The Casket House

Charlotte Ephram, the bereaved widow, moves with her young son into the mansion of an estranged uncle.

Only from the outside can one truly know what lies within; houses are no exception. Walls and roofs shelter inhabitants from horrors of the unknown and external, yet interiors exist innately in darkness, lit scarcely by unnatural means. True light must struggle to find the dusty panes and geometric openings through which it might enter and the hidden cracks through which it cannot. The irony of these aphorisms would acquire new meaning for Charlotte Ephram, the widow who one day moved with her son into the house at 49 Hallows Lane.

The red Victorian home stood at the end of a tree-lined street, as many cursed places do. Unlike some shunned abodes, it did not stand alone as it guarded the street’s south end by the sprawling Kaaterskill Forest. The lane was frequented by its share of carriages traveling through to Albany or New York City and by party-goers attending the many events hosted at the Wellington estate on the lane’s north end. 49 Hallows Lane was not dilapidated, nor abandoned, nor steeped in a history of occultism and death, but it did, undeniably and oppressively, exude a foreboding essence thanks in no small part to its owner—Winston Burrows.

Mister Burrows was an imposing figure, despite his stout stature and thin wisps of gray hair. As legend goes, he built the house—or, more accurately, hired a throng of workers to build it for him—decades prior at the age of thirty-three, after establishing a name for himself as an attorney of high caliber and auspicious results. The means by which he won his cases, however pernicious or immoral, did not concern him. What mattered far more, at the detriment of any semblance of family or societal life, was the wealth he so dubiously acquired. As the years wore on and his misanthropic tendencies took greater precedence, Winston Burrows retired from his corrupt firm and spent his days isolated in that Victorian mansion. As such, the house was known as the residence of an elderly curmudgeon, who was seen or heard only when children wandered too close to the property for his liking. More recent rumors of the uncanny—of low-pitched voices heard at night, dark figures seen in the attic window, and nails heard scratching at the walls—did not begin until Charlotte Ephram’s arrival.

Charlotte’s husband, Edward Ephram Sr., died three months prior to her departure for Hallows Lane. Edward Sr. had worked as a bookbinder for most of his life. But just as production began its precipitous descent, Charlotte became pregnant with Edward Jr., forcing her to quit her duties as a housemaid. The senior Edward temporarily maintained their status by accepting odd jobs and binding the meager supply of books. But when the financial struggles became insurmountable, he resorted to petty thievery.

Perambulating through the most populated streets of Albany, he would brush against passersby and extract their billfold. In more blatant attempts, he would feign a spell of dizziness and drop his papers about, using the opportunity to snatch loose change from a samaritan’s pocket. It was during one of these more conspicuous efforts that Edward Sr.’s reach fatally exceeded his grasp.

While purloining a hefty handful of quarters from one Uriah Fenton, Edward dropped three coins on the concrete. He sprinted down the walk, hoping the minor crime would not incite the victim to give chase. His wish was granted.

Uriah instead drew his pistol and fired two shots. Although the first bullet struck Edward’s leg, the second bullet struck his heart.

Charlotte and the six-year-old Edward Jr. were left destitute, not only of financial means but societal interaction, for the community viewed the Ephram clan as nothing but common delinquents, despite Charlotte’s adamance that she had no knowledge of her husband’s crimes.

True as Charlotte’s ignorance was, it is universally onerous for others to understand the towering fortress of denials that family members can construct for the sake of peace and contentment, however delicate it may verily be.

Having nowhere else to turn, Charlotte expanded her search for aid and recalled the exiled uncle on her mother’s side. She wrote him a desperate letter confessing spurious regret at not remaining in touch after her mother had mysteriously shunned him when Charlotte was just a child of four. She pleaded for any degree of charity he might be willing to offer, knowing both of his wealth and his lack of scruples, but caring not out of newfound despair.

Weeks passed without a word from her uncle, and Charlotte grew certain that her letter would go unanswered. Then, one frigid morning, as she hugged her inconsolable son and eviction neared, she heard a knock at the door. Upon opening it, she saw a pristine stranger in a three-piece suit. A horse and ornate black carriage waited on the street behind him. After exchanging confused pleasantries, the man handed over a handwritten letter that Charlotte read in haste:

Dearest Lottie,

Nearly thirty years have passed since we last saw each other, but I still remember you fondly. The image of you scurrying about your mother’s cottage, your ebony hair chasing you like a silhouette, that Frozen Charlotte always clutched in your arms, still plays in my mind’s eye. Your innocent effervescence remains an infectious reminder of one’s potential for joy, even now for a man of my advanced age and disenchantment.

My sincerest condolences to you and your boy. I pray you haven’t lost your sanguine sense during this tragic predicament. If that may be the case, it would be my honor to return a sliver of optimism to you now—please accept this letter as an indefinite invitation to my home. You and your son are welcome to stay with me for as long as you need. However much time, distance, and surnames have separated us, you are still family.

Uncle Winsome

Charlotte experienced a mixture of elation and confusion upon finishing the letter. She swept up Edward Jr. in her arms, packed their few things, and thanked the driver as he escorted them into the carriage that protected them from the approaching winter’s chill. As they traveled the pitted roads to Winston’s house, however, certain curiosities of the epistle perturbed her. She could recall no memories of owning a Frozen Charlotte, but considering her uncle’s mention of it, the popular porcelain doll must have held some great importance to her in those days. Furthermore, no one had called her “Lottie” in decades, and Charlotte had grown to loathe the nickname. Perhaps most interesting of all was the reference to her mother’s “cottage.” That alleged “cottage” was, in fact, a mansion. If the letter presented a true indication of her uncle’s spatial perception, she reckoned his estate must be incomprehensibly immense.

The Ephrams arrived at 49 Hallows Lane after nightfall, and the towering house welcomed them like a warm embrace. Its red exterior unfurled across the wooded acres, its black-shingled roof rose in pointed peaks. To the far right, a turret pierced through a third floor, its windows radiating an ethereal lantern light, giving the home the appearance of a grand brick-and-mortar lighthouse.

Uncle Winston greeted his forlorn relatives with his own warm, albeit bony, embrace.

“Lottie!” he shouted when weakly hugging his niece. “It’s been far too long.”

“Indeed. No one’s called me ‘Lottie’ in ages.”

Winston looked her up and down and nodded his understanding. “‘Charlotte’ it is. Just like your doll,” he concluded with a wink.

Winston’s repeated mention of that frozen doll caused a brief reverie in Charlotte’s mind. She could not recall when or where she had last seen the doll, but she knew of its history. Her childhood acquaintances had all owned Frozen Charlottes—those pure white, porcelain treasures. Everyone knew the rumor of “Fair Charlotte,” the woman who traveled to a New Year’s Eve ball with her fiancee, Charles. Both Fair Charlotte’s mother and her fiancee pleaded that she bundle up for the fifteen-mile carriage ride to the ball, but Fair Charlotte refused her mother’s blanket and her fiancee’s pleas. Despite the blistering cold, Charlotte insisted that she display her magnificent gown for all to see. By the time they arrived at the ball, Fair Charlotte had frozen to death.

The story had inspired a poem, which had inspired a ballad—or was it the other way around? Charlotte could not be certain, but whichever came first, the story, the song, or the doll, their histories were forever intertwined and ingrained in the minds of children.

“You’re my uncle?” young Edward asked aloud, snapping Charlotte from her thoughts.

Winston returned the question with a warm smile. “Grand-uncle, in fact.”

“Why have you never come to visit?”

“Edward!” Charlotte yelled, stunned by her son’s impudence.

“It’s quite alright,” Winston assured Charlotte. Then he returned his attention to Edward, tousling the young boy’s auburn hair. “I’m sorry for my absence, truly. Your grandmother and I…didn’t always get along.” Winston cast a mournful glance at Charlotte before continuing.

“Why not?” Edward asked.

“That’s all in the past, young man.” Winston swung around to face the home’s interior. “The present, that’s all you should concern yourself with now.”

Winston shambled about, assisted by a brass cane, parading through the house with much pride. Despite the detailed extravagance of the columns and moldings that framed most of the rooms, they were sparsely furnished. The guest bedrooms were the clear exception, each proudly sporting new coil-spring mattresses, white cotton linens, and lavish drapes to block out the harsh morning sun. Charlotte and “Eddy,” as Winston was instantly wont to call him, expressed endless gratitude.

Per Winston’s instructions, Charlotte took the spare bedroom on the second floor, while Edward was given the third-floor turret room as his own. A spiral staircase wound up to the top-floor chamber, lending it an enticing air of coziness and adventure. The conical room provided a near panoramic view of the wooded lands below. As Winston opined, “It’ll make Eddy feel like a king in his castle.”

And, for the first month, that remained true. Restful and dreamless nights enveloped the young Ephram.

For Charlotte, however, even during that initial period of her son’s naive bliss, the nights were not so kind.

The dreams came first, absent of any lucid meaning, but their visual and aural vividness were unmistakably clear. Charlotte would see the bedroom door, which she shut each night, creaking open to an infinite abyss of blackness. Sometimes, the blackness would seep into the room like a mass of viscid feelers, inching closer and closer. Other times, as the dream door slowly creaked open, Charlotte would glimpse the fingers of a white hand pushing the door inward, but as the opening widened, the portal still revealed nothing except that all-encompassing dark.

Oddly, the dream door did not always resemble the real mahogany one that stared back at her each night; sometimes, it was much smaller, white and unrecognizable, and marred by scratches. In these visions, the white door scared her far more than did that endless abyss, but she couldn’t say why. The abyss was unknowable and terrifying in its own right, but that dreadful white door had some horrific significance she couldn’t place—and wouldn’t dare try. It chilled her more than the November wind, scratching at her bedroom window, ever could.

Fortunately, the days were much less troubling than the nights. An army of household laborers attended to Charlotte and Edward’s every need: washing their clothes, cooking their meals, and even tutoring Edward on reading, writing, and arithmetic in Winston’s den at the base of the turret. Winston had insisted that the educators tutor “Eddy” (and insisted they refer to him by that name) in the den instead of in the boy’s room. Their new landlord reasoned studies should be kept as separate as possible from the domains of play and relaxation.

Charlotte assumed that the immense household staff was a typical convenience of Winston’s, yet when she introduced herself to the snobbish Daugertons, the neighbors to the immediate north, the couple asserted the contrary. They had never known Mr. Burrows to employ a staff of such magnitude in the past decade. As far as they knew, he attended to the house’s upkeep by himself, although they could not ascertain how a man of his age and fragility managed it.

Regarding Winston himself, it was apparent that the Daugertons did not think highly of him. He spurred all invitations to the neighbors’ gatherings and frightened any children that came near. Rumor had it that he’d even once brandished a pistol to chase two boys from his property. These accusations clashed with the gracious actions of the generous uncle Charlotte had come to know. If anything, his recent hiring of the staff members implied he’d made such arrangements purely out of generosity, to look after Charlotte and her son.

Charlotte tactfully questioned Winston as to his reputation around the neighborhood. He provided few details but merely cited his great desire for privacy regarding how he chose to spend his time and money. He found his neighbors indubitably untrustworthy and believed that if he did not dismiss them first, they would spurn him to an even greater degree. He further confided that many of them would be surprised by his secret penchant for charitable giving. He viewed himself as a J.D. Rockefeller of sorts—although a far less ostentatious breed—and ardently supported the man. Winston informed her that, in his last will and testament, all his money would be donated to the newly founded Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City.

The contradictory gap between the public perception of Winston and her own had infinitely widened, but Charlotte found herself firmly on the side of her wretchedly lonesome and misunderstood uncle. Awestruck by his altruism and unaccustomed to the luxuries that the household staff afforded to her, she decided to apply for work at the clothing factory in town, hoping to give back in some way to Winston and regain a degree of independence.

Her uncle fought her decision and asked her to reconsider, but Charlotte insisted. She would take the evening shift, she said, giving Winston time to become better acquainted with his grand-nephew after the tutors departed each afternoon. Eventually, he acquiesced.

Charlotte found the work both tedious and grueling. Required to meticulously stitch clothes and scrub the filthy factory floors, she often returned home exhausted. Charlotte assumed she might fall into a deep slumber by the time the carriage dropped her off at midnight, but the nightmares persisted.

One night, after a particularly arduous evening, Charlotte woke up screaming with no recollection of the nightmare that haunted her so. It was not her shriek, nor the furtive evanescence of the dream that frightened her; when she stopped howling, she swore she heard another scream from the attic.

Had the cry been an echo of her own, reverberating off the vaulted ceiling? Was it a trailing remnant of whatever hellish dream she had escaped, chasing her into reality? In Charlotte’s startled, half-woken state, she couldn’t distinguish fantasy from fact.

For the sake of her son, she braved the black hallway.

She climbed that sturdy spiral staircase and peered into Edward’s chamber. An indiscernible quality of wrongness pervaded the turret room, as if something had been moved to a subtly different location for some undefinable purpose, as if something horrible had occurred or soon would.

A figure lay on the bed, breathing audibly. With the curtains drawn and the moonlight dim, Charlotte could not see Edward’s face. She crept closer until she could see Edward’s closed eyes and the auburn hair swept across his forehead. She considered waking him but knowing how she herself so desperately wanted a sound sleep, Charlotte thought it prudent to let the boy rest.

She ignored the sensation of a third presence in the room.

Still not content to dismiss the second scream as aural illusion, Charlotte procured a lantern from Winston’s den, lit the wick after much difficulty, and ascended to the attic. Pulling at the trap door in the hall outside her bedroom, she then climbed the creaking ladder and swept the lantern over the attic’s icy interior. Wood beams crisscrossed overhead, and wooden crates littered the unsteady floor. Her fear of what might lay beyond the light’s reach overcame her, and she did not venture far into the loft. She could at least attest that she’d seen no ghoulish souls and heard no troubled yells from the attic’s dark belly.

Charlotte heard a scampering of footsteps in the hallway, just beneath her feet.

She swiveled to illuminate the source of the sound, but the fickle flame extinguished, plunging her into the black abyss from her nightmares. Overcome with fear, Charlotte stumbled down the attic steps and slipped, landing painfully on her back.

The noise woke Uncle Winston, who hobbled out of his bedroom at the far end of the hall. “Charlotte? Is that you?” He squinted into the dark. “What are you doing on the floor?”

“The footsteps!” she yelled back, awkwardly rising to her own feet. “Did you hear the footsteps? Or the scream?”

Winston shook his head. “The only steps and screams I hear are yours, dear.”

Charlotte made no mention of the nightly terrors around her son, who’d expressed a recent effulgence he hadn’t shown since his father’s death. But one morning, while dining at the breakfast nook, she referenced her nightmares to Winston, those dreaded dreams of the white door. Were they a sign of some horror to come?

“Nonsense!” he declared, rejecting her worries as puerile delusion. “You’ve been through too much, Charlotte. It’s the relocation that’s to blame, the sudden move from Albany.” Winston nodded, agreeing to his own assessment. He spoke the rest through chomps of his molasses-soaked pancakes. “Change is an uneasy beast. There’s no knowing the lengths to which the mind will go to express its fears. Give it time, dear. Eventually, the estate will feel as familiar as family. And once that happens, those pesky terrors will recede.”

Winston’s kind assurances failed to abate Charlotte’s phobias, for the night horrors she experienced only escalated. She began to wonder if the house had overheard their conversation, as if by mentioning the house’s potential for malice, she had angered it.

Edward first spoke of the ghost on St. Nicholas Day. It came at night, he said. He could hear it climbing the spiral steps to his bedroom. He saw it every night since Charlotte first disclosed her nightmares to Winston—and each night, it came closer. Edward’s descriptions of the nebulous figure varied. One morning, he referred to it as “The Shadow Man.” On other occasions, because Charlotte insisted he vocalize his fears, he described it as “The Three-Legged Spider.” This last iteration, Charlotte supposed, could be easily vanquished as childhood fancy. “Why fear a spider with three legs?” she asked him. “A spider missing more than half its limbs is injured and weak. How can one be so afraid of it?”

“But Mother,” Edward said solemnly, “the spider still has more legs than us.”

These visions, Charlotte feared, were more than mere manifestations of change. She wondered if perhaps her uncle’s certainties held an element of truth. The alienness of living in new surroundings would unsettle anyone, and they had yet to truly settle themselves. She and Edward still felt more like guests than residents. If she could familiarize herself and her son with the house, examine its nooks and crannies, become intimately acquainted with the dwelling, maybe it would feel like a home—their home.

In the early morning, with her son at her side, Charlotte wandered the estate. Over a week’s time, she counted the windows. She timed how long it took for the bathwater to warm. She explored the dank cellar, established which floorboards creaked, and even returned to the attic on her own.

In this final location, she discovered the coffin.

She found it buried among a pile of household knickknacks and toys in the crate farthest from the attic stairs. The casket measured a foot or so in length and only about four inches wide. The wood was painted a thick, charcoal black and a small clasp was fastened to the side. Charlotte released the lock and raised the lid. Inside, she found the Frozen Charlotte.

It had been so long since she’d seen it last, but she knew, instinctively, that this was the very doll of her childhood. As Charlotte Ephram caressed the red lips and black-painted hair of the Frozen Charlotte, she sang two stanzas of the ballad she thought she had forgotten long ago:

They reach the door, and Charles jumps out,
And holds his head to her—
Why sits she like a monument,
That hath no power to stir?

He call’d her once—he call’d her twice—
She answer’d not a word;
He ask’d her for her hand again,
But still she never stirr’d—

Light-headed and inexplicably nauseous, Charlotte fled from the attic.

Once again, Charlotte’s household explorations made matters worse. The dream door haunted her still, those white fingers forever curling around its edge. Now even when fully awake, Charlotte would see and hear the unexplainable. Before forcing herself to doze, she heard scratching all around her, as if hundreds of rats were clawing at the walls, although she found no evidence of infestation.

One night, as she rode up to the house after a day’s work, she noticed the attic window was lit from within. She saw a dark shadow run in front of the mysterious glow, and though she glimpsed no face, she was certain someone was in that obscene loft. Charlotte asked the carriage driver if he had seen The Shadow Man, a phrase that shuddered as it escaped her lips.

The driver confirmed that he, too, had seen the figure, but when Charlotte entered 49 Hallows Lane, she found both Winston and Edward fast asleep. Rather than validation, the driver’s corroboration only instilled in Charlotte a greater fear, for she could not dismiss it as hallucinatory.

The next day, as a thick snowfall fell from the sky, the posh Daugertons flagged down Charlotte’s carriage as she rode to the factory. They warned that she should take her son and leave 49 Hallows Lane at once. The Ephrams did not belong there, the couple said, and they feared for her and Edward. Charlotte interpreted their counsel as a veiled attempt to banish the peasant girl and her son back to the dregs of society, but before her carriage left them out of earshot, the Daugertons clamored to tell her about the phenomena they witnessed.

From their porch, they said they could hear a rumbling, daemonic voice emanating from the house. It sounded as if it were reprimanding someone, or something. Other times, if the Daugertons ventured closer to the abode, they would see ghastly silhouettes dancing across the draped windows, sometimes in the turret room—and more recently—in the den. The disturbances were always much worse, they said, when Charlotte was away at work.

Charlotte spent her laboring hours vexed and afraid. She sewed and scrubbed as much as she could, but she was notably unfocused, particularly when nearing the nine o’clock hour while she was stitching buttons to a beautiful blue trimmed gown with silken frills. Attributing her lack of concentration to hysteria, the factory foreman sent Charlotte home early, and docked half her pay.

Rather than call for another coach, Charlotte trudged two miles through the snow to Hallows Lane. If the ghosts did indeed frolic at night when Charlotte was away, then perhaps by returning early without a horse’s trot to advertise her arrival, she might witness the very same phenomena the Daugertons had described.

Charlotte crept up to the house. The mansion was nearly black in the twilight, despite the whiteness of its snow-blanketed surroundings. Lantern light emanated across the frozen ground from only one room: Winston’s den. Charlotte continued her trek, inching closer and closer to the house until she stood a hand’s breadth from the glass, her view obscured by white curtains. Through a sliver between the dense fabric panels, she found herself looking right into the black abyss.

She could also see Edward, lying on the den’s sofa, and the giant Three-Legged Spider crawling on her son.

Charlotte waited until the lantern light extinguished, until all daemonic sounds vanished from the house, then she entered and went straight to bed. She did not think of anything but sleep, certainly not the trail of white footprints that stopped just beneath the den’s window. In her visions that night, as the dream door swung open to reveal The Shadow Man, she remembered how she knew the dreaded white door.

Two days later, on Christmas morning, Uncle Winston gifted Eddy with a porcelain doll—a Frozen Charlie. Like Charlotte’s Frozen Charlotte, it rested in a black casket. Eddy graciously thanked his great uncle for the gift.

Another two days passed, and the uncommonly mute Charlotte returned to work, but she was not greeted kindly. The foreman accused Charlotte of stealing the gown she’d been working on before her tumultuous exit days prior. She swore she hadn’t, for she had left the factory on foot, but her cries fell on deaf ears. Rumors about her husband’s pilfering in Albany had somehow spread here, and she couldn’t escape them. Jobless and despondent, Charlotte left the factory.

Her dejection pervaded the house, much to Uncle Winston’s dismay. In an attempt to maintain the festive joviality of the season, Winston decided they should throw a New Year’s Eve ball, perhaps even invite the staff to stay and celebrate.

And so, a string quartet was hired, and the house was decorated with tinsel and a degree of opulence that once again astounded Charlotte and her son. Winston gave his grand-nephew an adorable tuxedo to wear for the occasion, and on the day of the intimate ball, he told Charlotte that a surprise of her own would be waiting in her bedroom.

Inside the French oak armoire, Charlotte found the most beautiful gown she had ever seen. She admired its beautiful blue trim and silken frills. When she entered the parlor dressed in the resplendent gown, the household staff all showered Charlotte in compliments about her radiant beauty.

They averred how Uncle Winston loved his family so, and each member of the household, family and staff alike, danced through the night until the clock struck twelve—even Winston who swayed about with the help of his cane. After another hour’s time, the revelers departed, leaving the family all alone.

Charlotte carried Edward up the spiral staircase, but in spite of his exhaustion, his furtive pleas persisted in the privacy of the turret room.

“Help me, Mother,” he begged. “The spider won’t stop crawling. Please make it stop.”

Charlotte told him that she could not, for the spider was not real.

The house was not haunted; the ghosts were not present. It was all a trick of the brain, for there was no knowing the lengths to which the mind would go to express its fears.

“You have to trick it right back, darling,” she said as she stroked his hair. “To beat an illusion, you must build an illusion—a fortress of the mind. In there, you can feel safe. In there, no monsters can ever find you.”

After Charlotte tucked him into bed, thinking of the new year ahead, she retired for her own chambers, passing Uncle Winston in the hall. Her uncle placed the hook of his cane on the second-floor handrail. Without a hint of strain, he climbed up the spiral staircase to the sleeping boy.

Then Charlotte closed her door.

Charlotte and her son still slumber on their plush cushions now—the boy dreading the crawl of the spider, and the mother dreaming of that white door to her childhood bedroom—both forever silent.

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These 23 works of dark speculative fiction demand readers consider the following:

Who do we become when we only have ourselves for company? What remains when we've sacrificed too much? Where do the babies really come from?


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Read a story out loud, upgrade your legs, and glow. Break quarantine for a quick smoke with your friends, learn where the babies come from, start a gratitude journal during an apocalypse, and obtain more followers, no matter the cost.

Meet Mona Luna, rob a bank, get the best spot on the ledge, sew a suit fit for a king, laugh until you choke, and scream until your throat bleeds.

Whatever you do, don’t look back, and never tell the beautiful bartender to smile.

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