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J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Squire Toby’s Will: A Two-Minute Summary and Analysis of the Classic Ghost Story

Revenge has consistently been a major theme of Le Fanu’s supernatural fiction. Whether it be the revenge of a spectral agent (Ultor de Lacy, The Familiar, etc.), or that of divine justice (Tyrone Family, Justice Harbottle, etc.), his protagonists/victims are assured a visit from the crepuscular world of the hereafter whenever they overstep the proscribed dance of mortal life. “Squire Toby’s Will” can be read as a political parable for the oversteps committed by the Anglo-Irish against the native Irish in collusion with the paternal British Throne, one which does little to spare the Protestant class to which Le Fanu himself belonged. It is entirely possible to read this as a chilling allegory for the relationship between the (rural, Catholic, lower class) native Irish and the (urban, Protestant, middle class) Anglo-Irish: they share a common lineage through their father (Great Britain), but differ in the way that they were treated and in the legacies they are left.
In 1847 Le Fanu supported a liberal, Catholic, Irish Nationalist push to condemn the indifference of the British government to the Great Famine. In 1852 he was humiliated in an election for the Tory MP of County Carlow, largely due to his insurgency in favor of the liberal Irish Catholics. His rejection by both the suspicious liberals and the disgusted conservatives seemed to raise the specter of his own rocky relationship with his father, and influenced some of his greatest works.
The almost sado-masochistic relationship between Handsome Charlie (the favored, younger son – an Anglo-Irish stand-in) and the tyrannical, port-bloated Squire Toby (a caricature of a violently irrational, mercilessly vain British government) reflects the miseries that Le Fanu himself suffered from his own withholding father, and trebles both as political commentary and as a moral study of the Seven Deadly Sins which seem to plague all three major characters in different ways.
Ultimately, “Squire Toby’s Will” remains one of Le Fanu’s most misanthropic tales: unlike Barton in “The Watcher” or Jennings in “Green Tea,” Charlie is afforded a variety of means to escape his fate, is warned by supernatural means, is inspired internally to show mercy, and is nearly convinced by fear, pity, and even whimsy to open his arms to a wronged brother before it is too late. But he always finds an excuse to hoard what is, after all, a pauper’s estate.
What remains is to dispense justice, and very few of Le Fanu’s scenes of horror are more blood-curdling than Charlie’s final confrontations with his dead father and brother – perhaps a prediction of what would befall the soul of the perfidious Anglo-Irish community who decided to stop their ears against the cries of their Irish siblings, to hoard British favor, and to deny the Catholic Irish their human dignity. It is a prediction that foresees disaster and doom, and history would prove it disturbingly accurate.
II.
The story is set in Ireland during the early 19th century, where the brutal Squire Toby enjoys pitting his two sons against one another. The younger son, Charlie, is tall, handsome, and athletic while his older brother, Scroope, is swarthy, stooped, and frail. Toby is a violent man given to gluttonous alcoholism, and enjoys fighting his own sons when in his cups. One night he attacks Charlie, trying to strangle him with his cravat, but when his younger sons beats him, he gains a respect for the boy’s own willful nature, seeing himself in his boy’s ruthlessness. Shortly after this, Toby is found dead one morning – his face blackened by the alcohol-driven stroke that strangled life from him in the night. Upon reading his will, the family learn that he has given his estate over to Charlie instead of his weaker, older brother (as custom would normally dictate). Not only this, but Scroope is left without a penny – completely at his brother’s mercy. Instead of showing pity, Charlie casts Scroope out, leaving him to fend for himself while he enjoys their father’s wealth.

His happiness is short-lived however, when he is critically injured in a riding accident, and begins to lose his own health. While recuperating, he dreams that his father comes to him – face black with death – and directs him to the family safe. Remembering Scroope’s claim to the lawyers that his father had hidden a more favorable will somewhere in the house, he suspects that his father is trying to reveal the location of the documents to relieve his torment in hell, but he doesn’t follow through on the specter’s hints. Soon after, a bizarre dog makes an appearance at Squire Toby’s grave: strangely shaped with a white body and black head, its face reminds Charlie of his father, and – despite the servants’ hatred of the grotesque animal – he brings it to live with him.
Although he finds himself compelled to keep the dog, he is disturbed by dreams of it crawling into bed with him and morphing into his father’s body, and pleading with him to make amends with his ailing brother. Its constant howls so terrify the servants that he eventually becomes convinced that it is his father’s avatar come to guide him to the will enfranchising Scroope, and finally follows its instructions: searching in the closet of a disused room, he finds the will, but decides to keep this information a secret, and has his servant shoot the monstrous dog (which he is only too glad to do).
Charlie later dreams that his father and Scroope are standing at the foot of his bed, discussing what ought to be done to such a treacherous brother, deciding that he should be hanged like a dog. That morning news arrives that Scroope has died from his infirmities, and when he is buried in the cemetery, Charlie refuses to send his respects. But the servants say that they notice two strange men in mourning dress enter the house without a word, and from that moment on the entire manor is haunted by the ghosts of Scroope and Toby.
Charlie is constantly tormented by the sight of them glowering at him in their black mourning clothes and crepe-swathed hats, and feels their grip tighten around him. Only one servant can bear to stay in the house, and he is also hounded by the grim specters of his old master and the hunchbacked Scroope. Pestered by voices and visions, Charlie tries to change his ways: he becomes religious, gets engaged to a pretty local girl, and tries to participate in human society more.
But it is all for naught: he keeps seeing the ghosts peeking at him around doors and from corners, talking to him about his past sins and about death and darkness and hell. One night Charlie leaves his bed and is not to be found in the morning. A thorough search is made of the home and the servant almost gives up before discovering the door to the closet in the upstairs room is jammed. Forcing it, he finds his master’s body had been blocking it. He is found hanging by his cravat (the same one his father had tried to strangle him with years before) in the room where the now-destroyed will had been hidden. Horrified by these events, his servant flees the country, becomes a regular church attender, and manages his finances with careful frugality.
III.
“Squire Toby’s Will” is one of Le Fanu’s darkest, most pessimistic pieces, and continues to perplex and disturb readers today with its sophisticated study of guilt. It is both a moral meditation and a political parable, which seems to deeply consider the role of character and sin in the distressing relationship between the occupied Irish, the imperial English, and the hybrid Anglo-Irish faction. The story largely follows the sins of a family polluted to the very roots by the Seven Deadly Sins: hubristic pride, greed, lust, malicious envy, gluttony, inordinate anger, and sloth.

In some way or another, each of these capital vices is relished by the three remaining members of Squire Toby’s family. The eponymous pater familias – easily interpreted as a port-bloated, filicidal, tyrannical Father England – shares with his younger son (the dashing, spirited Handsome Charlie, a possible stand-in for the Anglo-Irish faction to which the Le Fanus belonged) a taste for heavy drinking and indulgent eating (gluttony), an unreasonable and merciless stubbornness (pride), and an outrageous temper which stupefies even his most corrupt lackeys (anger).
Dark-complexioned (read: Celtic), infirm, and destitute, the elder brother, Scroope – impossible to miss as a metaphor for the Irish people – lacks the athleticism of his hunter brother and father, and is thus charged with sloth (a common stereotype of the Irish), though his inaction is more due to infirmity of body than infirmity of character. As Father England fades away from the Irish landscape (coyly transplanted to the North Countree), which I interpret as symbolic of the migration of English landholders (called absentee landlords) from Ireland to Britain, our Anglo-Irish Charlie is endowed with the inheritance that should by rights belong to his older, more destitute sibling; but as in Anglo-Irish politics, favoritism prevails, and the less needy Charlie is granted a double portion while his brother suffers in penury until his demise.
What follows is both a Lefanuvian reflection on the source, effects, and desserts of sin, and a premonition of what will befall the Tory, Anglo-Irish class to which he belonged. Enjoying the lavish gifts of a distant national Father while their elder siblings (elder in that the native Irish clearly have a greater claim to their land as a birthright than the “younger,” transplanted Anglo-Irish), Le Fanu muses that Irish Protestants are ignorant of the reckoning that they will ultimately face. History proved him correct. The question might be raised, “we have accounted for six of the Seven Deadly Sins, but what of the seventh?”
Lust factors into Le Fanu’s work on a dependably regular manner. Desire, eroticism, and rape are frequent elements of his work, especially his ghost stories. Women feature hardly at all in “Squire Toby’s Will,” and yet there are distinct patterns of Lefanuvian sexuality present here, namely in his favorite symbol of eros, the bed. The bulldog is a disturbing phantom – the familiar or doppelganger of Squire Toby, right down to the bloated face and discolored head – and there is something vaguely phallic about its elongated neck and puffy head, something untoward about its nocturnal worrying about Charlie’s bed.
While (male) homoeroticism is not frequent per se in Le Fanu, it is hardly unheard of. “Green Tea” has fashionably been read as having homosexual symbolism (some viewing it as a metaphor for gay masturbation, etc.), and many of Le Fanu’s most notorious villains (the cozy Judge Horrocks, the foppish Justice Harbottle, the secret, Faustian companions of Ardagh and Sir Dominick) have positively overt tones of queerness. I would suggest that Le Fanu – in merging his moral and political fables – has located lust in the incestuous bedfellows of Father England and his Anglo-Irish offspring, who have whored themselves out to their parent in order to deprive their siblings of their birthright.
Like the Biblical Jacob (whose pseudo-incestuous machinations with his adoring mother stole the blessing of his father from his older brother Esau), Charlie has defied nature, morals, and tradition (a very un-conservative act, if we read him as symbolic of the Tory Episcopalians) through his relationship with his father. Squire Toby certainly seems to have an almost sado-masochistic relationship with his son, admiring his beauty, his athleticism, and his ability to physically dominate him, and Charlie’s questionable favor overrides Scroope’s natural ascendency as the firstborn. Just the same, Le Fanu seemed to view the relationship between the British and the Anglo-Irish as a shameful, incestuous conspiracy against a deserving sibling – one dominated by royal pride, militaristic violence, Anglo-Irish greed, gluttony, and envy, which collude in an act of political lust to take advantage of Ireland’s deep poverty by justifying it by characterizing destitution as sloth.
And you can find our annotated and illustrated collection of Sheridan Le Fanu’s best ghost stories HERE!
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A Deep Analysis of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw: Historical Background, Character Studies, and Literary Interpretations of the Classic Ghost Stories

Like the other exemplars of the five respective genres of literary horror (Frankenstein, Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, Haunting of Hill House), “The Turn of the Screw” has a fascinating genesis. Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson were both inspired by horrifying nightmares, but – typical of Henry James – the writer of the ultimate literary ghost story was motivated by a polite conversation over a crackling fire. James had suffered a staggering humiliation when one night he attended the opening of one of his plays, Guy Domville, which failed hideously. One writer calls it “the great professional trauma of James’ life.” Speechless with embarrassment, his mind went to grave places, and he only accepted an invitation to return to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s rural residence for tea and warmth. E. W. Benson – the Archbishop – recognized the distress in his friend’s demeanor, and tried to relieve his malaise with light banter, but the morose atmosphere was impenetrable, and their conversation turned to ghosts and the afterlife.

Benson was an excellent man to turn to for such a topic, as he was a great lover of spook tales (ultimately three of his sons would become among the best ghost story writers of the Edwardian Era: R. H. Benson, A. C. Benson, and the most famous of the bunch, E. F. Benson). Trying to warm the January chill from their bones, the two men began to swap legends that they had heard from their acquaintances, and James wrote down a summary of one of the Archbishop’s most captivating stories:
…the story of the young children (indefinite in number and age) left to the care of servants in an old country house, through the death presumably of parents. The servants, wicked and depraved, corrupt and deprave the children; the children are bad full of evil to a sinister degree. The servants die (story vague about the way of it) and the apparitions figures return to haunt the house and children to whom they seem to beckon, whom they invite and solicit, from across dangerous places – so that the children may destroy themselves, lose themselves, by responding, getting into their power.
Three years later, he had written a reworking of the story and it became serialized in an American periodical before being published as a hardcover in a collection called The Two Magics. Contemporary praise was enormous. One reviewer called it “[one] of the most engrossing and terrifying ghost stories we have ever read… would make even Hawthorne envious on his own ground.” Another glowed that “the reader is bound to the end by the spell, and if, when the lids of the book are closed, he is not convinced as to the possibility of such horrors, he is at least sure that Mr James has produced an imaginative masterpiece,” and Oscar Wilde himself noted that “it is a most wonderful, lurid, poisonous tale, like an Elizabethan tragedy. I am greatly impressed by it.” Unlike many masterpieces that went ignored and mistreated until a more receptive generation relocated it, “The Turn of the Screw” was an instant success.
LITERARY INFLUENCES.
Other than Benson’s story, there are many discernable influences in James’ writing. It is unmistakably Gothic, for one thing, a fascinating choice for a writer of realism – a literary school which could be said to be a reaction against romanticism and Gothic fiction. Realism delights in the everyday, the mundane, the relatable. Haunted mansions are not quite on that list, but James deftly avoids sentimentalism, sensationalism, and horror, sticking to vague descriptions of the ghosts, and spurning any ghoulish details (no glowing skin, chattering skulls, or bloody sheets – just two pale-faced visitors who refuse to speak and appear at random places). And yet, both the writing and the in-text references point to James’ familiarity with the Gothic novel. The governess demonstrates a taste for 18th century fiction, and specifically alludes to works by Henry Fielding and Ann Radcliffe. One scene which describes her reading such a book is itself a pastiche of the Gothic novel:

One evening—with nothing to lead up or to prepare it—I felt the cold touch of the impression that had breathed on me the night of my arrival and which, much lighter then, as I have mentioned, I should probably have made little of in memory had my subsequent sojourn been less agitated. I had not gone to bed; I sat reading by a couple of candles. There was a roomful of old books at Bly—last-century fiction, some of it, which, to the extent of a distinctly deprecated renown, but never to so much as that of a stray specimen, had reached the sequestered home and appealed to the unavowed curiosity of my youth.
We may with great confidence wonder if this is the governess speaking, or James himself, who – for all his realist credentials, harbored a lurid taste for the romantic and Gothic. These novels (Ann Radcliffe, M. G. Lewis, and Hugh Walpole were the major authors) frequently featured innocent virgins or children who were taken to frightful, lonesome castles which housed a series of vulgar temptations (usually their lustful, aristocratic, male owners), supernatural terrors, and moral lessons. The governess certainly seems – at some points – to imagine herself in one of “Monk” Lewis’ bodice-busting, Gothic novels about terrifying ghosts, lust-crazed nobles, and positively pure virgin maids. Many commentators have also noticed the undeniable influence of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, which also features a poor governess who is taken on to tend to the ward of a single, childless, eccentric aristocrat who at first seems smitten with high-society women, but ultimately makes the “right” choice and turns to his “poor Jane” for comfort and love.
While Brontë’s work is not overtly supernatural, it too features moments of great sublimity and sentiment, several of which are hinted at being genuinely preternatural – moments when the laws of nature are violated by the force of human passion. Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey was also highly influential to James, and while this is a Gothic satire, it nonetheless helped to shade James’ Austenean balance of the everyday and the horrible, leaving that most rare of rarieties: a work of Gothic realism. And of course, as with all of his supernatural works, we feel the purposeful hands of Nathaniel Hawthorne (particularly a la The House of the Seven Gables and The Scarlet Letter) and Edgar Allan Poe (a la “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Metzengerstein,” “Ligeia,” “Morella,” “William Wilson,” and “The Oval Portrait”) steering the mood.
GHOST LITERATURE IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY.
Ghost stories began to enter the scholarly realm in 1820 when Washington Irving published “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” “The Spectre Bridegroom,” and “Rip Van Winkle” in The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. All three were essentially satires of the Gothic genre, and none were meant to be taken seriously. Irving followed this up with Tales of a Traveler which included a collection of similarly tongue-in-cheek supernatural tales, most notable amongst which are “The Adventure of the German Student” and “The Devil and Tom Walker.” The tone of Tales was notably darker, and – in spite of several stories which were clearly the results of drink, dreaming, or illusions of grandeur – worked less hard to make them ambiguous: several were clear-cut horror stories. Before Irving, the ghost story was a piece of anti-intellectual rubbish that educated men avoided like the plague, concerning themselves with witty satire and bildungsroman novels (a la Voltaire, Tobias Smollett, Henry Fielding, Daniel Defoe, Swift, Richardson, and Washington Irving himself, a master of satire and dry humor). But Irving was a card-carrying member of the Romantic movement which was more concerned with regional folklore, rural settings, and the lower classes than the Classical mythology, urban locales, and aristocratic personae of the Enlightenment Era.

Irving was a tremendously influence on Charles Dickens (his proto-Christmas Carol story, “The Goblins Who Stole a Sexton” is a pastiche of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and his scene of English Christmas celebrations in A Christmas Carol were directly lifted from The Sketch-Book), and while most of his ghost stories retained the light, satirical tone of Irving’s early work (“The Lawyer and the Ghost,” “The Bagman’s Uncle,” and “The Baron of Grogzwig” – itself a play on “The Spectre Bridegroom” – are positively Irvingian), his later tales developed a dark and existential tone that Irving used in Tales of a Traveler and Bracebridge Hall.
Dickens moved the ghost story into the mainstream by publishing them annually in his Yuletide periodicals, and while he wasn’t yet a master of the genre until he wrote the truly unnerving “The Hanged Man’s Bride,” “A Confession Found in Prison,” and “The Mother’s Eyes” (which Poe later adapted into “The Tell-Tale Heart”), he proliferated the far more ghoulish work of writers whom we today recognize as true masters of the English ghost story: Mrs Oliphant, Mrs J. H. Riddell, Rhoda Broughton, Wilkie Collins, Bulwer-Lytton, and Elizabeth Gaskell among others. Their stories reached Dickens’ middle class audience, and elevated the spook story from the realm of maids’ gossip and laborer’s legends to a respectable genre of bourgeois fiction. Dickens himself would truly come to his own when he wrote his three staggering masterpieces of supernatural fiction: “To Be Read at Dusk,” “To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt (The Trial for Murder),” and “The Signal-Man.” By the 1890s, nearly every respectable writer from Kipling to Hardy, from Twain to Crane, was practicing the supernatural tale with varying degrees of seriousness. Enter Henry James.
James, as we now know if we did not already, was writing supernatural fiction almost from the very beginning. His Hawthornesque “Romance of Certain Old Clothes” is an established, if sluggish, masterpiece of the genre, and his Hoffmannesque “The Ghostly Rental” and acerbic parable “Owen Wingrave” are widely published today in high-brow anthologies of the supernatural. And yet it was “The Turn of the Screw” that made his reputation, and cemented the ghost story in the higher echelons of scholarly study – even Irving and Dickens had failed to do that. Many universities will teach “Rip Van Winkle” as a gender piece, a satire, or a piece of quaint folklore, some will study Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Body-Snatcher,” and a limited number will yield attention to W. W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw,” but “The Turn of the Screw” is the only ghost story in the English language that has attracted universal acceptance by the academy (scorn unto them for it!) – even A Christmas Carol is almost entirely ignored as a piece of sentimental, politically incorrect genre fiction, but “Turn” is a staple of American literature courses, and is de rigueur for classes focused on American Realism, taught alongside Daisy Miller, “The Open Boat,” “To Build a Fire,” and Huckleberry Finn. What is so captivating about this ghost story that has allowed the prudish academe to loosen their stringent rules against supernatural fiction?
The brief answer is that “The Turn of the Screw” is deliciously ambiguous in a way that one reader can feel that their interpretation is textually supported to the point of un-deniability while another reader may easily use the same text to discredit the other’s point of view with just as much confidence. This has caused a violent reaction in the academy, whereby respectable critics have ruthlessly torn apart one another’s arguments but have never been able to decisively argue their point. One perspective is as easy to hold as another. In fact, the two dominant camps have even adopted neologisms to define their positions: apparitionists and non-apparitionists. The former have viewed the story as a supernatural narrative about evil spirits undermining a credible narrator, and find support in James’ own letters where he calls the tale a straight-forward ghost tale, while the latter have brutally argued back that the novelette features one of literature’s most incorrigibly unreliable narrators – a woman who is alternatively insane, deluded, imaginative, or even murderous. There are, of course, other, smaller camps that sit between the two dominant groups, not unlike independent political parties in the United States. Among the most interesting are those that see the tale as a blend of apparitionist and non-apparitionist beliefs – they believe the ghosts are real, but that the governess’ actions are fueled by her subjective viewpoint, and that she fatally misses the point – and those that (most controversial of all) believe that the story is an allegory written by a completely sane governess to a grown, living Miles (the character Douglas, who matches Miles’ description almost entirely) as a confession of her unrequited love.
CHARACTER ANALYSES.
The Governess
Like so many of the most interesting characters in this narrative, the governess is enigmatic and carries with her a suggestive, tantalizing, yet sparsely detailed background. We know that she is twenty, that she is the daughter of a country parson, that she has brothers whom she admires keenly, that there is (at the time of the action) trouble occurring at her home – trouble which necessitates disturbing news that she would rather not ponder – and that this is her first assignment after a respectable education. We know – after the action – that she continued to work as a governess (she wasn’t imprisoned or committed or hanged – an important detail to remember), that she may have had a love affair with the brother of one of her wards (Douglas, ten years her junior, whom some controversially identify as a grown Miles), that this young man is struck by her gentleness, intelligence, charm, beauty, and – so it would seem – pathos (although his infatuation acts as a bias), that she never married, that she died about twenty years previous to the night written about in the prologue . I will note here that – in my opinion – not nearly enough scholars, critics, etc. spend time examining her biography post-Bly, so I encourage you to mull these details over when attempting to muster a personal interpretation of the action.

The governess has – almost immediately since her inception – been a figure of great controversy. This is particular notable since it occurred in a time period where unreliable narrators were tremendously uncommon except in humor (e.g., Irving, Voltaire, Twain, etc.), and unreliable female narrators were practically unheard of, especially well-educated ladies. The scholar Raúl Valiño Siota of the University of the Basque Country succinctly describes the divisive critical reception that this character has received:
‘The main body of criticism can be divided into two groups. On the one hand, the so-called apparitionists have defended a reading in which the governess’s state of mind has little or no weight at all. They offer a more radical interpretation of the symbolism present in the characters, elements and events that take place in the story, so that the religious allegory they support is free of any inconvenient psychic references to the governess’s mind: “we can not account for the devil by treating the governess as pathological; we must seek elsewhere an explanation of the story’s hold” (Heilmann, 1960).
Thus, the archetypal struggle between Good and Evil fits this theory better. On the other hand, the so-called non-apparitionists have defended another reading in which the governess’s mental state seems to be the only meaningful aspect of the whole work. They rationalise the governess’s sexuality in excess by focusing on the psychoanalytic evidence “washed clean of all queerness as by exposure to a flowing laboratory tap” (Goddard, 1960), so that all the supernatural phenomena vanish into thin air. Under their shadow there lies a broad array of different theories, ranging from the governess’s Marxism theory to sex-related theories that include homosexuality, bisexuality, or paedophilic attitudes towards the children. According to one theory Henry James is even accused of being a misogynist.’
As such, the governess has alternatively been described as a protective and maternal woman beset by supernatural saboteurs, a sexually frustrated, deeply repressed nymphomaniac who conjures the spirits in a fit of psychological constipation, or a mentally diseased madwoman who is plagued by hereditary, degenerative insanity. The ghosts are thus real, inventions, psychological symbols, or the hallucinations of madness. Her approach to the children can also be seen in a variety of ways – she is insightful (picking up on subtle deceits, hidden behavior, and carefully crafted personae), she is paranoid (falsely inventing motives, backstories, and corruptions through a series of dearly-held delusional fantasies and illusions of grandeur), or she is insane (confused by the imaginary visions of a diseased mind).
James brilliantly fills her narrative with ambiguity, coming to conclusions that can be supported by the text, but are never proven by the text – she reads into behaviors that may or may not be accurately interpreted, supposes motives that are never explicitly expressed, appears to tell lies, and omits scenes of action which could cooberate her theories. All in all, she could be entirely harmless, deeply conflicted, or violently homicidal, and the text both supports and discourages all three-plus readings. She is ultimately a fascinating character who will in one stretch of action attract tremendous ire and annoyance (her illusions of grandeur, hopeless crush, and moral convictions have particularly earned the vitriol of critics), and in the next be either vindicated (as she is when Grose witnesses Flora fly into an unexpected fit of abusive, vulgar language) or at the very least earn our heartfelt sympathy (as when she all but admits that her love for the Master is hopeless).
Her relationship with Miles is perhaps the most interesting of the book: he seems to represent something to her, and both appear to be oddly attracted to the other. Many have read her affection towards him as having a pedophilic origin, and have interpreted it as the projection of her repressed sexuality (towards the Master, towards her handsome brothers, towards Quint, towards Mrs Grose, towards Miss Jessel, towards her father) onto a vulnerable subordinate. This reading views their relationship as a struggle between class, power, gender, and rank: Miles – unlike the Master – is her inferior, but his is destined to surpass her when he comes of age (he is a male, an aristocrat, and better educated), so while he is unable to deny her, while he is still her inferior, she takes advantage of their relationship and forms an affection for him that has a better chance of being paid notice than that formed towards the Master. Because of the various readings of this relationship, she has been seen as a maternal protectress, a frustrated nympho, a murderous psychopath, or an oppressed, poor female eking out a life in a world dominated by rich men. As in all things with this character, vagueness and ambiguity have caused her to be the epicenter of critical debate.
Miles
Miles is one of the most complex characters in the story, if not the most complex. Is he a libidinous, sexually awakened child, a traumatized survivor of child molestation, an innocent boy who simply wants to enter manhood and be taken seriously, or a combination of these theories? Some up-play the abuse theory while others see this as a projection of the governess’ lust and argue that Miles was never even abused to begin with. At any rate, Miles certainly is straddling boyhood and manhood, and certainly seems to be flirtatious in a way that is concerning for a boy of his age (nine or ten) – he uses belittling sweet-nothings like “my dear” and “darling” to demean or flatter the governess, kisses her indiscreetly on the mouth, and is suspected of coming on to his male schoolmates in a sexual manner (although this is never clarified, we again suspect him of flirtations, sweet-nothings, and physical contact, but we certainly have no idea how far this went – pecks on the cheek, kisses on the mouth, or genital stimulation).

Grose often confuses him with the Master and Quint, and her confusion is rarely clarified, leaving her comments ambiguous: in one instance, the governess notes that the Master “seems to like us young and pretty,” and Grose concurs, thinking that she means Miles or Quint (it is never clarified whom she had in mind), blurring the three males together; in another instance, Grose is terrified of being left alone with “him,” but it is unclear who “he” is: Quint, whom she hasn’t seen, or Miles, which would imply that she is afraid of what he would do to her – what he has learned to do from Quint, who is suggested to have assaulted Grose. Miles was chummy with Quint, who had a reputation as a rogue, and the governess fears that Miles was molested by the valet, or at least tutored in carnal knowledge. The governess pitches back and forth in her interpretation of Miles’ modesty, initially finding him blooming with the “positive fragrance of purity,” but later fearing and resenting his apparent loss of innocence.
Many critics have argued that it is the governess’ unrealistic expectations that cause him to appear monstrous to her, and that had she been more worldly or cynical, his acting out would have raised no red flags, but her worldview is black and white, and when Miles admits that he is not always good (“when I’m bad, I AM bad!”), she takes him to be wholly corrupted, even possessed demonically. Mil Miles’ name recalls the symbolism of “Owen Wingrave,” whose first name is Welsh for “young soldier” – Miles is Latin for “soldier”. Like Owen, Miles is a young, male orphan filled with promise – an unquestionable prodigy – who nonetheless brings trouble to his family name. Also similarly, Miles had a father in the military who died in Asia (we are not sure whether – like the Wingraves – it was a bloody death), and he is (spoilers) mysteriously killed in a nondescript way during a confrontation with ghosts that may or may not exist.
Flora
Flora is eight years old, a charming girl who has far less of a personality than Miles, and – like Hawthorne’s Pearl – is something of a child of caprice: often fascinated by nature, and given to emotional outbursts of rage when confronted with what she considers hypocrisy (Pearl was outraged at Dimmesdale’s private acceptance of her as his bastard child but his public discretion. Flora is enraged when the governess implies that Jessel, whom Flora knows to be dead, is really alive). This strange range in emotion (from angelic to demonic, from young to “an old, old woman”) make her hard to peg. She seems to be the very soul of innocence, but – in one of the most notable events in the novel – she is last seen raging unspeakable curses and insults at the governess for accusing her of seeing Jessel. This causes us to wonder if her angelic persona is a carefully controlled act, and if she is not a more richly complexioned character than her cherubic appearance would suggest.
Flora’s most sinister moments involve deceit and hidden knowledge: she colludes with Miles to trick the governess into witness Miles “being bad,” steals away into the woods (where Quint and Jessel are implied to have conducted their affair) without her hat (the sign of a prostitute), preternaturally seems to age into a crone during her rage (a suggestion of demonic possession), and demonstrates her understanding of the physics of lovemaking by impaling a yonic boat with a phallic mast (the governess’ claims of “she KNOWS!” and “she SAW” would have been perfectly understood by Victorians, and the seemingly harmless construction of the boat is about as graphic as James could get about the molestation of a little girl before censors would shut him down). But the novel remains vague: is Flora a bad, conniving girl, or is it merely the governess’ interpretation of a child’s natural acting out? Flora, incidentally, was the goddess of flowers and springtime, obviously (shall we call this the Conscious meaning behind her name – one that evokes girlhood, rebirth, and youth?), but she was also a fertility goddess, a goddess of sex, and a symbol of love, lust, and eroticism; in some stories Flora is a courtesan (shall we call this the Unconscious meaning behind her name – one that evokes suspicion, corruption, and carnal knowledge?)
Mrs Grose
Mrs Grose (whose name is homophone for “gross” as in earthy, great, common – the salt of the earth, the every-woman of the common people) is the illiterate housekeeper who is at the mercy of the Quint during his reign and the governess during hers. Grose, fittingly, has learned to be adaptive, and much of her personality could be interpreted as a frightened woman’s attempt to keep her superior happy and calm. Grose is implied to have been sexually harassed or even assaulted by Quint, and has a great pity for Jessel whom she supposes to have been damned along with him. Grose is constantly berated, underutilized, and spoken down to by the governess who views her illiteracy and lack of education as a character flaw (in her mind, Grose is loyal like a dog, but – like a dog – she requires a tight leash, constant monitoring, and discipline). The governess sometimes suspects Grose (whom she calls “a receptacle of lurid things”) and views her protectiveness of the children as a hindrance to her spiritual mission, but ultimately finds her to be a loyal ally and an attentive (if gently skeptical) sounding board.
As one reviewer puts it, “The governess frequently attempts to seize moments alone with Mrs. Grose so that she can try out her latest speculations. Mrs. Grose is usually skeptical of these speculations, but the governess takes Mrs. Grose’s incredulity for astonished belief. Like the reader, Mrs. Grose is willing to hear the governess out but doesn’t necessarily agree with her logic or conclusions.” Grose is her chief source of information (which should cause us to deeply scrutinize her potentially biased interpretations of Quint, Jessel, the Master, and the children – none of which are ever independently verified), and though she is less apt to leap to conclusions, she is not nearly as dim as the governess supposes – perhaps just prudent (as we mentioned, she has learned not to rock the boat, and to be adaptable).
Peter Quint
We know surprisingly little about the novel’s chief antagonist, the valet (a man’s personal, attending servant) Peter Quint. Though a menial (low ranking servant), he has a shocking amount of authority in the house, and while uneducated, is massively charismatic. He was awkwardly close to the Master (some have implied that the two shared a homosexual relationship, or even Miss Jessel), wearing his clothes in the Master’s absence, and refusing to wear a hat out of doors (a symbol of shamelessness and a lack of gentility since hats were worn out of doors by men and women of all social classes as a sign of respectability). Quint was known to have seduced, harassed, or assaulted many members of the household (it is implied of both genders), but had a special relationship with Miss Jessel, whom he may have impregnated. Quint is the best described character in the story: he has a satyr-like face and curly red hair (which both symbolize lust and rapaciousness), androgynous features and expressive, penetrating eyes.

He dies in a mysterious manner, falling on the ice after walking home one night in liquor, but foul play is implied since the fatal injury is described as a “blow to the head.” Some have inferred that Quint was expanding his sexual territory to the nearby village and that he was killed by a jealous husband or lover. He appears to the governess as a ghost in a variety of suggestive manners: from the top of a phallic tower, peering voyeuristically in through the schoolroom window, and creeping up the stairs out of the shadows (symbolic of lustful urges emerging from the unconscious mind into consciousness – manifesting in sexual action). I argue throughout the notes that Quint — ghost or not – can be seen as a symbol of the governess’ repressed Animus or Id – her stereotypically “masculine” sexual appetite, and that his appearances can be timed with her lust for the Master or Miles.
Miss Jessel
Like Quint, Miss Jessel is poorly sketched in (intentionally, it should be noted), leaving us with a great deal of speculation and theorizing rather than a substantial body of biographical information. What we do know is this: she was a veritable lady (probably higher ranking than the governess, herself – a country parson’s daughter), a beautiful woman like the governess, and one who unfortunately was involved in a scandal with the lascivious Quint. At some point she was said to have left Bly to return to her home and died before returning. While this is Grose’s report, we have several literary clues to piece together the omitted details. Jessel is called “infamous,” and her sex acts with Quint were apparently witnessed by several servants, he ultimate death is strongly implied to have either been suicide or murder, and to have occurred not at her family home, but in Lake Bly where her spirit is wont to haunt (most film versions have played along with this idea, depicting her with wet, stringy hair, overtly describing her suicide, or having her rise from the lake). The implication is that Jessel was impregnated by Quint during a romp in the woods near the lake, and that she either killed herself out of shame or was killed by Quint during a midnight assignation.
Some have also argued that she died from a failed abortion (the real reason for her “return home”), or killed herself out of despair after the abortion. While James is vague about her fate, British folk songs, legends, and fiction have long featured the trope of the woman impregnated out of wedlock who is either drowned by an nervous lover or drowns herself in shame (even the Decemberists song “The Bachelor and the Bride” describes such a tragedy). Most British readers would immediately catch the scent of this popular cautionary tale. Aside from theories, Jessel’s ghost is pale, miserable, and tragic – not sinister or demonic like the governess so clearly wishes her to be – and is seen weeping and looking forlorn. Jessel is often interpreted as a warning to the governess (“but for the grace of God, there too go I,” sort of warning about her love of the Master, who may or may not have been in cahoots with Quint), and her curse of “you terrible, miserable woman!” has often been seen as ambiguous (possibly referring to herself when looking at Jessel). The name “Jessel” evokes “Jezebel,” the name of the wicked Biblical queen who worshiped Baal, a god to whom children were slain as sacrifices by their own parents. Jezebel has become a name synonymous with wicked, unnatural women, especially those who are cruel to children and those with rampant, inappropriate sexual appetites.
The Master
The Master is perhaps the most enigmatic of all the characters, a man who is barely seen, yet whose absence inversely dominates the plot (he is defined by his absence in the way that most characters are defined by their presence). Uncle to Flora and Miles, he was given control of them when they were orphaned in India. He is charming, attractive, and has a charismatic personality, but his request never to be bothered on any account starts the novel on a sinister note: the request is, all things aside, illegal, and we know from the preface that he was never seen again by the governess (meaning that even Miles’ death wasn’t enough to lure him away from his cosmopolitan activities). He is strongly hinted at being a rogue and a lady-killer, sharing with Quint (and Miles, apparently) a taste for pretty, young women, and being very adroit at attracting women’s infatuation.

He appears to have had an odd relationship with Quint (many have suggested that the two were lovers, some that they covered up Jessel’s suicide/murder, and others that Quint, Jessel, and the Master shared a ménage a trois), wherewith Quint shares his clothes, has a strange amount of power over the other servants, and rejects social norms with impunity. This reminds me of the relationship between Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and other critics have noticed this as well, claiming that Quint is the Master’s symbolic alter ego – his lower-born evil twin. The Master’s sexual attractiveness obsesses the governess who accepts the nerve-wracking assignment mostly due to her infatuation, and constantly daydreams about his approval. In this manner, the Master is a Freudian symbol of the Electra Complex – what we today term “daddy issues” – with his flirtatious-but-withholding personality, and his mixture of affection and indifference. Withal, some have noted his resemblance to an eligible, divorced father who chooses to lavish time on his girlfriends while diplomatically spurning his daughter with facile excuses, feigned attentiveness, and empty promises.
Douglas
Douglas presents the governess’ narrative in the framing story, claiming that it was written by his sister’s governess, a woman whom he found mentally sound and physically attractive. While several of the characters in the opening infer that Douglas was in love with her, I believe there is sufficient evidence that the two had openly and unambiguously exchanged vows of love, and I would even argue that Victorian euphemisms are present which imply that the two consummated a love affair, likely the first of Douglas (or the governess’) life: “I was much there that year—it was a beautiful one; and we had, in her off-hours, some strolls and talks in the garden—talks in which she struck me as awfully clever and nice. Oh yes; don’t grin: I liked her extremely and am glad to this day to think she liked me, too. If she hadn’t she wouldn’t have told me. She had never told anyone.”
Douglas receives the manuscript of “The Turn of the Screw” from her, holds onto it until he is forty, then presents it to his friends as a curious ghost story. Douglas later dies, and the unnamed narrator writes the framing story as its preface creating a “telescopic” effect which slowly draws us into an event that seems to have taken place forty years or more before the narrative was produced (a technique favored by M. R. James and H. P. Lovecraft among others).
Douglas is highly defensive of the governess, calling her a lovely woman, and his emotions are very protective and tender towards her. He and others remark on her excellent penmanship (an indication of mental rigor and education), and yet he never claims that it is a genuine ghost story, remaining fairly neutral on all points other than her sanity. This has led some critics (most influentially, Louis D. Rubin) to argue the most controversial theory in this very controversial book: Douglas is the grown Miles (the ages and C.V. match perfectly, even down to the younger sister), and that the story is an allegory written by the governess to explain her love for him (the ghosts are the manifestations of his lust and her pedophilic desire, which both must reject) – a love that was socially impossible. The governess dies a spinster, and if this is an accurate reading, then “Miles Douglas” is probably so tender towards her because he realizes that she hopelessly pined after him for the rest of her life.
POPULAR CRITICAL INTERPRETATIONS:
EIGHT LITERARY ANALYSES.
APPARITIONISTS (ANTI-WILSONIANS).
Critics who fall into this camp point to James’ own characterization of the story as a straight-forward ghost tale, give the governess the benefit of the doubt, and read it as an allegory of the struggle between good and evil. If there is any reason that this approach seems naïve, delusional, or unsophisticated, it is only because the non-apparitionist approach has been dominant in literary circles until quite recently: even high school students are taught to look for symptoms of the governess’s mental instability and sexual frustration. An apparitionist reading views the governess as a beleaguered heroine, doomed to failure because of the ineptitude of her social supports – namely the master – which lends itself to Marxist and feminist interpretations. They view the ghosts as genuine, and use several famous moments in the text to support this claim. It is often assumed that the apparitionists then believe everything the governess says, accepting her as a reliable narrator, but this is not the case.
Many apparitionists share beliefs with non-apparitionists, namely that the governess is allowing her lust for the master to cloud her judgment, that she may suffer from mental illness, and that her actions and commentary are deeply colored to favor her. Apparitionists may believe that the ghosts are real (not hallucinations, metaphors, or fictions), but that they are neutral catalysts – that the governess is responsible for her overreactions and violent interpretations of their meaning. For instance, her worldview (and romantic sense of heroism and self-importance) cause her to view the ghosts as a demonic evil come to possess the children – a force to be resisted. Some apparitionists believe that Quint and Jessel are trying to warn the governess of herself – this is why she so frequently mirrors them, and why they so frequently seem to be extensions of herself (see: structuralism). There are, of course, still those that read the story as entirely straight – word for word – but those apparitionists are quite rare in this century.
NON-APPARITIONISTS (WILSONIANS).
Non-apparitionists view the governess as quintessentially unreliable narrator – for a wide variety of reasons. They derive the name “Wilsonians,” as well as their overall rationale, from a 1934 essay by the critic Edmund Wilson entitled “The Ambiguity of Henry James.” In it, Wilson argued that “the young governess who tells the story is a neurotic case of sex repression, and the ghosts are not real ghosts at all but merely the governess’s hallucinations.” It’s worth noting that this argument was made well before 1934, but Wilson was a famous and influential literati, and it was his name that sold this interpretation to the academy. Wilson took a strictly Freudian line of interpretation that is not mutually exclusive from the apparitionist camp, and which we will review independently, but suffice it to say, he saw the governess as a deeply disturbed woman who invented the ghosts (whether consciously or unconsciously is itself a matter of debate amongst Wilsonians; Wilson himself thought it was a sick delusion) in order to ingratiate herself to the master – an attempt to prove her worth, moral superiority, and trustworthiness.

STRUCTURALISM.
Structuralists are interested in the ways that characters, places, themes, and plots interact with one another like the corresponding gears of machinery or the symmetries of architecture. They primarily focus on the reactions that juxtaposition causes and the way that characters, places, etc. mirror one another. In Turn, their primary interest will naturally be the way that the three couples – Miles/Flora, Quint/Jessel, Governess/Master – act both as reflections of one another, and as different sides (or binaries) to the same personality. Miles is essentially Flora’s masculine Animus, Jessel is the female side of a disastrous affair (possibly ending in pregnancy, shame, and suicide) while Quint is its male side (relatively untouched by the event), and there is almost no clearer binary than the governess and the master: one is our narrator, the other relatively unseen, one is female, the other male, one powerful, the other powerless, one epicurean, the other conservative, one aristocratic, the other one from a poor family, one seems to cloak himself in intrigue, scandal, and seduction, the other strives to exemplify decorum, propriety, and chastity. There are so many instances where the plot, characters, or themes mirror one another, that an entire book could be written over the structuralism of the story: how the governess mirrors Quint by peeking in, how Jessel is essentially her doppelganger (crying on the stairs, meeting her in the classroom, the ambiguity of her shout of “miserable woman”), how Miles may be a mini-master (a consummate flirt – Mrs Grose confuses the two) or a mini-Quint (a danger to women – Mrs Grose fears him when alone), how the master and Quint seem to be almost the same man (sharing clothes, women, authority), and so on.
FEMINISM.
In the first thirty years since its emergence in the early 1960s, the feminist school of criticism was primarily focused on “women’s issues” with a special focus on the subjugation of women by men and the subversion of men by women. Beginning in the mid-1980s – with a particular surge in the mid-1990s – the literary school that had been shaped by second wave feminism (primarily focused on the concerns of white, educated women in the middle-class) was taken over by third wave feminism which took up the banner of racial and sexual minorities, the lower classes, and any group – regardless of gender – which could claim to be marginalized. Feminists studying Turn today will likely be more interested in the way that non-apparitionists marginalize the governess’ narrative, belittle her in ways that could be considered misogynistic (for being too hysterical, too emotional, too under-sexed, or too irrational), than in the way that in her gender binary with the master (this is more the concern of gender theorists today).
Often maligned – sometimes brutally – the governess truly attracts sympathy as a woman caught in a patriarchal system where genuine concerns are laughed off as woman’s nonsense. Feminist critics are largely drawn to this and other scenes that suggest that the governess’s lack of self-awareness, self-absorption, and mania with purity are not her fault, but the fault of her society which has forced her to repress her energies, hide her sexuality, and perform socially. Feminist critics also point to her subservient acceptance of the master’s terms (never to contact him, even in an emergency) to demonstrate how the governess has been beaten into accepting ludicrous logic like this in order to engender obedience. Essentially she argues that because she prevents him from being bothered, he must value her. Critics will also be drawn to the character of Miss Grose (see: Marxism), the decision to deceive/exclude Flora and Miles, leaving them vulnerable and marginalized, and the mistreatment of Miss Jessel, who frequently appears to be more of a victim than a devil.
FREUDIAN / PSYCHOANALYSIS.
Freudian critics were the first to leap onto “The Turn of the Screw,” challenging the absolutely straight reading that apparitionists at the time desired. As such, they were the vanguard of the non-apparitionist movement, and the early critics who challenged the governess’ sanity were mostly Freudians. Sigmund Freud revolutionized both psychology and literature: before his theories of the unconscious (namely, that our conscious minds were a guard that kept detestable, but nonetheless real, feelings and desires dammed up in our unconscious, and that those repressed feelings spoke to us through the coded form of visual symbols), stories were critiqued merely by their finesse, their structural flow, and the quality of the prose. When Freud announced that dreams had meanings, that our body-language, humor, and “Freudian slips” all bespoke an unspoken reality, adherents began searching through literature to find the code. Freud was not entirely obsessed with sex, but – and understandably for his time – he did focus a great deal on repressed lust. Freudian critics are apt to study the subtext of the governess’ language, habits, and rhetorical emphases for clues to her unspoken thoughts. And James has beautifully supplied us with a novelette that is sopping wet with mystery and subtext.
Several things have fascinated critics of all stripes: the nature of the master’s feelings for the governess (does he even notice her?), the nature of her feelings for Miles and vice-versa (many Freudians accuse her of paedophilia), the nature of her family troubles, her father’s influence, and her childhood (mental illness has been suspected of her father, a parson, and incest of her brothers), the nature of Quint’s relationship with Jessel, the nature of Quint’s influence on Miles, Flora, and Grose (he is suspected of molesting them all, tutoring the children in sex, and using BDSM violence), the nature of Jessel’s death, the nature of the master’s awareness of this supposed misconduct (is he aware of it? Ambivalent? Ashamed? Supportive?) and the nature of the master’s relationship with Quint and Jessel respectively (some accuse them of harboring a love triangle or even a ménage-a-trois). Quite a lot to ponder. Freudians also seek the prose for symbolic evidence of the truth behind James’ polite narrative: Quint appears atop a phallic tower, Jessel beside a vaginal pond (“oblong in shape, had a width so scant compared to its length that, with its ends out of view, it might have been taken for a scant river”), and Flora is seen imitating the sex act by affixing a mast to a socket in a toy boat (causing the governess to exclaim that Flora now “KNOWS” and speculates that she “SAW” something), Quint is called “tall, active, and erect,” and so on.

Freudian theorists are also fascinated by the way that Freud’s model of the unconscious is reflected in the characters and setting: the governess represents the Super-Ego (the internal parent; the psychological mechanism of moral regulation) while Quint represents the Id (the internal animal; the psychological energy of desire). The faceless master could easily represent either: the paternal authority or the epicurean monster. Likewise, the Gothic walls of Bly can be seen as symbolic of the conscious self (the realm of the present, the Super-Ego, and the senses) while the pond (possible location of Jessel’s suicide) and the woods (possible location of Quint and Jessel’s copulations) represent the unconscious self (the realm of the past, the Id, and repressed feelings). When Miles wanders out of Bly and into the park, or when Flora leaves the house to play by the pond and woods, it is symbolic of their flight from moral control to the locus of primal appetites.
JUNGIAN / ARCHETYPE THEORY / MYTHIC.
Carl Jung founded his school of psychoanalysis on principles that were particularly sensitive to the archetypes that people carry with them, the way that these archetypes interact, and the way that the person views themselves. Many of these archetypes were drawn from ancient human mythology – the wise old man, the seductive whore, the regal king, the brave hero, the crafty deceiver – others from history, religion, and literature – Napoleon complex, Jocasta complex, Cleopatra complex, God complex – and others from the deepest reaches of human understanding – the Ego, the Shadow, the Anima, the Animus. The Ego is our selfhood – our executive personality – the Shadow is our hungry, dark nature – the animal side of our nature which is both creative (if embraced and accepted) or destructive (if rejected and repressed) – and the Anima/Animus is “the mirror image of our biological sex, that is, the unconscious feminine side in males and the masculine tendencies in women.” Jungians see literary works as dreamlike metaphors for how these archetypes interact, the dilemmas caused by complexes, and the power of these mythic ideals that have developed alongside humanity since the advent of imagination. They may interpret the ghosts as the Anima and Animus of the governess’s repressed Ego, who have been banished into the Shadow-land: the Anima (feminine sexuality represented in Jessel) and the Animus (masculine aggression represented by Quint) have been lurking in the shadowy periphery of the governess’s unconscious, but they are beating their way forward to her conscious life: becoming aware of her anger, vulnerability, lust, and selfishness, and then acting – perhaps violently – on that realization.
There is an element of great sensuality in the form of Jessel: the elegant, graceful, sexualized, fully developed feminine power in her – the seductive, empowered goddess that seems so far from the meek governess, while it is certainly possible to interpret Quint – ghost or imagined – as a symbol of the governess’s repressed Id or male Animus (the lustful, aggressive, masculine part of her character that has been subdued in favor of her genteel, mannerly persona). To illustrate this, allow me to sample from a note written at the scene where the governess encounters Quint on the staircase, stares him down, and watches him descend into the Shadows: “The governess views this moment as one of victory of Quint; I feel as though it is a moment of Quint’s victory over her: assuming, if we do, that Quint – whether ghost or not – represents, to the governess, her repressed Id or Animus, then this confrontation – occurring as it does in the indistinct light of morning (the unconscious – the vague beginning of all things) without the aid of candlelight (reason, self-awareness, truth), then this is my conclusion – this scene symbolizes the moment that the governess admits, unconsciously if nothing else, that Quint is a part of her – that she is his match and equal, not just intellectually, by in his character, appetites, and lusts as well. The governess meets Quint on a stair (a symbol of change and development) and descends to his level, greeting the Animus within her, and becoming further acquainted with some of the most aggressive parts of her balkanized personality.”
MARXISM.
Marxist critics are famously concerned with the balance between social classes, acts of defiance or subversion on the part of the lower classes, and acts of oppression or subjugation on the part of the bourgeoisie. The clearest Marxist issue in Turn is the character of the master, an irresponsible, disinterested, emotionally distant aristocrat whose negligence and self-involvement endanger the lives of his wards and leave his domestic staff unsupported when his leadership is most required. He is the posterboy for the decadent bourgeois who is so infantile and corrupt that his disregard for his dependents leads to calamity. His treatment of the governess, a girl from a poor but respectable family (hinted at suffering from both financial strains and mental illness) could be viewed as a metaphor for the way that the upper classes tempt the lower-middle classes with empty promises in return for good service: for instance, the way that the governess works to attract his attention, love, and approval while (we suspect) he is off gallivanting with society women, probably not remembering her name, can be read as a symbol for the way that the rich tempt the ambitious lower classes into performing for them with promises of increased status and wealth without ever paying them mind.
The governess, then, is like a dutiful footman who will always be a footman, but believes that his good service to a lord might allow him to one day be a butler, and then to own his own pub. There are class issues with Quint as well – a low-born man who subverts social rank by adopting his master’s clothes, bedding higher ranking servants (at least Jessel, possibly Grose), and refusing to wear a hat outdoors – a symbol of cultivation and gentility. Lower-ranking persons wore hats as a sign of respect for the gentry (doffing them in their presence), and higher-ranking persons wore them as a symbol of their gentility, but Quint rejects status and becomes his own man: authoritatively walking the ramparts, peering into rooms, and stalking of the stairs, head-bare, face remarkably defiant and rebellious.

Jessel, too, has her own class issues: she appears to have been higher ranking than even the governess – a lady – and was stigmatized for her affair (and presumed pregnancy/abortion and suicide) with Quint, a charismatic but plebeian menial. Lastly, Grose is the object of much scorn, ridicule, and mistreatment by the governess, who – herself a poor woman from a poor family – leaps at the opportunity to have an inferior, and constantly mocks her illiteracy, implies that she has low intelligence, and resents her hysterics. And yet, Grose seems to be the most knowing member of the household, the savviest, and the most diplomatic. Depending on how you interpret the governess’ mental health, Grose may have quickly become aware that she is under the authority of a madwoman, and have feigned compliance in order to keep the governess calm and docile, all the while aware of her danger: an act which may have saved Flora’s life.
GENDER THEORY / QUEER THEORY.
From the very beginning, the latent sexuality of “The Turn of the Screw” attracted commentary about the gender dynamics of the characters, but it wasn’t until gender/queer theory emerged as a school of criticism in the 1980s and ‘90s that critics began focusing on these issues. Gender, or Queer theory is primarily interested in describing the ways that gender roles and sexuality are depicted and treated in a text. Homoerotic content is rife in Turn, sometimes in ways that are not first apparent. The most obvious example is Miles’ admission to having – as it is implied – parroted inappropriate words or phrases to his schoolmates. The governess first expects this to have been a hostile act, but is hopelessly confused when he declares that he only did this to boys he “liked,” and supposes that they must have repeated this in turn to boys whom they “liked.” Queer theorists may view Miles as a homosexual boy trying to pass as straight, using belittling language towards the governess and arguably sexualizing her in order to mask the real reason of his expulsion – homoerotic interactions with the other boys.
This explains why his expulsion went unexplained: such an accusation in a little, well-bred boy was unthinkable and terrible to imagine for Victorians. The further implication is that Quint, a pansexual predator, molested Miles, and there is a hint that Jessel herself may have molested Flora. Gender theorists, naturally, are displeased with the association of homosexuality with paedophilia, but others focus on the governess’ sometimes homoerotic treatment of Grose (kissing her, hugging her, forcing her to submit to her physical power) and the gender roles that she sublimates in the absence of the deeply erotic master: one could, for instance, argue that she is forcing Grose to be “the woman” as a means of wish fulfilment and fantasy. Sadism and masochism are also largely acknowledged as existing in the subtext, and featured prominently in the film prequel The Nightcomers, which depicted Quint (Marlon Brando) and Jessel as participating in a consensual BDSM relationship which the children witness and copy.
THE TURN OF THE SCREW’S CONTINUED ATTRACTION.
“The Turn of the Screw” continues to fascinate and allure us – perhaps even more as time goes on and as our discourse on sexuality becomes increasingly public. We seem to simultaneously bridle against the idea of a society that is so naïve and repressed, and charmed by – even nostalgic for – the sort of Edenic innocence that the governess expects for her wards. Today we know that child abuse is rampant, not a rarity, that children view pornography at shockingly early ages (a study by the London School of Economics reported that 90% of children 8-16 have viewed pornography; the average age of first viewing pornography is 11; 20-30% of pornography consumption is done by children), and that sex has become a commonplace trope in the vast majority of television shows, movies, and video games targeted at teens. Sex has become cheap, common, and accessible. We consume it tangentially on a regular basis while we multi-task, when we’re bored, or when we need to relax. This is not to place a value judgment on the instant availability of sex culture, but to note that perhaps the reason that the first adaptation of Turn wasn’t made until 1960, and that there have been increasing numbers of film and television adaptations with each successive decade, is that we are nostalgic for what the story represents: that period in the first third of the book where an adult woman has no reason to suspect children of being worldly, because the suggestion is ridiculous.
Of course, James’ world is ultimately just as corrupt as today’s, but it is the great denial, the great innocence of a period when adults (however erroneously) could blissfully afford to trust that children were safe from predators, unexposed to erotica, and ignorant of the sexual politics that cause us to feel worthless, defeated, commodified, objectified, and humiliated once we enter puberty. For all the triumph and expression of sexuality, there is an unquestionable trade off – of dignity, self-acceptance, and love – for many people, especially during the opening salvos of our teen years when we realize, for the first time, that we are being monitored by our peers, and that it is important that we are attractive, popular, and desirable. Children are supposed to be immune to this understanding, but many are not: those who have been abused, mistreated, neglected, or molested have experienced the self-aware jolt of puberty before their natural time, and are rocketed ahead of their peers into the world of vulnerability and cynicism that we hope will be warded off for the first 12 years of life at least.

“The Turn of the Screw” has staying power. It sticks with us and haunts our imaginations. It is a great drama of vulnerability – of Flora and Miles, at the mercy of abusive demons and/or a mad governess, of the governess, barely an adult yet left responsible for the salvation of two children who may or may not be themselves evil, and of Mrs Grose, who may suspect her superior of being mad, but is illiterate, and would never be believed. We care for and worry over the decisions that these characters make, wonder if they chose correctly, bristle when they miscommunicate, and moan when they overreact or underreact to the challenging circumstances that restrict them. We understand the governess’ situation: it is scary, even if we think her mad. To be left alone in charge of another man’s wards, and to never be able to contact him for advice – to be saddled with the responsibility of making decisions that could have bearing on those children’s social prospects, mental health, and very souls. And we identify, even if we scorn her, with her ludicrous, unrequited love. Most readers will be able to remember a foolish and miscalculated crush that left them embarrassed, and most will feel either sympathy or disgust for the governess’ slavish attachment to a disinterested grandee – to the popular kid, to the rich girl, to the cool guy – that is more founded in self-reflection and bad memories than any objective consideration of her romantic life.
In fact, the great appeal of “The Turn of the Screw” is the way in which it is so easy to want to rip the wheel out of the governess’ hands – to take over and make her decisions for her. We want to yell at her “give up on him!” and to shake her when she imagines herself an angelic heroine sent to deliver two innocents from “the others,” because we know that she is too late, and that her efforts are naïve and doomed. We have a love-hate relationship with this girl, sympathizing with her vulnerability and stress, but resenting her silliness and submission. When you sit down to read “The Turn of the Screw,” that is perhaps the greatest “turn” that it takes: our yearning to turn the tables, to take over, to make the decisions, to take on the responsibility, to ask questions frankly, to tell the master to be damned, to rid the story of innuendo and suggestions, to ask the questions that an adult should ask: “did Quint ever touch you in your private area?” “Did you ever see him alone with Miss Jessel?” “What did he do with you when he took you to the woods?” – frank, mature questions that grab the bull by the horns and reject stuffy propriety. We want to turn her out, to trade place, to at the very least advise. But we can’t, and thank goodness, because for all of our frustration, we know in the deepest recesses of our gut that we would never want to be in the same terrifying, lonely, vulnerable position of the characters in “The Turn of the Screw.”
You can find our annotated and illustrated collection of Henry James’ best ghost stories HERE!
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They Just Won’t Move

Estimated reading time — 7 minutes

There’s three of them outside, hikers probably. Older maps usually show a route over the motorway behind my house but there isn’t one anymore. I don’t mind them usually, they just walk down and then walk back up a few minutes later and I go and explain the situation to them. I saw these three early so I hoped I could go out and talk to them before they walked down, save them the trip. They looked like a family, one man walking a little bit in front of two women, one just a teenager. The girls were looking at a map while he strode ahead, confident. It was late evening, the sun just barely falling behind the hill. Summer nights like this means the night comes late. I saw them from my window and walked around to my front door quickly. I put my hand on the handle and glanced outside through the glass.

Then I stopped. I stopped because so had they. For a moment, I thought they had just stopped walking to check the map or something but just the glimpse sent a chill through me. Like something was just barely off. Uncanny valley, right? I looked at them a little closer and saw that they had not just stopped, they had stopped mid step. The one at the front had their front leg raised in the air and the other two were weirdly balanced forward, a position that would be difficult to maintain. I assumed they had seen me and were doing some sort of performance, like those street performers that look like statues and maintain poses. Then I spotted it, the thing that had made my skin prickle.

Their map was stuck.

It was somewhere between the adult woman’s hand and the floor. Mid-air. It was not touching anything that I could see and was completely still despite the strong breeze. My mind raced through the options. Wires wouldn’t explain how it was so still. Maybe it was actually solid and only looked like thin paper. Either way, I let go of the handle. If they really were performers, no harm in staying inside and leaving them there. I had neighbors, so even if there was a problem then other people would be aware of it. I rationalized it to myself and turned away, unable to get rid of the throbbing cold in my stomach. I walked into my kitchen, made a mug of tea and sipped it, trying to warm myself despite my already perfectly heated house. I couldn’t help myself. I walked over to the window. They were still there, hadn’t moved an inch. But I was closer now. Looking back, I wish my window had been further away. I wish it was thicker and soundproofed. But is wasn’t. So I could hear them. The walkers were talking.

I could see it now, their mouths moving just a little to communicate enough. It was hard to make out words but the mother and father were talking in an attempt at a calm tone to their daughter. She was sobbing. I felt a pang of sympathy, shame for ignoring them and a rush of fear. I had ignored how wrong this felt before but this was too much. I desperately wanted to go help them, to hug the daughter and tell her was okay. But, I couldn’t. I couldn’t go outside, then it would happen to me. I’m not sure why but I had the overwhelming feeling that the exact same thing would happen to me. It was getting even harder to see them. They had stopped moving as the sun set and now they were only barely visible from the lights in my house. I remembered my neighbors and looked down the street. I could see Moreen next door, she was looking out the window like I was. I tried to get her attention but she was looking at the hikers. I usually avoided calling her, she was nice but always had some new drama going on. She’s just old and bored so she tends to talk a lot but we’ve been vague neighborly friends for a few years. However, I quickly picked up my phone and dialed her number. I saw her turn and walk out of sight before picking up.
“Hello?”

“Hi, Moreen. It’s just me.”

“Patrick, are you at home right now? Do you see those people outside my house? They’ve been standing out there for hours.” It had only been minutes. An exaggerator as always.

“Yeah, I see them. Please don’t go outside.”

“I wasn’t planning to. Bloody travelers would probably beat up an old woman.”

“I think they’re just hikers. No need to be worried. I think they are just…” I couldn’t think of a good reason for why they were acting like that but wanted to assuage her fears. “Well, let’s just try and figure out what they’re doing and if they need help. Just don’t go outside, okay?”

“I heard you the first time. You don’t need to worry about me, Patrick. I’m going to call Albert to see if anyone further down the street saw where they came from.”

“Okay, thanks, Moreen. Talk to you in a bit.”

“Bye, dear.”Click. I looked back out at them, almost impossible to see now. It was only because I knew they were there that I could even make out their shapes. And I could still hear them. They were louder now. I could make out a couple words. Then just one, over and over. Help.

I suddenly cursed living alone, wishing I could at least talk to someone. Maybe if there were houses on the other side of the street, I could at least communicate with the person across the street from me. But it was just open fields. I used to like that view. I looked down the street again. And again, my spine felt like it was crawling out of my body. Maybe I have some sort of ability to spot things that were out of place in just a glance. But something else was wrong. The lights from the houses were out. The only lights that were on were the three closest houses on the right. I looked the other way and they were all on, all the way down the street. That’s how it usually was until much later in the night. I looked back and tried to see details in the blacked-out houses. Probably a power-cut. But why was it just those ones? Weren’t we all on the same grid? Then a flash. The furthest house’s lights just went out. All of them at the same time, like a fuse had blown.

I frantically reached for the phone and tried to call Moreen again, damning myself for not knowing the numbers of any of the further neighbors. It cut straight to an automated voice; the line was in use. I hung up and started pacing, looking out at the two remaining lit houses and glancing at the hikers outside. I couldn’t see them but I knew they were there. The voices were quieter but they were talking still. Could they see me? I had no way of knowing. It was too late now, I should have tried to talk to them earlier. I let out a shriek as my phone burst into life. It was Moreen.

“Moreen? Is that you? Are you okay?”

“No need to shout, I’m fine.” A sigh of relief. Cut short as the corner of my vision flashed. The next house had gone dark. It was only Moreen’s house lit on the right side.

“Did you talk to Albert?” I tried to keep my voice level. I didn’t want to panic her. Maybe it was just a power-cut.

“He picked up but then started talking nonsense. He said his arthritis was acting up, worse then usual. He couldn’t move. Something about a power-cut. He wanted me to call an ambulance, but you know how Albert is. Hypochondriac. I think we should go check on him an-”

Her lights went out.

“Moreen? Moreen! Are you still there?” I could hear her breathing.

“Patrick, something’s wrong. I can’t turn around.”

“It’s okay, Moreen. Just a power-cut. You’re just scared.”

“There’s something scratching.”

“What?” My voice sounded like a child who just heard the monster under their bed talk.

“On my door.”

“That-that’s just your cat.”

“The door is ope-” Then, she screamed. I pulled the receiver away from my ear as the loud, piercing shriek filled the air. I could hear it from the phone and from the house directly.

“Moreen?” I sounded distant from myself. Click.

I’m not sure if I hung up or she did. I looked out my window, trying to see the hikers. They were quiet now. They probably heard it too. I felt like I was in a daze. I stumbled over to my sofa and sat stiffly. My laptop was open next to me, half-finished work on the glowing screen. I deleted it and started typing. I’m not sure why. No one saw this coming; maybe I could warn someone. I typed frantically, fingers moving faster than in all the work I had ever done. Then, a flash, and my lights went out. The only light was the glow of the screen. My fingers could still move, but I couldn’t stand up. I could talk. I know because I screamed.

I dare not make any sound now. My laptop is still plugged in and getting power. This isn’t a power-cut. I haven’t heard the hikers since the scream. I hope they’re okay.

The only thing I can hear is the clicking of the keys. And the scratching at my door.


Credit: Paddy Barrett (Reddit)

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I Believe in the One

Estimated reading time — 13 minutes

Everyone is familiar with the idea of a soulmate, someone meant for you, your perfect match. The missing piece of you that exists out there, off in the world, just waiting to cross your path. The idea is touching, and viewed as a little naive by most people. After all, true relationships are built on hard work and dedication, not false promises of perfection.

I met my soulmate when I was a young adult, overcome with a strange sense of being watched one night when I was out on a walk. Although I lived on a street filled with houses and life, at that hour, you’d think it was a ghost town. The perfect way to clear your thoughts, and take in the outside world without the buzz of kids and cars.

The feeling that washed over me wasn’t the same kind of fear inducing sense of being watched, it was more like a strange sense of knowing.

Except the street, aside from me, was empty for as far as I could see or hear. There was not a moment in which I had passed someone by, or heard the tell-tale scuff of shoes on pavement that told me someone else couldn’t sleep. It was dead quiet.

I chalked it up to sleep deprivation, but allowed my pace to pick up as I started back down towards my home. I want to preface this with self awareness by saying I’d always been open minded to the idea of there being more out there. Aliens, cryptids, the paranormal, anything that could be possible, was potentially possible in my mind.

That’s not to say I was a firm believer in these things. On the contrary, I’ve always been logical as can be, like anyone else this day and age. There was always the thought in the back of my mind that we can’t quite disprove life after death, or aliens existing out there, or even a cryptid or two staying isolated from us.

I also want to admit that I’ve always been an avid horror fan, with a particular small hope that something terrifyingly exciting would happen to me just once in my life.

But as we all know, you have to be careful what you wish for.

Just as the feeling of being watched, if not stalked completely at this point became suffocating, I heard him. Rather, his shoes, scuffing the pavement behind me as he jogged along to catch up to me. My back was turned to him, and I kept my eyes ahead to avoid looking paranoid. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up, goosebumps pricked up on my skin.

I felt a hand on my shoulder, a strong grip and determined fingers gently digging in with a sense of urgency.

“I don’t want to scare you, but there’s something in the bushes that’s been following you down the street for the last twenty minutes.” His voice was a bit labored, and he lacked any sense of tiredness. If I had to guess, he might’ve been riding a wave of adrenaline that had come on suddenly.

That in itself alarmed me. All evidence suggested he must’ve just come from his home, one of the ones on the street, in quite a rush to warn me about my situation. Still, I could hardly find words.

“Excuse me?” Was my voice always that small? “Someone’s following me?”

By now I was facing him. He was taller than me, not hard to do, considering I’m a young adult man standing so dashingly tall at 5’ 6. He was considerably taller, though, maybe even an entire foot. It was hard to make out his features, but I could tell he was handsome even in the dim streetlight glow.

His eyes were the loveliest shade of green.

“Not someone, something,” the stranger clarified, casting a tentative glance to the bushes across the street as if to prove a point. I swallowed, my stomach dropped with anxiety and I could feel myself tense up.

There were a million questions to ask, that I should have asked, but at the time only one went through my head.

“But I live over there, how do I get home?” My voice was a whisper, I realized. Without deciding whether I really believed this man, I found myself worried about alerting this mysterious thing that was apparently fascinated with me.

In hindsight, one might wonder whether or not he made it up just to talk to me. That’s what I believed when I had time to calm down, but right then and there, my panic was starting to take hold. Just how would I make it home if I had to cross the street, where this thing was currently hiding right now?

The stranger smiled, warm and brave. It was gentle, promising that all would be well without words.

“I’ll walk with you. Everyone knows about safety in groups, right?” He offered a hand, guiding me further down towards the crosswalk and occasionally peering behind us and back at the foliage. “I’m Rider, by the way. I’m sorry if I scared you. I woke up to use the restroom and I saw you walking down the street by yourself.”

“Elias,” was all I could manage. I was far too busy trying not to look behind us, even though my terrible curiosity wanted me to.

“I know it sounds weird, okay? I thought I was seeing things at first, and then when I saw it run across the street when you were under the lights again, I realized I wasn’t,” Rider continued, gently nudging me along the sidewalk and blocking my view of the path behind us with his body.

The rest of the short walk was silent, we were both listening out for whatever he’d seen and on our toes. But we made it just fine, and I never saw nor heard a single thing out of the ordinary. As I fumbled to unlock the door of my home, I felt sadness wash over me.

It wasn’t my own. It was foreign, alien.

Rider saw my hesitation and gave me another charming smile, filling me with the courage to start thinking for myself long enough to all but throw the door open. The poor cat was scared half to death when it hit the wall with a loud smack, staring up at us with wide eyes. All things considered, the disgruntled cat was a welcome sight.

“Well, you’re home, safe and sound,” my savior chuckled, keeping a respectful distance outside the door. I was thankful for that, I’d always been socially anxious and the idea of having to kick him out after he helped me was not a good one.

“Yeah, I sure am. Ah, thanks, for walking with me,” I murmured. Compared to Rider’s confident cadence, I sounded like a ghost who didn’t want to be seen.

Without missing a beat, Rider offered me his number and warned me against walking alone at night for various reasons.

“Especially here,” he added, as casual as someone discussing their day. “He got pretty close to you before you reached the lights.”

At the time, I thought nothing of that comment beyond Rider explaining what he saw.

After that night, my life became a lot more exciting than I asked for. For one, Rider and I became very close very quickly. Never in my life had anyone ever paid me any attention, cared about what I had to say or given me much of a second thought. Until I met Rider. Where I was appallingly, undeniably and painfully average and routine, Rider was adventurous, exciting and handsome to boot.

You can probably guess that we were dating before long. It was just a casual relationship beginning, and we were slowly spending more time together to try and ease into a more serious one. As it stood, he never stayed overnight because he knew how much it stressed me out to be around someone for more than a few hours. That was another amazing thing about him, he understood my defects enough to accommodate them. It touched me that someone thought I was worth that effort.

So, casual it was.

Until late April, well into the night. Ever since the incident before, I’d stopped my night walks and taken to new coping methods in my home when I felt anxious. Rider had helped me many a time when I’d called him on the verge of a panic attack while he was dead asleep, helping me form new hobbies or things to keep me busy that wouldn’t put me in as much danger as being out alone at night would.

He cared about me, after all.

It was late again, just passed midnight when I curled up on the couch and turned on the TV for background noise. My sketchbook was out on my lap, and my hands fiddling with a pencil while I tried to decide what to draw. Feeling confident I wouldn’t need to disturb Rider’s sleep tonight, I decided to draw him and give it to him as a gift when we next met up. Silly, I know, but I was so grateful to him.

And then there was a knock at the window across from me.

Tap…. tap…. tap…..

The knocking was almost nervous. Nowhere near as nervous as I was when I lifted my gaze from the paper in front me, up to the window across the room. It was well lit in here, and terribly hard to see anything outside. I could hardly see at all, save for two pairs of glowing red eyes staring back at me.

I almost choked on my own fear, anxiety rising as fast as my pulse as my hand slapped around for my phone. A few moments of sheer panic, and then my fingers smacked the familiar cold and flat surface, and I was dialing Rider’s number in an instant.

“There’s something outside my window… Please help me,” I croaked, still making full eye contact with the intruder watching me. Rider gave no verbal response, but I could hear him rushing out of bed and pulling clothes on. It was no more than five minutes later that he was at my door, disheveled.

As shocking as the ordeal was, it was even more shocking when Rider all but ran for the back window. For the first time since I’d known him, I saw a flash of rage on his face I never thought he was capable of.

Only when Rider ripped the back door open did the thing outside look away from me. I couldn’t hear anything over my partner’s furious cursing, his body stiff and face red with anger as he paced the back yard and shouted after the thing. Rider didn’t come back inside for a long time.

When he did, he looked exhausted, like he’d been busy at work. But when I inquired, Rider simply made me promise never to go outside when I see it again, and to always call him first. Always. There was a hint of something dangerous in his tone, something angry, daring me to protest.

But I smiled weakly and told him of course I’d call him, he was my hero after all. And I told myself he was only angry because he was scared.

That seemed to calm Rider down, and he relaxed and came inside. For the first time, he stayed the night with me. I don’t know if it was because of what happened, or the air of uneasiness that settled over me like a fog, but I couldn’t sleep at all that night. Even though the only person who’d ever protected me and respected me was sound asleep next to me, it felt wrong.

It felt bad.

Eventually, I quietly slipped from my room and returned to the couch. As I finally started to drift off to sleep, and my consciousness lapsed into dreams, I once again caught the gaze of the eyes from before. There was something so, so upset about them. Sadness that knew no bounds. Anger that could rend entire worlds, and send the gods to their knees.

I slept until I was awoken by Rider grabbing me rather violently by the arm and yanking me off of the couch. He was shouting at me, but I’d just woken up, I couldn’t make sense of it in my haze. The back door was open, my furniture had been upturned and broken. My senses didn’t return until the pain from a hard slap to the face knocked them right back into place.

Rider hit me.

That same day, he declared — not asked, declared that he would be living with me from then on. I was too affection-starved to say no. If this was the only person who would care about me, the only one for me, then so be it. No one can survive alone.

Things fell back into some semblance of normalcy for a while. And I learned very quickly to stop reporting anymore “incidents” of being watched to Rider if I didn’t want to be punished for them. I’d never been one to socialize much, but I was also punished if I attempted to go out or contact family.

One night in utter defiance, I walked out and spent a night to myself in town. Deep down I knew I only stayed out so long because I was terrified to return home, Rider would be furious and I knew even though it felt wrong I’d be on my knees begging him to love me, apologizing for being the ungrateful worthless pig I was.

By the time I did get home, Rider was already asleep. But he made sure to make his point; my phone was smashed to pieces on the kitchen floor and the note next to it warned me that it I ever did this again, my legs would receive the same treatment.

I like to think of myself as strong, but I’m not. I started crying, unable to understand how or why someone who treated me so amazingly had come to treat me like I was nothing in such a shockingly short time. A toxic whiplash, stinging my skin and burrowing deep, deep into my gut.

And that’s how it was from then on for the next year. My time outside was limited to an hour a day, and I was not to take it first thing in the morning or any time Rider was sleeping. The eyes outside the window became the only routine I had anymore, each time I saw them I kept it to myself. But it hurt, the eyes, they were so upset.

I could relate to that.

On my birthday Rider decided to celebrate by locking me in my room for most of the day and at the end of it, attempting to force himself on me. I say attempting because my memory of what happened next is extremely hazy, and not because he succeeded in being a total piece of shit.

No, it’s because of what I saw. The window shattered, glass splinters flew this way and that. The roar coming from it shook the walls, I swear, shook them so hard I thought they’d fall. As a large, red-eyed form entered my peripheral vision, I squeezed my eyes shut. Stupid as it was, in that instance, my only thought was that I was going to die and this time, Rider wouldn’t protect me.

Besides the roar, there wasn’t any noise beyond a sudden, wet tearing sound and a violent splatter. My memory cut out here, it’s just blackness. But they told me later that Rider’s body had been reduced to the human equivalent of wet tissue paper, all over my bedroom. They told me someone in my home dialed the police, but no one actually spoke to them or told them anything.

I don’t know how I got from the bedroom to the living room. There’s a vague memory of large, cold arms on my back. The warning bite of clawed fingers on my side. They said when they found me, I was hysterical. I was begging for him to come back. “I don’t want to be alone again, please!”

They assumed I was talking about Rider, whose killer was never caught. The police ruled me out as a suspect pretty quickly. I’m small and, when they found me, malnourished severely. Rider only let me eat if I weighed less than a certain number on any given day.

Last night, I was finally able to come home after my home was cleaned and restored. Everything felt empty and lifeless, drained of all meaning, painfully lonely. As anyone can guess, I spent all evening in one of my worst panic attacks to date, crying so hard that I had to sit by the toilet because I was throwing up. Too afraid to sleep in my old room, I instead resigned to the familiarity of my couch.

Again, as I was drifting into sleep, I saw two pairs of red eyes watching me from outside. This time, there was no sadness. Not like before, at least. It was a empathetic sadness, as if we were understanding what tragic lives we’d both lived thus far in one glimpse.

Recognition dawned on me, words not from me probing into my mind clumsily. As awkward as my attempts to speak with anyone else. I sent back encouragement, careful, with what little light I had left in myself. The eyes widened slightly, and then softened.

Memories that were not mine eased into my mind. The perspective from the outside of my home at night, glancing inside. Rider producing knives, waiting for me to sleep. Rider at his own home that first night I let him stay, measuring out pill dosages that would kill someone of my height and weight. That very first night we met, Rider watching me from his window, a dark idea blooming in his expression.

I understood, then, that this red eyed being had been protecting me all along. Each time I was supposed to die, it had purposefully provoked Rider’s ire to redirect his attention. It couldn’t be there during the day, but at night, it was free to roam.

And I understood then, that Rider had never charmed or comforted me in some mysterious way I couldn’t explain. That this being had been sending me comfort, bravery and the will to calm for my own sake whenever it could.

When I woke the next morning, I also understood why Rider never allowed me to glance or step foot outside until he’d woken and cleared the home of whatever evil the thing haunting us left behind.

Scattered all along the perimeter of my home were the most beautiful red flowers I’d ever seen.


Credit: ICantBreatheAnymore0 (Reddit)

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Monstruo

Estimated reading time — 13 minutes

“They say the tree bleeds when you peel off the bark.”

Liz’s eyes flickered in the orange light. Her lips curled into a small smile, as if she enjoyed that particular detail.

“That’s ridiculous. There’s no way a tree could bleed,” Tucker said, yanking his burning marshmallow from the fire.

“There are photos, though. I’ve seen them all over Instagram. Bright red blood, oozing from the bark.”

“It’s supposed to be the blood of Monstruo’s victims,” I added. “The legend goes, the tree absorbed all the blood spilled at its roots. Now instead of sap, human blood pumps through its veins.”

Tucker let out a peal of laughter. “Absolutely not! That’s ridiculous. Come on, you guys were in my Biology class. You know there’s no way human blood is pumping through the xylem and phloem –”

“It’s true,” Liz said, shooting him a glare.

“You know what? I bet the whole thing is a myth. I bet Monstruo himself didn’t even exist.”

I glanced at the tree. It stood in the shadows, several yards behind us. Blackened bark. Leafless branches. A sore thumb in the forest.

The Hanging Tree. Or el árbol del ahorcado, as some of the locals called it.

“It’s nothing more than a tourist trap,” Tucker continued.

“A tourist trap only the locals know about? Doesn’t make much sense to me,” I said.

Tucker sighed. “You know what I mean.” His marshmallow fell into the fire with an unceremonious plop. “It’s an urban legend to tell around campfires like this one. A spooky haunted tree. The legend of a perverted, cannibalistic killer. It sounds like the plot to a Stephen King novel. I guarantee you — Monstruo wasn’t real.”

“He was real. Every single person in this town who’s old enough to have seen it, says it happened.” I glanced over at him. “And this tree is where he hung his victims’ bodies.”

Tucker laughed. The sound echoed off the trees, making it sound like a chorus was laughing with him. “Yeah, and those same locals just call him ‘Monstruo.’ The Spanish word for ‘monster.’ If he’s real, why don’t they call him by name?”

“Because they don’t want to give him the dignity.”

It was Liz speaking, now. The smile had faded from her face. She scooted closer to the fire; the black shadows faded from her face. “He did such terrible things. Referring to him by name would only glorify that.”

“That’s a clever lie. But it doesn’t fool me.”

I shifted closer to Tucker, who was plucking another marshmallow from the bag. “Come on, Tucker. Ever notice how this part of town is basically abandoned? And no one ever builds on the empty lot a few feet over, even though it’s dirt cheap?” I laughed. “The things Monstruo did are so terrible, even money won’t get anyone near it.”

“So terrible. So, so terrible. That’s what I keep hearing. Yet, funny how I’ve never heard any details or facts.”

“You want facts? I’ll give you facts. He killed 17 men, women, and children. And you do a hell of a lot of disrespect to those people, when you claim he didn’t exist.”

Liz nodded, her dark eyes glancing at Tucker.

“Look, I’m not trying to disrespect anybody. I just –”

“I’m not done.” My voice cut through the cold air like a knife. Tucker jumped. “He didn’t just abduct and kill those people. It was a lot worse than that.”

Tucker’s marshmallow burned and crackled. Liz shuffled her feet across the dry leaves.

“He led each victim, blindfolded, to the tree.” I glanced down from their faces, and into the blinding flames. “Then he killed them, and strung their bodies up in the tree as if they were trophies to show off.”

Liz’s eyes shone brightly in the orange glow. She wiped her sleeve across them.

“And then he eviscerated them.”

“Oh,” Tucker said, softly.

“Then he took them back to his house. But not before he removed their right shoes — and added them to his creepy-ass memento box. And then… do I have to say it?” I asked. The pillar of smoke billowed up between us, shrouding Liz and Tucker in a gray veil.

“He ate them,” Liz whispered to him.

“Oh, come on! What a load of nonsense.” Tucker stood up and rolled his eyes. “I can guarantee you, there is not a shred of truth in that story. No Monstruo, no cursed tree. Someone probably just made it up on the internet.”

“You just think you’re so smart, don’t you?”

He laughed, blowing on the blackened marshmallow. “Yeah, you bet I do.”

“Then how about this? The day after Monstruo died, the tree died. Then all the foliage, within a few feet of it. Nothing grows there to this day.” I gestured to the tree, barely visible from our spot near the campfire. “You can’t deny that, Tucker. You can get your lazy ass up and see it for yourself.”

Tucker didn’t reply.

“Go on. Look at it,” Liz said. Her smile was back. “Or are you too scared?”

Tucker grumbled and turned around. “I can see it from here. And you’re right — but, obviously, the tree died because everyone peeled off its bark.”

“Okay, so that’s why the tree’s dead, maybe. But what about the fact that nothing grows around it?”

“The tree’s roots probably choke everything out. Or the soil’s too compacted, from all the teenagers visiting and stomping it down.”

“Right. Let’s talk about those teenagers.” I smiled, leaning closer to the fire. My face grew uncomfortably warm. “They climb it, decorate it, make out under it –”

“Hang effigies from it,” Liz added. Even now, a stray piece of rope hung from the lowest branch, swaying in the wind. I tried not to look at it.

“Yeah. And do you know what happened to those teenagers?”

“No.”

“Adrian Keller climbed it to take a selfie. A month later, he was committed to a mental hospital because he violently attacked his mother.”

“Okay, so? He was probably crazy before he even saw the tree.”

“I’m not done yet,” I snapped. “On a fine Wednesday afternoon, Greg Patel skipped school to hook up with Aria Stewart underneath the tree. She got pregnant — and, months later, miscarried something so terribly deformed, the doctors refused to call it a fetus.”

Tucker didn’t have a snarky reply for that one.

“And Sidney Taylor. Let’s talk about her. After hanging an effigy from the tree, she started sleepwalking. At first, she’d wake up under the tree. Then she’d wake up in neighbors’ lawns. Finally she woke up in one of their houses — surrounded by a pool of blood and two corpses.”

“That’s enough,” Liz muttered. “He gets the point, you don’t need to repeat it –”

“She’d taken off the right shoe of each corpse and stripped them naked. And each one… each one was missing large chunks of flesh. When doctors pumped her stomach, they found –”

“John, okay! You’ve made your point!” Liz snapped.

A thick silence fell over the three of us.

Finally, Tucker said: “I still don’t believe it.”

“So touch the tree, then,” Liz shot back. “We’ll write you at the sanitarium, we promise. Right, John?”

I raised my eyebrow at her.

“Fine. I will.” Tucker heaved himself up off the ground. With heavy footsteps, he started into the darkness.

“Shoot. I didn’t think he’d actually do it. Wait! Tucker!”

I followed them through the trees. Soon enough, the three of us were standing before the Hanging Tree.

Swaths of bark were peeled off, and a thick sap — almost blood-like — oozed from the wounds. The bits of rope swayed in the wind. Initials and hearts were carved all over the bark that was still intact. I noticed a faint marking that read Greg+Aria, near the roots, and my heart dropped.

“Tucker, please, don’t do it.”

Tucker stood on the border of the dead circle — where the weeds and shrubs dwindled into sticks, leaves, and rotten mud. His arm was stretched out, fingers inches from the trunk.

“Tucker. I was just joking. Don’t do it.” Liz tugged at his sleeve.

“Relax, Liz. It’s just a tree.”

Of course, Tucker was going to do it, now. He’d always had a crush on her. No way he’d pass up this chance to impress her and be some sort of macho man.

“Tucker, please, don’t.” Liz looked at me expectantly, as if she expected me to dissuade him. I was silent. “Come on, let’s just go to sleep. This whole idea was dumb.”

“I want to touch the tree, Liz.” Tucker took a step forward. “I want to prove to you I’m right. That this whole thing is an elaborate hoax.”

He took another step forward, arm outstretched.

“No!”

Liz grabbed his shoulders.

But it was too late.

His fingers pressed into the bark. When he pulled them back, rust-red sap covered them.

Liz stepped forward, eyes brimming with tears. “No. This is all my fault. Now you’re going to go crazy and kill people and –”

“Get a hold of yourself, Liz,” Tucker said. “It’s just a tree. And a dead one at that.”

The three of us walked back to the tent in silence. Tucker handled the fire; I cleaned up a bit around the campsite. By the time I got inside, Liz was already asleep — only her messy hair poked out from the sleeping bag.

I opened my own sleeping bag, snuggled in, and closed my eyes.

* * * * * *

I jolted awake.

For a second, I couldn’t place where I was. It was cold, colder than I’d remembered it being that evening. I fumbled through the darkness for my cell phone.

2:06 AM.

The light from my phone lit the inside of the tent. I saw Liz, sleeping peacefully in her bag. Her mouth hung slightly open, a wet spot of drool on her pillow.

The other sleeping bag was empty.

“Tucker?” I said. Softly, at first.

No reply.

“Hey! Tucker!” I called. Liz stirred next to me.

I slowly stood up, careful not to rustle the sleeping bag too loudly. With one hand, I peeled back the entrance of the tent.

Everything was pitch black.

I pressed the flashlight button on my phone. It lit the clearing in a bright, white glow. The charred remains of our campfire; depressions in the dirt, where we’d left our folding chairs.

And in the distance — a silhouette. Standing right under the tree, facing away from me.

“Tucker?” I shouted, running towards him. I stopped a few feet away; he didn’t turn around. “Tucker, are you okay?”

Silence — save for a schlick, schlick sound.

I grabbed him by the shoulders. “Tucker, what –”

I stopped.

The entire tree was covered in carvings. Hundreds of them. All in Tucker’s handwriting, all of the same word:

LIZ.

“Tucker! Hey! Are you okay?”

As if waking from a deep sleep, Tucker jolted and glanced around. “Uh, yeah, I’m fine.” He glanced at the trees. “Why am I out here?”

“Doesn’t matter. Come on, let’s get you back to the tent.”

I didn’t sleep a wink the rest of the night.

* * * * * *

Liz and I were incredibly worried about Tucker. But days, and then weeks, passed without incident. We began to believe that the Hanging Tree really was just a tree, and he was right all along.

Until that fateful Saturday night.

I was sitting in my house, eating a late dinner alone, when someone knocked on the door.

Thump! Thump! Thump!

I jolted upright. “Who’s there?” I yelled, glancing at the deadbolt. Locked.

Thump! Thump!

“It’s me! Liz! Open up!” Her voice warbled with emotion.

My heart sank. Something was terribly wrong. “Liz, are you okay?” I called, as I hurried to the door.

“I’m okay. Just open the door, John. I need to tell you something.”

I grabbed the doorknob. Yanked it open.

“Don’t move.”

Tucker stood next to Liz on my porch, smiling. The barrel of a gun poked against her skull; he slowly turned it, so that it pointed at me.

“I’m so sorry,” Liz said to me, starting to sob. “I didn’t want to. But he said he’d shoot me if I didn’t. I panicked… I’m so, so sorry.”

Tucker motioned for me to step forward. “Come on, John. Or are you scared?”

“Okay. Okay. Calm down, I’m coming.” I held up my hands and stepped into the cold. Tucker grinned.

“In the car,” he said. “Backseat. Both of you.”

I climbed into the backseat. Liz cried against my shoulder. “I’m so sorry,” she kept repeating, over and over.

I felt numb. Like I was watching a terrible movie, watching s scene unfolding in front of me, utterly powerless to stop it.

The car tore through the night. My shoulder hit the door, hard, as we made turn after turn. “Where are you taking us?” I asked, trying to keep my voice as calm as possible.

He didn’t reply.

But I didn’t have to wonder long. Soon enough, I saw the empty lot approaching. The forest rose up behind it, shrouded in shadow.

“You’re taking us to the Hanging Tree, aren’t you?”

Silence, save for Liz’s soft sobs.

He drove right across the empty lot, through the weeds and shrubs. We skidded to a halt at the forest’s edge. “Out,” Tucker grunted, as he swung the door open.

We trudged through the forest in silence. My feet rhythmically crunched the dry leaves and sticks with each step. Like a clock, ticking down to the moment of our death.

We stopped in front of the blackened tree. Its branches twisted and crossed the indigo sky. A cold wind blew; the shreds of rope swayed.

“Stand over there,” he commanded Liz.

“Why are you doing this?” she cried.

“He doesn’t know what he’s doing, Liz. He’s sleepwalking.”

“I’m not sleepwalking.” Tucker snapped towards me, his blue eyes wild and dark. “I’m not doing this because some cursed tree infected me. I’m doing it because two of my friends betrayed me.”

“What are you talking about?” Liz shouted.

“Oh, come on. What do you think I am? Some kind of an idiot?” He reached into his bag and pulled out a length of thick rope.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, don’t act so innocent!” he spat. “You and Liz have been hooking up behind my back for weeks, when you knew I was in love with her!”

“That’s not true,” Liz said, softly.

“Oh, don’t deny it. And then you take me for some kind of idiot just because I don’t believe in a cursed tree! What kind of friend does that?”

He grabbed me roughly by the waist. In one swift, strong motion, he looped the rope around my shoulders. “A fitting punishment for a fitting crime, don’t you think?”

I tried to wriggle free. I thrashed and kicked and shouted. But Tucker, standing six inches taller, had all the leverage. I didn’t have a chance.

After fumbling with a knot, he looped the rope over the lowest branch and tugged. My feet left the ground. Slowly, inch-by-inch, I was hoisted up the tree. The blackened, leafless branches came closer into view.

And then I noticed the scratches.

Hundreds of them. White like scars, covering the bark. Desperate. Anguished. Human.

“Monstruo didn’t hang dead bodies from this tree,” I muttered. Liz looked up at me, eyes wide.

“He hung them alive.”

I tore my eyes away from the bark. Below me, Tucker was looping the rope around Liz. She wasn’t crying anymore; instead, she was thrashing. Kicking. Fighting.

But she wasn’t strong enough. Moments later, she was hanging next to me.

Tucker dragged his bag over the ground. With a zip, he pulled it open and reached inside. A steel knife glinted in the moonlight. Then he walked over to us.

First he gently pulled off my right sneaker.

Then he pulled off Liz’s boot.

“Please. Tucker, don’t do this!” Liz pleaded, one last time.

I remained silent. Instead, I wriggled against the rope. Jumped. Thrashed. Tried everything in my strength to get free.

The rope began to loosen.

Liz met my eyes. I tried my best to make a face at her, to signal what I was doing. Catching my drift, she put our plan into action. “Tucker, listen. I’ve only ever liked you. Not him.” She forced a smile. “Look at me, Tucker. I’m telling you the truth.”

He took a step towards Liz, and, finally, tilted his head up to look at her.

I fell to the ground, charged, and tackled him. After getting in a few good punches, I leapt up and pulled down Liz’s rope.

“We need to call the police,” Liz said, latched onto my arm. “We need to –”

Thump.

Tucker collided with her.

The scene played out before my eyes as if in slow-motion. Tucker grabbed her by the wrists. He dragged her across the mud. In one frenzied motion, he pressed her hands against the tree trunk.

She screamed.

I leapt at them. But it was too late. Liz was shrieking, looking at her hands. They were covered in sticky red sap.

“I touched it! Oh, my god, I touched it!” she cried out in disbelief.

“Come on, let’s go!” I cried, grabbing Liz’s wrist and yanking her towards the lot. “We need to go!” Tucker was already reaching for the knife, his face twisted in an expression of anger.

“Liz! Come on!”

We ran through the forest, through the empty lot, and into the night.

* * * * * *

That night, Tucker was arrested for assault. The following morning, they found his cellmate dead, on the floor, lying n a pool of blood. Missing chunks of flesh.

Liz started sleepwalking a week after the events. She committed herself to a mental institution the next day. We exchange letters sometimes, but I don’t think she’s ever going to leave that place.

So that’s my experience with the Hanging Tree. And, listen — I’m not telling you this tale to scare you. I’m telling you because I need your help.

A week ago, builders broke ground on the empty lot. As we speak, they’re cutting down bits of the forest — including the Hanging Tree.

To build a daycare center.

Toddlers and caregivers will be on that cursed ground. Learning, playing, growing. Utterly unaware of the darkness that once stood in its place.

Maybe everything will be fine. But if Tucker and Liz are any indication, it won’t.

I’ve called everyone on the city council; I’ve spoken to the mayor. I’ve tried getting through to the daycare company. I’ve even tried protesting in the streets.

Nothing helped, and no one believed me.

So now I’m telling you.

If you live near El Bosque, Texas, do everything in your power to put a stop to it. If enough people complain, maybe they’ll get discouraged and give up.

If not… well, I won’t be here to see it. I’ve done my part, and I’ve got enough blood on my hands already. I’m leaving town tomorrow.

God help us all.


Credit: The Dead Canary (Chilling Tales for Dark NightsYouTubeReddit)
If you wish to narrate the story please contact Chilling Tales for Dark Nights for permission by clicking here.

The post Monstruo appeared first on Creepypasta.

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The Valentine House

Estimated reading time — 15 minutes“Damn, Valentine shit already?” I asked my friend Gabriel as we were walking inside a Wal-Mart post Christmas.

“Yeah, bro, and it’s still December. It’s like they’re completely ignoring the months in between the other months that have major holidays.”

“True, true, annoys the shit out of me though, you know?” My friend nodded and we walked curiously around the isles filled with red hearts, very large stuffed animals and boxes of chocolates and candies saying the cliché messages “I Love You,” “Be Mine,” and the like.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the holiday; I just wish they’d just start selling all of this stuff like in late January. At least a month, you know, at least a month of planning is all you need to plan for the epic Valentine’s Day, and that’s just for the people that are going to go all out. Me? I’ve wanted to do something not just for me, but for my best friend and his girl, and honestly anyone seeking for love on that special day, but I just never knew what to do, until just recently.

Let me catch you up to speed. Have you heard of the Valentine House? It’s known to be one of those well-hidden B&B’s in the middle of nowhere, where couples go to spend their romantic company together. Unfortunately, it’s been said that crazy shit happened there, and the owner died of a heart attack as a result. I guess he couldn’t handle the stress and the accusations placed on him. Anyway, after that point, it was considered abandoned, and unfit to be placed as the number one hotel for lovers, until just recently. The name of the place has been brought back by some rumors, which the place was back in business and for those that have a longing for love, that they’d be able to find it. I told Gabriel about it, and he just shrugged, thought it was complete bullshit.

“So, when are you going over there?” Gabriel asked me at the checkout line, as he was buying his girl a white and red teddy bear saying the words “I Love You Beary Much” on its chest with a chocolate rose sewn onto his paw.

“Probably within a month, the sooner I can get it over with, the better.”

“But why that place, though? Couldn’t you just rent out any other lot but that one? What if that place doesn’t even fucking exist?”

Skeptical, I raised an eyebrow and asked, “What do you mean?”

He exclaimed, “Like, even if the place is real, don’t you think anyone would want to go to a place that people would disappear or die, especially on Valentine’s Day? I just don’t want you to go missing is all, bro.”

I’m not one to believe in crazy rumors like that; how can you believe such a bizarre thing unless you find out from the source?

“I don’t know, but this place seems too good to be true, I have to at least check the place out to see if it’s real or not.”

He shrugged, “Hey, it’s your funeral, man.” We soon left the store and went our separate ways; he was heading back to his house, and for me, my apartment.

I had to prepare myself for the trip, so I decided to look for more info. Apparently it was so old or so vague that no official information was given for the Valentine House. I was about to consider giving up, until I saw a Valentine’s Day card slip under my front door. It was a couple weeks before February at the time, so it was a little too soon. I thought it was odd at first, but when I had opened it, it revealed what I needed to know. It was cryptic, but gave enough direction to understand. Fueled with anticipation, I gathered my things to start my trip, and drove to the flat lands, for I now had a date with a house, and its name was Valentine.

I lost track of time on how I’d imagine this place would look like that I didn’t realize the sun was nearly up. What welcomed me in the new morning were the flat grey land and the long black road before me. By the time I was about to crash due to exhaustion catching up to me, I saw a wooden sign, showing some letters and numbers. With nothing around to stop me, I parked near the sign to take a closer look. It was obviously rotten with age, and was also vandalized. Upon closer look, it showed the following: V, L, E, N, I, E, H, U, E, 15, M, E, and S, with someone vandalizing the sign with red saying the words “TURN BACK.”

It clicked that I was on the right track, and by unknown reason it gave me the extra adrenaline rush to keep going. As time flew by, the sky changed, and the landscape had turned from flatlands into hills, and before I knew it, I saw the one building that could be known as the Valentine House. It looked so out of place, like a pristine white mansion was smack dabbed into the middle of nowhere; busted, rusted vehicles of all types littered the front of it. The closer I got to it, the more excited I got, and it was almost to the point that I almost lost my focus on the road. I soon reached the supposed parking lot of the house, and from first glance, it seemed like about twenty cars were parked before this monument at least. I got out of my mini cooper, and prepared myself for the worst. I even held a handgun close to me if any funny business were to arise.

I reached to the door, and before I laid my knuckles to the wood, it suddenly opened before me. “Welcome to the infamous Valentine House,” a cheery old man said to me. Catching me off guard, I stammered, “Uh, hello, my name is—”

“Let me show you around,” the man said, interrupting my introduction. I nodded, and followed the man into the seemingly popular home that was both beautiful, but also mysterious.

The foyer was like the usual design and style of any typical mansion, but with Valentine fashion: heart and ‘”love” themed knick-knacks, light red walls, bouquets of roses, in shades of deep red to almost the color of blood were scattered throughout the room, but what caught my eye were the various sized frames with random couples placed throughout. I walked to a picture hanging on the wall; the frame was a bit dated, with a country themed design with red hearts on the corners, the picture being in complete black and white.

“Who’re the people in these pictures?” I asked.

The old man turned with a grin that showed he was almost too happy. “We at the Valentine House keep photos of the people who spent the day of love and romance in our rooms; each one a memoir, a souvenir, even a memento; we display them like badges of honor in this house.”

“This house seems dedicated to honoring Valentine’s Day,” I thought to myself.

“Sir?” the man asked me, breaking my train of thought. “If you would, please, follow me.” He disregarded his overjoyed demeanor as he walked slowly down the hall. I followed him, and soon, we reached to the first door of the house, revealing a golden heart on it; the number one in the center. “This room is known to be ‘The Rose Room.’”

He opened the door to reveal a hybrid room, a master bedroom with the aesthetics of a sun room. What was inside was breathtaking: the beautiful fresh, earthy smell of colored roses was overgrowing the room. The roses’ vines were spread throughout the room, attached to the walls and floor like veins and arteries to the human body; their thorns uncommonly larger than usual. What I didn’t realize, however, were two bodies in bed, constricted by the very plant that signified love; having said that, next to the heart shaped bed that laid the couple showed the most beautiful bed of roses; the dew from the sunlight that peeked through glistened, though I couldn’t tell if it was water, or something else.

“I hope you don’t mind the mess. As you can see, some of our couples tend to stay much, much longer, and we’re no people if we’re to rush love from this place.”

I wanted to press questions to him, but he already closed the door, and asked me to follow. Annoyed, but reluctantly, I shrugged, and pressed on. We soon stopped once again to another door, revealing another heart; in the middle was the number two.

“We call this ‘The Secret Admirer’s Room,’” he said, and once again, he opened the door to me, revealing what I could describe as ones desperate attempt to proclaim their love for someone. In one corner of the room, clothed skeletal remains were slumped on the floor; an open box with a shriveled organic object in one hand, a large blade of what I had to assume was glass with blood so old and dried it was flaking away from the shard in the other. By the door was another skeleton, also clothed, in the position that it was trying to escape from the grisly sight, but was unable to. “Love can be cruel to some people; for one can show the most heartfelt feelings to someone, only to be simply denied.” I wanted to look more into the room, but he closed the door, and ordered me to press on.

For each room we passed followed another abstract scene, followed by a few words of back-story from the old man, and as much as I was stunned, it kept me curious about the next room. Some of the other rooms involved a room regarding young love, showing two young children frozen in time. Another room was for lovers’ quarrel, showing a mannequin with a missing arm, with purple and red marks throughout the figure, and a paper heart pinned in its chest with a knife. Longing, Fantasy, Sweet obsessions, and even a room that was nothing but hearts; both real and artificial; as much as I wanted to go into each room, the old man prevented me from entering, so I had to look from the doors opening before he closed it.

After what seemed like hours, and looking in so many rooms, it wasn’t long before we reached the supposed final room of the tour, revealing two black doors with a much bigger heart, but instead of a number, revealed a crown shaped in red. The old man was eerily quiet when we reached to this room, but instead of asking each and every room we saw, I had to ask, “What room is this?”

“…This is the ‘Red Honeymoon Suite,’ he croaked, as he took out a key with a heart at the end to unlock the double doors before us. After the sound of a loud “click,” the doors opened themselves, revealing nothing but darkness and a smell that was a mixture of things: sterile, but also rotten; metallic, but also sweet. “Would you like to come in, and see the inside of this room?”

Out of all the rooms I couldn’t go in to, this happened to be the only one I can. Without missing a beat, I quickly walked into the dark room, where the mixture of smells grew more potent with each step I took.

I was soon enveloped in pure darkness, with the only source of light coming from the doors opening. “Close your eyes. You don’t want to be blinded by the lights,” he said. Without saying anything I did what he said, preparing for what grisly fate awaited me in this house of supposed love and death. Before I knew it, the lights came on, and what was shown had got to be the most grotesque room of all. It had the layout of a studio apartment, with the walls decorated with viscera, intestines, and skin to appear as ribbons or even wall décor. The chandelier above me had its artificial lights splattered in dried blood, with its rusted metal strands wrapped in more guts, shriveled from age. On the floor, was broken wine bottles, syringes, and dried rose petals, piled like leaves from the autumn season. Finally, before me was the exact visual of a Valentine nightmare. Dead bodies, skeletons, cadavers were nearly everywhere, clothed, unclothed, skinned and dried; some were in the California king bed, and some on the floor, some chained and attached to slings; all in sexual positions…like a macabre orgy frozen in time. It was so overwhelming, that I had to steps back, only to bump into the old man.

“The ‘Red Honeymoon Suite’ is a room specifically for those in true love; a miniature world to explore their inner, most sinful desires for one another and others.” He glared at me as if I found out about a dark secret, and he’d had to keep me quiet, but despite his look, he continued. “This room is very popular for more than just two people; in fact—”

“I’ll take it!” I didn’t mean to interrupt, but after seeing all of this, all of the sickly sweet facades of any term related to Valentine’s Day, that this was what I wanted. I wanted the entire home for not just myself, but for the future people that I bring here. This house is so sickly devoted to such a holiday, that – funnily and oddly enough – I simply love it too much to have it for just one day.

“Excuse me?” he questioned me, raising an eyebrow.

“Let me rephrase: I wish to buy this house.”

He cleared his throat. “Allow me to repeat what you’re proposing: You, sir, wish to ‘buy’ this place? You’re not here to reserve a room…?”

I shook my head. “I’m what you’d call an entrepreneur, and this place has so much history built into it. Allow me to take the reins and make this place into the best hotel, motel… hell, even a B&B, that there is.”

The man fell silent, and slowly gave a slight chuckle and then sighed, “I’m quite happy that you like this place, but I must tell you that this place isn’t for sale. The residents still reside in these halls. I’ll admit, this business hasn’t been pleasant as of late, but the people that reside here, they are what keeps this place alive. Their hearts, their emotions, their memories…”

“…Their ‘mementos?’” I asked.

“Yes, yes, you’re right; even their mementos.”

I walked around the room, my eyes scanning the hellish scene before me still, my stomach turning, my sanity dwindling away; I turned to the man once more. “Tell me, would you say that you love your job?”

The man smiled. “Why, yes, I’d still work here in this mausoleum of love, even in death. Even if there wasn’t any business here, I’d still treat this place as a world of love.”

“And you’re sure I can’t persuade you into selling this place to me?”

He frowned. “No. This place can’t be bought, and you can’t force me to sell it to you.”

I looked away from him, and I suddenly felt hot. I felt not like myself, and as I was noticing my sudden changes, the man gave me a scowl. “If you’re not here to reserve a room, then I suggest it would be best if you left.”

It was then that I had revealed my gun to him, showing the same wide grin he had shown me when I first got here. “It’s such a shame, that you’re so blinded by this damn holiday that it can make even the queen of hearts sick.” I laughed at him manically as he stepped away from me.

“Please, sir, you don’t know what you’re doing—”

I shot the old bastard in the heart as he pleaded, his body gave a loud thump as he bled out on the engraved heart on the floor.

I stared at my gun in my hand, seeing my hand tremble with adrenaline, the sudden silence started to ring in my ears, as I blew the subtle smoke from my gun. I looked at the spot where the man had died by my hand, only to see that he was gone. Not just him, but everybody that was propped was also gone, and only the remnants of rose petals and dust was there surrounding me.

“Pleasure having business with you,” I said, as I instinctively walked out of the room. I blew a kiss to the sudden emptiness of the room before closing its double doors behind me. With the old man gone, I was finally able to look in each room, only to find that each room was like the Red Honeymoon Suite: rotten, abandoned, and no bodies in any shape or form, except for the mannequin in the Lover’s Quarrel room. Each room I was able to revisit felt empty, and for each room I went into, the heavier my chest got.

I started to even question if all the things I saw was real and that I was losing my mind, but at the same time I couldn’t help but feel that I stumbled upon something that should’ve been exploited a long time ago, and in the end, I got my wish by stumbling upon a building that was once known as the Valentine House. I eventually made it to the foyer, and seeing the once red walls to be a gloomy grey. The knick-knacks gone or broken beyond recognition, the roses blackened and dry, and the mementos…they were all real. I saw the pictures of the unfortunate, seeing their smiling faces, from various years dating from 1938 up to 1996. I couldn’t help but feel their pain, at which I ended up sobbing on the spot. I was soon starting to debate to placing the gun I had to my head and ending it, but a heard a loud thud, bringing me back to reality, if not momentarily. It was a red book, with a white lace job. I picked it up, and I saw what had to be a registry. Flipping through the pages, I saw a folded piece of paper. I opened it, and read the contents.

“To whom it may concern:
This paper shows proof of ownership of the Valentine House. Under the house name, you shall allow anyone with a broken heart to come and stay until they feel loved enough to leave at their leisure. That is the Valentine way. I should hope that my legacy will live on to be a sanctuary for those that seek love, celebrate it, cherish it, and the like. My only wish is to make people happy, as I have with my loving wife and family.
~Robert “Cupid” Valentine
February 14th, 1928”

After reading what seemed to be the ownership title of the house, I felt a cold chill run down my spine. Feeling like I was being watched, I quickly grabbed my bearings, book included, and rushed to my car. Seeing the other rusted cars had also vanished, I quickly drove away from the building; it soon crumbled before my eyes. It’s as if the people that were stuck there had wished to be free by tearing the house from within. “May God wish you safe travels,” I said to myself, as I laid my eyes to the red book beside me, thinking of the souls that were dormant in that damned house.

I soon made it back to my hometown, and drove all the way to my friends’ house. Gabriel was surprised to see me so pale, and brought me inside, his girlfriend in the kitchen making cocoa. I wanted to tell him what I saw, that the house was real, and I managed to escape the devoted hell before it crumbled onto me. As soon as I sat on his couch, however, I suddenly crashed, only to wake up in the middle of the night.

I felt relieved that I was still at Gabriel’s house, and I stretched in relief. I stumbled in the dark home to find him, so I could thank him and his girlfriend for letting mmeme rest. I soon realized the house seemed quiet…too quiet.

“Gabriel?” I shouted. No answer. I reached to his room, only to find the door locked. “Hey, man, you up?” I said, banging his door.

No response.

I was starting to worry, so I shouted even more, more than loud enough to wake someone from a deep sleep,

“Gabriel, this isn’t fun—”

My heart stopped as I looked at the sudden, odd reflection in front of me. I stepped back, looked up, and to my horror, revealed a metallic heart, with the number 214 in the center. I was frantic, and banged on the door until it finally gave, only to see darkness. I flipped the switch, and I saw carnage. The fresh smell of blood came from two unidentifiable piles of flesh in the corner, and on the carpet, written in viscera, a message read: “Happy Valentine’s Day.

In the center of that message was a teddy bear. The same teddy bear that Gabriel had bought back in December, with splatters of blood on its chest, paws, and face.


Credit: Maikode-Kun (Twitter)

The post The Valentine House appeared first on Creepypasta.

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W. W. Jacobs’ The Brown Man’s Servant: A Two-Minute Summary and Analysis of the Classic Horror Story

“The Brown Man’s Servant” belongs to that same category of tales as J. S. Le Fanu’s “The Familiar,” M. R. James’ “Casting the Runes,” and “Count Magnus,” and – to degrees – H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu.” It is a story of pursuit and hopelessness – of poor decisions and impossible escape. Jacobs’ horror stories often deal with the concept of fate and the snares of mortality. “The Monkey’s Paw,” “Jerry Bundler,” and “The Toll-House” all follow the idea that once having committed to an ill-advised course of action, a man is most often forced to endure the consequences without hope for mercy or extrication.
The story which follows has similar themes, and yet the protagonist is given nearly half-a-dozen opportunities to make amends for his decision, but stubbornly refuses to rectify his decision. It may be a supernatural tale, or it may be a psychological horror story with a simple explanation, but one way or another the outcome is unexpected and chilling – an excellent vehicle to introduce the reader to the main themes of Jacobs’ horror oeuvre: desperation, confusion, chaos, and mortality.
II.

A greedy pawnbroker named Solomon is used to taking advantage of desperate sailors: with his shop positioned in a bustling seaport, mariners burdened by gambling debts frequently use him as a last resort — and almost never return to reclaim their pawned goods. One day a particularly bedraggled old salt swaggers into his pawnshop with a markedly sly attitude. He tells Solomon that he has a priceless treasure that he wants to trade for cash – a massive diamond that he claims to be worth five hundred pounds. Solomon is fascinated by the prospect, but skeptical.
When the sailor exposes the gem to the light, Solomon is stunned by its beauty. The sailor suggests that he risked his life to get it, and this hint of cloak-and-dagger disturbs the pawnbroker. He accepts the deal in spite of this suggestion of criminality and goes to bed satisfied with his trade. His sleep, however, is disturbed by a rapping at his door as the sailor begs to be let in, warning that both of their lives are at stake.
He explains that he is on the run from an old man, a Burmese, from whom he stole the stone. Desperate to escape his pursuers – in particular the Burmese’s “servant” – he is shipping out of port that night, and has only stopped by to warn the pawnbroker that he is sitting on dynamite.
The next morning a sinister man comes into the shop and slyly hints that Solomon has an item that belongs to him. When Solomon refuses to acknowledge this, the stranger slams a belt on the table – which the broker recognizes as the sailor’s – and explains that he has just been given a fair warning.
Later on, a bent, swarthy old man in a turban comes to the offices where his presence frightens the cat. Solomon immediately realizes that this is the “brown man” who had so terrified the sailor, and is shocked when the gnarled old man openly admits to killing the sailor (whose death has been reported in the papers).
He demands the return of the diamond, and reminds the broker that his life is more valuable to him than five hundred pounds. When his threats fail to move Solomon, the old man snarls “I will kill you – I will send death to you—death in a horrible shape. I will send a devil, a little artful, teasing devil to worry you and kill you.”
Solomon throws him out of his shop, and tauntingly asks “What about your servant, the devil?” The old man sneers: “He serves when I am absent.” Returning inside he is disturbed to find the cat staggering drunkenly as if poisoned before falling over dead.
Solomon takes the threat seriously but is unshaken: he will not surrender the diamond. He has learned that the diamond is worth thirty thousand pounds and plans to sell his shop and move away. That night he steels himself to resist any attacks. Armed to the tooth, he stalks around his shop, looking for intruders.
At one point he sees the brown man’s face and fires twice through the window, but later wonders if it was imagined. His imagination becomes polluted with fears and anxieties as he wonders who the brown man’s servant is and what fate awaits him. He searches under the bed, behind curtains, and in dark corners, finding himself terrified by a rat and frightened by subtle noises.
Numb with fear, he barricades himself in his room and waits with a revolver. At one point he sees something coiled up in the corner, and is so startled that he drops his lamp, plunging him into darkness. From the shadows he hears a low hiss and realizes that the servant is a serpent — one which killed the cat with its venomous bite. Terrified, he waits motionlessly until dawn light begins to filter through the window.
Not seeing the reptile, he attempts to stand, but the snake suddenly darts forward — coiling up his arm and biting him in the throat. He tears the snake away and beats it to a pulp in a fit of terror. Reeling from the experience, he begins to ponder his next step: treat the wound, drink spirits to stem the poison, call the doctor… As he removes the barricade, his pistol falls to the floor. Picking it up he feels a moment of clarity, mutters “Thirty thousand pounds…” to himself, and coolly fires the gun through the roof of his mouth.
III.
It must be admitted that the climax of this tale is weak. That the agent in question is a snake which could easily be avoided and destroyed is something of a disappointment after the tremendous build-up of tension and dread afforded by the cat’s death and the brown man’s sinister warnings. And yet the final sentence causes the story to resonate with mystery, awe, and terror. Having survived the night, on his way to have the snake bite addressed, and with seemingly no motive, our protagonist nonchalantly decides to blow his brains out with the same lack of gravity and care as a man picking out his socks for the afternoon.
The reason may be divined by the reader although Jacobs gives us no textual clues other than his final statement of “thirty-thousand pounds!” It may be that he has had a taste of the life he expects to live from now on – terrified each night and miserable every day – and he wishes to end it because the idea of death has seeped into his brain (apparently as an afterthought suggested by the pistol’s appearance), and has been found comforting in some way.
Surely this is the most obvious answer, although others are certainly valid. In any case, the horror of the tale is that he chooses suicide after succeeding at survival. We expect him to ironically die just before daybreak, but we never anticipate this turn of events. Jacobs suggests that his fate is so certain, so unavoidable, that even at the height of victory – literally having destroyed and conquered the tale’s eponymous assassin – his destiny is so thoroughly determined that there is no point in resisting, not even after this lucky victory. Jacobs’ horror universe is unforgiving, relentless, and patient.
Like Le Fanu, Bierce, and Lovecraft, his characters are hapless playthings in a wider world of slow, agonizing tortures which are willing to focus their attentions on destroying their prey, incapable of being avoided, being outsmarted, or being fatigued. They may be bested once, but they will prevail in time, for – as Dracula puts it to the Harkers – time is on their side.
And you can find our collection of W. W. Jacobs’ best horror, annotated and illustrated, HERE!
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Box Fort

Estimated reading time — 21 minutes

Alright, we all remember those cardboard castles of our youth, the ones that were better than any Fisher Price playhouse precisely because they had been painstakingly cut out, taped together, and decorated with our own hands. And unlike the fancy plastic cottages your parents spent a fortune on, these ones could be altered and added on to endlessly with a little creativity on your part and a few cardboard boxes your neighbours were just going to throw out. If you were the kid lucky enough to fall into possession of a refrigerator box, your coolness status was set. At least for a few weeks, anyway.

Feeling nostalgic yet? Good. You’re in the same frame of mind I was before my happy childhood memories of cardboard and duct tape were forever marred.

So, my story. Three years ago, my parents decided we were going to move. My sisters and I took this with a grain of salt because my parents are notoriously disorganized and none of their plans come to fruition without some serious delays. But sure enough, they soon began the renovations the house needed in order to sell. I was working at a fairly well-known clothing store at the time, and it was common for us to receive 15-30 boxes of stock every weekday. They were big boxes which, after being emptied, just ended up in the dumpster.

I took some home and started stockpiling them in the basement, figuring they might be useful in case my parents were in earnest about this moving thing. One night after my sister had picked me up from work we were carrying down a few of the flattened boxes to the basement, and I started thinking about the really awesome box tunnel my cousins made when we were little. It stretched all through their basement with lots of nooks and crannies, and we were allowed to paint it however we liked. Naturally we were occupied for months playing with this thing.

Remembering this, I looked at our growing pile of boxes and then at my sister and voiced an idea I’m sure we were both considering. “Casey,” I said, “we could make a really kickass box fort out of these.”

Now, before you start wondering about the mental capacity of my sisters and I (considering that we were able to amuse ourselves with a box fort), let me tell you it started out mostly as a joke, a “wouldn’t it be hilariously ridiculous if we did this?!” sort of thing. But, yeah, we ended up getting really into it… we’re a pretty creative family so it was mainly the building of it that was fun. It’s not like we spent hours in there playing “house” or anything.

We built it upstairs, our first 8 boxes serving as a tunnel between my two sister’s rooms, Taylor and Casey, with a little doorway into the bathroom and another tunnel branching off towards my room. We got out the Sharpies and vandalized it to our heart’s content, we put up funny pictures inside, Casey even hung some Christmas lights which gave a nice effect. Any four year old would be proud to call this box fort his own.

I brought home more boxes. We elongated the tunnels, getting fancier and adding curves at the end so that, when inside, you could never see an entrance unless you crawled through to the very end. We even covered the whole thing with blankets to make it prettier and to keep out the light from all the little gaps and crevices throughout. Our dog, Juliet, was timid at first but joined the box fort club as soon as the three of us crawled inside to read ghost stories, because she didn’t want to be left out.

It was really dark in there – we usually brought in flashlights – and pretty much any time we crawled through we were prone to fits of giggles, mostly because we were three fully-grown girls crawling through a box fort. I mention this only to show that, despite the total darkness and claustrophobic size of it, there was none of that “palpable atmosphere of terror, foreboding, and ill-will” that often accompanies creepy places. At that point it was still perfectly commonplace and funny, though you’d be hard-pressed to get one of us to crawl through it to get to the bathroom at night, when the house was quiet and everyone asleep.

My parents were understandably annoyed at the massive obstruction in their hallway which they had to hop over to get to their room, the linen closet, and our bathroom, but they are generally very accepting of our antics and only threatened to dismantle it once or twice. Nonetheless, we decided that we were unsatisfied with our box fort, because we wanted to make an epic box fort. However, having already taken up the space in our bedrooms, the only place left to extend was across the hall to my parent’s bedroom, something they would never agree to while living in the house.

Luckily, they were going to be leaving for a week. That’s when we filled all the free floor space in their bedroom and closet with box fort, and that’s when the weird stuff started to happen.

It was a progressive thing. We’d be in there hanging up goofy pictures or whatever, and then we’d hear a shuffling noise down one of the many branching tunnels. We assumed it was Juliet trying to find us, but after calling her and searching for her, it would turn out she’d been lying in the sunny patch on the couch for who knew how long. One time Casey and I were in there hanging up paper bats we cut out and we heard the shuffling from far off.

“Juliet! Jooooo-leeee-etta!” I called.

“It’s not.”

“What are you talking about?” I said, confused because her face looked scared all of a sudden.

“It’s not Julie, Taylor just took her for a walk. They’re both gone.” I stared at her a moment, remembered Taylor shouting something about ‘walking the dog’ not too long ago, and then we both scrambled to the nearest exit. Once outside the fort we immediately lapsed into fits of giggles, feeling ridiculous now that we were “safe.”

“Do you think it’s mice or something?” Casey asked, crinkling her nose.

I said I didn’t think so, the store was pretty clean and the house never had mice, but there had to be another explanation. The noise came from the portion that stretched into my parent’s closet, a big walk-in with a window to the back yard.

“The window’s open in here, I bet it was just the breeze rustling the boxes.” A perfectly logical explanation which we were happy to believe.

That night while I was in bed I found my gaze drawn toward the entrance of the fort time and time again. It was really dark in there, and something about having that gaping black tunnel in my room made me feel very vulnerable. Eventually I turned over and slept the other way, but I made a mental note to cover it up with a sheet the next day.

On day two of no parents I had used the grocery money to buy ingredients for a cookie-decorating extravaganza, so I was in the kitchen baking those with Casey. We had a movie on at the same time so it was a bit loud in there, and we didn’t hear Taylor until she was standing in the doorway yelling at us. If I remember correctly, the conversation went something like this.

“What the hell, Casey, what do you want?”

Case and I gave each other quizzical looks, and Taylor looked at us like we were stupid.

“Are you serious? You make me come all the way down here and you don’t even want anything?”

“Tay, we didn’t call you.”

“Casey did, I was on the lap top in my room and she told me to come in the box fort with her.”

“No I didn’t, I’ve been here making cookies with Muse the whole time.”

“Oh whatever, Casey, you totally did, I heard you. And then when I went in you left and came down here.”

At this point, seeing one sister was pissed and the other confused, I jumped in and got the whole story from Taylor. Apparently she was in her room when she heard Casey calling her name from inside the box fort. She asked her what she wanted and Casey insisted she come in the box fort, so exasperated, she finally did. She couldn’t see Casey inside though, and a moment later she heard her laughing with me, down in the kitchen.

Where she had always been.

Needless to say, the atmosphere in the room instantly went from warm and comfortable to super creeped out and I felt the need to step up as big sister to lay their fears to rest. We went through the “you’re lying,” bit for awhile, but once both parties were satisfied the other was telling the truth it was time to do some investigating. Grabbing a kitchen knife more for courage than for any real fear for my life, I volunteered to check out the box fort while they waited outside and kept an eye on me.

I am a logical, reasonable person. I greet the supernatural and paranormal with, I think, a healthy degree of skepticism. I am open to the possibility of anything – ghosts, vampires, mermaids, whatever – but I will not believe it until I have solid scientific evidence proving its existence. At the time, in my mind, that had not been produced, which is why I had little trepidation in investigating the fort after that incident. If it happened to be an intruder, well, what could they do to me in a cramped little box fort with my sisters right there? Besides, someone had to do it.

With these thoughts I entered the fort and found… nothing. No ghosties, ghoulies, homeless wanderers, and no one in the house, either. Somehow I managed to convince Taylor that she’d heard the loud TV downstairs mixed with Casey and I’s voices, and we all settled down to eat cookies and watch movies together, comfortably mollified.

Maybe it was an after-effect of the incident during the day, but that night, Casey and Tay both had trouble sleeping. In fact, I woke up in the middle of the night to Casey’s scared voice calling “Muse, Muse!” I’m sure parents with small children probably get used to this, but when I woke up to that I was instantly terrified. I jumped out of bed, grabbed my knife, and ran to her room. For those of you weirded out by the fact that I keep a knife in my bedside table drawer, keep in mind that I’m a fairly petite woman with next to no chance of defending myself against an intruder without a weapon of some sort. Anyway, Casey’s room was dark and when I flipped on her light switch she was sitting up in bed with her eyes wide open, looking like she was going to cry. Seeing nothing amiss, I demanded to know what was wrong. By this time Tay had wandered into the room with Juliet in her arms. Casey told me that she had been sleeping when suddenly she woke up with the feeling that someone was in the room, watching her. She found herself staring at the entrance to the box fort. This chilled me a bit, having had a similar experience, but what she said next was even more strange. She kept her eyes on the entrance, willing herself to stop being creeped out, when suddenly the boxes started to shake like something inside was moving rapidly through them, away from her room. Apparently that’s when she started calling my name, waking up Taylor as well.

For the second time that day, I did a full search of the box fort and the entire house, finding nothing. I would have chalked it up to a dream if it hadn’t been for another strange occurrence the next day. Casey woke up an hour late for work because her alarm didn’t go off. Her alarm didn’t go off because her cell phone was missing, which she claimed she had placed beside her pillow before she went to sleep. Taylor and I made an effort to help her find it before she left, checking her bed and floor and calling it from the home phone, but neither of us was surprised or too concerned about it because she was notorious for misplacing things. When Case came home that evening I asked if it had been there when she woke us up in the middle of the night, and she couldn’t remember seeing it. But she had been texting her friend in bed and made sure to set the alarm and put it beside her. In the end we decided there was nothing to do but wait for it to show up.

At around three in the morning I was woken, yet again, by some sort of commotion outside my room. Again I grabbed my knife and was alarmed by the noise, but mostly what I felt was anger and annoyance: I’d had enough of all the drama and wanted to put an end to it.

Juliet was in my parent’s closet, barking her head off at the box fort, and Casey and Taylor were already up, wondering, like me, what was going on. Taylor picked up the dog and carried her out of the room, and she instantly shut up, leaving Casey and I standing in the closet with bewildered looks on our faces. It was silent for a moment, and then suddenly Katy Perry’s “Hot ‘n’ Cold” song rang out loud and clear, making us jump.

“What the fuck?” I said, still trying to get my half-asleep head around this. Normally my sisters make fun of me when I swear, apparently I don’t do it right, but this time they seemed to find it appropriate.

“That’s my ringtone,” said Casey, looking at me strangely but making no move to get her phone.

“Well, answer it!” I said, exasperated.

Casey lifted the blanket that covered the opening of the box fort, and there was her missing cell phone lying in the centre of the first box, still blaring that song from an inadequate speaker. She flipped it open and put it to her ear.

“Hello?”

I waited for a moment, then asked, “well, who is it?”

Casey made a noise of disgust and closed the phone. “It’s nothing, it was just our voices echoing in the background. They must have hung up.” She folded her arms. “Did you do this?”

“Why the hell would I steal your phone and wake us all up at three in the morning?!” I asked incredulously, and Casey turned to Taylor next.

“I didn’t touch your phone!” She said, with a note of fear in her face.

“Are you guys joking? This isn’t funny!” Casey said, agitated, “you’re scaring me.”

At this point I could see the situation was turning from weird to can’t-sleep-anymore scary, so I sighed and said I would check the whole house over, AGAIN, and proposed that Juliet had used the phone as a chew toy and left it in the box fort. It was the only thing I could think of at the time, and though it seemed to reassure my sisters, it really wasn’t that plausible… Juliet was missing most of her teeth, and the only thing I’d ever seen her play with were soft plush toys, slippers, and dirty underwear (I know, ew.) I doubted she’d ever want a cell phone in her mouth.

There was nothing amiss in the house, and I made sure to double check all the doors and windows this time, too. Everything was locked, we were safe, this had just turned into one of those weeks where a lot of small occurrences were adding up to a big headache. Before I went to bed, I asked Casey if her phone had shown the caller ID for that call.

“No, it just said, ‘Unknown.’ I don’t get why we didn’t hear it, though – it was so loud.”

“I don’t know,” I shrugged, “and change your ring tone.” It was too late to figure things out.

By day everything seemed fine. The three of us hung out at the beach by our house and we all felt pretty good afterwards, laughing and joking about how freaked we all get at the slightest sign of oddness. Casey was going to a party that night so it was just Tay and I at home; I got the sense that Tay was still feeling weird about the box fort, so I decided I’d do my best to make it fun again. I didn’t want another late-night wake up call. I grabbed a pile of old magazines, some scissors, and glue, and suggested we make a collage on one of the inside walls. We had some upbeat music playing and were discussing an upcoming family trip when Tay suddenly leans over and turns the music down, as though she’s listening for something.

“What?” I ask.

“Did you put Juliet outside?” she says, looking confused.

“No, she’s probably downstairs. Why?”

“I didn’t put her out either, but I can hear her barking.”

“Well, maybe Case did before she left,” I said cheerfully, “let’s go check.” For the record, I couldn’t hear anything, but Taylor’s always been more aware of Juliet than I am.

When we checked the backyard we couldn’t find her, and we didn’t hear any barking. I could tell Taylor was getting a bit anxious – she loves that dog – while I was starting to be frustrated. Juliet won’t come when we call her, so we had to search the house yet again. We checked all her favourite hiding spots but there was no sign of her until we got upstairs and were hopping over the box fort to check closets and bedrooms. Taylor straightened up suddenly and told me to “Shh.”

“I hear her again,” she said, making me pause so I too could listen.

“I don’t hear anything,” I said after a few moments.

“Can’t you hear her barking? It sounds like she’s far away.”

“Are you sure it’s not another dog? We didn’t let her out…”

“No, it’s definitely her,” she said, walking into my parents closet to listen at the window. “Come here, it’s louder in here. She’s got to be outside.”

When I said, once again, that I couldn’t hear anything, she rolled her eyes and replied, “you’re deaf, then,” and headed downstairs for her shoes.

We searched for our dog for four hours that night, on foot and in a car, calling Casey home to help later on. My heart was in my throat the entire time, thinking we’d come across something awful at the side of the road, and wondering how I was going to console two girls who loved Juliet like a baby and had never had anything bad happen all their lives. There was also an unsettling feeling at the back of my mind to do with that far-off dog barking, but I pushed that away for the time being.

The next day was spent in anxious endeavour, making posters and putting them up, canvassing the neighbourhood. My poor sisters were close to tears, and I was wondering why this had to happen when my parents were gone. At the end of the night they had settled in to watching a movie half-heartedly, while they waited for a call, and I went upstairs to discreetly call my Mom and ask her to come home early. I didn’t know what was going to happen with our dog but I knew I needed some help consoling my sisters.

When I finally went to bed, the house was quiet: my sisters had locked up the house, turned out the lights, and were sleeping, and I was bored with my book. I couldn’t sleep, and like a few nights previous, I found I couldn’t take my eyes off the entrance to the box fort. I had covered it up with a blanket as I’d intended to earlier, and while that seemed to help somewhat I was still feeling weird about it. At some point I chastised myself in my head (“this is stupid, I’m going to sleep”) and prepared to roll over to the other side, when movement caught the corner of my eye. The blanket cover over the entrance had fluttered a bit, as though a breeze had blown through. This was odd, as all the windows had been closed when we turned on the air conditioning the previous day. I watched intently now, trying to determine in the dim light if the blanket was actually moving in and out as though someone were breathing under it, or if this was just my imagination.

My eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. As I watched, something touched the blanket from inside with a single, slender finger, and traced a vertical path all the way to the bottom.

I’m not a particularly brave person, but something happens to you when you’re in charge of the protection of others – suddenly scary things don’t cripple you with fear because you know you have to be brave for the people you love. I did the only thing, at this moment, that my brain would allow me to do after reasoning with itself and coming to the most logical explanation. I turned on my light, quietly got out of bed, and softly called, “Juliet?”

When my call received no answer I made to step forward, and suddenly the boxes shook as though something were passing through them. I admit, I jumped and my heart started beating a mile a minute, but I also remembered we hadn’t actually checked inside the box fort in all the commotion. Picking up the flashlight that lay on the floor near the entrance, I knelt down and lifted the cover, shining my light inside.

There was nothing in the small tunnel leading out of my bedroom, but I couldn’t see around the corners.
“Juliet,” I called, trying to keep my voice down so as not to wake my sisters. Then again, “Juliet!” but in that stern come-here-this-moment voice. Finally, I heard a quiet whimper, like she used to do when she was a puppy, and that shuffling noise moving further away from me.

I cursed under my breath. Aside from all the “creepy fucking box fort in the middle of the night” associations going through my mind, all I could think of was my little dog hurt and afraid, and how I wanted to get to her before my sisters to see what damage had been done. Things could get hysterical with them real fast if Juliet was in bad shape. So, hero winning out over coward, I got on my hands and knees with the flashlight and went inside.

It was eerily quiet in there, that kind of absence-of-sound quiet that makes you feel like your ears are plugged with cotton, only you can hear your own breath just fine. When I got to the end of the tunnel I looked right first, towards my sisters rooms, but there was nothing there. When I looked left, I heard a shuffling and my flashlight beam caught the tail end of something black turning the corner. Juliet.

“Juliet,” I hissed, “Juliet, come here girl.” I made my voice more sweet and inviting, but that dog never comes when she’s called. I sighed and pushed on further, passing by our aborted attempt at a collage on my way. When I got to the end, I turned my flashlight down the long tunnel leading to the closet. The cheap light wasn’t strong enough to see to the very end – it simply stopped at a wall of blackness.

My resolve wavered here. I must have stayed there on my hands and knees for a full minute before that whimpering noise came to me again and something shuffled further on in the tunnel. It urged me onward. I determinedly made my way towards the closet, each moment expecting my weak flashlight beam to illuminate the red fleece blanket with penguins on it that we had used to cover up the the closet entrance to the fort. But I found nothing.

Not even an opening.

The best way I can describe it is by comparing it to that game we played as children, where you close your eyes, lay on your back on the floor, and raise your arms and legs in the air. Two friends take hold of your hands and feet, and as slowly as possible, lower them to the ground. It feels normal at first, but at some point your brain expects your body to hit the floor, and when it doesn’t, when you keep moving more and more downward, you feel as though you’re impossibly passing through the floor.

That was what it was like being in the tunnel. I kept crawling through, shining my little flashlight on ahead, slowly growing more and more disturbed when I didn’t reach the ending, or see any sign of it. And there was something else nagging me, something about the way the boxes had shook when whatever was inside moved away from me. Juliet is a little dog, a miniature schnauzer. When she walked through the tunnels she didn’t even have to duck; all you could hear was the soft padding of her feet and her nails scratching against the cardboard. The boxes only shook and moved when something big crawled through them, like me.

I don’t know how far I went or how long I was in there, but at some point I actually stopped with a definite “this isn’t right” feeling. I visualized the fort in my head: by my estimation, I should have been somewhere in the back yard by then, suspended two stories into the air. It had finally dawned on me that I was currently located in a space that couldn’t possibly exist, chasing something that was obviously bigger than Juliet… I freaked out and got the fuck out of there.

When crawling in the opposite direction didn’t seem to lead anywhere but a black, endless tunnel, I really lost it and started pulling apart the boxes at the seams, punching my way through and finally finding myself in a tangled mess of blankets and cardboard in the middle of my parents closet.

It must have looked silly, me in a heap on the floor like that, but when I looked up at the close walls of that 5ft by 10ft walk-in closet, goosebumps prickled up my back and arms. It was like stepping outside for a jog, then turning around after 10 minutes of running to find you hadn’t even left your front steps. It just didn’t make sense that I had crawled so far in that tunnel but gone nowhere, and followed something that was somehow still inside. To this day I can’t explain it and I don’t even like to think about it. Even worse, I don’t like to remember that insistent whimpering that followed me all the way back.

Shaking with residual terror, I began dismantling the box fort right then and there. When my sisters emerged from their rooms, bleary eyed and confused, I just mumbled something about having to take it down before mom got home, and continued on with my work.

I left just one box. I figured If I was going crazy, I might as well go full out… thinking of our dog, I left a single box standing in the closet by itself and carried all the rest of them out to the fire pit in our back yard.

The next morning I burned them, and my Mom was home by the afternoon.

That’s not quite the end of the story because there was a bit of happiness in store for us later, but I almost wish it was the end. It wasn’t much “closure” for me, what happened afterwards. We ended up finding Juliet a few days later. She was okay – a little erratic and jumpy for a bit, but happy to see us. My family was so overjoyed that nothing could really dampen their spirits, even a little thing like where I found her. It seemed like for everyone but me, all thoughts of the box fort had been completely washed away.

The day she came home, I was the only one in the house, washing dishes from a pancake breakfast and letting my mind wander. Suddenly I became aware of a muffled scratching and yelping sound coming from somewhere nearby. My heart lifting, I checked the back door, the garage door, and the front door, all to no avail, before I realized the noise was coming from above me. Slowly I made my way upstairs, following the noise all the way to my parents room, and finally to their closed closet door. I opened the door, and my little dog bounded out to me, jumping and barking for my attention.

I got rid of the last box after that, but it may have been too late. Mom came into my room that night, carrying a bundle of socks and underwear and asking me which ones were mine. She still did our laundry sometimes and couldn’t tell what belonged to who. I picked out my things, and as she was leaving she turned around with a grin, chuckling and shaking her head. “Whose Halloween costume is that hanging in my closet? It scared me half to death!”

I put down my book. “What costume?”

“You know, the tall black one with the long arms and the white eyes. It’s very life-like. Is it from a movie or something?”

I only stared at her blankly for a second. “Oh, uh, yeah, it’s mine. I’ll move it downstairs.”

I waited until I heard my Mom’s footsteps move downstairs, then I noiselessly made my way to her room. My fear had an almost hypnotic effect on me that drove me towards the closet: all I knew was that I had to see. The closet door was open, but the light was off. Holding my breath, I flicked it on, and surveyed my surroundings. Clothing, boxes, belts, ties, suitcases, blankets – all were hanging or shelved with some order – then at the back, an empty space about half a foot wide where the clothes had been pushed aside. A single plastic hanger was swinging back and forth, quickly losing momentum. The window beside me was open.


Credit: Julie Taylor (Reddit)

The post Box Fort appeared first on Creepypasta.

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A Deep Analysis of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Historical Interpretations and Character Studies of the Classic Ghost Story (A Spooky Spotlight)

On a hot afternoon in the summer of 2008, I found myself standing on a concrete bridge thirty miles north of New York City, watching the black water of a lazy brook drift into the shadow of yawning trees. Above me the Old Dutch Church rested on a green knoll, where, hard by, Washington Irving’s small, white grave overlooked the old Albany Post Road, where his busybody pedagogue (a prancing caricature fit for one of Shakespeare’s comedies) once raced the Headless Horseman. I was in Sleepy Hollow, and at 21 I still felt the magic and awe that had first drawn me to Washington Irving’s somnambulant universe.
It was more than a story, to me, it was a state of mind, and different as it was from Irving’s 18th century settlement, it still slumbered in the afternoon heat like a snoozing, old Dutchman dreaming of ghost ships gliding up the Hudson. Outshined only by “Rip Van Winkle,” “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” remains Irving’s pop-culture masterpiece. While other stories have more literary merit, few have grappled the public’s imagination as fiercely as this uniquely American fable of greed, fear, and community.
Two of the tale’s elements have ensured its immortality and justified its popularity for over two centuries. The first is the love triangle between a brainy pretender, a brawny protector, and the prettiest girl in town. When I teach this story to my classes, it doesn’t take much to draw them to its archetypal nature: it is the story of the geek and the jock vying for the cheerleader; it’s “Cyrano de Bergerac,” “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Gone with the Wind,” “Casablanca,” “A Tale of Two Cities,” “Twelfth Night.”
The mythic nature of this struggle for possession over the female ideal – patriarchal baggage included – resonates with us deeply. Which is more valuable: intelligence or strength? Ah, but what if the intelligence is sly and the strength is sincere? We find ourselves balancing Ichabod and Brom in the scales of our own judgment – like a good friend, we want to help Katrina make the best choice for her happiness and future. Irving’s characterization may be slight (only a few words of dialogue are delved out, and they are largely shrouded in mystery) but the three main characters are utterly universal. We have all known a Brom, an Ichabod, and a Katrina.

The second element that has worked in the story’s favor is the Hallowe’en holiday, and the coincidental history of a single vegetable. Everyone pictures the Headless Horseman flourishing a flaming jack-o-lantern over his head – complete with ghoulish grin – but Irving’s choice of false head took place nearly twenty years before pumpkins began usurping turnips as the traditional jack-o-lantern vegetable (Irish immigrants from the Potato Famine found that American pumpkins made far better lamps than Irish turnips).
For Irving, the pumpkin was a symbol of Crane’s native New England (“pumpkin eater” was a pejorative term for a Yankee), and Brom’s use of it was like hurling cheese at a Wisconsinite, pretzels at a German, or herring at a Swede. The unintended coincidence of the pumpkin, the ghost story, and the autumnal setting (Irving never says that it is set on Hallowe’en, merely in the midst of “jolly autumn”) has cozily knit “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” into the cultural fabric of Hallowe’en. Nearly every state in America has a Headless Horseman hayride, not to mention at least a dozen cities named Sleepy Hollow renowned for their Hallowe’en celebrations. Another part of the thrill that has lured so many readers over the centuries is the undeniable historicity of so much of the plot.
Not only is Sleepy Hollow a real place (viz. the Pocantico River Valley, downriver of the Old Dutch Church, and today almost entirely unspoiled as part of the Rockefeller State Park Preserve), but most of the characters have historical models. Katrina is based on the spirited Eleanor Van Tassel, Brom on the blacksmith and Revolutionary War hero Brom Martling, and Ichabod on Kinderhook schoolmaster Jesse Merwin.
The places can all largely be visited today in Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown, New York: the Old Dutch Church and Burial Ground (where a pumpkin is annually left on Martling’s grave and Eleanor’s can still be found), the black, rolling brook (the Pocantico), and the two models for the Van Tassel Manor (Irving’s Sunnyside and the Van Cortlandt Manor in nearby Croton-on-Hudson).

You can also find the fearsome glen of Wiley’s Swamp (modern Patriots Park), Ichabod’s trail home (precisely three miles along New York Route 9: from Sunnyside to the Old Dutch Church), the haunted crag of Raven Rock (on Buttermilk Hill in the State Park), and of course Sleepy Hollow itself – the silent and magisterial Pocantico River Valley winding through the Preserve. Irving also laced his story with authentic superstitions: the wailing woman at Raven Rock, the ghost of Major Andre (and his massive tulip tree), and the Headless Horseman himself are all authentic Westchester County legends. What draws most readers to the story, in fact, is the very genuine sense of place and community that it has – the sleepy little town with buried secrets, delicious love triangles, and a powerful past.
II.

These were elements that Irving did not need to manufacture: he exported them from his experiences shooting squirrels in the Sleepy Hollow woods and spending time with the drowsy residents. The fictional version of Sleepy Hollow is disarmingly sublime, but also deceptively defensive: it has a history of welcoming new comers with open arms and watchful eyes – and of violently evicting them if friend dares to become foe. Such was the fate of the Headless Horseman (a mercenary paid to subjugate the county Whigs under British rule) and of Major Andre (a spy who paid Benedict Arnold to hand over nearby West Point).
And Ichabod Crane, too: a scheming carpetbagger who hopes to marry the local belle for her father’s fortune, to liquidate it, and to take the cash with him to the Western Frontier, leaving Sleepy Hollow’s economy deflated and its history vulnerable to the intrusions of other opportunistic outsiders.
The actual “legend” of Sleepy Hollow isn’t the ghost story of the Headless Horseman, or even that of Ichabod Crane. The “legend” is the town’s self-constructed identity, and philosophical method of dealing with invaders – we let them come here if they want, assimilate if they want, but if they try to mess with our community, they’ll join Andre, the Hessian, and the others. The “legend” isn’t a fable or a rumor or a wives’ tale. The “legend” is a warning…
Like “The Sketch Book’s” other Gothic masterpieces, “The Spectre Bridegroom” (“Lenore”) and “Rip Van Winkle” (“Peter Klaus”), “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” borrows from European folklore, infusing the grim self-importance of the source material with burlesque self-deprecation – giving it a uniquely American atmosphere without compromising the sense of Old World wonder.
In the case of “Sleepy Hollow,” the sources are multiform: Karl Musäus’ satirical fairy tale, “The Legend of Rübezahl” (which tells of a Puck-like imp disguising himself as a headless rider and brandishing a turnip like a head), Robert Burns’ delightfully burlesque Gothic misadventure, “Tam O’Shanter” (wherein Tam and his haggard mare are chased by a coven of witches who disappear once he crosses the church bridge), and G. A. Bürger’s “The Wild Huntsman” (describing the transformation of a cruel nobleman into a ghost doomed to ride on the wings of the wind).
Although somewhat anecdotal, another source for the story may come from the original Ichabod himself: Jesse Merwin of Kinderhook. The story goes that Merwin was chased through the woods by a shrouded figure – a prank meant to force him to commit to his long-suffering fiancée, Jane Van Dyk. Bothered by Merwin’s dragging of his heels to the altar, mutual friends met and designed a charivari – a rustic custom meant to frighten ambling lovers into either marrying or call it quits.
One night, after leaving Jane Van Dyck’s house, Merwin found himself being followed by a goblin-like horseman muffled in a cloak. The stalking developed into a race, with the shapeless specter suddenly disappearing in a cackle of familiar laughter. Taking the hint, Merwin proposed and married Jane rather than suffer a lifetime of similar assaults.

There is also, of course, the historical superstition of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow. Irving first heard of the apparition as a child, from an African-American retiree at Carl’s Mill – considered the local haunted house – downriver from the Church. Such a superstition would be understandable. During the Revolutionary War, Westchester County was a practical wasteland of vigilantism, wild west justice, pillaging, raids, heroics, villainy, and anarchy. Sandwiched between the Patriot lines at Peekskill and the British lines at Kingsbridge, it became referred to as “the Neutral Ground,” but was really a wild no-man’s land of lawlessness.
Dozens of brutal skirmishes were recorded between Patriot and Loyalist militias, at least one full-scale battle at White Plains, and countless raids on civilians by the so-called Skinners (Patriot-allied bandits) and the Cowboys (British-allied raiders) – either of whom could switch loyalties for money. Tarrytown was raided by the British at least twice and shelled once, and a cannon was fortified just south of the Old Dutch Church to protect Philipsburg Manor from attacks by Hessian troopers (the notorious Jaeger chasseurs) and British light infantry.
Many harrowing adventures took place in the area, including the famous 1777 raid on the Van Tassel farm (where the two Van Tassel brothers were captured by a mixed force of Hessians and Loyalists, their house burned, and their cattle stolen; meanwhile young Elizabeth Van Tassel’s daughter Leah was saved from the fire by a Hessian soldier, who also saved the two from freezing by bringing them a quilt). Hessian troopers – also called chasseurs or dragoons – in their crimson-trimmed green jackets, were among the most feared adversaries of the Patriots.
Equipped to fight on foot or horseback, armed with light cavalry sabers, pistols, and rifles, they were almost all former foresters (or rangers) paid to range their king’s private woodlands, and were as skilled sharpshooters, riders, and trackers as the infamous Yankee riflemen. A local legend claims that one morning the headless corpse of a Hessian dragoon was found on the Albany Post Road. Remembering the kindness of the German who saved her and her baby, Elizabeth Van Tassel arranged for the stranger to be buried in the Dutch cemetery. His unmarked grave can still be pointed out by the church sexton.
III.

Genuine Tarrytown ghost stories like that of the Galloping Hessian, the sighing spirit of poor Major Andre (captured by Skinners at Andre’s Brook and hanged a month later for espionage), and even the weeping Woman in White at Raven Rock (said to have died during a blizzard after being abandoned by her Loyalist lover) speak to the area’s deep code of local chivalry.
Sleepy Hollow demands that its immigrant residents either become converts to the Sleepy Hollow way of life – to assimilate psychologically to a lifestyle of moderation, imagination, unambitious peace, and collaborative community – or to be expelled. There is a strong sense that the community protects itself from outsiders, invaders, and opportunists – and this, after all, is the “legend” of Sleepy Hollow: come in if you’d like, assimilate if you can, but be prepared for hard riding if you try to mess with us. And Ichabod does just that.
As many commentators have noted, Ichabod – a consummate individualist and loner – never seems to understand the advantages of community and fellowship. In one memorable episode, he is stunned that his schoolhouse’s security system was hacked, but fails to realize that while a single burglar would be stuck by the window stakes, a group of two or more – helping each other – could easily skirt around his precautions.
Ichabod thinks like a loner and never appreciates Sleepy Hollow’s small-town ethos. Many readers skim over the part of the story where Ichabod fantasizes about liquidating the Van Tassel farm and taking Katrina – and a wagon load of Crane-Van Tassel children – to “Kentucky, Tennessee, or the Lord knows where.”
Irving suggests that it is part of his Yankee spirit (New Englanders, as he says, provide the country “with pioneers for the mind as well as for the forest, and sends forth yearly its legions of frontier woodmen and country schoolmasters”). In “Knickerbocker’s History,” Irving unfavorably contrasts the ambitious, pumpkin-eating New Englanders – crafty, hypocritical schemers itching for profit in contrast with their Puritan values – with the easy-going, simple-living, dull-witted Dutchmen.
Writing as Knickerbocker he represents this archetype in the form of noble Baltus – a paradigm of open-minded liberality. The virtual personification of Sleepy Hollow, Baltus doesn’t let the worries of the outside world taint his domestic contentment. Unlike Ichabod (and by proxy, the modernizing cities teeming with ambitious social climbers and unrooted opportunists), Baltus doesn’t see the grass as greener on the other side: he loves his farm, his family, and his community, and his is a life of peace and contentment.
Not so Ichabod: he doesn’t want to replace Baltus – to become the next lord of Sleepy Hollow – he wants to liquidate his legacy, sell off the property to outsiders, pocket the cash, and leave Sleepy Hollow in the hands of strangers. If Ichabod marries Katrina, it will be the end of the community as they know it. No longer will it be a tight-knit, cozy village of neighbors; instead, it will be given over to investors, speculators, and real estate moguls.
This is why Brom’s fight against Ichabod isn’t just for Katrina: it is for Sleepy Hollow’s soul. Note that while Brom is usually depicted as a villain, that he is highly esteemed by the Sleepy Hollow residents, and viewed as something between a judge, trickster, hero, and heartthrob. While Baltus is the king of the Hollow, Brom is its warrior-protector.

Ichabod, on the other hand, is a villain worthy of a Shakespearean comedy: much like Malvolio in “Twelfth Night,” Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice,” or Nick Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Ichabod is ludicrous for his lusty ambition, high self-estimation, physical awkwardness, and his confidence in his ability to dance, woo, and make love. In the end – as in most of Shakespeare’s comedies – the leering villain is cathartically humiliated in a harmlessly hilarious way.
Chased off and humbled, he returns to his proper station in life: in Ichabod’s case he becomes what Irving most loathed – a petty politician and a small-claims lawyer. No fate of any character is more pathetic and lamentable in the Irvingian universe than Ichabod’s – while Balt cozily smokes his pipe on his porch and Brom flies down the rolling roads of Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod is buried in paperwork, clawing for every shilling he can grasp, and putting his sycophantic personality to good work.
While Ichabod – like the mercenary Hessian and the plotting Andre – threatens to bring chaos and change to the time-frozen community, two local agents are responsible for its fate, and serve as exemplars of their respective genders: Brom and Katrina. Brom represents Sleepy Hollow masculinity: easy-going and sincere, yet chivalric and rustic, while Katrina represents Sleepy Hollow feminity: self-aware and empowered, yet watchful and coy.
Katrina is on the precipice of Sleepy Hollow’s community and culture: just as comfortable in traditional garb as she is in modern fashions, she is equally likely to stay in Sleepy Hollow and continue her family traditions, or to be whisked away to some new, progressive place.
Katrina holds the future of Sleepy Hollow in the balance: will she stay and nurture it with her beauty, intelligence, and fortune, or will she leave it to age and die in the company of an outsider man? Ichabod’s seductive sway over females is a recurring pressure point on the community throughout the story: impressed by his “learning,” they quickly tire of their male counterparts – the strong, rough-housing Dutch lads – creating a crisis of masculinity in Sleepy Hollow.
With Katrina as the jury, and Sleepy Hollow’s future on trial, Ichabod serves as the prosecutor, challenging Sleepy Hollow’s gender norms and providing and alternative masculinity: sly, intelligent, scheming, and opportunistic. In truth, Ichabod’s plan to move to Kentucky (which will probably involve developing a plantation and the use of slave labor) has more opportunities for wealth than continuing her father’s legacy in overcrowded Westchester.
The case is made, and the stakes are high. Brom, on the other hand, acts as Sleepy Hollow’s public defender, making its case to Katrina. Note that Irving capitalizes BROM BONES just as he had capitalized SLEEPY HOLLOW. Brom and Sleepy Hollow are one and the same: Brom advances the community’s agenda, serves as its mascot and spokesman, and protects its interests from the schemes of interlopers like Ichabod.
Ichabod is not lured by human companionship and community – not even the company of beautiful women – but by the self-serving attractions of food, wealth, and appetite. If he was lecherous and bawdy, even that – crass as it would be – would have a humanizing effect on his largely self-serving, lone-wolf personality that is more motivated by gratifying its need to consume than by a desire for community and human connections.
This is, in part, why Ichabod is so terrified of ghosts, and why Brom slyly employs local folklore as the coup de grace to drive Ichabod out. “Ghosts” – to Irving – represent culture, community, and fellowship, and ghost story telling operates as a social ritual meant to strengthen and weld communities through their shared narratives.
IV.

A town which perpetuates its unique legends, then, must be a socially and spiritually healthy place where bonds and connections continue to be fostered. Ichabod proves to be cocky and vain when in company, but existentially woeful whenever alone: he loves listening to wild tales by the fire, but dreads the necessitated walk home by himself. Ichabod – by nature a self-seeking, individualistic lone wolf, with no concern for community or fellowship – is forced to confront his vulnerability and uprootedness whenever he is alone: he is forced to realize that he is himself a ghost. His confrontation with the Headless Horseman is a confrontation with reality – a glance into a mirror, a look exchanged with his Doppelgänger.
Like Andre, the spy, and the mercenary Hessian, Ichabod is yet one more casualty of Sleepy Hollow: a community that kicks back against invaders, users, and opportunists. Andre had sought to subject the community for his king, the Hessian for pay, and Ichabod for his ambition, and all three are lost into the vortex of Sleepy Hollow’s terrible revenge.
This is the “legend” of Sleepy Hollow: the moral that those who take advantage of our hospitality – those outsiders who seek to use and disenfranchise us for their own personal gain without any investment into our community or fellowship – will be promptly evicted, or otherwise, destroyed.
But in the end, we are never meant to believe that – whether the actual Horseman is real or not – the figure encountered by Ichabod was supernatural. The pumpkin alone – a bit of visual rhetoric pointing him back to New England’s pumpkin patches – along with Brom’s knowing chuckle are enough to clue us in.
Brom’s tale of his encounter with the Hessian is also telling: in Brom’s story he finds kinship in the Hessian as a fellow lover of horse racing. This not only telegraphs Brom’s eventually role as the Headless Horseman, but further cements his reputation as the personification of Sleepy Hollow and its people: the Horseman – horror of skeptics and outsiders – is no threat to him; merely a chummy comrade.
Using the community’s ghost stories – narratives meant to illustrate reality through the lens of imagination – he frightens off Ichabod with a headless figure. The Hessian’s lack of a head and face are his most frightening features – separated from his visage, he is symbolically divorced from his identity: an anxiety that haunts Ichabod’s insecure ego.
A symbol of anonymity and existential annihilation, the Horseman is faceless, featureless, nameless, and friendless, symbolizing the manner by which Sleepy Hollow avenges itself – by taking ownership of its enemies’ identities, repurposing them for their “legend” and twisting them however they like to fashion a new identity – or lack thereof.
And this stabs at the heart of Ichabod’s insecurities: Irving interestingly alludes to Crane’s psychological state – the brooding insecurities that seem to be constantly simmering below his personality. Depression, loneliness, anxiety, and self-doubt blend with arrogance, egotism, vanity, and pride. The former attitudes thrive in the darkness – the lonely hours, where his existential ennui is let loose – while the later thrive in the light – at work, at parties, at social visits. At his core Ichabod is bifurcated personality torn between self-loathing and rampant egotism. His race with Brom only acerbates those sensitivies, and by confronting Ichabod in the shape of his future self – a faceless, friendless phantom – he successfully dislodges the invader and rescues Sleepy Hollow for posterity.
V.

Yet Brom is not alone. As quiet and helpless as she may have seemed at first (though most readers are immediately alerted by her self-awareness), Katrina has an even more powerful role in Sleepy Hollow’s defense. She had, after all, rejected his proposal before Brom even delivered the final, phantasmic blow. Throughout the story Katrina has seemed like a helpless commodity being bartered for between two merchants, but in reality she has been in control of the entire situation: channeling Brom’s wild nature and love for her by engineering the ludicrous obstacle of Ichabod.
Without Ichabod, Brom – like the perpetual bachelor Washington Irving – would have been content to spend his days riding, roughhousing, and hanging out with the Sleepy Hollow Boys. Katrina – savvy to his chivalrous nature – decides to goad him into commitment by manipulating Ichabod’s vanity. Having secured Brom’s determination to win her back during the party (Brom’s visible jealousy and heartbrokenness during the dance would be all too telling), she sees no reason to string Ichabod along any further, and releases him.
A proto-feminist heroine, Katrina subverts the expectations of her patriarchal society, turning the tables on the men, and gaining control of her courtship through intellect and intuition. And her ultimate choice is made in her best interest: remember that Ichabod’s fantasy involves Katrina serving him food with as much emotional connection between them as a waitress/costumer or servant/master.
On the other hand – at almost the same time that Ichabod is lusting over the idea of Katrina’s “dimpled hand” buttering his desserts, Brom Bones is agonizing over her inattention, sitting in a corner “sorely smitten with love and jealousy.”
Note that Irving lists love before jealousy: unlike Ichabod, Brom truly loves Katrina, and his jealousy is not rooted in his vanity (like Ichabod’s), but in his heart. Far from the “Beauty and the Beast’s” Gaston-like macho villain that many versions turn him into, Irving’s Brom is a gallant figure of rustic chivalry ruled by high values and integrity unlike the people-pleasing pedagogue.
Apparently Katrina is not merely a coquette after all, but rather a sly engineer of her own destiny. By wedding Brom (the masculine ideal of Sleepy Hollow manhood: just, open-handed, open-hearted, unblushing, integral) she (the feminine ideal of Sleepy Hollow womanhood: intelligent, spirited, independent, and savvy) fuses the gap created by Ichabod’s appearance, and order is restored to Sleepy Hollow.
VI.
Today we still fondly remember the story for its blend of humor, fantasy, romance, suspense, and mystery, and it seems to speak deeply to people who come from small towns with quirky personalities – averse to modernization. Irving was always an egalitarian for taking pot shots at heel-dragging conservatives as well as near-sighted radicals, so he must have seen Sleepy Hollow as more than a backwards, backwoods, backwater town fighting in vain against progress. Indeed, Sleepy Hollow seems agreeable to change that doesn’t challenge its very identity. Ichabod is initially accepted along with his marvelous tales of quack science and New England superstitions, and the young people don city fashions without censorship from their old-fashioned-but-easy-going parents.

Irving paints the portrait of a community that accepts outsiders willingly – with the understanding that contact with Sleepy Hollow will invariably change its visitors regardless of how briefly they tarry there. Sleepy Hollow isn’t impervious to all change, but is specifically allergic to urban paternalism and “improvement.”
As Knickerbocker says, “I mention this peaceful spot with all possible laud, for it is in such little retired Dutch valleys, found here and there embosomed in the great State of New York, that population, manners, and customs remain fixed, while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved.”
Ever the moderate, Irving’s Knickerbocker breathes this word with suspicion and woe. “Improvement” means the elimination of folk culture. Perpetually rootless, the cosmopolitan Irving deeply appreciated Sleepy Hollow’s resistance to modern influences: to him it was predictable, stable, and authentic – as untainted by artifice or fashion as its rocks, trees, and brooks. At its root, that is what this story is about: authenticity being bombarded by hypocrisy, sincerity being besieged by flattery, truth being assaulted by falseness, open hearts being undermined by hidden motives.
But even liberal-hearted, open-handed Sleepy Hollow has a secret that it has cultivated over the years – a hidden defense against intruders and improvers – a concealed thistle in its otherwise bucolic flowerbed. It is willing to fight back – believe it or not – between siestas and daydreams. It is willing to preserve its unique culture and to defend its way of life.
Perhaps this was a political message about the American character during a time of concern about foreign interference. Perhaps it was merely a humorous way of caricaturing Americans’ confusing blend of laissez-faire and spirited self-defense. But whatever Irving meant by it, it has remained part of Americans’ cultural identity for two centuries, and still shapes their identity today.
You can find our collection of Washington Irving’s best ghost stories, annotated and illustrated, HERE!
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Give It Everything

Estimated reading time — 10 minutes

Below are a selection of emails from Leonard Tomlins, a person of interest in two separate missing person cases in the North Sheffield area. It has been the conclusion of the writing officer, and his colleagues, that Leonard Tomlins has passed away since the writing of these emails. Until further information can be found, these emails offer the only narrative available on the dual disappearances of Sarah Lither and Samuel Tomlins-Lither.

19:29 19/05/2014
To: James Lang >
Subject: Sorry

Hey man, sorry I haven’t had chance to speak to you before you left. Didn’t really know what to say since I missed your goodbye party. Still, though, I kind of have an excuse. I woke up on Friday and went through the whole routine, cleaned up a little for Sam’s visit, got myself showered and ready and when I went to leave there was a dog waiting by my front door. Like, seriously, just this manky looking little thing with a note around its neck that read,

“Give it everything”.

It was a real curve ball! I took the little thing in and it made itself at home while I went and knocked on some of the neighbours’ doors. After a while I was told about a guy a couple of doors down who had lost his dog a few weeks ago, but when I saw him he told me they’d found their dog dead a couple of miles away in a ditch. By the time I came back it was too late to come see you. So, real sorry for that. I’m going to try and take it to a shelter tomorrow with Sam and then maybe things will be back to normal, and maybe we’ll have heard a bit about your case, eh?

Best of luck.

* * * * * *

16:14 25/05/2014
To: Helen Ansbury
Subject: Apologies Over This Afternoon!

Helen I am so, so so sorry. I cannot emphasize enough that what happened today is not normal! Sam has never behaved like that before. I’ve already made a donation to your website that I think will cover some of the damages Sam caused in your reception area, and I have a friend who works in flooring and I’m sure he could do something about the stain on the rug. And I’m more than willing to pay for any medical expenses that result from the bite on your hand. And, again, I just want to apologise for the mess he caused! Sam is a perfectly healthy and normal child, I don’t know what would have made him do that. I just can’t emphasise it enough. And I know it may be the last thing you want to think about, but please phone me so we can discuss you taking in this dog. I know Sam spun a pretty compelling tale but that dog is not my dog. Sam’s mother and I didn’t buy it for him two years ago, and we’ve not spent the last three months trying to put it down because we want to move to a nicer house with wooden flooring. In fact Sam’s mother and I have split up, we no longer live together and haven’t since Sam was two. I do not have the money to look after this dog, and I don’t believe I can give it the home it deserves. For the sake of the animal please phone me on the number I left at your reception.

Best regards,

Leonard Tomlins

* * * * * *

18:23 27/05/2014
To: James Lang >
Subject: Bad Luck Man

Hey, so I heard about the trial. I mean, I guessed after I didn’t hear from you on Friday, but your mum filled me in when I saw her a couple of days ago and she passed on this new email address. She says you guys get email access for good behaviour, is that right?

So yeah, I don’t think I’ve had the chance to fill you in but I wound up keeping the dog. Sam’s been real weird about it. He went home after the weekend and told Sarah that I bought him the dog. And he says to her, no joke now, that I told him that if he didn’t behave, and tell mummy how important spending time with daddy is, that I’d kill the fucking dog. Next thing Sarah’s phoning me and going nuts. She’s all horrified and threatening to get Alan to come kick my ass, and obviously I’m pretty pissed so I start screaming too and next thing I know some real nasty stuff gets said and we don’t talk for like a week. So yeah, the kid clearly loves the dog, so I didn’t really feel like I had a choice. Guess the next move is taking it to the vets.

Thing is though… I just don’t like the dog. When Sam’s not here it sits and looks at me, and almost never moves. It’s just not right. It doesn’t move right, or behave right. And when Sam does come here it acts real normal, but only around him and even then it’s like it guards him from me. I check in on him at night and it sits on his bed and just stares, and if I come too close it growls. There’s some other, really weird stuff too. I’ve checked a hundred times, and I’m desperate to hear other ideas, but I swear this dog hasn’t been to the toilet at all.

Seriously. Every day I put him out in the garden and I haven’t seen anything left, and it’s not a big garden. And the damn thing eats so much. It went through 50 kilograms of food in a single day! It’s eating through my damn bank account and it’s not a big dog either. Bit bigger than a terrier, but smaller than a Labrador. I must be missing some piece of the puzzle, like maybe it digs a hole and buries the mess? You used to have dogs, is that something they do?

* * * * * *

20:02 05/06/2014
To: James Lang >
Subject: Thanks for the call

Hey.

It was nice speaking to you properly. I know you don’t get long on the phones, and ringing me meant missing out on a chat with your mum. Still though, thanks. So yeah… I followed your advice. It was a really clever idea you had putting talc down on the dog’s bed. Didn’t really go as planned though. Not that it didn’t work, it’s just that what I found didn’t make a lot of sense. I mean, the marks just got real weird. They started out looking like a dog’s but changed with each new print, and next thing you know…

You know what, don’t worry. It just didn’t work… and I’m beginning to think this is actually Sam. Maybe he came home when the teachers weren’t paying attention? I don’t know how… but he must have. I think something is really wrong with him. Every time he comes around it’s just not the same. He sits by that dog for hours, and no matter what I do I can’t go near them when they’re together. Sarah’s been feeling the same way. We’re talking a lot more since Sam’s been misbehaving so much, so that’s one good thing I guess. He’s still going back and forth between us and Sarah thinks that’s the problem. I told her she could take full custody for a month or two to see if it helped, but she didn’t want to take the dog, and Sam would never leave it permanently. He only lets the it stay with me because, and I’m quoting now,

“He needs to make sure Daddy behaves.”

Which… yeah, is probably one of the freakier things I’ve heard in my life, but lately he’s been a pretty freaky kid. I don’t really know how to handle it. The other day I found him letting the dog clean up a cut and the dog was just licking away and Sam was moaning, real loud. Even the neighbours came out to see what was going on and all I could was drag the kid by the collar inside, all the while the dog tried to eat my ankle. I’m pretty sure everyone on this street thinks I’m some sort of weirdo. If you’d heard the noises Sam was making though, you would have thought it too. It wasn’t… right. They aren’t noises a kid should make, or even know how to make. Makes me wonder what he’s been exposed to at Alan’s.

I asked him why he was letting the dog do it, and all Sam could say was that the dog was hungry, and he wanted to feed him, and it felt good. So yeah… thanks for the dog advice man but honestly, I don’t think it’s the dog. I think Sam’s got some serious issues. I think he’s the problem, though I don’t know how or why.

* * * * * *

14:42 06/06/2014
To: Dr.Sletter
Subject: Please Phone Me ASAP URGENT

Dear Dr. Sletter,

I really don’t understand the content of your last email. I would appreciate a phone call so we could discuss what happened in your veterinary office on Thursday afternoon. Typically in situations like this I would pay for any damages or fees the dog incurred, but as far as I’m aware you’ve made no attempt to seek reimbursement. Also, I’ve heard you fired your assistant, which was really unnecessary. It wasn’t her fault that she was bitten by the dog, and as far as I’m aware he’s a stray mongrel so anything she said after being bitten was probably the result of an illness, fever, or maybe even a concussion she had received during the struggle. I know she said some silly things, but let’s be honest about what probably happened. Your business lost another client’s dog during a struggle with mine, and I feel very responsible. I don’t know if that little guy jumped out a window, or made an escape through an unguarded door, but either way I wouldn’t feel comfortable if you blamed the poor woman who got bit, even if she did accuse my dog of swallowing a beagle whole like a snake. It was clearly something said in the panic.

So please, please, phone me, so we can discuss this further.

Best regards,

Leonard Tomlins

* * * * * *

02:00 26/09/2014
To: James Lang >
Subject: Update On Sarah

Hey man,

I know it’s been a while. I didn’t really feel like speaking to anyone after Sarah disappeared. I figured I’d drop you an email though because I’ve changed numbers a couple of times since we last spoke, and I don’t know if you’ve got the right one. I just wanted to say, thanks for trying to help with the search. I know you tried to get out for special circumstances so you could come look, your mother told me the whole ordeal with the parole board. Sorry that at the time I didn’t really think to say thanks.

Now it’s just me to keep on looking. Yesterday all the volunteers officially quit, and the police said they have no choice but to focus on other cases. So this is the first time in a while it’s just been me on my own, not surrounded by cops and volunteers. So yeah… I don’t really know what to do now. Sam’s moving back in tomorrow, he can’t really stay with Alan.

I always thought I’d be such a good dad, but when I told him he’d be living with me he got so happy and jumped up and down and he said,

“I knew he’d fix it! I knew he’d fix it!” and… I don’t know. I guess all I can say is, I’ve raised one fucked up kid. I must be a terrible dad. I don’t know what I did that was so wrong. Sometimes, when I’m feeling really angry, I don’t even blame myself.

I blame that fucking dog.

I need help man. I really need help. Please phone me when you get the chance.

* * * * * *

04:00 21/11/2014
To: James Lang >
Subject: (empty)

Hey,

I wanted to say sorry. I didn’t do a great job being a friend did I? No one’s going to really know what happened, and you’re no different. We used to talk so much, before the wives, and the kids, and whatever it was that got you and your brother in so much trouble. So I just want you to know that they’ll come and ask questions. They’re going to comb this house, and they’re going to want to know so much and they’ll think I’ve got the answers but fuck man… I don’t. You’ll believe me won’t you? You know I would never hurt Sam, or Sarah.

I just went to the shop, and I came back. That’s it.

Seriously, that’s it. Sam was sitting with the dog when I left, I asked if he wanted to come with and obviously he said no, so I just left him there. Then I came back and the house was wrecked. At first I thought an oil pipe under the house must have exploded but then I got closer, and there was this smell. Jesus… I couldn’t even stay in there. I nearly passed out. I’m writing this at the library, I took a shower at my gym. I had to. The stink followed me everywhere I went.

I think… I think it might have finally taken a shit. There was so much of it and it didn’t look like shit. It was like oil, but with hints of red. Like blood. Like blood and oil, about a foot high throughout the entire house. It was turning the walls and floor to mush, like everything had been stewing in the slick broth for years. Gallons of it must have spewed out from that little thing, and from the marks on the wall the force was horrific. I mean, fuck… some of the windows were smashed out. And in one of the walls, embedded in the cheap plasterwork, I even found a tooth.

And a dog collar.

And a ring…

I think it was Sarah’s.

Jesus Christ. I’ve gone fucking mad. Sam’s gone. I think it hurt him. I think it must have. It must have done something to him. I went looking, I went looking through the shit and the blood and the… other stuff, maybe guts, I don’t know, but I couldn’t find him. No trace of him. Nothing.

I won’t be here when you get out. If they ask you about me you can show them this, it won’t help much though. I’ll be dead. I’ve got nothing left. Sarah’s gone. Sam’s gone.

I think I get it now though.

“Give it everything.”


Credit: Christian Wallis

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