Algernon Blackwood, first published 1906; translated to Modern English, otherwise left exactly the same.
This story has been added to our Classics in the Rain collection! Hear Danie Dreadful’s magnificent narration here for the full experience!
Certain houses – like certain people – somehow manage to instantly announce themselves as evil. No single feature is to blame; someone might be charming and attractive, but after getting to know each other, you see something is drastically wrong with them. They reveal secret and wicked thoughts that make others avoid them like a plague.
Perhaps it is the same with houses, and the evil deeds committed under a single roof are what give us chills and raise our hair. Maybe some of the evil person’s hatred and their victim’s horror are left behind; it could affect the new occupant – making them feel nervous or frightened for no apparent reason.
Nothing about this particular house hinted at the horror that happened inside. It was neither lonely nor dirty. It stood on a crowded corner of the square and looked identical to the houses on either side. They all had the same number of windows, a balcony over the garden, and white steps leading up to a heavy, black front door. Even the number of chimneys, the angle of the eaves, and the height of the railings were the same. In the back was a narrow strip of green with brick borders running up the wall to separate it from the adjoining houses.
Yet, despite seeming so similar to its fifty ugly neighbors, this house was horribly different.
It is impossible to say exactly where this invisible difference is. It cannot be entirely the imagination because too many people have stayed there without knowing its history; even they claimed that certain rooms were so awful, they would rather die than return. The house’s very atmosphere created a feeling of genuine terror, and the innocent people who tried to live there were forced to leave with hardly any notice. The town practically considered it a scandal.
When Shorty arrived to pay a visit to his Aunt Julia at her little house by the sea, he found her bursting with excitement. He received a telegram from her that morning and expected the visit to be boring, but the moment he kissed her wrinkled cheek – he felt her energy like an electrical wave. The sensation grew when he learned there would be no other visitors; he was summoned for a very special reason.
Something was in the wind, and it would certainly prove useful. This spinster aunt had a passion for psychic research, brains, and willpower; she was known to accomplish her goal by any means necessary. The secret was revealed after tea, and Julia stood close to him as they slowly paced along the beach at dusk.
“I’ve got the keys,” she announced in a delighted, yet disbelieving way. “Got them till Monday!”
“The keys to the changing room, or—?” he asked innocently, looking from the sea to town. Nothing brought her to the point quicker than feigning stupidity.
“Neither,” she whispered. “I’ve got the keys to the haunted house in the square, and I’m going there tonight.”
Shorty felt a slight chill down his back and stopped joking. Something in her voice and behavior stunned him; she was serious. “But you can’t go alone—” he began.
“That’s why I sent for you,” she said confidently.
He turned and saw that her old, ugly, mysterious face was filled with happiness. There was a glow of genuine enthusiasm around it like a halo, and her eyes were shining brightly. He felt another wave of her excitement, and a second, stronger chill came with it.
“Thanks, Aunt Julia,” he said politely; “thanks so much…”
“I wouldn’t dare to go alone,” she raised her voice; “but I’ll enjoy it very much with you – you’re not afraid of anything.”
“Thanks so much,” he repeated. “Er – is it likely that anything will happen?”
“A great deal has already happened, though it’s been covered up very well. Three occupants have come and gone in the last few months, and it’s said the house will stay empty from now on.” She whispered.
In spite of himself, Shorty became interested. His aunt was deathly serious.
“The house is very old indeed,” she continued, “and the unpleasant story dates a long way back. It involves a murder committed by a jealous stableman who had an affair with a house servant. One night, he managed to sneak into the cellar; when everyone was asleep, he crept upstairs to the servants’ quarters, chased the girl down to the next landing, and – before anyone could help – threw her over the rail, into the hall below.”
“And the stableman—?”
“He was caught and hanged for murder, but it happened a century ago; I haven’t been able to get any more details.”
Shorty’s interest was now thoroughly peaked; while he was not particularly worried for himself, he was a little concerned for his aunt. “On one condition,” he said.
“Nothing will stop me from going,” she said firmly; “but I might as well hear your condition.”
“You must guarantee that you’ll be able to control yourself if anything really happens – that you’re sure you won’t get too frightened.”
“Jim, I’m not young and neither are my nerves, but with you – there’s nothing in the world for me to fear!” She said.
This, of course, settled it. Shorty had no hope of ever being more than an ordinary young man; any praise implying otherwise was irresistible. He agreed to go.
By sub-consciously preparing himself, he remained in control of his fear for the whole evening; he imagined packing up his emotions and locking them away. The process is difficult to describe, but wonderfully effective; all men who have lived through severe hardship will understand. Later, it served his reputation well.
It was 10:30 when they left the comfortably lit hallway of his aunt’s home, and Shorty had to hold back his fear for the first time. When the door was closed, he saw the silent, empty street bathed in white moonlight and realized that the real test would be dealing with two fears. He would need to carry his aunt’s as well as his own. Glancing down at her expression – which was difficult to interpret – he realized it would not become any easier in a rush of real terror; he could only be confident of one thing – his ability to stand firm against any shock that might come.
Slowly, they walked along the town’s empty streets; a bright, autumn moon painted the roofs silver and cast deep shadows all around. There was no wind, and the trees lining the beach watched in silence as they passed. Shorty did not reply to his aunt’s occasional remarks; he understood that she was mentally preparing – distracting herself from thinking unnatural thoughts. Few windows were lit, and smoke rose from even fewer chimneys. Shorty was already noticing these small details when they stopped at the corner to read the name on the house; without speaking, they turned into the square and walked to the side that lay in shadow.
“The house number is thirteen,” a voice whispered. Neither of them said more about the obvious reference; instead, they continued walking in silence.
Halfway across the square, Shorty felt an arm slip quietly but purposefully into his own, and he knew their adventure had truly begun. His aunt was already succumbing to the house’s influence; she needed support.
A few minutes later, they stopped in front of a narrow, ugly-shaped house that rose tall into the night and was painted a dingy white. The windows – which were missing their shutters and blinds – stared down on them, shining in the moonlight. There were weather streaks in the walls, cracks in the paint, and the balcony bulged out from the first floor unnaturally, but the pitiful appearance did nothing to warn of such an evil character.
Checking over their shoulders to ensure they were not followed, they ascended the steps with confidence and stood against the huge, foreboding black door. They were hit with a wave of nervousness, and Shorty fumbled with the key for a long time before getting it into the lock. For a moment, they both hoped it would not open; they felt various unpleasant emotions as they stood on the threshold of their ghostly adventure. Shorty – struggling with the key and hindered by the weight on his arm – felt the importance of the moment. It was as if the whole world were watching through his eyes and listening to that grating noise. A stray puff of wind wandered down the empty street and rustled the trees behind them – otherwise the rattling key was the only sound. Finally, it turned in the lock, and the heavy door swung open to reveal a large gulf of darkness.
With a last glance at the moonlit square, they quickly went inside, and the door slammed with a roar that echoed through the empty halls. Another sound was heard, and Aunt Julia suddenly leaned on her nephew hard enough to knock him off balance; he had to take a step back to avoid falling down.
A man had coughed right next to them in the darkness. Thinking it could be a prank, Shorty quickly swung his heavy stick toward the sound, but nothing was there. His aunt gave a little gasp. “There’s someone here, I heard him.” She whispered.
“Be quiet! It was only the front door.” He said sternly.
“Oh! Quick, get a light!” she added as he fumbled with a box of matches and opened it upside-down; they all fell to the stone floor with a rattle.
The sound was not repeated, and there was no evidence of retreating footsteps. Soon, they had a lit candle and the end of a cigar case as a holder; he held up the makeshift lamp and studied their surroundings. Everything about it was dreary; there is nothing more desolate than a dark, forsaken, empty house, yet it was also filled with memories of violence and evil.
They were standing in a wide hallway; on their left was the open door of a spacious dining-room and straight ahead, the hall narrowed into a long, dark passage that led to the top of the kitchen stairs. The staircase rose before them, draped in shadows – except for a spot halfway up where the moon shone through the window. Its light was surrounded by a faint glow, giving the objects it touched a misty outline that created a haunted atmosphere better than total darkness. As Shorty continued staring, he thought of the countless empty rooms upstairs, and he longed for the safety of the moonlit square or his aunt’s cozy home. Then, realizing those thoughts were dangerous, he locked them away again and focused all his concentration on the present.
“Aunt Julia, we must search the whole house thoroughly.” He said forcefully.
The echoes of his voice slowly died away, and in the intense silence that followed, he turned to look at her. In the candlelight, he saw that her face was ghastly pale, but she dropped his arm, stepped in close, and whispered. “I agree. First, we must be sure there’s no one hiding in here.” It took her some effort to speak, and he looked at her with admiration.
“Are you sure? It’s not too late—”
“I think so,” she whispered, her eyes shifting nervously to the shadows behind them. “Quite sure; there’s only one thing—”
“You must never leave me alone, not for an instant.”
“As long as you understand that anything we see or hear must be investigated immediately; hesitating would be the same as admitting we’re frightened, and that could be deadly.”
“Agreed,” she said shakily. “I’ll try.”
Arm in arm, Shorty held the dripping candle while Julia carried his cloak over her shoulders; they would have made a funny sight to anyone else as they began their search.
They entered the big dining-room first – walking on tip-toes and shielding the candle to avoid being seen through the windows. There was no furniture – only bare walls, ugly mantel-pieces and empty fireplaces. They felt like everything resented their intrusion and was watching them with hidden eyes. Whispers followed them; shadows darted around silently, and it always seemed as if something were standing right behind them – waiting for an opportunity to hurt them. There was a sense that whatever normally occurred in the empty room had been paused until they were out of the way again. The entire building’s dark interior seemed to become a malignant Presence; it rose up, warning them to mind their own business, and the strain on their nerves increased every moment.
From the gloomy dining-room, they passed through large, folding doors into a sort of library or smoking-room; it was equally as silent, dark, and dusty. From there they returned to the hall near the top of the back stairs.
Here, a pitch black tunnel opened into the lower regions, and they only hesitated for a minute. With the worst of the night still to come, it was essential to search every area. Aunt Julia stumbled on the top step; their descent was poorly lit by the flickering candle, and even Shorty almost tripped.
“Come on!” He demanded, voice echoing off into the dark, empty spaces below.
“I’m coming,” she faltered, grabbing his arm rougher than necessary.
They descended the stone steps unsteadily; the air was cold, damp, and smelly. The stairs led along a narrow passage and into a large kitchen with high ceilings. It had several doors – some belonged to closets with empty jars on the shelves, and others led to horrible, creepy offices – each colder and less inviting than the last. Black beetles scurried around, and when Shorty bumped against a table in the corner, something the size of a cat jumped down – scampering across the stone floor and into the darkness. There was a gloomy sadness everywhere, and a sense that someone had just been there.
Leaving the kitchen, they went towards the scullery (where the dishes and cleaning were once done). The door was slightly open, and as they pushed it wider, Aunt Julia screamed; she instantly tried to stifle it with a hand over her mouth. For a second, Shorty stood completely still, catching his breath. His spine felt as if it were hollowed out and filled with ice.
Standing directly across from the doorway – facing them – stood the figure of a woman. She had messy hair, wild, staring eyes, and her terrified face was white as death.
She stood motionless for a single second. Then the candle flickered, and she was gone; in the door was nothing but empty darkness.
“It was only the beastly candlelight jumping,” he said quickly, in a half-controlled voice that sounded like someone else’s. “Come on; there’s nothing there.”
He dragged her forward, and they tried to seem brave as they continued, but Shorty’s skin crawled as if covered in ants. He knew by the weight on his arm that he was supplying the strength for both of them. The scullery room was cold, bare, and empty; more like a large prison cell than anything else. They walked around it – trying the windows and the door to the yard – but they were all locked. His aunt moved like someone in a dream. Her eyes were squeezed shut, and she seemed to merely follow his arm; her courage amazed him. At the same time, he noticed an odd change had come over her face – a change which he could not quite define.
“There’s nothing here, aunty,” he quickly repeated. “Let’s go upstairs and see the rest of the house. Then we’ll choose a room to wait in.”
She followed him obediently – staying close as they locked the kitchen door behind them. It was a relief to go up again. The moon had traveled further downstairs, making the hall brighter than before. Carefully, they entered the dark vault of the upper floors with the boards creaking under their weight.
They found two large living-rooms, but a search of them revealed nothing. Again, there was no furniture or signs of recent occupation – nothing but dust, neglect, and shadows. They opened the big folding doors between the two rooms and came out onto the landing before continuing upstairs.
They had not gone more than a dozen steps when they both stopped to listen, looking anxiously at each other across the flickering candle. From the room they had just left came the sound of quietly closing doors. There was absolutely no question; they heard the booming noise the heavy doors made when shutting and the sharp sound of the latch catching.
“We must go back and see,” Shorty said in a low tone, turning to go. Somehow, she managed to drag after him, her feet catching in her dress and her face livid.
When they entered the front living-room, it was obvious the folding doors had been closed. Without hesitation, Shorty re-opened them. He almost expected to see someone facing him in the back room, but he was only met with darkness and cold air. They went through both rooms and found nothing unusual. They tried everything they could think of to make the doors close by themselves, but there was not even enough wind to disturb the candle flame. The doors would not move without a strong force, and it was undeniable that the rooms were empty, and the house was completely still.
“It’s beginning,” Shorty hardly recognized his aunt’s voice as she whispered at his elbow.
He nodded in agreement, checking his watch to note the time. It was fifteen minutes before midnight; he wrote exactly what happened in his notebook, setting the candle on the floor in order to do so; it only took a moment to balance it against the wall.
Aunt Julia always said she was not actually watching him at that moment; she had turned towards the inner room where she heard something moving, but both agreed they heard running footsteps – very fast and heavy. Then, the candle went out!
Only Shorty saw more than this, and he has always been grateful for that. As he rose from his stooping position of balancing the candle – but before it was actually extinguished – a face rushed forward so close to his own that he could have kissed it. The man’s face was filled with passion, had thick, dark features, and angry, savage eyes. It belonged to a common man, but it was bursting with intense, aggressive emotions; it wore a malignant and terrible expression.
The air was completely still – there was no movement aside from the muffled sound of running feet, the apparition’s face, and the extinguishing of the candle.
Shorty let out a cry, nearly losing his balance as his aunt clung to him with her full weight in a moment of terror. Fortunately, she had not seen the face and was able to regain control almost immediately; after he was able to get free, he struck a match.
The glare chased away the shadows on all sides as his aunt knelt to retrieve the cigar case with the precious candle. Then, they discovered that the candle had not been blown out at all – it had been crushed out. The wick was pressed down into the wax – which was flattened by something smooth and heavy.
How his companion overcame her terror so quickly, Shorty never properly understood, but his admiration for her increased tenfold and inspired his own courage; for that, he was undeniably grateful. The evidence of physical force they had just witnessed was equally unexplainable. He immediately suppressed memories of hearing about “physical mediums” and their dangerous phenomena; if those were true, and either himself or his aunt was unknowingly a medium – it meant they were helping to focus the forces of a haunted house already at full-charge. It was like carrying an open flame among uncovered supplies of gun-powder.
So, with almost no thought, he simply relit the candle and proceeded to the next floor. The arm in his trembled, and his own steps were uncertain, but they continued being thorough; after the search revealed nothing, they climbed the last flight of stairs to the top floor.
Here, they found a cluster of small servants’ rooms with broken furniture, dirty chairs, cracked mirrors, and decrepit bedsteads. The rooms had low, sloped ceilings, cobwebs, small windows, and badly painted walls; it was a depressing and dismal area they were glad to leave behind.
They entered a small room on the third floor at the stroke of midnight and prepared to make themselves comfortable for the night. It was totally empty and once used as a closet. It was said to be where the infuriated groom had caught his victim. Outside, across the narrow landing, began the stairs leading to the servants’ quarters where they had just searched.
Despite the cold outside, there was something in the air that cried for an open window, but there was more. Shorty could only describe it by saying that he felt less in control of himself here than in any other part of the house. There was something that preyed directly on the nerves, wearing down one’s resolve and weakening his will. It took less than five minutes in the room to realize this, and it was during that time he lost all of his energy, which – for him – was the worst scare of the whole experience.
They put the candle on the floor, leaving the door open a few inches so there was no glare to confuse their eyes and no shadows to dart around. Then, they spread a cloak on the floor and sat down to wait with their backs against the wall.
Shorty was within two feet of the door; he had a good view of the main staircase leading down into darkness and the start of the servants’ stairs going to the floor above. His heavy stick laid nearby within easy reach.
The moon was high above the house. Through the window, they could see the comforting stars like friendly eyes watching from the sky. One by one, the clocks in town struck midnight, and when the sounds died away, the deep silence of a windless night fell over everything. Only the far away boom of the sea was heard as hollow murmurs.
Inside, the silence was awful; any minute, it could be broken by terrifying sounds; the strain of waiting was harder on the nerves. They whispered when they talked – their voices sounding odd and unnatural. The chill in the room was not completely due to the night air, and it made them cold. Whatever was influencing them slowly stole their confidence and ability to make decisions; their self-control was declining, and the possibility of real fear took on a new and terrible meaning. Shorty trembled with worry for the elderly woman by his side; her stubbornness could only protect her against so much.
He heard the blood pumping in his veins. Sometimes, it was so loud, he thought it was preventing him from hearing other sounds coming from deeper within the house. Every time he focused his attention on these noises, they stopped instantly and never came any closer. He could not shake the idea that something was moving in the lower parts of the house. The living-room floor – where the doors were strangely closed – was too close; the sounds were further away than that. He thought of the kitchen, with its scurrying black beetles – and of the dismal scullery, – but they did not seem to come from there either. Surely they were not outside of the house!
Suddenly, he understood the truth, and – for an entire minute – he felt as if his blood had turned to ice. The sounds were not downstairs at all; they were upstairs – somewhere among those horrid, gloomy servants’ rooms with their broken furniture, low ceilings, and cramped windows – where the victim was first awakened and chased to her death!
The moment he realized where the sounds were coming from, he began to hear them more clearly. It was the sound of stealthy feet, walking along the passage overhead, through the rooms and around the furniture.
He turned quickly to peek at the motionless figure beside him to see if she had realized the same thing. The faint candlelight shining through the crack in the closet door illuminated her expressive face against the white wall, but it was something else that stole his breath and caused him to stare. She wore an extraordinary expression – it spread over her features like a mask and smoothed out the wrinkles; with the exception of her old eyes, she appeared quite young again.
He stared, speechless and amazed – an amazement that was dangerously close to horror. It was indeed his aunt’s face but from forty years ago; it was the blank, innocent face of a girl. He knew stories about the strange effect terror could have on someone – it consumes them, dominating all other emotions; Shorty never realized that it could be literal, or that it could mean anything as horrible as what he saw now. The dreadful signs of total fear were written all over her face, and when she felt his intense gaze – she turned to him, but he instinctively closed his eyes to avoid the sight.
When he regained control of his emotions and turned a minute later, he was relieved to see a different expression; his aunt was smiling, and though her face was deathly white – the awful veil was gone, and her normal look was returning.
“Anything wrong?” It was the only thing he could think to say, and the answer was persuasive.
“I feel cold and a little frightened,” she whispered.
He offered to close the window, but she grabbed him and begged him not to leave her side even for an instant.
“It’s upstairs, I know,” she whispered, with an odd laugh; “but I can’t possibly go up.”
Shorty thought otherwise; he knew taking action was their best hope of maintaining self-control. He poured a glass of brandy from his flask – it was strong enough to help anybody through anything, and she swallowed it with a shiver. Now, his only plan was to get out of the house before her inevitable collapse, but they could not safely run away. Doing nothing was no longer an option; he was losing more composure every minute, and it became necessary to use desperate, aggressive measures without further delay. It was unavoidable, and they would need to show great confidence when facing the enemy. He could do it now, but in ten minutes he might not have the strength left!
Upstairs, the sounds were growing louder and closer, accompanied by the occasional creaking floorboards. Someone was sneaking around and bumping into the furniture.
Waiting for the numerous spirits to finish their work, Shorty stood quietly and said in a determined voice, “Now, Aunt Julia, we’ll go upstairs and find out what’s making all this noise. You must come too; it’s what we agreed.”
He picked up his stick and fetched the candle. A limp figure rose shakily beside him – breathing hard and very faint, she said, “ready.” The woman’s courage amazed him; it was much greater than his own. They moved forward with the dripping candle, and this trembling, white-faced, old woman was the true source of his courage. It held something that both shamed him and supported him; without it – he would have failed long before.
They crossed the dark landing, averting their eyes from the deep, black space over the handrails. Then, they ascended the narrow staircase to locate the sounds which were still growing louder and nearer. Halfway up the stairs, Aunt Julia stumbled, and Shorty caught her by the arm. At that moment, there was a loud crash in the servants’ corridor above. It was immediately followed by a shrill, agonized scream that sounded like a cry of terror and a plea for help mixed together.
Before they could move aside or go down a single step, someone came rushing towards them from above, taking the stairs three at a time. The steps were light and uncertain, but close behind them was the sound of a heavier person walking, and it shook the whole staircase.
Shorty and his companion had just enough time to flatten themselves against the wall when the jumble of flying feet reached their location, and two people dashed through the tiny gap between them at full speed. It was a midnight whirlwind of sounds crashing through the empty building.
The two runners kept going and were already racing across the creaking boards below, but Shorty and his aunt saw absolutely nothing – not a hand, arm, face, or even a shred of clothing.
There was a pause before the one being chased ran into the room which Shorty and his aunt had just left. The heavier one followed, and there was a scuffling sound with smothered screaming; then came the step of a single, heavy person on the landing.
A dead silence followed for half of a minute before they heard the sound of rushing air. It was followed by a dull, crashing thud on the lower floors of the house.
It was total silence after; nothing moved. The candle’s flame was steady, and the air was undisturbed. Filled with terror, Aunt Julia began fumbling her way downstairs without waiting for her nephew; she was crying softly to herself, and when Shorty put his arm around her – he could feel her shaking like a leaf. He retrieved the cloak from the little room’s floor, and they marched down the three flights of steps very slowly, without speaking or turning.
They saw nothing in the hall, but the whole way down, they were aware that someone was following them; when they went faster, it was left behind, and when they went slower, it caught up. Never once did they look back; at each turn on the staircase, they lowered their eyes to avoid the horror they might see above.
With trembling hands, Shorty opened the front door; they walked out into the moonlight and breathed in the cool, night air blowing in from the sea.