It’s a privilege to exchange the dreaming spires of Oxford for the gambrel roofs of Arkham, Massachusetts; the floral Isis for the darkly muttering Miskatonic River.
Here I could research remote New England communities in their moss-covered cottages. Degenerate these people were, but where else might a scholar observe a séance mingling Calvinism with the rites of the long-vanished Pocumtucks, whose stones litter these hills?
The congregation assembled in a barn off the Aylesbury Pike, with the whippoorwills chorusing outside. Two sisters presided: Dinah and Dorcas Burroughs. Missy Dinah declaimed from the Old Testament and apocryphal texts of doubtful authority. Her sister writhed on the floor. Suddenly, she sat upright and declared:
“Ah see Earl Sawyer an’ there’s a treasure fer his wider. Eff’n yew dig in the field behind Bishop’s farm, ah calc’late yew’ll find suthin’ ye’re lookin’ fer!”
Earl Sawyer’s widow seemed glad of this ghostly intelligence. I interviewed the sisters, finding Missy Dinah articulate but her medium sister a sullen mute.
Dinah said, “We’m more to show ye, eff ye durst to larn!”
When the congregation broke up, I accompanied the sisters to an old cemetery where the whippoorwills screeched. Missy Dorcas scrabbled at the putrid earth beneath an illegibly decayed tombstone. Dinah excavated bones and strings of gelatinous flesh. My disgust struggled with scholarly fascination as the sisters concocted a “shewbread” from this necrotic filth. They chanted in fragments of Hebrew and odder tongues, then broke the shewbread and consumed fragments before offering it to me.
“Aold Wizard Whately knew his letters, but Dorcas kint channel him good. We needs larnin’ sich as yewers to read the Eibon Book.”
Nausea gagged me, but my curiosity was inflamed and the whippoorwills’ cries reached a daemonic crescendo.
I remember little of what followed. Certainly, I did eat. Did I accompany the sisters to a cavern underground? Did I read by candlelight from a crumbling book, pronouncing hideous syllables in a voice that was not my own? Did the earth shake at the name of Yog-Sothoth?
I rehabilitated in Danvers Sanatorium. When I recommenced my studies, my health was broken. My grades, once exemplary, were mediocre. Moreover, my tutor, the celebrated Henry Armitage (Ph. D. Princeton) had passed away.
“A sad loss to academia,” his secretary informed me. “To think of the learning he has taken with him.”
I licked my lips.
“Do you perhaps know where his body is buried?”
Another Lovecraftian tale: this time a British graduate student has the misfortune to take a sabbatical at the Miskatonic University in Arkham, MA. The mellifluous narration is by Dr David Hipple.
Lovecraftian ghost stories are never true ghost stories: there's no afterlife in Lovecraft's bleak mythos and no souls, but there are disembodied intelligences and gruesome resurrections. The whipporwills (nightjars) are, according to New England folklore, psychopomps who accompany a death with their nocturnal singing. Lovecraft features them in his story The Dunwich Horror (1929).
Life, my master Lucretius used to say, is one long struggle in the dark. I struggled over the Case of the Mostellaria or ‘Haunted House’.
“First my slave-girl Chlora, then my husband, both dead of the bloody flux,” explained the widow Primilla. “Now my mansion is uninhabitable because of this angry ghost.”
I took notes in Greek, but Lucretius never required them. He studied Primilla closely then instructed her to meet us at the villa after sunset.
I asked, “Has the Husband or the slave Chlora become the ghost?”
“No one becomes a ghost, Felix,” snapped my master. “They are mindless psychic impressions – eidola.”
We were at the villa, searching Primilla’s chamber.
“We are,” Lucretius said, “then we are not, whereupon we care not. Ah – as I thought!”
He had discovered a hidden phial of murky liquid.
A terrible scream came from downstairs.
“Come, Felix: the die is cast.”
In the atrium, Primilla cowered before a female spectre: grey as sea fog, but for the glistening tongue of blood welling from her nose and mouth. I stepped in front of the phantom, but she clasped me with her hideous claws.
“Felix,” Lucretius shouted, seizing Primilla before she could flee. “This woman poisoned her slave, out of jealousy. Then poisoned her husband with her love potions. See clearly!”
And I did see clearly. This was not a hideous ghoul, but an innocent woman, much wronged. She was fair, but hardened by sorrow, and seeking only love.
I told her “Chlora, you are beautiful.”
She pressed her cold lips to mine. Then she was no more.
At sunrise, Lucretius delivered Primilla to the tribune, explaining all her crimes. But I was perplexed.
“Master, if ghosts are insubstantial eidola floating aimlessly,” I pondered, “and if witnesses perceive them as hostile because their guilty feelings misconstrue them to be so…”
Lucretius looked up from his reading, awaiting my question.
“… Why did we perceive Chlora’s ghost to be so fearsome then so tender?”
“Master, I certainly did.”
Lucretius rolled up his scroll impatiently.
“While you believed Primilla to be innocent, you saw Chlora as a threat, but nothing is evil but that thinking makes it so. Study nature’s laws, Felix. They are elementary.”
He returned to his studies and I to my chores.
My master’s philosophy explained so much. But, to this day, I treasure the memory of Chlora’s last tender kiss.
Titus Lucretius Carus (c.99-c.44 BC) was a Roman philosopher-poet whose great work De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) showcases his wisdom, wit and genial personality. Supposedly, he died after going mad from drinking a love potion! This little tale casts Lucretius as a philosophical detective, subjecting supernatural phenomenon to his Epicurean analysis, and assisted by his slave Felix. The dramatic reading is by my friend and classicist, Dr Robert Fielden.
It’s haunted, you know?” said Maxine, the attractive older woman across the hall. She smiled at Jen, but made a quick assessment of me: loser.
With no job, I was bored while Jen worked shifts at the Infirmary. I rearranged things. I pulled the big bookcase aside and discovered the door.
It was green, paint peeling, warped and rickety.
It wasn’t locked. I opened it.
I expected a box room with old cobwebs and mouse droppings. But there was a big space beyond, the twin of our flat. But a better flat. The walls were a creamy eggshell, the furniture elegant, the sofa leather. This wasn’t a cluttered home for a struggling couple: it was a groovy bachelor pad.
I explored. Amazing home cinema. Wine collection. The photos were of a successful young fashionista, snowboarding.
Except, it was me.
Who lived here? I looked for a name plate on the front door and found my own. The door opposite opened. It was Maxine, in a bath towel.
“Oh” she said, and blushed, “it’s you.”
I looked back, through the mystery flat and the green door to our room, with its door to the corridor where Maxine – our Maxine – lived.
“Are you coming inside?” she said and drew me to her, letting her wet towel fall to the floor.
Each day, after Jen left, I pulled aside the bookcase and went through the green door to my other life. I listened to the high-end stereo. I had wild sex with Maxine – other Maxine – on the sofa, in the shower, on the balcony.
“You never sleep over,” Maxine sighed, so I did. When Jen pulled her next night shift, I went through and found Maxine in my bed – my other bed, with the satin sheets – and I stayed there.
I don’t know how long I stayed there.
I returned to find our flat changed. Furniture packed away. Jen sobbing by the window; Maxine – original Maxine – comforting her.
“He’s gone to a better place,” she said.
I said, “Jen?”
Jen turned, saw me and screamed. Maxine screamed. I stumbled backward, passing through the green door like smoke and found myself in a pokey box room full of cobwebs and mouse droppings.
This is where I have to stay. Beyond the door, in the flat – our old flat – I hear a new couple moving in and Maxine warning them:
“It’s haunted, you know…”
Was it inspired by the 1981 hit for Shakin' Stevens....? I really couldn't say...
"The Green Door" is a 1956 song by Bob "Hutch" Davie and Marvin J. Moore. It was a US hit for Jim Lowe and a 1981 UK No 1 for pastiche popstar Shakin' Stevens. The song describes the mysterious club that the narrator cannot get access to: a place where laughing guests and a honkytonk piano hint at a better life, just out of reach.
The Daily Ghost
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