The Spook House by Ambrose Bierce
On the road leading north from Manchester, in eastern Kentucky, to Booneville,
twenty miles away, stood, in 1862, a wooden plantation house of a somewhat
better quality than most of the dwellings in that region. The
house was destroyed by fire in the year following - probably by some
stragglers from the retreating column of General George W. Morgan, when
he was driven from Cumberland Gap to the Ohio river by General Kirby
Smith. At the time of its destruction, it had for four or five
years been vacant. The fields about it were overgrown with brambles,
the fences gone, even the few negro quarters, and out-houses generally,
fallen partly into ruin by neglect and pillage; for the negroes and
poor whites of the vicinity found in the building and fences an abundant
supply of fuel, of which they availed themselves without hesitation,
openly and by daylight. By daylight alone; after nightfall no
human being except passing strangers ever went near the place.
It was known as the “Spook House.” That it was tenanted
by evil spirits, visible, audible and active, no one in all that region
doubted any more than he doubted what he was told of Sundays by the
traveling preacher. Its owner’s opinion of the matter was
unknown; he and his family had disappeared one night and no trace of
them had ever been found. They left everything - household goods,
clothing, provisions, the horses in the stable, the cows in the field,
the negroes in the quarters - all as it stood; nothing was missing -
except a man, a woman, three girls, a boy and a babe! It was not
altogether surprising that a plantation where seven human beings could
be simultaneously effaced and nobody the wiser should be under some
One night in June, 1859, two citizens of Frankfort, Col. J. C. McArdle,
a lawyer, and Judge Myron Veigh, of the State Militia, were driving
from Booneville to Manchester. Their business was so important
that they decided to push on, despite the darkness and the mutterings
of an approaching storm, which eventually broke upon them just as they
arrived opposite the “Spook House.” The lightning
was so incessant that they easily found their way through the gateway
and into a shed, where they hitched and unharnessed their team.
They then went to the house, through the rain, and knocked at all the
doors without getting any response. Attributing this to the continuous
uproar of the thunder they pushed at one of the doors, which yielded.
They entered without further ceremony and closed the door. That
instant they were in darkness and silence. Not a gleam of the
lightning’s unceasing blaze penetrated the windows or crevices;
not a whisper of the awful tumult without reached them there.
It was as if they had suddenly been stricken blind and deaf, and McArdle
afterward said that for a moment he believed himself to have been killed
by a stroke of lightning as he crossed the threshold. The rest
of this adventure can as well be related in his own words, from the
Frankfort Advocate of August 6, 1876:
“When I had somewhat recovered from the dazing effect of the transition
from uproar to silence, my first impulse was to reopen the door which
I had closed, and from the knob of which I was not conscious of having
removed my hand; I felt it distinctly, still in the clasp of my fingers.
My notion was to ascertain by stepping again into the storm whether
I had been deprived of sight and hearing. I turned the doorknob
and pulled open the door. It led into another room!
“This apartment was suffused with a faint greenish light, the
source of which I could not determine, making everything distinctly
visible, though nothing was sharply defined. Everything, I say,
but in truth the only objects within the blank stone walls of that room
were human corpses. In number they were perhaps eight or ten -
it may well be understood that I did not truly count them. They
were of different ages, or rather sizes, from infancy up, and of both
sexes. All were prostrate on the floor, excepting one, apparently
a young woman, who sat up, her back supported by an angle of the wall.
A babe was clasped in the arms of another and older woman. A half-grown
lad lay face downward across the legs of a full-bearded man. One
or two were nearly naked, and the hand of a young girl held the fragment
of a gown which she had torn open at the breast. The bodies were
in various stages of decay, all greatly shrunken in face and figure.
Some were but little more than skeletons.
“While I stood stupefied with horror by this ghastly spectacle
and still holding open the door, by some unaccountable perversity my
attention was diverted from the shocking scene and concerned itself
with trifles and details. Perhaps my mind, with an instinct of
self-preservation, sought relief in matters which would relax its dangerous
tension. Among other things, I observed that the door that I was
holding open was of heavy iron plates, riveted. Equidistant from
one another and from the top and bottom, three strong bolts protruded
from the beveled edge. I turned the knob and they were retracted
flush with the edge; released it, and they shot out. It was a
spring lock. On the inside there was no knob, nor any kind of
projection - a smooth surface of iron.
“While noting these things with an interest and attention which
it now astonishes me to recall I felt myself thrust aside, and Judge
Veigh, whom in the intensity and vicissitudes of my feelings I had altogether
forgotten, pushed by me into the room. ‘For God’s
sake,’ I cried, ‘do not go in there! Let us get out
of this dreadful place!’
“He gave no heed to my entreaties, but (as fearless a gentleman
as lived in all the South) walked quickly to the center of the room,
knelt beside one of the bodies for a closer examination and tenderly
raised its blackened and shriveled head in his hands. A strong
disagreeable odor came through the doorway, completely overpowering
me. My senses reeled; I felt myself falling, and in clutching
at the edge of the door for support pushed it shut with a sharp click!
“I remember no more: six weeks later I recovered my reason in
a hotel at Manchester, whither I had been taken by strangers the next
day. For all these weeks I had suffered from a nervous fever,
attended with constant delirium. I had been found lying in the
road several miles away from the house; but how I had escaped from it
to get there I never knew. On recovery, or as soon as my physicians
permitted me to talk, I inquired the fate of Judge Veigh, whom (to quiet
me, as I now know) they represented as well and at home.
“No one believed a word of my story, and who can wonder?
And who can imagine my grief when, arriving at my home in Frankfort
two months later, I learned that Judge Veigh had never been heard of
since that night? I then regretted bitterly the pride which since
the first few days after the recovery of my reason had forbidden me
to repeat my discredited story and insist upon its truth.
“With all that afterward occurred - the examination of the house;
the failure to find any room corresponding to that which I have described;
the attempt to have me adjudged insane, and my triumph over my accusers
- the readers of the Advocate are familiar. After all these
years I am still confident that excavations which I have neither the
legal right to undertake nor the wealth to make would disclose the secret
of the disappearance of my unhappy friend, and possibly of the former
occupants and owners of the deserted and now destroyed house.
I do not despair of yet bringing about such a search, and it is a source
of deep grief to me that it has been delayed by the undeserved hostility
and unwise incredulity of the family and friends of the late Judge Veigh.”
Colonel McArdle died in Frankfort on the thirteenth day of December,
in the year 1879.