“The muses are ghosts, and sometimes they come uninvited.” — Stephen King, Bag of Bones
My fascination with the macabre is absolute. This is what drove me to the tour of the haunted harbor on that summer night, despite the fact that I had no one to accompany me. The half-abandoned Yankee town of Newbury has developed into something of a perverse tourist destination in recent decades, ever since the strange events of early last century have come to public knowledge. There is something about fear which is attractive to the human mind, particularly those darker recesses which society encourages us to marginalize, and frankly there are no better cures for boredom and lethargy in my experience. Perhaps it is a primal instinct, a reminder of the existential danger we once encountered every day. The stimulation that came with facing predators on the African savannah has been boiled up inside us for millennia, desperate for release, spilling out onto the surface on only scattered occasions.
It was employment which first brought me to that ancient seaport. Being a flatlander, it took me some time to adjust to the coast, but I soon found it quite to my liking. I had first gone to Baltimore, then to Boston in company service, but now that I was to be married, I preferred to find a quieter town to call home.
One might find it strange that I may sound so…darkly philosophical while managing to have a successful career and personal life, but such people lack imagination. Contrary to popular belief, living a double life is actually quite easy. The ability to compartmentalize different parts of one’s existence has become a fundamental life skill for those of us seeking to retain our humanity. There’s simply no point in spreading concern and misery unnecessarily. Complaining never solves anything. You don’t feel any better and it doesn’t improve the situation, it just brings other people down. It is more merciful just to swallow your own depression.
Thus was my mental state when I first heard of the grinning horror. It was one of the first things the tour guide described; a tall, lanky humanoid thing with long, claw-like fingers: a terrible horror movie cliché, really. Said to inhabit the proximity of the Eastport bridge, there were different theories as to its origin.
It did not neatly match descriptions of the Sirens or Mere Folk which seduce sailors to their doom, but no close parallels could be found in European, Mikmaq, or Algonquin myth either. Some speculate that it was the ghost of one of the French-Canadian pirates who were executed during the run up to the Seven Years’ War. Others thought it was a vengeful Indian spirit taking its revenge on the blue-eyed fishers. Some of Newbury’s more eccentric personalities speculated that it was a manifestation of He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, the one who met the witches in the dark woods on sabot nights prior to Tituba’s betrayal at Salem. But I doubt if anyone can be certain.
The tour guide hinted as much, telling with a mischievous smile how easy it is for the imagination to run wild. With great showmanship he told us that there are shapes of consciousness and forms of life which exist utterly beyond what the human brain can process. “Is it therefore conceivable that our mind will attempt to ‘fill in the gaps’ when confronted by something it cannot rationalize? Is it possible that the brain will produce an enigma because it simply cannot process the information the senses provide it? I will not be the one to deny it.”
We began promptly at 8 p.m. with the guide introducing himself to those who had arrived late and making a disclaimer that he was not responsible for any subsequent hauntings, poltergeists, hag attacks, or residual effects of the tour. The other attendees laughed at this but to me he seemed completely serious…if mildly amused.
When one has had a lifetime of strange experiences, it is easy to see. Someone living in the “wider reality” has everything about their personality, disposition, and mannerisms effected. Imagine a world in which 90 percent of the population is colorblind. Someone able to see color in such a world would not realize that they are the odd one, at first. It only becomes apparent with time that your perceptions encompass more than those around you. Fellow color-seers are recognizable by how they react to seeing the hue of the world around them. Such a person will admire a sunset or a beautiful landscape in a way that a colorblind person simply cannot.
So it was as the tour progressed. Our tour consisted of several parties. One appeared to be a family unit, though the children were fully grown, perhaps 20 or 25 years old. The daughter, a shorter woman perhaps five feet in stature, was quite attractive behind a modest wardrobe and took up no small portion of my attention. The son, perhaps a few years younger than her, had certain hints of intelligence to him, but seemed outwardly disinterested in the proceedings. The other party consisted of an older couple, evidently seeking a form of amusement which their lives were otherwise lacking. As I said, fear is uniquely stimulating and can have applications in all aspects of mortal life.
We started with the old Wharf, where the first settlers arrived and where subsequent arrivals were interrogated for fears of witchcraft. Newbury was very much the typical Puritan town until he brought the undesirables there in the 1820’s (or was it the 1830’s?). Its earliest history was therefore marked by events typical to New England: conflict with Red Indians and their French enablers, intra-community religious tensions, and rapidly-growing industry revolving around fishing and smuggling.
Next were stops at the oldest Churches in town. Most had become Episcopalian or Baptist by the turn of the nineteenth century, but their Puritan heritage was readily apparent. Of course, we could not help but spend time at the abandoned structure which had served as headquarters of that damnable society before it was raided. Many wild rumors exist about this place, most of which were related by the guide with the usual disclaimers about questionable source reliability. I will confess that I immediately felt a dark cloud hanging over this place, as if the shadows themselves were aware of us and regarded us with mal intent. You will forgive me if I don’t want to discuss this in detail, for my personal family history includes much suffering here.
After this was the Newbury town hall, the old cemeteries, and the remains of the Baptist college, which was still maintained an eerily well-preserved state despite its long abandonment. More interesting, however, was what the guide related to us between stops.
He mentioned that the grinning horror, for it had no other agreed-upon name, could often be seen down the dark alleys between buildings in the oldest part of town. He claimed that one of his own personal acquaintances had seen the thing, but the others met this claim with an understandable skepticism. I, however, saw no obvious reason not to believe him, for my own life had been sufficiently strange to allow for such possibilities. What didn’t quite make sense to me was what its motivation was.
Was it stalking potential prey? Observing curious land-dwelling oddities? Waiting for another creature of its kind in order to mate? Did it perhaps have a covert dwelling in the vicinity? Regarding these questions, even the tour guide could do nothing but speculate.
Nor could anyone tell where it was going to or from. Its objectives were as obscure as its origins. To his credit, the guide did not pretend to know things he did not know for the sake of sensationalism. This level of maturity is something which far too few of us have, especially among newspaper journalists or, God help us, left-wing cable news: not even Dante could’ve imagined a Hell in which the worst kinds of liars simply sit around all day congratulating each other, and give each other awards.
Our attention was then drawn to certain old houses which had been occupied by some of Newbury’s more prominent citizens of yesteryear. Our guide attested to the fact that he himself had direct encounters with at least one of the haunting specters, but our group’s reactions were much like those they had to the previous stories. Upon finishing his tale of love-lost mistresses, aristocratic French adventurers, and mischievous sailors, he concluded by saying that he hoped we all had grown from the experience of the tour. Realizing that he was late for another engagement, he bid us all good night and went running off in a hurry, but not before instructing us to cross a body of water so as to prevent unwanted spirits from following us. Apparently, this is a well-known technique in voodoo folklore, which our guide hinted as having studied in some detail.
After this, we attendees engaged in small talk for a few moments before bidding each other farewell. It was with considerable regret that I left the company of the young woman, but then such things are often inevitable. It was only after we had parted ways that I made for the dark alleyway which led down into the long-forgotten catacombs beneath the town’s sole Catholic Church. For this had been my home centuries before when I faked my death in Newbury’s early days. No one suspected for even a moment that I had been in their midst this entire time, or for that matter I existed at all.
The philosopher’s stone which so many have hinted at is an elusive thing indeed, and even tiny errors in its production can yield hideous results. It is true that my researches into such things were regarded as witchcraft by the Puritans who captured me in 1751, but from my point of view, the alchemist’s quest is far older than those self-important fools can even guess. Blinded by—I freely admit—a touch of hubris, I drank the concoction before it was fully matured and was turned into a long-lived creature rather than an immortal man. I am able to keep this nature suppressed for the most part, living a completely normal human life, but significant stress or pain exposes my true form. I had stayed away from Newbury for centuries, but could not resist the temptation to visit once my company offered the opportunity. I had largely forgotten the man I once was, for I disappear and change my name every thirty years or so, something that arrogant “master” of mine just wouldn’t do despite my persistent warnings.
He had lost himself, becoming demented in both the attic and the basement of his mind’s house. Such a fate is not inevitable, however. No matter how far gone, no human soul is beyond redemption. I will leave the reader with a little bit of advice; nothing is ever worth giving a soul, even metaphorically. Enjoy your life as the blessing it is, do not seek to tamper with things beyond the realm of man, or you shall risk an even worse fate than mine. Que Dieu tout-puissant me pardonne et aie pitié de ceux qui sont près de moi.
I woke up on the lawn outside the last tour stop some time later. The other attendees told me that, just after the guide left, I had begun to stagger and emit strange noises, afterward describing, in the Canadian French which several of them knew, what I have summarized in the previous few paragraphs. The reader must believe me that I have no mortal memory of doing so, yet the group was in absolute agreement as to what had transpired.
Shortly after this fainting spell, I checked myself into the hospital for a series of examinations, all of which showed that I had nothing physically wrong with me. The strange episode was written off as caused by stress, fatigue, and an unhealthy diet. I have no reason to dispute this, though I do not think it a sufficient answer. Truth be told, I…I cannot help but think that I connected with something that night. That it, whatever it was, used me as a means of communicating with the group assembled for the tour.
It was only some months later that I learned the extent to which everyone on that tour had been changed. One of the men, a secret alcoholic, had been sober since that night. Another attendee, engaged in a long and increasingly twisted affair, had called it off and had been faithful ever since. One attendee had gotten over his fears and proposed to the woman he loved and is to be married in four months, inviting me as one of the guests. As for me, I have not had another episode since that night, though I have also managed to stay far away from Newbury. My wife and I just welcomed our second child into the world and are happy in our home in Savannah, Georgia, whence I had requested a transfer some years before. My previous nihilism has all but faded away.
Is it ironic that I have a horrific creature to thank? Perhaps it is. But then again, if even a fraction of what I experienced is true, then this thing was once a man. Human compassion manifests in the strangest of places, and mercy can come when we least expect it. This is why despair is such a profound sin and something to be avoided at all cost. You…I mean, “we” humans were created in the image of God, and if great hardship is thrown our way, it is only because He knows we are capable of overcoming them, that we are capable of enduring these growing pains, and choose, of our own free will, to grow into the greatest of His creations.
Daniel Bretton is a wayward son of New England. A simple, philosophically-inclined man, he wanders the world in search of wisdom, both worldly and Godly. Like Herodotus, he reports what he sees and leaves the reader to draw his own conclusions.