids, had been stationed in the bows with a boathook to fend off the drifting logs which came sweeping down with the current. Now he stood with crooked knees, glaring out in front of him, and one forefinger stabbing furiously at the air.

“Look at it!” he yelled. “Look at it!”

And at the same instant we saw it.

A huge black tree trunk was coming down the river, its broad glistening back just lapped by the water. And in front of it—about three feet in front—arching upwards like the figurehead of a ship, there hung a dreadful face, swaying slowly from side to side. It was flattened, malignant, as large as a small beer-barrel, of a faded fungoid color, but the neck which supported it was mottled with a dull yellow and black. As it flew past the Gamecock in the swirl of the waters I saw two immense coils roll up out of some great hollow in the tree, and the villainous head rose suddenly to the height of eight or ten feet, looking with dull, skin-covered eyes at the yacht. An instant later the tree had shot past us and was plunging with it horrible passenger towards the Atlantic.

“What was it?” I cried.

“It is our fiend of the cooperage,” said Dr. Severall, and he had become in an instant the same bluff, self-confident man that he had been before. “Yes, that is the devil who has been haunting our island. 
It is the great python of the Gaboon.”

I thought of the stories which I had heard all down the coast of the monstrous constrictors of the interior, of the periodical appetite, and of the murderous effects of their deadly squeeze. Then it all took shape in my mind. There had been a freshet the week before. It had brought down this huge hollow tree with its hideous occupant. Who knows from what far distant tropical forest it may have come. It had been stranded on the little east bay of the island. The cooperage had been the nearest house. Twice with the return of its appetite it had carried off the watchman. Last night it had doubtless come again, when Severall had thought he saw something move at the window, but our lights had driven it away. It had writhed onwards and had slain poor Walker in his sleep.

“Why did it not carry him off?” I asked.

“The thunder and lightning must have scared the brute away. There’s your steward, Meldrum. The sooner we have breakfast and get back to the island the better, or some of those niggers might think that we had been frightened.”

Author - Andrew Barger -

#FiendoftheCooperage #BestHorrorShortStories