Halloween Haunts: How writing horror is like dressing up for Halloween by Carol Gyzander
As many folks in the United States prepare for upcoming Halloween celebrations by choosing costumes—for themselves or perhaps for their children to go trick-or-treating—it’s intriguing to think about how dressing up in costume relates to writing horror. What are some of the common effects or benefits of each?
The roots of Halloween lie in the early celebration of Samhain, where Celtic villagers disguised themselves in animal skins and as monsters to welcome in their new year, and chase away spirits or goblin infestations. They believed costumes could keep them from being kidnapped by fairies or spirits of their ancestors who may have been tempted to cross the border between their worlds at that time.
The rise of Christianity across Europe morphed the celebration into a more church-related event, which was quite subdued by the time it arrived in the colonial United States. Through the influence of some Native American traditions, Halloween became an annual celebration of the harvest that included public events and parties, pranks, and telling ghost stories. As the twentieth century began, an organized movement focused Halloween more on secular fun and parties rather than the grotesque.
Troublemakers persisted, however, and the levels of vandalism and damage grew during the Depression and got out of hand during the 1970s. Civic groups and neighborhoods banded together to offer progressive events where children and youth traveled from house to house to have something that kept them occupied.
In the last half-century in the United States, Halloween has become a non-religious, non-violent event where children as young as a year old are dressed up by their parents in costume, and travel from door-to-door demanding “trick or treat!” It’s considered fun to dress up as a monster or scary creature. See Lisa Morton’s Bram Stoker Award-winning book, Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween for an in-depth examination of the tradition.
The choice of a child’s costume, when they are allowed to have a say in the matter, is intriguing. I speak not as a mental health professional, but as a parent who raised two children, spent two decades as an active school volunteer in all grades, and was a Boy Scout and Girl Scout leader for fifteen years. I’ve spent quality time with a lot of kids.
When we are wearing a costume, we are not ourselves. We are putting on another persona or identifying with a particular group of characters (whether human or not). For a time, we can be someone—or something—else, which can allow us to behave in ways we might not otherwise.
Consider the child who is quiet and shy, or perhaps feels that they have no friends. If they wear a popular character’s costume, then to a certain extent, others will react to them as if they bore some of the traits of that character and may be more accepting of them. It’s a partial ticket to hang with the cool kids. The child can get positive or self-affirming feelings from these interactions.
They may also feel encouraged to do new things, like be more outspoken or vivacious than usual because they are acting as their costume character. This could carry over into their daily experience once they remove the costume because they’ve explored a new skill. Kids can try on different behavior and different identifications with fewer repercussions than doing so in real life.
Kids can also develop empathy for their character. What does it feel like to be that creature? When I dressed my young son as a Dalmatian, he tried acting like a dog for a while and realized how frustrating it would be to not be able to speak in words. Some people have those same issues. When the costume comes off, we can be left with a better understanding of the character we had become.
This can all be quite freeing and liberating. And also problematic, of course.
Many studies show that dressing up as part of a group can reduce the individual’s sense of inhibition or even the sense of right and wrong. A group of kids is more likely to take more (or all) of the candy on display at a given house than those going door-to-door singly or in small groups.
We’ve all heard of packs of kids on Halloween doing pranks (or worse) that they would never do on their own, particularly when not in costume. The anonymity of a costume, particularly one with a mask, frees them. Many amusement parks that host Halloween or costume events do not allow masks for that very reason.
More opportunities for exploration open up for older teens and adults. One can dress sloppy or sexy, pad out their shoulders, or wear a girdle with a steampunk outfit to see what it’s like to have a tiny waist. Those who are exploring their gender identity can dress in a different manner. People can dress like someone with a different job.
If you’re intrigued with kaiju, you can either get an elaborate Godzilla costume—or write a story where a giant creature stomps on everything in sight.
Many things that scare us can be approached through costuming: death, or fears of the supernatural. Consider someone terrified by the slasher Michael Meyers in the movie Halloween. Dressing as the character allows us to control how the character acts, and to see how it feels to be—or be perceived as—the slasher. If it’s upsetting, we can simply take off the costume.
This brings us back to the idea of writing horror and the effect it has on us. It’s clear that writing in general allows us to explore new characters and situations and think about how to relate to them.
Writing horror, in particular, lets us shine a light on the thing that haunts us or goes bump in the night, the creature under the bed. We can immerse ourselves in whatever horror we are exploring without actually calling up the demon or making the sacrifice, without actually living in the haunted house, and without jumping down the Funhole in the janitor’s closet. But what do we imagine it feels like to do all those things?
By bringing it to life on the page and making an effective story from it, we learn what motivates it, how it acts and feels (just like the Dalmation), and what makes it tick—because we are creating it. It doesn’t have control over us; we are in charge, with our fingers on the keyboard. We tell it what to do.
Too scary? Back off the intensity a bit. Rescue a character. Or write a spectacular demise for the creature.
Like the person dressing as Michael Meyers, by writing our story and its ending we can overcome the monster and be the Final Girl of our own manuscript.
PS There is another significant similarity between costuming and writing horror: it is imperative to use discretion when addressing topics of mental health. See the Halloween Haunt post “Of Horror, Hope, and Halloween” by Dave Jeffery and Lee Murray at https://horror.org/halloween-haunts-of-horror-hope-and-halloween-by-dave-jeffery-and-lee-murray/
Bram Stoker Award® finalist Carol Gyzander writes & edits horror & sci-fi. She has short stories in numerous anthologies and a special fondness for all things tentacular. Her cryptid novella, Forget Me Not (April 2022) is set near Niagara Falls in 1969 and 1939.
She’s edited six science fiction and horror anthologies. Even in the Grave (July 2022) is a volume of ghost stories co-edited with James Chambers. Carol’s latest horror anthology is A Woman Unbecoming (August 2022), co-edited with Rachel A. Brune from Crone Girls Press, to benefit reproductive healthcare.
Carol is Co-Chair of the HWA NY Chapter and hosts Galactic Terrors, their monthly online reading series on the second Thursdays. She’s also a member of HNS, MWA, SFWA. Website: CarolGyzander.com Twitter and Instagram @CarolGyzander
Forget Me Not https://www.amazon.com/dp/1949691330/
Even in the Grave https://www.amazon.com/dp/1956463038/
A Woman Unbecoming https://www.amazon.com/dp/1952388120
Preview of A Woman Unbecoming https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0B7822JGM
A thwarted female defense attorney releases the baying of the hounds under a full moon, signaling the death of an era—and the birth of a new one under the Old Gods.
Most funerals are celebrations for the living—unless the guests decide to tempt fate and the guest of honor.
A bicycle ride becomes a contest of egos, but the male pursuers aren’t the only ones hungry for the race to end.
These women are going to cut the world and let it bleed.
Crone Girls Press presents A Woman Unbecoming, a charity anthology of horror and dark tales to benefit reproductive healthcare rights. Award-winning and up-and-coming authors share over two dozen stories and poems. If you like intense characters, powerful women, and twists you won’t see coming, then you’ll love this fierce anthology co-edited by Rachel A. Brune and Carol Gyzander.
Explore A Woman Unbecoming to revel in women’s rage, power, and agency—and support reproductive healthcare rights today.
Cover by Lynne Hansen and Introduction by Gwendolyn Kiste
Stories and Poems By:
Marc Abbott, Linda Addison, Alp Beck, Carina Bissett, Rachel Brune, Paige L. Christie, Ravyn Crescent, Elizabeth Davis, Angela Giddings, Nicole Givens Kurtz, Teel James Glenn, Carol Gyzander, CM Harris, Nicole Henning, Darin Kennedy, DeAnna Knippling, Tara Laskowski, Lee Murray, Bridgett Nelson, Jennifer Nestojko, Jessica Nettles, Christina Nordlander, Cindy O’Quinn & Patricia Gomes, Cristel Orrand, Jude Reid, Mike Robinson, Kathleen Scheiner, Jeff Strand, Anna Taborska, Steven Van Patten, Holly Lyn Walrath, Michael G. Williams, and Jeff Wood
By Carol Gyzander
The dented old Volvo wheezed up the circular driveway and stalled out in front of the pink gingerbread-encrusted Victorian mansion outside Newport, Rhode Island. Set back from the road, it was the only one in the neighborhood without Halloween jack-o-lanterns.
“We made it! Wow, it’s huge.” John leaned over his wife, April, to peer at the wraparound porch and the third-floor turret. Massive trees towered overhead, fallen leaves covered the lawn, and thick ivy partially obscured most windows. “Needs a bit of landscaping work, though.”
April sighed. “Great-Aunt Gertrude is a bit old to do gardening. She’s been doing everything else around here since her husband Henry’s heart attack decades ago.” She wrung her hands together. “I really hope it’s not an imposition for us to move here now that he’s passed away. She’s all the family I have left now. I mean, except for you.”
John leaned over and brushed one of the blonde curls off her face. “Darling, we’ve talked about this. You said she’s getting old, and we’re here to help her. The best thing she can do is transfer the house to us, and then she can stay here until she kicks the bucket. It’s the least we can do, right?”
“I haven’t seen her since my family moved to Manhattan when I was ten. I hope she doesn’t think we’re getting back in touch now just because we’ve lost the business.” She shrugged. “Her letter said the front door would be open.”
April slipped from the car and trotted up the front steps onto the porch.
John stepped out and stood with his arms crossed. After a moment, he cleared his throat. “April? Aren’t you forgetting something?” When she turned toward him with a frown, he said, “The bags?”
The young woman ran back down the steps. “Of course, I’m sorry.”
He pulled out their two ratty suitcases. Leaning over her, he hissed, “What have I told you about apologizing all the time?”
“Oh. I’m sorry.” She gulped. “I mean…I’ll try not to do that.” She lugged her suitcase toward the front steps.
He shook his head and followed her, easily carrying the other bag. He paused at the incongruity of the weathered black cat cutout tacked on the grand front door.
April knocked twice, then swung the door open. “Hello?”
He followed her inside and shook his head to dispel the feeling that the cat’s eyes followed him. They looked around the grand foyer, the lofty ceiling, and the walls lined with intricate mahogany paneling. His gaze traveled from the carved newel post of the grand staircase to the landing with its stained-glass window and then to the second floor.
“You know, they say that places aren’t as big as you remember, but this is huge!” She spun around in the vast space. “Great-Aunt Gertrude said she spends afternoons in the parlor. This way, to the left.”
The couple passed through the ornately carved archway. Gertrude sat on a tufted horsehair-stuffed sofa framed with glistening mahogany. Her spine was ramrod straight despite her frailness, and her gray hair was arranged in intricate curls.
“Auntie!” April ran to the older woman, gently embraced her around the shoulders, and kissed her cheek. “It’s so wonderful to see you! Thank you for letting us stay with you. This is my husband, John Wojcik. John, this is Great-Aunt Gertrude.”
The older woman sat erectly on the stuffed sofa, hands folded in her lap. Her blue eyes showed bright and piercing despite her wrinkled face, and she squinted for just a moment as she looked up and down at his rumpled clothes.
“How do you do, Aunt Gertrude?” He reached out a hand, and she delicately placed her palm in his, then withdrew it.
“As well as can be expected at my age, young man. Please, both of you have a seat.” She gestured at the pair of chairs facing the sofa, then turned toward April, who immediately perched on the chair’s edge. “I was sad to hear when you lost your parents last summer, dear. So close to my Henry’s passing. But I’m glad you’re here now because Halloween was his favorite holiday.”
She smiled for a moment. “I understand that you two got married right after you finished Vassar, April? You may recall I attended Smith College.”
“Yes, John and I met while I was in school. I hardly ever saw my parents because they were so busy these last ten years, but he’s really filled the gap.”
John sat on the arm of his wife’s chair. He slid his arm around April’s waist, pulling her over sideways and kissing the top of her head while he looked around the enormous room filled with antiques. “My debutante wife certainly helped me get some clients.”
The older woman raised her eyebrows. “Well, April dear, your mother was always…quite a strong-minded individual; may she rest in peace. May I pour you some tea? Or perhaps something stronger? Dinner will be ready soon. I have some stew on the stove and hope you can help me with it.”
“Now you’re talking. I could certainly stand with a drink.” John got up and moved around the room, looking at the ornately framed oil paintings and delicate bric-a-brac covered with dust.
“Of course. You’ve had a long journey. What will you have, John?”
“Oh, bourbon on the rocks would be terrific.” He watched the two women exchange glances. “Or…wine?”
Gertrude nodded and gestured to the tray on a side table bearing a bottle of wine and several glasses. April gathered herself to stand up.
John waved her off. “I’ve got it. You always mess up the cork.” He opened the bottle of wine and poured it, passing a glass to April without even asking if she wanted one.
“Here’s to…family.” He raised his glass to the two women. “I think we’re all going to get along fine.”
April smiled meekly and sipped her wine. They exchanged pleasantries until the older woman asked for April’s assistance to stand. She took them on a tour of the main floor of the house, walking slowly and leaning on April’s arm as they went across the foyer, through the large living room, then into the library—lined from floor to ceiling with massive bookshelves that were crammed full of leather-bound books.
“These were Henry’s pride and joy. He would work here many a night, pouring over the old books at the desk or sitting in his favorite chair here by the fireplace.” Gertrude gestured to an ample wing chair, covered in burgundy leather, with a side table and Tiffany lamp next to it. “If there’s anything in here that you’d like to read, please feel free. Just take care because many of these are old; some are first editions, including an early volume of Poe.”
John had been feeling himself shrink smaller and smaller as they toured the sprawling mansion. But at her words, he stepped into the middle of the room and threw his shoulders back as he turned around. “Now, this is the kind of room I could get used to.”
Gertrude fixed him with a steady gaze. “Yes, I can see that it appeals to you. Anyway, I believe that the stew must be ready. Can you help me, dear?” She turned and headed toward the door, drawing April with her.
John paused and trailed his fingers across a shelf of books with a smile before following them. “I could sell these for a fortune.”
Entering the dining room, he stopped short at the large family portraits lining the vast, high-ceilinged space. No matter where he moved in the room, they all seemed to be looking directly at him. An inlaid table with a dozen chairs dominated the room. The flickering flames in the elaborate fireplace gave a warm glow and softened the room’s formal appearance.
Three places were set at the table. The two women came in from what must be the kitchen area, April carrying a tray of dishes. Gertrude sank into her chair, and April served the stew, then helped her aunt slide the massive chair closer.
“April, sit on my left, and John, please take the seat here on my right. That way, you can see Henry while we eat.” Gertrude gestured at the life-size oil painting of a robust, red-bearded man that hung over the carved marble mantle. “He’s the one who built up our fortune, which has enabled us to keep this beautiful home that’s been in the family for generations. I miss him so much.”
John took his seat, glanced up at the painting, and froze. Gertrude’s husband was a powerfully strong man, sitting in that same burgundy leather chair that John already coveted, one hand resting on the large knob of his wooden walking stick. A giant, carved jack-o-lantern sat on the table beside him; candlelight made the eyes glow. The man’s expression was erudite, compelling, and slightly mocking as he looked down at the viewer. John felt himself shrink again under that steady gaze as if he were being judged and quickly looked away.
April beamed as she slid into the opposite chair. “Oh, Auntie! Isn’t this where you taught me to use the Ouija board? I remember these beautiful candlesticks.”
Gertrude nodded. “Yes, my dear, and I recall that you had a natural aptitude for it.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I wasn’t looking for compliments.”
Her aunt patted her hand. “You never need to apologize to me, my dear.”
April smiled and blushed.
As usual, John thought the opinions of others boring and found himself having to lead the conversation during dinner. He had to override April when she tried to sidetrack the conversation into discussing some obscure literature book he’d never heard of. By the time Gertrude asked her to bring in the dessert, he had shared that the two of them had lived in the city since their marriage, had no children, and that, while he had not attended college, John had established his own entertainment management business—which had recently fallen into bankruptcy. Of course, through no fault of his own.
Gertrude had precisely three bites of her dessert and then leaned back in her chair. “Well, with all that the two of you have been through, I must say I’m delighted that you took me up on the offer of moving here for help.”
April leaned forward and squeezed her hand. “Oh, of course, Auntie. And I must say that your offer came at a perfect time for us as well since—”
John cleared his throat and spoke loudly. “We’re happy to come and help you. And if you need any assistance with financial affairs, rest assured that I know all about business and will be happy to handle anything you need. Family is so very important. Isn’t that right, honey?”
His wife looked at her plate. “Yes, of course, John. Whatever you say.”
Gertrude raised her eyebrows but said nothing. After April cleared the table, the older woman leaned forward and invited them to head upstairs.
“I hope you won’t mind if I don’t take you to your room myself. Henry and I always limited ourselves to one trip up and down the stairs each day after his stroke; walking was so difficult, even using his cane. I usually spend my evenings in here to be close to him.” She looked up at the portrait. “We fell in love because we used to have the most stimulating intellectual discussions. He made me feel like a valued human being.”
Her lips trembling, Gertrude looked back at the couple. “Anyway, you two are lucky to have each other. The first door on the right, dear; the master bedroom is farther down on the left. I’ll be up later.”
The pair dragged their suitcases upstairs. April dashed around the spacious room, exclaiming over the carved walnut dresser and bed. She ran into the en suite bathroom and immediately laid all their personal items out on the marble vanity.
“Oh, John! It makes me feel so wonderful to be here. Like I’ve come home!”
John scowled. “Well, she can’t keep this place going forever. And I could indeed get used to using that library as my office once it’s ours.”
She ran to him and put her hands on his shoulders. “Don’t be grumpy. You’re right. I sense that Gertrude needs some stimulating conversation; she seemed to enjoy talking about books. It sounds like she still misses Henry.”
His frown eased as he grabbed her waist and pulled her to him, ignoring her startled cry. “Well, we’re just the ones to help her, then. I was always the best on my high school debate team.” He started to kiss her neck roughly. “Once she sees how much I can help her, I’m sure I can convince her to rewrite her will.”
When she started to protest his words, he smothered her with a kiss. “In the meantime, I know just how to make use of that giant bed.”
April pulled back and gave him a tiny smile, one hand on his chest. “I’m sorry, John. It’s been such a crazy day. Let’s just go to sleep.”
He stared at her with wide eyes, then opened his mouth to speak—but she touched her fingertips to his lips.
“Shhh! Let’s not make noise and bother Aunt Gertrude,” she whispered, then turned and slid into bed facing the edge.
* * *
John lay on his back in the middle of the four-poster bed, glaring up at the ceiling in the darkness. It was a comfortable bed, but he hadn’t been able to get to sleep. It wasn’t just the surprise of his wife turning down his advances. The old house creaked and made noises, and he was utterly unused to hearing nature outside, having lived in Brooklyn his entire life. As usual, April was sleeping on the very edge of the bed since he always needed a lot of room to be comfortable.
The wind blew, rattling the large-paned window and scraping the ivy across the glass. He twitched. He was just starting to relax when he heard a peculiar ticking sound that repeated every few seconds. Like someone was tapping on a table with their fingertips.
Once, and again. A pause. Once, then again.
He turned his head in the darkness, trying to determine the origin of the sound. It came from somewhere near the door, as best he could figure. It stopped, and his eyes closed as he finally started to drift into sleep. He was so tired.
Tap. Then again. Pause.
Tap, then again.
He sat upright in bed, reaching over to shake April by her shoulder.
“Wha—? What is it? You okay?” She rubbed her eyes.
“Can’t you hear that noise? The tapping!”
She paused, sitting halfway up in bed, and listened. “I don’t hear anything. Didn’t you take one of your anxiety pills? You want me to get you one?” She started to slide out of bed.
“No, no!” He waved his hand in her direction. “There’s nothing wrong with me. There’s something wrong with this house. I tell you there’s a tapping sound, and you think it’s me?”
She yawned. “I’m sorry. It’s just that you woke me and—”
“Oh, right. You’re sorry. Go back to sleep. You’re useless.”
She laid back down and closed her eyes, and with his heightened focus, he could tell when her breathing slipped into the regular, deep rhythm of sleep.
John didn’t sleep. He got out of bed and went to the door. Opening it, he ventured a few steps into the hallway’s darkness. The tapping sound approached him from the moonlight-filled window at the far end of the hall. A wave of frigid air enveloped his torso, and when he breathed in, his lungs felt pierced by chattering cold. The sound invaded his ears so that he could no longer tell if what he heard was the tapping or the hammering of his own heart.
The sound passed by him. He gasped, then scrambled back into the bedroom, shut the door, and lay on the bed until morning came.
* * *
At breakfast, he mentioned the tapping sound. Gertrude did not appear surprised—she explained that it was likely the sound of the deathwatch beetle that commonly infests old homes where it feeds on the ancient hardwood used in the beams. The male tapped, and the female answered in a mating ritual. She pointed out with a frown, however, that it usually mated in the late spring, not the fall.
John stared at her. “You mean it’s a real bug? I’ll have to research that later.”
Gertrude gave a gentle smile. “Yes, Henry and I have talked about this recently. Did you know that the tapping sound was likely the inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe? In ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’ the man clearly has a mental disorder and is hyper-focused on sound. He hears something like the deathwatch tapping and extrapolates it to be the old man’s beating heart. Interesting, because the idea of the beetle came from Thoreau.”
The couple looked at each other. John mouthed the word, “Recently?”
April frowned and shook her head slightly, then turned back to Gertrude. “I remember the deathwatch beetle, Auntie. I studied Thoreau at Vassar. In one of his essays, he challenged people to become in tune with nature by aligning themselves with the beetle’s tapping as it tries to attract a mate.”
Gertrude’s face lit up. “Yes, exactly! But it has a darker interpretation as well. It is frequently taken to mean that someone is going to die.” She looked directly at her grandniece. “Henry died here in the house, and I remember hearing that sound before his last stroke. I haven’t heard it since.”
John pushed his chair back and threw his napkin down on the table. “Well. Not the most appetizing conversation, ladies. I do believe I’ll do some research and then look around the house to see if I can find these pests. Clearly, you need my help because they must be eradicated. This house will lose value if the beams are weakened.” As he stormed out of the dining room, he heard the two relatives resume their conversation over the different approaches to life presented by Thoreau and Poe.
“Damn college women. Think they’re so smart.” Fists clenched, he charged into the library, crossed the thick Persian carpet, and dropped into the burgundy leather wing chair. It seemed to fit his body perfectly, and John’s shoulders started to relax. He pulled out his phone to search about the beetles, then put it away and found a book on the shelves about entomology instead.
* * *
John showed up filthy at dinner after climbing through the dirt-floored basement all day, checking massive support beams for signs of beetle infestation. He saw no indications of any bugs eating the old wood, even after heading up to the third floor to check the beams in the dusty attic. While he found no explanation for the tapping sound, he discovered many crates full of expensive items that he was sure he could sell.
The meal started well enough, but he found himself opening a second bottle of wine when he could barely manage to get a word in edgewise. The conversation left him fuming, mainly because it didn’t seem to take him into account at all. Gertrude droned on about all the family members whose portraits lined the room and what she remembered about them. April seemed to hang on her aunt’s every word, laughing gaily at the stories. By the end of the meal, he’d had enough and slammed his empty wineglass down on the table.
“Right, then. While you two have been gabbing all day, I’ve been working hard and checking out the house. No sign of those beetles that you mentioned.” He crossed his arms and stared at the two women.
“Thank you, John. I do appreciate the effort that you put in today.” Gertrude laced her fingers together in her lap. “I’m sure it must have been exhausting.”
“Well, yes, I have to say it was hard work. Plus, I’m tired after not sleeping last night.” He turned to April. “What do you say we make it an early evening, honey?”
“Oh, well, since it’s Halloween Eve, Auntie and I were going to try the Ouija—” She looked up at him and stopped short. “Of course, dear, you must be exhausted. Whatever you say. Will you excuse us, Auntie?”
“Of course, dear. We can continue…later.”
April fussed about when they reached their bedroom, laying her bathrobe on a side chair. Although he was losing his balance as they undressed, she insisted that he take one of his sleeping pills. “You deserve a good night’s rest now that you’ve worked so hard to show there aren’t any deathwatch beetles. I’m sure it was just the ivy tapping on the window last night.”
He swallowed the pill and climbed into bed, feeling exhaustion overtake him as the room spun. She lay down at his side, and soon he was sound asleep.
* * *
Something woke John in the middle of the night. Groggy, he reached out for his wife but found the bed empty. He rubbed his face with his hand, shaking his head to try and clear it. “April?” He checked the bathroom, then stumbled to the door when he realized her bathrobe was missing.
He paused as he heard faint noises. Tap, then again. Pause. Tap, then again. He shuddered and held his hands to his ears, then made himself open the door.
This time there was light in the hall, coming from downstairs. He fumbled his way down to the dining room, holding onto the wall to keep himself upright and feeling a slight chill on the back of his neck. The tapping sound followed him, growing louder as he stepped into the dining room and paused just inside the doorway.
He stared at the candlelit table. All the chairs were filled except the head chair. People in old-fashioned clothing chatted and laughed with each other, some playing cards, as their outlines occasionally wavered and flickered. His wife sat in her bathrobe next to Gertrude, and the two focused on the Ouija board that filled the table between them. The grandfather clock chimed midnight.
No one noticed him. He scanned the other occupants of the table, then looked back and forth from each person to their corresponding oil painting on the wall. “April? Who are all these people? I thought you said you didn’t have any family left except for Gertrude and me.”
The room went suddenly quiet. The others around the table fixed him with cold eyes.
April’s hands flew to her mouth. “I’m sorry, John. I asked to meet with Auntie after you were asleep. I just had to tell her about your plan to have her sign over the estate. I love you, but…it’s just not right. You can’t take over the house and do that to my family. And the rest of them agree.”
Gertrude’s stare pierced him. “I’ve always felt a connection with my grandniece. Seeing her again makes me realize that I was right to invite her to come to us. I’m getting old. She can stay for a long, long time, just the way the rest of the family has, as you can see.” She gestured around the table.
“On the other hand, we’ve consulted the entire family, and I’m afraid they don’t feel the same way about you.”
Tap, then again. Pause.
John felt cold on the back of his neck, and his heart lurched. He whirled around at the sound coming from the foyer behind him.
Tap, then again. Pause.
A muscular, red-bearded man walked slowly into the room, leaning on the orb of his cane.
Tap, step. Pause.
Tap, step. Pause.
Gertrude smiled. “John, meet my husband, Henry.”
The bearded man stopped in front of John, raised his cane, and brought it down in a hard and crushing tap across John’s head.
Tap, then again. Pause.