“The Hearse” By Robert Stava
Halloween, of course, evokes all sorts of childhood memories, including – in my case – my very first haunted house at the age of six, which was in an abandoned Victorian mansion in Rochester in the late 1960s. That one scared the living hell out of me, and invoked a lifelong passion for being spooked at haunted houses that wasn’t matched again until I was an adult and started attending “Horseman’s Hollow’ down the road here in Sleepy Hollow, New York.
But one of the most iconic events in my memories of October hails back to my junior HS year in the fall of 1979, when a friend and I went to visit my sister, who was in her second year in college at SUNY Cobleskill, in the Catskill Mountains. On one of those days we got lost sightseeing around the area and spotting a faded, half-overgrown sign for an attraction called ‘Secret Caverns! With a majestic 100’ underground waterfall!’, opted to follow an adventurous streak and see what is was about. It was late autumn in the Catskills and just the perfect day to check out something a little off-base.
From the outset, the whole set-up seemed strange, and a little weird. The entrance barn was run by a cadaverous-looking man who could have passed as a double for ‘Lurch’ from the Addam’s Family. Inside the gloomy interior were a bunch of odd dust-coated antiques and bins of cheap tchotchke’s that looked like they’d been sitting around since the 1950s. The really weird part, however, was the courtyard and larger barn out back, which was jammed up with dilapidated antique cars and trucks, wagons and buggies spanning from the 1930s back to the 1800s. Being adventurous and having about 15 minutes to kill before our cavern tour, I wandered through the lot, until I came to one dimly lit corner where, by itself, there was a derelict horse-drawn hearse from the 19th century.
It stopped me dead in my tracks.
To this day, the image of that antique hearse is clearly imprinted upon my mind: the dusty rectangular side window with its rotting velvet curtains and tasseled trim, the ornate brass lanterns at the upper corners – one about to fall off, the intricate wood carvings under layers of peeling black paint. Dust motes swirled in air through the slats of sunlight. Still, the air felt distinctly cooler back here; musty. What really drew my attention, however, was the doors at the back. One had a spidery crack in its glass, but the other was half open, as if an invitation to come inside. I swore I saw the curtain move ever so slightly.
My buddy caught up with me and drew up short, equally speechless. A moment later my sister joined us. She raised her camera – even then she was an avid photojournalist – then dropped it, the photo untaken.
All of us instinctively knew this wasn’t just a hearse, some jumble of wooden and metal parts used to convey the deceased to their final resting place. There was something malevolent about this particular carriage: a sinister aura about it that had the hairs standing straight up on the back of my neck. Some especially terrible event was inextricably linked to this vehicle and whatever the hell it was, I didn’t want to know anything more about it.
The three of us backed slowly out of there in unison, back into the sunlight and the safety of our youth, away from whatever dark energy surrounded this thing.
The tour was somewhat anticlimactic after that, though strange in itself – particularly the boat ride in the underground lake and the uneasy interlude where the guide switched the lights off – but I never forgot that hearse. None of us seemed particularly comfortable talking about it afterward, either.
About ten years ago I did a little research and discovered that in ‘95 the barn and all its contents burned in a fire under mysterious circumstances, which in my estimate, may have been a good thing. Still, that hearse remains lurking in the shadows of my psyche like a black phantom, a story I assure you, waiting to be written.
Robert Stava is an author living in the Hudson River Valley, not far, apparently, from the village of Wyvern Falls where so many of his horror stories are set. His fourth novel, “Nightmare from World’s End”, was recently published by Severed Press. His short stories have appeared in various anthologies & magazines in recent years including the recently released “Cranial Leakage vol II” from Grinning Skull Press. His next novel from Severed Press, “The Lost World of Kharamu” is due out in May 2018, along with a third novel with Severed Press, “Neptune’s Reckoning” later next year.
Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he grew up in the Finger Lakes region of New York State and after pursuing a degree in Fine Arts, wound up making his career in advertising at Y&R and J. Walter Thompson in NYC. He went on to become a multimedia Art Director and later as Creative Director ran the 3d Media Group at Arup, an international U.K-based design and engineering company before moving to the Hudson Valley and catapulting into the wild world of writing horror fiction in 2010.
In addition to writing, Stava is a trustee on the Ossining Historical Society, The Ossining Arts Council and is a board member of the Ossining Arts Project, an appointed village organization tasked with developing the arts in Ossining and Westchester.
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