original story by H. P. Lovecraft
modern English adaptation by James Hampton Belton
Irony is seldom absent from even the greatest of horrors. Sometimes it is part of the events themselves, at others only in their chance relationship to people and places. The latter kind is splendidly exemplified by a case in the colonial city of Providence, where Edgar Allan Poe often used to sojourn in the late eighteen forties, during his unsuccessful wooing of the gifted poetess, Sarah Helen Whitman. Poe generally stayed at the Mansion House in Benefit Street—formerly the Golden Ball Inn, whose roof sheltered Washington, Jefferson, and Lafayette—and his favourite walk led north along the same street to Mrs. Whitman’s home and the neighbouring hillside churchyard of St. John’s, whose hidden expanse of eighteenth century gravestones had a peculiar fascination for him.
Now the irony is this. On this walk, repeated so many times, the world’s greatest master of the terrible and the bizarre was obliged to pass a particular house on the east side of the street; a dingy, antiquated structure perched on the abruptly rising hillside, with a great unkempt yard dating from a time when the region was partly open country. He never wrote or spoke of it, nor is there any evidence that he even noticed it. And yet that house, to those who know the truth, outranks in horror the wildest fantasy of the genius who so often passed it unknowingly, and stands starkly leering as a symbol of all that is unutterably hideous.
The house was—and for that matter still is—the kind to attract the curious. Originally a farm building, it followed the usual New England colonial lines of the middle eighteenth century—the prosperous peaked-roof sort, with two stories and a dormerless attic, a Georgian doorway, and the interior panelling in fashion at that time. It faced south, with one gable end buried to the lower windows in the eastward rising hill, and the other, exposed to the foundation, facing the street. Its was constructed, over a century and a half before Poe walked past it, before the grading and straightening of the road in the vicinity. Benefit Street—at first called Back Street—was once a lane winding among the graveyards of the first settlers, and was straightened only when the removal of the bodies to the North Burial Ground made it possible to cut through the old family plots.
Originally, the western wall had lain twenty feet up a steeply sloped lawn from the roadway. Widening of the street at the time of the Revolution sheared off most of the intervening space, exposing the foundations, so that a brick basement wall had to be built, giving the deep cellar a street frontage with a door and one window above ground, close to the new edge of the road. When the sidewalk was laid out a fifty years later, the last of the intervening space was removed. Poe on his walks must have seen only a sheer wall of dull grey brick, flush with the sidewalk and topped at a ten feet by the antique shingled bulk of the house’s main floor.
The farm-like grounds extended far up the hill, almost to Wheaton Street. The level of the yard to the south of the house, abutting on Benefit Street, was far above the existing sidewalk, a terrace bounded by a high wall of damp, mossy stone that was pierced by a steep flight of narrow steps that led up between canyon-like walls to the mangy lawn, rheumy brick walks, and neglected gardens whose dismantled cement urns, rusted kettles fallen from tripods of knotty sticks, and other paraphernalia set off the weather-beaten front door with its broken fanlight window, rotting ornamental Ionic pillars, and worm-eaten triangular gable.
In my youth, I had heard that people had died in the shunned house in alarmingly great numbers. That, I was told, was why the original owners had moved out, twenty years after building the place. It was plainly unhealthy, perhaps because of the dampness and fungous growths in the cellar, the sickish smell, the drafty hallways, or the quality of the well water. These things were bad enough, and these were all that were believed by the people I knew. Only the notebooks of my antiquarian uncle, Doctor Elihu Whipple, revealed the darker, vaguer surmises which formed an undercurrent of folklore among old-time servants and humble folk; stories that never travelled far, and were largely forgotten when Providence grew to be a metropolis with a shifting modern population.
The house was never regarded by the community as haunted. There were no widespread tales of rattling chains, cold currents of air, extinguished lights, or faces at the window. Some said the house was unlucky, but that is as far as they went. What was beyond dispute was that a frightful number of people died there; or more accurately, had died there, since after some odd events over sixty years ago, the building had been deserted due to the sheer impossibility of renting it. These people did not all die from any one cause; rather, their vitality was insidiously sapped, so that each died more quickly from whatever weakness he naturally had. Those who did not die displayed degrees of anemia or consumption, and sometimes a decline of mental faculty, which spoke poorly for the healthiness of the building. Neighbouring houses seemed entirely free from its noxious qualities.
My insistent questioning led my uncle to show me his notes, which started us on our hideous investigation. In my childhood the shunned house was vacant, with barren, gnarled, and terrible old trees, long, queerly pale grass, and nightmarish, misshapen weeds in the high terraced yard where birds never lingered. We boys had the run of the place. I recall my youthful terror not only at the morbid strangeness of the sinister vegetation, but at the eldritch atmosphere and odour of the dilapidated house, whose unlocked front door we often entered in quest of shudders. The small paned windows were mostly broken, and an air of desolation hung around the precarious panelling, shaky interior shutters, peeling wallpaper, falling plaster, rickety staircases, and fragments of battered furniture that still remained. Dust and cobwebs added a touch of the fearful. Brave indeed was the boy who would voluntarily ascend the ladder to the attic, a vast raftered length, lit only by small blinking windows in the gable ends, and filled with a mass of wreckage: chests, chairs, and spinningwheels which years of deposits had shrouded and festooned into monstrous and hellish shapes.
But the attic was not the most terrible part of the house. It was the dank, humid cellar that exerted the strongest repulsion, even though it was wholly above ground on the street side, with only a thin door and window-pierced brick wall separating it from the busy sidewalk. We hardly knew whether to haunt it in spectral fascination, or to shun it for the sake of our souls and our sanity. For one thing, the bad odour in the house was strongest there; and for another, we did not like the white fungous growths which occasionally sprang up in rainy summer weather from the hard earth floor. Those fungi, grotesque like the vegetation in the yard outside, were truly horrible in outline; detestable parodies of toadstools and Indian pipes, whose like we had never seen. They rotted quickly, at one stage becoming slightly phosphorescent, so that nocturnal passers by spoke of witch fires glowing behind the broken panes of the fetor spreading windows.
We never—even in our wildest Halloween moods—visited the cellar by night, but in some of our daytime visits, we could detect the phosphorescence, especially when the day was dark and wet. There was also a subtler thing we often thought we detected—a very strange thing: a cloudy whitish pattern on the dirt floor; a vague, shifting deposit of mould or saltpeter that we sometimes thought we could trace amid the sparse fungous growths near the huge fireplace of the basement kitchen. Sometimes it struck us that this patch bore an uncanny resemblance to a doubled-up human figure, though generally no such kinship existed, and often there was no whitish deposit whatsoever.
On a rainy afternoon when this illusion seemed phenomenally strong, and I had fancied I glimpsed a kind of thin, yellowish, shimmering exhalation rising from the nitrous pattern toward the yawning fireplace, I spoke to my uncle about it. He smiled at the odd idea, but his smile was tinged with reminiscence. Later I heard a similar notion in some of the wild tales of the common folk—an allusion to ghoulish, wolfish shapes in the smoke of the great chimney, and queer contours assumed by the sinuous tree roots that thrust their way into the cellar through the loose foundation stones.
It wasn’t til I was an adult that my uncle set before me the notes and data that he had collected on the shunned house. Doctor Whipple was a sane, conservative, old school physician, and despite his interest in the place, was not eager to encourage thoughts toward the paranormal. His own view, that it was simply a building in a markedly unsanitary location, had nothing to do with abnormality, but he realized that the same picturesqueness that aroused his own interest would, in a boy’s fanciful mind, take on all manner of gruesome imaginative associations.
The doctor was a bachelor, a white-haired, clean-shaven, old-fashioned gentleman, and a local historian of note, who had often taken on guardians of tradition like Sidney S. Rider and Thomas W. Bicknell. He lived with his manservant in a Georgian homestead with a knocker and iron railed steps, balanced precariously on the steep ascent of North Court Street beside the ancient brick court house where his grandfather—a cousin of the celebrated privateer, Captain Whipple, who burnt His Majesty’s armed schooner Gaspee in 1772—had voted in the legislature on May 4, 1776 for the independence of the Rhode Island Colony. Sitting in his low ceilinged library with its musty white panelling, heavy carved decorative panel over the mantelpiece, and small paned, vine-shaded windows, he was surrounded by the relics and records of his ancient family, among which were many allusions to the shunned house in Benefit Street. That pestilent spot was not far off. Benefit Street runs like a ledge just above the court house, along the precipitous hill that the first settlement climbs.
In the end, my insistent pestering and maturing years had evoked from my uncle the hoarded lore I sought. The strange chronicle lay before me. Long-winded, statistical, and drearily genealogical as some it was, a continuous thread of brooding ran through it, a tenacious horror and preternatural malevolence which impressed me even more than it had impressed the good doctor. Events fit together uncannily, and seemingly irrelevant details held depths of hideous possibility. A new and burning fascination grew in me, compared to which my boyish curiosity was feeble and undeveloped.
This first revelation led to an exhaustive research, and finally to a shuddering quest which proved disastrous to me and mine. In the end, my uncle insisted on joining the search I had begun, and after one particular night in that house, did not return with me. I am lonely without that gentle soul whose long years were filled with honour, virtue, good taste, benevolence, and learning. I have raised a marble urn to his memory in St. John’s churchyard—the place that Poe loved—in the hidden grove of giant willows on the hill, where tombs and headstones huddle quietly between the ancient bulk of the church and the houses and bank walls of Benefit Street.
The history of the house revealed nothing sinister either about its construction or about the prosperous and honourable family who built it. Yet from the first a hint of calamity, soon increasing to boding significance, was apparent. My uncle’s carefully compiled record began with the building of the structure in 1763, and continued with an unusual amount of detail. The shunned house was first inhabited by William Harris and his wife Rhoby Dexter, with their children, Elkanah, born in 1755, Abigail, born in 1757, William junior, born in 1759, and Ruth, born in 1761. Harris was a wealthy merchant and seaman trading in the Caribbean, connected with the firm of Obadiah Brown and his nephews. After Brown’s death in 1761, the new firm of Nicholas Brown & Company made Harris the master of the 120 ton two-masted sailing ship Prudence, built in Providence, enabling him to construct the new home he had desired since his marriage.
The site he had chosen—a recently straightened part of the new and fashionable Back Street, which ran along the side of the hill above crowded Cheapside—was all that could be wanted, and the building did justice to the location. It was the best that moderate means could afford, and Harris hastened to move in before the birth of a fifth child expected by the famil. That child, a boy, came in December, but was stillborn. For a century and a half, no child was born alive in that house.
The next April, there was sickness among the children, and Abigail and Ruth died before the month was out. Doctor Job Ives diagnosed the trouble as an infantile fever, though others declared it was more of a wasting-away or decline. It seemed, in any event, to be contagious. Hannah Bowen, one of the two servants, died of it the following June. Eli Lideason, the other servant, constantly complained of weakness, and would have returned to his father’s farm in Rehoboth were it not for his sudden attachment for Mehitabel Pierce, who was hired to replace Hannah. Lideason died the next year, a sad year indeed, since it marked the death of William Harris himself, enfeebled as he was by the climate of Martinique, where his occupation had kept him for considerable parts of the preceding decade.
The widowed Rhoby Harris never recovered from the shock of her husband’s death, and the passing of her first-born Elkanah two years later was the final blow to her reason. In 1768 she fell victim to mild insanity, and was confined to the upper part of the house. Her elder unmarried sister, Mercy Dexter, moved in to take charge of the family. Mercy was a plain, raw-boned woman of great strength, but her health visibly declined after her arrival. She was greatly devoted to her unfortunate sister, and had a special affection for her only surviving nephew, William, who, once a sturdy infant, had become a sickly, spindling lad. Mehitabel Pierce died, and their other servant, Preserved Smith, left without a coherent explanation, only some wild tales and a complaint that he disliked the smell of the place. For a while Mercy could secure no more help, since seven deaths and a case of madness, all occurring within five years’ space, had begun to set in motion the rumours which later became so bizarre. Ultimately, however, she obtained new servants from out of town: Ann White, a morose woman from the township of Exeter, and a capable Boston man named Zenas Low.
It was Ann White who first gave definite shape to the sinister idle talk. Mercy should have known better than to hire anyone from the Nooseneck Hill country, for that remote bit of backwoods was a seat of the most uncomfortable superstitions. As recently as 1892, an Exeter community exhumed a dead body and ceremoniously burnt its heart in order to prevent visitations injurious to public health and peace. Ann’s tongue was destructively active, and within a few months Mercy discharged her, replacing her with a faithful and amiable woman from Newport, Maria Robbins.
Meanwhile poor Rhoby Harris, in her madness, spoke of the most hideous dreams and imaginings. At times her screams became insufferable, and for long periods she would utter horrified shrieks that necessitated her son’s temporary living with his cousin, Peleg Harris, in Presbyterian Lane near the new college building. The boy seemed to improve after these visits, and had Mercy been as wise as she was well meaning, she would have let him live permanently with Peleg. Just what Mrs. Harris cried out in her fits of violence was not said, or rather was presented in such extravagant accounts that they nullified themselves through sheer absurdity. It sounds absurd to hear that a woman educated only in the rudiments of French often shouted for hours in a coarse and idiomatic form of that language, or that, alone and guarded, she complained wildly of a staring thing which bit and chewed at her. In 1772, Zenas Low died, and when Mrs. Harris heard of it she laughed with a shocking delight utterly foreign to her. The next year she herself died, and was laid to rest in the North Burial Ground beside her husband.
Upon the outbreak of war with Great Britain in 1775, William Harris, despite his mere sixteen years and feeble constitution, managed to enlist in the army under General Greene. From that time on, he enjoyed a steady increase in health and prestige. In 1780, as a captain in the Rhode Island forces in New Jersey under Colonel Angell, he met and married Phebe Hetfield of Elizabethtown, whom he brought to Providence upon his honorable discharge in the following year.
The young soldier’s return was not entirely a happy one. The house was still in good condition, and the street had been widened and its name changed from Back Street to Benefit Street. But Mercy Dexter’s once robust frame had undergone a sad and curious decay, so that she was now a stooped and pathetic figure with a hollow voice and disconcerting pallor, qualities shared by the remaining servant Maria. In the autumn of 1782, Phebe Harris gave birth to a stillborn daughter, and on the fifteenth of the next May, Mercy Dexter took leave of her useful, austere, and virtuous life.
William Harris, at last thoroughly convinced of the radically unhealthful nature of his home, took steps toward leaving it and closing it for ever. Securing temporary quarters for himself and his wife at the newly opened Golden Ball Inn, he arranged for the building of a new and finer house in Westminster Street, in the growing part of the town across the Great Bridge. There, in 1785, his son Dutee was born, and the family lived there till the encroachments of commerce drove them back across the river and over the hill to Angell Street, in the newer east side district, where the late Archer Harris built his sumptuous but hideous french roofed mansion in 1876. William and Phebe both succumbed to the yellow fever epidemic of 1797, but Dutee was brought up there by his cousin Rathbone Harris, Peleg’s son.
Rathbone was a practical man, and rented the Benefit Street house despite William’s wish to keep it vacant. He considered it an obligation to his ward to make the most of all the boy’s property, and did not concern himself with the deaths and illnesses which caused so many changes of tenants, or the steadily growing aversion with which the house was regarded. He likely felt only vexation when, in 1804, the town council ordered him to fumigate the place with sulphur, tar, and camphor due to the much discussed deaths of four people, presumably caused by the then diminishing fever epidemic. They said the place had a feverish smell.
Dutee himself thought little of the house, for he grew up to be a privateer, and served with distinction on the Vigilant under Captain Cahoone in the War of 1812. He returned unharmed, married in 1814, and became a father on the memorable night of September 23, 1815, when a great gale drove the waters of the bay over half the town, and floated a tall sloop well up Westminster Street, so that its masts almost tapped the Harris windows in symbolic affirmation that their new boy, Welcome, was a seaman’s son.
Welcome did not survive his father, but lived to die gloriously at Fredericksburg in 1862. Neither he nor his son Archer knew about the shunned house as anything other than a nuisance almost impossible to rent, perhaps on account of its mustiness and sickly odour of unkempt old age. Indeed, it was never rented after a series of deaths culminating in 1861, which were thrown into obscurity by the excitement of the war. Carrington Harris, last of the family line, knew it only as a deserted and somewhat picturesque legend until I told him about my experience. He had meant to tear it down and build an apartment house on the site, but after my account decided to let it stand, install plumbing, and rent it. He has yet to have any difficulty in obtaining tenants; the horror has gone.
I was powerfully affected by the annals of the Harrises. In this continuous record, a persistent, unnatural evil brooded; an evil clearly connected with the house and not the family. This was confirmed by my uncle’s array of miscellaneous data—transcripts of servant gossip, newspaper cuttings, copies of death certificates from fellow physicians, and the like. My uncle was a tireless antiquarian and deeply interested in the shunned house. Several dominant points earned my notice by their recurring reports from multiple sources. The servant gossip was nearly unanimous in attributing the evil influence to the fungous and malodorous cellar of the house. Some servants—Ann White especially—would not use the cellar kitchen, and at least three stories mentioned the queer quasi-human or diabolic outlines assumed by tree-roots and patches of mould in that region. These narratives interested me profoundly due to the things I had seen as a boy, but I felt that most of the significant information in each case had been obscured by additions from local ghost lore.
Ann White, with her Exeter superstition, had told the most extravagant yet most consistent tale. She alleged that a vampire must lie buried beneath the house—one of the dead who retain their bodily form and live on the blood or breath of the living—and sent its preying spirit abroad by night. To destroy a vampire one must, according to the old wives’ tales, exhume it and burn its heart, or at least drive a stake through that organ. Ann’s persistent insistence on a search under the cellar had been a main reason for her discharge.
Her tale reached a wide audience, and was readily accepted because the house stood on land once used for burial. My interest depended less on this than on the peculiar way that it dovetailed with other things: the complaint of the departing servant Preserved Smith, who had preceded Ann and never heard of her, that something “sucked his breath” at night; the death certificates of the fever victims of 1804, issued by Doctor Chad Hopkins, that noted that all four were unaccountably lacking in blood; and the obscure passages of poor Rhoby Harris’s ravings, where she complained of the sharp teeth of a glassy eyed, half visible presence.
Though I’m not superstitious, these things gave me an odd sensation, intensified by a pair of widely separated newspaper cuttings relating to deaths in the shunned house, one from the Providence Gazette and Country-Journal of April 12, 1815, and the other from the Daily Transcript and Chronicle of October 27, 1845. Each detailed an appallingly grisly circumstance whose similarity was remarkable. In both instances the dying person, in 1815 a gentle old lady named Stafford and in 1845 a middle aged schoolteacher named Eleazar Durfee, became horribly transfigured, glaring glassily and attempting to bite the throat of the attending physician.
Even more puzzling was the final case that put an end to renting the house: a series of anemia deaths preceded by progressive fits of madness in which the patient would craftily attempt to take the lives of relatives by making incisions in their necks or wrists. This was in 1860 and 1861, when my uncle had just begun his medical practise, and before leaving for the war, he heard a lot about it from his older professional colleagues.
The really inexplicable thing was the way in which the victims—ignorant people, for the ill-smelling and widely shunned house could not be rented anyone who wasn’t—would babble maledictions in French, a language they could not possibly have studied to any extent. It made me think of poor Rhoby Harris nearly a century before. After returning from the war and listening to the first hand accounts of Doctors Chase and Whitmarsh, my uncle that he began collecting historical data on the house. I could see that he had thought deeply on the subject, and that was glad of my own open minded and sympathetic interest, which allowed him to discuss matters with me at which others would merely have laughed. His speculations had not gone as far as mine, but he felt that the place was rare in its imaginative potential, and worthy of note in the field of the grotesque and macabre.
I took the whole subject profoundly seriously, reviewing the evidence and accumulating as much more as I could. I talked with Archer Harris, then the elderly owner of the house, many times before his death in 1916. He and his surviving unmarried sister Alice corroborated of all the family data my uncle had collected. When I asked them what connection with France or its language the house had, they confessed that they were as baffled and ignorant as I. Archer knew nothing, and all that Miss Harris could say was that an old story her grandfather, Dutee Harris, had heard of might shed a little light. The old seaman, who had survived his son Welcome’s death in battle by two years, had not himself heard the legend, but recalled that his nurse, the ancient Maria Robbins, seemed aware of something that might have lent significance to the raving of Rhoby Harris in French, which she had so often heard during the last days of that poor woman. Maria had been at the shunned house from 1769 until the removal of the family in 1783, and had seen Mercy Dexter die. She had once hinted to Dutee of a peculiar circumstance in Mercy’s last moments, but he had forgotten all about it save that it was something peculiar. His granddaughter Alice recalled even this much with difficulty. She and her brother were not as interested in the house as Archer’s son Carrington, the present owner, with whom I talked after my experience.
Having exhausted all the information the Harris family could furnish, I turned my attention to early town records and deeds with a zeal more penetrating than my uncle’s. I wanted a comprehensive history of the site from its settlement in 1636, or even before, if any Narragansett Indian legends could be unearthed. I found that, in the beginning, the land had been part of a long strip originally granted to John Throckmorton. It was one of many similar strips beginning at Town Street, beside the river, and extending up over the hill to a line roughly corresponding to the modern Hope Street. The Throckmorton lot had later been subdivided. I carefully traced the section through which Back or Benefit Street was later run. It had, as rumour said, been the Throckmorton graveyard. As I examined the records more carefully, I found that the graves had indeed all been transferred to the North Burial Ground on the Pawtucket West Road.
By a rare stroke of luck, since it was not in the main body of records and might easily have been missed, I came upon something which aroused my eagerness, as it fit with several of the oddest facets of the affair. It was the record of a lease, in 1697, of a small tract of land to Etienne Roulet and his wife. At last a French element had appeared—that, and another deeper element of horror that the name conjured up from the darkest recesses of my eccentric reading—and I carefully studied the plan of the region as it had been before the Back Street cut through and was partially straightened between 1747 and 1758. I found what I had half expected: where the shunned house now stood, the Roulets had laid out their graveyard behind their single story cottage, and there was no record of any transfer of graves. I ransacked both the Rhode Island Historical Society and the Shepley Library to find a local door that the name Etienne Roulet would unlock. In the end, I found something of such vague but monstrous import that I set out to examine the cellar of the shunned house in minute detail.
The Roulets had come in 1696 from East Greenwich, down the west shore of Narragansett Bay. They were Huguenots from Caude, and encountered heavy opposition before the Providence selectmen allowed them to settle in the town. Unpopularity had dogged them in East Greenwich, where they had come in 1686 after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and rumour said the dislike extended beyond mere racial and national prejudice or the land disputes between other French settlers and the English, which not even Governor Andros could quell. Their ardent Protestantism—too ardent, some whispered—and their distress when virtually driven from the village down the bay made the town fathers sympathetic. They had been granted a haven, and the swarthy Etienne Roulet, less apt at agriculture than at reading old books and drawing arcane diagrams, was given a clerical post in the warehouse at Pardon Tillinghast’s wharf, far to the south on Town Street. There was a riot about forty years later, after old Roulet’s death, and no one seemed to have heard of the family after that.
For a more than a century, the Roulets had been well remembered and frequently discussed in the quiet New England seaport. Etienne’s son Paul, a surly fellow whose erratic conduct had probably provoked the riot which wiped out the family, was a particular source of speculation. Though Providence never shared the witchcraft panics of its puritan neighbours, the old wives hinted that Paul’s prayers were not uttered at the proper time, nor directed toward the proper object. This had undoubtedly been the basis of the legend known by old Maria Robbins. Only imagination or future discoveries could determine what it had to do with the French ravings of Rhoby Harris and other inhabitants of the shunned house. I wondered how many who had heard these stories realized the link with the terrible thing that my wider reading in the annals of morbid horror had made me aware: the ominous case of Jacques Roulet, of Caude, who in 1598 was condemned to death as demon possessed, but later saved from the stake by the Paris parliament and committed to an insane asylum. He had been found covered with blood and shreds of flesh in a wood, shortly after the killing and rending of a boy by a pair of wolves, one of which was seen to lope away unhurt. It was a memorable hearth side tale with an oddly significant name and place, but I decided that the Providence gossips could not have generally known of it. If they’d known, the coincidence of names would have brought about drastic and frightened action. Indeed, perhaps its limited whispering precipitated the final riot which erased the Roulets from the town.
I visited the accursed place with increased frequency, studying the unwholesome vegetation of the garden, examining all the walls of the building, and poring over every inch of the earthen cellar floor. Finally, with Carrington Harris’s permission, I fitted a key to the disused door that opened from the cellar onto Benefit Street, preferring to have a more immediate access to the outside world than the dark stairs, ground floor hall, and front door could give. There, where morbidity lurked most thickly, I searched and probed during long afternoons when the sunlight filtered in through the cobwebbed above ground windows, and a sense of security glowed from the unlocked door which placed me only a few feet from the placid sidewalk outside. Nothing new rewarded my efforts—only the same depressing mustiness and faint suggestions of noxious odours and nitrous outlines on the floor—and I imagine that many pedestrians must have watched me curiously through the broken panes.
At length, at my uncle’s suggestion, I decided to try visiting the spot at night. One stormy midnight, I ran the beams of a flashlight over the mouldy floor, with its uncanny shapes and distorted, half phosphorescent fungi. The place dispirited me curiously that evening, and I was almost expecting it when I saw—or thought I saw—a particularly sharp definition of the “huddled form” I had suspected from boyhood among the whitish deposits. Its clearness was astonishing and unprecedented, and as I watched, I saw once more the thin, yellowish, shimmering exhalation which had startled me on that rainy afternoon so many years before.
It rose above the anthropomorphic patch of mould by the fireplace, a subtle, sickish, almost luminous vapour that, as it hung trembling in the dampness, seemed to develop a vague and shocking suggestion of a form. It gradually trailed off into nebulous decay and passed up into the blackness of the great chimney, leaving a fetid odour in its wake. It was truly horrible, even more so to me because of what I knew of the spot. Refusing to flee, I watched it fade, and as I watched I felt that it was in turn watching me greedily with eyes more imagined than visible.
When I told my uncle about it he was greatly excited. After a tense hour of reflection, he arrived at a definite and drastic decision. Weighing in his mind the importance of the matter, and the significance of our relation to it, he insisted that we both determine—and if possible destroy—the horror of the house by a night or nights of aggressive vigil in that musty and fungus cursed cellar.
On Wednesday, June 25, 1919, after notifying Carrington Harris, though not including what we expected to find, my uncle and I carrieed two camp chairs and a folding camp cot to the shunned house, along with some scientific mechanisms of greater weight and intricacy. We placed them in the cellar during the day, screened the windows with paper, and planned to return in the evening for our first vigil. We locked the door from the cellar to the ground floor, and having a key to the outside cellar door, prepared to leave our expensive and delicate apparatus—which we had obtained secretly and at great cost—for as many days as our vigil lasted. We planned to sit up together til very late, and then watch singly til dawn in two-hour shifts, myself first and then my uncle, the other resting on the cot.
My uncle procurement of our instruments from the labs at Brown University and the Cranston Street Armory and instinctively assumption of direction of our venture showed marvellous vitality and resilience for a man of eighty-one. Elihu Whipple had lived according to the hygiene he had preached as a physician, and were it not for what happened later, would doubtless be here in full vigour today. Only two people know what happened: Carrington Harris and me. I had to tell Harris because he owned the house, and deserved to know what had left it. We had spoken to him in advance of our investigation, and I felt after my uncle’s passing that Harris would understand and assist me in the necessary public explanations. He turned very pale, but agreed to help, and decided that it would be safe to rent the house.
To say that we weren’t nervous on that rainy night would be a ridiculous exaggeration. We were not childishly superstitious, but scientific study and reflection had taught us that the known universe embraces the merest fraction of the whole cosmos of substance and energy. Overwhelming evidence from authentic sources pointed to the tenacious existence of forces of great power and, from a human point of view, exceptional malignancy. To say that we actually believed in vampires or werewolves would wrong. Rather, we were not prepared to deny the possibility of unfamiliar and unclassified forms of vital force and attenuated matter, existing very infrequently in three-dimensional space because of their more intimate connection with other dimensions, yet close enough to the boundary of our own to occasionally manifest in ways which we, due to our lack of a proper vantage point, may never hope to understand.
It seemed to us both that an incontrovertible array of facts pointed at a lingering influence in the shunned house, traceable to one of the ill favoured French settlers two centuries before, and still operative through rare and unknown natural laws. The Roulet family’s recorded history seemed to show an abnormal affinity for the outer circles of entity—dark spheres which hold only repulsion and terror for normal folk. Had the riots in the seventeen- thirties set kinetic patterns moving in the morbid brain of one or more of them—notably the sinister Paul Roulet—which in some way survived the bodies, murdered and buried by the mob, and continued to function in some multiple dimensional space along the original lines of force determined by a frantic hatred of the encroaching community?
Such a thing did not seem physically or biochemically impossible in the light of newer science that included the theories of relativity and quantum mechanical action. One could easily imagine an alien nucleus of matter or energy, formless or otherwise, kept alive by imperceptible or immaterial amounts the life-force, bodily tissue, and fluids taken from living things into which it penetrated and with whose substance it sometimes completely merged itself. It might be actively hostile, or might merely be motivated by blind self-preservation. Such a monster must be an anomaly and an intruder whose destruction was the duty of every man who was not the enemy of life, health, and sanity.
What baffled us was our utter ignorance of the form in which we might encounter such a thing. No sane person had ever seen it, and few had ever definitely felt it. It might be pure energy—an ethereal form outside the realm of matter—or partly material, an unknown mass of plasticity, capable of changing at will between solid, liquid, gaseous, or tenuous plasma states. The anthropomorphic patch of mould on the floor, the form of the yellowish vapour, and the curvature of the tree-roots in some of the old tales, all argued for a connection with the human form. How permanent that similarity might be, we couldn’t say with any certainty.
We had devised two weapons to fight it; a large and specially fitted Crookes tube operated by powerful storage batteries and provided with screens and reflectors, in case it proved intangible and opposeable only by destructive radiation, and a pair of military flame-throwers of the sort used in the first world war, in case it proved partly material and susceptible to mechanical destruction, for like the superstitious Exeter rustics, we were prepared to burn the thing’s heart, if a heart existed to burn. We set them in the cellar, carefully arranged in relation to the cot, the chairs, and the spot in front of the fireplace where the mould took strange shapes. This patch was only faintly visible when we left our furniture and instruments, and when we returned that evening for the actual vigil. For a moment I almost doubted that I had seen it in the more definitely limned form—but then I thought of the legends.
Our cellar vigil began at ten that night. A weak, filtered glow from the rain-harassed street-lamps outside and the feeble phosphorescence from the detestable fungi within showed us dripping stone of the walls from which all traces of whitewash had vanished, the dank, fetid, mildew-tainted hard earth floor with its obscene fungi, some rotting remains of what had been stools, chairs, and tables, the heavy planks and massive beams of the ground floor overhead, the decrepit plank door leading to cupboards and chambers beneath other parts of the house, the crumbling stone staircase with its ruined wooden hand-rail, and the crude, cavernous fireplace of blackened brick where rusted iron fragments revealed the past presence of hooks, andirons, a spit, a crane, and a door to the Dutch oven—these things, our austere cot and camp chairs, and the heavy and intricate destructive machinery we had brought.
We had left the door to the street unlocked, giving us a direct and practical path of escape in case of manifestations beyond our power to deal with. We thought our continued nocturnal presence would call forth whatever malign entity lurked there, and that being prepared, we could dispose of the thing with one or the other of our devices as soon as we had observed it. We had no idea how long it would take to call out and destroy the thing. It occurred to us that our venture was far from safe, for we had no idea what strength the thing might have. We deemed the game worth the risk, and embarked on it alone and unhesitatingly. The seeking of outside aid would only expose us to ridicule and perhaps defeat our entire purpose. We talked far into the night, til my uncle’s growing drowsiness made me remind him to lie down for his two-hour sleep.
Something like fear chilled me as I sat there in the small hours alone—for one who sits next to a sleeper is indeed alone, perhaps more alone than he realizes. My uncle breathed heavily, his deep inhalations and exhalations accompanied by the rain outside, and punctuated by the nerve racking sound of distant dripping water within. The house was repulsively damp even in dry weather, and in this storm, positively swamp-like. I studied the loose, antique masonry of the walls in the glow of the fungi and the feeble rays which stole in from the street through the screened window. Once, when the stench of the place seemed about to sicken me, I opened the door and looked up and down the street, feasting my eyes on familiar sights and my nostrils on wholesome air. Still nothing occurred to reward my watching, and I yawned repeatedly, fatigue getting the better of my apprehension.
My uncle stirred in his sleep, attracting my attention. He had turned restlessly on the cot several times during the second half of the first hour, but now he was breathing with unusual irregularity, occasionally heaving a sigh that sounded almost like a choking moan.
I turned my flashlight on him. His face averted, so rising and crossing to the other side of the cot, I again flashed the light to see if he seemed in any pain. What I saw unnerved me surprisingly, considering its relative triviality. It must have been merely the association of its oddness with the sinister nature of our location and mission, for it was not in itself frightful or unnatural. It was merely that my uncle’s facial expression, disturbed no doubt by strange dreams, betrayed considerable agitation, and seemed uncharacteristic of him. His habitual expression was one of kindly and well-bred calm, whereas now, a variety of emotions seemed to struggle within him. This variety was chiefly what disturbed me. My uncle, as he gasped and tossed in increasing disturbance with eyes that were now open, seemed not one but many men, which suggested a curious quality of alienation from himself.
He began to mutter, and I did not like the look of his mouth and teeth as he spoke. The words were at first indistinguishable, and then—with a tremendous start—I recognized something that filled me with icy fear till I recalled the breadth of my uncle’s education and the interminable translations he had made from anthropological and antiquarian articles in the Revue des Deux Mondes. He was muttering in French, and the few phrases I could distinguish seemed connected with the darkest myths he had ever adapted from the famous Paris magazine.
Suddenly, perspiration broke out on my uncle’s forehead, and he leapt up abruptly, half awake. The jumble of French became a cry.
“My breath, my breath!” he shouted.
Then he was completely awake, and as his facial expression returned to the normal, my uncle seized my hand and began to relate a dream, nucleus of significance of which I could only surmise with awe.
He had floated off from a very ordinary series of dream-pictures into a strange scene like nothing he had ever read of. It was of this world, and yet not of it—a shadowy geometrical confusion in which could he could see elements of familiar things in most unfamiliar and perturbing combinations, like queerly disordered pictures superimposed one upon another. The essentials of time and space seemed dissolved and mixed in the most illogical fashion. In this kaleidoscopic vortex of phantasmal images were occasional snap-shots of singular clarity but unaccountable heterogeneity.
In one, my uncle thought he lay in a carelessly dug open pit, with a crowd of angry faces framed by straggling locks and three-cornered hats frowning down on him. In another, he seemed to be in the interior of an old house, but the details and inhabitants were constantly changing, and he could never be certain of the faces or the furniture, or even of the room itself, since the doors and windows seemed in the same state of flux as the more mobile objects. It was odd, and my uncle spoke almost sheepishly, as if he half expected not to be believed. Of the strange faces, many had unmistakably borne the features of the Harris family. All the while he had the sensation of choking, as if some pervasive presence had spread itself through his body and sought to possess his vital processes.
I shuddered at the thought of those vital processes, worn as they were by eighty-one years of continuous functioning, in conflict with unknown forces of which the youngest and strongest system might well be afraid. But dreams are only dreams, and these uncomfortable visions were no more than my uncle’s reaction to the investigations and expectations which had lately filled our minds.
Conversation dispelled my sense of strangeness, and in time I yielded to my own yawns and took my turn to sleep. My uncle seemed very wakeful, and welcomed his period of watching even though his nightmare had aroused him far before the end of his allotted two hours.
Sleep seized me quickly, and I was immediately haunted by the most disturbing dreams. I felt a cosmic and abysmal loneliness. Hostility surged from all sides against some prison where I lay confined. I seemed bound and gagged, and taunted by the echoing yells of distant multitudes who thirsted for my blood. My uncle’s face came to me with a less pleasant association than in waking hours, and I futilely struggled and attempted to scream. It was not a pleasant sleep, and for a moment, I was not sorry for the echoing shriek which cut through the dream and flung me into sharp and startled wakefulness in which every object before my eyes stood out with more than natural clarity and reality.
I had been lying with my face away from my uncle’s chair, so that as I suddenly awakened I saw only the door to the street, and the window, wall, floor, and ceiling of the north end of the room, all pictured with morbid vividness by my brain in a light brighter than the glow of the fungi or the rays from the street outside. The light was not nearly strong enough to read a book by. It cast my shadow and the shadow of the cot on the floor, and had a yellowish, penetrating force more potent than luminosity. I perceived this with unhealthy sharpness despite the fact that two of my other senses were being violently assailed. The reverberations of that shocking scream rang in my ears, while my nostrils revolted at the stench which filled the place. My mind alert as my senses, I automatically leapt up and turned about to grasp the destructive instruments we had left trained on the mouldy spot in front of the fireplace. I dreaded what I was to see, for the scream had been my uncle’s, and I didn’t know what menace I would have to defend us from.
The sight was even worse than I had dreaded. There are horrors beyond horrors, and this was one of those nuclei of all imaginable hideousness that the cosmos saves to blast an accursed and unhappy few. Out of the fungus-ridden earth, there steamed up a vaporous corpse-light, yellow and diseased, which bubbled and lapped to a gigantic height in a vague outline half human and half monstrous, through which I could see the chimney and fireplace beyond. It was all eyes—wolfish and mocking—and its wrinkled insect-like head dissolved at the top into a thin stream of mist that curled putridly about and the chimney and vanished up it. Only in retrospect can I definitely trace its damnable form. At the time, it was only a seething, dimly phosphorescent cloud of fungous loathsomeness, enveloping and dissolving the object on which all of my attention was focused: my uncle, whose blackening and decaying features leered and gibbered at me. He reached out dripping claws to rend me in the fury that this horror had brought.
I had drilled myself in preparation for this crucial moment, and my training saved me and kept me from going mad. Recognizing the bubbling evil as no material substance, and therefore ignoring the flame-thrower on my left, I switched on the Crookes tube apparatus, and focused it toward that scene of immortal blasphemy. The strongest radiation which science could generate appeared as a bluish haze and a frenzied sputtering, and the yellowish phosphorescence grew dimmer to my eyes. But the dimness was only due to contrast; the waves from the machine had no effect whatever.
In the midst of that demoniac spectacle, I saw a fresh horror that made me cry out and sent me fumbling and staggering toward the unlocked door to the quiet street, uncaring of what abnormal terrors I loosed upon the world or what judgments of men I brought upon myself. In that dim blend of blue and yellow, my uncle had commenced a nauseous liquefaction that eludes all description, and changes of identity that only madness could conceive played across his vanishing face. He was at once a devil and a multitude, a skeleton and a procession. In the uncertain light, his gelatinous face assumed a dozen—a score—a hundred—different looks. Grinning, it sank to the ground on a body that melted like tallow, a caricatured likeness of legions both strange and familiar.
I saw the features of the Harris line, masculine and feminine, adult and childlike, and other features, old and young, coarse and refined, familiar and unfamiliar. For a second, there was a counterfeit of the miniature of poor mad Rhoby Harris that I had seen in the School of Design museum, and then I thought I caught the raw-boned image of Mercy Dexter that I recalled from a painting in Carrington Harris’s house. It was frightful beyond conception. Toward the end, when a curious blend of servant and baby faces flickered close to the fungous floor where the pool of greenish grease was spreading, it seemed as though the shifting features fought against themselves and strove to form the features of my uncle’s kindly face. I like to think that he existed at that moment, and that he tried to say goodbye. I croaked a farewell from my own parched throat as I lurched out into the street. A thin stream of grease followed me through the door onto the rain drenched sidewalk.
The rest of the night was shadowy and monstrous. There was no one in the soaking street, and in all the world, no one I dared tell. I walked aimlessly south past College Hill and the Athenæum, down Hopkins Street, and over the bridge to the business district, where tall buildings seemed to guard me the way modern material things guard the world from ancient and unwholesome wonders. Then gray dawn unfolded wetly from the east, silhouetting the archaic hill and its venerable steeples, and beckoning me back to the place where my terrible work lay still unfinished. In the end I went, wet, hatless, and dazed in the morning light, and entered that awful door in Benefit Street that I had left ajar, and which still swung cryptically in full sight of the early rising householders to whom I dared not speak.
The grease was gone; the mouldy floor was porous. The was no vestige of the giant doubled-up form traced in saltpetre in front of the fireplace. I looked at the cot, the chairs, the instruments, my forgotten hat, and my uncle’s yellowed straw hat. Dazed, I could hardly remember what was dream and what was reality. Then thought trickled back, and I knew that I had witnessed things more horrible than I had dreamed.
Sitting down, I tried to figure out as nearly as sanity would let me just what had happened, and how I might end the horror, if it had been real. It seemed not to be material, nor made of anything conceivable by the human mind. What could it be, then, but some exotic emanation; some vampiric vapour like the ones Exeter rustics claim lurk over church graveyards? I felt this was the clue, and again I looked at the floor in front of the fireplace where the mould and saltpetre had taken strange forms.
In ten minutes my mind was made up, and taking my hat, I set out for home, where I bathed, ate, and ordered a pickax, a spade, a military gas mask, and thirty gallons of sulphuric acid by telephone, all to be delivered the next morning to the cellar door of the shunned house in Benefit Street. After that I tried to sleep, and failing, passed the hours reading and composing inane verses to counteract my mood.
At eleven AM the next day, I began digging. It was sunny, and I was glad of that. I was alone, for as much as I feared the unknown horror I sought, I feared the thought of telling anybody more. Later, I told Harris only out of sheer necessity, and because he had heard odd tales from old people that disposed him ever so slightly to believe me. As I turned up the stinking black earth in front of the fireplace, my spade causing a viscous yellow slime to ooze from the white fungi that it severed, I trembled at the thought of what I might uncover. Some secrets buried in the earth are not good for mankind, and this seemed to me to be one of them.
My hands shook perceptibly, but still I delved, after a while, standing in the large hole I had made. As the hole, which was about six feet square, deepened, the evil smell increased. I was sure that contact with the hellish thing whose emanations had cursed the house for over a century and a half was imminent. I wondered what it would look like—what its form and substance would be, and how big it might have grown through long ages of consuming life force. I climbed out and dispersed the heaped up dirt, then arranged the huge containers of acid around two sides of the hole, so that I could empty them all into it in quick succession. After that I dumped earth only along the other two sides, working more slowly and donning my gas mask as the smell grew. I was unnerved by my proximity to a nameless thing at the bottom of the pit.
Suddenly my spade struck something softer than earth. I shuddered, and almost turned to climb out of the hole, the lip of which now reached my neck. Courage returned, and I scraped away more dirt in the light of the flashlight I had brought. The surface I uncovered was a putrid, semi-translucent congealed jelly. I scraped further, and saw that it had form. There was a crack where part of the substance was folded over. The area I’d exposed was huge and roughly cylindrical, like a massive soft blue-white stovepipe doubled over, about two feet in diameter at its largest. I scraped more dirt off it, then abruptly leapt out of the hole and away from the filthy thing. I frantically opened and tilted the heavy jugs, and poured their corrosive contents one after another down that into the pit and onto the unthinkable abnormality whose titanic elbow I had seen.
I’ll never forget the blinding maelstrom of greenish-yellow vapour which surged up from the hole as the flood of acid descended. All along the hill people tell of the yellow day, when virulent, horrible fumes came from factory waste dumped into the Providence River, but I know that they are mistaken as to the source. They tell, too, of the hideous roar which came from some damaged water-pipe or gas main underground. Again I could correct them if I dared. It was unspeakably shocking, and I don’t see how I lived through it. I fainted after emptying the fourth jug of acid, which I was handling after the fumes had begun to penetrate my gas mask. When I recovered, I saw that the hole was no longer emitting fresh vapours.
I poured in the two remaining jugs without noticeable results, and after a while, felt it was safe to shovel the earth back into the pit. It was twilight before I was done, but fear had left the place. The dampness was less fetid, and all the strange fungi had withered into harmless grey powder that blew like ash across the floor. One of earth’s darkest terrors had perished forever. If there is a hell, it had received at last the demon soul of an unhallowed thing. As I patted down the last spadeful of mould, I shed the first of the many tears for my beloved uncle.
The next spring, no pale grass or strange weeds came up in the shunned house’s terraced garden, and shortly afterwards, Carrington Harris rented the place. The barren old trees in the yard have begun to bear small, sweet apples, and last year, birds nested in their gnarled branches. It is still spectral, but its strangeness fascinates me, and my relief will be mixed with odd regret when it is torn down to make way for a gaudy shop or tasteless apartment building.