My First (and so far, only real) Ghost Story

Back in the Dark Age of 1977, I (Chris) was serving my country in the US Navy, stationed at the Seabee base in Port Hueneme, Calif. There was a beautiful old mansion there, once owned by a Senator Bard, later appropriated by the Navy for its new Seabee force in World War II.  Legend had it that the place was lousy with spooks, and already being a journalist and nosy fellow, I somehow convinced the base commander to allow me and two companions (eyewitness and Seabee comrade Doug Jagd and base photographer Laura Beagle) to spend a night in the old manse. Long story short — we did encounter some fascinating and rather macabre things during that long and dark evening.

I told the story myself way back then, in the base newspaper, appropriately named the Seabee Coverall, along with some intriguing photos. Recently, I got a copy of the article from the base historian and am attaching it here for your reading pleasure.

Bard Mansion Haunting

Footnotes:  That summer, after I was already discharged, the article won honors as the Navy’s best story for 1977 — an honor of which I am still proud. Also, a professor at the UCLA School of Parapsychology (or some such name) looked at the spectral photo we’d sent him or her and pronounced it, rather routinely, as “an ordinary house ghost.”  Below is a scan from the original infrared print:

I can assure you that it has never seemed “ordinary” to those of us who spent the evening at the Bard Mansion. As for you?  Well, you’ll have to judge for yourselves.

A Halloween Tale To Bug You!

As we’re about to celebrate the glorious tradition of Halloween, I’d like to offer our dedicated readers a rare gem – a horror tale with a somewhat unusual subject matter…insects; namely, cockroaches.

Chris Leppek and I have always enjoyed digging up (pun intended) hard-to-find stories with equally obscure writers.  Such is the case with “Roaches” – a delicious work that we can’t recommend enough.

First published in 1965, the story was written by Thomas Michael Disch who had quite the following as both a science fiction author and poet.  In fact, he earned a total of two Hugo Award and nine Nebula Award nominations during his prolific career.

However, his rare excursions into horror are worthy of all who love to read about things that go bump in the night, or (in the case of “Roaches”) things that skitter and crawl in the night.

skitter. . . skitter. . . skitter

“Roaches” ( which appears in the 1987 Dark Descent anthology, edited by David G. Hartwell and published by Tom Doherty Assoc.) introduces us to Marcia Kenwell, a young lady who moves to New York in order to restart her rather dull and unfulfilling existence.  Her only warning delivered by her doting grandmother is to beware of cockroaches – insects she has never come across before.

Now in the big city, Marcia finds herself holding a proverbial dead-end job, living an even more unfulfilling existence in a squalid apartment building.  And she soon comes face-to-face with what she was warned about – thousands of darting, antennaed cockroaches; disgusting creatures that fester, feed and give birth in darkness, only to scatter to distant corners, cracks and crevices when exposed to light.

But her revulsion to cockroaches suddenly evolves to something else when she discovers that she is somehow able to communicate with these creatures and to actually command them to do her bidding, i.e. infesting the bed of her filthy, Eastern European neighbors that live beyond the wall of her tiny apartment.

In a touching, ironic stroke, Marcia becomes a perverse Queen of the Cockroaches at the shocking conclusion of the tale.

Like any good piece of horror fiction, the disturbing images of “Roaches” remains with the reader long afterwards.

So curl up this Halloween with a good story and pray that the furtive movements just beyond your periphery are absolutely nothing to be concerned about.

The Remarkable Mr. Russell Hunter

Of all the notable – and macabre – people whom Mani and I have met over the years, Russell Hunter likely stands as the most fascinating.

Russell, who died in 1996 at the age of 67, saw himself as a playwright first and foremost, a composer and musician second, a horror aficionado third and a collector of bizarre curiosa fourth. It was, not surprisingly, his affection for horror that initially drew us to him in the mid-1980s, after a friend of Mani’s introduced us to him.

His primary claim to fame came as the source of the story – officially he got “story credit” – for the outstanding 1980 haunted house film “The Changeling,” a classic to countless horror freaks and a movie so successfully spooky that Stephen King wrote of it at some length, and in a most complimentary tone, in Danse Macabre.

The legendary George C. Scott starred in the film, playing the role which Russell claimed he played himself in real life. While the film was set in Seattle, near a fictional “Chessman Park,” Russell’s haunting took place in Denver, in a now-demolished house near the very real Cheesman Park.

George C. Scott (left) and Russell Hunter (right), fictional and non-fictional hauntees respectively.

 

I won’t go into plot spoilers here, but the real life hauntings Hunter said he experienced were so frightful that he was eventually forced to flee the Capitol Hill house in which he once lived. He would later say that a diamond dust mirror that he took with him provided a portal for the little boy’s troubled spirit that followed him to his new home in southeast Denver, and ultimately stayed with him thereafter.

Russell’s tale of this boy-ghost was originally told in a musical he wrote, Little Boy Blue, which was never produced. He later wrote it as a novel, which also didn’t sell, but somebody in Hollywood somehow got wind of it, hence the movie.

At first, Mani and I simply wanted Russell to take a look at a short story we had just finished, entitled “An Autumn Friend,” which he was kind enough to read, offering both positive and constructive criticism, revealing in the process an amazing knowledge of golem-like scarecrows and harvest imagery in horror literature – a dark and esoteric field if ever there was one.

The actual (left) and cinematic (right) Changeling Houses.

Thus began a friendship that lasted several years, usually consisting of visits to Russell’s home where he often performed something quite beautiful on his grand piano, graciously offered strong drinks and then, with his glass and omnipresent cigarette in hand – in the strangely shadowy and Victorian atmosphere of his otherwise mid-century modern home — he would regale us with stories.

And such stories!  Russell was a raconteur’s raconteur. Many of them were difficult, if not impossible, to believe. Many were undeniably true. Most had something to do with the macabre or outré.  All of them were utterly fascinating, so it didn’t really matter whether they were true or not.

Russell told stories of the old manse in which the events of “The Changeling” took place, accounts of ectoplasmic manifestations he had personally witnessed, legends of Confederate gold hidden somewhere on the antebellum Virginia estate his aunt still owned, tales of a purported visit to that same estate by Edgar Allan Poe shortly before the author’s death, and of a packet of hidden manuscripts that Poe is supposed to have hidden somewhere in the dark reaches of the house.

Russell had quite a Poe fixation, which explained his excellent collection of rare Poe editions, only a small part of a remarkable library in his basement. He even wrote a novel with Poe as the central character, based on the hidden manuscript legend associated with the Virginia estate. He titled it, cleverly, Appropoe, and allowed me to read it.  It was quite good and I sincerely wish that I had secretly made a copy of it, since it’s almost certainly lost by now.

He also had some truly unbelievable oddities stored away in that house of his. He had a bed that he fervently believed Abraham Lincoln once slept in, a Victorian-era child’s tombstone that he said was dug up on his old Capitol Hill property and the infamous diamond dust mirror through which a youthful ghost was allegedly able to travel.

Like a rubber ball, you come bouncing back to me . . .

There was a photograph of Russell and George C. Scott together, taken during the filming of “The Changeling,” and any number of artifacts from that movie and the ghost upon which it was based – the unutterably spooky antique wheelchair, an ancient photograph of the boy who haunted Russell, even the same rubber ball that so terrified Scott in the film, as it bounced with ominous leisure down the stairs of the haunted mansion.

 

 

Mani and I were very saddened to learn of Russell’s death in 1996. In his honor, we composed a short story, “The Collector,” whose protagonist is largely based on Russell. Although our Adrian Constable is considerably more eccentric than even Russell was, we think that we captured something of his unique and wonderfully bizarre personality in the portrayal. (That story, by the way, can be read on this website).

Shortly after Russell’s death, I received permission from his family to purchase a few items from his eclectic estate. I purchased a book or two, and was overjoyed to see that a particular piece of art that I remembered was still there.

I don’t know the title of the work, nor the artist, but clearly remember that Russell told me that he had purchased it at a garage sale from a woman who said that her son had painted it – the day before he committed suicide.

(This might be one of Russell’s tall tales, I concede. I soon discovered that the picture I obtained is not an original painting, but a photographic reproduction, which casts some doubt on the suicidal artist story . . . but, as always, it’s a great story!)

It depicts a derelict (but possibly still spinning) carousel beneath a stormy sky, with horses that are demented or dying or terrified or perhaps something even more awful. It’s quite expertly done and extremely effective as visual horror. I’ve creeped out any number of people by showing it. I remember Russell saying that he originally placed it on his bedroom wall, opposite his bed. It so terrified him, however, that he couldn’t sleep, so he placed it at the head of the bed, where he didn’t have to see – or ponder – its nightmarish vision.

(For the record, I have it in my study, where it provides considerable inspiration for Mani and myself as we strive to conjure our own monsters).

In any case, here it is, in all its sinister glory. I would be extremely happy if anyone out there could tell me anything at all about it. And I’m sure that Russell’s specter would find it equally pleasing.