“(It was) a dull, dark and soundless day in the autumn of the year when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens …”
University English students will recognize that as the opening line of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” It is Poe’s best known work, and defined the gothic horror genre for generations to come.
Poe intended to begin his short story by creating an atmosphere of depression and dread at the very beginning. That feeling intensifies as the story goes on, culminating in mindnumbing horror at the end.
I think it’s a fitting beginning to my Halloween column, not only because it prophesies horrible things to come in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” but because it could be used quite accurately to begin the story I am now about to tell you.
People will often question Other Half or me about something I’ve written with a skeptical, “But that’s not true, is it?” OH will assure them that it is true, even if she hasn’t read the column in question. She can do that because practically everything I write is true, at least for me. If what I say is false, it will be immediately obvious. If I go out of my way to state that the material is true, you can depend on it being so. I know I’ve said that before, but people still question us on it.
And so it is with this story, true to the last word.
“It was a dark and stormy night” has become a cliché for an opening sentence for any story. No writer worth his/her salt will use it. But that’s pretty well the kind of night it was when my buddy and I walked the back road, once known as Johnny Sheehan’s Road (don’t ask me, ask Gord), from his house in Caplin Cove to my house in Hant’s Harbour that October night a long time ago. The details are as fresh in my mind as if it had been 2011 and not 1954.
Gord and I were barely into our teens. Actually, I remember it as a very dark and windy evening just after supper, but nothing was falling — not sleet nor snow nor icy rain.
We had decided to take Johnny Sheehan’s Road around back of the big hill, towering over that part of Hant’s Harbour because it was by far the shortest route. The path runs between the hill and a ridge that continues straight out to the wave-lashed Soper’s Point jutting out into the North Atlantic Ocean.
We were walking unhurriedly along, no doubt talking about our planned excursion into the woods next morning to look at our rabbit snares. There was little we loved doing more than trudging along the bogs and through the woods, hoping for an unwary rabbit. Then we’d boil up, smoke some maldow cigarettes and pronounce ourselves content with the world.
As we walked along, I glanced up at the lower ridge to our left and noticed the dark clouds scudding along almost touching the rocks that seemed to rise up to meet them. I didn’t know anything about dark, stormy, gothic nights back then, but that’s exactly what it looked like.
And then I noticed something else, something that made the hair stick straight up on the back of my neck and caused my heart to rise almost into my mouth.
Racing along the top of the ridge, not 50 feet from where we were, was a dark figure on a dark horse headed toward Soper’s Point. It was wearing some kind of loose cloak that trailed out behind it like a woman’s hair flowing in the wind. There was no sound, just the roaring of the wind as it came up behind us.
I didn’t stop walking to get a better look. I didn’t cry out, “Gord, what in the world is that!” I didn’t shout, “Run, Gord, run!” I took off.
It’s my guess that I went from near zero to about 100 in eight seconds flat, and picked up speed after that. I didn’t look around to see where Gord was, or some unearthly, supernatural grotesque figure who might even now be bearing down upon him and carrying him off to God knows where.
The truth is, and I’m ashamed to admit it, that I didn’t think of Gord at all. You hear stories of where young people risk their lives to save their friend’s life. That wasn’t me. As far as I was concerned in those few moments of mindless terror, it was every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost — literally.
I didn’t speak to Gord about it after, either. When reason regained my overheated imagination, there was no way I would have Gord laughing at me for being such a cowardly fool. And the “cowardly” would have been fairly accurate.
About 40 years later, I was back in Hant’s Harbour for a school reunion. Gord and I were enjoying some glasses of milk and reliving old times. That night long ago came back to me then, as it has so often over the years, and I thought this would be a good time to apologize for abandoning him to the demons from hell.
“Gord,” I began, “do you remember the night you and I were walking down the back road to our house and it was so dark and windy and. …”
I stopped, because Gord’s eyes were wide open and his expression had gone ultra-serious.
“Don’t tell me, Ed,” he said, and his voice had gone so low I could hardly hear him, “that you saw that thing, too!”
We compared notes enough to know that he had seen exactly what I had seen.
Happy Halloween, skeptics!
Ed Smith is an author who lives in
Springdale. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org