A Classic Ghost Story for Haloween: Squire Toby’s Will by Sheridan le Fanu

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Of course, there is nothing like a ghost story or tale of terror for Halloween.

Perhaps they are best enjoyed in an isolated old house by a crackling open fire, with the wind howling outside and the rain beating against the windows, but a really impressive one can be almost as atmospheric to read in modern building in town.

In fact, I did live in a reputedly haunted and certainly isolated house in the Clwyd Valley in North Wales when I read the story that I am going to recommend here as a brilliant ghost story for Halloween. No doubt, that added to the spine chilling effect. Still, it would probably have made me shiver if I had read it later, when living in London, seeing that it was written by a master of the art, Sheridan le Fanu (1814-1873).

He is generally considered the greatest influence on the development of the Victorian ghost story. His works include the Gothic tale ‘Uncle Silas’ (1862) and the collection of long short stories or short novellas, collected as ‘In a Glass, Darkly’ (1872). These include ‘Carmilla’ (which had a massive influence on the depiction of the vampire in fiction), ‘Green Tea’, a sinister story about a man haunted by a demonic monkey, and also ‘The Familiar’ — which M R James considered the best ghost story ever written.

I wrote a post about ‘Carmilla’ some years ago, and that is a wonderfully atmospheric story, but the one I want to recommend today is ‘Squire Toby’s Will’ written in 1868.

The story begins with a superb description of an ruinous great house:
‘Many persons accustomed to travel the old York to London road, in the days of stage coaches, will recall passing , in the afternoon, say, of an autumn day in their journey to the capital, about three miles south of the town of Applebury, and about a mile and a half before you reach the Old Angel Inn, a large black and white house, as those old-fashioned cage work habitations are termed, dilapidated and weather-stained, with broad lattice windows glittering all over in the evening sun with little diamond panes, and thrown into relief by a dense background of ancient elms. A wide avenue, now overgrown like a churchyard with grass and weeds, and flanked by double rows of the same dark trees, old and gigantic, with here and there a gap in their solemn files, and sometimes a fallen tree lying across on the avenue, leads up to the hall-door… ‘

Despite the lengthy sentences – Victorian’s did love those – this sums up a vivid picture.
(Off topic, it is sad to realise that all of those ancient elms would, since the outbreak of Dutch Elm Disease in the 1970’s, be dead unless they were of the resistant Wych Elm variety. This quintessentially English tree gradually vanished from the landscape after that decade. I am old enough to remember it in hedgerows in my youth.)

‘Of late years repairs have been neglected , and here and there the roof is stripped, and the ‘stitch in time’ has been wanting. At the side of the house exposed to the gales that sweep through the valley like a torrent through its channel, and there is not a perfect window left, and the shutters but imperfectly exclude the rain. The ceilings and walls are mildewed and green with damp stains. Here and there, where the drip falls from the ceiling, the floors are rotting. On stormy nights, as the guard described, you can hear the doors clapping in the old house, as far away as Gryston bridge and the howl and sobbing of the wind through its empty galleries.’

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Squire Toby Marsden is a squire of ‘the old school’ a swearing, hunting, hard drinking, horsewhipping philistine of the type of landed gentry common in Britain in the eighteenth century. A widower with two sons, he favours the younger, Handsome Charlie, and despises his heir, Scrope, as: ‘Handsome Charlie was a man for his money. He knew what a horse was, and could sit to his bottle; and the lasses was all clean wad about him.’

Scrope, however, thin and sallow, despising sports, country activities and joviality, returns his contempt.
When the old squire dies, having run up many debts, it is discovered that he has left all the property to the younger son. Enraged, Scrope contests the will in the courts, but is defeated.

Years pass. Neither brother marries. Then, twenty years after the death of the old Squire, Handsome Charlie has a near fatal hunting accident, that leaves him with a halting walk and his ‘rollicking animal spirits’ sunk into melancholy.

He confesses to the old butler, Tom Cooper, that when he lay unconscious for days, he was with his late father, who bullied him mercilessly about one thing; he thought that he never would escape him; but on his return to consciousness, he could not remember what it was about which the old squire badgered him.
Cooper suggests that it might have been to do with the fact that no proper memorial stone has been erected over the Squire Toby’s grave. The family burying ground is in an ancient chapel some way across the estate, and the two men set off near sunset to visit the graveyard.

On the way, they meet a great white dog of the bull breed. ‘The dog was looking up into the Squire’s face with the peculiar grim visage of his kind, and the Squire was thinking irreverently how strong a likeness it provided to the character of his father’s fierce pug features…’

Squire Toby is buried in the ruinous chapel. Charlie resolves to placate him by placing a gravestone on his tomb.
‘They strolled round this little burial-ground. The sun was now below the horizon, and the red metallic glow from the clouds, still illuminated by the departed sun, mingled luridly with the twilight. When Charlie peeped again into the little chapel, he saw the ugly dog stretched upon Squire Toby’s grave, looking at least twice his natural length, and performing such antics as made the young Squire stare. If you have ever seen a cat stretched on the floor with a bunch of Valerian, straining, writhing, rubbing its jaws in long-drawn caresses, and in the absorption of sensual ecstasy, you have seen a phenomenon resembling that which Handsome Charlie witnessed on looking in.’

This is only the first of many increasingly grotesque and alarming encounters between the dog and the present Squire, waking and sleeping.

Now the Squire remembers that Squire Toby, in his earlier dream, urged him to look in a sealed cupboard in King’s Herod Chamber, a room unused for forty years. He goes there, and makes a find which horrifies him…

I won’t go into any more details of the story, for fear of writing a spoiler. But for a truly spine chilling ghost story that is both traditional and original, I recommend ‘Squire Toby’s Will’.

‘Rhiannon’s Tomcats’: A free short story by Lucinda Elliot for Halloween

 

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I wrote the following short story  (approximately 2,500 words)  a long time ago, about ten years at least, for a short story writing course.  I believe it was the only one the tutor praised and told me was worthy of publication: he and I did not share the same sense of humour, that’s for sure;  but certainly, I had a lot to learn about writing marketable output in those days.

As I was meaning to write a story specially for Halloween for my blog, and left it too late, I hope this one will do instead to give a few tingles down the spine.  I have left it just as it was written, and the changing patterns of migrating labour show that it was written over ten years ago, as young men coming to look for building work in Mid Wales these days would probably be from Eastern Europe rather than Southern Ireland.

 

Rhiannon’s Tomcats

By Lucinda Elliot

 

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“It might be here!” Liam darted past a row of lock up garages.

Connell, squelching after him in soaked trainers, didn’t answer.  There was nobody else out in the howling wind and driving rain to ask for directions, and he had almost given up hope of ever finding the right road on this dismal housing estate. When he came out by the sign, ‘ Heol Bryn’ the very name of the road for which they were searching, he was amazed.

Number Seven looked even more dismal than the rest of the featureless estate.  It was a mid terraced house with flaking paint, an overgrown garden and a sagging fence.

As they walked up the path, Connell was willing to bet that the man in the pub who had told them that old Mrs Rhys and her great granddaughter took in lodgers had just been talking drunken nonsense.  After all, as the man had staggered away from the bar, the only other customer apart from Connell and Liam, an old man, had looked up from his paper to laugh. “He’s not going to remember a thing tomorrow!”

They started as a black cat dashed out from the straggling bushes to the side with a wild shriek.  It stopped directly in front of them, meeting their eyes and hissing.  Back home, Connell’s grandmother had had a cat that had taken to attacking people.  Thinking of this, he held back, but Liam said, “Scat!” and the cat streaked away round the side of the house.

The doorbell was answered by a woman too young to be Connell’s idea of a landlady, but too old and haggard to be a girl.  She looked pale and unhealthy, with lustreless fair hair hanging in strings over her shoulders.  Her shapeless grey housecoat emphasized her colourless look.

“Yes?”

Her flat voice struck Connell as being surprisingly posh for someone living on such a bleak estate.  That made him nervous, but it didn’t worry Liam, who flashed a wide grin at her.  Everyone said that Liam was very good looking, with his curly black hair and bright blue eyes, and he agreed with them. “We heard you take in lodgers.”

To Connell’s surprise, the woman brightened. “Come in.”

The noises of the storm outside vanished as she shut the door.  In contrast to the neglected outside, the dimly lit hall was quite luxurious, with hardwood flooring, rugs and a heavy gilt framed mirror.

She suddenly became sympathetic. “Isn’t it dreadful weather?  You look drenched.  You didn’t come by car, then?”

“No such luck, by train.” Liam said, as he wiped his feet.  He liked talking about how he’d left a grand car back home, but for some reason he didn’t mention it now.

Connell saw that another cat, a big ginger one, had appeared.  This one wasn’t hostile, merely watching them with a superior air as it wound about the woman’s ankles.

“Come and dry out in front of the fire.”  She led them into the sitting room.  It had expensive looking striped wallpaper, and was furnished throughout in what Connell vaguely recognised as Victorian furniture.  Sitting by a large fire in a rocking chair, a very old woman turned alert dark eyes on them.

Nain (Granny), people to see you about some rooms for the night.”

“Afternoon,” said Connell, gently.  “I hope we’re not disturbing you.”

“We need disturbing…Rhiannon, put the kettle on.  These poor boys are soaked.”  Unlike Rhiannon, Mrs Rhys had a Welsh accent.  Her voice was surprisingly strong for someone so old.

Rhiannon brought hot scones with butter and jam as well as tea.  The old woman and Connell worked out the business transaction as they ate and drank.  Connell knew that he should be glad that he didn’t have to go back out into the wind and rain, yet somehow – for no particular reason – he had an uneasy feeling.

He told Mrs Rhys that they would probably be working at the building site for a couple of weeks, but these things were never certain.  She suggested that they took dinner in too, at a rate so low that Connell felt guilty.  Perhaps she had lost touch with modern prices.

“We can pay a bit more than that!” He ignored Liam’s warning stare.

Liam, usually so fond of the sound of his own voice, took no part in the conversation as he stretched his legs in front of the fire, drank and ate.  He smiled now and then at Rhiannon, who in the light of the fire looked quite young and pretty; the glow gave a golden light to her hair and a rosy tint to her cheeks.

Mrs Rhys told them that Rhiannon was her great-granddaughter and asked Connell about himself and Liam.  “So you come from Southern Ireland?  I’ve always wanted to visit there, but I’ve never got round to it.  Bricklayers?  That’s a very useful skill.  So you’ve been staying in London.  Did you make many friends there?”

“We didn’t make any,” Connell felt ashamed as he admitted it. “I’d dreamed of working in London and making big money, but after three months of it, I’m glad to get away.  It was all too much for me, to be honest.  People rushing everywhere and the mad traffic, and everybody so unfriendly.  Well, Liam knew some of the lads down the pub, darts and that, but I doubt any of those will miss us.”

“Cities are lonely places.” Mrs Rhys agreed.  “But then, these housing estates can be no better.  Do you know, Rhiannon and I have been living here for years now, and we know hardly any of the neighbours? Well, I suppose you’re talking to your families on your mobile phones every day?  I know about you young people and your mobile phones!”

Her easy chat put Connell more at his ease. “Up to last week I was phoning them up all the time, but then I lost the thing.”

In fact, someone had stolen it.  He suspected one of the other men in the house where they had been staying in Acton.  Of course, Liam had a much better one, but after paying the train fare, he hadn’t got round to topping it up.

Connell went on, “I’ve just realised, our families don’t even know that we’ve left London. Hey, we couldn’t pay you to use your phone, could we?”  He’d had a glimpse of a fifties-style black bakelite telephone in the hall.  Judging by the rest of the contents of the house, it was probably an original.

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Mrs Rhys shook her head.  “I’m afraid that ours is out of order, and we haven’t had it repaired yet.  Oh, I know it’s foolish when we have guests.”

When Rhiannon went out to make up the beds, Connell thought that her walk had changed, becoming vigorous and upright.  He wondered vaguely if the company of a couple of males had worked on her as a sort of beauty treatment?  He’d heard of such things.

They followed Rhiannon’s sturdy legs up to the first floor, hoisting their bags up to their rooms.  The room they were to share was a fourth bedroom at the back of the house, which had been extended at some time.  It was done out with comfortable old-fashioned furniture, but it was chilly, with an unused air about it.  Connell shivered.  Something about the room increased his feeling of unease.  Perhaps it was the silence; he suddenly realised that he couldn’t hear the sounds of the wind or the rain.

Despite the fact that Mrs Rhys had been so friendly and helpful, he couldn’t stop himself asking Liam, “Don’t you think there’s something a bit weird going on?”

Liam laughed scornfully.  “What!  Are you scared of the old lady? The only weird thing is our luck in getting something decent so cheap.”

Connell jumped as something sharp sank into his leg.  A large tabby had clawed him from behind.  “Psst!  Go away!” he tried to scare it off, but it stood its ground, meowing at them.

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Liam couldn’t stop laughing.  “Are you a man or a mouse?”

Connell said, “These cats are surely a pest! Hey, Liam, I wish there was some way of letting them know at home where we are.  It only makes sense, you know.”

“You can always take a walk out in that, looking for a phone box.” Liam jerked his head in the direction of the rain-washed bedroom window.

“You noticed that there’s no sound coming from outside?”

“Special double glazing, I suppose.  Don’t be so daft.”

Connell felt too tired to appreciate the roast lamb that Rhiannon served for dinner.  The tight-fisted woman who owned the house where they’d stayed at Acton wouldn’t have thought of giving the lodgers a roast on a Sunday, never mind on a weekday.  He glanced at Liam; Liam seemed to take it all for granted as he pushed it into his face without much thought for table manners.

Connell felt a bit ashamed of him as he turned to Mrs Rhys, and caught her staring expressionlessly at Liam. “Lovely dinner.  We didn’t expect a meal like this!”

The old woman at once smiled at him warmly.  “I always say that Welsh lamb is the best.”

There was wine, too.  Connell preferred beer with his dinner, and he refused it at first, but Rhiannon smilingly encouraged him; “You must try this, I don’t usually like red either.”

Flattered that she thought his opinion on such a topic worth anything, he accepted a glass.  He realised then that she had hardly said anything since she had first chatted to them in the hall.

Liam asked Rhiannon a couple of questions about herself.  He even asked her Great-Grandmother some questions about herself, too, though you could tell that he wasn’t listening to her answers.  Then he told some funny stories about himself in turn.

Connell envied him his arrogance.  He envied him his flashing white teeth, too.   Perhaps they were the secret of Liam’s success with women; well, those teeth and his blue eyes and dark curly hair might be the reason for his success with them.

Connell himself was shy, unremarkable looking, with an equally unimpressive record of girls who had been interested in him.

Rhiannon was saying to Liam, “Work? Oh, I give piano lessons.  I studied music.  Of course, I help Nain with the house, too.”

Connell could tell that Liam was thinking, “That’s really sad.  No sort of life for a young woman.”

In the absence of any girls of his own age, Liam was obviously happy to flirt with Rhiannon.  She was glowing under the attention, so that she looked half a dozen years younger than she had.  Connell felt sorry for her.  Maybe she hadn’t had male admiration for years.  Perhaps she believed that Liam thought that she was special.

Liam was always chasing after girls.  In rural Southern Ireland, that was risky for a man who didn’t want to be tied down.  He’d had to leave the country because of trouble once too often over a girl.  Connell disapproved of Liam’s attitude towards women, but he enjoyed his company so much that he had offered to go with him.  Tonight, however, Connell almost disliked him for his greed and insensitivity.

Suddenly, Connell noticed how attractive Rhiannon was looking, with her long, lustrous lashes, her hair hanging in shining golden ringlets. Of course, women were always doing things to their appearance, things about which men had no idea.  He could only suppose that Rhiannon must have worked on her looks up in her room to change herself to that extent.

Meanwhile, Mrs Rhys under the electric light, looked just as old, but somehow indefinably more powerful, as if she had drawn strength from somewhere.

“You’re a nice boy,” she said suddenly to Connell. “You will be all right.”

Connell smiled politely, though of course, he didn’t want to be a granny’s idea of a nice boy; they never had any fun.

Rhiannon rose to collect the dinner plates, and Liam’s eyes widened as he got up to open the door for her.  Like Connell, he had noticed her amazing, hourglass figure that even the old-fashioned looking print dress that she had changed into couldn’t conceal.  Connell could have sworn that when they had come into the dining room she’d been  dumpy.

As she opened the door, a tabby cat tried to squeeze past her into the room, calling loudly.  Rhiannon laughed at it, pushing it away with one foot.  “Who’s a silly Mr Puss-Puss?  Who wants to talk to the humans?”

This drew Connell’s attention to Rhiannon’s legs.  They were now long and slim; Connell knew that they had been short and sturdy half an hour ago. He wondered if fatigue was making his eyes play tricks.  Perhaps had he been right in sensing that was something sinister about the place?  He glanced at Liam, who was- of course – staring at Rhiannon’s legs too, but with an expression of unthinking lust.

Connell resolved that however much Liam might laugh and however wet he got, after dinner he was going to go straight out, find a phone and let their families know exactly where they were staying.

By the time that Rhiannon came back with the pudding – baked apples – Connell could hardly keep his eyes open.  For his part, Liam couldn’t keep his flashing blue eyes off Rhiannon.  Her Great-Grandmother, far from disapproving, seemed positively to gloat at his interest.

Connell couldn’t remember being so tired since he was a child.  Everything was blurry, as if he had had too much to drink, and yet he hadn’t even finished his glass of wine.  The voices of the others were alternately unnaturally loud and then very faint in his ears.

He knew that he had to act or it would be too late.  It was probably too late already.  He stumbled to his feet, knocking his chair over. “Liam, let’s go!” his voice came out so slurred that it was unrecognisable to him.

The others stared at him. “What are you playing at -?” Liam demanded.

Slowly, as if he was walking through water against a current, Connell fought his way over the fallen chair and across the room.

“Are you ill?” asked Rhiannon. Her voice rang poisonously sweet in his ears.

He felt someone grab his shoulder and he jerked himself away to wrench at the door handle.  There was a rush of cold air as he fell amongst what seemed like twenty cats.

Then there was nothing but darkness.

Much later, he had a sensation of swinging, as if he was being carried, and he heard muffled voices.  He struggled in terror to wake up, but sank back into unconsciousness…

 

Connell became aware of cold and damp, and the persistent nuzzlings of a mewing cat.  He opened his eyes, remembering nothing, and long wet grass came into focus.  The cat, a handsome animal with thick black fur and wild blue eyes, now flung itself on his chest, meowing frantically.  He pushed it away and sat up, trying to clear his head by shaking it.  He was unable to make anything of the terraced house at the end of the garden.

He started blankly at the dumpy, faded looking woman in the grey housecoat who was bending over him.  She laughed as she picked up the struggling, hissing cat, holding it at arms length to avoid its claws.  “Silly boy!” she said to it.  Who’s my little pet, now?”

Lucinda Elliot 2007

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