The House on the Hill.

This Week’s Prompt:95. Horrible Colonial farmhouse and overgrown garden on city hillside—overtaken by growth. Verse “The House” as basis of story.

The Resulting Story:The Old House

It’s been a while since we’ve indulged in Mr. Lovecraft’s poetry. The particular poem he references, which will provide a bit more guidance to our research, seems to be one of two by Edward Arlington Robinson. One is “The House on the Hill”:

They are all gone away,
The House is shut and still,
There is nothing more to say.

Through broken walls and gray
The winds blow bleak and shrill:
They are all gone away.

Nor is there one to-day
To speak them good or ill:
There is nothing more to say.

Why is it then we stray
Around the sunken sill?
They are all gone away,

And our poor fancy-play
For them is wasted skill:
There is nothing more to say.

There is ruin and decay
In the House on the Hill:
They are all gone away,
There is nothing more to say.

Edwin Arlington.png

The other is along the same theme, is “The Haunted House”:

Here was a place where none would ever come
For shelter, save as we did from the rain.
We saw no ghost, yet once outside again
Each wondered why the other should be so dumb;
And ruin, and to our vision it was plain
Where thrift, outshivering fear, had let remain
Some chairs that were like skeletons of home.

There were no trackless footsteps on the floor
Above us, and there were no sounds elsewhere.
But there was more than sound; and there was more
Than just an axe that once was in the air
Between us and the chimney, long before
Our time. So townsmen said who found her there.

Both of these stories point us towards our ultimate topic—a haunted house on a hill, overgrown with time, in the United States. The term Colonial is a bit more limiting. I suspect Mr. Lovecraft was thinking of houses in New England in particular, but have expanded my research into the ghostly and and haunted to other house up through the eighteenth century. Not that the Americas have a shortage of haunted homes and houses.

Starting with the northernmost examples I have, we have tales of ghosts from Nova Scotia. A peddler murdered in a half-way house in Halifax haunts its top most room, and sounds of burial can be heard while sleeping there. In Digby, a local doctor’s collection of skeletons are haunted—and disapprove of a worker who set them up like dominoes and knocked them over. A ghost returned to his family, haunting them for three days before a priest compelled him to speak. The ghost then revealed he needed a shave before entering St. Peter’s gates.

In Indiana, there are number of old haunted homes. A number of houses are haunted by coffins not yet buried. A millionaire named Tess preserved the love of his life, even buying a fan to blow her hair and having a private generator keep the blue lights on in the room. Poor Tess seems to have lost his mind, hoarding coffins not only of his loved ones but of cats as well. In Medora, a similar story plays out with one Aseop Wilson, who’s mother insisted he not serve in the civil war. Aesop did, and of course died in battle—his body however was sealed in casket of charcoal at his mothers request, and not buried until a pyschic made contact with him years later. Despite the eventual burial, the delay appears to have attracted unseemly sorts as the house, as white wraiths still appear and moan in the old decaying ruin of the place.

TerreHaute

Downtown Terre Haute, the town home to the Preston House (well. Whats left of it.)

The Preston House has a number of ghosts ascribed to it. One is of a woman, who came with a man from New Orleans. When she refused to divorce him, she went missing on a trip to her family—the servants at the house were convinced she had been buried in the walls. Another group of ghosts came from the Underground Railroad—although the informant claims the railroad was literally underground. As a number of slaves were escaping, the tunnel caved in on both ends. The house’s owners tried their best to excavate the tunnel, but needed to move slowly to not draw the authorities attention. Sadly, all the slaves died—and their spirits still lurk in the house, chains shaking as they wait.

In Koleen, a rotten woman died when her hair caught fire—the product burned fast, and her shouting fed the flames to burn faster. To this day you can see her burn once a year, an event marked by increasingly ominous signs and weather until the day of.

The Hill House of Rockville is probably the most relevant of the houses in Indiana—and perhaps the most humorous. The owner, a wealthy man judging by the size of the house, passed on. And as they say, where there is a will there is a long line of eager relatives. His entire extended family came and spent the night before the funeral there. The next day they awoke and learned that all of their clothes had been removed, and placed in the high branches of the trees outside. Truly a terrifying experience!

The Shoals of Maine provide many haunted ruins as well. A pair of violent drunken pirates argue along the shore, in the burnt ruins of a home. A woman waits still for her husband, who left for the sea ages past. He promised to return, but alas, if legend is believed it was none other then old Teach, Blackbeard himself! She wanders on the shore still, her clothes flowing behind her and mumuring darkly at any movement on the waters. A hanged man walks the shore as well, in a bloody butchers apron and with a long knife. This set is made complete with a monk. The monk, a black robed hooded figure, only appears when the sea growls and the wind blows—a gale is coming, and he prays along the shore for those men who will join him in the here after.

In New York state, we have the Sutton house. This house fits our description almost perfectly, as a shambling house that cannot be seperated from the woods around it. The house was home to a family of three—the mysterious Mr. Sutton, his wife, and his daughter. They lived apart from the rest of the commmunity, and rumors persisted that Mr. Sutton abused his wife. Shortly after their arrival, Mrs. Sutton died of an illness—and had a closed casket funeral. Her daughter vanished, to live with an aunt in England (although others suspected she too had been slain by her father). Mr. Sutton persisted for some time, but he too vanished. The story continues, that as the place fell into ruin, women were seen walking the grounds with their throats slit. On the anniversary of Mrs Sutton’s funeral, Mr. Sutton’s form was seen digging a grave. A distant relation did eventually move into the house after the Revolutionary war. As the day was short, he stuffed all his belongings into a small room and went to bed. On his first night, his sleep was disturbed by the sounds of a great and terrible struggle. It sounded as if china was being shattered in a struggle between a man and a woman—but no damage had been done to his good. He learned, however, from some letters that the room his cookery was in was the room the young Ms. Sutton stayed—and at last the fate of the girl was confirmed.

the Schoharie hills

Schoharie village, from Wikimedia Commons.

In the Schoharie hills, New York, we have other stories of hauntings. One informants mother was asked to watch the house of a suspected murderer. The old man was accused of having done away with several peddlers and others. On her first night, a strange image of a dog appeared. Next one of the man’s victims appeared, headless. He demanded to be buried—his body was under the floor boards—and to see the man hung. This ghost had the decency to make his court date as well, and testify. Another house had a room of such fright, that any animal placed in there fled or perished.

For each of these I’ve mentioned, I’ve ommited about a dozen others. The tales of hauntings are very similar—doors fly open, loud sounds with no origin, sudden bursts of light and fire, strange headless apparitions. Often they are the sight of a heinous crime, other times merely…present. Some even occur before the death of their victims!

So we know what a haunted house looks like, sounds like, feels like. We know that sensation, late at night, on the edge of sleep, and hearing a strange creaking sound not far off. And it isn’t hard to build a story of all sorts around a haunted ruin—places of palatable dread and uncanny, that are somewhere between wild and constructed. That ruins are haunted is nothing new. Sumerian demons dwell in those great collapsed buildings unprotected. But the hill poem asks an interesting question. What makes us stop and pause?

The poem calls out the lack. There are no lights, no specters, no sounds. There is a profound nothing. No one is left, and we don’t even have the nature of these nobodies. Why then do we stop and stray, at this ruin on the hill? An answer might be for treasure buried deep or for thrills. Maybe to find shelter in a storm. There are many reasons to end up in a place we don’t want to be.

This doesn’t feel like a monster story. This doesn’t feel like a story with jump scares and shaking buildings. This is a more atmospheric piece. Perhaps, our narrators are looking for someone, something. Some closure at least. Who knows why one might end up, like the nameless Sutton, in an old family home.

And find no one there.

This reminds me of one other haunting—one I discussed here. I will have to think on it some, to build this one. What stories of the dead places have you heard?

Bibliography

Baker, Ronald L. Hoosier Folk Legends. Indiana University Press. 1982

Beck, Horace Palmer. The Folklore of Maine. J.B. Lippincott. 1957

Garner, Emelyn Elizabeth. Folklore From the Schohaire hills, New York. University of Michigan Press. 1937

Fauset, Arthur. Folklore of Nova Scotia. New York, American Folk-lore society, G.E. Strechet and Co. 1931.

Pryer, Charles. Reminiscences of an old Westchester homestead. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1897.

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Networks of the Dead

This Weeks Prompt: 66. Catacombs discovered beneath a city (in America?).

The Resulting Story: The Death of Mr. Donovan

We delve deeper now, from the cemetery and undertaker to the ossuaries and catacombs of the dead. A catacomb is an underground tomb, constructed for resting the dead. Generally these forms in cities, often in cases where graveyards simply will not due anymore. The famous catacombs of Paris were made after the cities cemeteries were flooded by rain, pushing bodies and skeletons to the surface and onto city streets. The catacombs of Rome likewise began due to overcrowding and land shortage, the grim reality that there were to many dead and not enough tombs. And then there are American catacombs that imitate these sites, strange tourist attractions. But we will return to the strangeness of the subterranean landscape of America in a moment.

Catacombs Rome.png

For now, let us focus on the old world. Beginning in Rome, catacombs were constructed by members of the Jewish community as well early Christians, both who preferred burial to the more common method of cremation. The tombs thus give artistic insights into traditions of the era, and have an air of mystery about them. A number of saints are buried there—who are by definition holy individuals and beings—and at least one fringe archaeologist has suggested the grail might be buried there. As the catacombs are under Vatican control, the possibilities have not been fully explored.

The catacombs of Paris have a more infamous reputation. Built out of an old mine, the catacombs here are full of bones from the 1800s. Only partly open to the public, the catacombs have attracted rumor of conspiracy as long as they have been around. The mines they were built out of are rumored to have been the location of black masses in 1348. Bandits and revolutionaries hid in the sprawling labyrinth, as did in more recent years Nazi bunkers and French Resistance members. Even more recently, daredevils and thrill seekers have built an underground art society around the catacombs and mines. Secret pools, murals, and even a cinema have all been found by authorities beneath the city of lights.

CAtacombFrance.png

With walls lined with skulls and bones, the catacombs of Paris certainty have an atmosphere of horror and the macabre, yet somehow still alive and changing and reshaping. It is here that the Phantom of the Opera lived, that Jean Val Jean made his escape, where monarchists and fascists were killed, where black mass and plagues were born.

So, are there any such catacombs in the American cities, locales and lacuna of horror waiting beneath our feet?

The short answer is…not exactly, but something similar. There are catacombs in the United States(Which is likely what Lovecraft means by America, as opposed to Americas). One is a replica of the Roman catacombs in DC. Another is the catacombs near New York, in St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral and other churches. Another underground locale, that I have little knowledge of, is found in Waterbury, Connecticut documents the life of Jesus Christ. So there are some overt underground burials. But more interesting are those sorts of places that resemble the catacombs in life. Abandoned routes and work ways under a large living city, still mysterious and without exploration being complete.

AbandonedNewYork.png

In New York City, there are large abandoned subways that are not immediately accessible. While trains sometimes run down here, and there are inhabitants, they resemble the catacombs in many ways, with continuous habitation and dangers around every corner, from trains to small spaces. The danger of police and others down in the depths are a continuous problem for those urban explorers who go down there. Images can be found here.

Another set of abandoned works exists in LA, the remains of the trolley system that was shut down in the 1950s, which later on was host to disaster shelters during the Cold War. Since then, development has divided up its remains.

Cincinati.png
The biggest of these abandoned networks of tunnels is beneath Cincinnati. These tunnels run two miles in length and are mostly intact, if sealed. The construction began in 1920, abandoned in 1925, and at last closed in 1950s after being considered for a bomb shelter. The tunnels have some rumors around them still—hauntings, mainly. A connection to catacombs thats more direct than most, as the catacomb is often just that. A realm of the dead that exists in a material form. Its a small demesne of Hades.

A more mythic connection is the sorcererous lair of Afrasiab. While not obvious comparison, it is Afrasiab is a destructive force who holds an advanced and luxurious underground bunker with layers of steel several men thick. It is host to an artificial sky, and four rivers—one of wine, one of milk, one of sour milk, and one of water. Like many of the other catacombs, the abandoned remains of such ruins could be come

Lovecraft, for his part, presents something like those above. The Vaults of Zin—a connection between the Dreamlands and the waking world—are likewise underground remains of a great civilization that connects to the ultimate fate of the dead, and inhabited by the monstrous and cannibalistic ghasts. These tunnels, that make the world between the here and the bizarre less clear, are a place of possibility and disruption. They mark a boundary that we can traverse to a strange and secretive realm, where societies of the living transgress among the dead. More importantly, the catacombs are a from an earlier and abandoned age. Yes, at some point someone was digging the ones in Rome, those in Paris are the remains of old mines, those in the United States re abandoned subways, and even in Rome these catacombs are out of use by now. Catacombs are re-purposed remains of a long lost civilization or time.

I bring this up because, if I were to speculate on the catacombs here, the surprise of their discovery is important. The catacombs are discovered recently, and therefore are previously unknown. This means, unlike the ones we’ve discussed so far, the catacombs are not connected to the current inhabitants. This lays into the United States twice over: Not only is the United States a young country—relatively seeking, of course,–and thus any catacombs would be something of a surprise but it is…how was it once put….built entirely on an Indian burial ground. While catacombs may not be widespread, there are discoveries in the last few decades that indicate intense burial sites at the least.

Building on this, as some archaeologist discovering the remains of a long lost nation and catacomb is…well, a start. Where it goes I’m not sure. There are themes to explore but I’m not sure what to do with a meeting of a forgotten past and the modern present. A lost history might be found, in the images of the catacomb, that belies some history that the modern world denies. But …I must think on what sort of discovery that would be.

What about you? What horrors or wonder discoveries in an abandoned underworld might you find?

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