From Ghosts of the British Isle
In a rather dumpy section of ancient London, where tall monuments loom over narrow lanes and the sun is rarely beheld, there sits in the shadow of a defunct meatpacking plant Bartley Square, a row of tall, slender townhomes enshrouded in perpetual darkness. There are four separate domiciles in one, each adhering to the same rough diameter and layout: 5050, 5051, and 5052. The flanking two have no notable qualities, it’s the middle one that we are concerned with, for here is centered the most bizarre case of the supernatural that I, in my long and illustrious career, have ever encountered.
The homes at Bartley were originally one, built in 1790 by Lord Mulberry, an astute and God-fearing gentleman who had commanded a rather large force at Yorktown. Construction began in the sweltering summer, and ran through 1791, many of the labourers being African slaves secretly imported from a planter cousin of Lord Mulberry’s in Virginia. Several of them were said to have died and been entombed in the foundation for fear of detection, but these savory bits should be taken with more than a grain of salt, as stories of fallen workmen bricked up have been making the English rounds since the 1680s, when it was discovered that a foreman was sealed up in Jamaica Lane after an unfortunate accident. Today, there is no motivation to tear up Bartley Square and see, so a healthy dose of skepticism should be employed.
Either way, the home was finished in September of the aforementioned year, and Lord Mulberry moved in with his young daughter on the twenty-fifth. Little seems to have distinguished 50 Bartley, as it was then known, from its surroundings. At the time that part of the city was fashionable, and between 1788 and 1828 many opulent homes were risen. Lords and poets and wealthy landowners mingled in the sun washed thoroughfare, and life flowed languidly on as it does in such places. In 1801, the highly regarded Pastor Buckles took over the local church in Stoker Street, and for many years his weekly service was attended by masses of the regal and sophisticated. Lord Byron lived for a time not far from Bartley before leaving for the Continent, and his place was briefly taken by a group of bohemians who anonymously published Reflections in August, a compilation of poems still highly regarded in English and American academic circles.
Lord Mulberry grew old and died, as the natural course of time dictated, and the home passed to his daughter and her army captain husband, who had moved to the north. In May, 1819, they took possession of the house at Bartley, which had been kept for a year by a young Negro couple brought from Massachusetts in 1815 to look after the ailing Lord. The husband, who had frequent business in Manchester, was often gone for long periods of time, leaving his wife in the sole company of their maid, a warm Greek woman. He was home only several times during 1821, the last in March, when a mysterious fire broke out in the lower portion of the home.
The next morning, cresting dawn shewed the extent of the blaze, which had burned with freakish intensity most of the night; Bartley was a blackened shell of its former self, quite literally. The only survivor was the maid, who jumped from the attic window to the cold cobblestones below and broke her arm. She was understandably incoherent as she was led away by concerned neighbors, babbling on and on about black things that reached out from the flames.
For several long years, Bartley sat in decrepit abandonment. During this time odd noises, thumps and whispering voices, were reported by neighbors. One man, who had grown tired Bartley acting as an inn for the homeless (so he thought it was), rushed into the charred skeleton one midnight to confront whoever needed confronting, and found the place entirely deserted.
By the late 1830s, the region had begun to stagnate, and many of the wealthy residents left, leasing their homes out to the lower class sorts that poured in like ants to a fleshy carcass. In 1835, a shrewd investor named Roger Watson purchased the hallow framework of Bartley, and in 1838 finished massive renovations, dividing the gross area and opening it as three homes in one. While it wasn’t an architectural delight, the new Bartley Square was clean, moderately pleasing, and reasonably priced. In 1840, it was rented by an elderly widow named Freely from Newcastle who took up residence in December.
With her were two companions that she had neglected to mention, one a Persian cat, which I’m sure Wilson wouldn’t have objected to, and the other her adult son, Jonathan, who had been diagnosed as a teenager with insanity. He had been in several institutions over the years, but his mother found the conditions appalling, and decided to care for him herself. Locking him in the attic and feeding him through a hole in the heavy door seemed perfectly humane to her, and that’s what she had done at her previous lodgings.
She was cast out because of her son’s tendency to scream and beat his head against the walls at night. She fully didn’t expect to be long at Bartley Square before she was evicted again, and that appears to have been a reasonable assumption. But it so happened that Jonathan only had several nights to disturb the peace before he choked to death on a bit of gruel, alone in the attic.
As you might expect from a grieving mother, she quickly fled from painful memories of her son and, it has been rumored, a police investigation. Wilson, who had managed to keep the whole dreadful affair under wraps, almost immediately found a young, recently married couple to lease 5051. They left after a week, complaining of odd sounds coming from the attic. An old Frenchman then moved in, and left several months later, saying that on several occasions he had heard the most ghastly thumps, grunts and groans in the night.
The last to inhabit the house was a young third-class family who escaped in the night twenty-eight days after moving in. Enraged, Watson is said to have followed them to a relative’s home and dragged the tale from the reluctant father: Not only had inexplicable voices and footsteps been heard in the attic, but the daughter, seven or eight, had been choked awake by “a monster” one night in her upper bedroom. Their mad flight came only after a week of nightmares on the part of the children (who had taken to sleeping with their parents), and an assault on the father by something in that same upstairs room, which he had taken to prove to his children that no “ghosts lived there.”
Watson knew then that something was wrong with Bartley, and immediately, before talk could spread, sold the townhouse to an American investor. By this time, most of South London was abuzz with the “haunting,” and several passersby claimed to have seen a ghostly face peer from the attic window at night.
Soon, Bartley was entirely deserted, and the perplexed American hired an impoverished elderly couple to act as live-in caretakers. Within a week the old woman died in the upper bedroom whilst folding sheets. Her husband told an inquiry that he was at the breakfast table when he heard a short scream and a great thump. Upon entering the room, he found his beloved lying on the floor, her face bloodless and twisted in primal terror.
Deep in mourning and suddenly afraid, the old man appealed to his master to assign him to other duties, but was told to hold down Bartley or leave. The American did, however, send his young niece to keep the old man company and to supplement his meager janitorial powers.
She lasted not even a month. On a Tuesday, her fifth on the job, the old man was preparing dinner when a horrid wail issued from upstairs.
He found her huddled in a corner, her face white and her eyes staining grotesquely. She pointed to a spot next to the man and babbled hysterically about “it.”
With her insanity and eventual death, an ember flared, and suddenly the entire city was talking about the wretched place “down south.” One of those who happened to overhear such babble was Lord Westover, a notorious dandy and rake who, on a damp night in November, stopped into a pub not too far north of Bartley after inspecting an orphanage he regularly donated to. He was taking a drink when two men began loudly arguing at the end of the bar.
Lord Westover stepped between them, and laughed unabashedly when it was revealed that the two were arguing over whether the room down the road was haunted by a routine ghost or a demon.
“Poppycock!” Westover exclaimed, “nothing of that sort exists!”
But the two men united in the face of the unbeliever, one of them stepping so far as to question Lord Westover’s intelligence.
“Me a dullard?” The Lord cried, “show me this room then, and let me prove to you there are no ghosts!”
The two men led Westover to Bartley’s doorstep. The old caretaker was hysterical, and threatened to shoot Westover if he came near “that Devil room.” Somehow, though, he was mollified, and reluctantly allowed Westover to remain.
The two pub-rats bid their powerful friend a good-bye, assuring him they’d be back in the morning.
“Now!” Westover said boisterously after they left, “where it this room?”
The old man took him to it, and left only after giving a bemused Westover his pistol and making him promise that he’d ring the bedside call-bell “At the first sign of trouble.”
The old man left Westover to his devices, and settled down in his room with the Holy Bible, praying strenuously that the Lord protect and keep Westover.
But God seems to have taken offense to Lord Westover’s disbelief in Him, for not an hour later, as the poor old man battled for sleep, a bell began eerily echoing throughout the house.
As the old man struggled to his feet, the ominous tinkling was drowned by a thunderous report.
When he reached Westover’s room, the Lord was dead, one hand wrapped around the velvet pull-cord and the other the smoking pistol.
The old man fled into the night, and refused to ever return, telling a reporter that he’d “Rather die in a poorhouse than live in a spook house.”
The death of Lord Westover caused a sensation, and for the first time England in general became aware of the supposed malignancy at Bartley Square. The public, fascinated by phantastic accounts in the evening papers and by “true” tales in the penny dreadfuls, turned a collective eye to the shadowy patch of London horror, and Bartley became a sideshow attraction.
The American sold the house in 1848 to a noted spiritualist and alleged sadist named William J. Hanover, who lived there for three days before finally establishing a watch in the accursed room with several friends. One of them was found next morning wandering the streets gibbering, his eyes glassy and far away. A group of policemen grudgingly went to Bartley, and discovered a scene of appalling terror. Hanover sat in a darkened corner of the room, the top of his head dissolved and a pistol clutched loosely in his hand. His two remaining acquaintances were laid out on the wooden floor, one dead of fright and the other savaged as if by wild dogs.
Even the sturdiest of men in run-down industrial town taverns quaked at the mention of Bartley Square after the Hanover incident. The Hanover estate realized that selling it would be madness, so the “Spook House” sat empty, decaying and festering like an open sore on the face of lovely Britain.
By 1918, as the Great War came to an unsatisfying close, the building had deteriorated considerably, the windows cracking from frigid winters and holes widening in the sodden roof. A sign had been placed on the door of 5050 declaring the entire structure a hazard, and warning people away, though no one would dare enter it.
The final, and perhaps most grizzly, chapter in our saga was begun by two young, unnamed sailors on shore leave. They had just returned from the European meat-grinder, and had been making the rounds, visiting every pub and whorehouse from the East End to the West. In one tavern, they ran into an old enemy from France, and a fight broke out when they mocked his imaginary cowardice.
Upon being ejected into the street, the three continued their brawl. A bobby broke them up, and watched them part, the sailors to the south, the solider to the north.
It wasn’t long before our two subjects became drunkenly lost in the maze-like streets, and were forced to seek refuge in one of the many abandoned buildings along the walk. Taking no precaution, as drunkards often do, they threw open the first rusted gate they came to and strode boldly into the middle number of a row-house.
They settled down in the front parlour, but the pervading dampness quickly drove them up the narrow staircase. Taking to the first room on their left, each man fell quickly asleep, but were almost as swiftly started awake by a horrid mewling, as though from a cat in pain. Before either one could clear his mind, they heard the heart-freezing sound of heavy footsteps descending the stairs to the attic. The younger of the two, a mere lad of nineteen or twenty, jumped up and readied himself for escape. The other, however, sat paralyzed with fear.
The footfalls suddenly faded, and not a moment later, the threshold was filled with a hulking, translucent shadow that seemed to move in an aura of frigid air.
It then “seeped” into the room, flowing deliberately toward the senior. The junior was able to break the shackles of terror that bound him, and escaped into the street, unaware of what was being done to his wailing companion.
He was found several hours later hiding in an alleyway and trembling like a dog before the boot of a cruel master. He spilled his incoherent story to the officer who discovered him, but was mistaken for a madman and locked in the local stationhouse. Not an hour later, however, a frantic man burst through the door to report a ghastly scene outside Bartley Square. He led the officer to Bartley’s front gate, upon which was skewered a savaged human body that had fallen (or rather had been thrown) from a smashed upstairs window. Its stomach was laid open and its entrails dangled from the gaping hole, swinging in the early morning breeze.
In the years since, Bartley has been boarded up and abandoned. A sign hangs upon the door warning people away, and a bobby is compelled to pass the doorstep every hour. I haven’t had the chance to investigate the house for myself, but a colleague of mine has, and while he escaped with his sanity and his life, he reported being set upon by a ghostly force that attempted to strangle him. He was half-asleep at the time, so it’s possible that he was beset by a nightmare or some form of apnea, but, given the history of the house, this is unlikely.
What haunts Bartley, and where did it come from? Surely, if the testimony of the Greek maid is to be believed, then something odd had taken residence there as early as 1821. Some, however, discount her and blame the ghost of the mentally ill Jonathan. As I have not poked around for myself, I will reserve final judgment; I will say, however, that the nature of this “ghost” leads me to believe that it is something more, something infinitely worse...