Almost A Ghost Story
written by: Mark Scheel
Can a house possess a personality and a will as animated and definable as those of the people residing behind its doors? Or would such a notion merely constitute superstition and an inclination to personify? Perhaps such a judgment is one best left to each individual. But as for me I know unequivocally where my choice lies.
Picture a young boy alone in an upstairs bedroom, the night spilling in the window black as a mine. The silent walls surround him like a crypt. He listens. Then suddenly he senses something in the darkness, something cold and wraithlike. Some spectral thing creeping near his bed. It reaches out, its icy touch only inches from his face. Frantically he ducks his head beneath the covers, stuffing the comforter in his mouth to keep from screaming.
I was that boy. Many times. When visiting at the house built by my maternal grandfather, George Hundertmark, in the central-Kansas town of Lincoln. A house that many have been convinced was “haunted.”
Since being erected during World War I, it stood on a corner lot one block from the courthouse. Grandfather had, himself, designed most of the floor plans and supervised much of the construction. Certainly, there had been nothing sinister in its conception. It was a huge, boxlike, wood-frame structure, painted white and standing on a post-rock foundation. There was a full porch on the north end facing the street, and on the opposite end–the back–a screened-in sleeping porch ran the width of the second story.
Inside were a full basement and six rooms on the first floor: an entry hall, kitchen, pantry, half-bath, dining room and capacious living room. The second story contained four bedrooms and a bath. And above that sprawled an expansive, plank-floored attic. A short staircase descended from a landing into the entry hall, a staircase with a polished-wood banister installed at Grandmother’s request.
All in all the house was an impressive structure for its time and place, a testament to Grandfather’s success as a foremost Lincoln merchant. It was the gift of a devoted husband and father aimed at providing a bountiful setting for his family. Nevertheless, from the beginning, there was for everyone–with the possible exception of Grandfather and Grandmother–something about that house that was horrifyingly “abnormal.” But this was made known to me only when I, as a teenager, began to voice my own trepidations.
My mother had two sisters, Gladys and Doris. I remember when “Aunt Glad” confided to me the occasion when she first recognized her fear. She was an adolescent, she said, possibly a junior in high school, and had happened to find herself momentarily alone in the house one evening while dressing for a date. Grandfather had worked late at the store and Grandmother had stepped over next door to speak with a neighbor. Both Gladys’s sisters were visiting friends.
She was upstairs, in her bedroom. The shadows of evening had begun filling up the corners everywhere. She sat down at her dresser to commence combing her hair. All of a sudden, she was aware of movement behind her in the mirror’s reflection. She turned, thinking someone had returned home. But there was no one there.
No sooner, however, had she resumed combing her hair, than she was aware again of that movement. Subtle, yet distinct. She looked again. Nothing. And then, jolting as an unexpected cold hand on her back, the conviction shot through her that, indeed, she wasn’t alone! That something, from somewhere, was watching her. Something was observing her every motion. There was, in that most chilling of terms, a “presence.” And in a state of instant panic, she bolted from her room, down the long stairs and, as she put it, “fairly flew out the front door.” She took up waiting for her date in the porch swing, terrified of even nearing the proximity of the front door in the fading light of evening.
The next “event” happened some two years later. The three sisters had stayed up late one night to study for some examinations. Grandfather and Grandmother had gone to bed. The night was still, the silence interrupted only by the rustling of notebook pages.
Then all at once, like a clap of thunder, something crashed onto the roof. It was described to me by my mother as, “sounding like a wheelbarrow load of bricks dumped out near the ridgepole.” The sound continued down the roof as though bricks were sliding and tumbling all the way to the eaves, toppling over the edge, and piling up in the yard below. Then, once again, everything was quiet.
The girls were petrified. What could it have been, they asked one another. There was no sound from the master bedroom. Grandfather and Grandmother hadn’t awaked.
Trying to regain some sense of composure, the girls began to offer possible explanations as to what the noise had been. Perhaps a bird had knocked bricks down from the chimney? Perhaps one of their schoolmates had played a practical joke? But try as they might, no explanation seemed completely plausible. Finally, screwing up their courage, the three of them took a lamp and proceeded out the front door and around to the east side of the house. They inspected the shrubs. The ground along the foundation. They walked about the yard. But, as one might surmise, nothing was there. No trace of a single thing that would account for what they’d heard.
If there were other occurrences in those early years, and there quite possibly were, I was never made privy to the facts. But something happened many years later that I heard both my mother and grandmother speak of.
It would have been 1934, Mother only recently having given birth to her first child, Marianna. My mother and the new baby were visiting Grandmother for a few days, as were also Mother’s sister Doris and her husband, Bob. On this particular evening, Mother, Doris and Grandmother had repaired to the front porch. The baby was ill, showing the first signs of a condition that would turn out to be terminal before her first birthday. But at that time there didn’t seem so much cause for alarm.
As the three women visited, Mother and Grandmother swinging in the porch swing, they became aware of a slight noise coming from not far away. It sounded at first like a small animal in distress. And as it gradually grew louder, the three women paused to listen.
The source of the sound, then, began to locate itself under the east end of the porch floor. “Well, what in the world?” Grandmother remarked. “Do you suppose it’s a cat?” But even as they commented and speculated among themselves, the sound evolved and took on the unmistakable character of a baby’s cry. And it grew louder and louder and more insistent.
Finally, in a complete state of puzzlement, Doris crawled behind the spiraea bushes and removed the latticework between the porch floor and the ground. It was dark beneath the floor; Doris couldn’t see clearly. But the crying continued. She then asked Grandmother to bring a flashlight, which Grandmother did immediately, and the second Doris clicked the beam on, the crying ceased. She crawled under the east end of the porch and flashed the light all about, but the only thing revealed by its arc were old dead leaves and cobwebs.
When they’d all assembled on the porch once more, Grandmother exclaimed: “Dear Lord! I hope that’s not an omen!” Well, perhaps it was. Six months later Marianna was dead.
My own memory of the house goes far back into childhood. The earliest images in my mind–the big mirror in the entry hall, the dank smells in the basement, the row of china plates displayed about the dining room walls–hold only neutral associations. But somewhere in mid-to-late childhood I began to feel an apprehension. It was an uneasiness that lacked definition, that lacked specific object, but was as real as the floor creaking beneath my shoes.
Perhaps it had something to do with the attic, that dark repository of dusty family history. I found no end to my fascination with the old dresses and trunks and pictures and books and broken bits of furniture. Yet always, standing in the dim light cast by one naked bulb, surrounded by the vast shadowy forms, I half-expected something, somewhere, to move or speak.
In any event, by the time I was a teenager, I’d developed a full-blown terror of the place. There was no way I’d have consented to spending even five minutes by myself in that house. A sense of “presence” pervaded all the rooms, a sense that you were never quite alone. Never free from being watched. Never free from being followed. And the character of whatever was there, whatever was doing the watching and following, was definitely and indisputably evil!
The only person, however, that I’m aware of, to ever actually see the presence was Gladys’s daughter, my first cousin Joy. And that happened quite late in the course of things, when she was a woman in her mid-forties. She, too, had developed in childhood a deep-seated fear–as did both her children, Suzanne and Pat. As a woman she seldom visited there and certainly never spent the night. But in one unforgettable moment Joy was the one who would undergo a most terrifying confrontation.
It was after Grandfather’s death, and after Grandmother had lived alone in the house for many years. When she was no longer able to do so, she had taken up residency in a nursing facility, and the house stood unoccupied. The responsibility of caring for the property fell to Gladys and her husband, Carl, as they were the only relatives remaining in the Lincoln area.
On this particular occasion, Joy was in town visiting, and she and Gladys stopped at the house on their way to see Grandmother. Gladys needed to fetch some personal items from upstairs that Grandmother had requested.
They entered through the front door, and Joy remained in the entry hall while Gladys went upstairs and into the master bedroom. Suddenly, as Gladys would tell it, she heard Joy scream. She rushed from the bedroom and down the stairs, but, by the time she reached the hall, Joy was nowhere to be seen. In a frenzy, Gladys dashed onto the porch. And from there she spotted Joy, standing in a corner of the yard in a paroxysm of sobbing and tears. Gladys hurried out to her, but it was some minutes before Joy could recompose herself and relate what had happened. When she did, Gladys was appalled at what Joy had to say.
She’d been waiting in the entry hall, Joy explained, when that oppressive, fearful sense of presence began once again to make itself felt. She had moved slightly toward the living room and stood in front of the double-width doorway to avoid viewing her own image in the large mirror. For some reason that mirror had always frightened her.
From that position she could look ahead into the entire living room and part of the dining room, and, to her right, she could see the length of the hall leading under the stairs and up to the open kitchen door. That familiar sense of misgiving kept growing, stronger and stronger. She was about to call Gladys to please hurry up when she detected a movement down in the kitchen. She stood transfixed, her heart pounding in her throat. Something, to be sure, was moving, or rather, something was “collecting together.” It was, she described, as if shadows were being drawn together at one point in space. As if something dark was commencing to materialize. And this was accomplished with almost a whirling motion.
This shadowy entity, then, floating and spinning in air, began to move laterally, about four feet above the floor, toward the far door into the dining room. It proceeded through that door, temporarily out of Joy’s sight, and then reappeared moving through the center of the dining room toward the archway into the living room. It had defined a circular path, which, if followed at length, would bring it through the very space where Joy stood. And recognizing this fact, Joy caught what breath she could muster and let go a piercing scream. And with that she turned and bounded out the front door and down the front porch steps, retreating to the corner of the yard. Joy would never again, ever, set foot on those premises.
Although tending to ascribe the “vision” to stress and nerves, Gladys was nevertheless left shaken by Joy’s experience. So much so, in fact, that in the ensuing months, entering the house to see after routine matters became more and more intimidating. She hated going there without Carl. She found herself avoiding ever being in the house after dark. And after Grandmother died and the house had to be readied for sale, Gladys’s anxieties became true impediments.
Finally, one afternoon when her nerves stood particularly on edge, Gladys found a way, for her, to exorcise the demon. She had always been a woman of strong Christian faith. And in a moment of insight she called upon that resource. “This is my house, not yours,” she cried out against the shadows. “Whatever you are, you don’t belong here. I command you, in the name of Jesus Christ, to depart this place and leave me in peace.” She repeated this edict several times in a loud voice as if she were quoting Scripture. As if she were addressing some sentient being and invoking the name of the Almighty. And with her repeated utterance came a disposition of calm and a feeling of domination over her adversary. Whatever the mysterious harassment had been, for Gladys it was vanquished. At least it remained so up through the sale of the property.
Although no grave tragedy ever befell any Hundertmark within those awesome walls, not as much can be said for the many successive owners. I’m aware that the first three were all young newlyweds. In every instance, in about a year’s time, the marriages ended in divorce. And then the long line of temporary occupants extended, no one staying long, all confounded with difficulties including financial reversals and infidelity. In fact, at one point a neighbor remarked to Gladys: “What did George and Mollie Hundertmark do, leave a curse against that house?”
Perhaps it’s a failing of faith for me, but I’m not at all sure my aunt’s solution would also have served as mine. I still get goose bumps at the mention of the place. Several years ago, prior to Gladys’s death, I wrote her and inquired as to the present status of the structure. Her response, to me, was chilling. “After seventy-plus years,” she wrote, “there it still stands on its native-rock foundation, belligerent and ominous. Glaring defiantly from glassy-eyed windows, it watches north, south, east and west, holding eternally secure within its fortress the Evil that lurks inside.”
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