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CLASSIC HORROR BLOG

 

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: 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 sliding oblique to the highway. The distance was, it said, 3.9 miles. The time was, it said, 1 hour 10 minutes. The stupidity of his old routine struck him like an unexpected cough. Only that long? Seventy minutes? The clock read 7:28. He hurriedly gathered his work. But wait. No. No, he didn’t need it. Only the monitor in the classroom. No need for the laptop. Instead he stuffed his hiking shoes in a backpack, followed by a flat cap, scarf, and gloves. He would need those today. Evans pulled up as he stumbled through the door, buttoning his peacoat and urging the stray shoulder strap of his backpack off of the doorknob.

“Morning!”

“Hey,” Cody said.

“Want coffee?”

“I had some this morning, thanks. Thanks,” he said again as Evans cleared the passenger seat of McDonald’s wrappers and student papers.

The rattled when he shifted it into gear, and with a shaky jolt, they started up the highway that ran past the college.

“Evans, I should probably mentioned that the car is ready.”

“Oh, awesome, man! That’s great.”

“So you won’t need to be concerned with picking me up anymore.”

“No problem. It’s right on the way. Do you need a ride there?”

“Huh?”

“Spencers?”

“No. No, I’m going to walk there. It’s only a quarter mile from campus.”

“Okay, man. Cool, cool.”

Cody leaned his arm against the passenger door, and smiled as he watched the sky bloom from peach to orange to neon blue on the morning of November 6.

The students were no less lethargic on the 6th than they were on the 4th. Three were absent – two different students and one who regularly cited the health of her grandmother as an excuse. He knew that she had probably failed the other classes she was using this explanation for – five absences in a semester that had sixteen meetings was grounds for failure – but he took her at her word and excused the absences as a favor to a grieving teenager. The rest of the class glared accusingly as he occupied their time with rhetoric, appeals, paragraph lengths, topic sentences, and reference pages. Smoldering somberly in their uniform swivel chairs, he avoided eye contact, relying on a 40 minute video to consume the hour-glass and to satiate their thirst for darkness and anonymity. The fellow with the perennially puffy face, red eyes, chapped lips, and distant, glazed stare bedded his head in his hands – as a matter of course – and the justifiably bitter single, teen-mother glowered from the far right corner, the white screen reflecting off of her round, contorted face.

At a quarter till he released them – once more early, once more against school policy – and after the last one – the red-eyed, meth-crispened fellow – stumbled past the door jambs and into the syrup-toned hallway lighting, he closed the door, unpacked his hiking shoes, and traded them for his cracked loafers. These he replaced in his backpack, and after cushioning his throat with a scarf, he donned gloves and hat and hurried into the November air.

After walking a quarter mile down the highway, he opened the Maps app and plotted the course once more. It curtly announced: “Walking directions are in beta. Use caution – This route may be missing sidewalks or pedestrian paths,” but he closed the proclamation and enacted the map. “Point seven miles to Michigan Road,” it said. And so he walked.

The air was bright and voluminous. He felt as though it was made to invade and occupy. The highway was underpopulated for eleven in the morning, and he didn’t mind it. The clouds streaked across the glassy blue sky, and the intermingling lights sent a mixture of warm bronze and cold silver tones, which cast the entire world in crisp white gold.

He felt even better when the device in his pocket directed him: “turn left… on Michigan Road.” The muffled female voice reminded him of a secretary – detached, professional, unobtrusive. The highway was pleasantly unpopulated, but Michigan Road was dead. Only the occasional sedan rumbled past him. He looked again at the phone. Within the cradle of his black leather glove he saw a bright sheet of tan punctuated by a series of blue dots which crooked to the right, then curved subtly – right again – then twisted in a long, snakelike arch. That first turn – Hatcher Hill Road – was just before him (the phone announced it just a moment later), and when he took it, he was never more pleased with a decision in his entire life.

A gated community, quiet and asleep, lay scattered throughout a series of hillocks and dells, muffled in a great quantity of brown and yellow leaves like a delicate watchpiece packed in cotton. That November was particularly vivid, and the leaves had in large part maintained their relationships with their respective trees. Roasted gold tones intermingled with sagacious leather browns and flashes of stop-sign scarlet. He passed – in fact – a stop sign muffled from behind by an encrimsoned maple, and the effect was particularly unique: the word STOP seemed to hover, disembodied in a backdrop of ragged maroon.

The iPhone interrupted the phantasmagoria: “Turn right… to continue on Hatcher Hill Road.” A three-prong fork of roads – two branching right – faced him. The sign “Hatcher Hill Road” was obnoxiously ambiguous. He took the rightmost. It ran perpendicular to his previous course, and stole through a dell overlooked by two grand old houses (probably Victorian, he thought). The road clipped sharply to the right, running alongside a wooded ravine, where it ended at a guardrail behind which was a thicket of brambles and briers. His reverie was entirely broken. He had gone the wrong way, clearly. The middle road. Why couldn’t the phone be clearer to interpret? By looking at it he could see no other possibility: it certainly appeared that this was the right way. He backtracked. By this point, having walked two miles mostly uphill, his shirt was drenched in sweat. He removed his gloves and scarf, stuffing them in the backpack and carrying on.

Up the hillock he went, past the grand old house that sat on the corner where the street turned into a dead end. But this road ended in a private driveway. He consulted the device: the barbed arrow denoting his position was clearly off the trail of blue dots – a trail which wound around the grand Victorian. Are you kidding me? Seriously!? He muttered angrily. The sweat was soaking the back of his shirt. Was this what the app meant when it had warned “Walking directions are in beta. Use caution – This route may be missing sidewalks or pedestrian paths”? One more time, he thought – though he was skeptical – I’ll check that dead-end; maybe I was wrong.

In the space of two minutes he had backtracked his backtracking, crossed the road in the vale, and turned to where it had apparently ended. Two three-yard struts of guardrail were laid across the road’s width at intervals: the first spanning the left lane, the second the right. They were old and corroded, like the blades of rusted straight razors, and the wooden 8x8 posts that supported them were grey with rot and lichens. On first glance he had envisioned the road ceasing at this guardrail, but upon closer look he realized that these barriers did not denote the conclusion of a roadway, but merely prevented automobiles from tracing a trail. He passed between the two bars, pushing aside a wiry tangle of briers and brush.

Behind them he found a landscape of unsettling beauty. Seemingly chiseled into the side of a rocky slope was a narrow trail that skirted one side of the ravine. On the other side of the barrier it had seemed slight and unremarkable, but behind the curtain of foliage it was ungovernable and immense, tapering to a rushing brook below, and formed by two slopes made up of monstrous boulders, dashing waterfalls, and thick, sprawling woodlands. Ashes, maples, walnuts, beeches, firs, pines, elms, hickories, tulips, birches, and poplars sprouting from every square fathom – craggy elders, tender saplings, and proud adolescents – filling his eyeline with a cacophony of color. But most majestic of all was the pathway he was to take. It was lined by a phalanx of beeches and hickories, whose dazzling yellow leaves carpeted the path, four deep, and as they continued to float downward in silent swarms, he was struck by the bizarre impression that they resembled the bodies of tens of thousands of butterflies. Whether it was beautiful or morbid he wasn’t interested to muse. Instead, he stepped forward, feeling the cushy blanket yield to his footfall, smelling the syrupy odor of dying leaves steam from every inch of his new habitat.

It was entirely uninhabited. The residue of years of leaves – a black, congealed matt – lay thick beneath the present year’s contribution. There was no sign of any human investment within the past decade at least. The path was – he supposed after scratching at the carpet with his toe – made of compact dirt and conservative amounts of gravel. So human industry had been employed here – it wasn’t a deer trail or some freak of nature, but it had long been abandoned to the elements. The GPS in his phone knew of it. This diminished his romance somewhat, but pulling the device out and looking at it, he saw only a thin grey wire rather than the bold white band of a road. Pulling back on the touchscreen he confirmed that this was no road. Indeed, it had no name at all. It was nameless, purposeless, and peopleless. He smiled, looking around at the vacuum he had entered. It was like a vacuum, too – vast and voiceless, only disturbed by the crackle of leaves rolling in the soft billows of wind that whispered through the ravine. It was an unvisited Eden, he thought, a place which would not be ambivalent to his arrival.

He unbuttoned his coat, slipped from it, and replaced it on his shoulders, arms dangling un-ensconced beneath. Holding his backpack in one hand, he decided to deposit in under a black rock jutting from the cliff face like a cruel overbite. He would be back, that is for certain, perhaps even tomorrow. No need encumbering this experience with a ratty old backpack. He wanted to stroll, not hike, and he covered it with leaves. Just as he was about to continue he recognized the telltale symptoms of over-hydration burning in his lower abdomen. I should take care of that here, he thought. It might be a beautiful spot but it’s hardly a church. Looking several times to ensure his alienation (despite the place’s remote nature, he had already sensed that he might not be quite alone), he stole into a nook between two slabs of granite and executed the necessary act, leaving a black stain on the grey boulders (he did not choose to steady his aim) which, so he imagined, looked nearly like his initials. Readjusting himself, he pulled his coat closer around his shoulders – he had nearly gotten the impression that someone had tried to pluck it off by the collar. It was odd the power that such a slight breeze could employ when shuttling through such a deep ravine.

The path clearly lead downward: he began noticing that he had to struggle to maintain balance. It was a slight tilt in gradient, however, and he bid it no notice. The trail curved in subtle scallops drawing him deeper into what was proving to be a tremendously wide ravine. No longer could he see the bottom where the water dashed in white flourishes; only the golden-brown canopy of old trees punctuated by black pines jutting through like nails on an upturned board. Animals he had seen none. But the insect population was chipper: he had noted the grasshoppers flitting to and fro in the dry foliage on the side of the road. At least he had heard them – they must be too small to see without looking purposefully, he thought, for he had only heard the rhythmic disruption of the underbrush. A flash of white sky with purple lacerations caught his eye. He smiled. Certainly no rain. He almost wished he hadn’t brought the coat. It was becoming a bother to take with him now, constantly being tugged at by the wind and slipping off his shoulders. Funny that the wind seemed to be going in his direction, but it eddied in these chasmic ravines, and its ways were mysterious.

He began to think, however, that the area might not be quite as remote as he imagined: he had begun to smell cooking meat. Well, burnt meat, actually. Like charred sausage or blackened hamburger. The scent was specifically reminded him of an occasion that summer where he had casually left two sausage patties frying in a pan, only to be reminded of them fifteen minutes later. They were black and blistered, the red flesh peering through gashes in the thick, tarry epidermis. Someone was camping, he imagined. No smoke could be seen issuing from the ravine. Perhaps on the crest of one of these peaks there was a campsite. The idea of company somewhat spoiled his pleasurable loneliness, but he endeavored to pour himself into the trail and enjoy his walk.

Turning a sharp bend he thought something fell from one of the trees behind him. It startled him for the first time, and he turned with a jerk. Something black and large was in the bed of leaves, something moving. Was it? No. He had glanced ahead to check for a means of escape, and upon looking again, he saw nothing but a tangle of rotting brush. It was concerning, however, now that he thought on it, to imagine how long it would take help to arrive if he tripped over something and had to call for paramedics. A stupid thought. He ran his fingers of the trunk of a grey hickory. With his eyes on the trail, his fingers retracted as if having touched fire. He looked at the vegetable – surely it hadn’t just felt like leather, like skin. No. No, rough and fibrous. He quickened his pace, but put his arms in his sleeves again. He was having so much trouble keeping it on, and should need his arms to be covered in case he should fall and need their protection. A weird thought. A paranoid thought. He still smelled something roasting or roasted. Sweet and burnt. Blistering sausage. Charred hamburger.

The gradient had, however, continued to steepen. He found himself clutching at branches and shrubs to steady himself, though he now found their touch detestable. He didn’t muse about this; it was an illogical aversion to the trees and foliage of a beautiful landscape. Senseless. But still, he reasoned, he must get on. The grasshoppers continued to flit amongst the brush beside and behind him. They were moving faster. They were not grasshoppers perhaps. But what? He buttoned the coat. It had tugged at his arms as if plucked at from behind. He pulled out the phone. How much further? Recalculate course. No signal. It made sense, he supposed, but it infuriated him. He shoved it in his hip pocket and hurried his pace. The grasshoppers stopped at nearly the same time. For some reason their sudden cessation disturbed him even more. He looked behind him. Nothing was there. But then he faced forward.

The path wound downwards, skirting a large bulb of jagged granite – in size comparable to a large minivan. This formation jutted out over the trail; in fact it appeared that the rock had been cut through to create a passage for the path. Indeed, there wasn’t a spare inch of earth bene