The petrol station grew from the mist as I approached, the lights blooming in the fog as it materialised. The opening chords to Queen’s “Somebody to Love” floated from the radio and I turned it off.
I filled up the tank and walked into the ammonia-soaked box that made up the main building. The clerk was reading a magazine behind the desk. He didn’t look up at the ringing of the bell mounted on the door or even at my picking up two Kit-Kats. It wasn’t until I laid them on the counter that his dark, lazy gaze swept up to me.
“That it?” he asked, with a heavy farmer’s accent.
“Yeah, I paid for the fuel at the pump.”
He nodded and rang the bars up. “£1.50.”
I laid a five on the counter. Most of the paint was gone from money sliding back and forth.
The man settled back on his stool as he handed me my change. “Where ya headed, fella?”
He asked it casually, but I felt he probably knew the answer.
He nodded slowly. “Not much up that way anymore. Visiting someone?”
“No. I’m doing a study.”
“On the Preacher House.”
It wasn’t a question, but I nodded. He looked out of the window, his jaw moving like he was chewing on his words. The rain beat down gently on the aluminium roof, undercutting the pop music with a gentle tapping noise.
“Yeah. What about it?”
“I’d wait ‘til the rain let up if I was you.”
I cocked my head. “Why?”
His jaw made that same movement again and I wondered what battle was going on in his head as he slid his hands into his hoodie pocket.
“I just would.” He looked me up and down. “People up there won’t be happy to see…your type.”
I adjusted my glasses, knowing the answer before I asked. “My type?”
He chewed the words. “You know what I mean.”
“I do. I’m doing a thesis project on the house.”
He shuffled his feet. “You’re gonna think I’m stupid, man, but – take some advice – don’t go up there.”
“I’ve heard the stories,” I reassured him.
He looked at me, and his face changed from apprehension to something resembling pity.
I extended my hand over the counter. “My name’s Josh.”
He shook it with a hand much more calloused than mine. “Renard.”
“What an interesting name. It’s nice to meet you, Renard.”
He nodded. Everything about the man could be described as ‘quiet.’ All of his movements were small and slow, his t-shirt and jeans were earthy, sombre colours. Even his eyes were a muted shade of green.
“If you really need to, tell them you talked to me, but only if you really, and I mean really need to. Like if someone starts giving you trouble or something. I’ll have a whole mess of trouble if people find out I’m talking to you.”
I hesitated for a moment. “W–Will they? Give me trouble I mean? ”
“Probably not. Nobody ever goes up there. Especially not in the rain. Down here, though...well...”
“Why not the rain?” I asked.
Instead of answering, he glanced at the ring on my finger. I wondered if I was going to have to go through this song and dance yet again.
“She’s dead,” I said flatly.
After a moment, he answered. “I expected as much.”
I stared at him, questioningly.
“Have a nice day,” he said, picking up his magazine again.
Back in the car, I pulled my tape recorder from my bag and flicked on the record switch. It wasn’t for serious notes, but more for general themes and feelings. The professor had recommended it to help us keep track of our feelings and ideas as we collected the materials for our thesis.
“Met a man in the petrol station on the edge of –” I looked around, trying to figure out what to call it “the general area. He asked where I was going and tried to dissuade me from it. He gave his name as Renard and said to use it if anyone gives me any trouble. He also told me they wouldn’t be happy to see ‘my type.’” I flicked the recorder off, then, after a moment, back on. “It’s hard to imagine this place ever being sunny.”
“Since it’s October,” said the professor, “I decided we’d focus on some of the darker aspects of folklore. I know you all have surely been enjoying learning all about quilting, but we’ll take a break from that wonderful subject to do a little – ah, well, something a bit more spooky.” He bounced on the word spooky.
Doctor James had a way of lecturing where he would often put his hands behind his back and lean or bend in time with his lectures, occasionally bouncing up a little to punctuate the end of sentences here and there. He was in rare form that day.
“Rather than focus on the largest examples that all of you know of and have surely heard about a thousand times – I thought it would be interesting to give you some less well-known examples of spooky folklore.”
The Preacher House was the third, after a haunted bridge somewhere in Scotland, and a goatman somewhere in the Midlands. The powerpoint on Preacher House showed a yellowed photograph picturing the brick foundation of a home, with three walls still partially standing and the chimney still jutting into the air.
“The Preacher House is a little-known ruin set up in the forest of Cedar Grove. It’s not too south from here, actually. The problem is – well,” he smiled and swivelled to face the class, very pleased with himself, “we know very little about it. The first mention of it was recorded from the Folk-Studies department at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, but there was no mention of how old the original building was or what, exactly, was supposed to be wrong with the place. Tourists were warned away from it, but as it’s close to the Suffolk coastline – it’s been difficult to keep people away from the place.”
He changed a slide and there was a general shuffling as every person in the lecture hall shifted in their chair to lean forward.
The new slide pictured a large underground structure with murals painted on the walls, though the photos were so grainy and yellowed with age that it was hard to see what exactly the murals were supposed to be depicting.
“Ah-ha, now you see the interesting part. When a group of students from the university went to investigate it some twenty years ago, they found a hatch leading beneath the old house and a large cave system tunnelling and sprawling beneath, with these murals painted on them. They had planned to do more testing, but – and this was when I, myself, was still in middle school, mind you. Supposedly they were contacted by the Suffolk Forensics team and told that it was some type of crime scene that needed to be investigated and that they needed to stop. All of that, naturally, has combined together to leave us with a very spooky” he bounced on the word again “mystery surrounding these old ruins that, at least according to locals, no one is supposed to ever go near.”
Cedar Grove didn’t materialise out of the mist like the petrol station, but instead spread out below when I crested a hill, like rooftops afloat in a sea of lazy fog.
The Preacher House was on the other side of town, and as I drove through the wet, quiet streets, I looked at the decaying town. If broken, boarded up windows had been in vogue, then Cedar Grove would have been the pinnacle of fashion, but as it were, a quiet, proud desperation slunk between the buildings and crossed the cracked streets – somehow more tangible even than the mist or the rain. I stopped at a red light beside a diner that probably had dirt in the grout that was older than me, and tried to ignore all the pale, sunken faces in the windows watching my car. I still felt their eyes boring into me long after I had left the village again and continued deeper in the forest.
The Preacher House sat alone in a meadow, half a mile down a dirt road, backed sharply by a towering wall of pine trees. Thin, wispy grass had grown waist-high around the fragments of wall, with only a single tree in what might be considered the house’s ‘garden.’ Wind sent ripples through the grass, always moving from the edges inward toward the house like the grass was bowing. Everything was a little greyer than the pictures, but I hardly noticed that at first, since my eye was drawn to something so out of place that it might have been comical if it didn’t give off such a threatening feeling.
In front of the house, some ten feet from the closest fragment of wall, someone had sat an old payphone, the kind painted blue on the sides, far less common here in the UK, but a staple in the rural Midwest states of America.
I walked toward it slowly, with that familiar feeling of wondering if I might be the butt of someone’s strange joke. Still, no camera crews jumped out of the bushes or anything as I reached it, and I picked up the phone, only to hear silence.
Of course – I had expected silence, but I felt a strange sense of disappointment at it. I hung it back up on the receiver, then, as an experiment, pushed the thing slightly. The thing was so top-heavy that, with only that slight push, it toppled over into the grass with a wet, metallic clanging noise.
I looked around, still waiting for some kind of punchline, but all that came was a cold gust of wind.
I pulled the recorder from my pocket and clicked the record button.
“Someone seems to have put – and I’m not joking here – a whole damned payphone up here. It’s not connected to anything, and it doesn’t work, but…I can’t imagine a reason for it being here. Even as a prank it seems – weird. I might ask around in town about it. A whole damned payphone. Like – why?”
I stepped over the phone and walked up the small, weed-choked path to the remainder of the brick house that had once stood there, now no more than three pieces of wall and a chimney.
I stepped through what had once been the door and wandered to the other side, where, I knew, the entrance lay to the more interesting part of the place.
The door was like those that lead down to beer cellars, set at an angle descending into the ground. The wood was warped, with large gaps between the boards, and seemed to be held together entirely by the thick iron band that encircled each of the doors. Both I and the door groaned together as I managed to haul the heavy thing up and past it’s centre of gravity, where it swung back on it’s rusted hinges and, after a single bounce, lay still.
Warm, thick air emanated from the open hole, smelling of wet earth and stone. The stairs that led downward weren’t wood or even metal, but chiselled pieces of slate jammed into the earth. I pulled the small torch from my pocket and shined it down into the yawning tunnel, but there was only darkness, and nothing more.
As I descended, the damp of the rain gave way and the air became softer and dryer. Then, without any kind of forewarning, the stairs ended, leaving me standing at the exit to the tunnel’s bottom, staring into a darkness that seemed thicker somehow, and almost alive.
I turned the light up and into what people referred to as the ‘bunker,’ but the beam just stretched off into more darkness, and I had to tread some ways before it reached the far wall.
I experienced then one of those feelings that happens when, even though you’re expecting something, it still manages to surprise you. It’s rather like seeing the Grand Canyon. We’ve all seen pictures of it, and – yet – seeing it in person still leaves you a bit breathless.
The mural painted there was beautiful. That must be stated first. It wasn’t some crude drawing, but a product of a hand that must have spent many, many years perfecting it’s craft.
The painting showed a woodland scene, with a stream running through the centre, with squirrels and foliage ridiculously detailed for their size, for the scene covered the whole ten foot high wall, leaving the squirrels in the foreground standing at some two or three feet tall.
As my eyes adjusted, though, I saw the real reason for the Preacher House’s reputation: the dark shadowy figures hiding between the trees, devoid of any kind of detail to humanise them. They were simply outlined voids that were vaguely human-shaped, painted grey and black, like someone had blocked them out to paint but just never got around to finishing them. The ones in the background were maybe two feet tall, while the ones closest to the front of the painting would have stood at some eight feet tall.
I stared at one of them for a moment. I knew there were two other murals covering the walls to the left and right, and the realisation that those murals too were populated with these featureless entities filled me with a sudden dread that left me with the urge to be anywhere – and I mean anywhere – else.
I took a deep breath and waited for the feeling to pass before taking a cursory look at the other two murals: an island scene on the left and a small farm at the foot of a large forest at the other. When I touched the wall, I found it didn’t have the plasticky, smooth feel of acrylics, but still felt like plain rock – as if the rock itself had been dyed to create the murals, rather than painted on.
I noted my first impressions on the tape recorder.
“Finally,” I added, walking back to the forest mural, “One of the most curious effects of the paintings is that, between their detail and size and the sheer darkness down here, it’s almost impossible to get a true measure on them. When I look left, I see something to the right I didn’t see earlier, and when I look right to pay attention to that new thing, something in the left catches my eye again. It’s such a strange trick of the eye. It creates this – feeling – of things appearing in the painting as you simply can’t take in such a large amount of detail from so close up.”
The town’s library was an old two-story building sandwiched between, and sharing walls with, two apartments. The plaque outside told me that the building had apparently at one time been home to the town’s newspaper, but didn’t say much else.
The librarian was an ancient-looking woman whose glasses were so thick they could have doubled as binoculars and wore a perfume that smelled of wilted lavender. The library itself had only front windows, and the only light inside the place was the librarian’s desk lamp illuminating some old ledger that she looked up from to glare at me.
“I help you?” she asked.
“Yes, hi, I’m looking for a – uh – well, anything you have on the Preacher House.”
I didn’t know until that moment that an empty library could grow somehow more silent, and yet, it did. The rain even seemed to slacken, like it decided it would take a stroll down the street and come back after all this unpleasantness was over.
“Well, which preacher? Preacher Hancock’s place? Preacher Campbell? Or we got Preacher Gamble’s house over on –“
“No, no,” I said, holding up a hand and cutting her off. “I mean the Preacher House.”
She had well known what I meant the first time, and we both knew that.
“Don’t know the place,” she said, turning her attention back to the ledger. “You have a nice day.”
“I’m just looking for any records about when it was built or who it’s owners might have been or anything like that.”
Her only answer was to continue staring pointedly at the ledger.
“Please? I’m not looking to cause trouble or anything, I promise.”
She still didn’t look up.
I sighed and turned to leave, but I only got a step before I remembered something. It wasn’t exactly an emergency or anything, and it seemed a long shot – but, I didn’t really have much to lose at this point. I turned back to the desk.
“Renard told me it was okay.”
She didn’t move for a moment, but her jaw worked furiously as she ground her teeth. When she did look up, it was with an angry acceptance rather than any kind of helpfulness. She pushed back from the table with alarming agility for someone so old and marched off into the gloom, muttering something that sounded angry. The sound of it moved through the shelves and up the old spiral staircase at the back of the place, then over my head before making its way back. In her hand, she held a battered old paper folder with a typed label that said “Preacher Family Records.”
“You stay right here with it,” she said with authoritative sternness. “You can sit at the table over there.”
A part of me wanted to joke that she wouldn’t be able to stop me if I wanted to take it with me – but something told me not only would she not find it funny, but it very well might be entirely wrong.
I sat down at one of the long tables close to the windows and flicked on the desk lamp, then opened the folder.
It took me some time to sort through the stack of documents. Most were yellowed and thin with age and carried a smell of dust and mould. Some were so frail I was afraid to handle them with anything other than my fingertips, lest they crumble. The documents traced the births and deaths of the Preacher family just over a hundred years, but detailed little else besides. The last record I found was a deed given to one Oliver Preacher, dated 1890, in the general area of the Preacher House. There was absolutely nothing regarding what led to its current state.
I took the folder back up to the librarian and thanked her. She didn’t even look up.
I rented a room at a long one-story bed and breakfast that wrapped around a parking lot, this one situated at a small, dark bend on the road leading from the village, surrounded by old-growth cedar trees. I walked in and turned on the lamp, only to find the television didn’t work and the heater only had one setting: Satan’s arsehole.
I pulled my chair into the door and sat there, moving it backward or forward when I got hot or cold. I sat and listened to the rain patter off the roof and the bed of crushed pine needles.
I stared into the dark woods, spinning my wedding ring on my finger - and waiting.
After my usual two hours of sleep, I awoke with no idea what I was going to do next for my thesis, which is why I was more excited than disturbed when I found that someone had slipped a note under my door that read simply: Village of Cedar Grove vs. Alton Bransbury.
After a coffee, I made my way through the chilly, sprawling hallways of the courthouse in the nearest large town of Ipswich, until I found the records department and asked for the case. The archivist, a small old man with wire-rimmed spectacles much too large for his face, frowned heavily when I asked but, nevertheless, led me down to the archive’s ‘reading room’ at the end of a long, yellowed hallway that smelled of ammonia and buzzed with the sound of failing fluorescent lights. The room itself was small and carpeted, with only an old steel table and chair inside. He brought me the file and left silently.
The case concerned one Alton Bransbury, a local shop-clerk, who, at least according to the records, burned the Preacher House to its current state in November, 1912. From the records, it seemed that the trial was less to determine whether or not Bransbury was guilty or not (since he had been found standing beside the charred ruins with a can of kerosene and singe-marks on his clothes) but more to determine whether he was mentally competent enough to actually be tried by the court.
The investigating doctor that examined Bransbury ultimately wrote in a letter to the court that “While Bransbury doesn’t carry the demeanour of a paranoiac or have many of the tell-tale signs of a nervous disorder, I still must declare him mentally incompetent due in large part to his strange delusions of shadow men and the disturbing reason he gave for his actions.”
Those ‘disturbing reasons’ were recorded later in the judge’s written opinion after the verdict.
‘Due to Mr. Bransbury’s firm belief that the Preacher family homestead was inhabited by some kind of evil spirits, I must concur with the opinions of both the defendant’s private doctor and the one supplied by the court, with that opinion being that Mr. Bransbury is not competent to stand trial or face punishment for his actions at this time.
While one could be forgiven for mistaking Mr. Bransbury’s capacity for lucidity from his easy manner and good speech, his accounts of what led him to ultimately set the fatal fire that killed the Preacher family point unquestionably toward an addled mind: those accounts referencing shadowy figures standing outside his house that spoke to him with the voice of his recently deceased son. When he followed these figures, he ended up at the home of the Preachers. This happened, according to him, for some months and led him to his ultimate pronouncement that the place was, in his words, ‘cursed.’
Whether his condition is a result of the death of his son, some deficiency brought on by age or a weak constitution, or some other cause – I truly believe that it would be a mistake to condemn a man so clearly divorced from the reality of his actions. There remains but the possibility of a post-cure trial, but I imagine he will remain a ward of the County for the rest of his days.
Signed, Honourable Judge John Oppenheimer.’
While Mr. Bransbury’s own statement was also included in the file – I have elected to not include it here due to its…shall we say, opaque nature. The handwriting changes multiple times throughout the document, becoming nigh unreadable at points, and there are breaks between paragraphs that leave one with the feeling of having skipped several pages in a book that also changed languages while you weren’t looking.
And there, in that small little reading room at the back of a cold, clammy courthouse – was the first time I saw it. Perhaps it was an itch on the back of my neck, or something just barely caught through the corner of my eye, but I got this sense that something wasn’t right. I looked up to see a dark figure standing just through the window set in the door. It didn’t disappear, but stood there as I watched. I knew, as I still know, that even though the figure had no features, and no eyes to speak of, that it was, nonetheless, watching me. I knew that it could see me just as well as I could see it.
And we sat like that, me at the little desk in the little room, it standing in the doorway, watching each other in a silence so thick it might have been water and drowned us both. Strangely, that first time – I wasn’t necessarily scared. No, it was more like my body was waiting for me to give it some cue.
After some moments, the figure turned slowly, and walked back down the long hallway, before entering the shadows by the stairs and disappearing from sight.
When it was gone – I took a deep breath, and flicked on the recorder.
Unsure of what to do next, I drove back to the petrol station I’d encountered when I first drove in. Though the fog wasn’t quite as bad as the day before, the station still seemed to materialise from it the second before I passed the turnoff. Not a soul was there but the clerk, that same kid as before, reading a weathered old paperback while Hank Williams played on the speakers.