A. J. Meredith describes A Memorable Night in an Old English Manor
Few settings have loomed larger in horror fiction than that of the haunted or demonic house. Some treatments have been more effective than others.
Poe’s House of Usher – never mind its disintegration in his story – has certainly had staying power. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House retains a cult following. Meanwhile the English manor in Kipling’s story ‘They’ provides the atmospheric backdrop for what some think a short masterpiece. James’s novella The Turn of the Screw and his story ‘The Jolly Corner’ are perhaps other classics of the canon. B.M. Croker’s India-set story ‘The Dak Bungalow at Dakor’ is another that comes to mind.
And, of course, here of all places, we mustn’t forget the narrator so terrorised in Guy de Maupassant’s tale ‘Le Horla’. We could go on…
A.J. Meredith recounts to Horla editor Matthew G. Rees how curiosity caused him to visit an old English house, famous for its alleged hauntings, one truly bleak and wintry night.
“IT wasn’t chill but bitingly cold as I drove through the dark countryside to what might be called my date with the unknown.
Even allowing for hyperbole, Hellens Manor, in the county of Herefordshire, has a reputation that seems well-deserved. A house in one form or another has stood on its site for a thousand years. Harold Godwinson, the English king who perished at Hastings, once owned the property. (Bloody) Mary Tudor is said to have been a visitor.
A monk hacked to death by soldiers on the flagstones of the great hall is one of the phantoms claimed to haunt the present property. But it’s a second haunting – that of young Hetty Walwyn – that really seals the macabre history of Hellens.
She is said to have fallen in love – to the chagrin of her family – with a suitor of lesser-standing. The couple eloped, but the romance died. Finding herself abandoned, Hetty returned to Hellens, destitute. Her mother, angry at her daughter’s original betrayal, confined poor Hetty to a single room in the rambling house, holding her a virtual prisoner. The young woman’s only means of communication was a bell rope she would pull to summon a servant. She died miserably young. Her restless spirit is said to haunt the manor. Chillingly, some have claimed to have heard her bell’s ghostly toll on the blackest of nights.
My Hellens experience, I suppose you might call it, began with an advertisement that I came across in a newspaper, requesting volunteers to take part in a psychic investigation. My curiosity was more than aroused. I’ve been a life-long enthusiast for ghost stories, but I’m a rational figure, too.
In the film version of Shirley Jackson’s story Richard Johnson’s character, Dr Markway, is asked what he hopes to find at Hill House. He responds with the words, ‘Maybe just a few loose floorboards, or, maybe… the gateway to another world.’ And this would have been my answer had anyone stopped me that night on my way to Hellens.
The house is situated in the village of Much Marcle, not far from the old market town of Ledbury, birthplace of John Masefield, best-known for his children’s novels The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights. The peaceful, verdant countryside, a rural hinterland near the Herefordshire-Gloucestershire border, encompasses villages associated with the so-called Dymock Poets: Robert Frost, Lascelles Abercrombie, Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson and John Drinkwater.
The pretty and traditional village is home to the long-established mill of H. Weston and Sons, makers of cider, the region’s noted drink. Far less welcome (and recent) notoriety arises from the community’s connection with Fred West, the serial killer, who was born in a local cottage.
I entered the portals of Hellens shivering and red-nosed. It was the coldest night of the year – well below zero. However, along with the other volunteers who had responded to the advertisement, I was greeted warmly and given dinner in a meeting room that was comfortable and well-lit.
On the stroke of midnight we left its sanctuary, carrying meters given us by the organisers for the purpose of detecting disturbances not visible to the eye. Under a starry sky we crossed a freezing courtyard to then pass through an arched entrance at the rear of the old house.
All I can say is that at that moment Hellens Manor really did seem a house of nightmares: deathly quiet and unwelcoming, every corner and alcove shrouded in shadows.
The hall, where the monk had met his grisly end, proved to be a place of heavy furniture, flagstones and ancient ovens built into its unyielding walls. From it, a spiral stone staircase rose to rooms above.
The numbers in our group led at first to a certain bravado amongst us. ‘Come on!’ we challenged the ghosts as we explored. ‘Show yourselves!’
The main staircase of the house came into our view: one of ancient, black wood that doubled back on itself and creaked beneath our feet. We filed upwards and began to roam weakly-lit corridors that were desolate and still.
One by one we made our way into the famed room of young Hetty Walwyn where, before us, stood a four-poster bed. Drapes hooded it, as if it were some awful catacomb. Surrounding us were gloomy walls covered in vellum that age had turned a nauseous brown. But it was the ghastly bell rope, disappearing into the ceiling, which proved most disconcerting. What terrors would have been aroused had some unseen hand pulled it and rung that bell!
Our group included a woman who, at dinner earlier, had stated that she possessed psychic gifts. Now, in Hetty Walwyn’s chamber, she declared herself aware of… a presence. The leader of our group declared that the sinister room was the throbbing heart of the house, and he suggested that we turn off the lights and bear witness to its aura (and whatever else it might hold) in unfettered darkness. The light was duly extinguished.
At first we noticed nothing, but then came the sound of movement, and a whimper. From the blackness, our leader asked: ‘Is everyone all right?’
‘No!’ came an agitated reply from one young woman in our group. ‘I can feel something… in here… with us.’
‘Everybody stand still!’ our leader urged. Presently he enquired of the woman: ‘Can you still feel it?’
‘Yes! There’s something in here!’ the woman responded. ‘It’s coming from the bed. For pity’s sake! Put the light back on!’
Our party exchanged anxious glances as a glow lit the room. Inquisitive as ever, I walked to the bed, and pulled back one of its heavy drapes. To my surprise there was indeed something amongst us: an enormous and drowsy ginger tomcat, that had been slumbering on its pane.
Drawing back the drape theatrically, I announced grimly to my colleagues: ‘I think I’ve found our phantom.’ At which, the cat stared at us, as if issuing a rebuke, over this disturbance of its nap.
After this mild shock we adjourned to a large lounge downstairs where ‘the psychic lady’, as I have come to remember her, conducted a séance. Despite repeated efforts on her part we failed to make contact with ‘the other side’, and, for most of the remainder of the night, we talked amicably amongst ourselves.
However, my appetite for apparitions had not been satisfied and, breaking away from the group, I returned upstairs to explore… on my own. And that was when the old house showed me the folly of my disrespect. Away from the security provided by the others, my courage deserted me. Alone in those dim corridors primordial fears started to surface in me, just as they had for ancient man in the dark forests of antiquity.
Every tiny noise made my heart thump just a little louder. I felt stifled, anxious and, for the first time, genuinely in fear. And yet that was what I had been after, what I had gone there for: that feeling of my own fallibility when confronted with the unknown. I told myself that it was all in my mind: it had to be. All my life I had been telling myself that the spirit world was a myth… something to be enjoyed in the pages of fiction. But now I wasn’t so certain. In fact, scepticism had been ripped away, leaving me exposed and vulnerable to all sorts of terrors, real or imagined.
And I didn’t like it.
I raced along a corridor and then down those ancient, black stairs… back to the gentler spirits of our group to whom, not long afterwards, I bade my farewells.
Hellens Manor had had the last laugh.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A.J. Meredith lives and writes near the River Wye in the cathedral city of Hereford.