Lee’s Dead of Winter (Winter, 2012) has been described as True Grit meets True Blood. It’s a bit early to show you a sample chapter, so how about a short story of Lee’s, to be getting on with? A Christmas ghost story written in a classic 19th century style. Honestly – we spoil you!
The Shadow in the Hall
by Lee Collins
Before beginning this record of events, I feel it necessary to impart that I, being the daughter of a physician, am not a stranger to the disciplines of science and logic. Whereas many of my sex might succumb to their passions in similar circumstances to the ones I will describe hence, becoming altogether hysterical and perhaps incontinent, I remained steadfast in my adherence to the rational nature inherited from my father. It may be somewhat presumptuous on my part, but I find myself occasionally entertaining the belief that, had he been alive to witness the events, my father might have felt some measure of pride in my composure and handling of the extraordinary events.
Somewhat ironically, it was the occasion of his death, premature and unexpected, that thrust my mother and myself into the extraordinary circumstances. My father’s will designated my mother as the primary beneficiary of his estate and accounts. However, my mother’s financial sensibilities were overshadowed, perhaps to a fault, by her timid disposition toward uncertainty. This condition was unquestionably worsened by my father’s unexpected death. Thus, where we might have remained in a life of reduced but not unsubstantial comfort, she felt it best to set up for sale our luxurious estate in a neighbourhood well-reputed for its learned and industrious residents and take up our abode within the bowels of the city. My mother was a woman of some notable skill with a needle and thread (a skill she had endeavored most stubbornly to impart to me) and thus found work with a tailor. The tailor’s shop was in the lower level of a three-storey building which fronted a tributary street, a modest place he had purchased some ten years prior. His apartments were directly above the shop. I never entered his residence, so I’m afraid I cannot give a description of its layout or furnishings. I will comment, however, that whatever mysteries it contained did not appear to play any substantial role in the events which occurred in our living quarters.
The tailor, Mr. S—, generously allowed us the use of the third storey apartment for a reasonable monthly sum. Modest furnishings were included in the cost of letting, so we did not find it necessary to bother with the replacement of those we sold with the estate. I found the upholstery somewhat offensive, never having approved of colorful floral patterns, but Mother did not object, and I did not feel it prudent to worry her with such trivial concerns. The bed in the room set aside for my use was comfortable, and I was even allowed shelves upon which to store my favorite books and those medical journals of my father’s that I elected to keep. My mother’s bedroom was adjacent to my own, though no door allowed access directly between the two rooms. We shared a common washroom, which was a new inconvenience to my experience, and I discovered I had much to learn about the art of amiably sharing intimate spaces.
I feel I should apologize if I do not come straight to the recounting of the events which took place in that apartment. Even now, my father’s voice echoes in my mind when I dwell on the more fantastical elements of the adventure, imploring me to reexamine them in a more rational light, and to my credit, I believe I have tried. I have relived each event, moment by moment, attempting to find in my memory some glimmer of machinery that might explain the occurrences as contrived by man in some elaborate hoax. My best efforts are frustrated by the imperfections of memory, but even still, I cannot light on a single event or object that might more rationally explain my experiences.
We had not been residing in the apartment for a fortnight when I noticed a peculiarity surrounding the placement of items in the kitchen. Objects placed on a certain shelf, the second from the bottom in the cupboard directly over the sink, would relocate to the shelf below without any assistance from Mother or myself. Naturally, when I first observed this tendency, I attributed it to my mother’s interference while I was isolated in my room.
The persistence of this unusual occurrence elicited my curiosity, and I became determined to discover the truth of this mystery with a simple test. One evening, I deliberately remained awake until I was certain my mother had retired. Once I heard the stirrings in her room cease, I stole into the kitchen and placed a jar of spice not often used in the preparation of our meals upon the shelf. When I awoke and investigated the status of the jar, it had moved to the shelf below. When my mother entered the kitchen a few minutes later, I thought it best to approach her directly. I inquired whether she had occasion to use the spice in question, showing her the bottle. She examined the bottle briefly before shaking her head. After suggesting that I apply myself more exclusively to my duties as her apprentice seamstress, she collected her kit, bade me follow her without delay, and left the apartment to earn our keep. Chastised, I quickly finished my morning meal and dressed myself.
When night fell, my mother and I returned to our living quarters. Rather than dedicate my evening to the perfection of my needlework, as my mother no doubt would have appreciated, I spend many hours engrossed in my father’s journals. The oddity of the morning’s events had bothered me throughout the day, even as I worked beside my mother to embroider Christmas stockings with colorful threads. As a girl, I would often find myself beset with anticipation and excitement with the approaching holiday, and even now, as an adolescent, I cannot say I was wholly immune to vestiges of this excitement. That day, however, I could scarcely focus on the task at hand, even if it was a joyous one.
That evening, I had situated myself near the window in my bedroom as was my usual custom. While engrossed in a book, I often looked out the window while pondering some particular paragraph or phrase; such visual stimulation often enhanced my ability to comprehend difficult passages of text. It is a behaviour I continue to this day. I believe it was during this time that I discovered how this habit is made much more enjoyable by holiday revelries. One might sit by a window of a night and see not solely the wonders that new-fallen snow can make of ordinary lanes and houses, but candles twinkling like so many yellow stars in festive windows. Additionally, if one can brave the chilly air, an open window will serve as a portal for the wondrous songs of passing carolers.
I was thus positioned for many hours, absorbed in a tome recently translated from the original French. All at once, a breath of icy air wafted through the open window, and I shivered. My candle had been reduced to a small flame dancing atop a pool of hot wax. The drippings had spread quite readily down from the candlestick and across my desk. I pulled the window closed and set about my nightly rituals. Switching out the used-up candle for a fresh one, I carried it to my bedside and prepared for sleep.
An uncertain number of hours later, I was roused from slumber by a pacing in the hallway without. I could hear a steady rhythm of steps walking backward and forward, up and down the corridor. As any rational person might, I at first concluded that the sounds belong to my mother, bereft of restfulness for one reason or another. However, as I lay listening, it became clear that whomever was pacing thus was an individual of considerable more mass than my mother, who was ever a slight woman. Indeed, for a moment I was half-convinced that it was my father without, driven to wakefulness by some difficulty in one of his patients. A silly thrill went through my body, a sleepy hope that somehow my father had returned to us, but cold logic soon reasserted itself. The hope gave way to a much more pressing fear: who was in our apartments? Was it the tailor come to inquire of Mother some favor or task? That certainly seemed the most logical option, for he was possessed of the only other key, and a burglar would not pace needlessly so.
Bestirring myself, I donned my dressing robe and made for the door. If indeed it was the tailor, I might take his message for my mother and deliver it at a proper hour. The hinges groaned most obnoxiously as I made my egress. The sound of pacing stopped immediately, and I composed myself to speak with our benefactor.
Imagine my shock when, upon exiting my room, I found the hallway quite empty. More curious now than fearful, I proceeded down the hallway toward the sitting room. Again finding myself alone, I stepped into the kitchen, assured that my curiously shy intruder would be hidden within. Here I was foiled again, having discovered not a soul. The whole of the residence appeared empty apart from Mother and myself. Thinking that perhaps the intruder had somehow made a hasty yet silent retreat from the abode, I examined the front entrance. Puzzlingly, the lock was still engaged, and neither lock nor handle showed any signs of tampering.
While I was thus preoccupied by the door, there came from behind me a resuming of the sound of footsteps. Startled but not frightened, I turned immediately toward the sound. In the dim light, there appeared in the hall a thin silhouette, as if a man’s shadow had become detached and taken on a life of its own. The phantom moved to and fro in the corridor, and it was from it that the footsteps came. The sight was certainly more fascinating than alarming, and I watched it with great curiosity. It did not seem aware of my presence but continued its frustrated walk. At times, I fancied I could hear the faintest whispering, scarcely more than a sighing of air, coming from the apparition, but the words (if indeed there were any) remained indistinct.
After observing the spectre for some time, I endeavored to find the source of the projection, having convinced myself that indeed it was merely an illusionist’s trick and not, in fact, a phantom spirit of the hereafter. Seeing no projection device from my vantage point, I stepped very lightly to my right to secure a more direct line of sight. Immediately upon my movement, the shadow faded from sight along with any noise it produced. Now able to freely investigate the area, I moved quickly to the place it had most recently occupied. Tapping firmly but quietly so as not to wake Mother, I explored the walls along both sides of the hall from the sitting room to the washroom door. My efforts yielded no devices or light-boxes of any sort, and I thus concluded that the projection must have originated without the apartment, projected into the interior via a window. Standing in the hall, I confirmed my ability to see through both a window in the sitting room and, though the archway, the kitchen’s largest window.
Thus satisfied that we had been the victims of a whimsical prankster, I retired to my bedchamber and prepared once again for sleep. Having been so long away, my mattress had surrendered its warmth, and my skin erupted in goose-prickles as I climbed beneath the bedclothes. Before committing myself to sleep, I resolved that I should spend the following evening exploring any possible avenues from whence such a trick of the eye might come into our living quarters.
My investigations of the next night were somewhat frustrated by Mother’s presence. I attempted to explain my experiences and conclusions, but she became at once unfit for any such tales. She has always been easily flustered, falling back on the weaker nature of our sex at the slightest provocation, and thus directly resolved to abdicate our comfortable quarters to what she believed was a demon. I endeavored to calm her fears, repeating my firm conviction that the occurrence had been nothing more than a light-hearted prank and reminding her of my steadfast resolve to discover the exact nature of it. After much discussion, Mother finally relented to my request, permitting me two nights to uncover the truth.
The debate having consumed the better part of an hour, I set to work in earnest. The simplest answer is often the truest, as my father used to say. Retrieving a set of spare bedclothes from the closet, I proceeded to install them over both suspect windows, blotting out all light from each. Once complete, I fell to ruminating over other possible avenues from which such a projection might originate. Not ten minutes elapsed before I came upon such an obvious solution that it invoked a sense of humiliation at my own failure to see it sooner: the attic. Our apartment occupied the topmost level of the building. Our prankster might have simply cut a small hole in our ceiling and conducted his illusions from above our heads. My next course of action was set, and I immediately prepared myself for the expedition.
I located the attic’s entrance in the hallway outside our abode’s main door. Having brought along the candle from my bedchamber, I ascended the ramshackle ladder and explored my new surroundings. The attic was fairly large, extending in all directions beyond the reach of the candle’s light. Rafters extended upward into shadows, and I received a momentary vision as though I had been consumed by some titanic sea-creature. It quickly passed, allowing me to begin taking stock of the attic’s contents.
To my disappointment, I discovered no device of any kind that might account for the apparition in the hall. Instead, the attic was dedicated almost wholly to the storage of cloth, thread, needles, and other instruments of the tailor’s trade. These I quickly lost interest in. Having thus eliminated the majority of the attic’s treasures, I began my inspection of a old weather-beaten trunk tucked away in a remote corner. Setting my candle on a nearby beam, I unfastened the latch, now rusted from much disuse, and heaved open the cumbersome lid.
Inside, there was a wealth of letters written on curling yellow paper. Tilting the topmost letter, dated some fifteen years prior to my discovering it, toward the light, I read the following:
My darling Richard,
Would that I could make all the long miles of the ocean no more than a puddle to be covered with your overcoat! These affairs have kept me far past the end of my patience, and I long to be returned to you and our charming house. At times, I wish my father had never taken ship to America. Gladly would I renounce the pleasures of my youth spent traveling betwixt old world and new if it meant I did not now need to be half a world away from you settling his affairs. At times, I wonder if he might have found some burgeoning industry in England to support instead of chasing these mad schemes of his.
Forgive me. I do not wish to speak ill of my own father, especially after his death. His investments, far flung though they were, did afford me a comfortable life and the opportunity to cross paths with you. Seen in that light, this business of his on these shores is the greatest of blessings, even if it means we must be parted for a short while.
But, my dearest Richard, I must convey the wonderful news: I believe my time here is nearly at an end. My father’s barrister believes we shall be no more than two or three days in the concluding of these matters. Once the ledgers are settled to his satisfaction, I shall not tarry a moment longer, boarding the first ship that may bear me across the Atlantic and back into your arms. I do not know if I will have the chance to write again before that joyous day, but watch for my return no more than a month hence, most certainly in time for the Christmas holiday.
Until that day and for all the ones after, I remain your loving wife.
16 November 1867
Upon reading the words inscribed therein, I admit to my shame that a well of longing and sorrow rose up within me, very nearly bringing tears to my cheeks. Having never been of an overly emotional disposition, I was somewhat surprised at this reaction. Certainly, the words of the letter contained a heartfelt longing for a beloved, made sweeter and sadder by the long miles of their separation, but how they provoked such a strong affectation in my own being, I could not fathom.
In the midst of examining my own emotions, I became aware of another presence in the attic. I say presence because I am not to this day convinced it was a person sharing that dark space with me. It lingered beyond the halo of light produced by my small candle, and when I turned my head to search for some sign of it, I could see nothing distinctly. However, in the darkness at the other end of the attic, I saw (or believed I saw) a shadow that stood out against it, as if it were somehow darker than the blackness around it. It did not stand upright as the one from the previous night had, but instead hunkered down in a position not unlike my own. I again heard a faint sound, as if someone where whispering in another room and I was listening through a key-hole.
Thus transfixed by the mysterious sight, I watched in earnest as it rose from its position. Distant footsteps rang out in the stillness of the attic, and the figure grew larger in my vision. Much too late, I realized that it was approaching my position. Being unfamiliar with the layout of the attic, I could not safely move out of its way without taking the candle along with me, which would surely alert the shadow to my presence. I was thus trapped by my own lack of initiative, and the footsteps drew steadily nearer.
When the figure entered the ring of light, it quickly lost what little definition of form it had. The sound of footsteps was uninterrupted, and that perhaps was more unsettling than before, for now I was faced with a being I could hear but no longer see. I pressed myself into the wall beside the trunk, hoping the fleeting shadows would conceal my presence from the entity. The sound of my own pulse pounded in my ears, but I still maintain that even then, I was never truly frightened.
Nor had I reason to be, as it came out. The sound of footsteps ceased directly in front of the trunk, and they were followed by a creaking not unlike the sound made by the opening lid. This was singularly peculiar to me even on this night of peculiarities, for the trunk’s lid did not move in tandem with the sound of it doing so. It was also then that I noticed the sound of whispering had stopped, leaving a thick silence. I scarcely dared to breathe, afraid of making some noise that might draw attention to my hiding-place, although I could no longer be certain that my mysterious companion was still with me.
As if in response to my wondering, a new sound began emanating from the empty air in front of me. At first, the noise was so utterly alien to my ears that I had trouble determining its nature. It was low, short, and repetitive, followed by a long rushing like the pained intake of breath. In response, I felt an intense aching in my own breast, a strong, untenable desire to weep, and then I understood the unusual noise. It was the sound of a man crying. I had never heard a man in such a state before, having been raised in the company of my father and his colleagues, all men of science not given to improper displays of emotion. The sobs coming from the air around me were violent and forceful, as though the creature making them sought to tear out his very heart that he might relieve his anguish. So palpable was his grief that I felt tears of my own begin sliding down my cheeks. Ashamed at this display of womanly incontinence, I squeezed my eyes closed in an effort to cut off the undesirable flow. Still my sex betrayed me, and I could not contain a quiet sob of my own. The mysterious crying immediately ceased.
The sudden silence was more unsettling than the disembodied sobs, if that can be believed. I remained where I was for some time, quieting the sound of my breathing as best I was able. After no fewer than ten minutes had passed, I roused myself from my place. My heart was no longer burdened by the inexplicable remorse I had felt so strongly in the spectre’s presence, and I quickly gathered up the candle and took my leave of the attic and its sorrowful secrets.
Many hours later, I was again woken by the sound of footsteps in the hallway. Having not discovered the source of this projection in my foray into the attic, I became less convinced that such a simple explanation was indeed the correct one. Much to my chagrin, it seemed that a scientific explanation would not be so easily forthcoming, though I had not yet wavered in my conviction that such a solution would present itself in time. The encounter in the attic had deepened the mystery of this house, certainly, but I was and still remain my father’s daughter, wholly committed to the furthering of scientific progress and the doing away with silly superstitions.
My convictions were rudely disturbed by the creaking of my bedchamber door. The sound, unexpected as it was, startled me quite badly. Following this sound was one even more unwelcome: the sound of footsteps on the bedchamber floor. An impulse to fling the sheets above my head and take refuge beneath them filled my being, and it was only through great willpower that I was able to resist it. The window above my desk permitted a small trickle of moonlight into the room, and in that light I could see the same shadowy presence that roamed the hallway the night before. Stopping next to the bedside, the figure lingered there, and again I could hear the faint sound of a man crying. As before, it provoked a sadness in my own being, but as I was no longer a stranger to the sensation, I had more ability to master it. After some while, the phantom faded from sight, its sobs retreating as if down a long corridor, and I was alone in my bedchamber once more.
Resolving not to dwell on the mysterious events, I maintained my composure all throughout the following day. At supper, Mother inquired whether my efforts to uncover the truth behind the manifestations had met with success. Not eager to discuss the subject at length, I replied that my investigation had not yet concluded and therefore I could say nothing with any certainty. I could sense a mixture of concern and condescension in her gaze, which I resented greatly. She never would have looked at my father in such a way.
Fueled by this conversation, my determination was all the greater that night, and I resolved to remain awake and vigilant throughout. Taking up a position in the sitting room, I brought along one of my father’s volumes and sufficient candles to last through the night. Smiling that same hateful smile, my mother bade me luck in my watch, to which I responded politely despite my trepidations. After she retired to her bedchamber, I settled in to my chair and awaited whatever the night might bring.
Hours passed before the shade revealed itself, and I made substantial progress through the medical text. When the apparition at last made itself known, again a few hours after midnight, I was on hand to hear its first footstep. Watching it from my place in the sitting room, I could hear its faint whisperings. Now, however, they seemed to resolve themselves into words I could comprehend, perhaps as a result of my familiarity with the apparition. Although I could still not fully understand, I was able to gather some context of its utterings. It spoke of a ship and of winter storms, its tone sorrowful. Again a feeling of bitter loss consumed me, and for the first time I understood that it was an extension of the phantom’s energies. It was as if it was imparting upon my soul the bitter sadness that had consumed its own. I fought against its relentless assault, struggling to maintain my intellectual control, and asserted my victory after a brief contest.
The shadow’s pacing and mutterings were possessed of a greater urgency than on previous nights. Its footfalls were firm and hurried, carrying it up and down the corridor with a frightening intensity. I remained where I was, resisting a rising impulse to retreat into the corridor outside our abode until the apparition faded. My father would not have fallen back thus from a scientific inquiry, and as his daughter I could do no less.
My conviction was sorely tested when the spectre diverted from its usual course without warning. Its new trajectory carried it directly past my refuge, whereupon I shrank into the chair despite all my previous oaths. The figure stood before the mantle, and I sensed that its back was to me. This allowed me some trifle of relaxation, although the fear (yes, I must say it now) did not so easily pass. I might credit some of the sudden apprehension to the same phenomenon by which the spectre’s anguish was similarly transmitted to me, but in perfect honesty, a substantial percentage of it must still be ascribed to my own fallibility.
The shade, for its part, paid me no heed. It lingered before the mantle as if in deep thought, swaying slightly. The terrifying swell of sorrow and fear within my breast grew ever greater, looming above me like a great wave. It was as though the very air around me, the very walls and ceiling and floor of the residence, were filled with it, buckling under its strain as if set upon by a mighty earthquake. I wept uncontrollably now, all shame and decency lost in the overpowering emotion. If my heart did not break in that very moment, I felt as though I could not bear another second, another breath of life. Such a depth of despair, as though all the world had been torn to pieces, I had never before or since encountered.
Then, without warning, the sensations ceased. Perplexed, I sat upright and took stock of my surroundings. The spectre had vanished, along with its moanings and mutterings. My eyes were swollen from my own tears, and my lungs ached. I rose to my feet, sniffling as I did so, and imagined I caught a scent most peculiar. I tested the air again (as best I could, for my airways were now hampered by the side-effects of such crying), and again I detected it. It was an acrid smell, at once hot and sharp, as if someone had fired off a pistol in my immediate vicinity. Searching around for the source of the offending odor, I came up empty-handed. Having recovered somewhat from the maelstrom that had assaulted me, I thoroughly examined the interior of the apartment. Finding no further trace of the mysterious visitor, I could do nothing but retire to my bedchamber.
After the harrowing events of that night, I was most confused (and yet somewhat relieved) to have had no further encounters with the shadow in the hall. Continued investigations into its nature yielded no results despite my dedicated efforts. My mother and I carried on our business as best we could, soon earning enough of a reputation among the neighbours to found our own clothier’s shop the following summer. We thus quit the third-storey apartment, so generously let to us by the tailor, and I never had occasion to return to it to conduct further investigations. I am most saddened by this, as I feel my conclusions are of a dubious and unfounded nature, the sort of conclusions my father would have dismissed as ludicrous. Thus, I present my case before you in supplication, hoping that you might have some better explanation for the events recounted herein, one that would ease my uncertainty and bring light to this encounter and the ones I have since endured elsewhere.