Now that I am near the end of my life, with the emperor of all maladies tugging at my body and spirit, I feel compelled to recount for you the terrible, frightening events that haunted my youth. How shall I go on? As Umberto Eco did . . . “I prepare to leave on this parchment my testimony as to the wondrous and terrible events that I happened to observe . . .” No, for nothing so vile as being witness to the gruesome murder of monks shall fill these pages. But terror comes in many forms and in varying degrees. And so it was that in the year of our Lord, 1635, I and members of the prestigious Monster Society were compelled to investigate the strange events surrounding the home of a young up-time Grantville citizen, whose nights were wracked with unimaginable horror and whose dreams turned to fearful nightmares. It began innocently enough on a street corner near my childhood home, where the leader of our little group of monster hunters was experiencing maladies of his own . . .
—excerpts from The Monster Society: The Early Years, by Natasha Clinter; YA Press, Bamberg, 1683
John sat on the corner of the street staring at Natasha Cinter’s house. There was no denying that he was down. So many bad things had happened with The Monster Society of late. Not all of it was his fault, but he took responsibility for it all anyway. He was the Society’s founder and leader. He’d started the Society to escape his own life. There were times he couldn’t even remember his real name anymore. Everyone, even those outside of the Society, called him John now because he had demanded that they do so.
His teeth worked on the end of the fake, wooden cigarette poised between his lips. He wished it were real. If there was ever a time he could use a smoke, it was now. Van had gone crazy, another member of the Society had been hurt, and just when things had seemed to take an upturn with Natasha joining, the group had almost killed a dog. Nothing was working out like it was supposed to. Part of him wanted to end the Society, but he knew deep down he couldn’t. Without it, he would have no reason to live.
John was so lost in his own thoughts that he never noticed Natasha and Red until he heard Fox barking behind him. He turned to see the two girls looking at him with concern.
“John?” Natasha asked. “You okay?”
Ignoring the question, he said, “Ray said you needed me. I came as quickly as I could. ”
“I’d say,” Red laughed. “How long have you been waiting?”
“Not long. What did you need me for?”
Natasha took a seat on the curb next to him. “I have a friend named Alexander Eckerlin. They call him Sandy. Anyway, he’s a good guy and really into war games, and . . .”
John shook his head. “We have enough members in the Society.”
“She’s not asking you to let him join, John,” Red said. “Just listen to her.”
“My friend Sandy has a problem. I thought we could help him. ”
“We’re not superheroes.” John plucked at his cigarette angrily. “Although, judging how things have gone, perhaps we should change our monikers to . . .”
“His house is haunted, John,” Natasha said quickly. “We may not be superheroes, but ghosts and the occult are sort of our thing.”
“He has no one else to turn to, John,” Red said, looking down at him.
John raised an eyebrow. “Why do I feel like you ladies have already agreed to help him?”
“We have,” Natasha admitted. “Ray’s on his way over, too. He seemed pretty excited about the chance to do something. We haven’t done anything as the Society since I shot Fox a few months ago. You’ve canceled every meeting we’ve tried to set up. It’s time we got things going again, and helping Sandy is the perfect chance to do just that. ”
“She’s right, John,” Red agreed. “We all need this.”
“Fine,” John growled. “Is his house really haunted?”
“That’s what he claims.” Natasha smiled. “It’s up to us to find out. He and his parents are out of town. Sandy gave us the okay to sneak in and check things out. ”
He considered the idea. Who was this Sandy person? And why should he care about some assumed haunt lurking within his up-time home? But John had answered Natasha’s call on this day, and why had he done so? Because in his heart, he knew that she was right: If the Gesellschaft der Ungethüme, The Monster Society, was to survive, it had to do something substantial . . . and quickly. Or, like all young friends, life would take them away from each other, and the Society would be nothing more than a fading memory in their dreams.
But we have to do it right this time. No cock-ups!
“Okay,” he said, rising and trying to recapture the swagger that gave him his moniker in the first place. “We’ll do it, love,” he said to Natasha. “Once Ray gets here, you tell us everything you know about this Sandy person and about his home. We’ll do it. We’ll find his ghost . . . and we’ll banish it to hell.”
Ray fiddled with the key in the dark. Natasha (aka Scully) wanted to snicker, but thought better of it. Ray had volunteered to be the point man in their little excursion, and she didn’t want to make him nervous or any more self-conscious than he already was. They were at the basement door in the back of Sandy Eckerlin’s house, so as not to be seen by neighbors in the front porch light. “Don’t mess up my house,” Sandy had told her. “If we come back and see anything broken, dirty, or—”
“Relax, Sandy,” she had told him. “We’ll be in and out quickly. We’re as quiet as mice. We’re professionals.” She wanted to believe that, but so far, the evidence proved the contrary. She had not been a member of the Society for long, true, but her first outing had nearly killed Fox, and John had told her stories of problems that they had experienced in the past. Perhaps the best thing to do was to bring it all out in the open, to just declare publicly that they were live-action role-players, LARPers, and that they hunted monsters. But, no, John wouldn’t hear of it. Not yet anyway.
The Ring of Fire had brought many social changes, he said, but there were still too many superstitious fools in the world, out in the small towns, ready to light their torches and tote their pitchforks in God’s righteous armies. There’d be a mob at the door of their clubhouse by morning. So, they had to contend with skulking in the dark and fiddling with up-time keys in basement stairwells.
“Got it!” Ray said, a little louder than he should. Red shushed him. “Got it,” he whispered and turned the knob. “Hand me the torch.”
It wasn’t a real torch. It was a flashlight, but John had forbidden them from carrying anything that might be misconstrued as a weapon. No real guns, no real knives, and definitely no real crossbows. They were going into this one with just their wits and a small light source. And Fox, of course. He was the only real weapon that they had. But he was a wounded warrior and still recovering from his stitches.
Natasha rubbed the dog’s neck as they followed Ray into the house and spoke to him in the most genuine baby-talk voice that she could muster. “Who’s a good monster hunter? Who’s a good monster hunter?”
“Oh, I think I’m gonna be sick,” Red said, and Natasha could imagine her eyes rolling. Red loved Fox as much as all of them, but she didn’t like baby talk. “You’re going to turn him into a sissy girl.”
“What are you going to do with him?” John asked. “Is he going with us into the horrid unknown?”
Natasha shook her head. “No. He’ll stay here in the basement, guard our retreat if some phantasm breaks free and follows us back through the exit.”
“You said ‘some phantasm.’ Do you mean there is more than one ghost?” Ray asked, clutching the flashlight with a shaking hand. Natasha smiled. He was playing the role of a nervous Nelly well. “There may be,” she said. “They multiply by the hour.”
She tied Fox’s leash to the basement doorknob, gave him a gentle smooch on the head, and said, “Okay, let’s go. Dangers await.”
She knew what the dangers would be. She and Sandy had already seeded the ground.
. . . There was a restlessness in all of us as we ascended those stairs. I could feel evil, palpable in the air, like fog or smoke from a wet fire. Ray exhibited the most terror, for he knew what might await us, had experienced such deviltry in his younger days fighting the Crimson Ghost of Hamburg. He had come prepared, but we were not sure if any crucifix from God or some other blessed device would save us from the horror lurking above.
John led the way up the stairs, playing the part of the fearless leader well. The door of the stairwell opened into the house’s kitchen. The members of the Monster Society followed him and spread out. Ray swept a strange, cross-like tool around in the air.
“What is that thing?” Natasha asked him.
“Oh, it’s a holy object of sorts. It helps me measure the level of PKE disturbance here,” Ray replied with a wide grin. Ghosts were his thing and he was really getting into this adventure.
“Yes,” Ray said, “it means Psycho-Kinetic Energy. The kind of energy ghosts and spirits give off. From an up-timer movie I saw once.”
Natasha rolled her eyes but nodded. “Just be careful not to knock anything over with it, okay?”
Ray snorted with contempt. “It’s not like I haven’t done this before, you know.”
“Hey, guys!” Red called out. “Over here!”
The rest of the group rushed to her side. “Look! Do you see that?”
Red pointed to a strange symbol that appeared to be etched into the wall. It was painted over and difficult to see even with John taking their torch and illuminating it.
“Is that what I think it is?” Natasha asked.
“It’s an elder sign, for sure,” Ray nodded. “Look at those arcane markings.”
“Why is it painted over?” Red asked.
Ray shook his head. “Don’t know. Maybe whoever owned the house before your friend’s family carved it there.”
“These kinds of symbols are used to keep the dark powers of the Great Old Ones or evil spirits at bay. Likely whoever carved it was trying to drive something out of this house.”
“Or,” John added, “to keep whatever it was being used against, inside.”
“Uh, guys,” Natasha said. “It’s not the only symbol. Look!”
Sure enough, a trail of the symbols lined the wall heading towards a small, closed door opening in the ceiling.
“Where does that go?” Red asked.
“It goes up!”
John popped Ray in the shoulder. “Stop quoting up-timer movies and get serious.”
“Sorry. I couldn’t help myself.”
“Because he’s an expert in ghosts, right?” Ray’s disdain for Sandy’s layman opinion was clear.
Suddenly, the whole group froze as something on the other side of the door leading up into the attic stirred. An odd clanging arose above them. It had no rhythm to it. The noise was metallic in nature and totally inhuman. Even John seemed stunned by its sudden occurrence.
“Lord in heaven,” Ray muttered.
“What?” Red said, raising an eyebrow. “I thought ghosts were your business.”
“I . . . I was just caught off guard is all.”
“So what do we do now?” Natasha asked, pushing the others on.
“Somebody’s going to have to go up there and check things out, love,” John said.
Ray swept his cross-like tool up towards the door. “There’s something up there, all right. I’m getting some really bad vibes.”
“Put that thing away, already,” John ordered him. “This isn’t a game anymore, Ray. It’s real.”
Ray nodded and tucked the tool into his pocket.
“I’ll go,” Red said. “Just watch my back.”
The rest of the group backed away as Red approached the door. With a tug, she pulled it open from a cord that hung down about six inches. With a creak of hinges, a ladder of steps slid downward, and with it came something white, glowing, and the size of a full-grown man.
. . . The haunt’s ethereal form, white and blue with shifting coal-black eyes, lunged at Red with outstretched claws. Its screams echoed throughout the house and made us all weak, fearful of everything around us. It was a trick of the mind, I knew, having been paralyzed numerous times before in the presence of such a specter. It was protecting something in that attic; there was no doubt about that, for its defense of those sliding steps was paramount, and Red was taking the brunt of the creature’s rage.
But she held her own, our crossbow girl who had defeated the Werewolf of Jena, the Marsh Monster of Schleswig. The ghost lashed out and swiped its massive hand through Red’s body, filling her with a dread that would have defiled a man three times her size. She wicked her red cape through the air, using it as a shield, and the ghost’s glowing claws smashed against it. It roared, it slashed again, roared once more. It could not defeat Red’s cape.
It then moved towards me. It reared up on its corded body as a bear might, opening its deadly mouth to reveal a darkness I had never seen before. I stared into that darkness and saw nightmares I cannot describe adequately, but of fearful times as a child, when the Ring of Fire descended upon me and my family and thrust us into the past to face horrors and wonders tenfold. Surely this creature before me had been brought through the Ring of Fire as well, and in its anger of such a violation, was protecting the only thing it cared about.
I raised my crucifix and my Bible. I prayed and mouthed the words of the Apostle Matthew. I waited for the creature to strike . . .
They all screamed. Ray bolted to the house’s front door and would have been through it and out into the street, had John not caught him at the last second.
Having little time to react and very few options available to her, Red did what she did best. She attacked. She lashed out, grabbing the white shape underneath where the black holes of its eyes rested on its face. She twisted with all her might. The thing gave no cry of pain. It didn’t respond to her at all as her fingernails dug into it, and she whipped her hand back, tearing at it. The white shape then came loose from the attic steps and was flung across the room.
John pounced on it, jumping up and down on its body, before he realized it was merely a bed sheet with holes cut into it to look like eyes.
“What the devil?” Red blurted. “That isn’t a ghost!”
John shook his head in confusion. “No, it isn’t. It’s just something that was set up to scare us.” He shot Natasha a look.
“What are you looking at me for?” She asked, a little smirk on her face. “I didn’t put that there.”
John’s expression turned into a glare. “Regardless, I’d say this ‘ghost’ is defeated. Mission accomplished. We can all go home now.”
As if to mock him, a muffled, cackling voice came from the attic, its cold, joyless laughter ringing out over and over again with a clang of metal, like two coins smacking together.
John threw himself away from the attic door as the others stared in horror at the dark space above them.
“See?” Natasha said. “I didn’t do that either.”
“This might be worse than I thought,” Ray said. “It could be a demon instead of a ghost. The ghost could have been simply its protector, its shield.”
“Talking about it is getting us nowhere,” Red growled. She charged up the ladder into the attic as the cackling laughter changed once more to the odd, metallic clanging noise.
“We can’t let her do this alone!” John said and went up the ladder after her.
The others followed to find Red and John standing together, casting light into the far corner of the attic.
A pile of musty boxes stood there, a dilapidated tower of moldy cardboard and discarded Sunday morning papers. The whole attic had an old, wet smell, and Natasha could even pick out the tangy, soggy scent of mothballs.
Then the sound occurred again, through the pile of boxes. From where they stood, the sounds were even more prominent, though she could tell that the boxes themselves hindered the noise considerably. They were sounds like she had never heard before, a mixture of laughing, metallic beating, gears, and wheels churning. The whole ensemble would grind to a halt, pause for a few minutes, then start up again, with renewed vigor and vim, then taper into deathly silence.
Ray was the first to have courage to speak. “Um, do we want to check that out?”
A tickle of doubt ran up Natasha’s spine. This had not been part of the plan that she had devised with Sandy. “I—I don’t know. John?”
They all looked at their leader. In the faint glow of the flashlight, Natasha could see him grind his teeth, work the fake cigarette back and forth between the corners of his mouth. What harm would it do to check, she wondered. It could do all kinds of harm, and she knew that John was twice bitten, three times shy. But he had returned to Grantville to hear her out, to give her the opportunity to conduct a mission that they all could enjoy and could tell their grandchildren about.
“I’ll check,” John said. “You all back me up.”
He grabbed the flashlight and Ray’s cross tool. He inched closer to the boxes, pointing both objects forward as if they would shield him from danger.
The maniacal cackle and metal banging sounded again. John paused, and Red slammed into his back. “Careful,” he hissed. “Walk on my left.”
Red did so, and Natasha and Ray stood to his right. Natasha reached down as if to pet Fox’s head. Damn! Left him in the basement. And of course, she had no weapon, nothing to protect her from whatever it was making those ghastly sounds beneath the pile of boxes. But she screwed her courage to the sticking point, as Shakespeare might have said, and moved forward with the rest, inching closer and closer to their doom.
John handed Ray the flashlight. He reached out his free hand and grabbed a warped box top. “Ready?” He asked.
Everyone nodded and braced themselves.
He pulled and the tower of cardboard toppled, and out of it, rolled the cackling head of a demon baby . . . .
. . . We had found what we had come here for, what the ghost had been protecting. It was the demon baby that had terrorized Eckerlin’s dreams; the very same one that had terrorized Grantville’s children for years. It rolled out of its plague-ridden bassinet and lunged at John’s legs, snapping with razor-sharp teeth and bloody gums. Its eyes glowed ruby red. Its maniacal laugh was the very same that I had heard in my own dreams, and I was not sure that we could do anything to stop it.
John kicked at it, struck it with his iron club, strong, powerful strikes against the demon’s head and shoulders. It shrugged off the strikes as if they were nothing. It seemed to feed on the pain. John screamed as the beast’s newborn teeth cut through his pant leg and found flesh. “Get it off me,” he demanded. “Rid the world of this abomination!”
And we tried. Red grabbed it and threw it across the room. It struck the wall of the attic with a meaty thunk! It slid down the wall with a bloody streak, rolled free, and came at us once again.
I waited until it launched itself through the air at my face. I lashed out, much like the ghost had done at the stairs, and caught it with my Bible, hitting it square in the face. Teeth, spit and gore blew from its twisted mouth. Red kicked it hard in the stomach, and for the first time, it seemed truly hurt.
And now Ray, he who had been spent in defeating the ghost, came forward, and with fear and exhaustion tugging at his senses, raised his iron-toed boot and drove it into the face of the demon child, again and again and again . . .
Natasha couldn’t stop laughing.
“What’s so funny?” Ray asked, his boot over the smashed remains of yellow terrycloth, white cotton stuffing, and tiny broken cymbals.
“That’s not a baby’s head,” she said. “That’s a Jolly Chimp.”
Red stepped up to view the damage. “What the hell is a Jolly Chimp?”
“It’s an up-time toy,” Natasha said, picking up the damaged monkey. “It’s a little chimpanzee that you wind up, and it makes little chirping sounds and bangs its cymbals. Though, it looks like this one runs on batteries. See.” She opened up the flap on the back, revealing the battery casing. “Looks like it’s got a lot of corrosion. Probably been sitting in the box for years, forgotten. Sandy’s toy, probably, when he was a kid. Batteries were wearing down and misfiring. I had a Halloween toy of a cauldron of singing frogs do that once. Me and my mom and dad would be sitting in the living room, and suddenly the frogs would start singing for no reason. Gave me the creeps.”
“It could have been anything, though,” Red said. “A rat, a raccoon, a rabid cat. Anything.”
“Red’s right,” John said, kneeling down to look at the broken Jolly Chimp. “You did your duty, friend. And we thank you.”
Natasha stopped laughing, though she kept on smiling. The scary ghost had been Sandy’s idea, and although it was nothing more than a couple of stuffed pillow cases and a sheet hanging from a wire, it had been triggered successfully. The Jolly Chimp had been a surprise, and although it had been as harmless as the fake ghost, it had given her heart a jolt. And wasn’t that what good monster hunting was all about?
“So is the mission over?” Ray asked.
John nodded. “Yep, and I’d say, a most successful mission indeed. Let’s get out of here before we’re discovered.”
“What do we do with this?” Natasha asked, holding up the smashed Jolly Chimp.
“We should bring it along,” John said. “If we leave it behind like that, they’ll know someone was here, and we don’t want to get your friend into trouble. Maybe we can fix it, and if not, put it in the clubhouse as a reminder of a job well done.”
Natasha nodded, stood, and tucked the Jolly Chimp under her jacket.
They left the Eckerlin house through the basement door, relocking it behind them as they went. Natasha was happy, but more importantly, John was happy. There was a renewed spring in his step, a swagger in the way his coat shifted from side to side as they sneaked through backyards and out into the main road that led towards Natasha’s house. John was happy, Red was happy, Ray was happy. Even Fox trotted along with renewed purpose.
The Monster Society had had a great adventure indeed . . . .
And so it was that the Ghost of Eckerlin Hall and the Demon Baby of Grantville were defeated. And very few will ever know the truth of it, know that it was neither the work of godly men, nor the stalwart entitlements of kings or queens that brought those evils to heel. Few will ever know the truth that it was the bravery of a few simple folk with the unqualified dedication to rid the world of its monsters. The Gesellschaft der Ungethüme had done its duty once again in a quiet dark corner of the world, and only you, dear reader, know the truth of it.