Just to prove I am still writing things – a snippet from the work-in-progress, a Southern gothic horror novel. Who likes a haunted house? The “he” is Jacob McGuinness, a rich and famous Irish horror writer. The place is an abandoned plantation house that’s been abandoned since a mass murder took place there in the 1840s. Jacob, poor soul, is thinking that he might buy it.
Half a mile in, the drive curved sharply to the left and broke free of the taller trees. He stopped the car and took his first long look at Rosewood.
The house stood at the top of a hill with what must once have been a magnificent sloping lawn laid out before it. Now it was covered with the same kind of scrub pine and underbrush as lined the driveway, but the effect was still quite striking, like something out of a movie. The house itself seemed remarkably intact. From his vantage point at the foot of the hill, he could almost believe it was still habitable. The white paint was worn gray, but the lines of the structure seemed solid.
It was much bigger than he had expected, a Greek revival rival for the massive country estates rich Englishmen had been building in Ireland at about the same time Rosewood was built, the early Victorian age. With its massive columns and round east wing, it looked more like a public building than a family home, some great parliament or temple more than a farmhouse. Looking up at it, he had to remind himself to breathe, and his heart was pounding. Imagine the labor that went into that, he thought. Slave labor, like the pyramids, no doubt. But he didn’t feel righteously indignant; he felt sad, almost angry. How dare anyone abandon such a beauty, whatever might have happened there? How could they have left her to die and disintegrate alone?
The drive forked at the top of the hill. The branch leading to the back of the house was completely overgrown, and a rusted farm gate hung on newer, shiny chains across it. The other branch looked fresher, as if the brush might have been cleared from it once or twice in the past decade. Jacob drove slowly around to the front of the house, the V8 engine in his rented beast rumbling like a dragon’s snore. He parked in front of the steps and got out.
The dry grass was as tall as his hips and brittle with autumn frost where it was shaded by the shadow of the house. Up close, Rosewood was no less grand but much more obviously deserted. There was no path worn through the grass, no footprints in the thick, mossy mud caked on the steps. He could have been the first human to approach the house in centuries—the first living thing, for that matter. The high grass and scrub should have been a haven for mice, rabbits, even quail, but he didn’t hear a sound or see a single stir of movement. The whole place was as dead still as an empty tomb.
So why was the front door standing open?
He stood at the foot of the steps, leaning forward to peer through the shadows. The clouds had thickened; it was as dim as twilight on the porch. “Hello?” he called. No answer. He was half an hour early for his appointment with the real estate agent, and there were no other cars parked out front. Anyone inside would have had to either fight the gate and brush to pull around back yet leave no sign of their passing or else hike in from the road on foot.
He walked up two steps, his own work boots leaving clearly discernible footprints in the mud. “Is someone here?” Between fluted Corinthian columns, the open doorway yawned at him in silence.
He crossed the porch with purpose, boots clomping. The thick wooden door was massive, at least eight feet tall. It seemed to be intact, and the lock was unbroken. No one had forced it open. He touched it lightly, and it swung back further, hinges squealing like a cheesy sound effect.
He stepped into the vast empty cavern of the front hall. Directly in front of him was a grand, curving staircase, and more columns were set in perfectly straight lines leading up to it. Floor to ceiling windows lined the front wall. They were shuttered from the outside, but gray light filtered in between the slats. Turning to look at them, he didn’t see a single pane of glass that was broken or even cracked; every window was perfectly intact. Each was hung with great velvet drapes, sagging and blackened with age and dirt, but also still intact and still tied open as if to let in the sun. The floor was bare wood and strewn with dead, crumbled leaves over a thick coating of dust—again, no footprints.
Double doors stood open to his left as he turned back to the staircase. In the shadows beyond, he could make out a long dining table still covered with a cloth. Moving closer, he saw a massive sideboard still set with an elaborate silver service, black with tarnish but otherwise untouched. Who would just abandon such a thing? Looking at it, he realized his mood had turned. A feeling of dark oppression seemed to have gathered around him like the clouds outside, pressing down on his psyche like a moldering pillow might be pressed over his face.
He had felt this way before. On their honeymoon, he and Gloria had gone to Spain. Touring the dungeon of a castle where heretics had been walled up to die, he had lost himself completely, sobbing uncontrollably and fighting off anyone who tried to touch him. Poor Gloria had been covered in scratches and bruises by the time she’d managed to drag him back outside into the light.
What could have possessed him to come here now?
He had decided to go back outside and wait for the real estate agent when he noticed the footprints on the stairs. Someone had tracked some dark liquid on the pale wood, something dark brown, almost black, like paint . . . like blood. Moving closer, he kicked away a thicker scattering of rotten leaf matter and saw the prints led away from a larger, darker stain on the floor of the hall just at the foot of the steps . . . blood soaked deep into the wood.
“Bollocks,” he muttered aloud, but the hair on the back of his neck prickled, and his flesh turned cold. Surely it was a fake, a prank, something staged for a camera or to frighten some dupe in the recent past. No real bloodstain could have lasted so long. But then if the story he had read of Rosewood’s abandonment was true, who would have been left to clean it up?
Without stopping to think any further, he followed the prints up the staircase, trying not to notice how perfectly his boots matched them as he walked. As he climbed, the prints faded out from full shoe shapes to smears to mere smudges at the top that led a few steps down the hall to the right. The man with bloody feet had climbed the stairs for a reason.
His heart was aching in his chest, and tears stung his eyes. Wallpaper hung in tattered ribbons on the walls, and the floor was scarred in two straight lines down the middle where a carpet runner had been ripped up. The smell of dust and rot was closing in on him and making him feel sick. He imagined he could smell the blood; surely he must be imagining it.
He followed the smudges to the right then around the corner; he seemed to know exactly where he was going. He turned a glass doorknob at the end of the hall and went into a small room at the front of the house. The drapes in here were silk, some pastel color gone gray, and the shutters were open. Going to the window, he looked out over the second floor gallery and down on his own rental car parked below. It looked so solidly vulgar, so real, it made him smile. Gloria had been right. He’d been crazy to come here, mad to think of buying such a place. When the real estate agent showed up, he’d tell her he had changed his mind. Just as he was deciding, he heard the sound of motors coming closer, two cars coming up the drive. It was fate.
He was just about to turn away from the window and head back downstairs when he smelled something else. When he smelled her. Over the damp, ancient rot of the dim, cold house, he smelled the cleanest white cotton being warmed by the summer sun. He smelled soap and the lightest hint of lavender, and clean, sweet skin underneath. He felt the warmth of a woman’s presence, soft hands touching his back. He braced his hands on the window frame, holding himself up. His knees had gone weak. The feeling of oppression dissolved like a mist in morning sunlight, and wild joy seized his heart. There was life in Rosewood, not just death. He wasn’t mad to come here. He belonged here. She had called him to come.
End of snippet