I had planned to start my series on the Things That Scare Us with a general chat about how often people were terrified into insanity or death. But I’ve been ill and so this post, which was finished, is first up. And eminently appropriate it is too, as it neatly covers the fear of disease and of fungoid things with invisible tentacles, which is the way the Victorians thought of some cancers: as hideously contagious and incurable. The ever-entertaining Elliott O’Donnell calls this story “The Invisible Horror.” He begins with his usual suggestion of an elemental and finishes with a bizarre medical explanation from his unnamed narrator.
Location: The Way Meadow, Somerset
Technical form of haunting : Unknown
Source of authenticity : Personal and other experiences
Cause of haunting : Unknown
In my boyhood days I was very fond of making long excursions on foot, my peregrinations taking me many miles from Bristol, which was at that time my home. On one of these occasions I took a route that led me past Bath, and eventually arrived at a village that particularly fascinated me.
Lying in a hollow by the side of a sluggish river, or stream, it presented an exceedingly attractive appearance to my somewhat romantic eyes. I especially liked the whitewashed cottages, with their thatched roofs, diamond-fashioned window-panes, walls and trellised arches covered with jasmine and Virginian creepers ; their tiny gardens crowded with foxgloves and roses, and their quaint, their very quaint chimney-pots, from which arose spiral columns of fleecy-looking smoke.
It was a pretty village, a pre-eminently peaceful village ; a village that was rendered almost fantastic by the close proximity of a queerly constructed water-mill ; it was a sunny village, remarkably hot in summer, but intensely cold in winter.
The stream to which I have alluded ran its tortuous course through a succession of open meadows. In the corner of one was a pond, a deep and silent piece of water that was supposed to be connected in some way with the miniature river. It struck me as a very proper place for a bathe, the weeping willows that fringed its margins affording an effectual screen to the prying eyes of children; whilst the gently sloping banks of spongy grass were softer to the tread than any towel.
To add to my inducements the sun was unusually hot, which made the thought of a bath very tempting after my long tramp over dry monotonous roads. Plunging in, I was, however, immeasurably surprised to find that, despite the abnormal heat, the water was icy cold, and that the scalding rays from above did not appear to have the slightest effect on the temperature. Taking a few rapid strokes, I found myself nearing the opposite bank, and was preparing to turn about when a sudden panic seized me, and, fancying I was being pursued, I scrambled ashore.
Seeing nothing, and consequently assured that my fears were due to the trickeries of imagination, I once again entered the water and was well on my return voyage when I experienced the same sensation. I seemed to feel the presence of some extremely hostile and repulsive body — something that lived in the pool and bitterly resented intrusion. So strong was this feeling that I would not on any account have bathed there again — at least, not alone.
In response to my inquiries in the village, I learned that the meadow, which went by the name of ” The Way,” bore a very evil reputation, being carefully avoided by the local people after nightfall. Though nothing had been actually seen there, those who had attempted to cross the field in the dusk emphatically declared they were assailed by an “invisible something” that was indescribably cold and horrid, and that they only escaped from it after the most strenuous exertions. Nothing short of force would induce a dog or a horse to enter the meadow, and farmers fought shy of letting their cattle graze there ; indeed, should any farmer be so foolish as to do so his beasts invariably died.
I suppose I looked a trifle sceptical at this, as the blacksmith remarked : ” Don’t smile, sir; if you saw Way Field, and especially the pool, after twilight, you would form a very different idea of it to what you do now. In the day-time it is, as you see, all sunlight and daisies, an ideal spot for tea in the hay; but in the evening the aspect undergoes a complete change. The temperature is invariably lower there than it is in any of the other meadows, whilst the shadows that crowd upon the grass are not in the least representative of any trees ! Curious, sir, is it not?”
I readily agreed it was curious, and I was so deeply impressed by all that had occurred that, years afterwards, when chance once again brought me in the district, I lost no time in setting off to visit the pond.
To my astonishment it was gone, and its site was now occupied by the kitchen garden of a large house, evidently the abode of some person of means.
I made inquiries and had but little difficulty in obtaining an introduction to the owner who was not only acquainted with what I already knew, but was able and willing to give me further information, with the stipulation, however, that on no account must I mention either his name or that of the locality. He wanted, he explained, to sell the place and he could not hope to get a fair price for it, if the story of the hauntings appeared in print.
“I have been here three years ! ” he began, “during which time I have had no less than eight housekeepers and twenty-five servants (my usual staff consists of four) ; that signifies a good few changes. Eh?”
“Yes, it has been a confounded nuisance!” he went on, “none of them would stay on account of the ghost ! I pooh-poohed the thing at first, although I honestly felt there was something very queer about the place, but when one after another came to me with the same yarns, I was obliged to admit there might be something in it.
“Their complaints, though differing slightly in small technicalities — due, perhaps, to their unequal descriptive powers — were on the whole coincidental; frightful dreams, sudden awakenings without any apparent cause, strange creakings on the staircases, the foot-falls of something soft and indefinable, the rattling and turning of door handles, and over and above everything else the most pronounced feeling of insecurity.
“’I won’t on any account remain downstairs after the rest have gone to bed,’ one of my housekeepers observed on my asking her to sit up for me, ‘the very first night I stayed here — before I had heard any rumour of the place being haunted — I underwent the most unpleasant sensations on being left alone. I instinctively felt some uncanny creature had begun to walk the house as soon as the lights were out. No, sir. I am ready and anxious to fulfil all my other duties, save this, and if it is really indispensable, why I fear, sir, you must get someone else in my place.’
“This I promptly did, but all to no effect. The newcomer had not been with me a week before she approached me with a very woe-begone face.
“’I am sorry, sir,’ she said, ‘I must give notice. I am by no means nervous, indeed I have always laughed at ghosts, but there is something unmistakably the matter with this place, especially the garden!’
“‘The garden!’ I exclaimed, ‘Come, it’s the first time I have heard there’s anything amiss with the garden.’
“’But not the last, I’ll warrant you,’ she remarked caustically. ‘Why sir, unless I am very much mistaken, the origin of the disturbances lies in that garden, over there,’ and she shot a bony forefinger (why should housekeepers invariably have bony fingers?) in the direction of the filled-in pond.
‘As I was gathering some lettuce there last night I felt (I could see nothing) some horribly cold and sticky thing clasp me in its arms. It must have been hiding among the raspberry canes. Struggling with all my might I managed to free myself just as a mass of fetid jelly was closing over my throat and mouth. Oh! how desperately I struggled, and what a blessed relief it was to be free from that loathsome presence. I can assure you, sir, I ran across the garden as fast as any girl, nor did I pause for one second, till Johnson and one of the maids came to my assistance. They did not ask me what had happened, bless you sir, they knew! Nor was a word said about it at supper, no one dare even as much as mention the thing by gaslight!’
“It was useless, Mr. O’Donnell, to try and persuade the woman to remain with me after that, she went and, by the bye, I have just heard she has recently undergone an operation for tumour in some provincial hospital.
“With my next housekeeper I was rather more fortunate. She stayed with me for more than six months before showing any of the usual signs of restlessness.
“Then she came to the point without the least embarrassment, springing her surprise on me over the breakfast cups.
“’I must leave!’ she said demurely, proceeding at the same time to pour out the coffee, ‘there is a certain dampness here that is very trying to one subject to rheumatism, as well as to one’s nerves.’
“I started guiltily. ‘A dampness! Nerves! You astonish me,’ I stammered, ‘pray explain yourself.’
She did so.
“‘What I mean is,’ she observed, ‘that I can never enter the lower part of the kitchen garden without being persistently followed by a “mist ” — I should have put it down to mere imagination, had I not accidentally heard some one speak about the ghost, and I at once concluded that the mist must in some way be connected with it — am I not right? ‘
“Of course I assented — what else could I do?
“’I thought so,’ she went on demurely, ‘I suppose you do not think it necessary to tell your applicants the place is haunted?’
“I shook my head feebly and muttered, ‘Continue.’
“’Last night,’ she said, ‘the mist was more pertinacious than ever — it not only pursued me in the garden, but came to my window after I had gone to bed. I was looking at the moon when the temperature of the room suddenly fell to zero, the moonlight blurred, and to my amazement I saw the mist clinging to the window-pane. Mr. __, I am not a nervous woman as a rule, but I wouldn’t stay in this house another month under any conditions.’
“She went — and once again I had to go through all the bother of advertising. The wretched thing now began to haunt more vigorously than ever. It attacked Emily, the cook, on the kitchen staircase, and Mark, my general factotum, in the stables, both leaving in consequence, and both being afterwards taken very ill. Indeed it was the report of their illness that prompted me to wage war against the ghost — if I had to leave the house, it should not be till I had ascertained something more definite about my enemy. I would try and discover its identity — what it actually was! With this end in view I laid every trap imaginable, my ingenuity being at length rewarded by finding a faint and barely perceptible impression on the surface of a very large tray full of a carefully prepared mixture of gelatine and wax. I had placed the tray in one of the passages usually frequented by the evil presence. On examining the impression under a powerful microscope I fancied I could detect innumerable granules composed of radiating threads with bulbous terminations.
“Elated at my success and wondering very much what it represented, I took a photograph of the impression and sent it to a medical friend — a bacteriologist — in London, whom I knew to be interested in psychical research. In the course of a few days he came to see me, and, pointing to the wax tablet, remarked: “’I showed the photograph you sent me to some of my colleagues, and we came to the conclusion that the impression bore a distinct likeness to a number of actinomyces, which, as you may know, are a kind of fungi inimically disposed to every kind of animal — cattle in particular. Indeed they are in the main responsible for one of the most common and deadly bovine diseases which is called actinomycosis, and is acquired by cattle eating infected barley or other cereal, the actinomyces adhering to the tongue or jaw.
“’In man the disease is very similar in its clinical character and may be caused by a number of organisms belonging to the streptothrix group (I fear this is rather too technical for you) forming colonies in the tissues and obtaining access to the body from a carious tooth or not infrequently from the tonsil.
“’The disease is sometimes wrongfully diagnosed as tuberculosis; it usually occurs in farmers, millers, and others who are brought in contact with grain ; it has a tendency to spread locally, and although not dangerous in itself, may become so by attacking important organs or by becoming generalised, thereby giving rise to pyaemic abscesses in all parts of the body.
“’In the description of the assault on your house-keeper, to which you gave special prominence (and rightly so) in your letter, you mentioned that the EVIL PRESENCE tried to “get at her mouth” — well that would be in strict accordance with the modus operandi of actinomyces, the primary endeavour of which is to obtain a passage through the lips. Furthermore, you gathered from local gossip that the unfortunate woman had undergone an operation in some provincial hospital for tumours; now tumours are usually one of the sure indications of the nature and progress of the disease.
“’Lastly, you referred to fatality in any cattle allowed to graze in the haunted meadow. Now you know from what I have already told you that cattle are the favourite victims of the fungi.
“’From these deductions then, one must inevitably arrive at the conclusion — that the haunting here is due to nothing more or less than the phantasm of a giant mass of Actinomyces — and as this type of spirit would undoubtedly be proof against exorcism my only advice to you is to shut up the house and go.’
“Afterwards, with a view to corroborate my friend’s theory, partly for his satisfaction, partly for my own, I am afraid, Mr. O’Donnell, I agreed to rather a cruel thing — the proposal being that we should experiment on one of our dogs — Spot.
Turning him loose in the lower extremity of the garden, we took up a position in the loft of a neighbouring barn, where we clearly saw each act in the grim but exciting drama.
“To begin with. Spot did not at all appreciate being left alone. From the very first he manifested distinct signs of uneasiness, his preliminary barks of disapproval speedily changing to those of fear and culminating in howls of positive terror, as tucking his tail between his legs, he careered madly round the enclosure.
“He did not, however, keep up this pace for long, but soon showed unmistakable signs of flagging, coming to an abrupt halt sooner than we had expected.
“The Evil Presence had, we felt sure, got hold of him.
“Thrust back on his haunches and snapping viciously, his eyes protruding and his mouth foaming, poor Spot presented such an appearance of impotence and terror that I rose to interfere and would doubtless have done so, had I not been persuaded to the contrary by my medical friend, whose professional interests he either could not or would not sacrifice for the sake of sentiment.
“Poor Spot eventually died, and our post mortem pointed to actinomycosis — his body being literally perforated with abscesses.
“Thus you see, Mr. O’Donnell, in discovering the identity of the phantasm I accomplished — in part at all events — my purpose; the cause of the haunting must, I am afraid, remain a mystery.”
Some Haunted Houses of England & Wales, Elliott O’Donnell, 1908
R.I.P. Spot! Sacrified in the interests of psychical research! Actinomycosis is the disease known in cattle as “Big Jaw” or “Lump Jaw.” It may also affect humans. It is claimed that the Hungarian violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim, a close friend of Johannes Brahms, died of the disease in 1907. His death was headline news. Contemporary newspaper accounts say he died of asthma, but much later biographies say that while he was weakened by asthma, he was killed by the actinomycosis. If true, one wonders if that is what brought this disease to O’Donnell’s narrator’s attention?
I find intriguing the notion of a disease cluster suggested by this story. It has an obvious medical explanation in an agricultural setting, especially in a wet area that had previously been drained. Perhaps today the house of the narrator would be labeled a “sick building” or would be diagnosed with black mold. Today’s medical boffins would almost certainly have found brain-eating amoeba or flesh-eating bacteria in the water of the pond where O’Donnell bathed.
To ramble a bit further, let me tell you a story about another sinister disease cluster. In Galion, Ohio there was a mysterious group of MS and myasthenia gravis cases in the 1980s. There was no obvious cause and certainly the residents were worried. No one knew where the diseases would next strike. The cluster has since been blamed on heavy metal pollution, but as a young person, I was told a different story. Cholera hit Ohio heavily and frequently in the 19th century. A local cemetery where cholera victims were buried was moved and the dirt from the cemetery used as fill dirt while modern homes were being built. It was “discovered” that the people with MS lived in the homes where dirt from the cholera graves was deposited. It’s a story straight from the pen of a horror writer (like the lurid and imaginative Elliott O’Donnell.) Any notion if cholera can linger in soil or grave detritus? Atomize into a chill mist and waft to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.
If you’ve ever been to the Mutter Museum’s site, you’ve probably seen these adorable stuffed disease toys:
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.