Friday, December 25, 2015

A Christmas Ghost Story

There'll be scary ghost stories,
And tales of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago.
A lot of children (and some adults) are no doubt puzzled by the above lyric from the song, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," made popular in the 1960's by Andy Williams. I know I was, when I was a kid. “Scary ghost stories” were never a holiday tradition in my family, and they probably weren't in yours. They were when Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, but along with other odd Victorian Christmas traditions, such as songs about dying children and greeting cards with pictures of dead birds, they have all but disappeared. A Christmas Carol is all that’s left of the scary ghost story Christmas tradition, and it’s really not all that scary—especially if you are accustomed to watching the Muppet or Mister Magoo version.

Many truly scary stories have been written as a part of this ancient tradition. M. R. James, for instance, before publishing his stories, first read them aloud to his friends on Christmas Eve. However, although James and other writers of his time wrote lots of scary stories to be read at Christmas, surprisingly few of those stories have anything to do with Christmas.

A Facebook friend recently shared an article (Colin Fleming. “Ghosts on the Nog.” The Paris Review 14 Dec. 2014) which includes links to five excellent ghost stories that are actually set at Christmas time. Unfortunately, I found one of the best of these online stories to be barely readable. It was poorly formatted and riddled with scan errors, and nothing kills the atmosphere of a story—especially a scary story—like trying to puzzle out the meaning of a word. ("Be camas...?")

I took the liberty of proofing and editing The Kit-Bag myself, and I have posted it below. It’s quite scary, and best read aloud by candlelight (or by the dim glow of an iPad or Kindle). Pour yourself a glass of eggnog—or whatever beverage you prefer—and enjoy.

By the way, another of the stories referenced in the above article, Christmas Re-union, is incomplete. The link leads to a PDF document that only includes the first page. I have found a complete version elsewhere, and perhaps I will post it next Christmas. What the Dickens; maybe we'll succeed in making ghost stories a Christmas tradition once again.

Merry Christmas!

The Kit-Bag
by Algernon Blackwood (1908)

When the words ‘Not Guilty’ sounded through the crowded courtroom that dark December afternoon, Arthur Wilbraham, the great criminal KC, and leader for the triumphant defence, was represented by his junior; but Johnson, his private secretary, carried the verdict across to his chambers like lightning.

‘It’s what we expected, I think,’ said the barrister, without emotion; ‘and, personally, I am glad the case is over.’ There was no particular sign of pleasure that his defence of John Turk, the murderer, on a plea of insanity, had been successful, for no doubt he felt, as everybody who had watched the case felt, that no man had ever better deserved the gallows.

‘I’m glad too,’ said Johnson. He had sat in the court for ten days watching the face of the man who had carried out with callous detail one of the most brutal and cold-blooded murders of recent years.

The counsel glanced up at his secretary. They were more than employer and employed; for family and other reasons, they were friends. ‘Ah, I remember; yes,’ he said with a kind smile, ‘and you want to get away for Christmas? You’re going to skate and ski in the Alps, aren’t you? If I was your age I’d come with you.’

Johnson laughed shortly. He was a young man of twenty-six, with a delicate face like a girl’s. ‘I can catch the morning boat now,’ he said; ‘but that’s not the reason I’m glad the trial is over. I’m glad it’s over because I’ve seen the last of that man’s dreadful face. It positively haunted me. That white skin, with the black hair brushed low over the forehead, is a thing I shall never forget, and the description of the way the dismembered body was crammed and packed with lime into that—‘

‘Don’t dwell on it, my dear fellow,’ interrupted the other, looking at him curiously out of his keen eyes, ‘don’t think about it. Such pictures have a trick of coming back when one least wants them.’ He paused a moment. ‘Now go,’ he added presently, ‘and enjoy your holiday. I shall want all your energy for my Parliamentary work when you get back. And don’t break your neck skiing.’

Johnson shook hands and took his leave. At the door he turned suddenly.

‘I knew there was something I wanted to ask you,’ he said. ‘Would you mind lending me one of your kit-bags? It’s too late to get one tonight, and I leave in the morning before the shops are open.’

‘Of course; I’ll send Henry over with it to your rooms. You shall have it the moment I get home.’

‘I promise to take great care of it,’ said Johnson gratefully, delighted to think that within thirty hours he would be nearing the brilliant sunshine of the high Alps in winter. The thought of that criminal court was like an evil dream in his mind.

He dined at his club and went on to Bloomsbury, where he occupied the top floor in one of those old, gaunt houses in which the rooms are large and lofty. The floor below his own was vacant and unfurnished, and below that were other lodgers whom he did not know. It was cheerless, and he looked forward heartily to a change. The night was even more cheerless: it was miserable, and few people were about. A cold, sleety rain was driving down the streets before the keenest east wind he had ever felt. It howled dismally among the big, gloomy houses of the great squares, and when he reached his rooms he heard it whistling and shouting over the world of black roofs beyond his windows.

In the hall he met his landlady, shading a candle from the draughts with her thin hand. ‘This come by a man from Mr. Wilbr’im’s, sir.’

She pointed to what was evidently the kit-bag, and Johnson thanked her and took it upstairs with him. ‘I shall be going abroad in the morning for ten days, Mrs. Monks,’ he said. ‘I’ll leave an address for letters.’

‘And I hope you’ll ‘ave a merry Christmas, sir,’ she said, in a raucous, wheezy voice that suggested spirits, ‘and better weather than this.’

‘I hope so too,’ replied her lodger, shuddering a little as the wind went roaring down the street outside.

When he got upstairs he heard the sleet volleying against the window panes. He put his kettle on to make a cup of hot coffee, and then set about putting a few things in order for his absence. ‘And now I must pack—such as my packing is,’ he laughed to himself, and set to work at once.

He liked the packing, for it brought the snow mountains so vividly before him, and made him forget the unpleasant scenes of the past ten days. Besides, it was not elaborate in nature. His friend had lent him the very thing—a stout canvas kit-bag, sack-shaped, with holes round the neck for the brass bar and padlock. It was a bit shapeless, true, and not much to look at, but its capacity was unlimited, and there was no need to pack carefully. He shoved in his waterproof coat, his fur cap and gloves, his skates and climbing boots, his sweaters, snow-boots, and ear-caps; and then on the top of these he piled his woollen shirts and underwear, his thick socks, puttees, and knickerbockers. The dress suit came next, in case the hotel people dressed for dinner, and then, thinking of the best way to pack his white shirts, he paused a moment to reflect. ‘That’s the worst of these kit-bags,’ he mused vaguely, standing in the centre of the sitting-room, where he had come to fetch some string.

It was after ten o’clock. A furious gust of wind rattled the windows as though to hurry him up, and he thought with pity of the poor Londoners whose Christmas would be spent in such a climate, whilst he was skimming over snowy slopes in bright sunshine, and dancing in the evening with rosy-cheeked girls—Ah! that reminded him; he must put in his dancing-pumps and evening socks. He crossed over from his sitting-room to the cupboard on the landing where he kept his linen.

And as he did so he heard someone coming softly up the stairs.

He stood still a moment on the landing to listen. It was Mrs. Monks’s step, he thought; she must he coming up with the last post. But then the steps ceased suddenly, and he heard no more. They were at least two flights down, and he came to the conclusion they were too heavy to be those of his bibulous landlady. No doubt they belonged to a late lodger who had mistaken his floor. He went into his bedroom and packed his pumps and dress-shirts as best he could.

The kit-bag by this time was two-thirds full, and stood upright on its own base like a sack of flour. For the first time he noticed that it was old and dirty, the canvas faded and worn, and that it had obviously been subjected to rather rough treatment. It was not a very nice bag to have sent him—certainly not a new one, or one that his chief valued. He gave the matter a passing thought, and went on with his packing. Once or twice, however, he caught himself wondering who it could have been wandering down below, for Mrs. Monks had not come up with letters, and the floor was empty and unfurnished. From time to time, moreover, he was almost certain he heard a soft tread of someone padding about over the bare boards—cautiously, stealthily, as silently as possible—and, further, that the sounds had been lately coming distinctly nearer.

For the first time in his life he began to feel a little creepy. Then, as though to emphasize this feeling, an odd thing happened: as he left the bedroom, having just packed his recalcitrant white shirts, he noticed that the top of the kit-bag lopped over towards him with an extraordinary resemblance to a human face. The canvas fell into a fold like a nose and forehead, and the brass rings for the padlock just filled the position of the eyes. A shadow—or was it a travel stain? for he could not tell exactly—looked like hair. It gave him rather a turn, for it was so absurdly, so outrageously, like the face of John Turk the murderer.

He laughed, and went into the front room, where the light was stronger.

‘That horrid case has got on my mind,’ he thought; ‘I shall be glad of a change of scene and air.’ In the sitting-room, however, he was not pleased to hear again that stealthy tread upon the stairs, and to realize that it was much closer than before, as well as unmistakably real. And this time he got up and went out to see who it could be creeping about on the upper staircase at so late an hour.

But the sound ceased; there was no one visible on the stairs. He went to the floor below, not without trepidation, and turned on the electric light to make sure that no one was hiding in the empty rooms of the unoccupied suite. There was not a stick of furniture large enough to hide a dog. Then he called over the banisters to Mrs. Monks, but there was no answer, and his voice echoed down into the dark vault of the house, and was lost in the roar of the gale that howled outside. Everyone was in bed and asleep—everyone except himself and the owner of this soft and stealthy tread.

‘My absurd imagination, I suppose,’ he thought. ‘It must have been the wind after all, although—it seemed so very real and close, I thought.’ He went back to his packing. It was by this time getting on towards midnight. He drank his coffee up and lit another pipe—the last before turning in.

It is difficult to say exactly at what point fear begins, when the causes of that fear are not plainly before the eyes. Impressions gather on the surface of the mind, film by film, as ice gathers upon the surface of still water, but often so lightly that they claim no definite recognition from the consciousness. Then a point is reached where the accumulated impressions become a definite emotion, and the mind realizes that something has happened. With something of a start, Johnson suddenly recognized that he felt nervous—oddly nervous; also, that for some time past the causes of this feeling had been gathering slowly in has mind, but that he had only just reached the point where he was forced to acknowledge them.

It was a singular and curious malaise that had come over him, and he hardly knew what to make of it. He felt as though he were doing something that was strongly objected to by another person, another person, moreover, who had some right to object. It was a most disturbing and disagreeable feeling, not unlike the persistent promptings of conscience: almost, in fact, as if he were doing something he knew to be wrong. Yet, though he searched vigorously and honestly in his mind, he could nowhere lay his finger upon the secret of this growing uneasiness, and it perplexed him. More, it distressed and frightened him.

‘Pure nerves, I suppose,’ he said aloud with a forced laugh. ‘Mountain air will cure all that! Ah,’ he added, still speaking to himself, ‘and that reminds me—my snow-glasses.’

He was standing by the door of the bedroom during this brief soliloquy, and as he passed quickly towards the sitting-room to fetch them from the cupboard he saw out of the corner of his eye the indistinct outline of a figure standing on the stairs, a few feet from the top. It was someone in a stooping position, with one hand on the banisters, and the face peering up towards the landing. And at the same moment he heard a shuffling footstep. The person who had been creeping about below all this time had at last come up to his own floor. Who in the world could it be? And what in the name of Heaven did he want?

Johnson caught his breath sharply and stood stock still. Then, after a few seconds’ hesitation, he found his courage, and turned to investigate. The stairs, he saw to his utter amazement, were empty; there was no one. He felt a series of cold shivers run over him, and something about the muscles of his legs gave a little and grew weak. For the space of several minutes he peered steadily into the shadows that congregated about the top of the staircase where he had seen the figure, and then he walked fast—almost ran, in fact—into the light of the front room; but hardly had he passed inside the doorway when he heard someone come up the stairs behind him with a quick bound and go swiftly into his bedroom. It was a heavy, but at the same time a stealthy footstep—the tread of somebody who did not wish to be seen. And it was at this precise moment that the nervousness he had hitherto experienced leaped the boundary line, and entered the state of fear, almost of acute, unreasoning fear. Before it turned into terror there was a further boundary to cross, and beyond that again lay the region of pure horror. Johnson’s position was an unenviable one.

By Jove! That was someone on the stairs, then,’ he muttered, his flesh crawling all over; ‘and whoever it was has now gone into my bedroom.’ His delicate, pale face turned absolutely white, and for some minutes he hardly knew what to think or do. Then he realized intuitively that delay only set a premium upon fear; and he crossed the landing boldly and went straight into the other room, where, a few seconds before, the steps had disappeared.

‘Who’s there? Is that you, Mrs. Monks?’ he called aloud, as he went, and heard the first half of his words echo down the empty stairs, while the second half fell dead against the curtains in a room that apparently held no other human figure than his own.

‘Who’s there?’ he called again, in a voice unnecessarily loud and that only just held firm. ‘What do you want here?’

The curtains swayed very slightly, and, as he saw it, his heart felt as if it almost missed a beat; yet he dashed forward and drew them aside with a rush. A window, streaming with rain, was all that met his gaze. He continued his search, but in vain; the cupboards held nothing but rows of clothes, hanging motionless; and under the bed there was no sign of anyone hiding. He stepped backwards into the middle of the room, and, as he did so, something all but tripped him up. Turning with a sudden spring of alarm he saw—the kit-bag.

‘Odd!’ he thought. ‘That’s not where I left it!’ A few moments before it had surely been on his right, between the bed and the bath; he did not remember having moved it. It was very curious. What in the world was the matter with everything? Were all his senses gone queer? A terrific gust of wind tore at the windows, dashing the sleet against the glass with the force of small gunshot, and then fled away howling dismally over the waste of Bloomsbury roofs. A sudden vision of the Channel next day rose in his mind and recalled him sharply to realities.

‘There’s no one here at any rate; that’s quite clear!’ he exclaimed aloud. Yet at the time he uttered them he knew perfectly well that his words were not true and that he did not believe them himself. He felt exactly as though someone was hiding close about him, watching all his movements, trying to hinder his packing in some way. ‘And two of my senses,’ he added, keeping up the pretence, ‘have played me the most absurd tricks: the steps I heard and the figure I saw were both entirely imaginary.’

He went back to the front room, poked the fire into a blaze, and sat down before it to think. What impressed him more than anything else was the fact that the kit-bag was no longer where he had left it. It had been dragged nearer to the door.

What happened afterwards that night happened, of course, to a man already excited by fear, and was perceived by a man that had not the full and proper control, therefore, of the senses. Outwardly, Johnson remained calm and master of himself to the end, pretending to the very last that everything he witnessed had a natural explanation, or was merely delusions of his tired nerves. But inwardly, in his very heart, he knew all along that someone had been hiding downstairs in the empty suite when he came in, that this person had watched his opportunity and then stealthily made his way up to the bedroom, and that all he saw and heard afterwards, from the moving of the kit-bag to—well, to the other things this story has to tell—were caused directly by the presence of this invisible person.

And it was here, just when he most desired to keep his mind and thoughts controlled, that the vivid pictures received day after day upon the mental plates exposed in the courtroom of the Old Bailey, came strongly to light and developed themselves in the dark room of his inner vision. Unpleasant, haunting memories have a way of coming to life again just when the mind least desires them—in the silent watches of the night, on sleepless pillows, during the lonely hours spent by sick and dying beds. And so now, in the same way, Johnson saw nothing but the dreadful face of John Turk, the murderer, lowering at him from every corner of his mental field of vision; the white skin, the evil eyes, and the fringe of black hair low over the forehead. All the pictures of those ten days in court crowded back into his mind unbidden, and very vivid.

‘This is all rubbish and nerves,’ he exclaimed at length, springing with sudden energy from his chair. ‘I shall finish my packing and go to bed. I’m overwrought, overtired. No doubt, at this rate I shall hear steps and things all night!’

But his face was deadly white all the same. He snatched up his field-glasses and walked across to the bedroom, humming a music-hall song as he went—a trifle too loud to be natural; and the instant he crossed the threshold and stood within the room something turned cold about his heart, and he felt that every hair on his head stood up.

The kit-bag lay close in front of him, several feet nearer to the door than he had left it, and just over its crumpled top he saw a head and face slowly sinking down out of sight as though someone were crouching behind it to hide, and at the same moment a sound like a long-drawn sigh was distinctly audible in the still air about him between the gusts of the storm outside.

Johnson had more courage and will-power than the girlish indecision of his face indicated; but at first such a wave of terror came over him that for some seconds he could do nothing but stand and stare. A violent trembling ran down his back and legs, and he was conscious of a foolish, almost a hysterical, impulse to scream aloud. That sigh seemed in his very ear, and the air still quivered with it. It was unmistakably a human sigh.

‘Who’s there?’ he said at length, finding his voice; but though he meant to speak with loud decision, the tones came out instead in a faint whisper, for he had partly lost the control of his tongue and lips.

He stepped forward, so that he could see all round and over the kit-bag. Of course there was nothing there, nothing but the faded carpet and the bulging canvas sides. He put out his hands and threw open the mouth of the sack where it had fallen over, being only three parts full, and then he saw for the first time that round the inside, some six inches from the top, there ran a broad smear of dull crimson. It was an old and faded blood stain. He uttered a scream, and drew back his hands as if they had been burnt. At the same moment the kit-bag gave a faint, but unmistakable, lurch forward towards the door.

Johnson collapsed backwards, searching with his hands for the support of something solid, and the door, being further behind him than he realized, received his weight just in time to prevent his falling, and shut to with a resounding bang. At the same moment the swinging of his left arm accidentally touched the electric switch, and the light in the room went out.

It was an awkward and disagreeable predicament, and if Johnson had not been possessed of real pluck he might have done all manner of foolish things. As it was, however, he pulled himself together, and groped furiously for the little brass knob to turn the light on again. But the rapid closing of the door had set the coats hanging on it a-swinging, and his fingers became entangled in a confusion of sleeves and pockets, so that it was some moments before he found the switch. And in those few moments of bewilderment and terror two things happened that sent him beyond recall over the boundary into the region of genuine horror—he distinctly heard the kit-bag shuffling heavily across the floor in jerks, and close in front of his face sounded once again the sigh of a human being.

In his anguished efforts to find the brass button on the wall he nearly scraped the nails from his fingers, but even then, in those frenzied moments of alarm—so swift and alert are the impressions of a man keyed-up by a vivid emotion—he had time to realize that he dreaded the return of the light, and that it might be better for him to stay hidden in the merciful screen of darkness. It was but the impulse of a moment, however, and before he had time to act upon it he had yielded automatically to the original desire, and the room was flooded again with light.

But the second instinct had been right. It would have been better for him to have stayed in the shelter of the kind darkness. For there, close before him, bending over the half-packed kit-bag, clear as life in the merciless glare of the electric light, stood the figure of John Turk, the murderer. Not three feet from him the man stood, the fringe of black hair marked plainly against the pallor of the forehead, the whole horrible presentment of the scoundrel, as vivid as he had seen him day after day in the Old Bailey, when he stood there in the dock, cynical and callous, under the very shadow of the gallows.

In a flash Johnson realized what it all meant: the dirty and much-used bag; the smear of crimson within the top; the dreadful stretched condition of the bulging sides. He remembered how the victim’s body had been stuffed into a canvas bag for burial, the ghastly, dismembered fragments forced with lime into this very bag; and the bag itself produced as evidence—it all came back to him as clear as day…

Very softly and stealthily his hand groped behind him for the handle of the door, but before he could actually turn it the very thing that he most of all dreaded came about, and John Turk lifted his devil’s face and looked at him. At the same moment that heavy sigh passed through the air of the room, formulated somehow into words: It’s my bag. And I want it.’

Johnson just remembered clawing the door open, and then falling in a heap upon the floor of the landing, as he tried frantically to make his way into the front room.

He remained unconscious for a long time, and it was still dark when he opened his eyes and realized that he was lying, stiff and bruised, on the cold boards. Then the memory of what he had seen rushed back into his mind, and he promptly fainted again. When he woke the second time the wintry dawn was just beginning to peep in at the windows, painting the stairs a cheerless, dismal grey, and he managed to crawl into the front room, and cover himself with an overcoat in the armchair, where at length he fell asleep.

A great clamour woke him. He recognized Mrs. Monks’s voice, loud and voluble.

‘What! You ain’t been to bed, sir! Are you ill, or has anything ‘appened? And there’s an urgent gentleman to see you, though it ain’t seven o’clock yet, and—’

‘Who is it?’ he stammered. ‘I’m all right, thanks. Fell asleep in my chair, I suppose.’

‘Someone from Mr. Wilb’rim’s, and he says he ought to see you quick before you go abroad, and I told him—‘

‘Show him up, please, at once,’ said Johnson, whose head was whirling, and his mind was still full of dreadful visions.

Mr. Wilbraham’s man came in with many apologies, and explained briefly and quickly that an absurd mistake had been made, and that the wrong kit-bag had been sent over the night before.

‘Henry somehow got hold of the one that came over from the courtoom, and Mr. Wilbraham only discovered it when he saw his own lying in his room, and asked why it had not gone to you,’ the man said.

‘Oh!’ said Johnson stupidly.

‘And he must have brought you the one from the murder case instead, sir, I’m afraid,’ the man continued, without the ghost of an expression on his face. ‘The one John Turk packed the dead body in. Mr. Wilbraham’s awful upset about it, sir, and told me to come over first thing this morning with the right one, as you were leaving by the boat.’

He pointed to a clean-looking kit-bag on the floor, which he had just brought. ‘And I was to bring the other one back, sir,’ he added casually.

For some minutes Johnson could not find his voice. At last he pointed in the direction of his bedroom. ‘Perhaps you would kindly unpack it for me. Just empty the things out on the floor.’

The man disappeared into the other room, and was gone for five minutes. Johnson heard the shifting to and fro of the bag, and the rattle of the skates and boots being unpacked.

‘Thank you, sir,’ the man said, returning with the bag folded over his arm. ‘And can I do anything more to help you, sir?’

‘What is it?’ asked Johnson, seeing that he still had something he wished to say.

The man shuffled and looked mysterious. ‘Beg pardon, sir, but knowing your interest in the Turk case, I thought you’d maybe like to know what’s happened—’


‘John Turk killed hisself last night with poison immediately on getting his release, and he left a note for Mr. Wilbraham saying as he’d be much obliged if they’d have him put away, same as the woman he murdered, in the old kit-bag.’

‘What time—did he do it?’ asked Johnson.

‘Ten o’clock last night, sir, the warder says.’

Saturday, November 21, 2015

My Childhood World

Our family moved a lot when my brother, my sister, and I were growing up. It was difficult for us, always having to leave friends behind and make new ones, but I'm grateful that we had the opportunity to be exposed to different places and people. It gave us a broader view of the world. Still, I sometimes wonder what life would have been like if we had stayed in one place. And the place I wonder most about is Warsaw, Indiana.

We lived there for only nine years—from when I was three years old to when I was twelve—but those were some of the most memorable years of my life. During that time, I began to make friends, I became a big brother (twice), and my world began to expand—from our little house and yard, out into our neighborhood and town.

The places I visited during that time are more strongly imprinted in my memory than any place I have visited since. I have often revisited them in dreams. I have even revisited them a time or two when I was awake (always furtively, like some creepy voyeur).

Then, a few years ago, I discovered Google Street View. At that time there were gaps; I found our house, but I could not explore beyond the end of our street. However, I went back last week, and I'm happy to report that my childhood world has now been completely mapped. I can now visit it at my leisure, any time I like, without leaving home. I spent some time there last weekend, and I think I'll go back today. Care to come along?

Here's our house—a typical post-WWII cracker box surrounded by other typical post-WWII cracker boxes:

We’re standing in the middle of North Harrison Street, facing east. (Don’t worry; there’s not much traffic. When I lived here, there was almost none.) That big tree in the yard? It wasn’t there when I lived here. Here’s what the house looked like in the summer of 1958, just after we moved in:

Turn left, and we’re looking north on Harrison Street:

The street was less than half a mile long when I lived here. Down at the north end there used to be a duck farm; now there's a hospital. There were no houses on the left side of the street when we moved in. Back then, there was nothing across the street but trees—a big, old, spooky woods (which my friends and I imaginatively referred to as “The Woods”). I still have nightmares about being lost in there at night.

Back then, there was only one house across the street from us:

You can’t see it, but it’s back there, behind the trees. It was decades old decades ago—the oldest house in the neighborhood, the only house in the woods—like something from the Brothers Grimm. This was the edge of town then, and living here was like living on the edge of a fairy tale—exciting and wonderful, but also scary. Our first winter here, the power went out and we had no heat. My dad went into the woods (at night!) with an ax to gather firewood. He got a fire going in the fireplace, and he, my mother (who was very pregnant with my sister), and I spent the night on the living-room sofa, snug and warm.

Turn left again and we’re facing south on Harrison:

This is the way I used to walk to school. It’s not far—less than half a mile. Let's go!

Harrison used to end here, at Sheridan Street. You had no choice but to make a right at the curve (which my friends and I imaginatively referred to as “The Curve”) and head west on Sheridan. Just two blocks west on Sheridan, and we're at Lincoln Street:

I did crossing guard duty on this corner. Once, some jerk almost killed me when I was riding my bike here. I was scared, but I was also furious. I knew I had the right-of-way, and I had used my hand signals, just as I had been taught in bicycle safety class. I learned a valuable lesson that day: just because you always obey the rules doesn't mean other people will.

One block south on Lincoln, and we’re at my old school, Lincoln Elementary:

It hasn’t changed much, except that the trees are bigger. Once, when I was in sixth grade, I stayed out all night with a couple of friends who, like me, were astronomy buffs. When we got bored looking at the stars and planets through my friend's telescope, we walked to the school and did a little trespassing: played on the playground equipment and even climbed up on the roof of the school. (I was quite the juvenile delinquent in those days.)

From here, it’s only about a mile to the center of town. Shall we go? It’s a longish walk, but when I was kid, I could get there on my bike in just a few minutes. We'll continue south on Lincoln for a block, turn right on Center, and head west:

"Center Plaza?" There was no "plaza" when I was a kid. When we moved to town, there was just a supermarket on this corner, then Judd Drugs opened next door. My friends and I spent a lot of time at Judd's: browsing through comic books, buying candy and soda pop. Judd's had to have been one of the last drug stores in the country to be built with a soda fountain. You could get a phosphate or a flavored Coke for just a nickel. (Does that make me sound old? Well, I am.) Looks like the only store left in this plaza that was here when I was a kid is the Ace Hardware. It opened just before we left town.

After traveling west on Center Street for about a mile, we're at Buffalo* Street:

To the right is the courthouse. The building on the left is now City Hall. It used to be a bank, and the offices of my dad's law firm used to be on the second floor: dark rooms with creaky floors and the intoxicating aroma of old books and pipe tobacco.

Turn right on Buffalo and halfway down the block, across from the courthouse, were two of my favorite places:

"Readers World” used to be called “ReadMore Books;” it was the first bookstore I ever visited, and it started a life-long love affair with bookstores. Unfortunately, according to an article I found online, Readers World closed its doors in 2010. The article stated that there had been "a newsstand/bookstore at that building on Buffalo Street since 1947." (Damn you, Amazon.)

The restaurant next door, "B-Macs," is still around. Back when I was a kid, it was the Humpty Dumpty Grill:

Nothing special: just a diner with a grill, counter and stools on one side and booths on the other. I loved to come here for lunch with my mother. She would order a hamburger, I would order a grilled cheese, and we would both order vanilla milkshakes. And as we ate our lunch, we would both admire the lifelike portraits of cowboys and Indians that covered the walls. The murals were the work of an artist named Fred Olds. It was obvious from his paintings that he loved the West. In 1962 he moved there, becoming artist-in-residence for the Oklahoma Historical Society. Unfortunately, no one thought to preserve the murals Fred painted on the walls of the Humpty Dumpty, but I did find this mural of the 1889 Land Run he painted for the Oklahoma Territorial Museum:

Continuing north to the next corner, we end our tour at one of my very favorite places. Here’s what the corner of Buffalo and Main looks like today:

At the end of Buffalo Street you can see Center Lake, where we went for swims and family picnics. In the winter, they used to put an old car out on the ice, and there was a contest to see who could come closest to guessing when it would fall through in the spring.

But it’s the building on the corner I’m talking about. It used to be the Lake Theater, where my dad took me to see Disney films starring Tommy Kirk or Hayley Mills (my first crush) and, when I was a little older, my friends and I went on our own to see the latest film starring Jerry Lewis or Elvis Presley, or (if we were feeling brave) a monster movie featuring an overgrown lizard or creature from outer space.

It makes me a little sad that the Lake Theater is gone. But at least the building is still there, and I can still picture it the way it was.

And that makes me happy.


* In case you're wondering how a street in Warsaw, Indiana, came to be named "Buffalo," I found the following explanation on the Internet:
At this juncture the suggestion was made by one of the party that the young engineers who had rendered valuable services be accorded recognition by naming a street in complement to each of them. The names of the young men, however, could scarcely be called euphonious, and, as one of them is said to have remarked, were inappropriate for street nomenclature. The suggestion was therefore made that a street be named in honor of the home town of each. Thereupon Buffalo and Detroit streets came into being.
(How Warsaw Streets Got Their Names, Edwin C. Aborn, 1932.) I only wish Mr. Aborn had told us the name that was deemed "inappropriate for street nomenclature."

Saturday, November 7, 2015

A Colossal Waste of Time

This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.

As the above riddle from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit attests, time is a terrible thing. And as if it weren't bad enough, we humans have contrived a way to make it worse. Last weekend was the end of daylight saving time for most of us here in the United States.* In our house, that meant resetting a dozen or so different clocks and timers—most of which are digital, each of which must be set by using a different sequence of buttons, none of which sequences we can ever remember from one time change to the next.

What a colossal waste of time.

Why do we even have daylight saving time? Some people think it has something to do with farmers, but the truth is that farmers have historically opposed it. Some credit (or blame) Benjamin Franklin, but he had nothing to do with it either. No, according to Wikipedia, the person who originally came up with the brilliant idea of resetting our clocks twice a year, needlessly complicating our lives and disrupting our sleep patterns, was one George V. Hudson, a New Zealand entomologist who proposed it solely so that he could have another hour or two of daylight at the end of the day to collect specimens.

The bloody selfish bug-loving bastard.

Trust me, I am not the only person who thinks the idea is idiotic. Every year, reasonable people question why we continue to torture ourselves with DST. Some advocate eliminating it. Others would like to see us stay on DST year-round. (We might as well; we are now on it for two-thirds of the year.) I would be happy either way, but I don't foresee a change in my lifetime.

Because, believe it or not, there are some people who like daylight saving time—and not just because of that extra hour of afternoon daylight in the summer. They look forward to setting their clocks back in the fall, because they think this gives them an extra hour of sleep. Fools! All you are getting is the same hour back that was taken away from you eight months ago, and most of that hour is wasted resetting clocks! And you aren't even getting interest for that hour! I calculate, at a modest rate of 1%, we should be getting at least sixteen additional minutes of sleep when we "fall back."

Personally, I don't get any extra sleep. If anything, I get less. This is because, unlike the dozen or so clocks and timers in our house, my body's internal clock cannot simply be reset with a button or two. It takes days to adjust. Here it is a week later, and I am still waking up and falling asleep at the same time I woke up and fell asleep last week—except now that time is an hour earlier. I feel tired and out of sync. I'm useless at work. (At least that much hasn't changed.) To me, daylight saving time is like a bad case of jet lag without any jet.

Animals understand this—or rather, they don't. We have two cats and two rabbits in our house, and I can attest to the fact that not one of them understands the concept of daylight saving time. They expect us to get up and go to bed—and, most importantly, to feed them—at the same time we did last week. They live their lives according to their internal clocks, with no regard whatsoever for the dozen or so clocks and timers in our house.

I can't wait until I can retire and do the same.

Real rabbits never do this.


* A couple of states have had the good sense to reject daylight saving time. My home state of Indiana used to be one of them, until they gave in and adopted it in 2006. (Really, Indiana? If the rest of the states jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?)

Saturday, October 31, 2015

A Tale to Tremble By

This month I have been obsessing over some of my favorite Halloween books, particularly the Tales to Tremble By anthologies of my childhood. The books are long out of print, but the stories within are all in the public domain and can be found in one format or another on the Internet. I had this crazy idea that I would collect them all and make them into an e-book for my Kindle.

Last week I shared the story I had the most difficulty tracking down: the anonymous Scottish tale of The Sutor of Selkirk. This week I present one that was very easy to find: Adventure of the German Student, by Washington Irving—yes, the same Washington Irving who wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. In my opinion, the following story is far more horrifying than that of the Headless Horseman. Although you will no doubt quickly realize where the story is headed (heh-heh), the ending is still shocking. I'm sure it gave me nightmares when I read it fifty years ago, and it still has an impact when I read it now.

Enjoy the story, and if you have a Kindle and would like to read all of the stories from Tales to Tremble By and More Tales to Tremble By, you are welcome to download my AZW3 file, here. After downloading the file, copy it to your Kindle using these instructions. Better yet, download and install Calibre, the shareware I used to create my e-book. Calibre is an excellent tool for creating, editing, and organizing e-books. Think of it as iTunes for e-books; when you connect your Kindle (or other e-reader) to your computer, Calibre automatically recognizes it and allows you to easily transfer your e-books in the same way iTunes allows you to transfer music files to your iPod or iPhone. You can also use Calibre to convert my AZW3 file to another format, such as EPUB, PDF, or RTF.

Happy Halloween!

Adventure of the German Student
by Washington Irving

On a stormy night, in the tempestuous times of the French Revolution, a young German was returning to his lodgings, at a late hour, across the old part of Paris. The lightning gleamed, and the loud claps of thunder rattled through the lofty narrow streets—but I should first tell you something about this young German.

Gottfried Wolfgang was a young man of good family. He had studied for some time at Göttingen, but being of a visionary and enthusiastic character, he had wandered into those wild and speculative doctrines which have so often bewildered German students. His secluded life, his intense application, and the singular nature of his studies, had an effect on both mind and body. His health was impaired; his imagination diseased. He had been indulging in fanciful speculations on spiritual essences, until, like Swedenborg, he had an ideal world of his own around him. He took up a notion, I do not know from what cause, that there was an evil influence hanging over him; an evil genius or spirit seeking to ensnare him and ensure his perdition. Such an idea working on his melancholy temperament produced the most gloomy effects. He became haggard and desponding. His friends discovered the mental malady preying upon him, and determined that the best cure was a change of scene; he was sent, therefore, to finish his studies amidst the splendours and gaieties of Paris.

Wolfgang arrived at Paris at the breaking out of the revolution. The popular delirium at first caught his enthusiastic mind, and he was captivated by the political and philosophical theories of the day: but the scenes of blood which followed shocked his sensitive nature, disgusted him with society and the world, and made him more than ever a recluse. He shut himself up in a solitary apartment in the Pays Latin, the quarter of students. There, in a gloomy street not far from the monastic walls of the Sorbonne, he pursued his favorite speculations. Sometimes he spent hours together in the great libraries of Paris, those catacombs of departed authors, rummaging among their hoards of dusty and obsolete works in quest of food for his unhealthy appetite. He was, in a manner, a literary ghoul, feeding in the charnel-house of decayed literature.

Wolfgang, though solitary and recluse, was of an ardent temperament, but for a time it operated merely upon his imagination. He was too shy and ignorant of the world to make any advances to the fair, but he was a passionate admirer of female beauty, and in his lonely chamber would often lose himself in reveries on forms and faces which he had seen, and his fancy would deck out images of loveliness far surpassing the reality.

While his mind was in this excited and sublimated state, a dream produced an extraordinary effect upon him. It was of a female face of transcendent beauty. So strong was the impression made, that he dreamt of it again and again. It haunted his thoughts by day, his slumbers by night; in fine, he became passionately enamored of this shadow of a dream. This lasted so long that it became one of those fixed ideas which haunt the minds of melancholy men, and are at times mistaken for madness.

Such was Gottfried Wolfgang, and such his situation at the time I mentioned. He was returning home late one stormy night, through some of the old and gloomy streets of the Marais, the ancient part of Paris. The loud claps of thunder rattled among the high houses of the narrow streets. He came to the Place de Grève, the square, where public executions are performed. The lightning quivered about the pinnacles of the ancient Hôtel de Ville, and shed flickering gleams over the open space in front. As Wolfgang was crossing the square, he shrank back with horror at finding himself close by the guillotine. It was the height of the reign of terror, when this dreadful instrument of death stood ever ready, and its scaffold was continually running with the blood of the virtuous and the brave. It had that very day been actively employed in the work of carnage, and there it stood in grim array, amidst a silent and sleeping city, waiting for fresh victims.

Wolfgang’s heart sickened within him, and he was turning shuddering from the horrible engine, when he beheld a shadowy form, cowering as it were at the foot of the steps which led up to the scaffold. A succession of vivid flashes of lightning revealed it more distinctly. It was a female figure, dressed in black. She was seated on one of the lower steps of the scaffold, leaning forward, her face hid in her lap; and her long dishevelled tresses hanging to the ground, streaming with the rain which fell in torrents. Wolfgang paused. There was something awful in this solitary monument of woe. The female had the appearance of being above the common order. He knew the times to be full of vicissitude, and that many a fair head, which had once been pillowed on down, now wandered houseless. Perhaps this was some poor mourner whom the dreadful axe had rendered desolate, and who sat here heart-broken on the strand of existence, from which all that was dear to her had been launched into eternity.

He approached, and addressed her in the accents of sympathy. She raised her head and gazed wildly at him. What was his astonishment at beholding, by the bright glare of the lightning, the very face which had haunted him in his dreams. It was pale and disconsolate, but ravishingly beautiful.

Trembling with violent and conflicting emotions, Wolfgang again accosted her. He spoke something of her being exposed at such an hour of the night, and to the fury of such a storm, and offered to conduct her to her friends. She pointed to the guillotine with a gesture of dreadful signification.

“I have no friend on earth!” said she.

“But you have a home,” said Wolfgang.

“Yes—in the grave!”

The heart of the student melted at the words.

“If a stranger dare make an offer,” said he, “without danger of being misunderstood, I would offer my humble dwelling as a shelter; myself as a devoted friend. I am friendless myself in Paris, and a stranger in the land; but if my life could be of service, it is at your disposal, and should be sacrificed before harm or indignity should come to you.”

There was an honest earnestness in the young man’s manner that had its effect. His foreign accent, too, was in his favor; it showed him not to be a hackneyed inhabitant of Paris. Indeed, there is an eloquence in true enthusiasm that is not to be doubted. The homeless stranger confided herself implicitly to the protection of the student.

He supported her faltering steps across the Pont Neuf, and by the place where the statue of Henry the Fourth had been overthrown by the populace. The storm had abated, and the thunder rumbled at a distance. All Paris was quiet; that great volcano of human passion slumbered for a while, to gather fresh strength for the next day’s eruption. The student conducted his charge through the ancient streets of the Pays Latin, and by the dusky walls of the Sorbonne, to the great dingy hotel which he inhabited. The old portress who admitted them stared with surprise at the unusual sight of the melancholy Wolfgang, with a female companion.

On entering his apartment, the student, for the first time, blushed at the scantiness and indifference of his dwelling. He had but one chamber—an old-fashioned saloon—heavily carved, and fantastically furnished with the remains of former magnificence, for it was one of those hotels in the quarter of the Luxembourg palace which had once belonged to nobility. It was lumbered with books and papers, and all the usual apparatus of a student, and his bed stood in a recess at one end.

When lights were brought, and Wolfgang had a better opportunity of contemplating the stranger, he was more than ever intoxicated by her beauty. Her face was pale, but of a dazzling fairness, set off by a profusion of raven hair that hung clustering about it. Her eyes were large and brilliant, with a singular expression approaching almost to wildness. As far as her black dress permitted her shape to be seen, it was of perfect symmetry. Her whole appearance was highly striking, though she was dressed in the simplest style. The only thing approaching to an ornament which she wore, was a broad black band round her neck, clasped by diamonds.

The perplexity now commenced with the student how to dispose of the helpless being thus thrown upon his protection. He thought of abandoning his chamber to her, and seeking shelter for himself elsewhere. Still he was so fascinated by her charms, there seemed to be such a spell upon his thoughts and senses, that he could not tear himself from her presence. Her manner, too, was singular and unaccountable. She spoke no more of the guillotine. Her grief had abated. The attentions of the student had first won her confidence, and then, apparently, her heart. She was evidently an enthusiast like himself, and enthusiasts soon understand each other.

In the infatuation of the moment, Wolfgang avowed his passion for her. He told her the story of his mysterious dream, and how she had possessed his heart before he had even seen her. She was strangely affected by his recital, and acknowledged to have felt an impulse towards him equally unaccountable. It was the time for wild theory and wild actions. Old prejudices and superstitions were done away; everything was under the sway of the “Goddess of Reason.” Among other rubbish of the old times, the forms and ceremonies of marriage began to be considered superfluous bonds for honorable minds. Social compacts were the vogue. Wolfgang was too much of theorist not to be tainted by the liberal doctrines of the day.

“Why should we separate?” said he: “our hearts are united; in the eye of reason and honor we are as one. What need is there of sordid forms to bind high souls together?”

The stranger listened with emotion: she had evidently received illumination at the same school.

“You have no home nor family,” continued he: “Let me be everything to you, or rather let us be everything to one another. If form is necessary, form shall be observed—there is my hand. I pledge myself to you forever.”

“Forever?” said the stranger, solemnly.

“Forever!” repeated Wolfgang.

The stranger clasped the hand extended to her: “Then I am yours,” murmured she, and sank upon his bosom.

The next morning the student left his bride sleeping, and sallied forth at an early hour to seek more spacious apartments suitable to the change in his situation. When he returned, he found the stranger lying with her head hanging over the bed, and one arm thrown over it. He spoke to her, but received no reply. He advanced to awaken her from her uneasy posture. On taking her hand, it was cold—there was no pulsation—her face was pallid and ghastly. In a word, she was a corpse.

Horrified and frantic, he alarmed the house. A scene of confusion ensued. The police was summoned. As the officer of police entered the room, he started back on beholding the corpse.

“Great heaven!” cried he, “how did this woman come here?”

“Do you know anything about her?” said Wolfgang eagerly.

“Do I?” exclaimed the officer: “she was guillotined yesterday.”

He stepped forward; undid the black collar round the neck of the corpse, and the head rolled on the floor!

The student burst into a frenzy. “The fiend! the fiend has gained possession of me!” shrieked he; “I am lost forever.”

They tried to soothe him, but in vain. He was possessed with the frightful belief that an evil spirit had reanimated the dead body to ensnare him. He went distracted, and died in a mad-house.

Here the old gentleman with the haunted head finished his narrative.

“And is this really a fact?” said the inquisitive gentleman.

“A fact not to be doubted,” replied the other. “I had it from the best authority. The student told it me himself. I saw him in a mad-house in Paris.”

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Googling a Gaelic Ghost

As I mentioned earlier this month, among my favorite books for the Halloween season are two horror anthologies by Stephen Sutton: Tales to Tremble By and More Tales to Tremble By. After writing about these childhood favorites, I suddenly had the urge to read them again. I knew I had them somewhere, tucked among the hundreds of books in one of several bookcases in the house, or possibly in a box in the garage. I made a perfunctory search, but I was not able to find them. Even if I had been able to find them, since I have gotten used to reading on a Kindle, I no longer care to carry books around with me (especially books that are nearly as old and fragile as I am).

If only I could find TtTB and MTtTB in Kindle format.

Unfortunately, both books are out of print and will probably never be re-released—either for Kindle or in any other format. However, the stories in them were ancient when I first read them fifty years ago. If they weren't in the public domain then, they must be by now. Perhaps I could find them online and create my own Kindle book! I found lists of all the stories contained in each volume, and I began my search. Sure enough, within a week I had found every story but one: "The Suitor of Selkirk" by Anonymous.

Anonymous. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to find a story that has no author?

I considered giving up. After all, I had found most of the stories from TtTB and all of the stories from MTtTB. But I was obsessed. Who was this Suitor of Selkirk? The ghost of a star-crossed lover? The ghost of a petitioner in a lawsuit? I must have read the story as a child, but for the life of me I could not remember it, and I had to know.

I found one other reference to the story in a review of a 1935 horror anthology: More Great Tales of Horror, by Marjorie Bowen (aka Margaret Gabrielle Vere Campbell Long). Unfortunately, I could not find an electronic version of MGToH, either. However, the description of it told me that the story was originally from something called The Odd Volume. When I searched for "suitor of selkirk odd volume," Google informed me that it was also "Including results for sutor of selkirk odd volume." (This is why I use Google. Would Yahoo or Bing have gone that extra mile? I don't think so.)

I Googled the word "sutor" and found that it meant "a cobbler or shoemaker." By this time, I had also found my copy of TtTB. (It had been on a shelf not three feet from my head, hidden behind another row of books.) Sure enough, the story was actually titled "The Sutor of Selkirk," and was the account of a Scottish shoemaker's encounter with a mysterious customer. Someone had mistakenly corrected "sutor" to "suitor" in references to the contents of both TtTB and MGToH.

Once I had the spelling of "sutor" right, I immediately found the story posted on a site called Electric Scotland. That version had been scanned from an 1896 volume: The Book of Scottish Story. I also found it in an 1829 volume of The Edinburgh Literary Journal, scanned by Google Books. Both versions looked to be the same, and were considerably more Scottish than the version in TtTB. Somewhere along the way, someone had anglicized many of the more obscure expressions. (I suspect Marjorie Bowen, aka Margaret Gabrielle Vere Campbell Long. Anyone with that many names can't be trusted.)

For example, “He smells awfully o’ yird,” was changed to simply, “He smells awfully,” which gives the sentence a completely different meaning. It indicates the sutor's mysterious customer has an inferior sense of smell. (Which, come to think of it, he probably does, being dead.*

The complete story is below. I corrected a few typos and scan errors, but I left all of the Scottish expressions intact. You should be able to figure out their meaning from the context; if not, there's always Google. It's a fine ghost story full of wry gallows humor, and well worth the extra effort.

I will tell you this much: "yird" means "earth."

The Sutor of Selkirk: A Remarkably True Story

Once upon a time, there lived in Selkirk a shoemaker, by name Rabbie Heckspeckle, who was celebrated both for dexterity in his trade, and for some other qualifications of a less profitable nature. Rabbie was a thin, meagre-looking personage, with lank black hair, a cadaverous countenance, and a long, flexible, secret-smelling nose. In short, he was the Paul Pry of the town. Not an old wife in the parish could buy a new scarlet rokelay without Rabbie knowing within a groat of the cost; the doctor could not dine with the minister but Rabbie could tell whether sheep’s-head or haggis formed the staple commodity of the repast; and it was even said that he was acquainted with the grunt of every sow, and the cackle of every individual hen, in his neighbourhood; but this wants confirmation. His wife, Bridget, endeavoured to confine his excursive fancy, and to chain him down to his awl, reminding him it was all they had to depend on; but her interference met with exactly that degree of attention which husbands usually bestow on the advice tendered by their better halves—that is to say, Rabbie informed her that she knew nothing of the matter, that her understanding required stretching, and finally, that if she presumed to meddle in his affairs, he would be under the disagreeable necessity of giving her a top-dressing.

To secure the necessary leisure for his researches, Rabbie was in the habit of rising to his work long before the dawn; and he was one morning busily engaged putting the finishing stitches to a pair of shoes for the exciseman, when the door of his dwelling, which he thought was carefully fastened, was suddenly opened, and a tall figure, enveloped in a large black cloak, and with a broad-brimmed hat drawn over his brows, stalked into the shop. Rabbie stared at his visitor, wondering what could have occasioned this early call, and wondering still more that a stranger should have arrived in the town without his knowledge.

“You’re early afoot, sir,” quoth Rabbie. “Lucky Wakerife’s cock will no craw for a good half hour yet.”

The stranger vouchsafed no reply; but taking up one of the shoes Rabbie had just finished, deliberately put it on, and took a turn through the room to ascertain that it did not pinch his extremities. During these operations, Rabbie kept a watchful eye on his customer.

“He smells awfully o’ yird,” muttered Rabbie to himself; “ane would be ready to swear he had just cam frae the plough-tail.”

The stranger, who appeared to be satisfied with the effect of the experiment, motioned to Rabbie for the other shoe, and pulled out a purse for the purpose of paying for his purchase; but Rabbie’s surprise may be conceived, when, on looking at the purse, he perceived it to be spotted with a kind of earthy mould.

“Gudesake,” thought Rabbie, “this queer man maun hae howkit that purse out o’ the ground. I wonder where he got it. Some folk say there are bags o’ siller buried near this town.”

By this time the stranger had opened the purse, and as he did so, a toad and a beetle fell on the ground, and a large worm crawling out wound itself round his finger. Rabbie’s eyes widened; but the stranger, with an air of nonchalance, tendered him a piece of gold, and made signs for the other shoe.

“It’s a thing morally impossible,” responded Rabbie to this mute proposal. “Mair by token, that I hae as good as sworn to the exciseman to hae them ready by daylight, which will no be long o’ coming” (the stranger here looked anxiously towards the window); “and better, I tell you, to affront the king himsel, than the exciseman.”

The stranger gave a loud stamp with his shod foot, but Rabbie stuck to his point, offering, however, to have a pair ready for his new customer in twenty-four hours; and, as the stranger, justly enough perhaps, reasoned that half a pair of shoes was of as little use as half a pair of scissors, he found himself obliged to come to terms, and seating himself on Rabbie’s three-legged stool, held out his leg to the Sutor, who, kneeling down, took the foot of his taciturn customer on his knee, and proceeded to measure it.

“Something o’ the splay, I think, sir,” said Rabbie, with a knowing air.

No answer.

“Where will I bring the shoon to when they’re done?” asked Rabbie, anxious to find out the domicile of his visitor.

“I will call for them myself before cock crowing,” responded the stranger in a very uncommon and indescribable tone of voice.

“Hout, sir,” quoth Rabbie, “I canna let you hae the trouble o’ coming for them yoursel; it will just be a pleasure for me to call with them at your house.”

“I have my doubts of that,” replied the stranger, in the same peculiar manner; “and at all events, my house would not hold us both.”

“It maun he a dooms sma’ biggin,” answered Rabbie; “but noo that I hae ta’en your honour’s measure—”

“Take your own!” retorted the stranger, and giving Rabbie a touch with his foot that laid him prostrate, walked coolly out of the house.

This sudden overturn of himself and his plans for a few moments discomfited the Sutor; but quickly gathering up his legs, he rushed to the door, which he reached just as Lucky Wakerife’s cock proclaimed the dawn. Rabbie flow down the street, but all was still; then ran up the street, which was terminated by the churchyard, but saw only the moveless tombs looking cold and chill under the grey light of a winter morn. Rabbie hitched his red nightcap off his brow, and scratched his head with an air of perplexity.

“Weel” he muttered, as he retraced his steps homewards, “he has warred me this time, but sorrow take me if I’m no up wi’ him the morn.”

All day Rabbie, to the inexpressible surprise of his wife, remained as constantly on his three-legged stool as if he had been “yirked” there by some brother of the craft. For the space of twenty-four hours, his long nose was never seen to throw its shadow across the threshold of the door; and so extraordinary did this event appear, that the neighbours, one and all, agreed that it predicted some prodigy; but whether it was to take the shape of a comet, which would deluge them all with its fiery tail, or whether they were to be swallowed up by an earthquake, could by no means be settled to the satisfaction of the parties concerned.

Meanwhile, Rabbie diligently pursued his employment, unheeding the concerns of his neighbours. What mattered it to him, that Jenny Thrifty’s cow had calved, that the minister’s servant, with something in her apron, had been seen to go in twice to Lucky Wakerife’s, that the laird’s dairy-maid had been observed stealing up the red loan in the gloaming, that the drum had gone through the town announcing that a sheep was to be killed on Friday?—The stranger alone swam before his eyes; and cow, dairymaid, and drum kicked the beam. It was late in the night when Rabbie had accomplished his task, and then placing the shoes at his bedside, he lay down in his clothes, and fell asleep; but the fear of not being sufficiently alert for his new customer, induced him to rise a considerable time before daybreak. He opened the door and looked into the street, but it was still so dark he could scarcely see a yard before his nose; he therefore returned into the house, muttering to himself—“What the sorrow can keep him?” when a voice at his elbow suddenly said—

“Where are my shoes?”

“Here, sir,” said Rabbie, quite transported with joy; “here they are, right and tight, and mickle joy may ye hae in wearing them, for it’s better to wear shoon than sheets, as the auld saying gangs.”

“Perhaps I may wear both,” answered the stranger.

“Gude save us,” quoth Rabbie, “do ye sleep in your shoon?”

The stranger made no answer; but, laying a piece of gold on the table and taking up the shoes, walked out of the house.

“Now’s my time.” thought Rabbie to himself, as he slipped after him.

The stranger paced slowly on, and Rabbie carefully followed him; the stranger turned up the street, and the Sutor kept close to his heels. “’Odsake, where can he be gaun?” thought Rabbie, as he saw the stranger turn into the churchyard; “he’s making to that grave in the corner; now he’s standing still; now he’s sitting down. Gudesake! what’s come o’ him?” Rabbie rubbed his eyes, looked round in all directions, but, lo and behold! the stranger had vanished. “There’s something no canny about this,” thought the Sutor; “but I’ll mark the place at ony rate;” and Rabbie, after thrusting his awl into the grave, hastily returned home.

Shannon Stirnweis's illustration from TtTB
The news soon spread from house to house, and by the time the red-faced sun stared down on the town, the whole inhabitants were in commotion; and, after having held sundry consultations, it was resolved, nem. con., to proceed in a body to the churchyard, and open the grave which was suspected of being suspicious. The whole population of the Kirk Wynd turned out on this service. Sutors, wives, children, all hurried pell-mell after Rabbie, who led his myrmidons straight to the grave at which his mysterious customer had disappeared, and where he found his awl still sticking in the place where he had left it. Immediately all hands went to work; the grave was opened; the lid was forced off the coffin; and a corpse was discovered dressed in the vestments of the tomb, but with a pair of perfectly new shoes upon its long bony feet. At this dreadful sight the multitude fled in every direction, Lucky Wakerife leading the van, leaving Rabbie and a few bold brothers of the craft to arrange matters as they pleased with the peripatetic skeleton. A council was held, and it was agreed that the coffin should be firmly nailed up and committed to the earth. Before doing so, however, Rabbie proposed denuding his customer of his shoes, remarking that he had no more need for them than a cart had for three wheels. No objections were made to this proposal, and Rabbie, therefore, quickly coming to extremities, whipped them off in a trice. They then drove half a hundred tenpenny nails into the lid of the coffin, and having taken care to cover the grave with pretty thick divots, the party returned to their separate places of abode.

Certain qualms of conscience, however, now arose in Rabbie’s mind as to the propriety of depriving the corpse of what had been honestly bought and paid for. He could not help allowing, that if the ghost were troubled with cold feet, a circumstance by no means improbable, he might naturally wish to remedy the evil. But, at the same time, considering that the fact of his having made a pair of shoes for a defunct man would be an everlasting blot on the Heckspeckle escutcheon, and reflecting also that his customer, being dead in law, could not apply to any court for redress, our Sutor manfully resolved to abide by the consequences of his deed.

Next morning, according to custom, he rose long before day, and fell to his work, shouting the old song of the “Sutors of Selkirk” at the very top of his voice. A short time, however, before the dawn, his wife, who was in bed in the back room, remarked, that in the very middle of his favourite verse, his voice fell into a quaver; then broke out into a yell of terror; and then she heard a noise, as of persons struggling; and then all was quiet as the grave. The good dame immediately huddled on her clothes, and ran into the shop, where she found the three-legged stool broken in pieces, the floor strewed with bristles, the door wide open, and Rabbie away! Bridget rushed to the door, and there she immediately discovered the marks of footsteps deeply printed on the ground. Anxiously tracing them, on—and on—and on— what was her horror to find that they terminated in the churchyard, at the grave of Rabbie’s customer! The earth round the grave bore traces of having been the scene of some fearful struggle, and several locks of lank black hair were scattered on the grass. Half distracted, she rushed through the town to communicate the dreadful intelligence. A crowd collected, and a cry speedily arose to open the grave. Spades, pickaxes, and mattocks, were quickly put in requisition; the divots were removed; the lid of the coffin was once more torn off, and there lay its ghastly tenant, with his shoes replaced on his feet, and Rabbie’s red night-cap clutched in his right hand!

The people, in consternation, fled from the churchyard; and nothing further has ever transpired to throw any additional light upon the melancholy fate of the Sutor of Selkirk.


* Sorry, I probably should have included a spoiler alert there. ("Spoiler alert." That's actually pretty funny. Get it? Spoiler alert? Because he's dead? Never mind. Sorry I brought it up.)

Saturday, October 17, 2015

A Few Interesting Facts About Halloween

Most of the following facts come from The Book of Halloween, by Edna Kelley, A.M.,1 published in 1919. I mentioned this book in a previous post. At the time, I had not read it. Now I have, and hoo-boy, is it boring! However, it does contain a few interesting facts. For instance:

The Origin of Halloween

Halloween was invented by the Celts, an ancient people who inhabited what is now Ireland, Great Britain, and part of France. Of course, the Celts did not call it "Halloween." They called it "Samhain," a word which nobody can agree on the pronunciation of, except that it is definitely not pronounced "Samhain."

When the Romans invaded the Celts, they did not approve of their religion.2 They unsuccessfully tried to eliminate it by killing off the Celtic priests, who were known as "Druids."3 After the Romans became Christians, they again tried to wipe out the Celts' religion—this time more successfully—by repurposing their pagan holidays as Christian ones.4 Samhain became "All Saints' Day" or "All Hallows' Day," and the night before became "All Hallows' Eve." Later, this was shortened to "Hallowe'en." Still later, the apostrophe was dropped.5

Halloween Customs

There are many Halloween customs involving food, most of them having to do with foretelling whether or not one will find a mate. For example, if a young man successfully sticks his head in a tub of water and grabs an apple with his teeth, "his love affair will end happily."6 If he finds the ring, coin, or thimble concealed in his mashed potatoes or cake, he "will be married in a year, or if he is already married, will be lucky."7 Burning nuts can also be used to prognosticate one's love life, but it's a complicated process, and I won't go into it here.

Speaking of burning nuts, there are also many Halloween customs involving a dangerous proximity to fire. Bonfires were common, and of course candles were stuck inside gourds and turnips to make jack-o-lanterns. Candles were also used in party games: "In an old book there is a picture of a youth sitting on a stick placed across two stools. On one end of the stick is a lighted candle from which he is trying to light another in his hand." Imagine the excitement!8


I'm not sure the term "trick-or-treating" was in use when Edna Kelley wrote The Book of Halloween. She never mentions it, although she does mention tricks: "It is a night of ghostly and merry revelry. Mischievous spirits choose it for carrying off gates and other objects, and hiding them or putting them out of reach."

Adorable Pumpkin-Headed Mutants Steal a Gate

There was also something called "souling," which involved going door-to-door, begging for treats called "soul cakes:"
A soul! a soul! a soul-cake!
Please good Missis, a soul-cake!
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry.

A Robert Burns Hallowe'en

According to Ruth Edna Kelley, writing in 1919, "The taste in Hallowe'en festivities now is to study old traditions, and hold a Scotch party, using Burns' poem Hallowe'en as a guide..." I looked up Robert Burns' poem. Here are the last two verses:
In order, on the clean hearth-stane,
The luggies10 three are ranged,
And every time great care is ta'en',
To see them duly changed:
Auld Uncle John, wha wedlock joys
Sin' Mar's year did desire,
Because he gat the toom dish thrice,
He heaved them on the fire
In wrath that night.

Wi' merry sangs, and friendly cracks,
I wat they didna weary;
And unco tales, and funny jokes,
Their sports were cheap and cheery;
Till butter'd so'ns, wi' fragrant lunt,
Set a' their gabs a-steerin';
Syne, wi' a social glass o' strunt,
They parted aff careerin'
Fu' blythe that night.

There are twenty-eight verses in all. If, as Edna suggests, you wish to use it as a guide to host your own "Scotch party," you can find the whole poem here.

If you do, please let me know how it turns out—particularly with regard to the luggies.


1 "A.M.," of course, stands for "ante meridiem," which is Latin for "before midday." Apparently Edna was a morning person.

2 The Celts were "polytheists," which means they worshipped many gods. Of course, at that time the Romans were also polytheists, but the gods they worshipped were clearly superior because they were Roman.

3 It is believed that some Druids survived by using a form of magic known as the "Celtic Mind Trick" to make the Romans believe that "These are not the Druids you are looking for."

4 This tactic was also successfully employed with "Yule," which became Christmas, and "Chocolate Bunny and Egg Basket Day," which became Easter.

5 Because people are basically lazy.

6 If he is unsuccessful, his life may end unhappily—by drowning.

7 Or, more likely, will require the services of a dentist.

8 Especially when a guest set himself on fire.

9 Which, over the centuries, somehow devolved into:
Trick or treat, smell my feet!
Give me something good to eat!
If you don't, I don't care!
I'll pull down your underwear!

10 I know it sounds like something disgusting, but "luggies" are actually bowls, "one with clean, one with dirty water, and one left empty. The person wishing to know his fate in marriage was blindfolded, turned about thrice, and put down his left hand. If he dipped it into the clean water, he would marry a maiden; if into the dirty, a widow; if into the empty dish, not at all." (Actually, that is pretty disgusting—not to mention insulting to widows.)

Saturday, October 3, 2015


As a bibliophile and Halloweenophile (biblioweenophile?), it should come as no surprise that I have a large collection of Octoberish books. Here are a few of my favorites—a Booktoberfest, if you will. The cover illustrations are linked to, in case you are interested in purchasing any of them. (And before you ask, no, Amazon is not giving me a percentage, although they should certainly consider doing so.)

When I was very young, my two favorites of all of the books in my parents' collection were Comic Epitaphs from the Very Best Old Graveyards, by Henry R. Martin, and Drawn and Quartered, a paperback collection of cartoons by Charles Addams. I found these books equally frightening and fascinating, as both dealt with death. They were also funny, and they had a profound influence on my sense of humor. To this day, I prefer my comedy the same way I like my coffee: black as the inside of a witch's hat.

I found my own copy of Comic Epitaphs over twenty years ago in a little gift shop in North Tonawanda, New York. It is now out of print, but you can get a used copy through Amazon for as little as ten cents. That seems a ridiculously low price for such comedy gold as: "UNDERNEATH THIS STONE LIES POOR JOHN ROUND: LOST AT SEA AND NEVER FOUND."

I don't have Drawn and Quartered, but I do have several collections of Charles Addams cartoons, including The World of Charles Addams, a huge volume containing hundreds of his best. Here's one of my favorites:

I have a truly horrible book collection—that is to say, I have a truly large collection of books in the horror genre. I began collecting them when I was in grade school. Among the first were two anthologies by Stephen Sutton: Tales to Tremble By and its sequel, surprisingly titled More Tales to Tremble By. These cheap, hardcover "Whitman Classics" were considered children's books, although their contents—frightening tales by the likes of Charles Dickens, Bram Stoker, Saki, August Derleth, and M.R. James—were anything but childish. Both volumes are out of print, but they can still be purchased second-hand through Amazon. The covers alone are enough to give you nightmares.

The author I most associate with Halloween is Ray Bradbury. People think of him as a science fiction writer and yes, he did write stories about rockets and Martians. However, he wrote just as many stories about "things that go bump in the night" (including The October Game, one of the most horrifying short stories I have ever read). Two of his books that are especially evocative of October in general and Halloween in particular are Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Halloween Tree. Both, coincidentally, started out as screenplays, then became books, and finally became screenplays again.

Something Wicked This Way Comes was supposed to be a movie directed by Ray Bradbury's friend Gene Kelly (yes, that Gene Kelly). When none of the studios wanted to make it, Bradbury turned it into a book instead. It's one of those books that grabs hold of you the first time you read it, demands to be reread, and each time you get more out of it. When I was young, I identified with Will Halloway, who is scared to death of growing up. Now I identify with Will's father, who is just plain scared of death. But in the end he comes to a realization: "Is Death important? No. Everything that happens before Death is what counts." Something Wicked This Way Comes was finally made into a movie by Disney in 1983.

The story goes that when Ray Bradbury and his daughters watched the Charles Schulz classic, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, they were greatly disappointed that there was no Great Pumpkin in it. Ray decided he could do better. He talked to his friend Chuck Jones, and the two of them started work on their own animated film, The Halloween Tree, at MGM Studios. Unfortunately, MGM decided to shut down its animation unit, and that was the end of the project. In 1972, Ray published it as a book, and it instantly became a Halloween classic. In 1993, The Halloween Tree was finally made into an Emmy award-winning animated film by Hanna-Barbera, featuring Leonard Nimoy as Moundshroud and narrated by Mr. Bradbury himself.

Finally, if you're looking for a book on the history of Halloween, just this week I came across this little gem: The Book of Halloween, by Ruth Edna Kelley. The book begins with the Celts and ends with contemporary Halloween traditions. By contemporary, I mean 1919; this book is old. It's only ninety-nine cents in the Kindle store, but because it's in the public domain, you can also download it from Project Gutenberg for free. There are several versions. If you buy it from Amazon make sure you get the one with the owl and jack-o-lantern on the cover; it includes illustrations.

Happy Booktober!

Monday, September 7, 2015

Mythical History Tour

Yesterday while going through a box of old papers, I came across a research paper I wrote for a college journalism class: The Beatles and the Electronic Media. The paper was dull as dishwater, and don't worry, I won't ask you to read it. However, attached to it was the following brief essay, which I apparently wrote for extra credit. The professor enjoyed it and raised my grade from a B to an A, which made me realize that, if I was going to have a successful career as a writer (and as it turned out, I wasn't), it would have to be as a writer of complete nonsense.

The Beatles: 1920

In 1920 two young men from Liverpool, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, scraped up enough money to make a trip to London to see a special concert at the Paladium: Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra. It was a journey which would change their lives and the shape of the musical world.

Lennon and McCartney returned to Liverpool with the idea of forming their own big band. Unfortunately, they only had two takers: George Harrison and Richard Starkey, better known as Ringo Starr. Even so, they billed themselves as "The Lennon-McCartney Orchestra" and proceeded to try to take Liverpool by storm.

None of the four had had much experience with jazz; most of their musical experience was in the form of community band concerts: military marches, Gilbert and Sullivan and the like. They had managed to get hold of Scott Joplin's Red Back Book, and so were familiar with ragtime. Their early sound was a sort of bizarre Joplin-Sullivan-Whiteman hybrid. Amazingly, it caught on. Liverpool didn't know much about jazz, either.

In 1921, while playing their brand of jazz at a Liverpool nightspot, the group was discovered by Brian Epstein, who talked them into letting him become their manager by promising big bucks in the recording industry. It was Epstein who suggested that "The Lennon-McCartney Orchestra" was a ludicrous name for a four-man ensemble. He suggested "The Rolling Stones." They finally decided on "The Beatles."

Epstein took the group to a friend in the recording industry, George Martin. Martin liked the group's sound, and immediately signed them to a contract. Within a year their records were selling like hotcakes and being played on BBC Radio. The Jazz Age had hit Britain.

Perhaps the strangest phenomenon in the Beatles' career was their conquering of the United States. After all, we invented jazz, and surely we could tell the difference between the real thing and ersatz Liverpudlian. But perhaps by the time the Beatles hit our shore, we were jaded by the Charleston, flappers, and hooch. We were ready for something new. Early in 1923 U.S. radio stations got hold of copies of the Beatles' latest hit, "I'd Like to Hold Your Hand." Paul Whiteman heard it and invited the group to join him in giving a formal concert in New York City. George Gershwin was there, performing his own Rhapsody in Blue. In his autobiography, Gershwin states, "The Rhapsody in Blue was well received, but it was the group from England, the Beatles, that the people really came to see." Music critics have stated that they detect the Beatles' influence in much of Gershwin's later work.

From New York, the group traveled to Chicago, where they had the honor of sitting in with Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers. Morton had a profound influence on them, and is said to be the inspiration for what is considered their greatest work, Sgt. Pepper's Red Hot Band.

Throughout their tour, the group made many live appearances on radio, playing their Liverpool jazz and charming audiences with their wit and modesty. They returned to Britain and continued making hit records. Then, in 1927, they were asked by Warner Brothers to do a semi-documentary film, the first talky, The Jazz Singers. The Jazz Singers was a tremendous success (witness the number of remakes), but the jazz era was nearly over. By 1930, the Beatles had disbanded.

In the words of Duke Ellington, "They really had something. I don't know what it was. But you know, the first time I heard those boys, I thought they were black. That's how good they were."