's 2017 Horror Write-off:

North House

Submitted by Duncan Skjaret (email)

Years ago I was employed as an estate agent in a city up by the northern border. This was back when the lumber industry was booming, providing us with plenty of wealthy people in want of grand houses, and plenty of wood to build with. Frequently I was sent on assignment to inspect our newly-acquired properties, which I considered a significant perk of the job. It was one such assignment that led to my overnight stay at North House.

The agency's records of this house were damaged during that horrible storm in 1871. Because of this I knew very little about that odd old building when I arrived. It was well out in the woods, far from the front lines of the lumberjack's relentless campaign or, indeed, from any neighbors. It was a place where the old-growth forest still towered unchallenged, and the many elegant gables of the house were illuminated by shafts of evening light pouring through the canopy. Our surviving records claimed it was last owned by the late Dr. Mondale, though at the time I knew nothing of his circumstances. As I dug through my papers for the key the agency had given me, wreathed as I was by old oaks in a placid cavern of a forest, I remember looking forward to a relaxing overnight stay. There were no housekeepers to greet me, which I expected, but quite a bit of the Doctor's furniture still remained. This was odd. Normally the old possessions were sold off long before the building itself came into our care, yet as I walked the first floor I found all the things you would expect in an ordinary house, covered by tarps but otherwise untouched.

Indeed, when I peeked beneath the canvas covering the dining room table I found a half-completed jigsaw puzzle. The second floor was even more of a mystery - books, clothing and other such possessions had been removed, but the actual furniture was only shuffled about, sometimes obstructing doors or crudely stacked in the hallway. It was as if a group of people had set out to empty the house, only to abandon it halfway.

Quickly returning to the first floor I noticed the parlor near the front of the house, alone, had been completely untouched. There were not even tarps over the furniture, and a very fine layer of dust permeated everything. The room was wainscotted and braced with heavy beams of oak wood, all carefully bedecked in varnish that still gleamed. Between the beams was wallpaper of rich vermilion, and the furniture was built from local wood, of exquisite design. One particular piece caught my attention immediately - a strange sort of wingback chair, upholstered in deep red. - The bulk of this chair seemed to be formed of an enormous burled spruce stump which fanned out around the sitter, parts of it carved into a sort of abstract, flowing design. I could find no maker's mark on it. The chair had all the hallmarks of an expert craftsman, but was so eccentric that I could not imagine any secondhand shop ever purchasing it.

The chair was placed before a small writing desk, which in turn overlooked the window leading to the front porch, yet the chair was tilted to face the parlor's small fireplace. Above the mantle of this fireplace was a large portrait, a work in oils that seemed newer than the rest of the decor. It depicted a thin man of somewhat gawkish features, seated next to a young girl of about eight years. Though it was mostly out of frame, I could tell the gentleman was seated in the same unique chair that now stood before me, so I surmised this to be Dr. Mondale himself. At the time I thought it quite eccentric to have a portrait of yourself in your own parlor, but the paint looked quite new. Perhaps he died while still looking for an opportunity to present it to someone.

The girl, then, must have been his daughter. I had not learned of her existence beforehand, but could see the resemblance. She had thick, dark hair, and looked at the viewer with an intense, somewhat sullen expression quite different from the doctor's affected geniality. I could not help but wonder, what must life have been like for her, growing up in this ancient woodland, hours by carriage from any human contact? I imagined her on lonesome adventures among the fern-covered slopes and towering trunks of the woods, spinning her own fairy tales as the day grew long. Was it a relief when, presumably, relatives moved her to more inhabited regions following her father's death? Or - I thought with some sorrow - had she in fact survived him? Our records of this estate were so woefully lacking. I made a note to ask the inhabitants of the nearest town what they knew of the Mondale family when I left in the morning. As this parlor was the most intact part of the house, and much more comfortable than I had expected to find, I resolved to spend the night in that room, with my bedroll stretched out on the sofa before the fireplace.

I always packed bouillon cubes when I went on my trips, and was able to scavenge some surprisingly good specimens from the half-feral vegetable garden behind the house, so before the sun had set I had put together a fine stew. After my meal I sat in that odd chair and did my due diligence completing my report on the state of the house, which took very little time and was mainly concerned with the furniture that the moving crew had apparently abandoned. I had several other pieces of business correspondence to write, however, so as the sunlight deepened and faded behind the depths of the forest I retrieved several candles and put a kettle on the fire.

Now, before I continue, I would like to state that I am not at all a superstitious person. I will try not to belabor this point too insistently, as I am sure that is exactly what a superstitious person would do. I can only give you my word that I have never paid a visit to a fortune-teller or spirit-knocker, have spurned tales of witches and shades since I was a child, and have happily passed before funeral processions and left hats on beds as convenient to me. In particular, I had no fearful regard for empty old houses, as such lonely locations were my stock and trade. But as I sat there watching the light fade from the forest outside, leaving the window so dark as to be covered in soot, I felt a sudden disquiet run up my spine, and could not suppress the understanding that the four walls of my little parlour held back a forest that was vast, wild, and very, very old.

The kettle whistled suddenly and I was nearly startled out of my seat. I folded my letters and set about preparing my tea, noticing as it brewed how silent the forest was. The slight breeze that had filled the trees during the daytime had died completely, and the thick canopy seemed to muffle any other sound, such that the normal creaks and murmurs of old houses became amplified. I could even hear the ticking of the mantle clock in the master bedroom upstairs. I prepared my little cup of tea, sure it would help calm my nerves, and poured in my thimbleful of milk, watching as it disappeared into the dark tea, only to billow back to the surface in phantasmagoric swirls. This little ritual had often given me comfort in lonely hours, yet as I glanced up from my desk at the utterly lightless window I unconsciously imagined that there might be some horrible, formless pale shape billowing out of those depths as well.

In irritation I rose from the odd chair, pacing and chastising myself for my disquiet. The lonesomeness of the location was dreadful and I could not stop being distracted by all the little noises the house made. Every hiss from the logs on the fire seemed a striking adder, the tapping of branches on the windowpanes were pale scratching fingers, the creak of timbers so much like sudden footsteps, the little breezes passing within the walls like the rustling of shrouds, and worst of all! Worst of all was the barely audible ticking of that clock upstairs, its constant intrusion making me curse myself for deciding to wind that clock when I never even had a reason to in the first pl- It was just then, of course, that I recalled I had not wound any clocks.

I turned, suddenly aware of the yawning archway between my parlor and the darkened front hall, from where the stairs curled up to disappear into murk. Could that be the clock? It was rhythmic, but now it seemed more hollow than a pendulum, echoing slightly as if something were rapping against some large vessel. What could that possibly be? Armed with a candlestick and, in what seemed a reasonable precaution, a long skewer from the fireplace, I ventured upstairs. The upended furniture took on a nightmarish quality in the tallow-pale glow of my candle. Their shapes, so slightly out of their usual context, were completely alien in the dark, and I felt the disarray was somehow meant to be a symbol, a desecration of mankind's domain meant to make it suitable for something...else. The clock on the mantle of the otherwise empty master bedroom was dead, its spring having not been flexed for months. The ticking was still audible from somewhere nearby, and as I turned back to the door I imagined I saw a pale blur disappear into the hall. Clearly I needed to resolve this mystery, before my sudden onset of superstition got the better of me. Very aware of the creaking of the bare floorboards beneath my feet, and the flickering of shadows in every doorframe, I continued pacing the second floor.

At the end of the hall a bay window overlooked the front of the house, and I looked down to see bars of light streaming through the parlor window, the cozy glow of my fire. It was comforting to know that the world outside the house was not really a lightless void, but the same landscape of sticks and ferns it was during the day. As I was about to turn back, however, I noticed a sudden flicker of light from the murk just outside the fire's light. Peering past my own reflection in the glass I confirmed that there were two small, moving points of light that seemed to blink in and out. An indistinct shifting of the shadows at the edge of the firelight suggested something the size of a man moving about.

I felt like all the blood was dropping out of my body as it walked into the light - a figure like a man, but horribly misshapen, its malformed torso swaying and lurching on abnormally thin legs, arms like a stick figure curling at odd angles. Like something out of a nightmare, yet in far more detail than anything seen in the waking world, the thing unsteadily stepped forward, bringing itself more into the light, until I could see the lights flickering in the eyes of its odd wedge-shaped head, a strange splaying growth erupting like... ...Like the antlers of a deer. As the creature dropped back onto its forelegs I saw that it was, in fact, a large deer outside the house. Its reflective irises blinked at me as it reared up on two legs again, in order to - I suddenly realized, get a better look at the strange fellow peering through the second-story window.

"I...I did not know they could do that." I said aloud with a half-laugh. As the buck, satisfied in its curiosity, returned to the dark of the forest, I felt a good deal of relief and embarrassment at my near heart-attack. So great was my relief, in fact, that I did not even startle when I turned to see, at the end of the hall, a door creak open slightly, and the barest glimpse of white cloth disappear inside. And why should I have been afraid? As I peered into this room I could see that one of the windows was open a crack, and the weather-stained curtain billowed in a passing breeze. And in here, indeed, I felt must be the source of that infernal ticking.

The walls of this corner room were ringed on all sides by portraits. A low chandelier, ornate circular rug, and long drapes suggested this room used to seat guests for some purpose, but I could only guess, as all that was left of the furniture were the cryptic marks worn into the carpet. A seance room, perhaps? What sort of doctor would have a seance room? The ring of portraits looked sternly at me, the sitters unwilling to surrender their secrets. Suddenly, in the dim candle-light, one of them seemed to wink. No - not a wink, a trick of the shadows due to the portrait itself moving. It shifted slightly, again, and I reached a hand out to the glowering face the portrait depicted.

No sooner had my finger touched the frame than a dark shape darted out from behind with a loud clatter. It swooped around the room as I stumbled back. I caught a glimpse of a bushy grey tail before the little villain disappeared out the open window, and a peek behind the painting confirmed - a squirrel's nest, gnawed into the cracked plaster, unobtrusive same for the rhythmic ticking the frame made when disturbed. I snapped the window shut and turned to return to my fire.

There, against the darkness in the doorway, was a little girl in a tattered white dress, her sunken eyes staring out of a deathly pale face. I cried out - the candle dropped from my hand, going dark as it tumbled to the floor. I could only stare at the space I had seen her a moment ago as night enveloped me completely, her ghastly face etched into my mind. A sudden wind shook the timbers of the house, and I thought I heard murmuring or muttering coming from somewhere nearby. My mouth worked uselessly for several seconds, finally choking out a "hello?"

"You can never go back." The darkness answered. I tried to blurt out some response, demand she explain herself, or perhaps beg her to leave the world of the living in peace, but could not quite coordinate my voice. Suddenly, I remembered the matches I had thought to tuck into my waistcoat before ascending the stairs. The fire poker dropped from my hand as I spilled matches from my pocket, trembling fingers finally gaining hold of one. I dashed to where I thought the windowsill must be, jabbing the match against the rough wood until the sulfur sputtered to life. Crouched as such in the corner I fearfully peered back towards the door, where shadows unraveled to reveal the girl, walking towards me on unsteady legs.

"You can't go back." She said again.

"What do you mean?" I asked. Some corner of my mind told me that she was simply too real - to detailed, moving with too much coordination, her voice without echo or distortion, to be truly some shade or spectre. But if you encountered such a creature yourself, would you think the same thing? "We can't go back. There's no way." At this she broke down in tears, not the dreadful wailing of a banshee but piteous living tears. The sound moved me, and as I placed a hand on her shoulder I found it quite solid.

"Are you - are you the Doctor's daughter? What ever are you doing out in the woods? Have you been hiding up here all along?"

"I'm sorry," she said, "I'm sorry! I wanted to prove it! They said it was his heart, I wanted them to believe me! I just wanted them to believe me, and now I'm trapped!"

With this, the poor girl clutched at her face and wailed, nearly falling over. Looking at her with less fearful eyes, I realized she must certainly be alive - sickly, but not unto death, and badly in need of food and care. "Come on." I said, trying to take her into my arms, "Let's get you in front of the fire."

She screamed, with a violence I did not think her capable of in her weakened state, and pulled herself away from me, running down the hall with a clatter that was most un-ghost-like. I rushed back out into the hall to see her collapsed a few paces past the top of the stairs, already too exhausted to go further.

"You poor girl, you weigh nothing. How long has it been since you ate? I have some stew leftover. It's alright, you'll be alright." I told her as I carried her towards the parlor. She seemed to grow more agitated as we descended the steps, but could form no words, and by the time I had her laying down on the couch she was insensate.

"Must have been touched in the head." I said to myself as I sank into the wingback chair across from her, "So upset at her father's death that she escaped to her old home, tried to put things back the way they were. What sad business. Sadder, though, if I hadn't found her." And heartened by this thought, I did what little I could to make things easier for her, warming up some stew for when she was awoken, giving her small sips of water. A little activity is a wondrous cure for despair, and as I worked time seemed to slip away, the fire behind me rapidly growing dimmer - I was confident dawn, and a safe journey back to town, was fast approaching. Soon, the girl stirred and spoke to herself, though still in a faint. I caught some of her words.

"Da...It's ugly thing..." Her brow furrowed, "Get rid of it, Da. They're not...Da, shadows. The shadows are wrong. It's an ugly thing. It's-!" With this her eyes open, she seemed to be trying to scream, staring wildly at me as I did my best to comfort her - until I made out the word she was trying to speak.

"Beha... Behaaaan..." Her voice was dry. I realized she was not actually looking at me. "Behind...!"

My blood ran cold as I turned, eyes traveling up the enveloping carvings, at the thing standing behind - emerging from - my chair. My first impression was of a swarm of insects, but its amorphous form was indistinct, it was in the movement, the way the being seemed to swarm and swirl in a way too rapid and deliberate to be inanimate, yet too warped and malicious to be alive. It seemed to flow out of the dark spaces in the chair's carving, forming itself into a vague human figure, but there were no features - none, save for the eyes. The eyes were shaped as a human's, black - deep and impenetrable as a bottle of ink - and in place of irises there were tiny white circles which swiveled and trembled as if in mania.

The thing extended a tendril - reached or swung or spit, I can't describe it. The girl's scream stirred me to action, and I managed to stumble out of the way. As the thing's limb collided with the leg of the sofa, the varnish was stripped free before my eyes, and the wood of the leg became shot through with holes, as if termite-infested. I half-crawled out of the parlor as the thing loomed over me, but as I gained distance it stopped, horrible eyes swiveling - towards the girl.

Stuttering towards her like some living zoetrope, it flowed its arm-jaws around her and lifted her bodily from the couch. She seemed to be in agonizing pain, but I could not hear anything but a ringing in my ears, as the uncanny swirling of the thing's surface nauseated me. I thought of the skewer, abandoned somewhere upstairs, and reached for the second-best tool - a small ash-shovel. I took a terrified swing at where I judged the thing to be, but felt nothing as its body flowed around my blow. I swung again and again to no use, finally casting my eyes about the room for any other option - and noticing the hot coals in the fireplace.

The logs still burned brightly as I scooped them up (how long had this creature stood behind me?), flinging them at the creature in an orange arc. These also passed through its amorphous form - only to land on the upholstery of that damned chair, the dust-ridden cushioning catching fire immediately. As the oak flowing about the seat started to scorch, the alien ringing in my ears deepened, filling with a monstrous pain and fury. The thing seemed to be peeling away from the girl. Not out of heroism but of some half-mad impulse, I ran up and tried to wrench her free.

As I plunged into the thing's writhing finger-clouds I felt a nausea unlike anything else I have ever experienced. All the instincts of revulsion humans are endowed with filled me, and I could do nothing but let the horror take me. No rational impulse could gain purchase, as if my very thoughts were becoming flyblown. Then, somehow, it was over, my feet carrying us both over the threshold and out into the black woods as the flames rising from North House lit the way, burning beams splitting like bones in a funeral pyre.

I pressed on blindly in the dark, nearly snapping my legs as I stumbled through roots and gullies. In my mania I walked for hours, imagining all the while I was surrounded by enormous flies and deer that walked like men, my fear blotting out all sense and memory. Finally, I became aware of startled cries around us, of collapsing against the wall of a log cabin, and of the blessed glow of dawn over a small village.

I remember little of the succeeding days, for my exertion left me almost as ill as the girl, and we spent nearly a week recovering in the attic of the village inn. I was initially in perilous suspicion of having kidnapped her, as her surviving family had been searching since her disappearance several days prior. She recovered before I did, however, and was able to explain to the authorities that she had fled under her own power, following some grief-begotten delusion following her father's mysterious death.

Mysterious! Ha! Mysterious to the two of us as well, but not in a way we could ever explain to others. The girl, Annabelle, confided in me that her father had brought the chair home one day, having apparently purchased it from some traveling merchant. Despite her instant dislike of the thing he cherished it as a conversation piece - until the day she discovered him dead upon it, a horrid shadow sinking away as she entered the room.

At length, both of our fears were put to rest as word from my agency arrived. North House had been completely incinerated, with all of its contents unrecognizable. Though I was also cleared of culpability for the destruction of the property, my agency curtly informed me I would be well served to seek employment elsewhere. I heartily agreed. Having assured myself that Annabelle was safely returned to her guardians, I relocated to much more arid climes, and am quite satisfied in not knowing anything else.