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The Shaggy House

For William F. Nolan

 

       Another story inspired by The Nightrunners.

       In the book there's a scene where one of my characters sees the house where he is soon to live for the first time, and I gave a sort of over-the-top description of it that I thought worked quite well in context, but there was something in that description that spurred me to consider the house from another angle, a less grim one. What came out was this short story. It's a gonzo hoot with an echo of Bradbury and a lot of tongue in cheek.

       My title was "Something Lumber This Way Comes," which my friend Bill Nolan, to put it mildly, hated. He suggested this title. Since I used the other title on a variation of this story that became a children's book [published by Subterranean Press], I agreed. Secretly, I still prefer the original title.

 

 

       The old Ford moved silently through the night, cruised down the street slowly. The driver, an elderly white-haired man, had his window down and he was paying more attention to looking out of it, studying the houses, than he was to his driving. The car bumped the curb. The old man cursed softly, whipped it back into the dark, silent street.

       Beaumont Street came to a dead end. The old man turned around, drove back up. This was his third trip tonight, up and down the short street, and for the third time he was certain. The houses on Beaumont Street were dying, turning gray, growing ugly, looking dreadfully sick, and it all seemed to have happened overnight.

       His own house was the sickest looking among them. The paint was peeling—he'd just had it painted last year!—the window panes looked like the bottom of a lover's leap for flies—yet there were no fly bodies—and there was a general sagginess about the place, as if it were old like himself and the spirit had gone out of its lumber bones.

       The other houses on the block were not much better. A certain degree of that was to be expected. The houses were old, and the inhabitants of the houses, in many cases, were older. The entire block consisted of retired couples and singles, the youngest of which was a man in his late sixties. But still, the block had always taken pride in their houses, managed somehow to mow the lawns and get the painting done, and then one day it all goes to rot.

       And it had happened the moment that creepy house had appeared in the neighborhood, had literally sprung up overnight on the vacant lot across from his house. A gothic-hideous house, as brown and dead looking as the late fall grass.

       Craziest thing, however, was the fact that no one had seen or heard it being built. Just one day the block had gone to bed and the next morning they had awakened to find the nasty old thing sitting over there, crouched like a big, hungry toad, the two upper story windows looking like cold, calculating eyes.

       Who the hell ever heard of putting up a house overnight? For that matter, who ever heard of prefab, weathered gothics? And last, but not least, why had they not seen anyone come out of or go into the house? It had been there a week, and so far no one had moved in, and there were no rent ads in the paper for it. He had checked.

       Of course, a certain amount of the mystery might be explained if his wife were correct.

       "Why you old fool, they moved that house in there. And for that matter, Harry, they just might have moved it in while we were sitting on the front porch watching. We're so old we don't notice what goes on anymore."

       Harry gnashed his false teeth together so hard he ground powder out of the bicuspids. "Well," he said to the interior of the car, "you may be old, Edith, but I'm not."

       No, he wasn't so old that he hadn't noticed the change in the neighborhood, the way the houses seemed to be infected with that old ruin's disease. And he knew that old house was somehow responsible for the damage, and he intended to get to the bottom of it.

       A shape loomed in the headlights. Harry slammed his foot on the brakes and screeched the tires sharply.

       An elderly, balding man ambled around to Harry's side of the car and stuck his face through the open window.

       "Lem!" Harry said. "You trying to commit suicide?"

       "No, I was fixing to go over there and burn that damned house down."

       "You too, Lem?"

       "Me too. Saw you cruising around looking. Figured you'd figured what I'd figured."

       Harry looked at Lem cautiously. "And what have we figured?"

       "That damned old house isn't up to any good, and that something's got to be done about it before the whole neighborhood turns to ruins."

       "You've noticed how the houses look?"

       "Any fool with eyes in his head and a pair of glasses can see what's going on."

       "But why?"

       "Who gives a damn why, let's just do something. I got some matches here, and a can of lighter fluid in my coat pocket—"

       "Lem, we can't just commit arson. Look, get in. I don't like sitting here in the street."

       Lem turned to look at the house. They were almost even with it. "Neither do I. That thing gives me the creeps."

       Lem went around and got in. Harry drove up the block, parked at the far end where the street intersected another. Lem got out his pipe and packed it, filled the Ford with the smell of cinnamon.

       "You're gonna get cancer yet," Harry said.

       "Being as I'm ninety, it'll have to work fast."

       Harry gnashed his bicuspids again. There was a certain logic in that, and just a month ago Edith had talked him into giving up his cigars for health reasons.

       After a moment Lem produced a flask from his coat pocket, unscrewed the lid and removed the pipe from his mouth. "Cheers."

       Harry sniffed. "Is that whiskey?"

       "Prune juice." Lem smiled slyly.

       "I bet."

       Lem tossed a shot down his throat. "Wheee," he said, lifting the bottle away from his face. "That'll put lead in your pencil!"

       "Let me have a snort of that."

       Harry drank, gave the flask back to Lem who capped it, returned it to his pocket and put his pipe back into his face.

       Unconsciously, they had both turned in their seats to look out the back window of the Ford, so they could see the house. Harry thought that the high-peaked roof looked a lot like a witch's hat there in the moonlight.

       "Bright night," Lem said. "Holy Christ, Harry."

       "I see it, I see it."

       The old house trembled, moved.

       It turned its head. No other image could possibly come to mind. The house was flexible, and now its two upstairs windows were no longer facing across the street, they were looking down the street, toward Harry and Lem. Then the head turned again, looked in the other direction, like a cautious pedestrian about to step out into a traffic zone. The turning of its head sounded like the creaking of an old tree in a high wind.

       "God," Harry said.

       The house stood, revealed thick, peasant girl legs and feet beneath its firm, wooden skirt, and then it stepped from the lot and began crossing the street. As it went, a window on either side of the house went up, and two spindly arms appeared as if suddenly poked through short shirtsleeves. The arms and hands were not as thick as the legs and feet; the hands were nearly flat, the fingers like gnarled oak branches.

       "It's heading for my house," Harry said.

       "Shut up!" Lem said. "You're talking too loud."

       "Edith!"

       "Edith's all right," Lem said. "Betcha a dog to a doughnut it's the house it wants. Watch!"

       The house's rubbery front porch lips curled back and the front door opened to reveal rows of long, hollow, wood-screw teeth. With a creak it bent to nestle its mouth against the apex of Harry's roof, to latch its teeth there like a leech attaching itself to a swimmer's leg. And then came the low, soft sucking sounds, like gentle winds moaning against your roof at night; a sound you hear in your dreams and you almost wake, but from the back of your head comes a little hypnotic voice saying: "Sleep. It's only the wind crying, touching your roof, passing on," and so you sleep.

       A shingle fell from Harry's house, caught a breeze and glided into the street. The front porch sagged ever so slightly. There was the soft sound of snapping wood from somewhere deep within. The windows grew darker and the glass rattled frightened in its frames.

       After what seemed an eternity, but could only have been moments, the thing lifted its grotesque head and something dark and fluid dripped from its mouth, dribbled down the roof of Harry's house and splashed in the yard. Then there was a sound from the gothic beast, a sound like a rattlesnake clacking, a sort of contented laughter from deep in its chest.

       The house turned on its silly feet, crept and creaked, arms swinging, back across the street, turned to face Harry's house, then like a tired man home from work, it settled sighing into its place once more. The two upper story windows grew dark, as if thick lids had closed over them. The front porch lips smacked once, then there was silence and no movement.

       Harry turned to Lem, who had replaced the pipe with the whiskey flask. The whiskey gurgled loudly in the cool fall night.

       "Did you see . . . ?"

       "Of course I did," Lem said, lowering the flask, wiping a sleeve across his mouth.

       "Can't be."

       "Somehow it is."

       "But how?"

       Lem shook his head. "Maybe it's like those science fiction books I read, like something out of them, an alien, or worse yet, something that has always been among us but has gone undetected for the most part.

       "Say it's some kind of great space beast that landed here on Earth, a kind of chameleon that can camouflage itself by looking like a house. Perhaps it's some kind of vampire. Only it isn't blood it wants, but the energy out of houses." Lem tipped up his flask again.

       "Houses haven't got energy."

       Lem lowered the flask. "They've got their own special kind of energy. Listen: houses are built for the most part—least these houses were—by people who love them, people who wanted good solid homes. They were built before those soulless glass and plastic turd mounds that dot the skyline, before contractors were throwing dirt into the foundation instead of gravel, before they were pocketing the money that should have gone on good studs, two-by-fours and two-by-sixes. And these houses, the ones built with hope and love, absorbed these sensations, and what is hope and love but a kind of energy? You with me, Harry?"

       "I guess, but . . . oh, rave on."

       "So the walls of these houses took in that love and held it, and maybe that love, that energy, became the pulse, the heartbeat of the house. See what I'm getting at, Harry?

       "Who appreciates and loves their homes more than folks our age, people who were alive when folks cared about what they built, people, who in their old age, find themselves more home-ridden, more dependent upon those four walls, more grateful of anything that keeps out the craziness of this newer world, keeps out the wind and the rain and the sun and those who would do us harm?

       "This thing, maybe it can smell out, sense the houses that hold the most energy, and along it comes in the dead of night and it settles in and starts to draw the life out of them, like a vampire sucking out a victim's blood, and where the vampire's victims get weak and sag and grow pale, our houses do much the same. Because, you see, Harry, they have become living things. Not living in the way we normally think of it, but in a sort of silent, watchful way."

       Harry blinked several times. "But why did it take the form of a gothic type house, why not a simple frame?"

       "Maybe the last houses it was among looked a lot like that, and when it finished it came here. And to it these houses look basically the same as all the others. You see, Harry, it's not impersonating our houses, it's impersonating a house."

       "That's wild, Lem."

       "And the more I drink from this flask, the wilder I'll get. Take this for instance: it could look like anything. Consider all the ghettos in the world, the slums, the places that no amount of Federal Aid, money and repair seem to fix. Perhaps these chameleons, or whatever you want to call them, live there as well—because despair fills walls as much as love—and they become the top floors of rundown tenement houses, the shanties alongside other shanties on Louisiana rivers—"

       "And they feed on this love or despair, this energy?"

       "Exactly, and when it's sucked out, the houses die and the creatures move on."

       "What are we going to do about it?"

Lem turned up the flask and swigged. When he lowered it, he said, "Something, that's for sure."

 

       They left the car, cat-pawed across the street, crept through backyards toward the sleeping house. When they were almost to the lot where the house squatted, they stopped beneath a sycamore tree and wore its shadow. They passed the flask back and forth.

       Way out beyond the suburbs, in the brain of the city, they could hear traffic sounds. And much closer, from the ship channel, came the forlorn hoot of a plodding tug.

       "Now what?" Harry asked.

       "We sneak up on it from the rear, around by the back door—"

       "Back door! If the front door is its mouth, Lem, the back door must be its—"

       "We're not going inside, we're going to snoop, stupid, then we're going to do something."

       "Like what?"

       "We'll cross that blazing tightwire when we get to it. Now move!"

       They moved, came to the back door. Lem reached out to touch the doorknob. "How about this?" he whispered. "No knob, just a black spot that looks like one. From a distance—hell, up close—you couldn't tell it was a fake without touching. Come on, let's look in the windows."

       "Windows?" Harry said, but Lem had already moved around the edge of the house, and when Harry caught up with him, he was stooping at one of the windows, looking in.

       "This is crazy," Lem said. "There's a stairway and furniture and cobwebs even ... No, wait a minute. Feel!"

       Harry crept up beside him, reluctantly touched the window. It was most certainly not glass, and it was not transparent either. It was cold and hard like the scale of a fish.

       "It's just an illusion, like the doorknob," Harry said.

       "Only a more complicated type of illusion, something it does with its mind probably. There's no furniture, no stairs, no nothing inside there but some kind of guts, I guess, the juice of our houses."

       The house shivered, sent vibrations up Harry's palm. Harry remembered those long arms that had come out of the side windows earlier. He envisioned one popping out now, plucking him up.

       The house burped, loudly.

       Suddenly Lem was wearing Harry for a hat.

       "Get down off me," Lem said, "or you're going to wake up with a tube up your nose."

       Harry climbed down. "It's too much for us, Lem. In the movies they'd bring in the army, use nukes."

       Lem took the can of lighter fluid out of his coat pocket. It was the large economy size.

       "Ssssshhhh," Lem said. He brought out his pocketknife and a book of matches.

       "You're going to blow us up!"

       Lem tore the lining out of one of his coat pockets, squirted lighter fluid on it, poked one end of the lining into the fluid can with the point of his knife. He put the rag-stuffed can on the ground, the matches beside it. Then he took his knife, stuck it quickly into the house's side, ripped down.

Something black and odorous oozed out. The house trembled.

       "That's like a mosquito bite to this thing," Lem said. "Give me that can and matches."

       "I don't like this," Harry said, but he handed the can and matches to Lem. Lem stuck the can halfway into the wound, let the rag dangle.

       "Now run like hell," Lem said, and struck a match.

       Harry started running toward the street as fast as his arthritic legs would carry him.

       Lem lit the pocket lining. The fluid-soaked cloth jumped to bright life.

       Lem turned to run. He hadn't gone three steps when the can blew. The heat slapped his back and the explosion thundered inside his head. He reached the street, looked back.

       The house opened its front door and howled like a sixty-mile-an-hour tornado. The upstairs front window shades went up, eyes glinted savagely in the moonlight. A spear of flame spurted out of the house's side.

       Harry was crossing the street, running for his house when he looked back. The creature howled again. Arms came out of its sides. All around windows went up and wings sprouted out of them.

       "Jesus," Harry said, and he turned away from his house so as not to lead it to Edith. He started up the street toward his car.

       Lem came up behind him laughing. "Ha! Ha! Flame on!"

       Harry glanced back.

       The explosion had ignited internal gases and the thing was howling flames now. Its tongue flapped out and slapped the street. Its wings fluttered and it rose up into the sky.

       Doors opened all down the block. Windows went up.

       Edith's head poked out of one of the windows. "Harry?"

       "Be back, be back, be back," Harry said, and ran on. Behind him Lem said, "Pacemaker, don't fail me now." They reached the car wheezing.

       "There . . . she . . . goes," Lem panted. "After it!" A bright orange-red mass darted shrieking across the night sky, moved toward the ship channel, losing altitude.

       The Ford coughed to life, hit the street. They went left, driving fast. Lem hung out of the window, pointing up, saying, "There it goes! Turn left. No, now over there. Turn right!"

       "The ship channel!" Harry yelled. "It's almost to the ship channel."

       "Falling, falling," Lem said.

       It was.

       They drove up the ship channel bridge. The house-thing blazed above them, moaned loud enough to shake the windows in the Ford. The sky was full of smoke.

       Harry pulled over to the bridge railing, parked, jumped out with Lem. Other cars had pulled over. Women, men and children burst out of them, ran to the railing, looked and pointed up.

       The great flaming beast howled once more, loudly, then fell, hit the water with a thunderous splash.

       "Ah, ha!" Harry yelled. "Dammit, Lem, we've done it, the block is free. Tomorrow we break out the paint, buy new windows, get some shingles . . ."

       The last of the thing slipped under the waves with a hiss. A black cloud hung over the water for a moment, thinned to gray. There was a brief glow beneath the expanding ripples, then darkness.

       Lem lifted his flask in toast. "Ha! Ha! Flame out!"

 

 

 

 

 

   Your mission—should you choose to accept it—is to return here on Thursday, September 27, for another slice of Mojo mayhem baked up by Champion Joe R. Lansdale!

 

         "The Shaggy House" originally appeared in The Horror Show. It later appeared in Bestsellers Guaranteed, a collection published by Ace, and Bumper Crop, a collection published by Golden Gryphon Press. "The Shaggy House" 1986 Joe R. Lansdale. All Rights Reserved.