Author’s note: The following story is reprinted from chapter 5 of “Haunted Island,” Down East Books, 1994. It’s long been deemed the scariest of the 21 chapters, so much so that when I researched the background of the home in question, I declined to visit, even though I happened to know the plumber who was willing to let me inside. Scrupulous about conducting on-site inspections of all the other dwellings in “Haunted Island,” I balked at getting up-close-and-personal with this one.
For reasons that will become obvious, the identity and location of this house must remain a secret. It nestles in one of the island’s numerous seaside colonies of mostly summer homes. Rather grand in design, it sits on a rise of several acres. It has grey shingles, blue trim, and an eye-catching assortment of windows, some of them vaguely Gothic, lending the manor a unique character.
In contrast to the well-maintained grounds and façade, the interior of the home is, according to reports, shabby and neglected, a result of the unhappy presence that haunts the rooms, driving long-term inhabitants away.
Unless it first drives them mad.
An island woman, Caitlin McAuley* (*names changed to protect confidentiality), recalled having skittish feelings about the house when as a young girl she summered in a cottage down the road.
“I was never a fearful kind of kid,” she said. “The dark never bothered me. I didn’t scream when people jumped out and said ‘Boo!” But every time I walked past that house — and this had never happened to me before, and hasn’t happened to me since — the hairs on the back of my neck would stand on end. It spooked me so much that I finally learned to avoid that stretch of road.”
As the years went by, Caitlin was never surprised to hear about the terrible events that took place in the house.
She said, “Other people noticed it too. It seemed as if there were some sort of dark spirit there just waiting to pounce. If someone who was weak or vulnerable moved in, this ‘thing’ would just push the person over the edge.”
One summer, a quiet man rented the grey-shingled house without drawing any particular attention to himself. Then one day he seized a kitchen knife, opened his back door, and loped across the grounds. He arrived at a nearby cottage where a group of college-aged women shared a summer rental.
He plunged into the house with the upraised knife. He attacked the first young woman in his path. The others grabbed any blunt object that came to hand, and sprang on him, knocking him to the floor.
Within minutes he was arrested, and hauled off to jail. Later, the stunned roommates questioned what might have happened if they hadn’t rallied themselves to resist. Could he have materialized into another Richard Speck, the depraved killer who had, years before in Chicago, bound and systematically murdered a group of young nurses?
A few years later, another strange event occurred when a group of young singles rented the house for the season. As the summer wore on, one of the young men in the party grew despondent. He occupied a bedroom on the second floor, and kept to himself with his door closed.
Every so often his roommates heard the slow shuffle and thud of furniture being moved across his floor. One of his peers glimpsed what looked like a formation of a highway of furniture leading to the window. When the last piece was positioned in place, the troubled young man walked down the path of chairs, bed, desk, and bureau, and leapt out the window.
He survived the fall — perhaps in his new-found insanity he fancied his room on the fourteenth floor of an unknown highrise? — but he was taken into custody for psychiatric treatment.
Even animals are in danger of falling under the dark spell pervading the house. In the summer of 1989, a year-round couple who lived nearby strolled the maze of winding roads with their elderly mutt named Hugo*. As they rounded the wooded lot of the ominous home, a Rottweiler sprang from the yard, snarling and barking. He attacked the older, smaller dog as if poor Hugo had not only invaded his territory, but had stolen his favorite bone.
Hugo shrieked as the Rottweiler tore into his flanks, legs, and underbelly. The couple managed to pull him away, but a bloody portion of his hide flapped open all the way from his neck to his groin.
Hugo was rushed to the veterinarian for seventy-eight emergency stitches. The couple never walked their dog that way again.
Finally, Caitlin, the young woman who as a child had bristled whenever she passed the house, found her own inchoate fears at last presented with pure fact. Her sister Fiona* fell in love with a young man who had recently arrived on the island. Fiona knew little about her new boyfriend, other than that he seemed friendly, warm, and responsible. She signed a lease with him to rent the gracious grey-shingled house for the winter.
After a short while, the young man developed a drinking problem — something Fiona swore he’d shown no signs of before they’d moved in together. He proved to be a nasty drunk and, in no time, he began assaulting her. On a couple of occasions the police were summoned, and the disorderly man was arrested. At last Fiona moved out. Alone in the house, her lover sat at the kitchen table, picked up a gun, and killed himself.
To this day, the young woman involved in this tragic love affair blames herself for her lack of perception: How could she have failed to see from the start that the young man harbored a trove of private demons? But her sister Caitlin knows better:
“It was that ‘thing’ in the house. My sister’s boyfriend might have been potentially unstable, but it was the ‘thing’ that pushed him over the edge.”
What is this evil entity? Who made it? Where does it come from?
The house was built in the early part of the 20th century. In its early days, nothing untoward took place there; at least as far as the public records show. Perhaps the answer lies in the area itself — a wooded enclave along a curving shore with a Byzantine system of winding paths and roads where even long-time residents easily lose their way.
Many centuries ago, Native Americans quartered there in the summer when cool, fragrant ocean breezes swept in from Nantucket Sound. Later, the area was rife with smugglers and mooncussers; brigands who on dark nights used illusory light-house flares to guide schooners to crash on treacherous shoals. These land pirates pillaged from the wreck, scooping up whatever valuables washed ashore.
For these murderous thieves, the hidden coves were perfect for their nefarious deeds.
It’s conceivable that a sinister presence hangs over this entire sweep of woods and coastline: In the early 1940s, a lurid homicide took place in a large theater arts academy on the nearly bluffs. The crime was never solved, although the police found suspects aplenty.
Do these past influences bear any connection with the mayhem in the grey-shingled house nearby? At this point in time, only the Great Crime Solver in the Sky knows…and perhaps the diabolical entity that lives and breathes inside its walls.
Ghost Hunting With Holly Nadler, 6 pm, Tuesday, Oct. 29, Oak Bluffs Library. Ms. Nadler will tell Vineyard ghost stories and lead a ghost hunt. Bring flashlight and camera. Free. For more information, call the library at 508-693-9433.
A note to ghost-hunters everywhere, but particularly to those on this island: Holly Nadler is hard at work on the 20th Anniversary Edition of “Haunted Island” (Down East Books, due out in August 2014), replete with a new introduction, six new stories, and updates on all the original tales. If you have a haunted house of your own, or know of ghosts mustering anywhere on the Vineyard, please get in touch with her at email@example.com.