Birmingham, Alabama is infested with malevolence. Prejudice and hatred have consumed the minds and hearts of its populace. A murderer, unimaginatively named “Harry the Hacker” by the press, has been carving up citizens with a hatchet. And from the church known as Chapelwood, an unholy gospel is being spread by a sect that worships dark gods from beyond the heavens.
This darkness calls to Lizzie Borden. It is reminiscent of an evil she had dared hoped was extinguished. The parishioners of Chapelwood plan to sacrifice a young woman to summon beings never meant to share reality with humanity. An apocalypse will follow in their wake which will scorch the earth of all life.
Unless she stops it…
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Leonard Kincaid, American Institute of Accountants, Certified Member
February 9, 1920
I escaped Chapelwood under the cover of daylight, not darkness. The darkness is too close, too friendly with the terrible folk who worship there.
(The darkness would give me away, if I gave it half a chance.)
So I left them an hour after dawn, when the reverend and his coterie lay sleeping in the hall beneath the sanctuary. When last I looked upon them, taking one final glance from the top of the stairs—down into the dim, foul-smelling quarter lit only with old candles that were covered in dust—I saw them tangled together, limb upon limb. I would say that they writhed like a pit of vipers, but that isn’t the case at all. They were immobile, static. It was a ghastly, damp tableau. Nothing even breathed.
I should have been down there with them; that’s what the reverend would’ve said if he’d seen me. If he’d caught me, he would’ve lured me into that pallid pile of flesh that lives but is not alive. He would have reminded me of the nights I’ve spent in the midst of those arms and legs, tied together like nets, for yes, it is true: I have been there with them, among the men and women lying in a heap in the cellar. I have been a square in that quilt, a knot in that rug of humanity, skin on skin with the boneless, eyeless things that are not arms, and are not legs.
(I dream of it now, even when I’m not asleep.)
But never again. I have regained my senses—or come back to them, having almost fled them altogether.
So what sets me apart from the rest of them, enthralled by the book and the man who wields it? I cannot say. I do not know. I wanted to be with them, to be like them. I wanted to join their ranks, for I believed in their community, in their goals. Or I thought I did.
I am rethinking all the things I thought.
I am fashioning new goals, goals that will serve mankind better than the distant, dark hell that the reverend and his congregation seek to impose upon us all. They taught me too much, you see. They let me examine too many of their secrets too closely, and taste too much of the power they chase with their prayers and their formulas.
When they chose me for an acolyte, they chose poorly.
I take comfort in this, really I do. It means that they can misjudge. They can fail.
So they can fail again, and indeed they must.
In retrospect, I wish I had done more than leave. I wish I’d found the strength to do them some grievous damage, some righteous recompense for the things they’ve done, and the things they strive to do in the future. Even as I stood there at the top of the stairs, gazing down at that mass of minions, or parishioners, or whatever they might call themselves . . . I was imagining a kerosene lantern and a match. I could fling it into their midst, toss down the lighted match, and lock the door behind myself. I could burn the whole place down around their ears, and them with it.
(And maybe also burn away the boneless limbs, which are not arms, and are not legs.)
But even with all the kerosene and all the matches in the world, would a place so wicked burn? A place like Chapelwood . . . a place that reeks of mildew and rot, and the spongy squish of timbers going soft from the persistent wetness that the place never really shakes—how many matches would it require?
All of them?
I stood at the top of the stairs and I trembled, but I did not attempt any arson.
I did nothing bolder than weep, and I did that silently. I can tell myself I did something brave and strong, when I walked away and left them behind. I can swear that into the mirror until I die, but it isn’t true. I’m a coward; that’s the truth. I was a coward there at Chapelwood, and I am a coward every day I do not descend upon that frightful compound with a militia of righteous men and all the matches in the world, if that’s what it would take to see the place in ashes.
Not that I could muster any such militia.
Even the most righteous of men would be hard-pressed to believe me, and I can only admit that my case against the reverend may well sound like nonsense. But the strangeness of my message makes it no less true, and no less deadly. No less an apocalypse-in-waiting.
In time, perhaps, they will reveal themselves as monsters and the city will rise up to fight them. And the one thing working in my favor is that, yes, there is time. Their mechanizations are slow, and that’s just as well; what horror would the universe reveal if mankind could alter it with a whim and a prayer? No, they need time yet—time, and blood. So there is time for the men of Chapelwood to make a mistake, and I will be watching them. Waiting for them.
Stalking them, as they have stalked others before.
Which brings me to my recent resolution, and why I’m writing of it here.
Do I incriminate myself? Fine, then I incriminate myself. But I will incriminate the reverend, too. I will incriminate them all, and when my time comes, I will not go down alone. I will not go quietly. And I will not have the world believing me a fiend or a madman, not when I am doing God’s own work, in His name.
(If He should exist, and if He should see me—then He will know my heart, and judge me accordingly. I have tried to pray to Him, again and again. Or rather, I have tried to listen for Him, again and again. He does not speak to me, not so that I can hear it. It is one thing I envy the reverend and his followers: Their god speaks.)
(Or is their god the devil after all? For it is the devil who must make his case.)
This must be how the Crusaders felt, when tasked with the awful duty of war and conquest. A necessary duty, and an important one, to be sure. But awful all the same.
My duty is awful too, and I will not shirk away from it. I will confront it.
I said before that they showed me too much, and they did. They invited me into their confidence because of my training and my aptitude for numbers; I’ve always had a head for sums, and I’ve worked as an accountant for the city these last eleven years. They needed a mathematician, a man who could see the vast tables and workings of numbers and read them as easily as some men read music.
I was flattered that they considered me worthy of their needs. I was proud to assist them, back when I was weak and eager to please.
I took their formulas, their charts, and their scriptures, and I teased out the patterns there. I showed them how to make the calculations themselves, how to manipulate the figures into telling them their fortunes. I believed—do you understand? I believed that the reverend had found a way to hear God speaking, and that when He talked, He spoke in algebra.
I was right about part of it. Someone is speaking to the reverend in proofs and fractions, but it’s not the God of Abraham. I don’t know what it is, or what else it could be . . . Some other god, perhaps? Is that blasphemy? No, I don’t think so. It can’t be, because the first commandment said, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” It did not say there were no other gods; it said only to eschew them.
Would that the reverend had obeyed.
Would that I had figured it out sooner, that I was hearing the wrong voice when I scratched my pencil across the paper, tabulating columns and creating the tools the church would need to hear the voices of the universe without my assistance. It is not so easy to live, knowing that I may have given the reverend a map to the end of the world.
So I will do what I can to thwart him. I will take matters back into my own hands, and take the formulas out of my head and commit them to chalkboard, to paper, to any surface at hand, and I will beat them at their own game.
It won’t be any true victory on my part. Too many innocent people will die for this to be any great triumph of justice and virtue; and they will die at my hand, because if they do not . . . they’ll die at the hands of the church, and worse things by far will follow. So I am to become a murderer, of a man or two. Or three. Or however many, until the reverend makes enough mistakes and attracts enough attention that someone, somewhere, rises up to stop him in some way that I can’t.
Or else until he succeeds.
I must account for that possibility, and I will write it in as a variable, when I compile my equations and build my graphs. This string of numbers will haunt me until I die, or until we all do.
I have determined the reverend’s next target: an Italian woman who lives down by the box factory, and works there with her mother and sister. She is an ordinary woman, thirty years old and unmarried. Her hair is brown and her eyes are brown, too. She goes to Saint Paul’s on Sundays and Wednesdays, too, if her work and health permit it.
I will try to catch her on the way back from her confession, to leave her soul as clean as it can be. I will try to grant her that much, but if the reverend forces my hand, then I will have to take measures—so I can only pray that she prays, and prays often.
She’s done me no wrong, and her death will cause great sorrow, but it could be worse, and that’s what I must remember when I take my weapon and hide it in my coat. I must remember the equation written at the top of my slate in my hidden little flat, and I will tell myself as I strike that it is this woman tonight . . . or the whole world tomorrow.
It’s a terrible sum.
Father, forgive me—for I know precisely what I’m doing.
September 4, 1921
(Letter addressed to Father James Coyle, Saint Paul’s Church, Birmingham, Alabama)
I’ve been thinking about what you told me, about demons and God and everything else we can’t see—but still take for granted. You can’t be completely wrong, and I know that for a fact because I’ve seen it myself, and I’m so afraid I just don’t know what to do. You don’t know my daddy, sir. You don’t know what he’s like, or how he gets.
You don’t know what he’s gotten himself into, but I’m going to try to explain it, and maybe you can help me . . . since you did offer to try.
It started back in January, when Daddy got caught pretending to be a minister so he could marry people, down at the courthouse. Our pastor saw him, asked what he was doing, and got a straight answer out of him, more or less. I’d give him credit for telling the truth except that he’d been caught red-handed, and he would’ve looked stupid for lying about it.
(Daddy hates looking stupid. I guess everybody does, but you know what I’m trying to say. He takes it personal when you call him out.)
So when Pastor Toppins caught him pretending to be something he wasn’t . . . they started arguing, and then before you know it, Daddy had to find a new church. He said he might as well make up his own church, if it was going to come to that, and at first, I thought that’s what he was planning. But then he got drinking and talking with some man from the True Americans, who said maybe we ought to try out the Reverend Davis’s new flock.
Daddy said no at first, because he ain’t no Baptist, but this fellow (I can’t think of his name, but it was Haint, or Hamp, something like that) said it didn’t matter, because it was supposed to be a meeting of like-minded men, and anybody who wanted to hear the word straight from the Bible with a patriotic Southern bent ought to come on out to Chapelwood for Sunday services.
I didn’t want to go, because I know what it means when somebody says “patriotic Southern.” That just means it’s made for angry white men, and to hell with everybody else, me included.
My daddy’s been angry and white his whole life, and it’s gotten him nothing but mean. It’s gotten me and my momma beat, and it’s gotten us broke, and it’s gotten him nice and drunk a whole lot—which gets him even more ornery.
And that’s about it.
But he made me and my momma go with him, out to Chapelwood where all the other angry men go. Some of their wives were there, too, but I didn’t see any children anyplace. Come to think of it, I was probably the youngest person there, and I’ll be twenty-one in August.
So we went, and I haven’t been able to shake the bad feeling it gave me ever since.
We rode up to the main house, or lodge, or whatever it is, in a cart because we don’t have a car, but that was okay with the reverend. He had somebody put our horse up, and greeted us warmly—like this was just any Sunday service—and I think Momma felt a little more at ease about it when she saw him acting like everything was fine.
The reverend was wearing all black, like you do . . . but it wasn’t like a priest’s black or a pastor’s black. It was something like a Klan robe, done up in black instead of white. It had this strange gold trim on it that almost made the shape of a star when he held still and it hung down off his shoulders. You couldn’t see his feet at all, and his hands were covered in black gloves—not leather riding gloves, but cotton, I think. Under those long arm sleeves, his hands looked strange. Like his fingers didn’t have any knuckles or joints . . . they moved like an eel moves, all smooth and just about boneless.
Please don’t read that and think I’m crazy.
He invited us up the stairs of that big building, I guess it was a house, come to think of it. Probably the biggest house I ever been inside in all my life—even though we didn’t see too much of it, just the church part in the front. It was shaped funny; it made me think of a cross between a castle and the courthouse. There’s lots of stone, lots of columns. Several towers. But it don’t look like a church, that’s what I’m saying. The stairs were wide but not too tall, and I had to make little tippy-toe steps to get up them without tripping myself. The whole thing was just so damn uncomfortable, if you’ll pardon me saying so. I knew it from standing outside, from pausing there and looking up—or from looking down at my feet, trying not to fall when I followed everybody up inside . . . that’s not a church, and it’s not meant to make people feel safe or comfortable. It’s not meant to be a friendly place that welcomes people from outside. It’s a prison, and it’s meant to keep people in.
I figured that out for sure once we went through the door. It was a little door, not something big and open that swings back and forth to let the spirit of God come and go with His people. And everything inside was dark. Not dark like your church, when the lights are down and all your candles are lit. That’s a warm, nice kind of dark, and I can still see where I’m going. In your church, there’s all that light from the colored windows, and it glitters off all the gold and the wood. Your church glows. This place . . . it didn’t give off light. It ate light.
When I was a little girl and I told my momma I was afraid of the dark, this was the dark I meant.
I couldn’t see my own two feet at first, when the door closed behind us. Hardly even my hands, if I waved them in front of my face. I blinked a whole lot, and after a few seconds I could see a bit, but I didn’t see nothing that made me feel any better about being there.
The pews and the altar up front, all of it was painted black—and not a shiny black, like the kind that gets polished. This was black like a slate, without any gleam to it at all. There were colored glass windows up high, but they were real dark. The glass wasn’t red and blue and yellow, it was dark purple, dark green, and I don’t know what else. Maybe it was more black. For a bunch of fellows who don’t like black people, they sure do like black everything else.
Folks started moving around—I know because I heard them, not because I saw them. I think they were all wearing robes like the reverend’s . . . or they were wearing something real dark, anyway. I stood out like a sore thumb in my Easter best, like Daddy had insisted. I was wearing pink and yellow, even though it wasn’t spring at all.
Then my parents disappeared, or I thought they did, and I thought about yelling—but my momma grabbed my arm and told me she was right there, and everything was all right. Someone had come up behind her and put one of those robes over her, and I guess they did it to Daddy, too, but he didn’t say anything about it. I think he left. I think they took him someplace else to talk with the reverend.
Someone took me and my momma to one of the pews and had us sit down, so we did. I was shivering, partly because I was scared, and partly because it was hardly any warmer inside than it was outside—and it felt real damp. It felt like the inside of an icebox with a block that’s mostly melted, so it’s all cool and wet inside.
I held my momma’s hand tight, and she held it back, but she didn’t really strike me as being too worried. I don’t know if Daddy had a word with her beforehand and told her what to expect, or if she’s just so used to being scared of things that this wasn’t any big deal to her.
Anyway, the reverend started his sermon, if that’s what it was.
Mostly he talked about how our idea of heaven isn’t right, because most people think of heaven as being some pretend place, or something that happens to us when we die—but he says it’s not. He says it’s a real place, and it’s out beyond the stars . . . so far away that if we looked up with the biggest telescope in the whole world, we wouldn’t be able to see it. He says the constellations are a map, and that there’s a God, yes, and there are other things that aren’t exactly angels, or not angels how we’ve always thought about them. He says that a whole lot of years ago, these other kinds of angels lived here on earth. They lived in our oceans, and they ruled everything, and people served them. Eventually, they left us and went back to the stars, and someday, they’re coming back. The reverend knows this, because he says they talk to him. He says he’s found more maps, not just the constellations, and not just the things buried in rocks that are a million years old.
I don’t know, Father Coyle. It all sounded like craziness to me—and if that’s the kind of god who’s coming back to call us all home, I don’t think I want to go with him.
(But while he was talking, I got the weirdest feeling that the windows up above, near the ceiling, were moving around somehow. Maybe not the windows themselves, but the patterns—like they were swirling or spinning, I’m not sure. Maybe there were clouds overhead, and the light was doing funny things. Maybe my eyes were just playing tricks because it was so dark in there, and I’d been there for so long.)
Finally, the reverend was finished and I thought it was time for us to go. I said a little prayer to the regular God, telling Him thanks for letting me out of there because, I’m telling you, it was so dark I could hardly breathe. Does that makes sense? Well, maybe it don’t. But that’s how it felt.
We stood up to go, me and Momma, and something touched my arm. I want to say somebody touched my arm, but it didn’t feel like a hand grabbing me—it felt like a snake, wrapping around my wrist. Cold and smooth, all muscles and no bones, like the reverend’s fingers inside his gloves (but much bigger). It was real strong, and it squeezed me real tight, so I let out a little yell and jumped back, and it let go of me.
The church door was open, and a little bit of light came inside so I ran toward it, and I practically threw myself out onto the stairs. I stumbled down them and I was breathing heavy, trying to catch my breath even though I hadn’t run very far.
I’m telling you, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
But I couldn’t get as far as I wanted. I felt dizzy and tired, even as scared as I was. I didn’t know where they’d taken the horse or the cart, so I didn’t know which way to go in order to get myself home. I wasn’t thinking so clearly, I was almost dizzy from all that darkness, all that being inside someplace so closed up and crowded. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I stopped at the bottom of the steps.
That’s when I heard them talking, my daddy and the reverend—or I guess it could’ve been someone else. Everyone had those robes on, and they still had their hoods up, so it was hard to tell who was who (but I knew Daddy’s voice when I heard it). They weren’t quite whispering but they were chatting all quiet-like, just inside the church. I couldn’t see them, but their voices came floating down in bits and pieces, and mostly what I gathered was that they were talking about me.
I don’t like that place, Father Coyle. I don’t want to go back there, and I don’t want to see the reverend again—but Daddy’s already talking about heading there next Sunday and I don’t think I can stand it. Please, sir, if there’s anything you can do, anybody you can talk to . . . I need a friend.
I need help.
Lizbeth Andrew (Borden)
Fall River, Massachusetts
September 4, 1921
I was making tea when the newspaper arrived this morning, hitting the porch steps with the usual graceless ruckus and startling the cats who gather there waiting to be fed. Sometimes I think the paperboy aims for them, and it’s some stupid, childish sport; but if that’s the case, then his aim is worse than his manners when he comes to collect his fee on Tuesdays. Thus far, no cats have been struck, and they are content to sit in a row and watch him ride past on the new red bicycle his parents bought him last month. They stare at him with lazy, narrowed eyes, but ears and whiskers on high alert.
They know a brat when they see one.
I finished the tea and poured myself a cup with just a dusting of sugar, and gathered the scraps and kibbles the cats have come to expect. Then I made my donation to the feline breakfast fund, and took a seat in my rocking chair to watch while they politely cleaned their plates and licked their little chops.
They have no idea who I am, apart from their personal kitchen staff—and they wouldn’t care if they did. They are forever tidy, civil, and gracious, and I am charmed by their tendency to climb into my lap and purr . . . working in tandem with the tea to keep me warm on the chillier mornings.
This morning, it was chilly but not so bad that I did not sit with them for a while in companionable quiet—the paperboy notwithstanding.
I’m not being fair.
I’m sure it’s just the boy’s job, that he’s been told a thousand times to aim for the front door. I’ve made that impossible for him, haven’t I? When I rebuilt the front porch a few years ago, I made sure to give myself privacy, and the cats some shelter for the nastier days of winter. He couldn’t hit the front door unless he came inside and stood before it. I suppose he does the best that he can.
But I’ve heard him whisper, when I’ve gone to town. I’ve seen him, and his nasty little friends. I know what they call me. I know what they say, when they think I’m out of earshot. It’s nothing new, and by now you’d think I’d be accustomed to it, but sometimes it gets under my skin all the same.
I ought to be too old to give a damn.
But I do like the cats.
Emma, when you were alive, I hated to shoo them away—through no fault of their own, they made you sneeze, and you had problems enough breathing without their accidental interference. Now that you’re gone, I can lure them as close as I like, and even let them inside if they’re amenable to it. Most of them are content to remain outdoors, but one or two prefer the fireplace around January. Who can blame them?
Now that you’re gone, and Seabury’s gone, too, I take my friends where I can get them.
Sometimes even now, especially late at night, I think I can hear you, Emma—up in your room, which I’ve made into an office. I awaken in the wee hours to the sound of a bell, like the one you used to ring when you needed me. In my dreams your voice is no longer feeble; it doesn’t struggle for volume, or crack when you raise it. It’s the voice of a stronger, younger woman than I knew you last: the woman you should’ve been, and might have been, if things had been . . . different.
So if anyone haunts this place, I know good and well it’s you. And yet, despite my esoteric interests, I’m afraid to make any effort to find out for certain.
I wonder if Doctor Owens haunts his old home anymore.
I thought I saw him there once, after his funeral. I attended in black and a veil—not that it concealed my identity in the slightest—because I wished to show my respect for a man who was such a fine friend and ally in difficult times, never mind that his mind was so badly troubled in the end. I needn’t have bothered with my civilized disguise. Only three people attended the service, he was so far gone to the community by the time he left it for good.
He lingered until 1899, barricading himself into that grand old house he once shared with his wife; and then he left to join her in the cemetery by the old Presbyterian church on Eighth Street. I’m not sure who found him, but he hadn’t been gone very long—I know, because I’d seen him only a few days before.
(He’d been much the same . . . distracted and disheveled, scarcely recognizing me but seeming to appreciate my presence. We sat in the parlor and had tea, while he told me stories about the lights in the water, or fish-pale things with starfish hands that he’d seen in his dreams. Disturbing, as always. But I owed him, so I listened to him and I let him talk so long as he was willing.)
At any rate, someone found him and extricated him from that house—stuffed to the brim with all manner of things he’d collected. In the end, the place was only navigable by a series of paths he’d either created or worn with his own foot traffic.
I thought perhaps someone would burn it to the ground and build something new in its place. I couldn’t imagine anyone cleaning it out and restoring it, for the doctor had no family left who might inherit it and feel some sense of obligation to it.
But I’ve been wrong before, and I was wrong again.
Someone bought it for a song, cleaned it out, and listed it for sale. I forget who bought it the first time, and I forget who bought it the second, third, and fourth times, too. No one ever keeps it for long.
Which is why I wonder if he haunts the place.
I think he might. As I said, I remember walking past his house before anyone had emptied it and made it habitable again . . . I remember I was still wearing the black of his funeral, so it must’ve been that very day. (Forgive me, it’s been so long. I forget the finer details, and only remember them by way of other minor particulars, which for some reason remain more firmly fixed.)
I stood outside his house and looked at it, very consciously not looking across the street at that other house—our old house, you know the one. (There are some memories I can’t unfix, not for all the trying in the world.) And inside I saw, just for a flash, a tall shape with a shock of white hair. I would swear to you, this flicker was faster than a gasp—but there was a streak of maroon to it, like the color of the old smoking jacket he used to wear. He practically lived in that thing, in those last years. It smelled terrible. I wonder if they buried him in it. I bet someone buried it, at any rate.
I am not entirely certain that I believe in ghosts, but there’s no good reason not to, considering.
I would like to think—and I know you don’t wish to hear this, Emma—but I would like to think that if anyone was going to haunt me . . . that it would be Nance.
God, just writing her name.
I shouldn’t have done it. I’ll cross it out. After all this time, it’s still too awful. No, after all this time, the worst part is not even knowing how awful it really is. For all I know, she isn’t even dead.
That’s not true, though, is it? In some form or another, she’s definitely dead. Or she’s so far gone, so far removed from me that she might as well be dead. I can only hope and pray that wherever she is, whatever became of her . . . she’s happy, or free from pain at the very least. I can only hope, if there’s any God of any merit whatsoever out there, that He’d grant her that much.
But what do I know of God? Not a damn thing.
Wait. I was going to write about the newspaper, and I almost completely forgot to.
The newspaper, it makes me think of you. Remember how you received so many of them, and so many periodicals, from so many places? Every time I collect the paper, and every time the mailman comes, I think of you.
I still order papers from out of town. I still order magazines, though not the technical ones you always preferred, with all the diagrams and Latin in them. I am but a layman, from a biology standpoint. That was always your field of expertise, my sister.
The things I order these days are more either more mundane, or much more strange.
On the one hand, I gather gossip and follow the goings-on of the suffragettes and their continued push for women’s rights. On the other, I order religious treatises from many different faiths; I follow their conferences and their research, and I keep up with where they stand on a variety of issues. (There’s more overlap between the two than you might expect.)
On a third hand, someone else’s hand, perhaps, I’ve become terribly interested in the spiritualism movement. Do I agree with every jot and tittle of their sprawling and flexible views? Not at all. But the fact that their tenets sprawl, and are flexible . . . that’s meaningful to me. Almost as meaningful as their admission that many things happen which are unexplainable by science, or traditional (Christian, one must qualify) religious inquiry.
I know precisely what you’d say to it all—something about me taking my superstitious inclinations too far, right off the deep end. That’s what you’d tell me, if you were here.
Well, you’re not. And if you were, we’d only quarrel about it anyway.
So I watch with interest—and without interference—what becomes of their little enclaves such as Lily Dale in New York, and Cassadaga in Florida, Sunset in Kansas, Chesterfield in Indiana, Pine Grove in Connecticut, Etna in Maine, and so forth, and so on. In some ways, they are so progressive! And in others, I am not so certain.
But that’s to be expected, isn’t it? Balance, always balance.
Regardless, I appreciate the broad scope of their search for meaning. I like the way they don’t stick to the usual paths in pursuit of truth. Heaven knows the usual paths never got me anywhere, though in the name of balance I should add that the unusual paths mostly brought me sorrow.
One day, I mean to visit one of these camps.
I’ll do it quietly—it shouldn’t be hard. No one recognizes me anymore; thirty years will do that to a woman. That’s one small grace granted by Father Time, in my case if none other. I am not anonymous here in Fall River, but should I leave, no one elsewhere should have the faintest idea who I used to be, and what I did (or did not) get away with.
The question then, I’m sure you’re asking yourself . . . is why I’ve stayed.
I wish I had a decent answer, but you know I don’t. I have instead a host of indecent answers, each one more frail and ridiculous than the last. I stay because this is my home, and it always has been, despite everything. I stay because I love this house, even without you in it. I stay because you’re buried here, and Doctor Owens is buried here. I stay because Nance left me here, and what if she were to return only to find me gone?
I stay because I like the cats.
The point is, I stay.
You probably thought I wouldn’t. You probably thought that once I was free of you and your infirmity, I’d take to the wind like a dandelion seed. But then again, you were always wrong about that one thing—I never thought you were a burden. You were my beloved sister and dearest friend. I wish I could’ve convinced you of it.
I wish that even in my head, right now as I natter in this journal as if you’ll ever read it, that I could not hear you arguing with me. In my head, you’re waving Nance in my face, and it’s unkind of you, really. I wish you wouldn’t.
Maybe it’s not the house you haunt. Maybe it’s me.
As I mentioned, I turned your bedroom into my office. After I walled up the basement, that is.
I couldn’t stand to be down there anymore, not after everything that happened; and once Zollicoffer was gone, the monsters stopped coming. So I emptied the basement of all the books or notes that might be some use to someone, somewhere, and dragged the other contents out into the yard to burn them with the fall leaves. I would’ve burned the basement itself, if I thought I could’ve done so without destroying Maplecroft altogether—so I settled for sealing everything shut from the outside, and having some discreet handymen remove the door in the kitchen. They replaced it with a wall of such fine quality you’d never know there was once a passageway there.
Most of the time, even I forget.
But the rest of the time, when I wake up drowsy in the middle of the night and wander downstairs for a drink of water or to stretch my legs after a nap . . . I look toward that blank space and I’m momentarily confused. It’s times like those that I worry for myself, afraid that my own mind is starting to slide like Doctor Owens’s did. Or worse yet, like Doctor Zollicoffer.
But I’m not a doctor of any sort. Perhaps the madness will leave me alone, then, if it exclusively pursues those who aspire to higher degrees.
So I took your room, and now it’s an office—a fairly ordinary one, considering. To be sure, some of the books and papers are strange, but who cares? No one ever sees them but me. I’ve got a desk in there now, and I’ve moved your bed out into the spare room past the water closet. It took me all afternoon to do it by myself, but the damn thing is heavy as hell and I wanted it out.
Then I was sad that I’d moved it, because the room didn’t smell so much like you anymore. These days, it barely smells like you at all—there’s just a whiff of you, once in a blue moon . . . a tiny current will carry you back to me, a hint of that lavender perfume you always liked, or the jasmine soap you preferred. A note of your own personal chemistry, the scent of your hair carried to me light as can be, out of nowhere . . . and there you are, like you’d never left.
It’s always you, and never Nance.
I’ve sniffed the whole house for her, on more than one occasion—closing my eyes and following my nose up and down the halls, all over the guest room where she last stayed, and all over my room, where she stayed more often. But there’s nothing at all, only me, and sometimes one of the stray cats, and then that last ghost of you trailing behind, saying you’d told me so, all along.
It doesn’t matter. I miss you both terribly.
In my heart there are a pair of holes, one shaped like each of you. No cat can fill it, and no one else even tries.
But I’ve done it again, haven’t I? I’ve forgotten about the newspaper.
I receive one from Atlanta, a city so far distant that it may as well be in another country—and come to think of it, for a brief stint in the sixties, it was. Sherman may have burned it down, but it’s coming right along so far as I can tell. Its newspapers are good, if that says anything in its favor. They cover events well outside the city, in other parts of the short-lived Dixie and beyond it, too.
But obviously, it was not the Atlanta Journal that landed on my doorstep . . . it was our own gazette—and our own gazette has run a story that I first spied in the Southern paper. Thus the connection in my mind. I made it immediately, and you’ll understand why. Here’s the pertinent bit of text:
Still no leads in an ongoing crime wave in Birmingham, Alabama, perpetrated by an armed assailant the locals have dubbed “Harry the Hacker.” To date, some eight people have been assaulted, six of them fatally—by an unknown man with a hatchet. The victims include city residents of every stripe: business owners, pedestrians, and young revelers out for entertainment.
Harry the Hacker . . . that might actually be as bad as the nursery rhyme some fool composed about yours truly. And dubbed by the locals? I strongly doubt it. That handle stinks of a junior journalist who wants to sell papers, and it’s bound to work.
But whatever facts our local source has noted are dated and incomplete. The fuller story (or some version of it) is available through the Atlanta Journal, and I’ve recently mailed a request to receive the Birmingham paper of record as well. Not purely due to some morbid fascination with axe murders, I hope you believe me when I say that much . . . but because I want the details that were left out of our local coverage. The Fall River Gazette mentions the story only as an afterthought, a blurb of nationwide interest to fill a few column inches when nothing else is going on.
From what I’ve gathered via the Georgia rags, the case is much stranger than a set of simple assaults that fit a general pattern. There’s talk of weird churches, anti-Catholic demonstrations, and eschatological street corner preachings. All this, in the midst of a city already plagued by the Ku Klux Klan—a group more sinister and suspicious than most people have any idea, and their public face is troublesome enough without any secret agenda hiding beneath their ridiculous robes. I tell you, they’re stranger than the Freemasons and not half as well thought out, but they’re radical, blind believers of awful things.
I don’t enjoy researching them, not in the slightest, but how am I to confront evil if I can’t accurately identify it?
This is what I’m trying to say: Something about the case feels familiar to me. Or maybe “familiar” isn’t the right word . . . but I do recognize it, something about the details, something about the things left in between the cracks of what’s reported. There’s a shape to it that frightens me, even as it occurs a thousand miles away.
After what happened here in Massachusetts back in the nineties, is a thousand miles enough distance to feel safe? No, I shouldn’t think so. Not a thousand. Not a million, either.
I wouldn’t feel safe on the moon.
So I’ll watch the matter, and I’ll collect my newspapers, and I’ll tack my clippings up around your old bedroom and we’ll see how big the story grows. Maybe the whole thing will peter out and nothing will come of it, and that’s an eventuality devoutly to be hoped. But in case it doesn’t . . . in case it spreads, and sprawls, I should really keep an eye on it.
Maybe I ought to go there for a visit. Let some idiot dubbed Harry take a swing at me with an axe, if some lone maniac explains the crisis. It’s been a while since I’ve swung an axe of my own, but I think I could give him the surprise of his life all the same.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Maplecroft
“Cherie Priest is supremely gifted and Maplecroft is a remarkable novel, simultaneously beautiful and grotesque. It is at once a dark historical fantasy with roots buried deep in real-life horror and a supernatural thriller mixing Victorian drama and Lovecraftian myth. You won’t be able to put it down.”—Christopher Golden, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Snowblind
“Maplecroft is dark and lyrical, haunting and brined in blood. It is as sharp as Lizzie Borden’s axe—and Borden herself is a horror heroine bar none.”—Chuck Wendig, author of Blackbirds
“One of the best Lovecraftian stories I’ve ever read.”—io9