Introduction to The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall
The following is an autobiographical description of how I discovered my very first horror book. From this point on, I wanted to be a writer. I was asked to pick a story for DON'T READ THIS! from my childhood that had contributed to my love of chilling, thrilling or fantastic tales.
I chose The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall by John Kendrick Bangs. The story started off so...
The trouble with Harrowby Hall was that it was haunted, what was worse, the ghost did not content itself with merely appearing at the bedside of the afflicted person who saw it, but persisted in remaining there for one mortal hour before it would disappear.
I was hooked on horror.
Here's the backstory.
Rain drummed on the corrugated metal roof of the Quonset hut that everyone called the Grey Elephant. Inside, alone, I rummaged through piles of unwanted clothing, furniture, dishes, and toys.
I was ten years old and looking for books.
Outside, the building was posted Eintritts Verboten.
A remnant of World War II, the building had been condemned – rain dripped through rusted bullet holes and pooled on the nearby concrete floor. American soldiers stationed in Germany in 1963 used the Grey Elephant as a supply depot for household goods. When a new family arrived at the military base, they would take what they needed. Later, when they transferred stateside, whatever they couldn’t take with them was left behind.
Hand-me-downs are a way of life for families of Enlisted Men.
I loved to read; we had no American television in the remote Eiffel Mountains. I had no money for the new books at the BX (Base Exchange) and books I might find in the Grey Elephant were always free.
Unfortunately most were too adult and I didn’t understand them.
On the Beach.
Then, under a pile of magazines, there it was. A haunted house, with a giant head sticking out of it and a boy just like me running away from a ghost while bats flew overhead. An approaching storm made the forest dark and foreboding.
This looked promising: maybe even better than Brains Benton or Dig Allen, Space Explorer.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Haunted Houseful.
I didn’t know who this Alfred guy was but it looked like he had written a pretty cool book. I opened it slowly and couldn’t believe what I saw.
Ghosts. Witches. Phantoms. A tree with claws.
A scared boy.
I stretched out in a pile of abandoned clothing to read. Dad had told Mom he had errands but I knew there was a poker game at the Enlisted Men’s Club. My Dad often brought me to the airbase – I would see a movie, or go bowling, but sometimes he left me at the Grey Elephant to search for books.
He might not be back for hours but I didn’t care.
I read the story called Let’s Haunt a House.
As I finished I realized I was alone. A chill ran through me and I pulled my coat tighter. The building was unheated and poorly lit. The Grey Elephant had never spooked me before. Still, the story was scary, wasn’t it?
Under the thrumming rain, in near darkness as evening approached, it struck me that I would like to write a story like that.
A story that scared people.
It was the first time I ever thought about being a writer.
I flipped ahead in the book. Here was a story called The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall.
My eyes scanned the dark recesses of the Grey Elephant. Surely, Dad would be here soon.
I read: The trouble with Harrowby Hall was that it was haunted, what was worse, the ghost did not content itself with merely appearing at the bedside of the afflicted person who saw it, but persisted in remaining there for one mortal hour before it would disappear.
I read on. It was a frightening story but I was amazed at the cleverness of the ending.
So you can defeat a ghost!
The Quonset hut creaked and groaned as it grew colder outside. I wondered if the Grey Elephant had ghosts.
What had the building been used for during the war?
Nobody ever talked about it.
Moments later I hurried to the door when a military jeep pulled up and beeped its horn. Underneath my jacket, though, I held the book close to keep it dry. At home, I slid the newfound treasure into the bookshelf next to the Hardy Boys.
Despite having lived in twenty-eight houses, eleven cities, and six states since 1963, I still have that book. It sits near my writing desk. When it came time for my family to return stateside I brought Haunted Houseful with me.
How could anyone leave a book like that behind?
Once in a while I take it out to read it.
And remember why I wanted to be a writer and why I love to be scared.
Thank you, Mr. Hitchcock.
I know who you are, now.
(c) 2009, 2022 by R. B. Payne. All Rights Reserved