Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, March 28, 2024

The origins of the story

I'm always interested in looking into where tales of the paranormal get started.  We've seen a number of examples here at Skeptophilia, each with its own peculiar provenance.  There are ones that have the feel of Scary Tales Told Around A Campfire, and which probably have little connection to reality other than the setting, like the legend of 50 Berkeley Square and the famous tumbling coffins of Barbados.  Others come from works of fiction that were misinterpreted (or misrepresented) as fact, and afterward took on a life of their own, such as the tragic tale of Christopher Round.  There are stories for which the basic facts are clearly true, but which picked up paranormal overtones by virtue of being unexplained, such as the odd phenomenon of the Devonshire footprints.  Last, and most common, there are ones for which the main players are definitely real people with a decent amount of credibility, and who seem to have had no particular reason to lie other than perhaps relishing getting a chuckle from scaring the absolute shit out of their friends, such as the weirdly open-ended tale of Nurse Black (still my all-time favorite "true ghost story"), the story of the haunting of Hinton Ampner, Lord Dufferin's terrifying premonition, and the much-retold legend of the screaming skulls of Calgarth.

More interesting to me, though, are ones where the story itself has no obvious point of origin.  One of these for which I've spent an inordinate amount of time digging, and come up absolutely empty-handed, I know about because of the book Haunted Houses, by Bernhardt J. Hurwood, which I've owned (courtesy of the beloved Scholastic Book Club) since shortly after it was published in 1972.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Harald Hoyer from Schwerin, Germany, The Haunted House Das Geisterhaus (5360049608), CC BY-SA 2.0]

Hurwood gave the story the rather lurid name "The Mystery House of Horror," and it was one of a handful in the collection that completely freaked me out when I read it as a highly imaginative, impressionable twelve-year-old who was absolutely convinced that if I left even the slightest gap in the curtains of my bedroom at night, someone or *gulp* something would watch me through the window while I slept.  You'd think monsters would have better stuff to do at night than to squint at a sleeping kid, but you never know, with monsters.


Of course right.

In any case, "The Mystery House of Horror" is about a manor house in Kensington, England that had a sinister reputation.  No one, we're told, has any information about when it was built or by whom, which right away seems a little strange for a culture so absolutely obsessed with keeping track of the minute doings of the landed gentry.  All Hurwood tells us is that the unnamed original owner was a "man of ill repute" who hanged himself in the house rather than waiting for the law do it first, and after that, the house and the gardens that surrounded it were definitely a Very Bad Place.

It was rented for a time by a family with the last name of Trent, but that tenancy came to an abrupt end when something tried to smother Mrs. Trent in her sleep with a pillow.  Her husband leapt to her aid, and found himself in a wrestling match with something strong, slimy, invisible, and giving off a horrible stench.  For some reason, even after this incident they stayed on a few more weeks.  This is more than I'd have done -- if that happened to me, all you'd see is a comical, Looney Tunes-style blur as I ran away screaming, my feet not even touching the ground.  But during those weeks, Mr. and Mrs. Trent were plagued by something slamming doors, and occasionally violently shaking their beds at night.

Eventually, though, they had enough, and left.

The next tenant was a Mrs. Cattling, who moved in with eight small dogs, four dachshunds and four Pomeranians.  The dogs obviously hated the place right from the get-go (a common trope in paranormal stories is dogs being more sensitive to hauntings than humans are), and one night their fear was realized as something attacked them, killing one of the Pomeranians.  What happened next is, to me, the scariest part of the entire story:

She was about to pick up the limp little form when something made her whirl around.  To her horror she saw one of the pillows on the bed lift itself up and stand on end.  Frozen to the spot, she watched as it compressed itself into the shape of some hideously unfamiliar beast with a long muzzle, sharp teeth, and monstrously evil gleaming eyes.  For a moment she stared at it in morbidly rapt fascination, like a bird at a snake about to devour it.  Then, summoning all her strength, she rushed to the bed, seized the pillow and flung it to the floor, jumping on it with both feet and screaming, "You killed my dog!  You killed my dog!"
Quite the badass, that Mrs. Cattling.  The tale is reminiscent of the absolutely terrifying short story "O, Whistle and I'll Come for You, My Lad," by M. R. James, in which a malevolent and invisible spirit creates a body for itself out of whatever happens to be around -- a bedspread, curtains, clothing hanging on a line.  *shudder*

After Mrs. Cattling (and her surviving dogs) left, the house went through various other tenants, none of whom stayed long.  One saw a "gaunt, cadaverous figure" standing by the end of the bed.  Another saw a man in "peculiar old-fashioned dress" tinkering with the gas mantle.  She assumed her husband had called a repairman, but the husband hadn't done any such thing, and when the woman returned to the kitchen she found it filling up with a dangerous level of natural gas -- the result, we're led to believe, of one of the house's resident ghosts trying to do away with its living tenants.

Even when it was unoccupied, strange things happened.  A pair of young lovers looking for a quiet place to have a nice snog found their way into the house's garden one evening, but before they could get down to the business at hand the young man noticed that despite the house being empty, there was an eerie golden light in one of the upstairs windows.  As they watched, it changed to a "ghastly bluish-green," and a "tomblike chill" descended over them.  But finally we have people showing some degree of common sense -- the couple hauled ass out of the place and vowed never to come near it again.

Understandably, the house got such a bad reputation that no one would rent it. "Some time between World War I and World War II," we're told, it was torn down, and "when the last scraps of debris were hauled away, the residents of the neighborhood breathed a collective sigh of relief."

So it's a very creepy story, and going back through it to write this post I had a couple of moments where I had an honest shiver.  (Fortunately, as I write this, it's a bright sunny morning, my dogs are all safely asleep on their own personal sofa, and there are no peculiar-looking repairmen working on the gas line.  The latter is largely because we don't have a gas line, but still.)

But where did the story come from?

I've done a significant amount of research trying to find anything but Hurwood's account, and had zero success.  You'd think that a house with this kind of story behind it would merit mention somewhere, but if there is, I haven't been able to find it.  All of the references I've come across ultimately lead back to Hurwood himself.

So as compelling as the story is, I think the answer is that it came from Hurwood's own imagination.

I kind of get the draw, you know?  As a novelist, I want my own imaginary creations to get as much notice as they can, and if I were writing a True Tales of the Supernatural sort of collection, it'd be mighty tempting to throw one of my own stories in there just for fun.  And I suspect that's what Hurwood did.  The Mystery House of Horror, I'm afraid, never existed.

I might be wrong, of course.  If one of my readers knows the provenance of this story (other than Hurwood's anthology), please let me know in the comments.  Maybe there was a haunted house in Kensington, and that'd be worth knowing about.

Although I'd be just as happy if invisible, slimy, smelly creatures didn't exist.  Even if all they did was watch me through gaps in the curtains at night.


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