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Literary Essays on Gothic 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: Walking Directions are in Beta: Use Caution

A misanthropic professor prefers to walk home alone after a long day teaching students he doesn't like with coworkers he avoids. At first confused by his GPS directions, he realizes that the shortest way home is also the loneliest. Thrilled to be utterly by himself, he would have done well to know the history of his trail.

W A L K I N G D I R E C T I O N S A R E I N B E T A : U S E C A U T I O N

cop.per.head noun:

1 any of several unrelated venomous snakes … found in swampy, rocky, and wooded regions

3 during the American Civil War, pejoratively, any citizen in the North who opposed the war policy… in reference to a snake that sneaks and strikes without warning

– Encyclopaedia Britannica

Indeed, Jefferson County was the scene of some truly terrible infighting [during the Civil War]. As the war effort continued in [the territories between the Mississippi River, the Ohio River, and the Appalachian Mountains] raids on Hoosier soil began to grow more desperate… Far more bothersome to the Unionist inhabitants than the troopers that sporadically crossed the Ohio to pillage their yields and humiliate their militias were the resident copperheads who abetted the Confederacy’s efforts to neutralize heavily-divided Indiana… Some were politically-motivated idealists – staunch supporters of states’ rights and agrarian, libertarian values – but others were misanthropes: bitter, asocial outliers who relished in watching their neighbors’ property fall prey to rebel raiding parties... A few of these saboteurs lived in the woody hills overlooking [the Ohio River], where they relished their privacy. These posts … provided a natural reconnaissance advantage, and copperhead hermits were paid handsomely by Confederate agents for the observations they sold in a bid to secure their civic and personal seclusion…

– Jefferson County and Madison during the Civil War – the fiftieth anniversary: James T. H. C. Churchfield, Sons of Madison Historical Association, 1911, pp. 232-233, 235

We sent a Patrol into the Hills over the Town. Four men and a Corpral. But they come back with two Dead and the Officer was shot through the Sholder and had to be carried… I am Mustering a larger Platon to inspect the area where they seen him Camping. This time I shall have one Fire Squad approch the [north side] of the Pass – theres high ground on that Side and a gorge to the South, all rocks and falln timber – while two squads come down, one [from] the east another [from] the West. The rest of the Platon will move in through the Brush and flush him out.

– Dispatch to Captain Solon B. Caldwell, Vernon Greys co’y., 9th reg’t, Indiana legion: Second Lieutenant Algernon Helm, November 5, 1864

ON November 4 Cody Lehman sat in on his class and looked out the window onto the rain-spattered bar of highway that rumbled past the community college where he had been teaching writing for the greater part of a year. His students clattered at the keyboards they had before them. The longer he scanned the sopping grounds outside, the more the two sensations – the clip of the keys and the watery view – created the illusion of oneness: as if the rain were actually landing about him. Perhaps it was actually wet inside and dry out there. His left eye strayed (it did this when he became lost in thought) and he blinked rapidly to correct his vision. He looked to the clock. It was a quarter till. Then he looked at the students. Three in the back corner were loudly gabbing, two within reach of a gently hurled pocket dictionary were engrossed in their iPhones, and a clump of five gazed stupidly into their monitors – hatefully. Four hadn’t bothered to show up. Generally the class sessions were vital, but today something had invaded the room – an ill vapor. He was contractually obligated to maintain them in class to the very minute (he was paid by the minute), but something groaned inside of him at the thought.

“You know,” he said groggily “I think we can probably leave it at that. Why don’t you guys take off. I’ll see you on Wednesday. Turn in your number four treasure hunts under the DB section of Blackboard by midnight tonight. Midnight. If it isn’t there I won’t take it. Have a good day.”

The archipelago of heads bobbed up, then dove down, packaging laptops and notebooks, before slinking out in a silent procession augmented with whispers and sighs. He couldn’t go home yet, so – after the last of them had plodded into the brown-litten hallway – he found a plastic couch to occupy, unpacking his lunch and laptop in a well-lit gallery whose wall of glass overlooked the same highway as his classroom. His car was in the shop, so he bummed rides from a colleague – really the only person he had formed a relationship with since he had moved to southern Indiana. Evans picked him up at 7:30 on Mondays and Wednesday (Cody taught writing from 9:00 to 11:00 on both days) and – after his third class let out at six – dropped him off. This had been a regular feature of the two men’s lives since Cody’s alternator fouled out last month. It had been a sluggish repair, and he was eager to pay the mechanic and never see him again. In the meantime, he was bound by Evans’ schedule. So every Monday and Wednesday he spent 7:45 to 9:00 and 10:52 to 6:05 sitting on one of the couches in the gallery, watching The Colbert Report, Parks and Recreation, and cheap documentaries on Hulu, or grading papers in the library.

It was a far cry from the life he had envisioned going into his graduate program upstate, but after two and a half years study theory and acquainting himself with the politics and ass-kissing of the PhD route, he had determined that this was as far as he wished to go in academia. He earned an M.A. in English literature and applied to any community college in need of an adjunct. Here he found an opening, and within four weeks of graduating he was teaching three online classes and two face-to-face courses, all in derivatives of the same subject: Introduction to College Writing, Technical Writing, Writing and Research, and of course, Writing. His friends were in similar situations – Kris bussed tables in San Francisco; Jon stirred paint cans in Nashville; Kenny slaved away at an unending PhD in Connecticut; Richie and Brent worked at the old hometown gas station in Berne (worse off than any of them) – but he hadn’t bothered to keep in close contact with them. He enjoyed the relative peace and quiet that a new town afforded him. He had shelves of DVDs and books, and plenty of free time. The downside was terrible pay and the precarious lack of insurance that part time teaching demanded, but his health was consistent and he had few material wants outside of some odd $680 in monthly bills. His pay covered that adequately, and the rest fell into an untapped reserve. He didn’t care to think that Kris, Jon, and Kenny were married or engaged to warm women, or that Richie’s parents let him live with them while he saved up, or that Brent loved their hometown and enjoyed talking to customers. He ignored these inconvenient inconsistencies in his philosophy. They all, he imagined, were unhappy. But he knew it wasn’t true. He was unhappy. He was caught in a world that was neither welcoming nor restricted – a no-man’s land that lacked both the belonging of brotherhood and the indignity of exclusivity. It had allowed him to live in its environs without hospitality – simple indifference. Perhaps that was to be expected. He was an outsider, and although he had never felt the disdain of the locals, he did feel their apathy. Perhaps it was good not to be noticed. Not to be monitored. Not to be missed. He floated in and out of this little community with anonymity, his only responsibilities to two morning classes of apathetic teenagers and three disembodied online courses inhabited by faceless pieces of writing: Sally Henderson, Grant Overlook, Sidney Terrence. He didn’t even know if Sidney was a man or a woman.

Evans drove him home that night and they said little, listening to the radio – a Christian station that touted its benefits to mental health and family – and Cody went to sleep early that night.

… … …

…One such loner was the source of much antagonism during the fall of 1864. Twelve regulars from the Vernon Greys were dispatched to Madison that November to uncover the whereabouts of a hermit living in the woodlands of what is now Hatcher’s Hill. Folklore still surrounds the man, whose name is unknown. Typically melodramatic, local myths associated the old man with the disappearances of several children who failed to return from leading pigs or sheep to the town markets, and several members of the synagogue spread the rumor to the Christians that when he was seen collecting rabbit traps in the hour before dusk he was known to give errant travelers the evil eye, and their horses or houses or health were said to spoil soon after. Despite these rumors, the Greys hardly needed a priest to exorcise their local haunter, although the circumstances of his death are certainly bizarre enough…

– Jefferson County and Madison during the Civil War 1854 – 1868: James T. H. C. Churchfield, Sons of Madison Historical Association, 1924, pp. 235

Rounded up enough Local citisens to form a Platon. Carried out Plan of Attack in the late hours of the Afternoon when the Old Man is supposed to be out foraging victuals. We found Him, or He found us. At any rate, we lost three Good men, and to what purpose I can’t say. The Bastard is dead though. We didn’t bother burying him. Found his den. God. My God…

– Dispatch to Captain Solon B. Caldwell, Vernon Greys co’y., 9th reg’t, Indiana legion: Second Lieutenant Algernon Helm, November 6, 1864

On Wednesday morning the rains had evaporated, and while a ceiling of low, smoky clouds obscured the blue sheet of sky that peered through chinks in the vapor, the forecast was positive: no rain until Thursday night. The school was on the top of a hill that overlooked the Ohio River, some six miles from his apartment. He thought about Evans and the prospect of his bland company that night. The school wasn’t far away, he thought. He opened the Maps app on his phone, routed the difference between the two buildings, and tapped the “walking” feature. The line changed from a straight bar that climbed the surface of the Clifty Hills to a serpentine ribbon s