I grew up in a pretty typical suburban town on Long Island. We didn’t have any haunted houses or creepy graveyards in Smithtown—you had to drive all the way to Amityville for a look at the famous haunted house—so I’m afraid I can’t regale you with a non-fiction story of a spooky Halloween. But I can tell you about the most enchanted Halloween I’ve witnessed, and that was in upstate New York, when I moved to Woodstock for a couple of years in the late nineties to work at a recording studio there.
Woodstock is well known for weirdness. The famous concert, or “happening,” or whatever you want to call the acid-drenched state of emergency that defined 1969 under the town’s moniker didn’t actually happen in Woodstock but rather in the town of Bethel, some sixty miles away. Nonetheless, Woodstock was weird long before Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin moved there and established the scene that would climax with the festival.
The valley in the shadow of Overlook Mountain was considered to be cursed land by the Native Americans who once inhabited the area. Maybe they were onto something because today the mountain is home to the ruins of the Overlook Mountain House, a majestic resort hotel that burned down twice between 1871 and 1923. A subsequent reconstruction burned in 1941 and the ruins themselves burned again in the mid 1960’s.
Why so much fire on the mountain?
It’s probably just a coincidence, but when the first white settlers arrived they named the trail that threads together several peaks of the Catskills in that region, “Devil’s Path,” because (according to Wikipedia) they “believed the range’s craggy cliffs were specially built by the devil so that he alone could climb them and occasionally retreat from the world of men.”
By the turn of the twentieth century the little town in the shadow of the mountain was already becoming famous as an arts colony for painters of the Hudson Valley School. Then in 1915, local poet and utopian philosopher Hervey White founded the Maverick Festival, a Bohemian carnival held on the evening of the August full moon complete with musical performances, a costume ball, famous writers dressed in drag, and drunken orgies in the woods.
When my girlfriend and I moved to Woodstock for that recording gig, we were almost thirty years late for the three days of peace, love and music, but we found the spirit of the Maverick Festival lingering in the form of the annual Halloween Parade. The scene ended up in my horror novel, The Devil of Echo Lake, and I’ve included the relevant excerpt below. I’ll let the chapter speak for itself and just say that in Woodstock, they know how to do Halloween. I recall the night ending with a tribe of costumed children running wild through tattered veils of smoke in the cemetery, the artful dead dancing merrily on the graves of the actual dead, many of whom had once upon a time waltzed until dawn under the full moon in costumes of their own.
DOUGLAS WYNNE is no stranger to dark places; he honed his storytelling craft as a frontman in basements and bars during Boston’s 90′s‐era underground rock scene. Originally from Long Island, he attended Berklee College of Music, followed by a stint as a recording engineer in New York before returning to Massachusetts, where he currently resides with his wife and son. The Devil of Echo Lake is his first novel. You can follow him at http://www.dougwynne.com , http://www.twitter.com/Doug_Wynne www.facebook.com/EchoLakeStudios
The Devil of Echo Lake was released on 10/19/12 by Journalstone Publishing. For more information, or to order the book, please visit http://www.journalstone.com
TODAY’S GIVEAWAY: Douglas Wynne is offering three electronic copies of The Devil of Echo Lake. To enter post a comment in the section below or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and put HH CONTEST ENTRY in the header. Winners will be chosen at random and notified by e-mail.
In this scene—which takes place on Halloween—Jake Campbell, an assistant recording engineer at Echo Lake Studios, has been sent to Studio C, a converted church, to move some furniture in preparation for the Billy Moon sessions.
It was a nice day for a long walk. The first thing Jake saw when the gravel road wound around the bend at the bottom of the hill was the belfry poking out above a stand of pines set against a backdrop of purple hills under drifting cloud shadows. It had rained in the morning and the mist was still burning off the trees. When he reached the church, he saw that Buff’s pickup truck wasn’t there yet. He guessed Charlie Hoffman must have had the trees planted like that to create a privacy screen.
A working church would have needed to stand out on the hillside to draw the locals to its doors, not hide behind a green curtain like this one. But the imported trees were not yet tall enough to conceal the building entirely. Jake expected it would take six or seven more years with heavy rains before the belfry was obscured.
Stepping under the canopy of boughs onto a carpet of brown pine needles and twigs glazed with crystallized sap, he found a weathered white clapboard building. There was a horn under the eaves, no doubt wired to the burglar alarm for which he had a code written on a business card in his wallet. A series of stained-glass windows adorned the side of the building, but he couldn’t make out their subjects from his current vantage point. Around the corner, atop a set of concrete steps, he found a pair of high-arched doors with iron bindings.
He fished a crowded key ring out of his pocket and tried two before finding the one that popped the lock. Once the doors were opened, he had one minute to locate the keypad on the support beam where Eddie had said it would be and punch in the code to keep the siren from blaring. He found it and typed the code from memory without taking the card from his wallet.
For a moment he worried he’d punched in the wrong number because a chiming sound continued to ring throughout the church. He had noticed it as soon as he stepped inside but hadn’t focused on it until now, dismissed it as the sound of the alarm system counting down the narrow window of deactivation. Now that the sound hadn’t shut off, he zeroed in on it, and simultaneously recognized three characteristics: it was not emanating from the keypad box but rather from the loft above and behind him; it was not a chime but a piano note being struck with monotonous repetition; and it was being played with the sustain pedal down so that the decay of each note echoed in the rafters.
He craned his head, but from this angle, he could see nothing up there. Just the purple, green and gold mosaic of a stained-glass rosette depicting the ascending Virgin, high in the wall above the choir loft.
Who the hell was in here, if he had just turned the lock and killed the alarm? It had to be a piano tuner Eddie had neglected to mention. And he or she must have entered through a back door with a key of their own. If anything, I probably just re-armed the alarm, he thought, looking at the control box. It appeared to be inert.
Hoping he wouldn’t trip the motion detectors, he walked toward the end of the big hall where the altar would have traditionally been situated. A drum riser draped with red Persian carpets occupied that space. No alarm sounded. He peered up at the choir loft again where, from this angle, he could now make out the raised hood of a grand piano, but still no sign of a person.
The monotonous chiming note persisted.
He recalled a mind game he would sometimes play when he heard a musician hitting a single note: testing his ability to identify it. He knew he didn’t have the gift of perfect pitch, but that had never prevented him from giving it his best shot. It was a kind of ear training to make the effort, and on the rare occasion when he was correct or even close, it was deeply gratifying.
Piano was his primary instrument, so he also had the advantage of recognizing the timbre of certain keys. Now he guessed E above middle C and made a mental note of it. He would find out if he’d guessed right when he got up there and asked the guy.
Only he wasn’t so sure he wanted to go up there. A cloud passed across the sun outside, darkening the stained-glass panes above the piano, and Jake dragged his fingers across the palm of his hand, finding it clammy.
There’s no one up there.
But there had to be. Maybe the tuner was kneeling under the piano to put some WD-40 on the sustain pedal, reaching up to strike a key. A plausible scenario. Still, he found he was reluctant to look for the stairs that would take him up to the loft. Was it simply that this place had once been a church? Was that what had him spooked so easily?
Okay, fuck it. Stop working yourself up and go find out. He drew a breath to call out, “Hello?” but before he could get the word out, a metallic clank resounded throughout the room and a shockwave of fear surged through his neck and shoulders. It was the double doors being thrust open. A sandy-haired man wearing a baseball cap, dirty jeans, and a T-shirt stepped into the room. He had pale blue eyes and a graying handlebar mustache.
“James?” Jake asked.
“Call me Buff,” came the reply. Their voices reverberated in the empty hall, and in the silence that followed, Jake noticed that the piano note had ceased.
Buff seemed to be trying to read the expression on Jake’s face.
Jake stepped toward him, extending his hand, and said, “I’m Jake.” Buff shook it, but not without a slight hesitation.
“So where’s this furniture we’re moving?” Jake asked.
“Upstairs. Follow me.”
They climbed another of the spiral staircases the architect of Echo Lake Studios had been so fond of and reached the second level. The piano loft was at one end, a set of small curtained-off bedrooms at the other. A catwalk with a waist-high wooden railing ran the length of the church, connecting the two halves of the second floor.
“How much of this was originally here when it was a church?” Jake asked when they reached the top of the stairs.
“This side was already here. It’s where the organ used to be. And the seating for the choir, of course. Organ was a big, old pipe jobbie. That was gone long before Charlie bought the place and turned it into a studio, or he would’ve kept it. Charlie added the catwalk, the bedrooms, and bathroom up here. Some clients don’t like the piano being up here but it’s never coming down. Charlie always said this is where it sounds best, up close to the steepled ceiling. And they say it’s good for separation.”
“Yeah, makes sense that it’d be easier to keep other instruments out of the piano mics if it’s way up here. But what about piano players who want eye contact with the rest of the band?”
“There’s another one downstairs. Baby grand.”
“Oh. That must be the one that’s getting tuned.”
“I think Eddie’ll have ‘em both tuned before your project starts. Now that it’s getting cold out, he’ll probably have Dickie come in and give ‘em a tweak every morning, if your client’s using them.”
“Dick is the piano tuner?”
“Yup. But I don’t know for how much longer. His hearing’s starting to go. Especially at the upper end of the keyboard. Might be time for him to retire.”
Buff was heading across the catwalk now, with Jake in tow.
“I heard him when I came in,” Jake said. “He may still be here.”
Buff stopped walking, and Jake almost bumped into him. Jake’s first thought was that Buff was regretting making the comment about the old guy’s hearing when he was probably right below them and possibly still possessed of a keen enough ear to pick up their conversation.
“Heard him, did you?” Buff said.
“When I came in. Tuning the one downstairs, I guess.”
Buff turned to look at him. They were standing in the middle of the narrow catwalk between the two lofts. Buff grasped a railing in each hand and shook his head slowly.
“What?” Jake asked, but he thought he already knew.
“You unlock the double doors to let yourself in?”
“Yeah. Is there a back door, off the control room?”
“There is, but it doesn’t unlock from the outside because you can’t get to the alarm box fast enough from there. Dick uses the front door like everybody else. You didn’t hear him, because he ain’t here.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I’m sure. He doesn’t work on Fridays, anyway. Takes his wife to the physical therapist in Kingston for her back.”
“I guess I was mistaken,”
“What exactly did you hear?”
“I dunno. Maybe nothing. Maybe a clanging hot water pipe.”
“They don’t clang in this room. That would ruin a track, right?”
“So you heard someone playing the piano.” Buff’s mouth curled up in a lupine grin.
“Not playing. I thought I heard one note. So it probably wasn’t a piano. Hey, does the bell in the tower ever ring from the wind?” Jake’s eyes brightened as the idea occurred to him.
“Maybe in a hurricane.”
“I don’t know then. I don’t know what I heard.”
Buff leaned against the railing and took a pack of Camels from his pocket. “Man, I always thought it was bullshit, but you wouldn’t even know the story. Now that’s something.”
Buff poked his unlit cigarette at Jake’s shoulder. “Those guys in the shop didn’t tell you to put me on about this, did they? Shit, they did, didn’t they?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Buff lit his smoke, dragged and exhaled at the rafters, “You heard the ghost, my friend.”
Jake smiled. “Ghost?”
“Yup, the ghost of Olivia Heron. I’ve heard the story since I was a kid, but even working here, I never met anybody who actually heard her play. And I’ve been doing odd jobs here since I was seventeen. Thought it was bullshit, a folk tale.”
“Okay, fill me in already.”
Buff savored his cigarette and the moment, nodding his head as if in internal agreement that yup, that was the way to tell it for maximum effect.
Jake drummed his fingertips on the railing. This guy apparently preferred killing time to working. And yet, he couldn’t suppress the need to know, even though it was irritating to think that he might have to trade the relief of knowing he could trust his ears for the lousy alternative of not being able to trust reality.
“The way I heard it, she was the church organist back in the late 1800s. They say she was a well-liked member of the congregation until after her husband died. Everyone tried to help her out when that happened, treat her like family and what not, but she became distant and withdrawn. Used to disappear for days at a time in the woods here, by the church. Nobody knew what she did on these little expeditions, if she’d sleep on the moss and pine needles or what, but she’d always be back for the Sunday services to play the hymns.
“Only, the music started getting weird. Just a little at first—some dissonant chords thrown in here and there.”
Jake chuckled nervously. “She was a jazz innovator ahead of her time,” he said, trying to lighten the dramatic tone Buff was going for.
“That’s not what people thought,” Buff said. “And the music got a lot more disturbing as time went on.”
“Maybe she was expressing her grief through her playing,” Jake said.
“Maybe. But people started to connect it up with all the solitary walks in the woods and word got around that she was communing with the Devil out there.”
“They thought she was a witch?”
“That’s right. And then one night, long after midnight, the reverend found her playing in the nude. Churning the most depraved music out of those towering pipes, riding that mighty Wurlitzer like some infernal beast.” Buff grinned from ear to ear now, making Jake think of a cartoon he’d once seen of the Big Bad Wolf.
“That’s a hell of an image. Did you just come up with that?”
“Nah. Guy I heard tell it maybe the sixth or seventh time coined that one. Irish fella, this was, over at the Bar-n-Grill one Halloween. But it kinda makes the story, don’t it? I had him write it down on a coaster.”
“So this really happened?”
“Oh, she was real, alright. It’s in the town record. They hung her from a tree right out there in the churchyard. ‘N’ ever since the day she was hanged, people have heard her playing in the empty church from time to time. It was the organ at first, until they burned that in a big bonfire. Sold the pipes for scrap. But that didn’t stop her because now people—like you—say they hear her playin’ the peeyana. It’s the church that’s haunted—shoulda kept the organ. And I always thought it was a crock of shit until today. She must like you.”
Jake didn’t feel like laughing anymore. He thought of the pale shape he had seen bounding across the meadow behind his cabin on his first night in Echo Lake, and of the violet eyes glimmering at him from the edge of the woods. He thought of the sweating bottle of beer he’d held in his hand that night as he squinted at the peculiar visage, and wished he could have one now. Or several.
“Where’s this furniture we’re moving?” he asked, his voice tremulous.
Buff laughed and slapped him on the back. “Over here.”
* * *
Allison sang the theme from the Twilight Zone after Jake told her the story. They were getting ready to leave the apartment for a night on the town, inspired by a blurb in the local paper that described the annual costume parade followed by fireworks over the cemetery. A town of artists and alternative health practitioners transplanted from New York City, Echo Lake was serious about its pagan holiday. Jake found this a little ironic considering what their forebears had done to the local witch just a few generations ago, but times had changed—so much so that the church was now a studio.
“He was definitely playing with you,” Allison said. “A little Halloween fun at the new guy’s expense.”
“You’d think,” said Jake, “but I really did hear the piano.”
“Couldn’t there have been someone else there? Like that runner, Brent? Someone sitting under the piano, playing the note you heard, and then laying low while Buff spooked you out.”
“I don’t think so. There was no place to hide up there.”
“Well then, it must have been the naked witch,” she said, wide eyed and deadpan. “Didn’t that guy Occam say that the sexiest explanation is the most likely?”
* * *
The streets were crawling with children in masks and makeup, and while there were a handful of plastic costumes from the local drug store, the majority were homemade efforts, some profoundly creative. There was a girl draped in black veils through which a network of tiny white Christmas lights twinkled (Look, she’s the night sky!) and another who wore a framed canvas replica of The Scream by Munch, with a hole cut out for the child’s face.
Jake and Allison went in their street clothes as spectators. It was a night that burned itself into Jake’s memory like a double-exposed photograph—a strange juxtaposition of impressions. Child ghosts draped in shimmering cloaks of translucent metallic fabric and parents wearing skull and ghoul face paint illuminated for a half a second among the tombstones and oak trees by the green fire of sparks falling slowly to earth through drifting clouds of smoke.
Stop-motion war-zone visions of dime-store zombies running on the dewy grass over the real dead, the smells of gunpowder, lilac, and marijuana on the breeze. And in the midst of this dreamscape, the taste of his girl, here with him, more precious than ever, no longer a partner of convenience in a college town, but starting a life with him in this, their new home.
By the time Jake’s head hit the pillow at the end of the night, the ghost of Olivia Heron seemed like one more imaginary specter in a town crawling with them.