by Will Raven
In the spirit of the Halloween season, here’s a new short story about a haunted house and its reign of terror.
Some houses are born haunted. Sinister forces possess them from birth, seeping into the foundation and walls. Perhaps the evil is rooted in the soil beneath or in the surrounding air above.
Salem Manor was such a sick, corrupted place. The quintessential Victorian home had been possessed by evil for nearly 140 years. The eerie residence breathed and brooded on a lonely New England hillside lined with weeping willows and a curvy, snake-like driveway leading to its black iron gates.
On September 7, 2019, I moved into the mansion knowing its checkered past. I did it because I’m a little crazy or more likely just desperate. I badly needed inspiration to write my next novel about a haunted house and its dark secrets.
The finished work I hoped would have a gothic flavor like the classic works of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables. I had not written a best seller in years and felt mounting pressure from my publisher and ignorant critics.
Salem Manor had everything I was looking for—mainly quick availability and a shadowy history.
The stone and wooden structure was custom built in 1883 for Dr. Alfred Sebastion, a renowned Boston alienst whose specialty was performing examinations of the criminally insane.
Only days after occupying the new construction, the Sebastion family was stricken with grief. The doctor’s wife, Annabelle, accidently tripped on the edge of a thick crimson rug and tumbled violently down the imperial staircase. She split her head on the railing and died after a brief comma.
Dr. Sebastion was left to care for his two children, Abigail and Alice. The girls later succumbed to tuberculous before reaching their teens.
Heartbroken, the doctor sold the house in 1913 to another family. Over the next century, other owners and inhabitants followed and so did the horrors. Like the black widow spider, Salem Manor patiently waited for prey to entangle in its irregular web. Death notices linked to the malignant house included heart attacks, rare diseases, insanity, bizarre accidents, strangulation, and bloody murders.
Marcia Hughes, a wealthy heir, had owned Salem Manor since 2008. Out of fear she never set foot in the house, leaving the “monstrosity” vacant for a decade. She didn’t want blood on her hands and felt it best that no one live there.
In 2018, after repeated requests, Hughes sold the house on the cheap to the Bentley Historic Preservation Society.
Despite its baleful existence and lingering questions about its malicious character, Salem Manor was soon designated a historic landmark, largely for its architectural merits. Through trust funds, the society restored the estate in hopes that a new tenant would buy and live in the house according to preservation guidelines and restrictions.
But even this painstaking attempt to bring a joyful spirit to the house failed. Fresh paint, refurbished turrets and gables, a new mansard roof, and ornate pillars were no match for the evil, eye-like windows and a mysterious shadow that surrounded the structure. Despite a complete interior remodel and new electrical wiring, lights flickered, floors creaked, and the stains of years past pervaded.
No one dared buy the creepy manor until I, Peter Grimsley, came knocking and purchased the house from the preservation society.
I’m a bachelor and loner for the most part, always have been. I prefer solitude over spotlight, but out of necessity I play along with promotional efforts to sell books. In seclusion, I often write my best copy. For my most popular novel, Little Red Reaper, I rented a log cabin in the woods for three months. It was the perfect backdrop to write a saga about a witch and a werewolf that haunted the Black Forest.
By the time I had finally settled into Salem Manor and began work on my latest book, it was late October. With a cup of black tea by my side, I sat at my walnut desk in the library, one of 10 rooms in the sprawling mansion. I still use a manual typewriter—a vintage black Royal. Call me old fashioned, but something about the mechanical sound of keys striking paper plays like a symphony in my head.
Through my open window, I could feel the fresh, cool air caressing my face, creating a pleasing sense of renewal. Autumn leaves of radiant colors—red, orange, yellow, brown, and violet—floated merrily down from the mature trees.
Across the valley, I observed children at Abbey’s Farm scouring the pumpkin patches for the perfect jack-o’-lantern and families hitching hayrides into the pleasant country side.
I turned back to the task at hand when suddenly the grand piano started playing in the adjacent music room. I recognized Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria instantly. It was an unsettling piece fit for many a ghastly tale.
I walked guardedly in the direction of the music. To my astonishment, the instrument self-played from a sheet of music above the keys. But what really spooked me was the sight of a doll with a string around its neck hanging from the raised piano lid. Dressed in a red satin dress and black buckled shoes, the footlong figure had unruly red hair. Its putrid face stared blankly.
As I approached, the sinister melody stopped and the scuffed doll began batting its dark, sunken eyes, almost flirting. The perverse action was unnerving. Freakishly, blood oozed from the doll’s right nostril.
I ripped the devilish object down and shut the piano lid. The shocking ordeal was unnerving and I feared the coming nightfall.
After dinner, I tried writing again. But the ghosts of Salem Manor would not allow it. Doors began opening and shutting and glass shattered in several rooms. Loud, terrible screams and cries of forsaken children permeated the walls.
I retreated to my room and prayed to survive the night. I tossed and turned, asking myself what had I gotten into.
The next morning, while sipping on a glass of apple cider in the breakfast nook, I was startled by the sound of giggling girls.
I stepped toward the foyer and discovered three little girls jumping rope. The somewhat translucent specters all had red hair, freckles, and seemingly innocent faces.
The tallest girl wore thick black glasses. But her eyes were empty sockets. The second girl with a baseball cap was missing her nose. The third girl in a white dress dangled a silver, heart-shaped locket from her neck. Her ears were cut off.
I stood before them, frightened yet curious.
“Why do you play here?” I asked. “Why do you haunt this place?”
The ghosts just laughed, dropping their ropes to the ground before vanishing into the walls.
The next freaky thing happened that afternoon when I heard repeated knocks on my study door. I opened it and at my feet was a library book—The Secret Garden. The book was last checked out on October 8, 2009. This discovery, of course, baffled me. What was the house and the phantom girls trying to communicate?
A few hours later, I returned home from a doctor’s appointment and immediately smelled the distinct aroma of warm spices and sweet molasses omitting from the kitchen.
Oddly, three chairs were aligned in a row. On the table above were a dozen or more gingerbread men decorated with red and white icing. They all had sad faces. Some cookies were partially eaten. The crumbs scattered everywhere. Had the ghosts been munching?
I checked my cabinets to see what other food might have been raided. Apparently, just the ingredients for a hearty batch of cookies. I cleaned up the mess and cooked an early dinner plate of spaghetti and garlic bread. Afterward, I retired to my room.
In the early morning hours, I was awakened by thunderous, wretched pounding on the walls. I took a loaded revolver from my night stand and peaked in the hallway. Years ago, I had been attacked in my home by a crazed fan and had ever since kept a weapon bedside.
Water had flooded the floor and flowed down the stairwell from the attic. I flicked on the light and followed the water trail up the steps.
Reaching the red panel door, it appeared locked at first. But then it opened all by itself. A burst of water streamed toward me. I grabbed the edge of the door while the tiny tide gushed by. I stepped into the attic. It was dark but I heard and saw water spewing out of a leaking pipe. I yanked on the light chain dangling inside the doorway.
The water stopped. Then the dreadful screams and crying began again. Suddenly, I felt a phantom hand grab my leg.
I spun around but no one was there. A few feet away, I spotted an old black scrapbook tied middle height to one of the columns. I unlaced the album and started flipping through it.
The first couple pages highlighted a series of news clips about a missing 9-year-old girl—Rebecca Holmes. She had disappeared on October 9, 2009. I recalled it was the same date the library book had last been checked out. The stories noted Holmes was last seen at Randolph Town Square.
Subsequent pages were filled with news accounts of two other missing girls—10-year-old Sally Easton Applegate and 11-year-old Sondra Ritchie. All the girls had red hair and were last seen at the square just months apart. The girls were never found and the cases went cold, despite massive state and federal manhunts.
These must have been the spirits I saw jumping rope. I turned the page, then the next, and the next. I shuddered at the sight of three horrid sketches that illustrated the scarred girls.
At the back of the scrapbook were three locks of hair, all red but of different shades and coarseness. I felt my stomach turn, thinking some sick bastard kept the hair as trophies.
I called the police. A few hours later, the doorbell rang.
I was greeted by a plain clothes detective, Lance Taylor. He looked earnest, thin, almost hungry, and tall—maybe six feet three inches.
I escorted him to the sitting room and offered him some coffee. He declined and wasn’t much for small talk. But I did learn that he had worked on the missing girl cases since the start.
“So you’ve got a scrapbook you’d like to show me,” he said.
I opened it on the coffee table in front of us. He started slowly paging through it. Taylor kept a blank expression until he got to the sketches and locks of hair.
He scratched his head. “If these strands of hair belonged to the missing girls we’ll know.”
“Then this album may belong to the kidnapper or should I say killer?”
“Perhaps,” he said. “If so, we’ll reopen the case and start another line of investigation.”
I thought about mentioning the hauntings at the manor. But I decided against it. Taylor might think I’m mad. He walked back to the entrance with the scrapbook under his arm.
“Thanks for coming,” I said.
“We’ll be in touch.”
Via phone I heard back from Taylor two months later. He confirmed that the hair locks mounted to the scrapbook belonged to the missing girls. He wanted to schedule a forensics unit to examine my home for additional evidence.
I agreed but after the new year began. I needed a couple weeks to wrap my head around this whole thing. Curiously, during the entire manor’s refurbishing that lasted months, nothing unusual was ever found. Certainly not physical evidence to suggest murder or foul play.
Before Taylor hung up, he warned me that the discovery of the album would go public. The purpose to spook the killer into making a mistake.
Taylor thought it was a long shot and worried the action might trigger another kidnapping or worse. I worried about being in public eye when all I really wanted was quiet.
I felt it my duty to do some of my own investigating. I visited Randolph Town Square. The library, a single-story brick structure, served as the anchor to the community space, flanked by rows of small shops and restaurants. Topper’s Pizzeria. Artie’s Hardware. Zax Dry Cleaners.
In the center was a gigantic Christmas tree and a temporary outdoor skating rink that was apparently constructed each winter.
Walking by Heidi’s Bakery, I noticed a plate of gingerbread cookies. I talked to the store owner and learned the cookies had been a store specialty since it opened about 20 years ago.
Then I passed by The Green Elves, a cute little toy store with old-fashioned dolls, puppets, and toys. In the display window was a red-haired doll that looked very similar to one that disturbed me at Salem Manor.
I was no Sherlock Holmes, but putting these threads together made me think that the killer had frequented the square.
That’s when it hit me. The scrapbook, the gingerbread cookies, the doll, and the jump ropes were clues to the mystery. And they all were connected to Randolph Town Square.
There was another piece of potential evidence, one that I never occurred to check. I returned to the music room in the manor where I had not stepped foot in since the ghastly episode.
I turned over the dusty music sheet still on the piano. Stamped in fine print on the back, lower right were the words: Property of Kenmore Elementary School. All three girls had attended the school. I remember reading that the Applegate girl was a piano prodigy of sorts.
I suspected the police had probably already checked out the library and shops long ago for anything suspicious. But what investigators didn’t have are the items in my possession.
I had to turn them over. But how would I explain the crazy idea that ghosts had left clues. I felt strongly that the girls were murdered in Salem Manor and they were crying out for justice.
It’s funny. Ever since I turned the scrapbook over to Detective Taylor, the hauntings stopped. I heard occasional morning laughter and muffled talking but no nightly screams and cries.
Perhaps, at least for now, the specters that occupied Salem Manor were content.
One evening I was watching the news when a report broke about the scrapbook. The cat was out of the bag. If the killer had tuned in, he might panic knowing investigators were back on the case.
I pondered how the girls got the scrapbook in the first place. Did they steal it? Did the killer simply lose it someplace in the house. Or was it fabricated?
That night I ate dinner early and went to my study to write. Since moving into Salem Manor, I had only finished the first chapter. Writer’s block set in again. I kept getting distracted by thoughts about the girls and what might have happened to them.
Shortly after midnight, I heard glass smash on the main floor. I thought perhaps the ghosts were just in a bad mood. I grabbed my gun.
At the bottom of the stairs, I was suddenly knocked unconscious from behind. I awoke tied to a chair in the wine cellar. My head was bleeding. My vision blurred.
Slowly a shadowy figure came into focus—a tall, thin man. His face was covered