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Literary Essays on Horror, Ghost Stories & Weird Fiction

— from Mary Shelley to M. R. James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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A Ghost Story for Hallowe'en: Milverton's Eyes

A couple relocates to a new town and a new apartment. They love the history of their old neighborhood, though their downstairs neighbor tends to give them the chills with his long, speechless stares. After people begin disappearing from the building, they become suspicious that he may be involved, but it is the naked, crawling thing in their stairwell that really tips them off.

M I L V E R T O N ' S E Y E S


Time-Haunted Madison

THOSE of you who know me personally – who know me well – know that my wife and I lived together for a year and a half before our marriage in a town that neither of us had been to before, or had any connection to whatsoever. It is true that I later learned that an aunt of my father’s had lived there – not three blocks from our apartment – for years, and that my grandparents had visited them there often, but I wasn’t aware of this until I had been installed in the area for several months. To us it was a strange place: a quaint port town on the Indiana side of the Ohio River, snuggly slumbering between Louisville to the west and Cincinnati to the east, with dozens of miles of green hills and shaggy woodlands between them. The River spilled its way westward towards the Mississippi – and hence to the Gulf and the Atlantic – all beneath our watch. And we had a lovely vantage point to view it. But before I get to the apartment at 512 East Main Street, or to our neighbor below and what we suspected of him, I had better begin at an early point in these memories.

My wife and I drove down to the town – a four hour trek from the area we were then living in – on a rainy afternoon in either March or April. The drive was a disappointingly unremarkable one, crossing through featureless soy bean fields and towns whose gas stations and boarded-up Main Streets were the only memorable features. Three or four times we drove into hilly terrain where the highway wove dangerously around flinty hillocks and under moss-drenched overpasses, but for the most part we filled our time straining the radio’s tenuous grip on NPR stations which would perennially fall out of reach to be lost in a sea of gospel, country, and hissing static. The rain grew heavier as we drove further south, until we were surrounded on all sides by a flashing white halo that blocked our sight, leaving only the walls of water that passed by us like a series of large white veils being pulled back and forth and up and down.

Out of that floating water we could dimly see two grey towers that pulled into focus as we neared them, and then we were between them; between two massive walls of stone and earth as the road cut between them and dove downwards. The highway spun in loose tendrils, weaving around piles of stone and walls of brown rock, curving delicately as if trying not to be noticed by the great formations that peered at this new and unwanted innovation. The car seemed small and I felt as though it was now of little protection should a rock overhead suddenly give way as the road signs warned they did. We sped out of the cliffs’ shadows, past broad, weedy hillsides that swelled up like the backs of great whales encrusted with barnacles and slimy with algae. And then there were houses: unlit trailers from the eighties, small single-storied shacks from the fifties, and unpainted farmsteads from before the First World War. A Catholic graveyard loomed to the right, fenced in by stone walls and overshadowed by the jaw of a thorn-infested peak. It was in plain view with its grass clipped diligently and an whole acre untenanted by the dead, but even now I remember how old the stones were, how forgotten they seemed, almost as if someone had begun the project and suddenly thought better of it, leaving a relic of ambition and futility ironically uncompleted.

We drove over a bridge which spanned one of the black, silent tongue of Crooked Creek, which slithered its way out of the Ohio River’s embrace and disappeared in the shadows of the woodlands and flintrock. We entered the town just as the clouds seemed to float off across the river into Kentucky, and for a moment we saw the sun glint boastfully between two shifting piles of vapor. It cast a brassy glow over a Main Street which surely looked little different now than it had at the beginning of the previous century. To the west the businesses had taken up camp in two or three story Victorian-era flat-tops, whose bricks were bleached by decades of sun, snow, and rain. At the center was the city hall, a Federal Era building, boasting a discolored Civil War monument clawing defiantly at the shifting fog, with a cannonball from the Siege of Vicksburg nestled proudly at its base. To the east were a long series of houses, duplexes, churches, and apartment complexes. Here and there were some modern innovations, but most of them were the product of the Victorian and Antebellum Eras. Fresh reports from Custer’s defeat in Montana had been read on these porches. The looming ramifications of Lincoln’s assassination had been discussed in these shuttered rooms. Slaves had dragged themselves from the water and pressed their wet bodies against these dry bricks as they evaded bounty hunters.

My wife successfully interviewed for the job that she had been offered, and in a month we drove back into town and selected our first shared home. The sky was white with heat, and steam saturated the air and buildings and pavement. The sun loomed triumphantly over the courthouse as we pulled into the city’s chief intersection and turned east. The apartment we had selected was only three blocks away: the penthouse of 512 East Main Street. There are times when I wake up in the middle night and I momentarily forget all the history that has marched on since then; times when I am back at Apartment Six, when I look up and see the old, warped windows letting in the orange glimmer of the old streetlamps, and expect to feel the old, bowing floorboards on my bare feet. But I don’t set foot out of my bed, not until I remember that we live four hours away and that I will never have to dream in that building again. But the impression is a strong one, and my wife complains that I wake her up every now and then with a stifled gasp. I rarely remember these episodes, but when I do, the emotional impact is galvanizing.

Apartment Six occupied the entire fourth floor of a four floor Victorian building. It was constructed in a year when France was at war with Prussia and President Grant was serving his first term. The floors below us were carved up into smaller apartments that were tenanted by affluent, middle-aged couples including an Egyptian surgeon, a banker, and several retirees with multiple properties who lived in the building seasonally. We didn’t have trouble bidding for the residence, and I remember thinking that although the condominium was popular with wealthy professionals, we must have had an advantage because the climb – some forty-six steps in total – had frightened away prospective tenants. This is what I believed, for the apartment that we took was the crown jewel of the complex: a studio apartment of over 1,900 square feet surrounded on all sides by double casement windows that brought in air during the summer and light during the winter. The bedroom – which featured a vast, built in wardrobe and an en-suite – was easily made private by closing two ten-foot tall French doors. Hardwood floors spanned the entire apartment, a comfortable laundry room doubled as guest quarters and a library, and one of the casements opened out onto a section of roof which afforded one of the most remarkable landscapes of hills, spires, and river. During the summer months I used to climb through that window with a folding chair and some small means of entertainment – a book, a cigar, a chilled porter – and enjoy what felt like the apex of my life.

The third floor was split into two apartments which shared a landing with us. Walking up the first seventeen steps brought you to the six by six platform, and turning around to the right brought you to a locked, glass-panelled door which opened into our stairwell, which – upon turning once more to the right – brought you to another flight which led to our living room. If, however, you stopped before turning right, there were two other doors which opened into two other apartments. To the left was Apartment Four. This was where Susan lived. We saw little of her, but much of her cleaning lady, a middle-aged woman named Ellen. When Ellen would mount the stairs our cat would discontinue whatever he was currently occupied with, scuttle down the steps, and watch her through the glass door. Although Susan seemed to be homebound, Ellen was chipper and friendly, and we knew more about her than the woman who actually owned the apartment. This was, as I said, the door to the left. Apartment Five was the door straight ahead which was visible from the foot of the stairs. This is where the person we called Milverton lived.

I say called because we never learned what he called himself. He never said and we never cared. Milverton’s apartment stretched out below our bedroom and bathroom, and his living space appeared to be directly below our bed. We named Milverton after the Sherlock Holmes character of the same name: a greedy, socially awkward parasite who resembled our Milverton in personality and appearance alike. Our neighbor was a short, squat man advancing past middle age. His head was round and soft-looking, with flabby cheeks and bulging grey eyes set wide apart from a pug nose. These eyes were the dominant feature of his face: two colorless irises set in two yellowed eyeballs like black marbles pressed into animal fat. He was horrendously farsighted, I am sure, for his round glasses seemed to double their natural size, which was awful to see for they leered constantly. I never seem to remember looking at him without seeing that his eyes had first been levelled at me. They pried and wondered in a way that I found indescribably off putting for a man of his age.

Milverton’s apartment, by the nature of its location, always loomed over me when I came home from work and began the ascent up our antique stairway, and even before I knew him I felt that something about it was off – not quite right. It didn’t matter if you had measured the door jambs or taken a picture of it to compare with our corresponding door, his always seemed – not quite larger, but incorrect, out of alignment with the general mood and symmetry of the rest of the apartments. It was externally identical to Apartment Four. It featured a white wooden door some seven feet tall with ornate Victorian trim; the brass door handle and plate that had been blackened by use, with just the faintest smears of yellow in the untouched corners and crevasses. Overhead was a rectangular transom that would have admitted a view inside his rooms had it not been patched over on the inside by purple construction paper (which I suspected of having originally been black before it was faded by time). Outside the door was a shaggy welcome mat scored by two grey streaks that almost certainly matched his toddling gait; in floral, grandmotherly script it announced “Welcome In!” to passersby. It seemed that very few people accepted the offer, for the floor boards were thin, and while I could hear him watching television, blowing his nose, coughing, and cooking, I never seemed to hear another human voice – not even him talking into a telephone.


The Vaccum of His Gaze

I first saw Milverton while we were moving in. Her parents had travelled with us and we had formed a human chain in order to swiftly move boxes from the truck into our third story apartment. A box left from the trailer, met me at the foot of the first flight, where I would carry it up to the second, where my wife would collect and deposit it. In spite of the great load of boxes I found that the chore was curiously lonely. A box would be thrust into my hands every three minutes without a word or glance, and I would walk it up the stairs and return to my post in the same manner. We had possibly gone through six boxes of cookware and knick-knacks before I noticed that the door at the top of the stairs had opened. Behind it was a red wall which successfully obscured any view of the interior. There was nothing hanging from it – pictures, key-catchers, coat hooks – and indeed this was the only feature that I could see: a wall painted dark crimson, like an overripe strawberry. In front of the wall but behind the door was the little man with his round, bald head and his unblinking eyes. My first impression was one of embarrassment: clearly we were upsetting our neighbors before we had even met them. But then I looked closer at him. The expression I had taken for annoyance was actually entirely neutral – blank, like the face of a lethargic toad watching something that had the potential to upset his stupor but had so far proven nothing other than a vapid curiosity. And if Milverton had any emotion whatsoever, that emotion was curiosity. But not like an imaginative child or an excitable puppy or even a prowling cat. It was like the curiosity of a man who watches two people converse in a foreign language that he has never heard and never wishes to learn. The distinct impression was that he saw me as a quaint curiosity; not a young, noisy threat to his comfortable retirement; not a potential friend; not a nice young man with a pretty girlfriend who would bring some life into the elderly population; but a strange and inconceivable oddity. I made eye contact with him in the first moment that I realized he was standing in the doorway, but broke off without a word, because there was no question or salutation in his expression.

This is a strange thing to describe because usually it is an unspoken code of human beings that our glances speak for us: they say “Can I help?” and “Oh, hi there! I’m kind of shy but it’s nice to see new neighbors” or “Great… another young brat to make a lot of ruckus. I’d thank you to keep the noise down, and no parties after eight; I have my stories at seven and then it’s off to bed.” But his face made no such declaration: those glassy black balls just sat in his fat head without blinking or breaking their aim at me.

Suddenly there was a box. I took it and turned. Now in most stories like this that I have heard of or read about this is the point where he would have vanished and shut the door. But I looked up and realized that I had the excessively distasteful task of climbing the stairs towards the unblinking toad on the landing. I smiled thinly once or twice at him to make sure that the awkward energy between us was as one-sided as I could manage, but for the most part I kept my eyes down and trudged up the steps, watching the worn and warped brown steps and the off-white, scuff-mottled rises that separated them. I was half way there. Look up. Still standing. Watching. Look down. Step. Step. Step. I will sigh exasperatedly as if the load is heavy to fill the silence. Step. Step. Step. Three quarters. Look up. With five steps to go I had hoped that he would either walk in front of the door or walk behind it – either announce himself or retire inside. But as I climbed onto the penultimate step, I felt my pulse palpably thud in my ear drum when I saw him step aside and open his door wider, never breaking his googling stare. Had I been more dazed by the action, I might have accepted his mute invitation and walked straight off of the landing and into the waiting apartment. But no, surely not. It was the lunacy of the gesture – that by simply holding open a door and stepping back you could coax a complete stranger to change their intended course and make themselves at home. It was an outrageous offer, but it stunned me, and a small part of my mind wanted to obey the expressionless command to leave my wife and her parents and to enter his territory, but I denied the existence of such a daft impulse and turned the corner sharply. Entering our apartment and turning once again to mount the stairs on our landing, I occaisioned to see him once again: black eyes made wet and bubbly behind his glasses, still fixed on me.

By the time I had deposited the box and descended onto the shared landing, the story seemed over: the door was shut and nothing except for the “Welcome In!” mat was left to remind me of the encounter. And indeed we saw nothing of Milverton for the remainder of the month. My wife had still yet to meet him, and as much as I dreaded walking up the steps when I came home from teaching night classes, I rarely thought of him outside of those lonely ascents. We didn’t see a thing of him until one Saturday morning during that same blistering summer on the Ohio River. The steam clung to everything, and the heat bled through walls and leaked through the roof so that our air conditioning had given out the previous afternoon leaving us to suffer through the night. I couldn’t sleep because of the humidity, so at four in the morning I decided to take a cold shower. The water stung in my face and hair, but it felt delicious on my skin, and I drank from it until I felt full of cool water. Turning the tap off I toweled the water from my feet and legs, but let the moisture dew on my torso in hopes of relieving the miserable temperature. Walking out of the bathroom, through the bedroom, en route to the living room, I caught a glimpse of bright yellow. It startled me because the room was deep blue, and only a few windows glinted with the dusky orange of street lamps. This light was foreign to me and unaccounted for. I walked towards it and realized that it came from the bedroom floor, where it perfectly outlined half of one of the floorboards: two long silvery bands of parallel light, and a short stroke connecting them at the top. It horrified me to think that our floors were as thin as that, and without stopping to plot out the condo layout, I paused to wonder whose light that might be. Curious, I stooped to the floor and peered into the crack. Now, I might have expected to find a perfect peephole through which I could spy on Milverton and witness his direful deeds, but the truth of the matter was that his ceiling must have had a tile loose and that light must be pouring through this and illuminating the cavity between our floor and his ceiling, for all I saw was the back of a tile. I had still not done the mental work of figuring out which apartment would be below the bedroom – we had heard the nose blowing, the TV blaring, the coughs coughing and the cooking clinking, but none of this named the originator – and so I gave it no other thought. I made a sandwich, read some stories, and went to bed exhausted.

As I said, it was in the morning that we saw Milverton again. We left early to spend the day with a friend who had air conditioning while ours was being repaired. Having left our many windows open to air out the steam and musk, we tramped down the stairs and hurriedly unlocked the door. Through the glass panels I saw a figure bent over the “Welcome In!” mat, adjusting it with serious attention. To my wife it was just a round, bald man in his fifties, but I suddenly felt an impulse to turn her around and return up our stairs where we would suffer in peace. But the bolt was thrown and the knob turned and now the door opened, and in a single, twisting motion, Milverton had turned around and was eyeing me from behind his magnifying glasses. This time a smile played on his lips like a breeze that brushes across a pond in regular pulses.

“You’re the young folks upstairs, huh?”

His voice was unremarkable: neither creaky, nor oaky, high nor deep, garbled nor clear. It was a voice. A man’s voice, but entirely without feature or personality or accent.

“Yeah,” I said, pushing my wife along she had stopped to talk. “That’s us. I think I saw you when we were moving in.”

I wanted to simply leave things at that and spill down the stairs, but I knew that polite society required that I give him the chance to respond before clipping him off. But he surprised me.

“Don’t shower at night, guys,” he said without inflection. He stepped into my path and righted himself. Now we were facing one another squarely. “I heard you. Can you not do that? I think you can. There’s no need for it, and it bothers me, guys.”

“I’m sorry if I woke you up; I didn’t realize you could hear—"

“I didn’t say you woke me up. I asked you not to shower at night. That’s all. You should be in bed, anyway. Sleep at night. That’s what you do.”

Here he nodded slowly without breaking his gaze. There was something in it now, something alive, where before there had only been wooden death. It was like an ember had been lit in a dark room, and now for all the darkness this one red light had tainted everything around it with its murky personality. It was dark, but something was there, and it felt like hate. I don’t really remember what I said other than to say it was a loud, frantic combination of laughs, apologies, promises, and farewells as I attempted to placate him into letting us go.

I don’t know why I had any impression that he wouldn’t, but that feeling was strong, and I was strangely relieved when I managed to slip under his nose and pull my wife out with me – down the stairs and out the door. He was not there when we returned to the apartment and the repaired air conditioner.


"Sometimes I Think He'll Get Me"

The months built on top of each other like bricks reaching towards a planned conclusion, and while we rarely saw or heard of Milverton, I was still tense whenever we would leave our apartment or return to it – always anticipating the sight of his open door. In the meantime we settled into our new town, found restaurants that we favored, learned where the bookstore lived, and became familiar with the riverside. One day we were leaving the frozen yogurt shop when I noticed that the shop next door sold historical artifacts and replicas, mostly from the Civil War – oil lamps, muskets, hand-cranked sewing machines, old dress forms. I went inside and emerged with a replica saber. It wasn’t sharpened, but it only cost fifty dollars. Such was the character of our new residence: yogurt stores and antique shops, electric cars and horse-drawn buggies, replicas and artifacts. The town seemed formed out of two parts, one buzzing and humming with modernity – hot dog carts, indie rock concerts, and camera-toting tourists – and another – lower, beneath it all, under everything – that exuded unconquerable antiquity. Sometimes when I would walk home from the little market in our neighborhood, especially when the afternoon had waned and the sky was deep pink and the shadows deep purple, I had a sense that if I turned a corner sharply enough I would find myself in a previous century. The neighborhoods by the river were densely populated with old Antebellum storefronts and Federal Era brick houses, separated at intervals by modern bungalows and four-squares, as if two rival gangs were innocuously moving around each other in silent but understanding preparation for an inevitable battle. The modern houses were cheery and optimistic, but they seemed small and pointless next to their ponderous brick neighbors. After dark it would not have surprised me to find the alleys and courtyards sheltering tall shadows wearing slouch hats and flat caps, smoking long, thin cigars, and thumping on the cobble stones in hobnailed boots. I often had this mental image when I was hurrying home at twilight, although in my mind’s eye the faces were always washed away by unnaturally permanent shadows, like the blackening of progressive decomposition.

We had been in town for a year when one day I came down the stairs to find the cat pawing frantically at our glass door to the landing. I heard his paws smacking against the panes like erasers being drummed on desktops, and saw the white flash of his tail as he clamored back and forth, swatting and calling out in eager howls. I was nervous to descend the stairs, but decided that if Milverton was causing his antics I would simply grab the cat and stay inside. For whatever reason I didn’t like the idea of our cat looking at Milverton anymore than I liked the idea of Milverton looking at me. But when I came downstairs I saw that Ellen was tapping on the glass, and my nerves relaxed into amusement. She jumped a little when she saw me, but I smiled and opened the door. Would she like to pet him? Only if it was okay with me, but of course it was. As I mentioned, the cleaning lady for Apartment Four had nurtured a strange little friendship with our typically antisocial pet, and I knew that she had never actually been able to rub his head or chin in spite of their daily ritual. She said that she was just leaving from her work at the apartment, so I invited her in and offered her some coffee while she sat with the cat on our entryway bench. I went upstairs to get a couple of mugs and returned to the landing to find her glaring through the door. She didn’t break her gaze when I came down the stairs, or when I reached the bottom. Looking over my shoulder I saw Milverton shuffle lethargically through his door. The red t-shirt he wore was dark with sweat and clung tightly to his corpulent frame. He closed the door, but not before exchanging a venomous glance with my guest: I know that it was the light flashing on his glasses, but the piggish eyes that they magnified seemed to blaze with unnatural power. But the door was now closed and he was now gone.

“He’s a weird one,” she said.

I was tremendously relieved to hear the subject being broached. As much as Milverton featured in our lives, there was no one to share in my disgust. The president of the condo was a respectful Coptic surgeon who was too introverted and too well-bred to indulge my commentary on our neighbor, and the other tenants never seemed to be interested in condo gossip. My wife was unsettled by the uncanny way that he seemed to materialize when we were shopping at the Kroger – he would suddenly be staring at us from the middle of an aisle that had seconds early been empty – or walking down the side streets, but she saw him as little more than a bizarre phenomenon, more of an oddity than a threat. But in Ellen’s voice and face I read hate, and I jumped at the opportunity to compare notes.

“He is isn’t he? Listen, do you know his name? We just call him Milverton here, and no one else here calls him anything besides ‘the guy in five.’”

She shook her head, her eyes still locked on the closed door with its age-blackened handle.

“I don’t know. Maybe you’ve noticed that he doesn’t get mail?”

“I don’t remember seeing anything in his box – not even junk mail, yes.”

“It’s weird, that’s the only word for it.”

“How long has he been here, do you know?”

“I started work here twelve years ago and he was here then.”

“Twelve years? Really? And no mail, no name? I mean, surely we could ask,” and here I said the name of the condo president.

“Oh him? He doesn’t know,” she said bitterly. “He owns the apartment, and he did before anyone here lived in this building. What I’ve heard is that he bought it with cash back when that wasn’t as rare, and that he’s paid for everything he needs with cash.”

“But there’s his license plate. Maybe that would clear it up.”

“It could, but knowing his name won’t be enough to understand what he is. Sure he pays taxes and has a driver’s license and a social security card – I assume he does anyway. But it’s not who he is; it’s what he is that I don’t like. There’s something old about him. Old and poisonous, like those toads that kill dogs who try to eat them because they’re dripping with the stuff – every day, every night, its oozing from their backs and out of their eyes: poison that could knock a grown man to his knees and into his grave.”

I followed her gaze which still hovered nervously around his door jambs. Our cat was playfully cycling from the floor where he wove devotedly around her legs onto the bench where he rubbed his face into her hand which was frozen in space, outstretched and limp.

“Do you know anything about him personally?” I asked, hoping to fill the vapid silence that had settled on us after the last word she had spoken.

“No, no I don’t. Only that he hasn’t changed once in twelve years. His clothes are sometimes newer. He used to wear jeans and a polo before he started wearing t-shirts and khaki shorts. But his face – that damned frog face of his hasn’t changed. He is no bigger or smaller, no greyer or darker. The same as if he was a photograph in a frame. But he moves around, though, and it isn’t right for photographs to move.” She was talking to herself now, and her narrowed eyes told me that she was thinking very hard. The last phrase floated off her lips in a slow, half-whispered conclusion.

“Sometimes I think he’ll get me.”