W.T. Stead on Haunted Houses

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W.T. Stead on Haunted Houses

Excerpted from W. T. Stead, Borderland: a Casebook of True Supernatural Studies (1970) part II, ch. I, pp. 252-254. Previously published as W. T. Stead, Real Ghost Stories (1897)

There is a certain uncanny fascination about haunted houses, but it is one of which it may emphatically be said that distance lends enchantment to the view. There is something much more thrilling in looking at a haunted house from the outside and reading of it at a distance of many miles, than spending a sleepless night within its walls. It has never been my good fortune to sleep in a haunted house, but on one occasion I went to sleep in the ruins of a haunted castle, and was awakened with a shuddering horror that I shall never forget as long as I live.

It was in Hermitage Castle, Hermitage, that grim old border stronghold which stood in Liddes-dale, not many miles from Riccarton, that most desolate of railway junctions. I visited it when I was just out of my teens, with a mind saturated with legendary lore of the Scotch border. I made a pilgrimage to Brankesome Hall, taking Hermitage on my way. I write this, not to maintain the objectivity of any ghostly haunting of Hermitage Castle, but to show that although it may all have been the merest delusion of a subjective character, I have at least gone through an experience which enables me to understand what it feels like to be in a haunted house.

Hermitage Castle, one of the most famous of the Border keeps in the days of its splendour, retains to this day a preeminence among the castles of the Scotch border:—

“Haunted Hermitage, Where long by spells mysterious bound, They pace their round with lifeless smile. And shake with restless foot the guilty pile, Till sink the mouldering towers beneath the burdened ground.”

Lord Soulis, the evil hero of Hermitage, made a compact with the devil, who appeared to him, so runs the legend, in the shape of a spirit wearing a red cap, which gained its hue from the blood of human victims in which it was steeped. Lord Soulis sold himself to the demon, and in return he could summon his familiar whenever he chose to rap thrice on an iron chest, on condition that he never looked in the direction of the spirit. Once, however, he forgot or ignored this condition, and his doom was sealed. But even then the foul fiend kept the letter of his compact. Lord Soulis was protected by an unholy charm against any injury from rope or steel; hence cords could not bind him and steel would not slay him. When, at last, he was delivered over to his enemies, it was found necessary to adopt the ingenious and effective expedient of rolling him up in a sheet of lead and boiling him to death.

“On a circle of stones they placed the pot,
On a circle of stones but barely nine;
They heated it red and fiery hot,
And the burnished brass did glimmer and shine.
They rolled him up in a sheet of lead—
A sheet of lead for a funeral pall;
They plunged him into the cauldron red,
And melted him body, lead, bones, and all.”

That was the end of Lord Soulis’s body, but his spirit still lingers superfluous on the scene. Once every seven years he keeps tryst with Red Cap on the scene of his former devilries:

“And still when seven years are o’er,
Is heard the jarring sound,
When hollow opes the charmed door
Of chamber underground.”

When I visited Hermitage Castle I was all alone, with my memory teeming with associations of the past. I unlocked the door with the key, which I brought with me from the keeper’s cottage, at a little distance down the valley. As it creaked on its hinges and I felt the chill air of the ruin, I was almost afraid to enter. Mustering my courage, however, I went in and explored the castle, then lying down on the mossy bank I gave myself up to the glamour of the past. I must have been there an hour or more when suddenly, while the blood seemed to freeze down my back, I was startled by a loud prolonged screech, over my head, followed by a noise which I could only compare to the trampling of a multitude of iron-shod feet through the stone-paved doorway. This was alarming enough, but it was nothing to the horror which filled me when I heard the heavy gate swing on its hinges with a clang which for the moment seemed like the closing of a vault in which I was entombed alive. I could almost hear the beating of my heart. The rusty hinges, the creaking of the door, the melancholy and unearthly nature of the noise, and the clanging of the gate, made me shudder and shiver as I lay motionless, not daring to move, and so utterly crushed by the terror that had fallen upon me that I felt as if I were on the very verge of death. If the evil one had appeared at that moment and carried me off I should have but regarded it as the natural corollary to what I had already heard. Fortunately no sulphureous visitant darkened the blue sky that stretched overhead with his unwelcome presence, and after a few minutes, when I had recovered from my fright, I ventured into the echoing doorway to see whether or not I was really a prisoner. The door was shut, and I can remember to this day the tremour which I experienced when I laid my hand upon the door and tried whether or not it was locked. It yielded to my hand, and I have seldom felt a sensation of more profound relief than when I stepped across the threshold and felt that I was free once more. For a moment it was as if I had been delivered from the grave itself which had already closed over my head. Of course, looking back upon this after a number of years, it is easy to say that the whole thing was purely subjective. An overwrought fancy, a gust of wind whistling through the crannies and banging the door close were quite sufficient to account for my fright, especially as it is not at all improbable that I had gone to sleep in the midst of the haunted ruins.

So I reasoned at the moment, and came back and stayed another hour in the castle, if only to convince myself that I was not afraid. But neither before nor after that alarm did any gust of wind howl round the battlements with anything approaching to the clamour which gave me such a fright. One thing amuses me in looking back at a letter which I wrote at the time, describing my alarm. I say, “Superstition, sneer you? It may be. I rejoiced that I was capable of superstition; I thought it was dried out of me by high pressure civilisation.” I am afraid that some of my critics will be inclined to remark that my capacities in that direction stand in need of a great deal of drying up.