An old fashioned horror
There is something in the fabric of old, silent places. Time seems to lay a patina on them, made of moss and lichen, of slow growing things, decay, stains and stillness. The stone, the wood, the earth, even the air holds something more than beauty. An immeasurable presence, a union of time past with the slowly burgeoning moment.
In summer here the long shadows of grass-blanketed barrows turn away the days, measuring aeons. Beyond the bare clearings, the hallowed arches and looming ranks of tangled evergreens confuse the way. Above the broken sky glows blue or shimmers black, growing to an intensity that swells those sheltered spaces. On those old mounds, on those grey stones, over those brooding trees, there is a softening as of erosion, the light gentle. Even summer storms traverse the patchwork fields and forests and sun dappled valleys in vast stately swathes.
As the days shorten, as the cold bites, as the sun becomes bone through the mist and mottled shroud, as fluid night flows through hearth, hollow and the empty places like a tide, you can sense something timeless stirring in the heart chambers of those cold earthen tombs. Shadows turn and lengthen. Moon-dark creeps about them in the long watches of the night; what time they now measure seems beyond measuring. What thing is it, time turns about? In the distance, amid the wood, as the shadow lights upon a great jagged stone, a gleam of fire, now orange, now burning copper, in the prayerless dark.
That erosion has wearied the fabric between the hollow, hungry morning of the world, and the somnolent now. What is it that wakes?
There has been a ghost story about the girl who died in the asylum, and was buried here, in the Dunbarrow Cemetery, beyond living memory. My father told me about it, his father told him. The local legend has been a right of passage for teenagers at least since the 50s. They’d drink some beers, or smoke some weed, and bike or drive up the long forest road at sunset, torches and headlights flickering, and scare each other with shouts, shadows and the story of Sad Susan –and shriek at an animal’s eyes glowing amongst the dried weeds, the crooked stones, the cold imploring statues.
Though that’s not quite true. Time has made a game of the story, like whispers in the dark. Meaning layered, like sands that become stone, currents eddying this way and that, sediments coloured by different stains, and, except when a violent fault breaks the world open, only the surface shows.
On nights when storm-surge battered the sea cliffs, torrents obscured the wider world, and winds like tearing hands bent trees and ripped cables like threads, in a room barely lit by the light of kerosene lamps, father would tell the tale.
“Sad Susan they called her. Long dank hair, pale and thin and miserable and bony, but really just a slip of a thing, just a little older than you. They say she was in there, in the old Dunbarrow madhouse, because she cut up all her dollies. Or it might have been cats. The gullible say she scalpelled the nurse, stuck all sorts of paraphernalia in the wounds…”
“Bits and pieces, bibs and bobs, what ever was lying to hand. Scissors and and tongs and cotton bandages and false eyeballs and the like. It was their electric-shock room, and their eye-doctoring room, go figure. They say she cut up and stuffed the nurse, got out of the electrode room, shocked into madness and screaming like a harridan, burnt the locked children’s ward to ash, before leaping aflame from the tower, electricity dripping from her fingers. Everyone else in the old madhouse, the other nurses and doctors and trustees and patients in the unburnt buildings, were all found like this,” and he’d thrust his face forward from shadow into the flickering light, eyes wide, red tongue protruding, “krrrrrk, all dead.”
The same story, the same words, the same shrieks of delight and denial. Stories and shadow puppets before yellow flames, and we would laugh off the night’s fears in the face of a ridiculous rictus.
Then in a lull after the laughter, even the storm quiet for a moment –the last line of the tale.
“You can see her unmarked stone glowing with green fire and lightning in the last moments of evening. Don’t look too long, she might look back.” Something in that challenge brought silence, the air chill, the lamplight gone feeble, more shadow than illumination.
Grandfather would tell the tale with homemade lemonade, and hard store bought biscuits, on his porch in the waning afternoon, after an endless day of hide-and-seek, calling out, Sad Susan seeking, scaredy cats reeking! on the edge of the forest. As the day darkened, someone, Danny Ryan or Tiff Mayweather, or one of the other neighbourhood children, would always end up weeping, calling, imagining they were quite lost. Sick of being it, or being sought, the game would change to one of war, armed with angrily raised sticks and furiously thrown pinecones. Of a sudden, nobody wanted to be Sad Susan, no one wanted to be found by Sad Susan. War, it seemed –raucous shouts and scrapes and bruises kept thoughts of a gangling figure perhaps glimpsed stalking amongst the trees at bay.
In the safety of the porch, Grandfather would dismiss father’s version as poppycock.
“Poppycock –I’ll tell you about Sad Susan. Yes, when your father was a boy that big mansion up by the old cemetery was a mental institution, but it was modern and even had a pleasant sounding name: Summerfair Hospital. Nothing bad ever happened there, well, nothing out of the ordinary, until one day it filled with gas and burnt to a cinder. And those that didn’t burn were asphyxiated, they choked on the gas. But that was an accident, not anything peculiar.”
He’d always stop on peculiar, allow that old fashioned word to sink in, sip tea, offer biscuits, which we refused impatiently, because the next part of the tale was strange indeed.
“Before that,” he continued, “it was The Our Lady Of The Angels Convent School, where nuns prayed the Angelus three times a day. That’s a prayer that honours the moment the Angel of The Lord spoke to Mary, and she swelled with the Holy Spirit, that became Jesus H Christ if you pardon my French. Behold the handmaiden of the Lord, they’d sing, Be it done unto me according to Thy word. Now it was also a school that taught the Catholic girls hereabouts. This was back before the place was a hospital, before the war, and Sad Susan was just a touch of a girl. A slip of a thing, skin and bone and pursed tulip lips, slight as a doll –the aunt of a friend knew her.
“I suppose all that praying and bending got to some of those girls. Some just have a powerful urge to be wicked. That’s the best and worst kind, if you take my meaning, so you lads steer clear of that sort. Puts me in mind of your grandmother, bless her heart, but that’s another tale. Susan was clever and petulant and wicked, and she got caught flitting off the grounds at midnight to meet her beau.
“Now the Mother there was strict as nails, holy as a starched sheet. She declared the girl was off to meet Satan, thrashed her soundly, and locked her in the tower for the night. Which is what they did with penitents, and many a girl better behaved for it. But not Susan, no. She stamped her foot, she smashed the great round window with her hand, she cursed a blue streak and she threw her lamp down in a fit. It smashed on the flagstones at the foot of the tower and flames spread through the dry stalks and curled leaves of clinging ivy and licked up the walls.
“The Good Mother had had the whole place bolted, locked and shuttered to forestall further escapades. Did Susan cry a warning? No, she sat there sad and petulant, and when the flames caught up the tower she threw herself down, and broke like porcelain on the stones.
“They say she caught fire anyway, the flames licking at her hair and dress, and she crawled away, all sort of torn out of shape by the heat, and they found her near the big stone gate in the dawn when the fire marshall arrived, and she was the only one who got out.
“Now the gullible will tell you her unmarked stone in the old cemetery glows with the fires of hell in the twilight, where she still burns, but the practical will tell you that’s just a particular quartzy-stone they used for the marker, catching the light, just so.”
Then, with the last golden light of day a broken flicker through the trees, the crickets would hush, and we’d wonder why in our earlier games of stealth and silence, when everyone else was caught and answered the quiet, imploring call, there always seemed to be someone who didn’t.
Grandfather’s Sad Susan was all the more frightening, told on a summer’s eve, and we’d pile inside, flick on all the lights, and turn the TV on, loud. Grinning, and punching each other, and shouting, and whispering.
Just a few years later, with all the dumb certitude, the reckless, hurtful bravado of teens, we no longer had time for old people’s dumb kids’ stories. What dumb kids. Me, Danny, Terry and Charlie Markham. But we’d still go up there – that tabu place, in that forbidden moment –to see light pour from the stone in the last gleam of twilight.
Wisdom, of course, comes with a little patience, experience, hard lessons. Even a cursory examination of local folklore, yellowing newspapers, obscure biographies, parish records, reveals tale after tale. When Summerfair was the colonial mansion of a Victorian coal magnate, the tower the only visible remnant of a monastic bell tower, the new wing an airy thing of elegant cut sandstone, finely mortared, and tall deceptive windows, frilled with cast iron that only became bars and spikes upon a more diligent inspection, Sad Susan was a maid servant, in love with the scion of the family, lost at sea. Punished by the master, she burned the place, then hung from the gate, below the incised motto in the stone arch; Summer Fair, Winter Warn, just as her beloved returned to see her grim handiwork, and the last light of evening in her eyes. Her pauper’s grave a blank white stone.
A hundred years earlier, a gothic anecdote in a parson’s diary. A gypsy girl. Love, pain, fire fall, stone. In the time of King Charles, a holy novice, sin, impenitence, fire, immolation, cast from a cliff.
Earlier still, before any stones were laid, a village legend, a forest witch, love, pain, fire, fall, stone. Love, pain, fire, fall, stone. Love, pain, fire, fall, stone. And after, in the half-light, a figure in the forest.
An archeology of meaning; if one could sift tales like sand to find a flintshred of truth, and decipher beyond the sweet illusion, what might one see? When tremulous life first fended off the fanged dark with raised arms and upraised voices, when the world was young and creatures barely human scrawled totems of their dreams and terrors in ochre and in charcoal in subterranean galleries, crawling through the close confines to bury deep the things that preyed like flame and bone behind their skulls in the yearning gleam of the long starry dark. Perhaps, perhaps, if they could hide that thing in the utter dark it would no longer emerge at the dying of the day.
There are such pictures, found recently in caves like vast cracks in the sea cliffs, past grinding rocks, crevices dwindling to the deeper dark, unperturbed for millennia upon millennia, Incised marks, stained red and black, a stick figure? Not quite a man. A few sharp lines, indecipherable.
Like whispers in the dark, the illusion, the tale, the creature has taken on layers of meaning, layers of complexity. Guises for each moment, each age. Its most recent iteration, almost comical.
They say she emerges from the barrow in the grounds. They say inside are the bones of some ancient, unknown people, entwined in strange ways, broken and worn away.”
“You’re good at this, Charlie, but I still want to know, who the hell are they?”
Charlie Markham was a skinny wretch with a mop of dark hair in front of dark eyes that always smirked. There was something he called a moustache above his top lip. There was a turn to his grin that people who didn’t know him thought was insolence, though it was more like shyness hiding a ready wit. He sat on the hood of Danny’s truck, smirking and sipping beer from a can. He had all the bravado and fragility of being fourteen.
“They. They is everyone. They is the collective subconscious.”
Danny was in the truck, dialling bursts of static on the radio. He finally got a station, an old song –I just want another little piece of your heart babeeeeee…
“I thought the collected unconscious was your dad and his pals after four bottles of cheap bourbon.”
“Oh ha ha. You know when you talk to Millicent and her friends at school? That look on their faces is the collective unconscious.”
“That’s what she said. Anyway, they say she was an angelic novice, a junior teacher, back when it was a Catholic school. That she was seduced by the convent’s priest confessor, but when he got down to it, there were horns on her labia. He said the devil made him do it, and he did it with her anyway. Afterwards, he said she was an abomination and locked her in the tower room to pray. Instead she set herself on fire and jumped from the window.”
“If she was your girlfriend you wouldn’t care if she had horns on her labia,” yelled Danny over the static still intermittently emanating from inside the truck.
“I wouldn’t care if she had horns on her head.” retorted Charlie.
“You’d do her even if she had fangs.”
“You’d do her even if she had fangs and horns.”
“You’d do her even if she had fangs and horns and a beard.”
“Dude, I’d especially do her if she had fangs and horns and a beard.”
“You wouldn’t know what to do with her.”
“Man, she’d eat you up and spit you out. And break your bones.”
“She must be on the voluptuous side.”
“Just because you like them stick thin and black hearted.”
“Hey, Milo, what are labia?”
“Dudes, you guys are funny, but what about respecting the dead. She’s buried here. Just over there. I’m sure she was a lovely girl,” I said laughing.
“Milo, pass a beer. It’s just a story. That mound in the yard isn’t even a barrow. It’s a fallout shelter built in the 1950s.”
“There’s still barrows, in the deeper woods. Hey, look, it’s glowing.”
Catching the last of the evening light, amid the grey and weathered stones and leaning statues, the long shadows of the trees, the low white block seemed half finished; a marble plinth vacantly waiting for a long since abandoned sculpture, now unevenly sunk into the soft earth, suddenly bright, as if caught under sudden moonlight. There was no moon.
“Wow, have you put you headlights on?” I asked Danny.
“No, no I haven’t. I’ve never seen it this bright. That’s amazing.”
“It’s just a trick of the light,” said Charlie.
“It’s just a cat.”
“It’s standing up.”
My father’s story, my grandfather’s story, the old stories and the new, they all agreed that the stone glowed. Everything else was a jumble of whispers and lurid grins. Nothing consistent, nothing that even hinted at truth.
Of course, that didn’t explain the wracked, skeletal thing the colour of ashes and earth with black holes for eyes in a broke-faced skull now staggering toward us, the decayed tatters of the shift it wore, clinging to leathern sinew, dripping filth, still showing traceries of delicate embroidery.
“Oh shit,” said Danny. “This is the shit. Did you set this up?”
Danny was a practical guy. Big boned, blonde, square jawed. A footballer, a mechanic. In another moment his solid jaw quaked. His eyes shadowed, his brow collapsed in a disbelieving frown. Then he visibly blanched. It was closer, under the trees now. I could see a centipede writhing in its filthy hair, the rays of the sun visible through rents in the fabric of the thing’s chest.
Charlie crawled from the hood in through the truck’s open window, without his feet touching the ground.
A moment later, the thing moved. Flying toward us in a sweep both swift and ungainly, like a great, brittle mantis. By that time the tyres were spitting dust, Danny and Charlie were gone. And I, the fearful, the gullible, chilled and tingling from mere stories, stood with the grim spirit, the revenant, the horror, an arms length before me, heart slowed and massively thumping, rigid as it reached broken, blackened fingers toward me.
Its claws touched my chest. My heart stopped. An exhalation, cold, cold, earthen and cold, froze sweat on my brow, tainted my lips. It inched closer, like a reluctant lover approaching a tentative kiss. I could feel heat spilling from my body in waves. I could feel it, it quickening, a smell like lust, as the heat drained from me.
“Through rattling teeth I could barely utter, “I love you, Susan. I love you.”
In the stillness it stopped. My heart thumped to life again. Its head seemed to tilt to a quizzical angle, as if to say, “Come my love, I’ve been waiting for you.”
She took my hand in a shy, uncompromising claw, and we staggered toward the distant, derelict building, all scorched bone grey walls and broken black beams behind tangled bracken and high, chain-link fencing. Pines shadowing cathedral-like the crumbling road to the asylum gate, a tall arch surmounted by chimeric gargoyles, a weathered inscription in old, old stones, now indecipherable in the bruised twilight.
Through the arch, in the semi-dark, I glimpsed green flame flicker and shadow dancing.
Time seemed to slow, each step interminable, measured to a single heartbeat, seeming loud like a muffled bell hammered to the point of breaking.
We staggered on, the she-thing sometimes pointing to the gate, hollow sockets fixing me with enquiry, the shadow fire beyond it a realm of torment I knew from whence there was no return. I could hear it under the dry, soughing pines, not a sound but a writhing in the ears, like maggots, and amid the tintinnabulation a vibration, a hum, swelling to a roar. And Danny‘s F100 pick-up skidded to a halt beside me, spraying gouts of dank, soft earth, filling the air with mouldering pine, the same old song still blaring out the radio,
Another little piece of your heart babeeeeeee…
“What was it? Where’s it gone? We came back for you, Milo, get in the car.” Charlie was shivering in the passenger seat, bent over retching. Danny was craning out the window, seeing right through her.
She turned, her attention fixed on him with a hunger. Then he saw. She grabbed his face in one swift lunge, sinew like iron on jagged bone, and pulled him bodily, half out of the car. With a gnarled black finger she hooked out his eye in a spurt of blood and fluids. She took the squashed thing and pressed it into her socket, where it oozed like a white, limpid slug.
Charlie leapt from the car, stumbling. She was on him like some grizzled spider, pelvis like a bear trap from which protruded horns, black and curved like fangs, ridged like rams horns, dripping something like venom, pinning him to the road.
His limbs juddered, leaving a silhouette like a snow angel in the carpet of pine needles. He screamed and screamed, until she had his tongue out, still spawning in her fingers, while he gurgled and drowned in blood. She opened her black toothed jaw and placed the ragged red thing inside, and sat straddling Charlie, until he was still.
In that moment I bent and picked up a hard, round lump of rock, as big as a fist, the same dull black stone shot through with grey as many of the grave markers. In that moment I thought to smash her head, to smash my own. But she turned, and spoke, a voice little more than a rasping breath, or the scraping of boughs.
“My love,” she said. “Come.” She rose, and I followed.
We stood before the gate, shadow fires flickering beyond, and Sad Susan said again, “My Love,” and clutched me in her bone embrace.
I took the stone, grasped so tight the grit scored my fingers, and thrust it up, under her spidering black rib cage, through leathern flesh and the desiccated remnants of what had been inside her, till it caught and seemingly swelled in the prison of that cavity.
“Sad Susan kissed me, let go, and drifted through the gate.
The girl I loved has a heart of stone.
The papers called me ‘Mad Milo’, the authorities said I desecrated the grave and then the corpse of a long dead girl, and then when my friends tried to stop me, I battered and gutted them, Danny and Charlie, in some kind of drug addled rage. They have me jacketed and drugged and monitored and examined in a facility a long way away.
Now in this place, all fluorescent light, grimed white walls an eternity of neither night nor day, I can’t get the smell of something like anaesthetic, something like burnt bones, out of my nose. My fingers are black and weary. Daubed scenes of torment alongside banal stick figures in muddy colours on ragged butcher’s wrap paper the walls. I don’t know which, for me, hold more fear, which I am trying to exorcise, in the dark.
Shadows and flames in my skull. I ache with finger painting.
Because of rationalisation, they are renovating that place. Like so many times before. Rebuilding, recommissioning. Reopening. It will be state of the art. The happiest place on Earth. When they rationalise this place, we shall all be moving there. Where, I’m sure, Sad Susan, with her withered eye, her rank tongue, her sharp ragged bones and her stone cold heart is dancing with the fire shadows, waiting, waiting, waiting just for me.