Thursday, 2 December 2010
THE HAUNTED HOUSE by Harris Tobias
The Haunted House
The idea came to mayor Schienbaum like the proverbial bolt from the blue. “A haunted house,” he said out loud. “A really top notch haunted house, one that will be the envy of the tri-county area. A house so filled with Halloween special effects that people, even grown ups, will pay good money to see it.” It seemed the perfect solution to the town’s current budget woes.
“It will draw folks from all over the tri-county area and put North Croyden on the map.” The mayor looked around the council chamber. He could count on their support. He knew them well and they knew him. They all had their hands in the same cookie jar. “We could raise a ton of money,” he said, then added hurriedly, “for all kinds of good causes—Little League, the library." Here he practically winked at his council cohorts. "Maybe we could divert a portion to the new town hall.” The new town hall was, at that moment, little more than a hole in the ground. When finished, it would sparkle like the Taj Majal.
The mayor turned to Beatrice Abastic, the town’s librarian. She was a rail thin woman with a bookish manner, librarian hair and tiny bird like hands. Her thick glasses magnified her piercing gaze. A humorless spinster, she turned a blind eye to the corruption around her. Just as long as the council kept its greedy paws off her library. She ruled that little brick building on Market Street like the dowager queen and had for as long as anyone could remember. She was quiet, smart and unassuming when left alone but calculating and mean when angry. And she was angry now. She knew the council. She considered them greedy children.
When her budget got cut, she became the council’s nemesis. She rejected their foolish ideas like building a new town hall, something she referred to as the mausoleum; She kept their decisions from being unanimous which irked Mayor Schienbaum no end. She was in short a pain in their collective rear ends.
Bea Abastic didn’t like the haunted house idea from the get go. “We’re broke, remember,” she reminded them loudly. “You cut my after school reading program because the town couldn’t afford it. But somehow it could afford to build the mausoleum as a shrine to our mayor. Now you want to spend money we don’t have on a stupid haunted house? Well, I object.”
“Duly noted,” said Elsa Brighton, the council’s big boned secretary.
“Oh come on, Bea. Give it a rest,” groaned the mayor. “This isn’t the god damn United Nations. Your vote doesn’t count and your objections are tiresome in the extreme.”
“Give the library back its usual budget and I’ll keep quiet.”
“The haunted house hopefully will generate so much money we’ll build you a whole new library.” Bea waved the mayor away. What was the use of arguing? They would only ignore her.
Elsa Brighton, called for a vote on the haunted house proposal. One by one the hands went up. The Haunted House Project passed five to one. Bea Abastic sat there with her arms crossed silent, steaming, protesting as hard as she could. It was resolved that the town would consider investing resources in the creation of a haunted house.
“Scaring folks is no way to raise money,” she protested. “Why is there money for this foolishness and not enough for the library?”
Bea expected to be ignored and she wasn’t disappointed. What she was going to propose had zero chance of even being discussed let alone passed. She was going to call for an audit of the town’s finances. She wanted to know where all the money went. Those fat cats on the council, that’s where.
No one paid her any mind; Schienbaum actually yawned. The council appointed a committee to find a suitable house and another to negotiate a loan. Then Elsa Brighton slammed her gavel and the meeting was adjourned.
She accosted Schienbaum as he was leaving. “How much money are you going to borrow?” she asked.
“Why as much as we can, darlin’.” He put his arm around her oozing the charm that won him three consecutive terms, “As much as we can.”
“But what if it rains? What if we can’t pay it back?”
“C’mon Bea,” the Mayor’s dentures flashed skeletal in the moonlight, “have a little faith. We’re gonna make loads of money.”
There was really only one house suitably spooky enough in North Croyden. That was the old Earl house. It sat on a hill not too far from Main Street. It sat empty and boarded up for almost sixty years. It might have made a good home for a large family or a cozy bed and breakfast if it wasn’t for its reputation. None of the local people would go near it ever since Danny Earl went berserk and hacked his family to bits sometime during the Korean War.
The house itself was perfect for the role of Haunted House. A decaying old Victorian pile with a wrap around porch and a bat filled tower. It had been boarded up for so long, even the interior was made to order for the part—blood spattered wallpaper and rats in the walls. Elsa Brighton and Dana Prince walked around and declared it perfect.
The dim light that managed to filter through the plywood covered windows made the old place look menacing even at mid-day. Elsa’s size made the floorboards creak and groan. The two committee women beat it out of there as fast as they could.
Mayor Schienbaum twiddled his thumbs as Dexter Pinkwater shuffled through his papers on his big desk. The North Croyden Bank and Trust had been in the Pinkwater family for three generations and considered itself one of the town’s most important institutions.
“We’ll have to get the house appraised and inspected,” Pinkwater said assuming an air of due diligence, “but I don’t foresee any problems giving you a loan.”
The mayor flashed his mirthless grin. Of course he’d get the loan. With what he had on Pinkwater in his safe in the town hall would ruin the man forever. “I’ll need a hundred thousand dollars to start and another hundred in a few weeks. I need to hire carpenters and set designers, then there’s publicity. Oh this is going to be big, Dex, really big. I anticipate ten thousand people paying ten bucks apiece. What is that a million bucks?”
Pinkwater smiled inwardly at the mayor’s poor math skills. He didn’t care whether the money went to the mayor’s stupid scheme or directly as blackmail. He knew he’d never see it again.
In the day and weeks that followed, the Earl house was slowly transformed from a real life house of horrors to a Hollywood version of one. Schienbaum and the rest of the council were happy. There was plenty of cash to skim. The mayor quickly set up several bogus companies to do the construction and padded all the bills. He signed off on all the inspections—electrical, structural, fire— without actually performing any of them. While it lasted, the project was a big cash cow for the council. Envelopes of cash fattened their pockets.
A small army of craftsmen labored on the old house for weeks installing elaborate lighting, sound effects and machinery. When the council came for their private inspection two weeks before Halloween, they were as excited as teenagers. It was in the words of Elsa Brighton, “over the top spectacular.” And it was too. In spite of cutting every corner and stealing half the money, the end result was pretty damn impressive.
Ghouls, goblins, witches and assorted animatronic monsters popped out of every closet; vampires slept under beds and zombies walked the halls all to an overly loud soundtrack of screams, roars, evil laughter and creaking doors. The lighting too was spectacular, black lights and strobes added to the effects.
The council gathered in the big front parlor where the wallpaper dripped fake blood and toasted their success. “To the best haunted house in Ohio,” said an ecstatic mayor raising his glass.
The council, with the exception of Bea Abastic, joined him in a self-congratulatory toast. Bea thought the whole thing was a waste of money and generally in poor taste. But that was just Bea. No one paid her any mind. The party went perfectly until the overloaded electrical system blew its main breaker and left the celebrants in the dark. Under Schienbaum’s orders the offending breaker was propped open with a paper clip and the celebrations resumed.
On the publicity front, things were going swimmingly. The house was getting mentioned everywhere. It got a feature spot on the local news and a two-page spread in the local paper. Papers as far away as Cleveland were talking up the North Croyden spectacular. Schienbaum was very excited. A full twelve hours before the opening costumed families began lining up at the ticket booth. Ice cream and food vendors arrived and the whole scene in the parking lot took on the look of a carnival.
By that evening, the line stretched for a quarter of a mile. The original plan was to let people tour the house in small batches of fifty or so. The council had arranged for a shuttle service to take people from the ticket booth up the long driveway to the house. When Schienbaum saw the long line, he told the ticket sellers to, ”Let everyone through. If they want to walk up, let ‘em.”
Within minutes several hundred people were hustling up the hill, racing to be the first to experience the haunted house. Concealed lights cast ominous shadows on the walls and speakers, hidden in the shrubbery piped out eerie sounds. The people of North Croyden were in a festive mood as the early birds raced to be first through the door. The volunteers manning the four ticket booths were selling tickets as fast as they could. Every few minutes a council member relieved them of their excess cash.
As the first customers approached the front porch, they were met by the ebullient mayor dressed as a short, round Count Dracula. When he judged the crowd large enough he called for silence and attempted to deliver a short welcoming speech. The good citizens of North Croyden were in no mood for politicking. They pushed their way onto the porch sweeping the mayor aside as an army of town’s folk surged inside.
Things started to go wrong almost immediately. Thelma Harlowe, a sixty-year-old woman dressed as the Wicked Witch of the North, stumbled and was trampled by the crowd. Several small children narrowly escaped the same fate. There weren’t enough police to keep order and several fights broke out among rowdy teenagers. The mayor hollered for calm but he was drowned out by the booming sound system. The trampled Mrs. Harlowe was hustled away in an ambulance that Schienbaum had the good sense to have on standby. The sight of her mashed body looked like one more special effect to the cheering throng.
Inside the house, it was bedlam. As axe wielding skeletons and mummies sprang from a closets and trap doors, people standing too close were injured. One zombie swung its axe in the crowded room injuring Nigel Dern who clutched his bleeding head and tried to leave. He was greeted with cheers from the crowd for his realistic make up job. Several people were hurt when the crowd recoiled from hidden surprises. More and more people pressed their way inside. There was no place to go but up the stairs or into the kitchen on the ground floor. The scene became surreal as costumed monsters met mechanical ones and human screams blended with recorded screams in a nightmare chorus.
The screams inside only excited those waiting to enter. People pushed their way inside eager to see what all the screaming was about. From the outside, the evening looked like a big success. Inside was another matter entirely.
The old house, its structure so long neglected, was taxed to its limit by the sheer weight of humanity. The joists supporting the floors groaned and shifted. The staircase stringers weakened by years of dry rot began to crack. No one heard the sounds or noticed the signs amidst all the tumult.
On the porch, the council was giddy with success. “Even the weather is perfect,” the mayor beamed. They stood on the porch, proud and happy, and congratulated each other on a job well done.
When the overburdened electrical system finally sparked and sputtered itself into smoldering blackness, the real panic began. Suddenly thrust into utter darkness, people blundered about looking for the exit. Things might have ended better if someone hadn’t smelled smoke and raise the cry of FIRE!
The panic was on in earnest. Sparks from the ancient wiring ignited the equally ancient wood in the basement. Smoke and flames put a swift end to the last shreds of laughter. Now the only screams were human. The crumbling staircase, choked with people clawing their way down, collapsed with a resounding crash spilling dozens of more bodies on top of those scrambling to get out. Their added weight stressed the rotten joists to the breaking point. The floorboards opened and swallowed a host of screaming citizens into a flaming, smoking hell.
The collapsed staircase effectively trapped many families upstairs. Those who could, leaped from the second story windows as the smoke and flame raced to cut off their escape. Mothers threw their children to people below. The fire, now freed from its basement confines, engulfed the first floor trapping dozens more. The haunted house had become a death trap. The mayor and council members who were responsible for the debacle stared at the ruin in disbelief.
The final toll was 63 dead 104 injured 16 missing. The surviving council members were arrested and charged with grievous crimes. The subsequent inquiry named them co-conspirators. Indictments were issued for fraud, embezzlement and negligent homicide. No trace of Mayor Schienbaum or Secretary Brighton was ever found.
Some residents of the town thought they perished in the blaze trying to save those trapped inside. But no trace of their remains was found among the carefully sifted ashes. Others assumed that they escaped with their ill-gotten gains and are living the high life far from North Croyden. Every now and again someone claims to have seen one or both of the fugitives on a beach somewhere. Neither of these stories is true.
Mayor Abastic sits behind her desk in the town’s sparkling new library, built where the new town hall was supposed to go. Ask her what she thinks happened to the mayor and, if she’s in a talkative mood, you might get a strange response. “He’s in his mausoleum,” she may say; or “He’s visiting the Taj Majal.” No one knows what she means.
Harris Tobias was raised by robots disguised as New Yorkers. Despite an awkward childhood he learned to read and write. To date Mr. Tobias has published two detective novels, The Greer Agency and A Felony of Birds, to critical acclaim. In addition he has published short stories in Down in the Dirt Magazine, Literal Translations, Electric Flash and Ray Gun Revival. He currently lives and writes in Charlottesville, Virginia.