THE LAMP by Ray O'Bannon
(1. Among the Corn)
I suppose I could blame it on Murphy. He'd had another fight with Sue and she'd thrown him out again. There wasn’t any doubt in my mind about whether they’d make up, but I also knew it would be at least two or three days before they calmed down and worked things out. So I offered my ol’ buddy Murph a free trip to Kansas to visit the ghost.
The ghost in question was my Uncle Jake. He’d passed away the previous winter and, having no children of his own, had left his little country cottage to me. I’m sure he did so out of a sense of propriety, considering it the course of action tradition would dictate. Uncle Jake was a firm believer in tradition. But he wasn’t a very nice guy, and I was hoping to sell the cottage as soon as possible. Any notions of living there myself were quickly dispelled after my first visit to inspect the property. The house itself had deteriorated badly, and the surrounding area had become hideously overgrown. It was almost as if the woods behind the property were reaching forward to suffocate the dwelling and drag it back into the darkened underbrush. And of course, there was the ghost.
I don’t mean to imply there was some dim form lurking in the window, or a smoky shape climbing the staircase. No wispy clouds of vapor floating down the hall, no glowing orbs, none of that sort of thing. Those types of phenomena would have been vastly preferable, because you could then point right at it and say ‘There! There it is!” You’d have a point in space to start moving away from. But that’s not what Uncle Jake’s ghost was like at all. It was a presence filling every room at once, staring from every window simultaneously, tainting the very air with a sense of hopelessness and frustration. His bitterness and resentment hung like a poisonous cloud around the property, and my only wish was to find a buyer and be rid of the place as quickly as I could.
Unfortunately, I first had to remove all of Uncle Jake’s furnishings and possessions. After several days work, most everything had been packed up and hauled off. But there were still several pieces of furniture and assorted things remaining when I decided I had withstood all the gloominess and unease I could bear for a while. So I locked the place up and headed back to my apartment. Two weeks later, Murphy showed up to tell me Sue didn’t love him anymore and the whole world was ending and why wouldn’t she forgive him, why, why why?
My immediate assessment of the matter was that Murphy needed a weekend of heavy drinking and a long drive through the barren flatlands of Kansas to sort things out. Uncle Jake’s cottage seemed the ideal destination, since Murph could then help me load up the rest on the furniture, as well as spare me having to be alone in the place again, and I’d be one step closer to selling the cottage, ghosties and all, to some other poor shmuck. So Saturday morning we piled into my battered old van, touched base at a local liquor store and a taco stand, and then headed out towards that waving ocean of corn that is Kansas.
Driving through Kansas in mid summer is a peculiar experience. You drift across gentle rolling hills, picturesque little farmhouses and barns dotting the landscape, watching the shadows of billowing white cloudbanks as they roll across the meadows. But then the land grows flatter, and you find yourself among the cornfields. Trees grow less and less frequent until those few that remain seem like stranded travelers, wanting to flee but not knowing in which direction. Here and there grain silos can be seen rising above the corn, but they remain well back from the road, as though wishing to keep their distance, and their secrets, from any travelers passing by. The corn itself seems to allow the road its passage only grudgingly. It whispers against the fence posts, waves itself across the horizon, endlessly sighing as though the pavement that splits through it is somehow painful, and somehow resented. The traveler begins to feel unwelcome, and a sense of isolation and helplessness sets in. The endless fields seem to reduce your rate of speed to a tortuous crawl, and whatever the original destination might have been, that small town or hamlet, with its gas stations and cafés and pop machines, now seems like the last bastion of humanity standing defiantly among an endless sea of cornstalks, offering safety,comfort and hope, if one can only reach it. And then suddenly…
Suddenly that little spot of green on the horizon turns into a group of maple trees racing towards you, and they’re joined by several billboards inviting you to have a burger at Fran’s Cafe and come get some new boots from The Cattleman’s Store. The unyielding walls of corn actually fall back on either side and you can see clear to the woods that follow the river. Ancient oaks and cottonwood trees begin lining the road, filtering the sunlight into something beyond magical, and you find yourself coasting through some idyllic little town that probably hasn’t changed very much in the last fifty or sixty years. Or maybe longer. Marvinton was that sort of town, and Murphy and I were both delighted to find we’d arrived there.
We glanced around the hardware store and the little Mom and Pop grocery store on the corner, and then drifted across the street to the diner and had some incredible steaks. Next came a few beers at the corner bar, The Rolling Stones and Johnny Cash playing from the jukebox across the room while two farmers played the last of a five dollar round of pool. After that we dragged ourselves back out to my van and sat considering the situation. There wasn’t really anything else left to do in town. No point denying it… it was time to head over to Uncle Jake’s place. Out by Table Rock. Did I mention Table Rock?
The town of Marvinton sat roughly half a mile from the Walnut River, and a well traveled dirt road led to the woods that forever hid the water from the sunlight. A smaller, less traveled road followed along the edge of the woods, stretching out to reach several small farmhouses built near the river. The last of these farmhouses was Uncle Jake’s. But the little dirt road continued on, winding its way through the scrub brush for several hundred yards before turning abruptly and plunging towards the river. It then vanished into the thick line of trees, but anyone brave enough to follow it would find that it did in fact reach clear to the river’s banks. And at the end of that little dirt road, waiting like some horrible savage reptile from a million years past, sat Table Rock.
According to Uncle Jake, the Chippewa tribes had considered the stone formation haunted and cursed long before white settlers had ever arrived. Folks around Marvinton had always avoided the thing, telling stories of apparitions and peculiar happenings in the area. And although any time my parents took me along to visit Uncle Jake was sure to be a bad time, the worst was certainly the time he decided to show me Table Rock. He felt nine years old was much too old to be afraid of ghosts, so he marched me down that old dirt road one day and more or less drug me into the trees and to the river’s edge.
Table Rock was massive, an oddly rectangular stone, easily twenty feet wide and thirty feet long, it’s weathered grey sides covered with lichen and moss. It rose up roughly seven feet, and its top, which was well above the gaze of a nine year old, seemed almost perfectly flat. Uncle Jake held me up above his head for a moment so I could see above the sides. The stone had weathered to a stark white across the top, and spreading out from its center was an ugly dark charred pattern, as though a bolt of lightning, or perhaps many, had struck violently down into the exact center of the stone. I shuddered and Uncle Jake laughed quietly, setting me back down to run terrified back to the cottage.
After that incident my parents began leaving me with a sitter when visiting Uncle Jake, and I suspect they were as relieved as I was when my nightmares about Table Rock finally began to abate. But I was never able to fully explain to them about the raw intensity of those nightmares, the sheer horror of knowing it’s not a dream, it’s real, wake me up, it’s real they’re going to kill her wake me up it’s REAL!!! Well, you know how nightmares are. But mine were hard to shake, because when Uncle Jake had held me up to see the top of Table Rock everything had become silent for just a moment. The birds had stopped singing, the wind had stopped, and even the river had seemed to hush itself in anticipation. And then I heard her screaming. I could never describe the soul shattering horror of her screaming, but its echo remains in my darkest dreams.
(2. At the Cottage)
Murphy and I arrived at Uncle Jake’s cottage as the sun was beginning to set. We grabbed everything that seemed worthwhile from the back of the van and spread our survival goods out in the middle of the living room floor. In addition to the room’s battered old sofa and an old ceramic lamp that sat by the door, we now had at our disposal a cooler full of beer, two laptop computers, my cell phone, two cheap plastic flashlights, a first aid kit, and seven large bags of potato chips. We were ready to drink and play computer games until Sue called to say Murph could come home, or until sometime Sunday, whichever came first. I could feel Uncle Jake’s angry ghost shifting around somewhere in the foundations, and rattling the window panes in frustration, but it wasn’t so bad with Murph around. There was something unsettling about the sunset, it seemed too red somehow, and I once thought I felt the sort of chill one usually feels only in October, the scent of dry leaves and rotting vegetables filling my nostrils. But it lasted only a moment so I chose not to worry about it, telling myself it was just something in the little basement below us, something old and withered. Noticing Murph was winning the game by a large margin, I grabbed another beer and told myself to start paying attention.
Things started going bad for me when Sue called. Not that I wasn’t happy to know their little storm was past, but the chain of events that followed wasn’t exactly helpful. It had only been dark a little while when the phone rang, but Murph was fairly drunk at this point. Amazed that she had forgiven him so quickly, he dropped my cell phone and slammed closed his computer, absently snagging another beer as he rose to head for the door. I started to ask whether he considered it wise to drive in his condition, but before I could reach the front door he was starting the van and backing out onto the little dirt road. He threw me an enthusiastic wave and yelled, with a gigantic grin, “She Loves Me!” And then he drove off into the night in my van.
There I stood. I knew I’d have to go back inside eventually, but I stayed out there a little while. You could see the stars out here. No streetlights, no artificial illumination of any kind, nothing to obscure a trillion sparkling galaxies all twinkling serenely above me. Then a storm cloud rolled silently over, blocking out the stars like an ugly wet blanket. I felt a chill and caught the scent of dry leaves again. I could smell rotting pumpkins. I went back inside.
The darkness inside the house had become as thick as tar. My laptop computer sat on the living room floor, its flickering glow bravely holding back the inky blackness, creating a little island of illumination and apparent safety. I sat down to ponder my circumstances. Murphy would eventually realize he’d left me behind, and would feel like the world's biggest idiot when the realization hit. It would have been priceless to see his face at that moment, but it was enough to know he’d eventually be back to get me. Meanwhile I had my cell phone, my computer, two bags of potato chips, two flashlights and a first aid kit, and seven cans of beer. Didn’t seem so bad, even with Uncle Jake’s ghost shambling around and blocking the starlight. The floor felt hard so I gathered up the computer, chips and beer, and settled down on the sofa. Dusty but serviceable. I closed my eyes for a moment, listening to the nearly complete silence of the countryside. I spilled beer and chips everywhere when the phone rang.
“Yo, man, I feel really really stupid…”
“I know. Forget it, it’s funny.”
“I can be back for you in a little bit, man. I’m at that phone booth by the…”
“Hey, you know what, Murph? Don’t worry about it. Go be with Sue. ”
‘Wha…? Nah, I can’t just leave you out there.”
“Sure you can, I’m fine. Just drive careful and then tomorrow you two can both come back with the van.”
“You sure, man?”
“Yeah, go have fun. Just come back tomorrow and get me.”
“Dude, you are too kewl!”
I don’t know why I stayed that night. Maybe I wanted Murph and Sue to be together. Maybe I just wanted to show Uncle Jake I wasn’t nine years old anymore. But as I clicked off the phone the silence settled back over everything. And from somewhere out by the river, or from somewhere deep within my mind, came the faintest echo of a scream, just for a moment.
I felt that odd October chill again on the back of my neck, so I set everything aside and went looking for a coat or blanket. Little remained on the ground floor besides the sofa, but there were still a few boxes in the two small upstairs bedrooms, and in one of those boxes I found a quilt. It was faded and a bit musty, but I immediately felt more comfortable with it around my shoulders. I returned to my spot on the sofa, pulling the beer and chips close and settling the computer on my lap. Not a bad little nest at all. I might be a little too uneasy to sleep, but I’d be comfy till morning whether Uncle Jake liked it or not. There was even enough cash in my wallet for a nice breakfast at the diner tomorrow while I waited for Murph. Things weren’t going so badly after all. And thanks to the cell phone and computer, I had an infinite universe of knowledge and entertainment at my fingertips. We call it the internet. Scare that, Uncle Jake.
For lack of anything better to do, I decided to surf around and see if there was any mention of Marvinton on the net. I didn’t realistically expect to find a scrap of information, since the town‘s population had never risen beyond a few hundred people, and it was the sort of place where ‘nothing ever happens’. But to my amazement there were actually several different pages posted with information about the town. I was completely fascinated. My impression of the town was still based on the memories of a child. Marvinton was where you went before you drove out to Uncle Jake’s place. Mom and Dad would take you to that really old drug store for comic books, and you could get all the really good horror comics there. Marvinton was where you got home made ice cream from the diner, and the hardware store had lots of great model kits. Marvinton had felt like a kind of secret place of my own, and I was somehow astonished to realize the town had meaning to others as well, and that it had a long shadowy history where things did indeed happen. I gazed at the handful of websites listed, knowing in the back of my mind I’d be reading them all if my computer’s battery held out long enough. I began to wonder… would there be any mention of the local landmarks? Would there be anything about Table Rock stop that, stop thinking about that, you’re just surfing for Marvinton not Table Rock pay attention.
Fur traders originally traveled down the Walnut River in 1794, mapping the area for future settlement. A man named Joshua Marvin was found bleeding to death by the side of the river, an arrow in his chest. Upon his death a few days later, the explorers decided to name the area in his honor. Thus Marvin County was named. The actual settlement of Marvintown began five years later, and the little village grew and thrived, for a little while. Then came the summer of 1837, and according to the text on my flickering screen something rather peculiar happened. During the first week of July the temperatures suddenly dropped, constant storms began rolled in, snow frequently appeared, and it was apparent to all that summer had ended and autumn had come to Marvintown. An autumn that would last until the coming Winter, destroying most of the crops, much of the livestock, and leaving the townsfolk so unnerved and uneasy that the town was virtually abandoned by the end of November.
Marvintown became a ghost town, shunned and forgotten by all, for over seventy years. Then in 1911 a railroad was built along the Walnut River, and a doctor named Thaddeus Hollister purchased several plots of land in Marvin County for farming. Several others followed his example and the village of Marvintown, now known as Marvinton thanks to an inattentive railway clerk, was reborn. A new blacksmith shop and livery stable were soon followed by a grocery store, drug store, and even a little post office with two clerks. Sidewalks and a few streetlights were installed in 1938. A volunteer fire department was formed in 1943. By the fifties Marvinton had regained most of its original vitality, and it had apparently suffered no further unusual events from that time forward. But it had never grown beyond a few hundred people, and even now the little town had the feel of something removed from the normal flow of time, something set aside to remain unchanged throughout the years, something forever paused, forever waiting.
(3. The Storm)
I glanced up from the computer screen to see rain pattering against the windows. The room was becoming chilly, thunder rumbling angrily in the distance as I pulled the quilt tighter around myself. The wind began rattling loose boards out on the porch, moaning like a banshee as it tried to pry its way through gaps and cracks in the cottage walls. My computer’s battery was almost depleted so I shut it down, leaving a last few documents about Marvinton left unread. Darkness filled the room, a darkness so complete I nearly felt suffocated by it. I fumbled for one of the flashlights, switching it on and pushing it between the cushions of the sofa. It cast its familiar yellow glow across the ceiling, the reflected light painting the room in a dim eerie glow. The rain was now beating harder against the tattered wooden shingles somewhere above me. A wave of tension swept over me, a sudden certainty that something was very very wrong. I felt as though some terrible nightmare was on the edge of becoming reality, as though something horrible beyond imagining had taken physical form and was rushing savagely towards me. I cast my gaze in all directions, resenting myself for feeling so deeply frightened.
“You don’t scare me anymore, Uncle Jake! You hear me? So just BUGGER OFF, you old creep. I’m NOT SCARED ANYMORE!”
And that’s when the pounding on the front door began.
The storm had become incredibly violent, wind screaming against the weathered little cottage. The rain came pouring down in seemingly endless waves, as though anxious to drown all that might still remain alive. And above the roar of the nearly constant thunder, above the creaking and groaning of the cottage as it stood defiantly resisting this onslaught of nature, above even the deafening sound of the rain, came the pounding. The front door shuddered under each blow, the knob and latch rattling in protest. I was suddenly aware of how small the room really was, how close I actually was to the front door and whoever or whatever was now outside on the porch.
A part of my mind began insisting I move back away from the door and curl up in the far corner, perhaps cover myself with the quilt so the monster outside wouldn’t see me. But another part of my mind was becoming angry. After all, it insisted, I WASN'T nine years old anymore, and there WASN’T anything to be afraid of, there weren’t really any ghosts or devils or monsters, there was just mean people like Uncle Jake, and suddenly I was on my feet and striding towards the front door, my hand reaching for the rattling antique brass knob.
As the latch clicked open a little voice in the back of my head began screaming that it’s not too late, don’t pull the door open just leave it closed and everything will be fine, it’ll go away if you don’t open the door don’t open it oh please oh please don’t… I opened the door. And the dark form on the other side lunged towards me.
I stumbled back in horror, but the shadowy figure stopped at the threshold as though unable or unwilling to actually enter the cottage. Two pale hands rose from the depths of the dark robe to grasp the rain-soaked hood and pull it back. I beheld standing before me one of the most beautiful young ladies I have ever seen, though her features were distorted by what seemed the purest of terror. And when she spoke the desperation in her voice chilled me to the core.
“Please, please, kind sir, I do beg of you… have you a lamp?”
My startled mind began trying desperately to make sense of this odd situation. A lamp? I cast a glance at the ugly ceramic lamp near the door, the voice in the back of my mind insisting I was a fool, that the lamp couldn’t help her because there wasn’t any power. Then a more organized part of my brain took over.
“Are you hurt? Come in out of the storm and let me help you!”
That voice in the back of my skull was demanding to know what I was going to do if she WAS hurt… I had no medical training and no vehicle to get her to a doctor. I glanced at the little plastic first aid kit uncertainly.
“No, no, please, I must hurry! He awaits me and I must not fail to meet him! But it is dark and I fear to lose my way! Oh please, kind sir, have you not a lamp that I might use? A simple lamp to guide my way, can you not provide me merely this?”
Her meaning suddenly hit me… a lantern, a flashlight. My instinct was to pull her inside, shelter her from the raging storm. But she seemed unharmed physically, and she had spoken of meeting someone. Surely he would look after her and keep her safe, whoever he was. Since she had apparently arrived at the cottage on foot she must be from somewhere nearby, and the man she was racing to meet must be somewhere nearby also. I wondered what could have alarmed her so greatly; she seemed so completely terrified. But there didn’t seem to be anything I could do to help, aside from providing a light so she wouldn’t get lost out there in the storm. I turned from the door to grab the extra flashlight.
Uncle Jake had often smoked a pipe, and I was almost certain I caught the foul scent of his tobacco as I picked up the light. I switched it on and turned back towards the door, extending my arm towards my strange cloaked visitor. Suddenly a hand seemed to grab my upper arm, a hand that felt just like Uncle Jake’s dry talon-like hands had felt digging into my ribs as he held me up to see the top of Table Rock. But this time those awful calloused claws seemed to be trying to hold my arm back, trying to prevent me from giving the flashlight to this poor frightened girl. I felt a second rough hand upon my lower arm, pulling forcefully. My anger and frustration came roaring up from someplace deep inside me, and I wrenched my arm free of those withered grasping claws.
Plunging towards the doorway, I placed the flashlight into the hands of the cloaked form waiting there. Her smile of gratitude was like a momentary beam of sunlight. And then she was turning from the door, pulling the hood back over her head as she stepped off the porch and out into the pouring rain. I stood watching for a moment as she made her way down the little dirt road that followed the river. Through the sheets of rain I saw the beam of the flashlight darting about as she reached the curve in the road, where it turned to plunge into the trees. The light was visible for a few moments moving towards the river, and then was swallowed by the darkness.
I stood staring out into the storm a little while, and then realized there was nothing more to do so I closed the door. A sense of calm was beginning to settle over me, and the storm seemed to be losing its intensity, its determination, with every passing minute. As I turned back towards the sofa my foot came down on something thin and brittle, something that made a dry crunch as I stepped forward. I looked down to see several large dry leaves that had blown in while the door was open. Bright yellow and orange in the dim glow of my one remaining flashlight, they lay scattered about like bits of ancient parchment. A voice in the back of my head began insisting this didn’t make sense because it was the middle of summer and there aren’t dry yellow and orange leaves blowing around in the middle of summer this is weird pay attention.
But I suddenly felt completely exhausted and all I cared about was reaching the sofa. I wrapped myself in the faded quilt and calmness surrounded me. The storm was now little more than a gentle summer rain. The dim glow from my flashlight seemed to soften everything, and for the first time this room felt empty. No trace of Uncle Jake’s tobacco, no trace of his anger and disapproval, no shadow of his resentment and bitterness… no Uncle Jake. Just a dusty old room in an empty old farmhouse. I thought of my strange visitor and how she had smiled when I gave her the extra flashlight. Sure glad I had one to spare. I closed my eyes with a sense of deep satisfaction. I slept.
The screams were exactly as they had been that day when I was nine years old. My slumber had been interrupted by a brilliant flash of lightning, which painted everything in the harsh black and white of a vintage horror film. Then came the massive blast of thunder. It shook the very foundations of the house, shook the ground itself, and left the framework of the cottage shivering as though it were ready to collapse. And then the screaming began, those same horrible screams that I had never really been able to forget, those screams that had filled my childhood nightmares. They faded into the moaning of the wind as I sat sweating with fear in the darkness.
I can't say how long I sat terrified. But eventually I left the cottage and made my way down the path to the river, barely aware of the wind and rain in my sudden panic. Had she been killed? Was I too late to save her? I raced to the river's edge and stood trembling before that horrible stone abomination. Of my visitor I could find no trace. The mindless babbling of the river seemed to mock me as I made my way back to the cottage.
(4. Table Rock)
Murphy and Sue arrived shortly after sunrise to find me waiting on the front porch. We had a cheerful breakfast at the Diner in Marvinton, and I think I faked a good mood well enough to fool them. Then we drove off into the cornfields, the happy couple chattering in the front seats as I hooked up my phone and Murph’s laptop. There were still a couple of Marvinton websites I hadn’t looked over. Among those last few websites I found the following item:
NEWS FROM MARVIN COUNTY - Reported to the Marvin County Gazette by Harlan Lamont, this 3rd day of August, 1837 -
WITCH KILLED IN MARVINTOWNE – Citizens of Marvin Township have reported the death of one Samantha Collins, who did stand accused of Witchcraft in that province. An early Autumn has fallen over all of Marvin County, laying waste to both crop and livestock. There is said to be proof that Miss Collins did intentionally and with harmful intent cause the seasons to change unnaturally through the use of Witchcraft and Sorcery. Sickness is abundant amongst the townsfolk, and several have perished. Samantha Collins, upon being found guilty of Witchery, was locked in prison July 31 of this year 1837.
Miss Collins escaped confinement through the apparent use of unnatural forces. On the evening of August 1st Miss Collins was sighted running towards a local stone configuration known as Table Rock. It is said that Miss Collins did knowingly intend to meet with the Devil at this location. A group of County Constables was able to follow Miss Collins by the light of her lamp, which was said to be of an unnatural brightness. Miss Collins, upon reaching Table Rock, was seen to climb atop the stone configuration and begin chanting words unfamiliar to all who heard them. As the Constables approached the rock formation, lightning is reported to have struck the center of Table Rock three times in quick succession. The charred figure of Samantha Collins vanished with the final strike of lightning, leaving no evidence she had ever been there.
Beside the Walnut River there was found Samantha Collins’ lamp, which was held as the final absolute proof of her unlawful use of Witchcraft. The lamp was said to be made of an unnatural substance, and it is claimed the lamp burned with intense light but gave no heat. Rather than a flame, the lamp was said to contain a small glass bead inside which shined a miniature star. The light of this lamp is said to have shone until the following evening, at which time it faded slowly away, which we do consider to be proof that the lingering spirit of the witch has in fact finally departed. Townsfolk did successfully destroy the lamp by fire.
They say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. They say no good deed ever goes unpunished. They say a lot of things. But there’s a little cottage outside Marvinton you can buy pretty cheap, if you’re interested. It includes an old sofa and you can keep whatever you find in the boxes upstairs. If you come across anything else… well, you can keep that too.