The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

October 31, 2012

A House Too Far: A Halloween Short Story (Part 2)

Filed under: Holidays, Short Stories — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 11:47 pm

(Note:  If you haven’t read it yet, part 1 can be found here.)

As Old Johnson watched from his perch at the top of the ridge, he could see the shadowy figures beginning to converge on the Baker House below, flashlights in hand.  From the skies above, he also saw the occasional ghost float into the window.  As the skeptics have continued to grow in number over the years, the number of ghosts attempting to drive them away has gradually declined to the point that only a few brave souls even make the attempt anymore.  Old Johnson figured that most of them would be sticking to all the old tried and true methods of haunting.  Granted, when you’ve been hanging around in incorporeal form for the last fifty years or more, your options are a little bit limited.  Most new ghosts, once they managed to get past the initial stages of unbridled rage and swearing vengeance on whatever brought them to their fate, generally learned to manipulate very small objects without too much trouble, and gradually worked up to somewhat larger ones.  A dropped candlestick here, a rattling window there, maybe even something thrown across the room if you’re motivated enough.  In most cases that and a few eerie shrieks and moans would be plenty of skills to hold down a respectable haunted house, but not the Baker House.

At least that’s the way it seemed.  Although Old Johnson hadn’t been to the Baker House before, he had heard all the stories.  It didn’t matter what you did to the skeptics, they would immediately find an excuse and write it off.  Bangs, rattles and creaks were settling.  Ominous noises were the wind.  Vague senses of dread meant you probably left the oven on at home.  There’s just nothing you could do to these guys that they wouldn’t immediately dismiss as the work of some easily explained natural phenomenon.  An unsubstantiated rumor was floating around that one particularly vengeful (and thoroughly demented) spirit even tried a full-fledged fountain of blood coming from the chandeliers many years ago, and even that was quickly chalked up to some sort of plumbing malfunction.  What was even more shocking was the sheer speed with which the skeptics could come up with these “perfectly logical” explanations.

Eventually, the crowds outside began to wend their way into the house, and it appeared that the 61st annual Halloween meeting of the Society of Skeptics would be getting underway shortly.  It was at this point that Old Johnson decided to make his entrance.  Even though he could float right through pretty much whatever he wanted, he still preferred to stick to the front door.  Completely unnecessary, but it seemed to be one of the few forces of habit that remained from his mortal existence.  Someone even conveniently left the door ajar, so with a small amount of exertion he was able to swing it wide open with a convincing slam.  One of the skeptics, sitting on a dilapidated old couch in the entry hallway, looked over, quickly made some offhand comment about the wind, and went back to his own thoughts.  Not that old Johnson expected anything else.

The entry hall opened up into a rather large foyer, where the main body of skeptics was gathering on a number of conveniently placed folding chairs.  As Old Johnson entered the room, he could see that a number of the spooks and spectres were already hard at work.  One swung slowly from a chandelier located above the  crowd (which was no easy feat for the average ghost, but given enough time it was possible to work up enough momentum to get the chandelier swinging pretty well.)  Another young lady spook was in the upper part of the room, inching a dusty old book out of its place on one of the shelves.  It was clear that she hadn’t had much experience with this, so this was likely to take her most of the evening to accomplish, and likely to be dismissed as a problem with the structural integrity of the bookshelf in seconds.  With various ghosts throughout the room straining at their various self-appointed tasks, the whole scene looked like something out of an amusement park haunted house, except for the part where none of the humans in the room could see any of it, and when the occasional physical manifestation showed up they were surprisingly quick to make up an excuse.  But in spite of his considerable talents in object manipulation, Old Johnson didn’t join in.  As he found himself a spot in a conveniently empty corner, someone came to the podium (or what passed for one, which at this point seemed to be some sort of end table with a dusty old bust with the face of some long dead tycoon on it)  and called the meeting to order.

“Gentlemen,” said an older man in a somewhat raspy voice, “We would now like to call this 61st annual Halloween meeting of the Society of Skeptics to order.  Everyone please rise.”

Everyone in the room stood up, and began some sort of nonsensical chant about how everything had a logical explanation and that there was no such thing as a haunted house.  As they stood, one ghost hastily floated across the room and tried to push one of the chairs away from its occupant, but was barely able to move it a half an inch before the chant ended, and everyone sat down.  The leader of the society rose again to speak.

“Once again, I would like to welcome everybody to the 61st annual Halloween meeting of the Society of Skeptics.  As you may know, the mission of our society is to prove irrefutably and incontrovertibly that there is no such thing as a haunted house, and that ghosts and other supernatural phenomena are nothing but figments of an overactive imagination.  As you may know-”

His speech was interrupted when a drinking glass full of water that had been placed on the table suddenly tipped over and spilled all over his suit.  Old Johnson could see that the glass had been given some assistance in this matter.

Pausing for just a second, the leader of the society continued, “Oh, I’m sorry, I suppose I must have a talk with my doctor about my hand-eye coordination.  Anyway, as I was saying…”

It was at about this time that Old Johnson tuned out the speech, which consisted mainly of shopworn claptrap about how only idiots believe in the supernatural and how skeptics would soon be the ones in charge of everything because everyone else was being too superstitious about things.  Instead, he turned his attention to the audience, looking for the most gullible person he could find.  Shockingly, this turned out to be a lot less difficult than it might seem at first, since there were clearly a lot of gullible people here trying desperately not to look gullible.  Having the advantage of being incorporeal and not having to worry about silly things like personal space or the laws of physics, Old Johnson was able to move at will through the crowd as they sat, seemingly enthralled by the drivel coming from the podium.  As he moved along, he noted that several people in the audience were reading from a small reference card of some sort.  A closer look revealed that it contained a list of some of the various symptoms of the other ghosts’ attempts at haunting, followed by an “explanation” of exactly what they “actually” were.  He didn’t have time to read the whole thing, but he did find an unattended one underneath a chair, and quietly began to “push” it underneath one of  the couches in the room to come back and read later.  One person actually noticed this, but after muttering something under his breath about how breezy it was in the room, and quickly turned his attention back to the front of the room.

Finally, after identifying 3 or 4 particularly gullible subjects within the room, he turned his attention back to the speech (or, the way it was being presented, more of a sermon really) at the front of the room.  As before, the ghosts throughout the room were busy with whatever endeavors they thought might manage to invoke a scare or two (but in reality, the whole “blood from a turnip” thing seemed more likely at this point.)  Occasionally something would rattle, fall, creak or sound ominous, but by now most people weren’t even paying attention.  As the leader droned on, Old Johnson moved over toward one of the targets he had identified earlier, moved his mouth toward the skeptic’s ear, and sat in wait as he listened to the speech from the front of the room.  Even by ghost standards this was nothing unusual; already Old Johnson had observed several other ghosts trying to make spooky noises in peoples’ ears, suggest to them that they’re getting really, really, REALLY creeped out right now and generally just trying to haunt people one at a time, but as with practically everything else going on around here, it was dismissed as something in the wind.  But Old Johnson had a different idea.

“And by now,” the leader droned on, “we should ALL know that there is NO POSSIBLE WAY for this house to be haunted!”

With this, Old Johnson spoke quietly into the skeptic’s ear, “There is no possible way for this house to be haunted.”  The voice, as perceived by the human that would be hearing it, would be very quiet, almost imperceptible.  Perhaps it would even take some time for it to register.  While this was happening, the leader continued.

“There is NO SUCH THING as a ghost!”

Old Johnson repeated into the skeptic’s ear a second later, “There is no such thing as a ghost.”  This evoked an almost imperceptible nod.

“You have NOTHING to fear in the Baker House, There is a perfectly logical explanation for EVERYTHING!”

Old Johnson continued quietly repeating the leader’s words into the ear of the skeptic.  “You have nothing to fear in the Baker House.  There is a perfectly logical explanation for everything.”  As he continued, it became clearer and clearer that he was reacting to what he was hearing.  After all, the voice in his head was telling him exactly what he wanted to hear, so why not?  He kept up the routine for several more minutes, until there was a brief lull in the leader’s speech.  Old Johnson used this lull to make his play:

“So what am I even doing here?”

The skeptic paused.  Perhaps for the first time all night, he thought for a moment.  He pulled the reference card out of his pocket and consulted it, but found nothing.  Sure, the card included the standard explanation for hearing unexplained voices, but in the skeptic’s mind, there was nothing unexplained.  The voice he heard was merely confirming to him exactly what he had already heard, and exactly what he wanted to hear.  For all intents and purpose, it was his own voice speaking to him.  Old Johnson knew that he was on to something, so he tried again.

“My bladder is starting to get full.”

With this, the skeptic began to twitch almost imperceptibly in his seat.

“I really need to go to the bathroom.”

While this was going on, the leader continued on with his incessant hectoring and lecturing, but the skeptic was distracted.  Whether or not it was actually true, he had started believing that he really needed to go.  It took Old Johnson a few more tries with this suggestion, but eventually the skeptic got up from his chair, and shuffled past several other people toward the center aisle.  Old Johnson followed close behind, but soon he realized he had a problem:  There were no fewer than six ghosts in the bathroom, just lying in wait for someone to try out their usual shopworn haunted clichés on.  Sure, the old self-unrolling toilet paper trick tended to be a hit at parties and in the right context could literally scare the pants off of someone (believe me, this actually isn’t a good thing,) but these were skeptics here, and such a party trick would likely serve only to put this man right back into skeptic mode, probably finding an explanation on that little card in his pocket.  Old Johnson knew that he would need to make his move now, and make it fast.  He quickly caught up to the skeptic, moved up to his ear, and whispered again:

“You know, this whole thing is really kind of silly.  I should really just go home.”

The skeptic stopped for a second, appearing indecisive.  Old Johnson took the opportunity to whisper again:

“Wait, I didn’t really need to go to the bathroom anyway.”

A quiet filled the air, interrupted only by the droning of the leader’s talk in the other room.  The skeptic stood motionless for a second.  Old Johnson made another suggestion:

“What am I even doing here?” 

The skeptic shifted his weight from one foot to the other and looked back.  Quietly he said, “What am I even doing here?”

“This is getting boring,” Old Johnson whispered again.

” This is getting boring,” the skeptic muttered just a second later.  He turned around again, looking toward the front door. 

“I should really just go home.”

Almost immediately, the skeptic spoke.  “I should really just go home.”

With that, he turned and headed for the front door of the Baker House, still wide open from Old Johnson’s earlier entrance.  In the other room, the other skeptics were all too busy listening to the speech, and none of them paid any attention to his departure.  A slam of the door briefly interrupted the talk coming from the other room, but naturally everyone just assumed it was the wind, as usual.

Eventually, the overly long speech came to an end, and as the skeptics milled about in the foyer and socialized, Old Johnson experimented a bit more with his methods on a couple of the other gullible people he had identified earlier.  Although he did manage to get one or two minor reactions, his results turned out to be decidedly mixed.  Eventually the night wore down to a close, and the rest of the skeptics dispersed.  None of the other haunts in the Baker House had paid much attention to Old Johnson that evening, and since the skeptic had not left the building screaming, few were inclined to treat it as anything special.  Eventually the ghosts too began to float slowly off into the distance, assuming that the skeptics had won the battle for another year.  Old Johnson quietly wandered back into the woods, made especially spooky by the ominous clouds overhead and a stiff breeze in the trees.  Perhaps he hadn’t gotten the screaming panic that ghosts everywhere seek to inflict on the Society of Skeptics, but that wasn’t what he had been aiming for.  What he had done was sow the seeds of doubt.  Perhaps if his efforts were effective enough, he could get a few more people to either leave next Halloween, or perhaps not even show up in the first place.  Then he could work on a few more people.  And then a few more.  Eventually, the numbers would dwindle, to the point that even the leaders of the Society might be left vulnerable.

Sure, it wouldn’t have the glamor of scaring the living daylights out of them, and it might take years or even decades to successfully pull this off, but that didn’t matter to Old Johnson.  After all, for better or for worse, he had all the time in the world.

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A House Too Far – A Halloween Short Story (Part 1)

Filed under: Short Stories — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 1:59 am

From the top of a nearby hill, Old Johnson surveyed the scene.  Barely visible in the few remaining rays of twilight that managed to penetrate the dark clouds overhead was a house in the small ravine below, dimly illuminated by what appeared to be candles in the windows.  Although this particular house had been built stoutly enough to withstood nearly 200 years of the ravages of time, it clearly hadn’t been spared their effects, as even at this distance the telltale signs of wear and neglect were clearly visible on the house’s outer walls.  The decrepit state of the house by itself was enough to keep most sane people away from the place,  but even the bravest souls of Old Johnson’s acquaintance would think twice before approaching the Baker House on Halloween night.  Most saw that as a warning to stay away from the place, but there were a few particularly brave or particularly foolhardy individuals who saw the Baker House as a challenge.  Perhaps the greatest challenge of all.

Oh, there was no doubt that the Baker House was haunted.  In fact, on a particularly busy Halloween night, one could find no less than 200 ghosts lurking the halls of this old Colonial mansion.  In the Baker House, it wasn’t the ghosts you would have to worry about.  Each year on Halloween night, the Baker House was infested with something even more terrifying than ghosts, creeps, spooks, haunts or perhaps even demons.  For each of the last 83 years, Halloween night found the Baker House occupied not only by ghosts, but also by a particularly intractable group of skeptics.  And in all that time, no amount of chain-rattling, vase dropping, door slamming, tormented groaning or any other manner of haunting could get a single one of the skeptics to budge from their ironclad conviction that there was no such thing as a ghost. 

It wasn’t always this way.  The Baker House, abandoned by its owners over 150 years ago under unfortunate circumstances that are now largely lost to the winds of history, was once a respectable haunted house, with a resident population of spooks and spectres who could generally invoke a hasty retreat in the occasional visitor who entered the house on a dare or a bet with a few rattles of the chandelier or the occasional sense of impending doom.  Eventually, the house developed a reputation as being haunted among the local Human population, a reputation that the house’s occupants drew great satisfaction from.  That all changed back in 1929, when one particularly foolhardy individual by the name of William Meyer boldly made a large wager with several members of the local gentry that he could not only spend an entire Halloween night in the Baker House, but that he could prove that there was no such thing as a ghost while doing so. 

To this day, it is still disputed exactly what happened during that fateful night, but either by sheer force of will or sheer force of thick-headedness (possibly aided by the fact that his relatively meager financial reserves would in no way come anywhere near covering the amount of the bets he had made,) William Meyer managed to somehow completely ignore any attempts at haunting made by the resident ghost population on that fateful night.  As Mr. Meyer emerged from the house the following morning apparently none the wiser (and considerably richer), he made a big show out of it, loudly proclaiming to the local populace that there was no such thing as ghosts.  The following year in another show of braggadocio, he invited several others to join him in the Baker House.  These additional houseguests, perhaps aided by Mr. Meyer’s boastings and hasty excuses for whatever unexplained phenomena occurred during the night, proved just as intractable as Mr. Meyer himself, and once again, all emerged from the house boasting. 

Over the years more and more people joined in, to the point that in 1951 a number of them formed a Society of Skeptics within the town, and from that time forward, each year the Society makes a big deal out of spending Halloween night in the Baker House, where they spend the night mostly boasting to each other about  how nothing can scare them, explaining to each other just why ghosts can’t possibly exist, and generally sitting around not believing in things.  Although the resident ghost population of the Baker House departed for browner pastures many years ago, some spooks just can’t resist the challenge of trying to scare off the skeptics.  To date, none have succeeded, and not for lack of trying.  As many a ghost has learned from painful experience, about the only thing that a typical Society of Skeptics member believes is that they don’t believe anything.  Gradually many of the local spooks gave up on the Baker House, and over time the house began to develop a reputation exactly opposite from the one it once enjoyed:  An unhaunted house.  Every once in a while a particularly brave ghost would boldly pronounce that he would be the one that would finally scare away the Society of Skeptics, but inevitably each one would fail.  Now it was Old Johnson’s turn to try.

One thing was clear about Old Johnson:  He was old.  Exactly how old nobody knew, and even he didn’t really care to bother finding out.  When you’ve restlessly wandered the Earth for as long as he had, you tend to forget a lot of things, and to be honest, Old Johnson kind of liked it that way.  By now, Old Johnson had no idea how or even when he died, nor did he know why he ended up trapped between two worlds as he had, and he didn’t really care to find out either.  He fancied himself to be something of a free agent among ghosts, providing haunting services when and where they were needed.  Over the years he had seen a lot of ghosts that had chained themselves (literally and metaphorically) to various places, apparently unable to get past the unfortunate circumstances of their mortality, and he was determined not to be one of them.  So in order to keep himself busy, Old Johnson made a business (if that’s what you could call it) of acting as something of a freelance spook, going from place to place and haunting as needed.  Sure the hours could be long and the pay nonexistent (not that it really mattered anyway) but it had to be better than sitting in some decrepit old basement forever with nothing to do but rattle the doors every once in a while.

Although Old Johnson was generally content with this arrangement, he was prone to occasional bouts with extreme boredom and unease with his situation.  Sure the usual haunting kept him reasonably well occupied, but it was often mind-numbingly boring, and rarely much of a challenge.  Somewhere in Old Johnson’s heart (or whatever passes for one in a disembodied spectre,) he knew that there had to be something better for him out there.  It was on his aimless wanderings last year in search of a new haunt that he first heard of the Baker House.  Immediately he was drawn to the challenge of trying to haunt the unhauntable, but the reports were discouraging:  For years, there had been countless ghosts that had gone before him, and all had failed to raise so much as a vague sense of disquiet among the skeptics that infested the house.  At one time or another, practically everyone had tried practically everything in the book (up to and including throwing the book at someone’s head) and every time the skeptics would brush it off with one lame excuse or another.  In casual conversations with some of the ghosts that had failed in their quest to rehaunt the Baker House, many of them spoke of a belief that there had to be some way through their defenses, some weakness that would send them fleeing in panic.  But nobody had found that weakness, and by now all but the most diehard of spooks had given up on the Baker House altogether.  Many spoke of elaborately constructed and elaborately choreographed plans, some calling for an all-out assault on the collective psyche of the skeptics, others calling for a slow buildup of dread leading to a crescendo of sheer terror.  Inevitably, all of these would fall apart.  Most of them somewhere around step 1.

To be honest, Old Johnson didn’t have much of a plan either.  But he did have an idea…

(Continue to part 2)

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