The following is a sample chapter from a Southern Gothic horror novel I am currently revising for a final draft before sending it to a publisher. It is written from the perspective of a Welshman invited to a sugarcane plantation in Louisiana to court the heiress (alongside several other potential suitors). Things go awry, and things go bump in the night, and horror soon ensues.
Chapter IV. Prisoner
A violent storm batters Louisiana for three days and three nights. We remain indoors as the rain and the winds blind every window of the Sugar Palace and make a swamp of the surrounding grounds. The thunder is a deafening cannonade. The lightning is a crackling, epileptic sunrise at midnight. Miss Arabella sobs inconsolably as the elements boom and bang in their clamorous uproar. Miss Lucille mocks her, although her own voice is lost in the tumult beyond the walls. Even I feel the effects of the protracted storm. It is like a madness outside myself that soon takes residence within my own skull. I think of the Choctaw shaman and the two entities he spoke of and their marital quarrel in the sky. I should never wish to be a prisoner of a marriage so beset with such intense conflicts. I would rather remain a bachelor.
Or so I deceive myself.
There is a certain tyranny in the storm, and within the Sugar Palace. The torrential rains deafen everyone. I do not mind, but it chafes on the others. They cannot hear themselves speak, and that is what vexes them most, I believe. While the howling winds and the crackling tumult can distract with their baffling bombardment, it is all a welcome diversion. Often I sit in my room and read. At times when the storm abates briefly, I walk out of the French doors of my room and stand on the porch, watching the rain fall like a gigantic cataract from the sky, pouring down the overhangs of the Sugar Palace. The grounds are nigh a swamp, or at least they are wherever visible through the darkening deluge. Sometimes I think the Sugar Palace will be swept away, or will melt like a sugar cone in frothy tides.
Yet, no matter how violent the storm, it may not endure forever. When the sky calms, at last, and the blackest clouds disperse like a murder of crows, we venture outdoors to survey the carnage. The Sugar Palace has sustained only superficial damage. A handful of the ancient trees have been felled by the storm and the pond has swollen, bursting to bleed amidst the garden hedges. The gardens are a mess of leaves and petals in disarray. Worst of all are the slave cabins. Three collapsed during the storm, killing thirty-seven slaves. The slaves that survived sought shelter within the other crowded cabins. Mr. Doucette would hear nothing of funeral arrangements, however, and has ordered the slaves to begin at once on the repairs to the estate. But he needs materials to repair the Sugar Palace and its grounds. Thus, Mr. Doucette sends Mr. Boucher, a team of men, several horses and wagons to the plantation’s lumber mill to process the fallen trees for repairs.
In the meantime, Mr. Doucette dispatches a White rider to survey the road leading to the seaside dock. He returns to report that trees have been toppled all along the road, making traversal nigh impossible without first clearing the trees. Worse, the Mississippi River has risen, distending and becoming wroth with whitewater rapids. It cannot be floated or forded safely. Thus, I am a prisoner of Fate and must remain in the Sugar Palace for the time being.
The storm now gone, the stifling Louisiana heat returns with a sweltering wrath. While the White labourers and the Negro slaves see to repairs, the more privileged among us retreat to the cooler rooms on the West side of the Sugar Palace. It is a comfortably furnished parlour with oak furniture sufficient to seat the guests, the hosts, and whatever ghosts cling to the Doucette edifice. Reluctant though I am to be among this company once more, I take a leather chair near the window. The walls of this particular room are quite peculiar. Rather than wallpaper, they are painted with a mural of Louisiana itself: trees hung with Spanish moss, cranes and herons, swamp pools crowded with fish, turtles, alligators, and such, and plants of diverse varieties all springing up from along the top of the wainscoting. It is both garish and strangely alluring. The room seems dark, despite the daylight, and it feels as if I am wandering along the swamp’s edge, soon to meet the Choctaw shaman once again. I henceforth refer to this room as the Swamp Room.
Yet, while I am quite keen to understand the origins of the murals, I am not so keen as to inquire. No one is of a particularly jolly mood, except, perhaps, Miss Arabella. She sits beside her sister, on the sofa, singing.
“A frog went a-courting, away did ride. A frog went a-courting, sword and pistol by his side…”
“Be quiet, you ruinous child!” Miss Lucille snaps, swatting her sister’s shoulder with her fan. “It is enough torment to suffer storms and then heat without having to endure your abhorrent voice!”
Miss Arabella—cut to the quick—looks to her father to champion her.
“Daddy!” she mewls.
Her father sits in a wide-lapped leather chair near the fireplace, dabbing his forehead with his handkerchief.
“Bella, my dear,” he says, “no one may speak while you are singing. And we must think of our guests after so long a storm spent with nothing to do but listen to the rain and thunder.”
Miss Arabella pouts, folding her arms across her green French dress. Her elder sister smiles briefly, pleased by her small victory, but soon tires of the stagnant air…and the stagnating conversation.
“Where is that wretched girl?!” Miss Lucille demands. “Caroline? Caroline?! My God, we are melting and that lazy girl has yet to bring us our morning refreshments! I am of a mind to have her tied to stones and thrown into the swamp!”
“It will get hotter by the hour,” Mr. Lutz says, doffing his cravat and loosening the collar of his white undershirt. “Our Lady Louisiana has yet to make her dazzling debut. She is only now preparing in front of her vanity mirror.”
“Very droll, William,” Miss Arabella says, sighing and laying longwise on the sofa, nearly kicking her sister. She looks like Cleopatra after the asp has kissed her heart. “I should like to die.”
“Hush, you diminutive imp,” Miss Lucille snaps. “No one wishes to hear your complaints!”
“You were complaining yourself!” Miss Arabella says.
“Yes, about that stupid slave girl,” Miss Lucille says. “Not the weather. The weather is a fool’s complaint, whereas criticizing servants can, and will, lead to reform. You are merely whining at the sun. Do you believe whining at the sun will change its course?”
Miss Arabella leaps up from the sofa, glowering at her sister.
“I wish you were never born!” Miss Arabella yells.
“And I wish you were never born,” Miss Lucille says quietly. “Mother would still be among us, were it so.”
Miss Arabella’s green eyes brim with tears and she flees from the Swamp Room, sobbing loudly. Miss Lucille sighs in aggravation, looking again to the door in anticipation of refreshments.
“I will have her tied to stones and thrown into the river,” she says to herself.
Mr. Beaux—erstwhile fanning himself with his wig—suddenly rises to his feet. He goes to the pianoforte near the ash-mouthed fireplace.
“Let us have some music,” Mr. Beaux says, looking expectantly at Miss Lucille. “It would be a welcome diversion to this heat.”
Lucille rolls her eyes and affects a smile. “If only it were possible, sir. But you see that neither myself nor my sister has learned to play. We are wanting in our discipline.”
“And yet you have such a fine pianoforte!” Mr. Lutz says, also inspecting the piano. He runs his hand across the polished dark wood. “My sister, Isabelle, plays, and quite well at that.”
“Praiseworthy as your sister must be,” Miss Lucille says with some irritation, “I am not disposed to believe a lady’s life to be one dedicated to the entertainment of others. Rather, it is a life she must conduct as her whims command.”
“It is still a shame about the music,” Mr. Beaux says. “I would have delighted in it!”
Fanning herself furiously, Miss Lucille sneers. “Then perhaps, gentlemen, one among you should benefit from lessons!”
She stands up from the sofa and leaves, her petticoats sweeping angrily along the Turkish rug and the black tile. Her father follows after her, breathlessly pleading.
“Lucy, you mustn’t belittle your suitors…”
Meanwhile, the General snorts in contempt.
“Men taking piano lessons?” he remarks. “Preposterous! It is a womanly diversion. The only music proper for a man of dignity is the marching drum! Anything else is fanciful nonsense!”
“On this, sir, we must disagree,” Mr. Beaux says with all the ire of a peacock. “The finer arts can be pursued by man and woman alike. Moreover, I believe it incumbent upon all men to pursue the arts, otherwise we are mere animals sporting tailored clothing. Nothing more!”
“Naturally you would think so” General Davis retorts, his bullish face hardening. “But a French dandy such as yourself is as removed from manhood as any cloistered nun. Have you ever killed an animal before? I doubt it!”
“Any beast may kill another beast,” Mr. Beaux says, one gloved hand on his hip as if there is a dagger beneath his frock coat. “But not all men may recite Moliere to kill the hypocrisies of the world!”
The General’s eyes narrow above his hawkish nose. “No one cares what you have to say, you pasty-faced fop!”
The General turns on his heel and leaves, his boots clacking on the tiled floor with a war march of their own.
“Mon Dieu!” Mr. Beaux exclaims. “Le Philistin!”
He leaves as well, but leaves through the same door through which Miss Arabella left. It suddenly seems to me that the Sugar Palace was designed so as to separate strong egos from one another when at an antagonistic impasse. Quite considerate of the architect. He must have been a man of perspicacious forethought.
Now only myself and Mr. Lutz remain. Mr. Lutz walks to one of the many windows arraying the room. He peers out the pane with a slight smirk playing about his lips, his arms clasped behind his back. He speaks aloud, though whether for the benefit of myself or himself, I do not know.
“There is bait for every kind of fish,” he says, “but only a master fisherman knows which, when, and where to use it.” His fair eyebrows hop with complacent pleasure. “And a master fisherman can play with his catch at his leisure.”
Mr. Lutz heads to the door, pausing at the threshold.
“There is no pleasure in an easy catch,” he says. “You could at least attempt to ingratiate yourself with our Lovely Lucy. The boorish General and the powdery dandy are but little competition, and I am at my best only when there is competition to be had.”
Now alone, I preoccupy myself with a poetry book, though truthfully it is too hot to retain any of the words my eyes pass over. The greater preoccupation is the sweat of my brow, which I dab vigorously with a handkerchief in intermittent intervals. Defeated, I set aside my book and take a turn about the room. There is a gaudy chandelier overtopping the room, as there seems to be in every room and hallway throughout the Sugar Palace. Its ostentatious crystals would embarrass a Mogul’s harem. It is so heavily laden with crystals that it inspires in me a certain paranoia, and so I avoid walking directly beneath it, lest its fastener succumb to its weight and drop the whole upon my head.
I inhale deeply, and exhale. The air is thick and stifling, like wool in the lungs. The Louisiana heat invades the body like a djinn, and one’s temper rises alongside one’s temperature. The sun has yet to gaze into the Swamp room’s windows, and there are trees aplenty pooling their shadows all around—yet the heat reaches in here like the breath of a demon. It is inescapable, and thus all the more infuriating.
Determined to distract myself, I go to the pianoforte and sit down. I can play the piano, albeit not so well as I should like. Yet, despite my lack of proficiency, I do so thrill in the cascading notes and melodies, the pitching vales of trickling notes, and the crescendoing uplands of jangling highs. Indeed, piano music reminds me of my Welsh romps when still a youth. There is nothing so mesmerizing as the notes of a piano floating through an open window and out to a passing lad as he heads into the wilderness. At such times he thinks he is on the trail of the Sidhe. If he only runs swiftly enough he may find them just around the bend of a woods or over the crest of a hill; perhaps swerving between the standing stones atop a mountain.
I am reminded of the fairy woman on the island in the center of the tarn. I cannot recall her face, and it wounds me. All that remains of her are words and feelings. The image of her has vanished like a dream. She is no more solid now than an abstracted emotion, like restlessness or nostalgia.
Now I am truly and utterly upset. Seeking diversion, I settle my nervous fingers among the piano’s ivory. After a few trepid taps of my fingertips, my anxiety loosens, alongside the ligaments of my hands, and I begin to play a scrap of improvisation. It is unwieldy at first, but soon smooths itself into a melancholy little memory that commiserates with me and my present circumstances. I am so taken with its consolation that I do not hear Caroline approach. She stands nearby, patiently waiting—or so I imagine—with a tray of tea and biscuits in her hands. At length, I stop.
“That is beautiful, Mr. Machen, sir,” Caroline says.
“Thank you,” I say. I continue to play, but speak to Caroline over the softly rambling melody. “By the way, Caroline, why is it that you do not refer to me as Lord Machen? It is no matter to me, truly, for I have told you once before that you may call me Bram, if you like, but I am curious why only you, among all others, refer to me as Mr. Machen.”
“There is only one Lord in my life, Mr. Machen,” she says. “And that is the Lord, our God.”
“I see,” I say. “Fair enough.”
There is a long moment when she simply watches me run my fingers across the keys like scuttling crabs. The moment passes and Caroline glances about, flustered.
“Where have Miss Doucette and her other guests gone to?” she asks.
“To the four winds, I am afraid,” I say. “But I will gladly take tea, if you do not mind.”
Caroline nods and sets the tray upon a small table nearby. She hands me a glass of tea, in the Southern American style. Cold and sweet. I take a sip. By the look on my face Caroline intimates my misgivings.
“Is the tea not good, sir?”
“I am sure it is an excellent tea for the Louisiana heat,” I say, staring at the sweetened liquid. “And I did very much like the ginger tea you have made for me beforehand. But this…saccharine water. Forgive me, Caroline, and do not take offense. It is just that I am accustomed to the tea of my native land. Hot and bitter, or else spicy, you see, to help cope with the cold rain.”
“Sounds miserable, sir,” Caroline says.
“It can be,” I say, sighing as the heat builds within my collar. “Just as this heat can be miserable here. But there is beauty in everything, if you can only study it long enough to see it.”
A long pause passes again, and I preoccupy myself with another sip of the saccharine tea. Caroline remains standing by the piano, shuffling a little and fidgeting with her white apron. Her hands are so dark, and yet not uncomely. They are merely different than my habituated experience.
“Is that sad music also from your country?” she asks.
I tap at the keys a little. “Perhaps. I do not know. I play, and not all too well, but whatever it is that comes seems to mete my mood accurately enough.”
“It is a fine thing,” she says, “to hear the piano played. I dust it, you know, and it always seems so lonely. The mistress played this piano, but it has not been touched since she passed on.”
“And what do you know of the late Mrs. Doucette?”
Caroline’s fidgeting increases. She wrings her hands in the manner of Lady Macbeth, though I doubt she has any such sins on her hands.
“I really shouldn’t say, sir. It is not good to speak ill of the dead.”
“That tells me enough,” I say. “But it seems that the Doucettes miss her.”
“Yes, sir, they do.”
“We all have mistresses whom we miss very much.”
A brief spasm of confusion twists Caroline’s eyebrows.
“That is all, Caroline,” I say. “Thank you.”
Caroline nods again, then lifts the tray from the table. “Is there anything else you need, Mr. Machen?”
I tap at the keys once again and Caroline heads toward the door.
“Caroline,” I call after her.
She pauses, looking back. “Yes, Mr. Machen?”
“I should warn you that Miss Lucille is in a terrible mood. She was unhappy that the tea was not brought more quickly.”
“Course she would be,” Caroline says. “And she will be angrier when she learns that Martha has gone missing. That’s why I was so late bringing the tea. I was looking for Martha.”
“Martha?” I say, trying to recall the woman. I remember, vaguely, a large black woman with a dimpled smile who brought food to the dining hall. “Oh yes. I remember her. I hope nothing untoward has come of her.”
“She’s likely fine, sir,” Caroline says, though the look on her face contradicts her words. “Just got into some rum and fell asleep in the woods again. She has a bad habit of it.”
Caroline nods to me once more and leaves the Swamp Room. I play at the piano for quarter of an hour longer, then go to the window through which Mr. Lutz had been staring. Beyond the pane—and beyond the porch and colonnade and down on the ground level—the damaged gazebo sits amidst the damaged garden. Miss Lucille, her father, and Mr. Lutz all sit together in easy camaraderie. Seeing them thus, I wonder what Miss Lucille’s aim is in having invited so many suitors to pursue her attachment when the obvious choice is set before her. Her vanity, likely. Perhaps her father believes his “empire” will retain such cordial connections even after she has married one at loss to the others. Surely she would not invite more. Would she?
I leave the Swamp Room and walk the halls, looking upon the portraits lining the walls in gilded frames. The Doucette family tree spends much of its time honouring its own roots. Patriarchs abound through the halls, their scheming stares always anticipating and following your approach. If I were to marry Miss Lucille—and I should never do so—I would have the portraits taken down and hidden away in some attic or basement. Let the ghosts take to the cellar, perhaps, and so better befit their surroundings. There are other paintings which I might keep affixed for my leisurely appraisals. The maritime paintings are pleasant enough, and so, too, the Louisiana landscapes. There are a few paintings from European artists which I would keep, depicting either ancient Athens or Rome or their shared mythological figures. Still-lifes have never appealed to me and I would add them to the cellar, letting the painted grapes ferment to moldy wine.
As I walk I overhear two voices speaking in French. I am not fluent and do not pretend to understand the import of the conversation. However, I recognize one of the voices, and I can deduce what its tone indicates. It is Miss Arabella and she speaks from great pleasure while suffering a raucous fit of laughter. The other voice I cannot identify, and would find difficult to identify were he speaking English. It is unlike any voice I have heard within the walls of the Sugar Palace. Whoever he is, he pleases Miss Arabella much more than any other person in the house, including her father. She laughs with such abandon that I almost feel that it is inappropriate. She is young, and the man— whoever he may be—is of equal age to myself, or greater, and speaks firmly with a masculine baritone.
I do not know where they are, and cannot seem to locate them. The halls and corridors of the Sugar Palace play with voices, deceiving a listener as if fairies are flitting about, mimicking voices from various directions. One might as well chase a will o’ the wisp in the swamp. One would be all headlong and head-wrong with the needless bother of it.
Tired of being indoors, I go outside to survey the damage suffered from the storm. Mr. Boucher and the other White labourers oversee many groups of Negroes as the latter work hard in the terrible heat to repair the grounds. The Doucette plantation has hundreds of Negroes, if not thousands. Thus, there is much sawing and chopping of wood, much loading of debris and detritus onto horse-drawn wagons, and much swearing against the workers.
“Don’t you dare dawdle, you lazy niggers!” Mr. Boucher yells. “Or I will whip your hides red!”
Finding this all unpleasant, I retreat to the far side of the Sugar Palace; a side where no one is working or yelling or blaspheming the quietude of a man in desperate need of its sacred sermons. There are trees fallen here, at the edge of the swamp, and the ruin of a shed smashed beneath an old oak. Much work lays ahead before this area is rectified. In the meantime, it is relatively quiet and I find myself in easy, albeit balmy, solitude. The grass—previously flooded with torrential rain—is now mostly dry. The Louisiana heat is efficient at drying the verdure, and the tongue. That said, the swamp is still swollen with the previous rains and intrudes upon the grounds more than ever before. Its dark waters lap between the fallen oaks. It is a surreptitious, insidious conqueror indeed.
Feeling somewhat adventurous, I climb atop a fallen oak and stand on its trunk, looking out toward the storm-bloated swamp. Even in midday the swamp is shadowy. The cypress trees stand like ancient, solemn titans guarding the hallway to heathen gods and forgotten rites. I wonder if on cloudy days there might be an island that appears somewhere in that expanse of tree-columned wetland and, perhaps, on that island there is a ring of trees, and within those trees a standing stone, and within that standing stone a door. The wild fancy of it nearly sends me into the water to seek her. But I refrain. I am not so much an impetuous fool as I sometimes fear I am.
There are no animals in the swamp. No insects, no birds, no lizards or mammals. True, they fled inland only days ago to escape the storm, but I would think that the birds, at least, would have returned by now. Yet they have not. The swamp is bereft of life. Even so, the vacancy seems one of deception rather than genuine emptiness. A presence lurks beneath the stillness and the silence, waiting to spring forth when least expected. Or so I divine.
Sweating now, I climb down from the tree and walk a little farther along the distended swamp. I wish I was a youth again. How delighted I would be on such a day as this! And yet I feel the heat keenly. This black frock coat lends no shelter from the balmy day. Instead, it traps and accumulates the heat like a dragon accumulating fire, soon to belch or else burst. I am tempted to shed everything—frock to trousers to boots—and lounge in the shade of a tree like a naked beast until society demands my conformity once again. I am wholly envious of the American Indian and his more practical attire. I would gladly give away a wardrobe brimming with London fashion for the comfort of a loincloth at this moment. Alas, my present attire is all I have to my name. All other comforts have been sold in the desperate attempts my parents have made to conserve the Machen estate.
And all for naught.
A diversion comes along to distract from the heat and my family’s ruination. At last I find life! Amphibious life at the threshold of the swamp and the Doucette grounds. I see two frogs in the grass. They are bullfrogs, judging by their size. They are olive green along their backs and heads, and pale gray along their underbellies. I have read of the bullfrogs in America. The smaller frog is male, denoted by the yellow patch of skin beneath his mouth, and the larger frog is female. These two are, as I understand it, engaged in courtship.
I am, of course, wrong. The smaller frog begins to move away from the larger frog, moving in that squat-legged crawl of caution that frogs use when not leaping away in excited fright. It seems that the courtship is over before it has begun. Or so I think.
I am, again, wrong.
The larger frog suddenly springs for the smaller frog, mouth wide as she propels her broad body with surprising speed at her suitor. Her mouth and her pudgy hands clamp onto the smaller frog, shoving him into her gaping maw without hesitation or remorse. I lean forward, both horrified and fascinated. Gulp by gulp the larger female swallows the smaller male. She sits in complacent idiocy, beady black eyes atop a wide mouth. Her eyes are unfeeling, almost imbecilic, and her bump-riddled corpulence swells. She is a swollen-flanked cannibal, her throat engorged with her yet-struggling victim, the male’s strangely manlike legs still kicking desperately as he is drawn—one violent gulp at a time—down her voracious gullet.
The betrayal is done. Lady Ragnell has devoured her suitor. A Loathly Lady, indeed, and with warty skin not unlike the cursed hag of the story. By daylight or night, she is a monstrous thing to behold. I suppress an urge to step upon the foul creature and snuff it out. But then I wonder: should I truly begrudge a creature for its natural behaviours, however abhorrent? One might as well question the colour of the sky or the warmth of the sun or the love of a mother for her child. Things are as they are, and no amount of questioning will alter them. To blame the world is amiss of the matter. One must place blame elsewhere; upon gods, for instance.
Nonetheless— despite my reasoning—Nature may abhor us all. Feeling nauseated, I look away before the utter finality of the encounter. I take a deep breath and try to regain my composure. This does not help, so I go walking for a time, trying to escape the image of the legs kicking in futility. But I can no more escape the image of the cannibalism than the smaller frog could escape his death. It haunts me for the remainder of the day. I wonder if the imps of Hell resemble frogs. Perhaps they do. Perhaps lost souls grow bloated on sin until they are malformed and gluttonous like frogs.