Like Hell we weren't going back there! You know how it is. Something strange, out of the ordinary, not quite right -- always draws you back. Big mistake! Very BIG mistake!! Not quite right is an understatement. One Hell of a lot wrong! And we knew it, and could not dismiss it.
"The Black Horror", rsc
There's something to the idea that things come full circle. It certainly seemed so to Aaron Swanson. He was afraid of the dark then. He's afraid of the dark now. Then was in his childhood -- quite unreasonable, naive. Monsters lurked in every closet, in every darkened corner, under his bed, in the attic. Aaron would perch himself at the top of the stairs, hallway light on, waiting for his parents to come to bed so they'd be close by.
But now, that's another story entirely. No vivid imagination; Aaron is not, was not, impressionistic at this point -- his post-childhood years. He would never have believed IT had he not experienced IT with a fresh, clear, and, at the time, practical mind. And the death of a dear close friend.
To start, about the age of five or six those little creepy furry monsters, those same ones with long dripping fangs and red glowing eyes that used to hide under his bed, gave way to the age-old practical science of the night -- astronomy. Thanks to a nighttime flyby of Echo 1 in 1961, Aaron had become an avid astronomy buff, an interest still somewhat persistent all these years later. The stars, planets, galaxies, and the moon took the place of ghosts, monsters, ghouls, and hobgoblins. The stars and planets -- things like that, were more interesting. Less menacing. The dark of night became bearable.
Time passed. There was grade school, junior high, high school. There was rock 'n' roll, baseball, drive-in theaters. There were girls, sex, campfires, and ghost stories (for fun, of course). And WERE there some ghost stories! On Friday and Saturday nights Aaron and friends got together to tell ghost stories just for laughs. They got some laughs, some genuine shudders too. The ghost stories stemmed from local legends in and around Columbiana County, Ohio. Many of the legends went way back. In those high school days ghost hunting and haunted-house investigating became the norm. By the end of high school, ghost hunting became a passing fad. Then high school ended. So did ghosts and haunted houses.
After high school Aaron took a shot at college and Kent State University. Only a couple of years. It was another passing fad.
And at age twenty-two Aaron was infected with the traveling bug. It was time to leave Columbiana, and Aaron roamed around the country for a few years, doing odd jobs for enough money to keep on moving. Early in 1988 he found himself in Texas, roaming the state, sight-seeing, looking for a purpose in life which seemed, until then, to have eluded him. Texas was nice; shacked up with a young lady from Hondo named Lisa Rodriguez; spent weekdays in bed, weekends on San Padre Island. Unsettled, the traveling bug returned after three years. Aaron left Texas and Lisa behind not knowing that Lisa would some day come back into his life.
Aaron remembered a Cape Cod vacation with his parents. He had been eight at the time. There was something about the place he loved, something he felt tugging at his heart strings. Maybe it was Provincetown or the oceanside life-style of the people living there. So carefree. So easy.
Having left Texas and Lisa behind, mid-August of 1991 found Aaron standing on the beach at Cape Cod, looking out on the vast rolling expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. The churning water, wide open air, soft breeze -- it had a becalming affect that belayed power and left him with a deep sense of awe and mystery. Quite a feeling, different from landlocked Ohio (except for Erie) or the wide open spaces of Texas.
Cape Cod made up his mind for him. Massachusetts was his choice for a prolonged, albeit temporary, settlement. The settlement took on the form of Middleboro south of Boston, about half way between Boston and New Bedford. And temporary was what it would prove to be.
Aaron had always been an avid, and by habit, perpetual reader. Early on it was elementary science due to his interest in astronomy. Soon afterward science fiction became the predominant reading material, shortly replaced by horror which lasted the longest of all. Over the years more advanced intellectual science (forensic anthropology in particular) was woven into the fold with classics and history. But no subject material could replace horror, especially horror classics.
Aaron had lived in Middleboro for about four months when he ran into Jade Harris in a coffee shop that he had begun to frequent. Jade and Aaron hit it off instantly -- the same interests and the like. He felt guilty for a while; she reminded him of Lisa back in Texas. Still, they were comfortable with one another, happy. Almost made him believe in fate. It just so happened one of
their common interests was horror stories.
Sitting in the coffee shop drinking coffee, he began to talk of various authors who wrote in the horror genre [accent]. It was amazing to him that Jade knew the authors he spoke of, could easily relate and discuss various story lines.
It's not every twenty-six-year-old black-haired, black-eyed, built like a fuckin' brick shithouse, female beauty who can sit over coffee and rap on the works of Arthur Machen, Wilkie Collins, Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James, and the like.
Classic horror writers. Aaron's forte [accent]. It was quite a surprise to Jade that Aaron hadn't read the works of H.P. Lovecraft. He was embarrassed, tried to talk his way around the situation, then grinned about it, turned red.
"You're a New Englander," he had said, making excuses. "You grew
up with that stuff."
Jade smiled, knocked her knuckles on the table top. "That's no excuse," she had said playfully.
Jade had amassed quite a collection of Lovecraft's works. Through her collection Aaron read everything Jade had to offer. Quite amazing. Sad that Lovecraft only considered it fiction. Well, at least publicly. Who knows privately. Still, Lovecraft came and went, another passing fad. Aaron moved on to other reading materials, things like New England history, philosophy, a vast amount of periodicals. The periodicals were mostly science. And fiction began to fall by the wayside, lasting nearly a year.
After having known one another for four months, Jade and Aaron rented an apartment together. Easier for them to see each other, much less costly. They enjoyed their life-style and each other more and more. They shared everything, and, at one time, there was a fleeting thought of marriage. Why the Hell ruin a good thing? They convinced themselves marriage would have taken all the fun out of their lives. And Lisa was always hidden somewhere in the deep dark recesses of Aaron's mind.
They had been living together for about a year when Aaron received a letter that would herald the beginning of a horror which would bring about an abrupt ending to the relationship he shared with Jade. The letter was from an old high school friend, Bob Olen, back in Columbiana. The letter was frantic, hastily scribbled, and, oddly enough, concerned one of the old ghost stories from those high school haunted house hunts. Aaron remembered Bob to be rational, very rational, never given over to fanciful jesting. His practicality was such that it would lead him straight to MIT as eventual departmental chair of the Electronics Department. Where Bob's life had actually lead, Aaron didn't know.
The letter concerned a supposedly haunted house out in the middle of nowhere, back in Columbiana County. During the high school haunted-house-hunting ventures they had visited the house many times, but there as never anything out of the ordinary there. Just an old concrete house supported by rotting wooden beams, and circled by a number of ancient and decaying artesian wells. Up on a hillside off a back country road, the house was choked by gnarled old trees and heavy underbrush. That's how it had been then. With time things do change.
Change it had. In his letter, Bob had said the brush had been cleared. Strange signs and symbols had appeared on the concrete walls; people in the vicinity had disappeared without a trace; flashing lights cut through the woods at night; a foul scent issued from the artesian wells. There were strange things going on at that house; Bob was certain of it. So were others who were open minded enough to take notice.
But not too many people wanted to take notice. The house was deep in the country, in the woods. Out of sight, out of mind. Well enough to leave it alone. Stay away and all would be well with the world. The strange events would go away with time. That was the philosophy with most of the people who lived far enough away from the house so as not to really want to be bothered with it. But Bob was bothered by it and wasn't
convinced that things were going to go away. Only get worse.
Bob's practical mind, as practical as ever, had told him that as long as the events went undisturbed, those events would continue unabated. Who knew what the end result would be, or how far it would go. To put it simply, the people were scared. So was Bob.
Bob hadn't asked Aaron to come back, but the seed had been sown. For Aaron it was time to go home, see what the fuss was all about. Jade jumped at the chance to see where Aaron's roots were severed. After arrangements were made and necessities gathered, Jade and Aaron were ready for the trip to Ohio, a trip that would lead to eventual horror and death.
I Don't Believe In Haunted Houses
Early April, lukewarm. Unusually so for this time of year. And so the trip to Ohio was casual, uneventful, Aaron and Jade taking in the sights along the way. They crossed through the Appalachians in New York, then on into Pennsylvania. Early in the afternoon of the second day they had crossed the state line and were in Ohio. For the first time in years Aaron found himself surrounded by Ohio. It was a strange feeling, a feeling of apprehension.
Within the hour they were driving up North Main Street in Columbiana. Aaron, behind the wheel of Jade's dilapidated mini-pickup, was having a bad case of nostalgic blues. Jade sat in the passenger's seat, eyes wide, head turning from one side of the street to the other, smiling at mini-versions of the Victorian Mansions which lined North Main between the Salem Street lights and the village square. All those years gone. The town still looked the same. As if time had stood still.
They rounded the square, Jade's eyes trained on the old log cabin perched on the northeast corner, its Ohio Heritage marker glistening in the sunlight. They trucked down East Park Avenue from the square.
East Park. Had walked it many a time. Still the same. Just as I'd left it. The Chevy Garage, the Firestone Store, NAPA Auto Parts, everything just as it had been years before. Even the old goddam Youngstown and Southern railroad tracks.
Aaron downshifted Jade's truck as some idiot gearhead hopped on it, coming out of the Dairy Queen parking lot ahead. "Some things never change," Aaron voiced his thoughts. The gearhead's tires caught pavement and squealed past them.
"What?" Jade questioned, only half listening.
"A lot of kids around here think this road is their local drag strip. Like that idiot that just passed us."
"Somebody could get killed," Jade said, her eyes catching sight of the Dairy Queen.
Aaron pulled the pickup into the DQ parking lot, taking the first available space. He absentmindedly turned his head, his eyes falling on the old red brick house sitting quietly on its corner lot across the street. The house had once been home. His mind scanned memory blueprints of the place. He visualized ghosts of another time, saw his mother and father there, his sister. Himself. There had been good times and bad. Now all those times were past. He couldn't go back now even if he wanted to.
He turned, glanced at Jade, then at the house again. It was still there, hadn't changed, hadn't moved -- as if he had expected it to. He glanced at Jade again, smiled, then opened the door and climbed out.
"Come on, it's warm. Let's go for a walk," Aaron said, closing the driver's side door.
"All right," Jade said, crawling out of the pickup. "Nice little town you have here, at least what I've seen of it so far."
"Yeah, it is, isn't it?" Aaron turned away from the truck, nodded at the red brick house across the street. "See that house there? That's the last place I lived before I left here."
"Your parents still live there?"
"Not anymore. Moved shortly after I did, to southern Arizona. My dad has sinus problems; runs in the family."
"Who lives there now?" Jade asked, holding onto Aaron's arm.
"I don't know," Aaron said softly. He paused, glanced up at the gabled roofs shading the upstairs windows, windows to two bedroom. "The ghosts of my past still walk those halls."
"Ghosts of your past?" Jade smiled. "You're being over dramatic."
Aaron laughed as he turned to Jade. "Boo!" He paused, laughed again, then added, "Come on, let's take a walk up town. I'll show you some of this quaint little town so much now given over to antiquities."
They left the DQ, Jade's truck, and the old red brick house behind, and headed up East Park Avenue toward the village square.
For two hours they wandered around the hallowed streets of Columbiana, taking in all the sights. Aaron showed Jade the old high school, the building next to the school that used to house the library that had since been moved to a brand, spanking new building on the northwest side of town near Joshua Dixon Grade School. They window-shopped on Main Street, Aaron grinning at the fact that nearly every other building now housed an antique shop of some sort. They stopped at Country Corner Restaurant, an antique shop in its own right, and had coffee. Aaron pointed out changes that had taken place since he had left. Much of the town was still the same, except for the overabundance of antique shops, but there was change, more change than he had at first thought.
The word change stuck in his mind. For the first time since arriving back in Columbiana, Aaron realized he was subconsciously delaying their talk with Bob, realized he didn't want to know what he might find out. It was an unreasonable thought, he realized. He had no idea of what to expect. But Aaron did realize that things were changing here; yes, things had changed.
The old ghost trap off Church Hill Road? How much did it goddam change?! What the Hell is happening there? Strange ...
Imagination, just goddam imagination. That's all it is.
"When we gonna see this haunted house?" Jade asked, interrupting Aaron's thoughts as they walked back to the truck.
"Soon. I want to talk to Bob first."
"So when do you propose to do that?"
"How about right now?"
"Okay," Jade smiled. "Let's go. This haunted house business is beginning to intrigue me."
"Yeah," Aaron tried to laugh it off.
Maybe there was something to it. Maybe there was something at the old house on the hill that genuinely could not conform to the rules of nature, normalcy. Maybe so. Aaron wasn't sure. Horror stories are one thing, but a real living horror ...? Unlikely. But possible.
They pulled out of the DQ parking lot, cut a diagonal across East Park and onto Lakeview Drive, past the old red brick house and headed north into Firestone Park. A quarter mile down the road and Aaron stopped at the stop sign. He glanced in the rearview mirror. No traffic. He sat back and sighed, then glanced to the right at the shimmering brown surface of what was affectionately known to the locals as The Pond.
Between trees kids were sitting on the banks with their fishing poles. Going for the big one. Carp, overgrown goldfish, undergrown catfish -- that's all there is, boys. Maybe even less now. Aaron grinned. Well, that's all there was. It made him think of the first time he had ever went fishing. So happy and proud, walking down the hill from North Elm Street, tree branch complete with string, hook, and homemade bait -- his grandfather prodding him on. The Pond seemed pretty big in those days, but those days were gone. The Pond now appeared little more than a muddy sink hole filled with slimy brackish backwater. Times have changed. You never did tell me the story of this haunted house," Jade suddenly said, interrupting Aaron's childhood fishing thoughts.
"Not much to tell."
"Tell me anyway."
"All right," Aaron smiled at Jade. "It's an old concrete house supported by wooden beams. Out in the middle of fucking nowhere. Artesian wells are spaced around the foundation. The place is overgrown -- trees and underbrush. At least it was ..."
"Enough of the physical shit!" Jade interrupted. "How about the story behind it?"
"I was getting to that," Aaron grinned. "You're gonna love this! Anyway, it's a three hundred year old whore house. So the legend goes."
"Whore house?" Jade laughed.
"I'm not kidding," Aaron said, his eyes bright. "Anyway, the story goes that some crazy man from Fort Pitt built it. A woman supposedly escaped from the place and was caught. She was hung in some tree about a quarter of a mile from the house, an example to the other girls to get the picture on running off. They used to call the tree The Hanging Tree. It was cut down a long time ago."
"And like all typical ghost stories, the ghost haunts the place on the anniversary of her death," Jade said.
"Yeah, supposedly she could be seen hanging from the branch of the tree when it was still there. I never saw it. Silly, isn't it?"
"No, not really," Jade replied. "The formula's always the same."
"Yeah, I guess you're right."
There was a moment of silence. Aaron stared at The Pond again. In his mind he could see the old ghost trap among the cluster of trees on the hillside where it sat a quarter of a mile off Church Hill Road. In the light of day his mind still painted strange and eerie shadows moving through the darkened interior of the house. He tried to formulate an image, trying to invent something that might be there now, something tangible, yet something he had no knowledge of, something which Bob had eluded to in his letter. Still, no matter how much he tried, the shadows remained mere shadows. Nothing more.
"I wonder what has Bob so shaken about the place?" Aaron said softly. "An old ghost story is a goddam old ghost story. Nothing to be upset about."
"It doesn't seem like a story someone would be all that obsessed with," Jade said softly.
"I know, but apparently Bob is," Aaron said. "And that just doesn't sound like the Bob I remember."
"Have you ever seen a ghost?" Jade asked.
"No," Aaron replied. "I don't believe in haunted houses anyway."
"Just a thought," Jade said as someone in a car behind them laid on the horn.
"Let's see if Bob's home," Aaron said, glancing in the rearview mirror.
They turned left onto Herbster Street, and a stone's throw away took a right on Park Place. Aaron's mind was embroiled in horrible possibilities about the old house on the hill. He tried to convince himself there was nothing wrong at the old house, just fertile imaginations germinated by seeds of mood and atmosphere. Yet something deep inside himself kept telling him he was wrong. He grinned, laughing silently to himself to dispel his darkened thoughts.
Absurd! This is 1993. Monsters don't fucking exist anymore! Only in Hollywood.
Or so he thought.
Horrible Statistics & Lovecraftian Facts
From Park Place they turned onto Parkview Drive, and finally into Bob's driveway. A car was parked there. Jade and Aaron climbed out of the pickup. Before reaching the door, it opened, slowly, only a few inches. Bob, with bloodshot eyes and hair graying at the temples, peered through the opening. He quickly ushered them in, closed the door, then chained and bolted it. The entrance hall and most of the house was dark. A faint flickering glow came from the living room just off to the right. A candle. Bob led them into the living room without speaking a word.
The living room was as Aaron remembered it except for the dark brown drapes and two candles. Their flickering flames cast dancing shadows on the walls. The room was nicely furnished, two chairs, a couch, love seat, coffee table, two end tables, a bookcase filled with now dusting books, and the ever present piano along the wall next to the hallway that led to the bedrooms.
"Please, have a seat," Bob whispered. He took a candle from the piano and placed it in the center of the coffee table.
Jade and Aaron sat on the couch, Bob next to the piano. Aaron introduced Jade, and Bob nervously nodded. Aaron glanced around the living room, his curiosity visibly apparent. Bob noticed, and shrugged it off. All in due time.
"So, you must have gotten my letter about the old house," Bob whispered.
"Yeah, I did," Aaron said. "You didn't say much ..."
"I'll explain," Bob interrupted, his voice quick and nervous. "You wouldn't believe the goddam things going on!"
"Anything to do with the old ghost story?"
"No, not at all," was the reply. "That's just an old story. You and I both know that! This is something else. This is something real!"
"All right, it's real." Aaron's curiosity was making him impatient. "What about it?"
Bob leaned forward on the edge of his chair. The dull nervousness was gone from his eyes. His eyes now shown with the light of excitement, like a kid with a new toy. His voice was still quick, more so with the excitement he felt rather than the nervousness that seemed to have disappeared. His speech was accented with hand gestures as he related his facts.
"I mentioned disappearances, I believe," he began. "They're not ordinary disappearances. Five people have disappeared in the last eight to ten months. Maybe more. No one knows what happened or really gives a shit! No leads. And fucking weirdest of all -- two who disappeared have been found in the woods near that old house."
"What's weird about that?" Aaron asked softly.
"Well," he began again. "They were found almost exactly six goddam months to the day after they disappeared. Shit man! Completely drained of blood, nearly frozen, and still fucking intact! No damned decay!"
"There's something about ..." Jade said softly. Her voice trailed off as she thought of a previous similar occurrence. "I can't pinpoint it, but that sounds vaguely familiar."
"Could it be a coincidence?" Aaron asked. "I mean, being found near the house and all?"
"I tried to convince myself of that," Bob said. "Just can't, especially with what's been going on. Really strange, Aaron." He paused, stared at the floor, his hands moving, gesturing thoughts to correlate. "I've been to that house four times in the last couple of months. Well, near enough to it. I heard strange stories, wanted to see for myself. Never got close enough to see anything, but I sure as Hell heard things I swear I've never heard before! Strange chanting, music -- goddam evil music that sounded like flutes or recorders or something like that! Real eerie, man, unearthly ..." Bob's train of thought disrupted. He had a flash of thoughtlessness, then smiled at Aaron and Jade. "Would you two like some coffee or something?"
Bob suddenly jumped from the chair, leaned over the coffee table toward Jade and Aaron, the tips of his fingers planted in the front pockets of his jeans. He seemed his true self again as if nothing had happened at the house. Jade and Aaron exchanged glances, Jade engrossed in Bob's story. His sudden change in mood shook her like the break of a film reel in the middle of an entertaining film.
"Well, coffee'd be fine, but I don't ..." Aaron began.
"Nonsense!" he interrupted, already moving around the coffee table and toward the kitchen. "Already made. Just before you came."
"If I remember right, Aaron, you take yours black," Bob was saying as he disappeared into the kitchen.
"Yeah," Aaron replied.
"Jade?" from the kitchen, coffee cups rattling.
"Cream and sugar, please," Jade said.
Aaron sat back, digesting the information Bob had related. Like Jade said, there was something familiar about the disappearances.
Six goddam months later. Reappear. Something about that ... Frozen, no blood. Something all too damned familiar ...
"Eerie flute music," Jade thought aloud. "Goddam eerie flute music and chanting. Dammit! I should know what the Hell it is! It does sound Lovecraftian in a way."
"Yeah, I know what you mean," Aaron said softly.
"Here we are," Bob said as he suddenly reappeared from the kitchen with three cups of coffee.
He placed two cups on the coffee table in front of Aaron and Jade, then returned to the chair next to the piano with the third cup. He sat, cradled his cup in both hands, and continued his story. The same excitement was still in his eyes. An amazing change of character from when Jade and Aaron first arrived a few minutes earlier.
"Well, Aaron, you remember Ray Carson?" Bob continued.
"Yeah, lived on Elm Street, the big green and yellow house."
"Yeah, well, now he lives in Virginia, or at least he did," Bob replied. "When all this bullshit about the house started, I wrote Ray a letter. He wrote back about some weird things going on in Virginia. Don't know what he was talking about, but he seemed very interested by what I said in my letter. He said to stay away from the old house at all costs, not to say anything to anybody, that he was going to New York for something, then on to Massachusetts to do some kind of goddam research. He said he'd come here after, but it's been over six months, and I've never heard back from him."
"Over six months?" Aaron questioned. "And no word from Ray?"
"Not a word."
"Did he say where he was going in Massachusetts?" Jade asked suddenly. She leaned forward, cup in hand, an eyebrow raised, voice expectant.
"Yeah," Bob said. He paused, his mind in reflection. "I think the place was called Arkham."
"Arkham?" Aaron sat bolt upright. "Arkham! There is no such place!"
"I think the pieces are beginning to fall into place," Jade said as she sat back. She glanced at Aaron. "The disappearances; drained of blood; frozen bodies; eerie music and chanting."
"Yeah, it certainly seems like Lovecraft all right," Aaron said softly.
"More like Derleth," Jade said softly. "The Lurker At the Threshold in particular."
"But that's fiction, just like fucking Arkham!" Aaron recanted.
"Is it?" Jade questioned matter-of-factly. "Do we know for certain?"
"Now wait just a damn minute!" Bob was irritated. "What the Hell are you two talking about?"
"Ever hear of H.P. Lovecraft?" Jade questioned softly.
"No," Bob was shaking his head. "What's that got to do with Ray and that old house?"
"Perhaps everything or ... nothing," Aaron said. "Lovecraft was a writer who wrote horror stories in the early part of this century. Arkham was a town he invented for some of those stories. The disappearances you described are exactly, to a tee, like some mentioned in his fiction."
"Most notably a story called The Lurker At the Threshold which was actually written by a friend of his named August Derleth," Jade added. "Based, of course, on an idea Lovecraft left behind."
"Now hold on here," Bob said as he leaned forward and placed his coffee on the coffee table. "I don't know what the Hell you're talking about, but the disappearances around here really happened! It's in all the goddamn papers!"
"Okay, okay," Aaron said. "Did Ray say anything else?"
"No, not really," Bob said softly. He paused, scanning his mind for Ray's letter. "Just some odd things. Something about star stones, ah ... old ones I think he said. And something called a necronomin."
"Star stones, the Great Old Ones, and the Necronomicon," Jade sighed, her eyes downcast.
"More Lovecraft," Aaron thought aloud. Just as soft.
"What if we're wrong?" Jade suddenly questioned, glancing at Aaron. "What if the stories weren't fiction at all ...? Her voice trailed off, her mind reflecting on the implications.
The greatest cover up of all time in the guise of horror fiction! Un-fucking-real!!
"Well, it's still a while before dark," Aaron said, displacing his thoughts on the possible reality of Lovecraft's work. "I suggest we take a look at the old ghost trap; see what we can find. Might be some lead that'll help us clear this shit up."
"All right," Bob said softly, his nervous edge returning suddenly. "Always wanted a good close look at that damn place since all this shit started happening."
"Let's go," Jade said as she sat her coffee cup on the coffee table.
The House On the Hill
The sky was clear, the air warm, as they left to have a look at the old house. It was early evening, the sun riding a bright yellow in the western sky. It would hang there for a while, affording them some time to investigate. Still, the old primal childhood fears were keen. There was no way they would be caught anywhere near that old house when the sun went down.
Although Aaron's primal fears were telling him one thing, his practical intellect was telling him another. He was still skeptical of Lovecraft's material being anything else but fiction. In fact, Aaron was skeptical of anything concerning the old house. The whole bit flashed through Aaron's mind -- the things beyond human understanding bit and all -- the great mysteries of the universe. He, with his background, should have realized, should have known, the greatest mysteries of all lay in the unbounded realm of natural science.
Could the ole ghost trap with Lovecraftian trimmings be nothing more than an as yet undiscovered arm of scientific mystery? Sounds good. Well, maybe.
They took Bob's car, affording them more room, left Columbiana, heading south on 164, then onto Lower Elkton Road just outside of town. It had been a long time since Aaron experienced the sights, sounds, and smells of the rural countryside near Columbiana. Refreshing. He smiled, welcomed it. The great three-story farmhouses still appeared at regular intervals with their fields stretching to the horizon. Here and there the land was dotted with mobile homes. Small patches of forest littered the landscape.
Eight miles down range they turned onto Church Hill Road. Aaron had been daydreaming of Columbiana County-past. The narrow dirt road of Church Hill brought him back to Columbiana County-present. At first there were more farm houses, but soon these gave way as small patches of forest began to congeal into one large patch of forest. Bouncing down a curving hill they came to the old Church Hill Road covered bridge site where the 'Shortest Covered Bridge in all Ohio' had once spanned the Middle Fork Run tributary of Beaver Creek. Saved primarily from vandals, the little wooden bridge had been dismantled piece by piece and moved a few miles away to Elkton where it stood preserved and protected for its historical significance.
Bob pulled to a stop near the spot where the bridge had once stood. The place hadn't changed except for two things. One was the fact that the old bridge was no longer there. The other was the disappearance of The Hanging Tree. The tree was cut down, only a gnarled old stump left. They climbed out of the car, and took in the view. Bob's mood was once again the heavy brooding nervousness and apprehension he had earlier displayed. He stood, hands in his pockets, staring down the path that paralleled Middle Fork Run into the woods, the path that ran to the old house a little over a quarter mile away.
Jade, on the other hand, was taken in by the beauty of the surrounding countryside. Massachusetts has its fine scenery, but Ohio's is something different with a uniqueness all its own. She was at ease with the peaceful surroundings of Columbiana County countryside. She strolled to the nearly drained and dry Middle Fork Run. Her eyes fixed on it.
Aaron searched his memory, focusing his mind on the old ghost trap. The object in question sat nestled just over a quarter mile away, up on a hillside, deep into the woods. And if Bob was right, Aaron knew the expressed peace and tranquillity of the surrounding countryside was a deception, a facade shadowing horror and death.
Jade turned away from the dying creek. "So, where's this tree they hung the girl from?" she asked.
"Here's where is was," Aaron said, approaching the stump.
"It was cut down about a year and a half ago," Bob said. The nervousness in his voice matched his mood.
"Let's have a look at the old house," Aaron said. He turned to the path leading into the woods.
The path was narrow, muddy, sluggish in some places, had always been so. Yet, it was still wide enough for the first few hundred yards to get a small four wheel drive vehicle onto. Any further than that, and the path began to narrow. The trees were in full bloom, early for this time of year, affording them much shade as the light of the setting sun tried to cut through the canopy on an ever increasing angle. On the left the land sloped down and away to the tree-clogged bank of Middle Fork Run. On the right the land rose at a forty-five-degree angle, the base of its blanket of trees choked by underbrush. A few tree trunks were dotted with No Trespassing signs. Aaron laughed silently to himself.
Who'd want to trespass here where death lurked behind every goddam tree, just waitin' to drag your dead ass up to that old ghost trap on the hill? Only fools like us!
A quarter mile into the woods they came to the path leading to the hillside where the old house stood silently waiting for them. The path curved gently to the right, then directly up. It was narrower, much narrower than the first path, brush and tree branches clinging to the sides of the path, the path gouged and strewn with rocks making for rough footing. Aaron, Jade, and Bob stood where the two paths met. They stared at one another silently, questioning who was going to go first.
Jade took the initiative. Feeling ashamed for his momentary show of hesitant fear, Aaron followed Jade. Bob fell in behind. The grooved rocky path gave way to a level grassy incline that ever so slightly widened as they neared the top of the hill. The hillside leveled off into a small clearing lined with blossoming blackberry bushes. On the opposite side of the clearing was the dilapidated ruins of an old wooden shack. Beyond was another somewhat smaller clearing sparsely populated with trees. It was this second clearing which claimed residency of the old concrete ghost trap.
Without a word the three crossed the clearing, passed the remains of the old wooden shack, and followed a short and narrow path through underbrush to the second clearing. On the edge of the second clearing they stopped and stared at the object of their quest. Aaron shook his head.
That's one goddam helluva house.
Aaron noted the damn thing looked the same as it had years before. Still, there was something more, something different. For the first time Aaron realized the old house with its gaping front door and wood-framed, windowless openings onto interior darkness looked like a huge grinning skull perched on the ground eternally waiting for something that no one could guess.
The old house stood amidst the trees. Aaron walked slowly to the middle of the tree-studded clearing, turned and squarely faced the old house. Bob and Jade remained at the edge of the clearing, their eyes trained on the old house. Aaron shook his head again. The house still looked the same, true, but the signs of recent activity were plain to see.
"Jesus Christ!" Jade exclaimed. She approached Aaron, stopped next to him, her eyes locked on the house. "Would you look at that goddam thing! You said old; I had no idea ..."
Jade's voice fell silent. Her eyes caught something in the grass directly in front of where they stood. Behind the house the setting sun was sending shafts of light cutting through the trees to partially illuminate the house and grounds upon which it stood. In the grass a ray of light caught the object Jade's eyes had caught. It was the sunlight that had made her see it.
Jade and Aaron stepped forward, kneeling over the object Jade had spotted. Bob joined them, peering at the strange little object in the grass. It was a fragment of green stone resting in what appeared to be one point of a five pointed depression which was shaped like a star. Jade gently lifted the green stone for a closer inspection. The stone was smooth and gleamed in the light of the setting sun. Almost jade in color, Aaron had a faint trace of recognition, the reality of which suddenly exploded upon his consciousness.
Fucking unreal! A goddam starstone!
Jade handed it to Aaron. "What do you think?" she said.
"It sure as Hell looks like it," he said. He turned the fragment over and over, inspecting it.
"Like what?" Bob asked nervously. "What the Hell are you talking about?"
"It's soapstone," Aaron answered. "Lovecraft used them in his stories. Called them starstones."
"They were used as protection against evil shit," Jade said, adding, "in Lovecraft's fiction, of course."
"Real goddam starstones," Aaron said softly. "Unbelievable."
Jade shook her head, her eyes trained to the starstone fragment Aaron held. "Makes me wonder what else in Lovecraft's stories is real."
Aaron dropped the starstone fragment back into the depression Jade had taken it from. He looked at the house and was overwhelmed by a strong impression of evil which issued from the open doorway and windows. Something was indeed going on here, something evil and horrible. The starstone was a testimony to that.
"Ya don't suppose this is a joke?" Aaron asked, a feeble attempt to explain it away.
"No, I don't think so," Bob replied. "Who would plant one of those damn star things here? I mean, this house is so far out in the middle of fuckin' nowhere! How many people come out here for a damn picnic?! How many people even know what that starstone thing is and what it's for? I sure as Hell didn't. I don't know nothing about all this shit!"
"Yeah, and the disappearances," Jade added.
"Those aren't jokes," Bob said.
"Well, where there's one damn starstone, there's more," Aaron said softly, his eyes scanning the grounds of the old house. He knew if there were more, they'd be nearby. Shouldn't be hard to find them.
"Let's look at this logically," Jade said, rising to her feet. "Presumably the starstones were meant to be protection from the house for some reason."
"And the best way to protect anything from the old ghost trap would be to circle it with the starstones," Aaron picked up on Jade's train of thought.
"Exactly," she replied. "The best way to lay them out would be at seventy-two-degree angles from a center point, each one laying at the point of a large imaginary star."
"Then there should be four more," Aaron said.
"Should be," Jade agreed.
Aaron gauged the distance of the starstone depression to the old ghost trap. About twenty five yards. He shrugged. If an accurate assessment, then the remaining four should lay about twenty five yards from the house at regular intervals.
"Bob, you go that way," Aaron said, pointing to the left side of the old house. "I'll go this way, and see if we can find the other four starstones."
"If I find anything, I'll let you know," Bob replied.
Things were happening too fast. Aaron couldn't grasp the reality of the situation, especially the existence of genuine starstones. He had enjoyed the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, but had always taken them as fiction. Things were adding up -- the wrong way.
Horror fiction. But right here in Ohio? Something real? This is more than I bargained for.
Jade went with Aaron to look for more of the starstones. Off the northeast corner of the old house they found another. It, like the first one, was about twenty five yards from the old house, and broken -- a piece of the stone missing, less of it than the first one. Three of the points were still intact. Aaron picked up the fragment as Bob called out from the other side of the old house.
Taking their newly found three-point starstone with them, Aaron and Jade hot footed it around the other side of the house. Bob was standing there, holding two large pieces of another starstone. He glanced at Jade and Aaron as they rounded the corner of the house.
"Another starstone," Jade voiced.
"Yeah," Bob said apprehensively, then turned his eyes away from the house. "And that; what do you make of it?" He added, gesturing to a spot in the clearing between the woods and the old house.
Jade and Aaron turned. There was a large rectangular stone slab resting on the ground about midway between the house and the edge of the clearing. It was about eight feet long, four feet wide, and four feet high. Made of black stone, possibly basalt, around its base were what appeared to be strange carvings resembling hieroglyphs.
They slowly approached the large stone slab, Jade's eyes running a course along the ground between the slab and the old house. She was gauging the distance between the two. "Aaron, that thing is outside the protective dimension of the starstones," she voiced softly as they stopped before the great black stone slab.
"Bad news," Aaron replied, his voice a hushed whisper.
"Yeah, that's what I was thinking," Jade said.
"What do you think it's for?" Bob said, glancing at Aaron.
"I'm not sure," Aaron said, his eyes studying the hieroglyphs along its base. "But it sure as Hell looks like a sacrificial altar of some kind."
"Sacrificial altar?" Bob's eyes went wide.
Aaron nodded in reply to Bob, then crouched for a closer look at the hieroglyphs. "The images are certainly Lovecraft, but there's some kind of writing here. I've never seen writing like this. Wait a minute ..." Aaron's words broke off. The writing was vaguely familiar, similar to Lovecraft's chants. Yet, not exactly. Genuine! This is the real thing! Not the goddam Anglicized phonetics Lovecraft used! "They're chants," Aaron finally said, lightly running his fingers over the incised alien lettering. "Chants in whatever hellish language they were first used."
Jade crouched next to Aaron, her eyes scanning the images. "Cthulhu and Hastur; Z'toggua, Yog-Sothoth ..."
"All right!" Bob interrupted. "What the Hell does all this mean?"
"It looks like Lovecraft deceived everyone," Aaron said, glancing up at Bob.
"Maybe it was this Lovecraft who was deceived," Bob replied.
"Maybe so," Aaron said. He paused as he rose to his feet, then added, "Regardless, we have a fucking bad situation here, a real bad situation."
"Yeah, real bad," Jade agreed, her eyes peering beyond the altar.
She pointed. "Look, prints, and fresh ones at that!"
Bob and Jade backed away from the altar, scouting the nearby ground. The prints were everywhere, and mostly fresh. Jade wondered why they hadn't noticed the prints in the first place. She shrugged her shoulders, dismissing the thought. Undoubtedly somebody, or many somebodies, had been there recently. It suddenly occurred to them that that somebody could be returning at any time.
"I don't like this," Jade voiced softly, her words hollow.
A shadow slowly began to crawl over the altar, startling Aaron. He turned and was relieved to note it was nothing more than the shadow of a tree trunk cast by the setting sun.
"I don't like it either," Bob said as he turned in a circle, glancing at the gathering shadows in the woods. "It's gonna be dark soon."
"Well, that make it unanimous," Aaron said, his eyes still locked on the altar. "I think we'd better get out of here. This place gives me the creeps."
Created: August 11, 1997; Updated: August 9, 2004