A short surreal horror story.
Let me tell you about a House.
It was a House I had purchased — because, yes, in those days you could still buy a sizable house, even on the West Coast, after putting in a few years at a good firm, although the rather sizable life insurance payout after my parents’ unfortunately early demise helped too — and I had been eagerly looking forward to moving into it. You see, this was not just to be a house — not a mere investment property, as many of my coworkers of the time had purchased for themselves — but a home, a place I could live in, grow old in, and perhaps even die in. This House, I thought, might even be considered the love of my life, as I was (and still am) a lifelong bachelor, for reasons that aren’t important to our story here.
So of course I had been very exacting in my search, which had been active for years but, if I am to tell the truth, had been in the back of my mind since childhood. Every time I passed a for-sale sign in my youth, I would mentally picture myself living there, going out to check the mail, waving to the neighbors, but none of the houses I saw ever quite fit — that one was a bit too small, that one didn’t have enough of a yard, this other one was an ugly shade of blue. Even once I had money and began my search in earnest, with an eye to finding a habitation for life, I still found a reason to dislike every home I saw — whether it was too small for the asking price, or too far from the firm, or too close to the nightlife (I have always preferred quiet nights at home to the raucous nightlife of my peers — another reason I was hunting for the perfect habitat).
But falling in love tends to happen when one least expects it, and so it was with the House. It was just the right distance from the firm, just the right distance from the downtown, and just the right price — and, to top it all off, it was not painted a hideous shade of blue, but rather a tasteful and understated pine green. It was, perhaps, just a shade too large for a single inhabitant — indeed, the realtor was surprised to find no partner nor children in tow for the showing — but for the price I didn’t mind. It was, after all, love at first sight, and I said so, quite frankly, to the realtor the moment we stepped onto the property for our tour.
I was curious as to the price, however. When I inquired partway through the tour, the realtor became nervous, as if caught red-handed at the scene of a crime, before admitting that the House was so cheap because it was haunted. Being something of a connoisseur of such stories, I was surprised I had never heard of this locale, and I begged the realtor to tell me the tale. He hummed and hawed, trying to continue the tour, but I insisted, and so he began.
This House, he explained, had once belonged to — indeed, had been built by — the late-ninetheenth-century serial killer John Gatz. When I expressed my lack of familiarity with the name, the realtor realized I was not a local — for this was local lore, overshadowed by H.H. Holmes’ murder castle near the Columbian Exposition (which, the realtor added with a touch of civic pride, was slightly later, making John Gatz the first American serial killer). In fact, this very House was Gatz’s murder castle, after a sort — though the realtor was quick to point out that most of the urban legends that had sprung up about it were not at all true. There were not, for instance, laundry chutes that opened onto vats of acid, nor were there airtight chambers to pump poison gas into, or secret hallways into the bedrooms to surprise guests in the night (though there were some oddities to the design, like the fact that no two windows were exactly the same size). No, he did his killings the old-fashioned way — he would invite someone to his House, strangle them, dismember the body in the basement, and then bury the remains in the garden — and, because he preyed on the lower classes, he was almost never caught, until he didn’t quite manage to finish strangling a victim. She ran into town, her wits almost gone, raving about a monster in a labyrinth, and it took the officers a solid hour or more to calm her down to the point that they could determine what had happened. When they arrived at the House, they found the grisly instruments in the basement, and the bodies in the garden, and even Gatz’ dinner, still warm — but Gatz himself was gone, never to be seen again.
And so it was that the House stood empty for many years, until the killings passed into the murky realm of myth and legend, and an up-and-coming couple bought it at a steep discount and brought daylight back into its depths once again. But this was only the beginning of a new myth, for they had not lived there long before their daughter reported seeing shadowy figures walking around. This was followed by a string of bad luck — culminating, of course, in that selfsame daughter’s disappearance — leading the grieving couple to declare the House haunted and cursed. They moved across the country to a new house where, it was said, they lived out the rest of their days in the twilight of loss.
And so the House stood empty for years again, becoming more dilapidated, before the cycle began again, with another young family moving in, refurbishing it, reporting strange sights and sounds, and finally moving out after experiencing a run of bad luck, followed by another family, then another. But eventually the cycle ended with the current — well, former — inhabitant, an elderly gentleman who had already had his share of life and loss and was more than happy to inhabit a House with a History. This gentleman did not report any of the strange sights or sounds, nor did he have any bad luck — at least, no more than he had already experienced — and so the House was happy for a long time. But then the elderly gentleman passed away, as elderly gentlemen tend to do — quietly, in his sleep, in his bed on the second floor, the realtor took pains to point out — and now the House, with all its History, was back on the market.
Or, rather, it was until I signed the papers, barely a week later, signing it over in perpetuity to me.
It was a cloudless day when I took possession of the House.
Much of the furniture was included in the sale price — the estate of the elderly gentleman, such as it was, did not care to stoop to a yard sale to get rid of it — and I had few possessions of my own, so the move-in day came and went without much ado. Instead, I spent my first weekend in my new home exploring the House.
I found to my surprise that my recollection of the House during the tour was faulty. Had the chandelier really hung just so in the front atrium? Were there really only 20 steps to the second floor, rather than the 21 I had so carefully counted? Was the walk-in closet connected to the master bedroom so cavernous when we peered into it during the tour? Had there always been an attic? (On this last point, my assumption is that the relator intentionally neglected to inform me, seeing as how the attic was filled with uncomfortably life-like dolls — perhaps another reason the estate was no eager to sell the elderly gentleman’s belongings.)
None of these inconsistencies bothered me in the slightest at the time, mind. They did not alter the essential character of the House, which is what I had fallen in love with, and anyway, what do we love that fails to change with time? I had no doubt that, by the time I was myself an elderly gentleman quietly slipping into the great void from the master bedroom, the House would have changed in myriad subtle ways to accommodate me — or, perhaps, I would change to accommodate it.
In the evenings, now that I no longer had the hunt for the perfect home to occupy my time, I read about the House and its history. As mentioned before, the story of John Gatz was a local legend, and so a few local journalists had turned their skills to an examination of the man. What I found curious is that the description of the House contained in those pages had only the slightest resemblance to the House I now sat in. The first book I read on the topic was very insistent, for instance, that the basement was only accessible from the back yard, totally ignoring the door underneath the main staircase. Similarly, another book — otherwise rather dull and serious, more focused on petty local politics than the actual story of John Gatz — claimed, very earnestly, that there were secret murder hallways and acid baths and other such features that the realtor had very carefully emphasized were not present. I would not have given such tall tales much credence — journalists are often mistaken, as I know from personal experience — had it not cited the police report from those two officers who had arrived at the House to apprehend Gatz.
Intrigued, I took it upon myself to read this police report myself. That took some wrangling with the police department — finally, I had to misrepresent myself as a journalist hoping to write yet another book on the topic — but I did finally get my hands on the yellowed old piece of parchment, in the officers’ own hand. This revealed that, indeed, many of those journalists had erred over the years in constructing the myth of Gatz and his House. The killing floor was not in the basement but rather the attic (the very same attic now filled with unsettling dolls), and in fact the relentless creaking coming from the attic in the middle of the night was the first clue for the poor victim that something was amiss. Some of the walk-in closets really had been used as makeshift gas chambers, though a note appended to the report mentioned that these rooms were later disassembled by the department, which at least solved one mystery.
But, sure enough, some of the mysterious details were proven by the report. It very clearly stated that the officers had to exit the House to check the basement (which, ironically, only had garden tools), implying the inner staircase had not yet been built. Still, it was possible that was added by a later inhabitant. What was not so easy to explain away were the murder tunnels, as the report referred to them. Apparently, there had been various secret hallways built into the House, so Gatz could sneak up on his victims in bed as they slept. The realtor had insisted these were just a myth, and I had, in my first days in the House, thoroughly investigated and turned up no evidence of any secret hallways. Yet here was the police report, claiming flatly that they existed. Moreover, the configuration listed in the report did not make any sense in the context of the existing layout of the House. Supposedly, one of the hallways had an exit in the walk-in closet in the guest bedroom, but that closet backed up against the outer wall of the House, implying the hallway went through the open air. Another hallway opened up underneath the stairs, where the basement stairs now are, and exited in the kitchen — even though, entering the basement steps, you would find the kitchen by looking over your shoulder.
I also noted with interest the testimony of the victim. I had read between the lines of the various books I had read and surmised that the victim never did regain coherency, and the report proved this out. Indeed, about all she said is that there was a “monster in the labyrinth,” a phrase that would later become so associated with Gatz it provided the title of one of the books I had read. But in reading the report I came to feel this was no metaphor — she seemed to be genuinely afraid of a monster in a labyrinth, and only with careful prompting could the officers get the grievously wounded woman to explain where she had come from or who she had been with, and thus piece together what must have happened. The woman herself seemed on the verge of panic the entire time she was in the police office and, indeed, repeatedly tried to run back out onto the street. After the officers left to apprehend Gatz, she was herded by one of the remaining officers to the town doctor, who promptly diagnosed her with extreme claustrophobia. He attempted to dress her wounds, but she resisted violently and sprinted into the evening. A manhunt later that night would find her body in a field not far from town.
Needless to say, I found all of this rather chilling and more than a little confusing. I returned home that evening slightly worse for the wear and had a late dinner. As I sat in the kitchen, eating soggy cereal from a bowl, I looked up at the basement door sitting across from me and had a sudden compulsion to fling it open and go down into the dark. I got up. I walked over. I turned the knob.
To my surprise, the door was locked. Had it always had a lock? I must have been misremembering when I opened it that first day and peered down into the basement. I would have to ask the realtor if he knew about a key, or perhaps call a locksmith.
I sat down and finished eating my cereal. After, I felt especially tired and decided to prepare for bed. But as I crept up the stairs, I decided I wanted to look for the murder tunnel in the guest bedroom, which I had converted into an office.
I walked in the guest bedroom and looked to my left, expecting to find the walk-in closet. But, to my surprise, I saw only a window, looking out on the front yard. Instead, I looked to my right, finding the walk-in closet there instead. I thought I must have been more tired than I thought, to think that the walk-in closet was against the outer wall — clearly, that was where the window was! I walked over to the walk-in closet and carefully opened the door.
The walk-in closet was much deeper and darker than I remembered. Distantly, like at the far end of a tunnel, I could see another room, which looked like the master bedroom.
I stepped through the walk-in closet and the door shut behind me.
I stepped through the long, dark tunnel and found myself in a room that looked exactly like my master bedroom, but the master bedroom should have been on my left, across the hall, and this room was curiously empty — it had the same old bed I slept in every night, but no glass of water like I kept by my nightstand.
I exited the lookalike master bedroom through the main doors to find myself facing another tunnel, as if this master bedroom now lay at the end of the long upstairs hallway, instead of to the side. I walked down the hallway, peeking in the guest bedroom, which was identical in layout to mine but lacking any of the office paraphernalia I had introduced. There was no hallway in the closet. I closed the door behind me and crept down the stairs.
I thought about trying the front door, but first I wanted to check the kitchen. I stepped in and flipped the switch by the door, flooding the room with harsh fluorescent light. There was something clinical, like an abandoned hospital, about the empty shelves and the cracked linoleum tile. This lookalike kitchen, whatever it was, had not been used in a long time.
I thought I heard a low humming coming from above me. For a moment I thought there might be someone with me, but it was only the humming of the lights. I turned back out of the kitchen with another flip of the light switch.
I found myself face-to-face with the basement stairs, not a murder tunnel I expected — in fact, they looked identical to my own basement stairs. I thought I should find out what the basement looked like in the lookalike, hoping beyond hope that the lights still worked — annoyingly, the only light switch was at the bottom of the stairs, in both my basement and the lookalike, and I had not brought a flashlight. I gripped the railing and descended into the chthonic depths.
When, with a sigh of relief, I flipped the light switch, I found myself in a room that appeared identical to my attic, albeit thankfully free of the dolls that I had not yet managed to clear out. Indeed, all that was present in the attic was a small handsaw — red with rust or with blood, I could not tell.
I walked over to the other corner and found wooden stairs already let down to the floor below. I crept down the stairs, feeling each creak like it was in my bones. I found myself in the long upper hallway again, passing another copy of my bedrooms, this time darkened as if in mourning. I peered out the window in the guest bedroom and saw that it was pitch black out — not even the moon was visible. I shivered and decided to keep going.
As I took my first step on the main staircase, however, I heard a creak behind me. I turned in a blind panic, but there was nothing on the stairs — in fact, the attic stairs were not even open at all. Alarmed, but with no better option, i continued down the stairs.
The hallway downstairs appeared as if mirrored. Where in my House the kitchen was, from the perspective of the front door, to the left, here it was on the right and the basement door was on the left. I walked into the kitchen.
My breath caught in my throat. Sprawled across the small kitchen table was a skeleton. I dared to walk closer and examine it. The bones were pure white, preserved, as if they had laid here, undisturbed, for millennia, picked clean by whatever carrion birds resided in these dark halls. I swallowed hard and backed away.
I returned to the main hall, when I had the sure suspicion that someone — some thing — was walking down the main staircase. Creak, creak, creak. I could feel panic rising in my chest. I did the only thing I could think. I swung open the front doors and dove through.
And found myself standing in the atrium of the House.
Curious, I walked into the kitchen, only to find a bed against the wall. I turned behind me and, where the basement door usually was, there was instead a guest bedroom. I walked into the guest bedroom. I walked into the closet. There was a tunnel there. I stepped through, and found myself in a dark basement.
I could suddenly feel breath on the back of my throat, as if something was waiting for me in the dark. I turned around to go back the way I came, but I couldn’t feel my way back to the hallway — there was only cold, cement walls, and the feeling of being watched.
Finally, miraculously, I stumbled on a staircase and ran up them as fast as I could, my breath lost somewhere on the basement floor. I could feel it following me as I scrambled, slamming the door shut behind me.
I found myself in the atrium, again, but this time there was no kitchen, only wall. The hallway was dark and gloomy, as if covered in mist. With nothing better to try, I went upstairs. There were no rooms upstairs, only a long, dark hallway. I began to walk down the hallway, sure that I heard footsteps coming up the stairs behind me.
The darkened hallway felt like a maze, one corner following after another. I peered behind my shoulder again and again, convinced I was being followed. Was this the monster in the labyrinth? I thought to myself numbly. But every time I saw nothing there.
I can’t say how long I spent wandering those darkened hallways, or, after the hallways suddenly ended in another upstairs hallway, how long I spent exploring lookalike room after lookalike room. All I knew was that I began to grow tired, hungry, and cold. I passed another skeleton, calmly laying in bed, then another skeleton sitting on a solitary chair in the basement. All looked like they had laid there, undisturbed, for millennia. Every lookalike kitchen I visited had nothing in the way of food, every bedroom had nothing in the drawers, every bathroom was simply a bathroom, the mirror reflecting my every-more-haggard face. Every so often the hairs on the back of my neck would stand up, as if someone, or something, was right behind me, but every time I looked back there was nothing there. Every so often I would hear steps creaking and I would flee, instinctively knowing I did not wish to meet whoever made those sounds.
I began to fear I would wander these impossible, purgatorial halls forever.
But then, after what felt already like an eternity, a new sound was introduced. There was a series of sharp knocks, clearly emanating from the front door but shaking the entire house, inside and out. I caught my breath after my heart had jumped into my throat and waited.
The knocking occurred again.
I swallowed hard. I walked to the front door and slowly turned the knob, opening the door before me.
My insurance agent stood before me, on a calm, if somewhat balmy, summer night. I walked out the door, greedily gulping fresh breaths of air.
“Are you alright?” he said, with a look of genuine concern on his face. I realized I must look very strange, gulping down air like a recently drowned man, haggard like a castaway.
“I’m fine, sorry. I just wasn’t expecting a visitor, is all.”
“Ah, well, my apologies. Your phone seems to be disconnected. Do you mind if I come in?”
“I’d rather we talk out here.”
“I just need you to go over some papers related to your parents’ life insurance. If you’re not well at the moment, you can swing by the office when you get a chance.”
“You drove all the way out here just to say that?”
He looked at me strangely, even suspiciously. “You didn’t reply to our repeated letters and, as I said, your phone has been disconnected. These are… important papers, and it’s really best that you come talk to us as soon as possible.”
I promised I would the next weekend. We said our goodbyes and I watched him drive off.
Needless to say, I did not go back into the house. Luckily, I still had my keys and my wallet, so there was little enough of value still in the house. I drove my car into town and bought an appropriate amount of gasoline. I poured it all around the outside of the house and then, finally, lit a match and carefully lowered it. The flames licked the gasoline before catching, and the whole House was soon ablaze.
I cried a little as I saw the House, the House I had always dreamed of, fall apart, piece by piece, the creaking timbers making a sound like screaming. A part of me still loved the House.
Of course, I had already decided to tell the insurance company that it was an accident. That left one final step. With the flames now overtaking the House, I gingerly opened the front door and stepped inside. I was afraid of becoming trapped again, but with the flames crackling all around, I did not think there was much chance of that.
I waited until I inhaled just enough smoke and ran back through the front door.
And found myself in the atrium.