Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror

#78



P&D welcomes back "Jolly" Joshua Reynolds and his phlegmatic 1920s Southern ghost-buster, John Bass (previously seen in The Wicked Wood); but before ol' John can get involved, we first must travel back to the dark days of the American Civil War and vile deeds that will reverberated decades later, when the glitterati of Hollywood's burgeoning silent film industry inadvertently trespass on...

 
 

The Weeping House
(Part One of Two)

By Josh Reynolds
About the author



T  HEY WERE TAKEN FROM THEIR SHACKS near the rice fields in the dead of night, ten men and women descended of the peoples of the Ivory Coast, their ancestors brought in shackles to a green and pleasant land as human fodder for the mill of a newborn country‘s growth. Torch light blinded them. A whip caressed their flesh to hurry them along. To speed up. To reach the House on time. The Master’s House. It squatted amidst trees bent heavy with Spanish moss, a sprawling gargantua of wood and mortar. The jewel of Manke Island. Once it was white, this house, with little blue shutters and a steepled roof. It was covered in layers of salt and sand now, the curse of waterfront property since time immemorial.

In the night, it looked black this house.

From far away, on the mainland perhaps, the sounds of cannon-fire floated across the deep purple of the midnight ocean, and explosions painted the horizon with swathes of orange and brilliant red. The war had come at last to South Carolina. The blue-coated demons were baying at the gates of Paradise and they had brought more than enough hellfire to go around.

But none of that mattered to the Master of Manke Island. He was waiting for them on the veranda as his chosen men bustled them forward, dressed all in black like some preening storm crow, his hair as red as the heart of Satan and his eyes as blue as his blood. He swept open the expensive glass doors of his home and they followed after, captives and sworn men alike. Through small rooms, tastefully decorated, back to the more utilitarian areas. They passed by the doorway to a large room wherein several score of men and women danced and laughed and pretended not to notice the dismal procession. Then down. Down beneath the house, between stone columns set deep in the dirt of the island. It was square and brown, this room and as long as the house was wide. The walls were daub and the floor hard-packed and prone to muddiness in the hurricane season.

And in this dirty room beneath a beautiful house, a select group of the lords and ladies of Manke stood and waited. They wore their best and tried not to look longingly at the doorway to this deep room, which led above, which led to the party they had believed they had been invited to. Not a hair out of place as they tried to politely ignore the scrawled words on the dry walls. Words that seemed to twist and bend, lengthen and shorten in the flickering lamplight. Disturbing words.

The Master smiled to see them so and chuckled in his raspy, fox-bark of a voice. He snapped his fingers after he had come down the stairs into the room proper and bowed to the lords and ladies like a showman.

On the dirt of the ground before the steps he had drawn an immense circular groove whose contours seemed to undulate in the lamplight. The ten slaves were herded into the dirt circle, eyes wide, breath coming in short gasps. A few began to weep baby-quiet. All around them, mortal eyes watched in anticipation, watched for the signal.

Then, the Master of Manke Island pulled a long lean knife from his cloak, which flapped back like wings in a sudden rush of hot wind that carried a taste of sulphur and a smell of gunpowder. He fairly hopped towards the frozen slaves and his knife flashed once and one poor black fell, throat cut like a lamb’s. The signal come and gone.

Before the other nine could do more than raise a feeble shout, other blades held in the hands of the Master’s serving men flashed and bit in the light of wind whipped torches and the rich earth of Manke Island drank up the blood like some green-fleshed lush. And the Master laughed, deep and loud.

Words were said over the twitching forms, words in a language better not heard by man, words drowned out by the rising winds that rocked the house down to its very foundations and the thunder of distant guns. And then they buried them beneath that circle, six feet down. They bent and stacked them like cordwood and buried them in blood soaked dirt, chains and all.

And to the lords and ladies who watched all pale faced and trembling, shocked at the butchery, at this cruel prank played out before them, the Master turned then as the last spade full of earth was tamped down by a sweating overseer and he said softly, "And now no Yankee foot shall step on our soil. No Yankee soldier, sailor, tinker or tailor will set up shop on Manke Island. Not when the ritual is done."

So saying, he held his spidery hand over the bloody circle and brought that sharp, sharp knife sliding gently across his palm. One, two, three drops he let fall to the earth, to mingle with the blood of his betrayed slaves and not one more. "And thus it is done." he hissed.

And so it was, for at that moment a federal shell fired from a Yankee ironclad arced over Manke Island and fell down. Down through the wet winds it fell until it burst through the roof of that beautiful house and took all within to Perdition as the very last drop of the Master‘s blood fell to the dirt. In those last moments of flame and fury, it would perhaps be not incorrect to say that the Master of Manke Island felt just a bit cheated. But then, the ritual did work after all. No Yankee set foot on Manke Island that night or any other.

At least until 1922 that is.

________________________________________________________________________


Will Stone was one of the highest paid actors in the business, and likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future. At least to hear him tell it anyway. A rising star of the silent screen. As such, he could afford those quirks which afflicted the wealthy and the just plain mad on an equal scale. A native of Kansas he had starred in over fifteen films, his most recent being a retelling of the life of J.E.B. Stuart, the originator of the stereotype of the dashing Confederate cavalry commander. A method actor, Stone had, perhaps predictably, become obsessed with the South after the film was completed.

Not the real South of course, but the South of romantic fiction. The South as seen on the silver screen. Not that Will Stone could tell the difference between the two.

Which explains why he purchased a few acres of land on Manke Island from a private broker in the spring of 1922, in order to build his very own authentic Southern manor-house amidst the palms and long grass. What the native inhabitants of Manke Island thought of this, no one cared enough to ask it seemed.

Luck was on Stone’s side. The foundations for such a house as he desired were found on a sand stretch of hill overlooking the ocean. On a clear day, one could see Charleston from there. In three months, it was completed, a veritable monument to silly notions of nostalgia, and Will Stone threw a party to break in his new summer home.

His guests included producers and actors, directors and playwrights. Only one of them was native to the area. Curlowe Fitch was a man of means born and raised in Charleston. A lawyer and a land-dealer, he had sold Manke Island to Stone at an exorbitant price and was even now cursing himself for not doubling it as he walked up the steps of the veranda towards the double glass doors. If he had realized that Stone was so flagrant with his money just a few days earlier, he could have changed the bid offer. Gotten more.

Fitch sighed ruefully as the scent of sea-salt bit into his sinuses. Too late now. He darted his head and swiped off his hat as a Negro maid opened the door for him before he even had a chance to ring the bell. From behind the door raucous music blared forth all horns and rattling drum sets. Voices called back and forth through the house and the smell of cigarettes blended uneasily with the riper touch of honeysuckle.

Fitch gritted his teeth and thrust his way past the maid who shut the door quietly behind him. People were everywhere and bootleg liquor flowed from glasses to mouths like water through a fish’s gills. Three separate record players played three completely different songs around the house and the floors were crowded with dancers. Fitch glanced at the maid as he handed her his hat and coat and raised an eyebrow. She shrugged without looking him in the eye, as eloquent and political a reply as any she could give. Despite two disparate backgrounds, these born and bred southerners had come to the self-same conclusion-Yankees were truly odd folks.

"And here comes the oddest of the odd now." Fitch murmured, running a hand over his slick backed hair as Will Stone tumbled down the staircase to his right, drink in one hand and a prop cavalry saber in the other.

"Fitch! Glad you could make it kid! Have a drink. On the house. Ha-ha, get it? ’House’! Heh. Lura, get the man a drink, there’s a girl." Stone roared jovially, sloshing liquid perilously close to Fitch’s face as he slapped him on the shoulder and gestured at the maid with the rubber sword. The solicitor winced as Stone’s breath washed over him.

"Thank you no, Will. It’s a little early in the day for me to be breaking the law. By the by, those noises you told me about bothering you anymore?" Fitch said softly.

"Bosh! Drink! Loosen the string tie! It‘s only illegal if you‘re poor!" Stone chuckled, slurring just a little. "Lessee how a real southern gentleman holds his liquor yeah? And no, no noises. Like you said, it’s the house settling on the old foundations."

Sighing, Fitch took the drink offered by the still-silent Lura, who reappeared at his elbow with alacrity born of years of practice and servitude. He took a sip to placate the happily beaming Stone, then followed that worthy as he wheeled about at a shout from the back of the house and ambled clumsily away.

The music was beginning to grate on Fitch’s nerves as he pushed his way through the sea of humanity ensconced in the house. He was used to the softer strains of the classics and this new musical style going around was less than appealing to a man of true culture, as Fitch considered himself. Irregardless, he continued to follow the flapping shirt tail of Stone out onto the back porch, or the veranda, as Stone had taken to calling it in the last days of construction.

A woman reclined on one of the two wicker couches that served as porch furniture. With a start Fitch recognized her as Desmonda Dare, a rather famous starlet of some rather risky films. Famous for having the audience howling with lust after only a few graceful gestures, she was as beautiful in person as on the screen. Of course, that beauty only extended as far as her form. Desmonda’s voice, when she spoke, was akin to the sound a bag of gravel would make when caught in a whirlpool full of nymphs. Made harsh by a life of cigarettes and booze it nonetheless possessed a certain sultry something in it’s intonations.

"Willy darling, I just love this little shack. Makes me feel like I’m positively roughing it. However did you find it?" she smiled languidly around whatever intoxicants were rushing through her system. Stone shook his head.

"Not me my dear. You know me Des, no head for real estate. No Mister Fitch here is the one who turned me on to this little paradise. And paradise it is, noises in the night or no." Stone said, grasping Fitch’s shoulder tightly and yanking him close. Desmonda lofted her glass in salute and giggled a bit as Fitch took her free hand and delivered a light kiss to it’s back.

"Curlowe Fitch ma’am. A pleasure to make your acquaintance."

"Well glory be. A true Southern gentleman. How extraordinary." She replied in a exaggerated drawl. "I thought your type only existed in Willy’s little pictures."

"Oh no ma’am. We’re all over. You just have to look a bit harder to find us these days is all." Fitch smiled. Desmonda laughed and took a gulp from her drink.

"I’ll remember that. And just how did you stumble upon this little plot of honeysuckle heaven, Mister Fitch? Voodoo?"

"Nothing so esoteric. My grandfather bought it after the recent unpleasantness. Evidently when the Federal gunboats blockaded Charleston a stray shell from one ship or another hit right on this spot, coincidently wiping out most of the land owners who were attending a party the first night of the siege at the house which stood here, or so it did up ‘til then at least. When the war ended, the surviving landowners sold off their parcel’s in order to move to the mainland, and my grandfather bought them all up, ostensibly to keep them out of the carpetbaggers’ hands. Then he rented the plots out to sharecroppers. Well, except for a certain few that is. Like this one here for example."

"And what was so special about those, or rather this one? Buried Confederate treasure maybe?" Stone asked, taking a seat beside Desmonda. Fitch smiled and leaned against one of the porch banisters, pulling a pack of cigarettes out of his coat pocket as he did so. Desmonda offered him a light and he puffed contentedly for a few minutes before continuing.

"Buried treasure? No. Trenholm buried that somewhere outside of Columbia my dear. The reason this plot of land remained unsold is quite simple. The Devil’s work was done here…and done well." Fitch blew smoke through his nostrils and looked out at the deep orange afternoon light that bounced across the horizon of the ocean to his left. Desmonda and Stone looked at each other with raised eyebrows. Fitch turned back towards them abruptly, as a long buried strain of showmanship ( revived perhaps by the presence of so many actors in one spot) reared its head. "Or so the people of Manke Island say."

"Oh bravo Fitchy! I knew some of my stuff would rub off on you sooner or later!" Will barked, throwing back the last of his drink. Desmonda nodded and stole a cigarette from Fitch’s pack which lay upon the flat rim of the banister.

"God’s own truth. I’m fairly salivating to hear the rest. Go on kid, keep the story going."

Fitch smirked, pleased by the praise. Out of the corner of his eyes he noticed others joining the trio on the porch. Well, nothing for it now I suppose, but to tell the story…otherwise I’d simply be wasting the audience Fitch thought brightly. "My pleasure, ma’am. Devil’s work they said, those sharecroppers. And they would know, after all most of them had been slaves on the rice plantations of this island before Emancipation. They told wild stories about evil doings back in the dark bowers and bogs of the Sea Islands. Witch-craft and hoodoo. By both black men and white, and one of the latter in particular. Byre Chown, the head of the Manke Island landholders association and so-called "Master of Manke Island". Byre was the wealthiest of the wealthy, at least on the island, and possessed of a mighty will and stubborn tenacity that marked him as special among his less than industrious peers. And other things too. There were rumors, whispered stories among the slaves and the poor indentured whites of disappearances and murder, all orchestrated by Chown. Of worship ceremonies in his chapel where the cross was flipped upside down and the dead danced. Of the true fate of his three wives. He controlled everything that went on upon the island it is said, as well as some things on the Mainland in Charleston in particular, up until the closing days of the war, when things occurred that escaped even his long reach. Namely the Siege of Charleston. Federal gunboats blockaded the port and even shelled the surrounding Sea Islands as a show of force."

Fitch took a drag on his cigarette and glanced again at the horizon where the clouds were darkening slowly. A summer storm was building off-shore somewhere. The scent of rain was in the air now, light and bitter against the honeysuckle. Fitch continued, still watching the clouds. "One evening, at the height of the siege, Chown invited his neighbors to a party, much like this one. A few came, but not many. Chown, while respected, was not well-liked. As it turns out, that was a wise decision because a shell (from which side nobody was ever really sure) smacked into Chown’s house at exactly midnight that very same night, killing everyone within. But that’s not the horrible part you see. That night, ten of Byre’s slaves were stolen from their homes in the dead of night and taken to their master’s house right before midnight. Others saw this and the story was passed down of how those ten were chained and lashed right up the steps and into the house. And too, when rescuers came to try and save who they could from the shattered hulk of Chown’s house no trace of those ten poor souls was discovered and still haven’t been to this day. Of course, neither was Byre. But they say on certain evenings, when things are just right you can see that doomed procession of chattel walk right up to the remnants of Byre‘s house and disappear as if through some invisible door, along with Byre himself. And that you can hear their weeping, carried along by the sea winds."

Fitch blew out a line of smoke and blinked away the drizzle that had begun to blow in from the sea and sting his eyes. The clouds were heavy now, black and surly. They grew over Charleston and billowed out to blanket the Sea islands, pregnant with electricity and water. "After the shell hit, all that was left were the foundations of Byre’s once-glorious home. Foundations, Will, that you built your house on I’m reluctant to say. I probably should have told you, but well, it was more fun this way I think. Perhaps if you keep your eyes out tonight, you may just see Byre and his Negroes repeat their trip to oblivion. Or at least hear them."

The crowd on the porch, which had grown in seeming proportion to the angry purple clouds even now swarming in the skies above, was silent for a moment. Then Will Stone stood up. "Hot damn Fitchy!" he yelped, beaming broadly. "If I’d known this place was haunted I would’ve paid double!"

A spattering of applause followed Stone’s declaration, but before anyone else could elaborate, a sudden rumble of thunder greeted the assemblages ears. A blistering downpour followed moments later, wind-lashed rains driving the party-goers back inside amidst shrieks and cries of surprise.

Wet people floundered into the house, trailing water as Stone pulled the porch door shut with a stifled curse. "It was sunny ten minutes ago! What the hell-"

"South Carolina weather. I did warn you. Out here, it’s always hurricane season Stone." Fitch said putting out his cigarette in a convenient champagne glass. Stone tossed the lawyer a half-hearted glare and began to herd his guests into the drawing room at the front of the house.

The storm continued into the night, battering Manke Island and it’s surrounding brethren. Within the house of William Stone, twenty men and women huddled, drinking, singing and doing their best to ignore the vindictive assault of nature outside. Stone, Fitch and two other men set to and drug all the available seats, including a couch or three, into the drawing room for maximum comfort for all parties. Desmonda was encouraged along with a younger woman, a writer from Chicago, to sing in accompaniment to the room’s record player. The starlet acquiesced graciously and began to sing in her throaty voice, accompanied by the somewhat higher pitched voice of the writer.

After a set of several forgettable tunes, Desmonda Dare tossed a glance at Fitch who sat in the corner and said, loud enough for everyone to hear, "Well, I’ll say this, that story of yours sent a positively ghastly chill down my spine, Fitchy."

Fitch inclined his head in thanks. "Well, truth is nastier than fiction as my father always said."

"In fact, I think we should investigate further into that little mystery, hmmm? How about a séance? It’ll be delightfully creepy." Desmonda continued. The female writer spoke up in assent. So too did several others, including Will Stone.

"A séance! Just the thing for a dark and stormy night, eh Fitchy? Waddya say, eh?" Stone said jumping up out of his seat. Fitch waved his hands in placating gesture.

"It’s your house, Will. If you want to sit around in a circle and talk to imaginary spirits, well that’s up to you. As for myself I think I’ll sit this one out."

"Party-pooper." Desmonda pouted.

"One question though…who’s going to lead this little party, hmmm?"

"Well that’s obvious. I will, after all I played a mystic in one film or another, I think I still remember how it goes." Desmonda said as she cleaned off the table in the drawing room and sent others scurrying for chairs. At the end, ten people were squashed around the tiny table, holding hands tightly (except for Desmonda who still held onto her glass as if for dear life) and trying to stifle drunken giggles as Desmonda began her routine. It was a slow sonorous chant that had very little to do with anything even related to such a gathering. Fitch and Stone as well as the others either not foolish enough or not brave enough to sit at the table watched with embarrassed smiles as their fellows took up the chant and called out to the "great beyond".

The noises began in the midst of their second time at the chant, and continued on into the opening half of the third before growing louder. Desmonda clapped her mouth shut and indeed, conversation ceased as the noises continued. It was a thumping pulse, this noise. Buh-bum. Buh-bum. A single rhythm, but echoed many-fold over and over again. At intervals, it sped up or slowed down in a most distressingly regular fashion. Buh-bum. Buh-bum. Buh-bum.

"What is that?" Stone hissed, looking at Fitch. Fitch shrugged as he looked around the room. "Fitch, is this some kind of gag?"

Beneath the pulse, so softly as to be almost inaudible at first, a new noise rose into existence. A sobbing, ragged sound. The sound of a lost child, or an innocent in pain. The whimpering of a whipped dog or the squeak of a wounded cat. It grew louder, mingling with and blanketing the rhythmic thumping. "Now what? For God’s sake what is it now?" Desmonda whispered, the glass in her hand shaking so that liquid slopped out onto the carpet.

"It’s weeping. It is the sound of people weeping." Fitch said, deceptively calm. Trembling fingers lit up a new cigarette as the attorney scanned the drawing room staring at the pale faces of Stone’s guests and trying to dredge answers from the shadowed corners of the suddenly claustrophobic room. As he raised the cigarette to his lips, the front door down the hall suddenly banged open loudly, and stormy winds burst in, scattering papers and eliciting shrieks from those assembled.

The tramp of unshod feet resounded thunderously in the halls, as if a locomotive had barreled into the side of the house. The weeping grew in volume, as if the criers were drawing closer to the drawing room. Will Stone stood and shot a fierce look at Fitch, who was ashen faced and wide-eyed, his gaze locked on the doorway to the room. "Fitch! Trying to frighten us eh? Trying to pull one over on us with that set-up about the land being haunted? You selfish bastard…if you don’t put a stop to this I’ll-"

"Shut up Stone." Desmonda warbled, jumping between the advancing actor and the heedless Fitch. "Can’t you see he’s as surprised as we are?"

The footsteps grew still louder, drowning out the cries of the guests and Stone’s ravings, coming nearer ‘til at last they seemed to be at the very door to the room. All eyes were drawn to the doorway as Fitch’s were.

Silence then. The thumping stopped. The weeping trailed off. Silence, loud and complete. Until a bevy of guttural words crawled out of Desmonda’s throat. The actresses eyes rolled back in her head and she swayed where she stood, jabbering in a liquid tongue, the words coming fast and bouncing off the white walls of the small room. Fitch’s head whipped around at the first syllables and his jaw sagged open. "Impossible." he breathed, eyes lit up in confusion and fear. Stone, helpless to corral the staggering Desmonda, turned to him shakily.

"What? What is it damn you?"

" She can’t possibly know the sea-island dialect! She can’t! Yet she’s speaking it like a born native. That‘s impossible!"

The impossibilities grew as seconds later, one by one, nine of the other guests, all those seated at the table, male and female alike, stood crookedly and, as entranced as Desmonda, began to murmur and whisper in the jumbled nigh incomprehensible patois of the Sea Islands. Fitch, Stone and several others attempted to settle the afflicted, but to no avail. They continued to stand, to caterwaul for seconds which stretched into minutes, until at last, as a flash of lightning illuminated Manke Island in its entirety, one by one they fell unconscious to the floor, like puppets with their strings cut.

And in the rumble of thunder that cracked the vaults of the heavens above, Curlowe Fitch heard the deep laughter of a man roll through the house, a laugh thick with hate and malice. Yes, hate, malice, but also promise.

________________________________________________________________________


John Bass stood on the dock of Manke Island and watched the ferry boat disappear across the horizon. He was a big man, thick of shoulder and stomach, with thinning hair long since gone snow white, for Bass was in his fifties if he was a day. His clothing was functional and well-worn. His shirt was shiny with wear at the elbows and his pants were faded and fraying at the cuffs. Thick soled work-boots completed the picture of a farmer gone to seed, as indeed John Bass had been. He pulled a cap out of his back pocket and fixed it over his weathered head with a grimace, hard eyes narrowing as the beep of a horn announced the arrival of his client.

Curlowe Fitch pulled Will Stone’s Ford to a stop and leaned out, eyes resigned as he took in the figure of John Bass. "John Bass." he stated familiarly. Bass spat and touched the brim of his cap.

"Little Fitch." he grated. The two men eyed each other warily for a few moments, before Fitch sighed and opened the passenger door of the ford.

"I suppose you’d best get in, John Bass. We’ve a ways to go up the shore."

"Ayup. Reckon we do." Bass grunted and ambled for the automobile.



Next ...Part Two (of Two)

Table of ContentsPulp and Dagger icon

The story is copyright by Josh Reynold. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)