I was never one for graveyards. My momma always blamed it on what she called my “romantic spirit.” Even in my youth, tombstones and crypts inspired all kinds of dark fantasies in me. I was sure that haints and spooks lurked behind every marker, and the knowledge that I was walking over the moldering remains of my forebears was enough to get my skin crawling. This effect was only magnified in the autumn months, when the trees began to lose their leaves and loom, malign and skeletal, above the mourners.

It was under dubious circumstances that I found myself in just such a scene on a cold October night in ‘84. I had come up to Ohio looking for work and easier living after the War Between the States. The war proper had ended some years ago, but life was still mean down in the border states and promised to stay mean for a good while longer.

But despite what I had thought before setting out from the old homestead, life was worse yet in the North, especially for a boy with a twang in his voice. I spent my first three weeks up there sleeping wherever I could get away with and dodging Yanks who had themselves convinced I had killed their boy.

The beginning of the fourth week saw me rolling into a university town, my belly empty and my hopes fleeting. In my desperation, I went to the tavern and began trawling through the classified section of the local paper in search of employment. After glancing through the ads for loving husbands and cut-rate cattle, I finally found one that promised at least some kind of recompense. “SEEKING AN ABLE-BODIED ASSISTANT: MUST BE STRONG OF STOMACH AND WEAK OF CHARACTER. WILL PAY.” Beneath this, an address was provided. Having no better options, I set out to find its author.

After about an hour of wandering, I found him in a low-slung house on the edge of town, the yard of which had grown so long and unkempt the grass had matted down like the fur on the dogs I’d seen picking through the bones at Perryville. Two emaciated mares were tied to a hitching post to the right of the structure. In the mid-morning sun, I could see that the windows were all streaked with dirt, dust, and handprints. Judging by the sparse amount of paint that still clung to the building, I believed it had once been white.

What struck me, though, was not the decrepitude of the house and its environs, but rather the abundance of jack-o’-lanterns that stood vigil on the porch: twenty-odd bright orange gourds that had been made to smile at knifepoint. Obviously whoever lived within was some species of madman, else why would he bedeck his home in such a strange fashion? Had I not been so gravely in need of work, I would never have mounted the steps of the porch and knocked on the door.

But knock I did.

From within, I could hear heavy footsteps that promised a man of considerable size, and when the door was thrown wide I was not disappointed. Before me stood a giant in miniature. His massive frame was draped with fat, and the black beard that obscured the lower half of his face was no better groomed than his yard.

“What do you want?”

“I saw your ad in the paper and I think I fit the bill.”

“You’ve got the arms for it at least.”

“What is it, exactly?”

“Come in and we’ll talk.”

He conducted me inside, where the suggestion that the building’s occupant had no issue living in squalor became a fact. Crumb-encrusted plates sat on every flat surface, and stacks upon stacks of yellowed newspapers stood in random piles throughout the building. We came to a small parlor and he motioned for me to sit down on a moth eaten couch.

“What’s your name, boy?”

“William Picker. Your’s?”

“Ephraim Knoss. I can tell by your voice you aren’t a local.”

“I just come up from Vanceburg not more’n a month ago.”



“Ah, a border state! See any fighting in your time?”

“I’m havin’ trouble figurin’ how that’d factor into whether you’ll take me on or not.”

“I didn’t ask who you fought for, if that’s what’s got you hung up. Just if you’d fought.”

“I did.”

“Then I suppose you’re no stranger to the sight of the dead?”

“I s’pose not. You still haven’t told me what it is you need an assistant for.”

“You know the medical college here in town?”

“Sure. Been past it a few times.”

“You ever wonder where they get all the cadavers for the kids to cut up?”

“Can’t say I’ve given it much thought.”

He looked at me expectantly, and I must have done a poor job concealing my revulsion when I caught his meaning, for he let out a hearty laugh before continuing on.

“You may have the arms, but I’m starting to wonder if you’ve got the guts to match.”

“You’re lookin’ for somebody to help you dig up bodies?”

Resurrect bodies.”

“Jesus. I don’t care what you call it. Why do it?”

“Same reason you’re here. Mammon. College pays 150 dollars a body. And that doesn’t include whatever price you can get for the jewelry.”

That brought me up short. That kind of money would go a long way to getting me set up somewhere. Maybe I could swallow my qualms for one night.

“Tough work?”

“Not bad, just too much for one man. A little dangerous.”

“How so?”

“My last assistant, the boy I’m looking to replace, he fuckered up his leg when he tripped a coffin torpedo.”

“The hell is that?”

“I’m not sure of what their proper name is, but that’s what I call ‘em. It’s a kind of bomb the richer folks put on top of their dearly departed to keep us lot from getting at the valuables. They’re usually easy enough to get around, but he got excited and planted his shovel right on top the thing. Damn near took his leg clean off. That’s just about the worst thing that can happen on a dig, though.”

What could be worse than losing a leg I dared not speculate. Ephraim continued on in a slightly more urgent tone, saying;

“Listen, there’s a girl they just buried out in Taylortown. Consumption took her. I need somebody to help me dig her up before the worms get at her. I was hoping to do it soon. Tonight’d be best. If you’re not up to it, I’m gonna have to ask you to go from here and forget that we’ve talked.”

Sitting across from Ephraim, thinking about how much I could do with my cut of the money, my morals and fears began to loosen their grip on me. As much as it shames me to admit it now, I heard myself say;

“I’m your man.”

“Good. Before I take you out there, we’ve got some things to go over…”

We spent the afternoon discussing various coffin-cracking techniques and the intricacies of the corpse market. As the light of the sun began to fade, Ephraim and I loaded the tools of our black trade onto the horses. The shovels, picks, and lanterns were self-explanatory, but I wondered at the revolver I saw Ephraim tuck into the folds of his jacket, and the fact that he took special care to place a lit candle inside each and every jack-o’-lantern struck me as particularly queer. I assumed that the pistol must’ve been in case we ran afoul of the law, but what of the jack-o’-lanterns? Was this simply an old superstition from across the Atlantic, or did Ephraim know something I didn’t? I pushed these thoughts from my mind as our horses clomped down the dirt road from Ephraim’s home to Taylortown Cemetery.

The path was long and winding and took us through a stretch of farmland, our lanterns illuminating golden corn stalks on the margins of the road. Eventually, we came to the wrought iron gates of the graveyard.

Despite being in all general character and appearances like the cemeteries that had so frightened me as a boy, Taylortown’s burial grounds did not excite in me the same feelings of trepidation and dread. No longer were the tombstones we passed the possible hiding places of goblins and ghosts, but rather potential marks. The twisted, leafless elms did not seem to be dark sentinels of malign forces, but instead new friends come to ensure my deeds would be hidden from those that would try to stop me.

My greed had made me a ghoul.

We led our horses along the path, our lanterns bouncing with every step, throwing strange shadows across the grounds. Suddenly, Ephraim pulled up on the reins at the head of a row of markers.

“She’s buried in the middle of this one.”

I dismounted and walked down the row. Nestled between two humble stones stood a handmade wooden cross. The inscription carved into the wood read ”Here lies Katharine F. 1867-1884.” Around its base were scattered flowers and straw dolls. I was struck by the loving simplicity of the scene. A girl of 17 is practically a woman grown, far too old to be playing with dolls. Doubtless one of her younger siblings had left them for her. And the cross! Far too poor to afford a proper marker, her family had fashioned it by hand. I knew then what I was about to do was undoubtedly a sin. To disturb such a monument—

“You gonna stand there gawking or are you gonna help?”

We sat our lanterns on the ground and took up our shovels, digging into the cold earth until we came to the wooden lid of the coffin. I steeled myself for the sight I was surely about to see; a beautiful girl ravaged by disease, her skin tarnished by the work of carrion beetles and fungi. But when the lid was removed, I could see by lantern light that she was untouched, her flesh unmarred, her fair face haloed by a pillow of black hair. In that instant, it was possible for me to convince myself that she was not, in fact, dead, but sleeping.

It wasn’t until I looked at her hands that I noticed her only defect: each finger, down to the first joint, was a bloody ruin of cracked nails and raw flesh, as though the pretty young miss had been clawing at the oaken lid of her coffin since the day of her burial. Ephraim saw it too, and as I moved to get closer, he pulled me back.

“Get away from it, boy!”

“Why? Don’t we need to get her out and loaded?”

“No. Not this one. We need to leave here. Now.”

“We’re already this far, we might as well finish with it.”

“Damn it all. I’m not arguing this with you. Get back to the horses.”

I was about to renew my protests when I heard a stirring from the mouth of the grave. The girl had begun to rise, her mouth agape and mangled hands reaching for my neck. Ephraim pulled the revolver from his jacket and emptied all six chambers into Katharine’s chest. The gunshots bloomed like roses through her white gown, but she kept coming. Ephraim threw down his gun and once more took up his shovel, swinging it in an arc that caught her hard in the head. As she fell back into her earthen bed, Ephraim shouted;

“Get back to the damn horses!”

This time, I listened. I ran faster than I thought myself capable, abandoning my shovel and lantern, back to where the horses were tied, throwing myself atop the mare and ferociously kicking into her sides. Ephraim was close behind, and though it took him longer to haul himself onto his horse, we reached the gate at the same time.

“We gotta get back to the house, it’s the only place I know that’ll be safe.”

Trusting that Ephraim knew best, I followed him as he raced through the fields back to his home. As we crossed the threshold of Ephraim’s property, he instructed me to hitch the horses and come inside. I did as I was told, and after making sure the mares were secure, I followed him in. He pushed a chair against the door and said:

“She’ll be coming soon.”

“How do you know?”

“This isn’t the first time this’s happened. They follow you home. The jack-o’-lanterns usually keep them back ‘til morning. That’s when they go back to their graves and when I go back out to finish ‘em off.”

“What the hell are they?”

“I’m not rightly sure. They remind me of the stories my gram used to tell me about the restless dead back in the old country, she called them nachtzehrers—”

A thud from without cut Ephraim off. The horses whinnied and stamped their hooves frantically before falling eerily silent, their cries soon replaced by a vile squelching sound and peals of wicked laughter.

“She’s here. You want something to drink? It’s going to be a long night.”


We sat in darkness well into the night, passing a bottle back and forth between the two of us. Our conversation, what little there was, was concerned with happier things than our predicament. Ephraim told me of his youth. The dogs he had had as a boy. His mother’s cooking.

But just under his words, I could hear—can almost still hear—Ms. Katharine’s skeletal fingers scraping against the windows, her pleas for us to come outside, just for a minute, just for a quick kiss. Occasionally, I’d catch a glimpse of her, her features cast half in shadow by the flickering light of the jack-o’-lanterns on the porch.

In those fleeting moments, I could see the horrors the grave had wrought on her soul. Her face was slicked with mare’s blood, and her teeth had grown into long, yellow fangs. But her eyes, her eyes like two tar pits; they are what haunt me most.

As the sun began to crest the eastern horizon, Ephraim announced that he needed to use the chamber pot. He clambered to his feet and lit the wick on a nearby candle. Ephraim took two drunken steps before tripping over his own feet, knocking the candle to the floor. The enterprising flame found purchase among one of the many stacks of newspapers and quickly spread, consuming the room in a red hot inferno in an instant.

Ephraim soon regained his footing and made for the door, believing, as I did too, that we would fare better against the monstrosity outside than the fire within. We made it about ten yards from the porch before Katharine leapt from the predawn darkness and onto Ephraim’s back.

I didn’t stop. I looked back only once and saw the girl and Ephraim limned by the light of the fire, her thin white arms wrapped around his gigantic body, her face buried in his neck. Ephraim’s screams still echo in my mind: that low, gurgling wail, the sound of his life slowly draining down into that infernal creature’s throat.

From there, I am unsure exactly what happened, only that my feet somehow found their way through the fields around Ephraim’s home and back to the bar where this entire misadventure had found its genesis. Black funereal mud still clung to my boots as I pushed through the swinging saloon doors, ordered myself a glass of whiskey from a tired-eyed barmaid, and did all I could to drown the horrors of the evening.

But there isn’t enough liquor in the world to wash that night from my mind. It’s been about ten years since then, and I still see those damned eyes in my dreams. I haven’t been back to Taylortown. I won’t go. I’ve heard the stories, though, whispered over empty beer glasses in bars from up in Michigan down to Alabama: a lady in white stalking through the night, creeping through the fields around a small Ohio farm town, dragging children from their beds; strange midnight laughter with seemingly no source. They have a saying there: “nobody goes missing in Taylortown; we know right where they are.” I know that it’s Katherine. And I know that it was my own greed that loosed her upon the world.


“Confessions of a Working Ghoul” won first place in Terror House’s Pulp Submission Contest. To read all of the winning stories, click here.