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J. Sheridan Le Fanu's Green Tea: A Two-Minute Summary and Analysis of the Classic Horror Story

With the sole exception of “Carmilla,” “Green Tea” reigns as J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s most widely celebrated and well-known supernatural tale. I know of many people who, when asked if they know anything about Le Fanu, will list these two stories and mention something about “Gothic horror” or “early weird fiction,” drawing comparisons with Poe, M. R. James, and Wilkie Collins. While these good people know a decent amount about “Carmilla” (presuming they have never read it – that it is a story about lesbian vampires, that it inspired Bram Stoker, that it is a Gothic mystery), “Green Tea” has only one common feature that those who have heard of it but who have not read it will call to mind: “that’s the one with the demonic monkey.”

 

The idea sticks in the brain and sometimes leads to disappointment when these horror readers finally pick up the story and read it: the idea of a hellish simian is somehow much more powerful in the abstract and loses its potency in Le Fanu’s prose. But even if readers are let down by “Green Tea” (most who complain site its narrator and his anticlimactic deductions), the story still disturbs and remains as firmly seated in the memory as the Monkey squatting on the Bible. There is something deeply collective and archetypal about this frolicsome antagonist: many people – especially children – adore monkeys’ unencumbered embrace of pleasure and folly: they are astonishingly human, but lack restraint, shame, or self-respect.

 

They play, languish, fight, fornicate, and ogle without the slightest censor. For most people the monkey is a symbol of care free enjoyment, liberty, and independence – a reminder of our simian ancestry and of the animal life (a seemingly libertine paradise) we chose to forsake for the stability of civilization. There are those who gaze into monkey cages at the zoo with wistful smiles or jealous smirks. But to Le Fanu there was something darker behind the symbol of the monkey – something even more primitive than the promise of freedom: the fear of appetite (more on that later).                                                                              

 

Most critics who have pondered “Green Tea” have recognized its similarity to two late Victorian literary masterpieces: the exploits of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In fact, there are many who might compare the story to a piece of contemporary fan fiction where Jekyll consults Holmes about the problem of Hyde. In the narrator – an arrogant, showy consultant who diagnoses his clients life stories with a glance, instinctively senses trouble, shows off his deductive skills like a parlor game, and is chronicled by his devoted assistant/editor (himself an invalid doctor) – we have a prototype of Sherlock Holmes. This “great detective,” the idle metaphysician Martin Hesselius, is one of the earliest (though hardly the first) supernatural sleuths, and is the model for Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing, Blackwood’s John Silence, and Hodgson’s Carnacki the Ghost-finder, though – like all the preceeding luminaries – he is an insufferable blowhard whose pseudo-scientific theories, arrogance, and windy explanations get in the way of the horror.

 

He is more effective in the “Room of the Dragon Volant,” but serves as a fascinating counterpoint to his suffering client, the Rev. Dr. Robert Jennings. Jennings, for his part, plays our Jekyll: a respectable society man (and a confirmed bachelor) hounded by his self-loathing, simian Doppelganger – a manifestation of his repressed Id which is summoned by the ritual drinking of a beverage. In “Jekyll and Hyde,” the good doctor describes his alter-ego in monkey-like terms many times: his strength, size, hairy hands, tempers, lusts, and – above all – self-preserving fears are spoken of in terms of human evolution – as representing that of a devolved form of mankind. In “Green Tea” our “Jekyll” did not intentionally call forth his “Hyde,” but is accidentally brought from its repressed state by the drinking of a mystical potion. Jekyll used a blood-red form of phosphorous and a salt-like powder, which – when combined – create a pale green fluid.

 

Jennings uses green tea – a drink associated with the Far East, once wildly popular (adored by the Shelleys and Byron) until the mid-Victorian period when the unfermented tea leaves (typically sold by Chinese rather than British merchants) were suspected (sometimes rightfully) of being diluted with chemicals and rubbish in order to sell more of it at a lower price (rather like how cigarettes are loaded with floor sweepings, arsenic, and glue). Hesselius’ vilification of green tea may seem ludicrous to us today, but in Le Fanu’s time, its lack of regulation attracted a great deal of fear: Charlotte Bronte refused to drink a single drop of it before bed out of fear that the off-market stimulants it was suspected of being cut with would prevent her from sleeping all night. So there is more of a physical than metaphysical explanation behind why green tea is suspected of opening up Jennings’ third eye: its chemical additives have inflamed his blood, which – according to Hesselius – in turn inflames his nervous system, causing the spiritual window of his mind to open, revealing his skulking Doppelgänger.                                                                        

 

Critics have frequently accused “Green Tea” of racist undertones or colonial distrust, but I think they completely overlook the role that Jennings himself has in his suffering. Hesselius frequently commands him to stop worrying about his demonic visitor because he is in God’s hands (even going so far as to imply that his situation is like that of the biblical Job whom God allowed Satan to test with horrible losses, before rewarding him for his fidelity), but Hesselius seems to miss what contemporary critics are missing when he soothes his friend’s anxieties: the Monkey is not an Oriental djinn or a Chinese god sent from the Far East to torment this pious Christian, a punishment for his only sin – not drinking good ol’ British black tea; no, as the text clearly suggests multiple times, the Monkey has always been there.

 

His being a Monkey has more to do with Jennings’ personal archetypes than any connection with the Far East (besides which, the Monkey appears to be a South American breed) – it is his Hyde, his inner tormentor, and all that the green tea is guilty of is opening Jennings’ eye to the monster which he has been harboring throughout his life: the depraved manifestation of decades of masochistic repression and sycophantic yes-man-ing – the child of his own resentment.

 

II.

 

Dr. Martin Hesselius is an eccentric physician, student of the esoteric, and occult investigator -- something of a cross between Sherlock Holmes, Dr. House, Van Helsing, and Father Brown -- who was travelling through England during the Regency Era when he encountered the strange and unsettling case of Rev. Jennings, a studious vicar whose only apparent vices are an obsession with mysticism and late night reading binges fueled by green tea. Nonetheless, Jennings' friends are concerned about him: he seems to be depressed and -- although they downplay it -- he is growing paranoid, and even appears to be seeing things.

 

He has taken a leave of absence from his parish in the Warwickshire countryside and is spending more and more time cloistered in the library of his townhouse in the London suburb of Richmond. Hesselius agrees to meet with Jennings to assess whether he is suffering from something psychological, supernatural, or -- possibly -- both. Hesselius finds him to be neat, polite, and congenial, but unquestionably nervous and disturbed: he notes that the vicar's eyes frequent track along the carpet as if watching some invisible thing move back and forth on the floor.

 

After meeting at the house of one of Jennings' friends, Lady Mary, Hesselius takes her aside -- Sherlock Holmes style -- to test his deductions: he has inferred that Jennings is a bachelor, that he is currently working on a complex book on an abstract nature, that he drinks copious amounts of green tea (a fact he was not previously aware of), and that at least one of his parents had reported seeing ghosts. Lady Mary is stunned since she had made no mention of these particulars, and each is true. Hesselius' professional interest has been engaged, and he agrees to visit Jennings at his townhouse on the wooded outskirts of Richmond. 

 

He is fascinated by Jennings' character -- well liked and admired, yet reclusive; a respected Anglican reverend, yet obsessed with Oriental occultism.  In many ways the two men are very similar: they are both single, confirmed old bachelors who have traded the warmth of family life for monastic, literary pursuits. Indeed, Jennings is familiar with Hesselius' metaphysical writings and is honored by his visit. 

 

***

When he is shown inside by the servant, Jennings is not there, so Hesselius waits in his library. It is a fittingly Gothic room: dark, tall, and shadowy, with two long windows (overlooking a band of dark, lonely woods) and an almost shockingly vast collection of occult works. As in Poe's "Haunted Palace," it becomes apparent that the library is an allegory for Jennings dark mind (complete with the two windows for eyes), and Hesselius is drawn to a desk where he finds an open book (a volume of the famous philosopher/theologian/mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg's "Celestia Arcana") which is heavily annotated.

 

One bookmarked page has the following quote underscored: “When man’s interior sight is opened, which is that of his spirit, then there appear the things of another life, which cannot possibly be made visible to the bodily sight.” Swedenborg goes on to theorize that there are some demonic spirits which can be drawn from hell to associate with human beings who share some spiritual trait with them; however, once the spirits realize that their companions are mortal and not of the spirit world, they will become driven with hatred to seek their host's destruction. In the margin next to this paragraph, Jennings has written: "God [have compassion on] me." At this moment, Hesselius looks up into the mirror over the desk and sees Jennings face.

 

The clergyman is standing behind his guest and reading over his shoulder (with his face "so dark and wild" that he is almost unrecognizable), and Hesselius quickly recognizes that he has trespassed upon Jennings' inner thoughts. They both pretend that embarrasing has occurred, however, and they begin to discuss a manuscript of Hesselius' metaphysical theories which Jennings has enjoyed reading. They briefly touch on Jennings' maladies -- he dismisses the theories of his physician, Dr. Harley, as the stupid chatter of a "mere materialist" -- but he remains reserved and secretive on the topic. After a polite but unsubstantial conversation, they part ways, and Hesselius is left to ponder his findings. 

 

 

***

It isn't long after, however, that Jennings -- who had returned to his parish in an attempt to resume his preaching -- unexpectedly retreats back to London and begs Hesselius to see him.  He arrives at dusk as the scarlet sunset clashes with the deepening shadows, underscoring the story's themes of intersecting dimensions and the shadowy liminal spaces between the material, mortal world and the spiritual, psychic realm. When Hesselius enters Jennings' gloomy study, his ghostly surroundings are striking:

 

"The faint glow of the west, the pomp of the then lonely woods of Richmond, were before us, behind and about us the darkening room, and on the stony face of the sufferer for the character of his face, though still gentle and sweet, was changed rested that dim, odd glow which seems to descend and produce, where it touches, lights, sudden though faint, which are lost, almost with out gradation, in darkness. The silence, too, was utter: not a distant wheel, or bark, or whistle from without; and within the depressing stillness of an invalid bachelor's house.I guessed well the nature, though not even vaguely the particulars of the revelations I was about to receive, from that fixed face of suffering that so oddly flushed stood out, like a portrait of Schalken's, before its background of darkness..."

 

Convinced that honesty is his only hope, Jennings begins his tale. Four years prior he had begun a massive literary project -- a book on the Gnostic mysticism of Ancient cultures -- that led him to spend late nights reading, fueled by regular cups of strong, black tea. However, after much experimentation, he decided to switch to green tea: unlike black tea, it kept him awake without clouding his mind or making his nerves jittery. From this point on, he started to become addicted to the drink, and began keeping later and later hours, poring over metaphysical texts on the occult.

 

Now, at this point we should pause to note why green tea -- today considered a tame, health-conscious, Zen beverage -- should be so sinister. Green and black tea are made from the same leaves: black tea, however, is dried and oxidated first, while green tea is raw and untreated. It was first introduced to Europe in the 1600s, and was popular with teetotalers, vegetarians, and health buffs in England for two centuries. The Shelleys drank only the best green tea, it was heartily recommended by doctors, and it even constituted 1/5 of the tea destroyed in the Boston Tea Party. The tides turned in the early 1800s, however, when concerns rose that unregulated Chinese exporters were adulterating their shipments -- not at all unlike cigarettes, factory farmed chickens, or steroid-pumped vegetables -- with addictive substances, cosmetic fillers, and unnatural stimulants.  Among the substances discovered in green tea were sheep dung, arsenic, paint, dye, iron fillings, hawthorn, and other chemicals meant to improve their appearance and over-stimulate their consumers. A common fear of green tea consumption was that it would cause chronic, long-term insomnia. Charlotte Bronte was so frightened by the idea of becoming addicted to green tea -- and suffering sleep deprivation -- that Elizabeth Gaskell hid from her, during one visit, that her black tea was cut with green tea. Its toxic, addictive, and insomniac properties were much overhyped, but nonetheless held a grain of truth during the Victorian Age. 

 

Kept awake by this ostensibly tainted green tea, Jennings begins to see strange things at night: two parallel red balls of light moving about the floor. One night, while riding home on an omnibus, he notices the button-sized balls of light watching him from the darkness. As they move about the empty bus, he realizes that they are the glowing eyes of a small, black monkey, which grins -- knowingly and malevolently -- at him from the shadows. He pokes at it with his umbrella, but it passes through the monkey as through mist. It follows him when he steps off the bus, and although he writes it off as a hallucination caused by indigestion, it begins to haunt him from that day forward. 

 

Often it would appear sluggish and lazy, but whenever he preached from the pulpit, it would grow violent -- crouching on the Bible and blocking its words while grinding its fangs. It had a habit of disappearing at intervals, and once -- after a three-month absence -- it returned angrier than ever, preventing him from praying, by muttering blasphemous obscenities in his ear as he begs for redemption. Eventually, it grew so strong that he began to see it even when he closes his eyes, and its messages become even more sinister: ordering him to harm himself or others. In fact, the monkey's voice melds into Jennings' own inner thoughts and begins urging him to commit suicide.

 

At one point -- Jennings' darkest moment -- he is walking through the countryside with a party of friends when he pauses beside an abandoned coal mine shaft. As the party continues on, he stares down the black hole and is drawn the the edge. Suddenly, the beast's voice urges him to throw himself down its mouth, and surely would have, except that his niece found him and broke his trance. Jennings is increasingly desperate as the monkey's voice becomes louder and more determined to destroy him.

 

***

With things as dark as they are now, he has no hope of surviving, but Hesselius has heard enough to make a diagnosis, prognosis, and prescription. He urges Jennings to have faith in God and to not lose hope: he has been preserved so far, and it must be for a reason. He departs to develop a treatment plan, begging Jennings to call on him at once if the monkey returns. Privately, he orders Jennings' servant to keep a close, paternal watch on his master, and promises to be available on the instant in case something goes wrong. 

 

But Hesselius fails: like Jennings, he is drawn to solitude, and does his planning at a remote inn, far from his known lodgings. He becomes distracted and lost in his research, and by the time he returns, he learns that Jennings' servant has been searching everywhere for him, and finds the following letter from his master: "Dear Dr. Hesselius.--It is here. You had not been an hour gone when it returned. It is speaking. It knows all that has happened. It knows every thing-it knows you, and is frantic and atrocious. It reviles. I send you this. It knows every word I have written--I write. This I promised, and I therefore write, but I fear very confused, very incoherently. I am so interrupted, disturbed."

 

Realizing that his patient is in dire straits, Hesselius rushes to his house only to be greeted by servants with pale faces and bloodstained hands. Jennings had been concerning his servants earlier that night with his distracted, depressed attitude, and his increasing sense of desperation. After helping him undress, he asks a servant to tell him the truth: has he heard anyone cursing? No he hadn't, and Jennings weakly retorts, "No, of course, no..." Shortly after, the servant found the door locked, and by midnight he began to worry, so he knocked, but got no response. The servants decide to break the door down, and they discover that Jennings has committed suicide by cutting his throat with a razor. The servants refuse to describe the scene, but admit that it was "a frightful gash" and Hesselius catches a glimpse of "an immense pool of blood" between the bed and the window. 

 

***

As with many suicides, Jennings' death astonishes his community -- even Hesselius, who notes: "Mr. Jennings was very gentle, and very kind. All his people were fond of him. I could see that the servant was very much moved. So, dejected and agitated, I passed from that terrible house, and its dark canopy of elms, and I hope I shall never see it more. While I write to you I feel like a man who has but half waked from a frightful and monotonous dream. My memory rejects the picture with incredulity and horror."

 

The story ends with a chapter called "A Word for those Who Suffer," in which Hesselius presents his conclusions. We learn that this account has been written to a professor who is suffering from a similar tormentor (which adds a chilling layer to the tale), and he closes this letter with his advice to the suicidal sufferer. He theorizes that Jennings' green tea was cut with "a poison that excites the reciprocal action of spirit and nerve, and paralyses the tissue that separates those cognate functions of the senses, the external and the interior. Thus we find strange bedfellows, and the mortal and immortal prematurely make acquaintance.” 

 

He believes that man's nerves are regulated by a undiscovered fluid -- like the circulatory system -- and that the abuse of stimulants like strong teas and tobaccos, liquor, opium, and others can rattle this system, disturbing the equilibrium of the nervous fluids in the same way that alcohol inflames the liver or sugar irritates blood vessels. This can cause a rupture of the veil between the visible and invisible worlds, opening the mystical Third Eye -- located in the brain tissue just above the eyebrows -- and exposing mortals to the assaults of supernatural agents, like the demonic black monkey that drove Jennings to slit his throat.

 

To ease this inflammation, Hesselius proscribes ceasing the use of stimulants and regularly applying compresses of iced cologne to the forehead. This simple prescription (with individualized touches) has worked for most of Hesselius' haunted patients -- Mr. Jennings, however, serves as a brutal warning of the risks of such a demonic association.  

 

III.

“Green Tea” heavily prefigures – and in many ways influenced – the writing of two of Le Fanu’s greatest fans, men who shared both their appreciation for “the Invisible Prince” and a last name: the transatlantic realist, Henry James, and the perfector of the English ghost story, M. R. James. Both Jameses (no relation) found tremendous merit in Le Fanu, and “Green Tea” was a particular favorite of both men. You can see its influence in Henry James’s stark, psychological, ambiguous ghost stories – “Owen Wingrave,” “Romance of Certain Old Clothes,” “Turn of the Screw,” “The Jolly Corner,” and “Sir Edmund Orme” particularly come to mind – which exult in uncertain supernatural plots, psychological subtext, and ponderous themes of guilt and shame. Like “Green Tea,” these stories might be straightforward hauntings, or they might be hallucinations, or psychological parables, or symbol-laden allegories, or lies, or some combination of all three.

 

Jennings, himself, is a particularly (Henry) Jamesian character, too: a vaguely homosexual confirmed old bachelor with close female friends, a fascination with books, a solitary hermit-like lifestyle, and a mixed-blessing lifestyle of ease and comfort – a gentleman of leisure who is driven to sin and self-loathing by having too much time on his hands. We find nearly identical characters in “The Jolly Corner,” “Owen Wingrave,” and “The Real Right Thing.” He is also a prototypically (M. R.) Jamesian character who effortlessly reminds us of the antiquarian’s hapless protagonists: the stuffy Parkins (whose hubris is checked and traumatized when he pockets a haunted whistle and summons its guardian), the antisocial Wraxhall (who is fascinated by a long-dead, sadistic alchemist until his face is sucked away by his Lovecraftian henchman), the scholarly Mr Abney (whose studies into ancient religion lead him to human sacrifices of children), the ambitious Rev. Dr. Haynes (who secures the death of a rival and finds himself hunted down by a demonic black cat) and the rabbity Paxton (who unearthed a cursed crown and was mercilessly curb-stomped to death by its guardian).

 

Jennings’ bachelor status, his clerical background, his scholarly lifestyle, his aversion to society, penchant for loneliness, devotion to arcane studies, and the nature of his haunting all summon forth the style of M. R. James, and “Green Tea”’s impression is deep in works like “Lost Hearts,” “Oh, Whistle,” “Stalls of Barchester,” “Count Magnus,” and “A Warning to the Curious.” As mentioned earlier, the impact of this tale was also apparently felt in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (whose Sherlock Holmes takes a cue from the leisurely sleuth Hesselius, albeit with better results) and Robert Louis Stevenson (whose own sycophantic, respectable, bachelor protagonist summons a simian Doppelgänger – attesting to decades of profound repression and self-loathing – which drives him to suicide, in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde).

 

And of course there is Bram Stoker, who used Hesselius’ prototype (mixed with a bit of the vampire hunter Vornderburg) to create the lecherous busybody Van Helsing. Henry James, M. R. James, Stoker, Stevenson and Doyle all took profound interest in the psychological symbolism of supernatural fiction: Henry James’ father was beset by mental illness (as was Doyle’s), and his psychiatrist brother, William, was a major figure in the field, predating and influencing Freud; Stoker surrounded himself with people who were eccentric actors capable of putting on and removing complex facades without allowing others to know their true selves; M. R. James was drawn to forbidden arcana and apocrypha which stirred in him a mixture of scholarly titillation and religious shame.

 

At its heart, “Green Tea” is one of Le Fanu’s most psychological tales: like “The Jolly Corner” and “The Turn of the Screw,” it features proto-Freudian symbolism – the libidinal Monkey whose rage against regulation suggests the Id; Jennings’ book-clothed library – a party room converted from its original purpose – with its two soul-suggesting windows and its two self-critical, Super-Ego-suggesting mirrors, which stands as a model of his conscious mind; his first attempt at suicide (throwing himself into a mine shaft – a symbol of the unconscious: an attempt to give himself over to his Id); his successful suicide, rich with Freudian sexual subtext (his throat is slit into a “gash” – a Victorian euphemism for a vulva – which can be read as self-humiliation: “I am a pussy – I surrender, become submissive, to my repressed, violent, masculine energies: I fuck myself up”); and the much discussed symbolism of the phallic Monkey whose course hair and intrusive nature have been called symbolic of everything from masturbation and pornography, to sodomy and homosexual lust.

 

“Green Tea” is so much more than a polemic against the once widely suspected, now unduly revered beverage: it is a parable of depression and suicidal ideation, a sour portrayal of self-hate and repression, a complex and intimate expression of the impulse to destroy oneself, and an informed analysis of the psychological motives behind self-slaughter.

 

Jennings is a tragic victim of his upbringing: a man trained to hide his desires and feelings in favor of others – a man taught to hold the door and wait, to speak only when spoken to, to nod in agreement regardless of his opinions, to stifle resentment with instinctive acquiescence. Indeed, there are several moments when Jennings is revealed to have a rather violent and unquestionably bitter inner life: when Hesselius sees him watching him watching Jennings in the mirror (a symbol of self-reflection and genuine identity – the sight in the mirror trumping whatever we might hope to exude or wish to feel), his face is beastly and “wild” – almost unrecognizable.

 

This is fitting, for the one actual piece of Latin that Hesselius communicates to us in a chapter called  “Dr Hesslius Picks Up Something in Latin Books” is the word “fera” – whence comes “feral” – meaning “wild animal,” “beast of prey,” “predator.” This is a word Le Fanu wants us to remember – this is Jennings’ identity. Deep inside he has – for years and decades – been harboring a starved, ravenous beast who aches to emerge and hates his jailer with a vehemence that overlooks that fact that to destroy him is to destroy himself. Like Hyde who was (if you read the book closely) a teenaged version of Jekyll, only less evolved (the word “simian” is used to suggest Darwin), more impulsive, and deeply libidinous, the Monkey is not an external antagonist, but an internal persona.

 

Also like Hyde, the Monkey shares with his human identity a deep hatred for that identity and drives him to misery in spite of his pitiable impulse to self-preserve (Hyde is frantic towards the end, whining and groaning, pacing like a caged animal, calling out fearfully to his father-Jekyll whom he resents for his imprisonment, but whom he adores – not unlike Frankenstein’s Creature – as a creator; the Monkey on the other hand is sullen, depressed, and submissive until he realizes that his human self can see him – and then he removes his gloves and chases Jennings to his death).

 

In one of the most sober moments in “Green Tea,” Le Fanu describes Jennings sitting down to tell his tale, face lit up by twilight, seemingly disembodied in the swarming gloom, described as resembling one of Schalken’s eerie paintings. In setting his victim in this atmosphere, Le Fanu returns to a crepuscular landscape which employs his favored chiaroscuro effect: light and shadow are equally enhanced and underscored, drawing attention to their uncomfortable proximity and their diametrically opposed natures, creating a convenient metaphor for good and evil, public and private, conscious and unconscious.

 

Jennings seems like a weird phantom or goblin himself; he does not seem to be a part of the living world, but a visitant from the supernatural realm. He is “othered” by his appearance, which causes him to seem wrapped up in the gloom as if belonging to it: he is just another part of this melancholy landscape, like the trees, the sunset, and the shadows, and the true Jennings – the private man – is more of a citizen of the unconscious world than one of society and humankind.

 

There is something deeply personal – tragically personal – about this story of suicidal anguish and alienation from the world of light and laughter. I don’t think it is taking too much of a liberty to suggest that Le Fanu may have been writing from experience of one finds himself removed from polite society, uprooted from social expectations, an alien to fashionable feelings and clubbable conversation. He too may have felt “othered” – as if he belonged to the gloom that filled his dead, more a citizen of the unconscious world than one of society and humankind, a head floating in darkness, a mind unsecured to the floor, a soul cut away from its moorings and drifting away into the dark.

 

You can read the original story HERE!

 

And you can find our annotated and illustrated collection of Le Fanu's best ghost stories HERE!

 

 

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