The House in the Oaks
(The New Howard Reader, 2003)
¶“And so you see,” said my friend James Conrad, his pale, keen face alight, “why I am studying the strange case of Justin Geoffrey—seeking to find, either in his own life, or in his family line, the reason for his divergence from the family type. I am trying to discover just what made Justin the man he was.”
“Have you met with success?” I asked. “I see you have procured not only his personal history but his family tree. Surely, with your deep knowledge of biology and psychology, you can explain this strange poet, Geoffrey.”
Conrad shook his head, a baffled look in his scintillant eyes. “I admit I cannot understand it. To the average man, there would appear to be no mystery—Justin Geoffrey was simply a freak, half genius, half maniac. He would say that he ‘just happened’ in the same manner in which he would attempt to explain the crooked growth of a tree. But twisted minds are no more causeless than twisted trees. There is always a reason—and save for one seemingly trivial incident I can find no reason for Justin’s life, as he lived it.
“He was a poet. Trace the lineage of any rhymer you wish, and you will find poets or musicians among his ancestors. But I have studied his family tree back for five hundred years and find neither poet nor singer, nor any thing that might suggest there had ever been one in the Geoffrey family. They are people of good blood, but of the most staid and prosaic type you could find. Originally an old English family of the country squire class, who became impoverished and came to America to rebuild their fortunes, they settled in New York in 1690 and though their descendants have scattered over the country, all—save Justin alone—have remained much of a type—sober, industrious merchants. Both of his parents are of this class, and likewise his brothers and sisters. His brother John is a successful banker in Cincinnati. Eustace is the junior partner of a law firm in New York, and William, the younger brother, is in his junior year in Harvard, already showing the ear-marks of a successful bond salesman. Of the three sisters of Justin, one is married to the dullest business man imaginable, one is a teacher in a grade school and the other graduates from Vassar this year. Not one of them shows the slightest sign of the characteristics which marked Justin. He was like a stranger, an alien among them. They are all known as kindly, honest people. Granted; but I found them intolerably dull and apparently entirely without imagination. Yet Justin, a man of their own blood and flesh, dwelt in a world of his own making, a world so fantastic and utterly bizarre that it was quite outside and beyond my own gropings—and I have never been accused of a lack of imagination.
“Justin Geoffrey died raving in a madhouse, just as he himself had often predicted. This was enough to explain his mental wanderings to the average man; to me it is only the beginning of the question. What drove Justin Geoffrey mad? Insanity is either acquired or inherited. In his case it was certainly not inherited. I have proved that to my own satisfaction. As far back as the records go, no man, woman or child in the Geoffrey family has ever showed the slightest taint of a diseased mind. Justin, then, acquired his lunacy. But how? No disease made him what he was; he was unusually healthy, like all his family. His people said he had never been sick a day in his life. There were no abnormalities present at birth. Now comes the strange part. Up to the age of ten he was no whit different from his brothers. When he was ten, the change came over him.
“He began to be tortured by wild and fearful dreams which occurred almost nightly and which continued until the day of his death. As we know, instead of fading as most dreams of childhood do, these dreams increased in vividness and terror, until they shadowed his whole life. Toward the last, they merged so terribly with his waking thoughts that they seemed grisly realities and his dying shrieks and blasphemies shocked even the hardened keepers of the madhouse.
“Coincidental with these dreams came a drawing away from his companions and his own family. From a completely extrovert, gregarious little animal he became almost a recluse. He wandered by himself more than is good for a child and he preferred to do his roaming at night. Mrs. Geoffrey has told how time and again she would come into the room where he and his brother Eustace slept, after they had gone to bed, to find Eustace sleeping peacefully, but the open window telling her of Justin’s departure. The lad would be out under the stars, pushing his way through the silent willows along some sleeping river, or wading through the dew-wet grass, or rousing the drowsy cattle in some quiet meadow by his passing.
“This is a stanza of a poem Justin wrote at the age of eleven.” Conrad took up a volume published by a very exclusive house and read:
“Behind the Veil, what gulfs of Time and Space?
What blinking, mowing things to blast the sight?
I shrink before a vague, colossal Face
Born in the mad immensities of Night.”
“What!” I exclaimed. “Do you mean to tell me that a boy of eleven wrote those lines?”
“I most certainly do! His poetry at that age was crude and groping, but it showed even then sure promise of the mad genius that was later to blaze forth from his pen. In another family, he had certainly been encouraged and had blossomed forth as an infant prodigy. But his unspeakably prosaic family saw in his scribbling only a waste of time and an abnormality which they thought they must nip in the bud. Bah! Dam up the abhorrent black rivers that run blindly through the African jungles! But they did prevent him giving his unusual talents full swing for a space, and it was not until he was seventeen that his poems were first given to the world, by the aid of a friend who discovered him struggling and starving in Greenwich Village, whither he had fled from the stifling environments of his home.
“But the abnormalities which his family thought they saw in his poetry were not those which I see. To them, anyone who does not make his living by selling potatoes is abnormal. They sought to discipline his poetic leanings out of him, and his brother John bears a scar to this day, a memento of the day he sought in a big-brotherly way to chastise his younger brother for neglecting some work for his scribbling. Justin’s temper was sudden and terrible; his whole disposition was as different from his stolid, good-natured people as a tiger differs from oxen. Nor does he favor them, save in a vague way about the features. They are round-faced, stocky, inclined to portliness. He was thin almost to emaciation, with a narrow-bridged nose and a face like a hawk’s. His eyes blazed with an inner passion and his tousled black hair fell over a brow strangely narrow. That forehead of his was one of his unpleasant features. I cannot say why, but I never glanced at that pale, high, narrow forehead that I did not unconsciously suppress a shudder!
“And as I said, all this change came after he was ten. I have seen a picture taken of him and his brothers when he was nine, and I had some difficulty in picking him out from them. He had the same stubby build, the same round, dull, good-natured face. One would think a changeling had been substituted for Justin Geoffrey at the age of ten!”
I shook my head in puzzlement and Conrad continued.
“All the children except Justin went through high school and entered college. Justin finished high school much against his will. He differed from his brothers and sisters in this as in all other things. They worked industriously in school but outside they seldom opened a book. Justin was a tireless searcher for knowledge, but it was knowledge of his own choosing. He despised and detested the courses of education given in school and repeatedly condemned the triviality and uselessness of such education.
“He refused point blank to go to college. At the time of his death at the age of twenty-one, he was curiously unbalanced. In many ways he was abysmally ignorant. For instance he knew nothing whatever of the higher mathematics and he swore that of all knowledge this was the most useless, for, far from being the one solid fact in the universe, he contended that mathematics were the most unstable and unsure. He knew nothing of sociology, economics, philosophy or science. He never kept himself posted on current events and he knew no more of modern history than he had learned in school. But he did know ancient history, and he had a great store of ancient magic, Kirowan.
“He was interested in ancient languages and was perversely stubborn in his use of obsolete words and archaic phrases. Now how, Kirowan, did this comparatively uncultured youth, with no background of literary heredity behind him, manage to create such horrific images as he did?”
“Why,” said I, “poets feel—they write from instinct rather than knowledge. A great poet may be a very ignorant man in other ways, and have no real concrete knowledge on his own poetic subjects. Poetry is a weave of shadows—impressions cast on the consciousness which cannot be described otherwise.”
“Exactly!” Conrad snapped. “And whence came these impressions to Justin Geoffrey? Well, to continue, the change in Justin began when he was ten years old. His dreams seem to date from a night he spent near an old deserted farm house. His family were visiting some friends who lived in a small village in New York State—up close to the foot of the Catskills. Justin, I gather, went fishing with some other boys, strayed away from them, got lost and was found by the searchers next morning slumbering peacefully in the grove which surrounds the house. With the characteristic stolidity of the Geoffreys, he had been unshaken by an experience which would have driven many a small boy into hysteria. He merely said that he had wandered over the countryside until he came to this house and being unable to get in, had slept among the trees, it being late in the summer. Nothing had frightened him, but he said that he had had strange and extraordinary dreams which he could not describe but which had seemed strangely vivid at the time. This alone was unusual—the Geoffreys were no more troubled with nightmares than a hog is.
“But Justin continued to dream wildly and strangely and as I said, to change in thoughts, ideas and demeanor. Evidently, then, it was that incident which made him what he was. I wrote to the mayor of the village asking him if there was any legend connected with the house but his reply, while arousing my interest, told me nothing. He merely said that the house had been there ever since anyone could remember, but had been unoccupied for at least fifty years. He said the ownership was in some dispute, and he added that, strange to say, the place had always been known merely as The House by the people of Old Dutchtown. He said that so far as he knew, no unsavory tales were connected with it, and he sent me a Kodak snapshot of it.”
Here Conrad produced a small print and held it up for me to see. I sprang up, almost startled.
“That? Why, Conrad, I’ve seen that same landscape before—those tall sombre oaks, with the castle-like house half concealed among them—I’ve got it! It’s a painting by Humphrey Skuyler, hanging in the art gallery of the Harlequin Club.”
“Indeed!” Conrad’s eyes lighted up. “Why, both of us know Skuyler well. Let’s go up to his studio and ask him what he knows about The House, if anything.”
We found the artist hard at work as usual, on a bizarre subject. As he was fortunate in being of a very wealthy family, he was able to paint for his own enjoyment—and his tastes ran to the weird and outre. He was not a man who affected unusual dress and manners, but he looked the temperamental artist. He was about my height, some five feet and ten inches, but he was slim as a girl with long white nervous fingers, a knife-edge face and a shock of unruly hair tumbling over a high pale forehead.
“The House, yes, yes,” he said in his quick, jerky manner, “I painted it. I was looking on a map one day and the name Old Dutchtown intrigued me. I went up there hoping for some subjects, but I found nothing in the town. I did find that old house several miles out.”
“I wondered, when I saw the painting,” I said, “why you merely painted a deserted house without the usual accompaniment of ghastly faces peering out of the upstairs windows or misshapen shapes roosting on the gables.”
“No?” he snapped. “And didn’t anything about the mere picture impress you?”
“Yes, it did,” I admitted. “It made me shudder.”
“Exactly!” he cried. “To have elaborated the painting with figures from my own paltry brain would have spoiled the effect. The effect of horror is most gained when the sensation is most intangible. To put the horror into a visible shape, no matter how gibbous or mistily, is to lessen the effect. I paint an ordinary tumble-down farmhouse with the hint of a ghastly face at a window; but this house—this House—needs no such mummery or charlatanry. It fairly exudes an aura of abnormality—that is, to a man sensitive to such impressions.”
Conrad nodded. “I received that impression from the snapshot. The trees obscure much of the building but the architecture seems very unfamiliar to me.”
“I should say so. I’m not altogether unversed in the history of architecture and I was unable to classify it. The natives say it was built by the Dutch who first settled that part of the country but the style is no more Dutch than it’s Greek. There’s something almost Oriental about the thing, and yet it’s not that either. At any rate, it’s old—that cannot be denied.”
“Did you go in The House?”
“I did not. The doors and windows were locked and I had no desire to commit burglary. It hasn’t been long since I was prosecuted by a crabbed old farmer in Vermont for forcing my way into an old deserted house of his in order to paint the interior.”
“Will you go with me to Old Dutchtown?” asked Conrad suddenly.
Skuyler smiled. “I see your interest is aroused—yes, if you think you can get us into The House without having us dragged up in court afterwards. I have an eccentric reputation enough as it is; a few more suits like the one I mentioned and I’ll be looked on as a complete lunatic. And what about you, Kirowan?”
“Of course I’ll go,” I answered.
“I was sure of that,” said Conrad. “I don’t even bother to ask him to accompany me on my weird explorations any more—I know he’s eager as I.”
And so we came to Old Dutchtown on a warm late summer morning.
“Drowsy and dull with age the houses blink,
On aimless streets that youthfulness forget—
But what time-grisly figures glide and slink
Down the old alleys when the moon has set?”
Thus Conrad quoted the phantasies of Justin Geoffrey as we looked down on the slumbering village of Old Dutchtown from the hill over which the road passed before descending into the crooked dusty streets.
“Do you suppose he had this town in mind when he wrote that?”
“It fits the description, doesn’t it—‘High gables of an earlier, ruder age’—look—there are your Dutch houses and old Colonial buildings—I can see why you were attracted by this town, Skuyler, it breathes a very musk of antiquity. Some of those houses are three hundred years old. And what an atmosphere of decadence hovers over the whole town.”
We were met by the mayor of the place, a man whose up-to-the-minute clothes and manners contrasted strangely with the sleepiness of the town and the slow, easy-going ways of most of the natives. He remembered Skuyler’s visit there—indeed, the coming of any stranger into this little backwash town was an event to be remembered by the inhabitants. It seemed strange to think that within a hundred or so miles there roared and throbbed the greatest metropolis of the world.
Conrad could not wait a moment, so the mayor accompanied us to The House. The first glance of it sent a shudder of repulsion through me. It stood in the midst of a sort of upland, between two fertile farms, the stone fences of which ran to within a hundred or so yards on either side. A ring of tall, gnarled oaks entirely surrounded the house, which glimmered through their branches like a bare and time-battered skull.
“Who owns this land?” the artist asked.
“Why, the title is in some dispute,” answered the mayor. “Jediah Alders owns that farm there, and Squire Abner owns the other. Abner claims The House is part of the Alders farm, and Jediah is just as loud in his assertions that the Squire’s grandfather bought it from the Dutch family who first owned it.”
“That sounds backwards,” commented Conrad. “Each one denies ownership.”
“That’s not so strange,” said Skuyler. “Would you want a place like that to be part of your estate?”
“No,” said Conrad after a moment’s silent contemplation, “I would not.”
“Between ourselves,” broke in the mayor, “neither of the farmers want to pay the taxes on the property as the land about it is absolutely useless. The barrenness of the soil extends for some little distance in all directions and the seed planted close to those stone fences on both farms yields little. These oak trees seem to sap the very life of the soil.”
“Why have the trees not been cut down?” asked Conrad. “I have never encountered any sentiment among the farmers of this state.”
“Why, as the ownership has been in dispute for the past fifty years, no one has liked to take it on himself. And then the trees are so old and of such sturdy growth it would entail a great deal of labor. And there is a foolish superstition attached to that grove—a long time ago a man was badly cut by his own axe, trying to chop down one of the trees—an accident that might occur anywhere—and the villagers attached over-much importance to the incident.”
“Well,” said Conrad, “if the land about The House is useless, why not rent the building itself, or sell it?”
For the first time the mayor looked embarrassed.
“Why, none of the villagers would rent or buy it, as no good land goes with it, and to tell you the truth, it has been found impossible to enter The House!”
“Well,” he amended, “the doors and windows are heavily barred and bolted, and either the keys are in possession of someone who does not care to divulge the secret, or else they have been lost. I have thought that possibly someone was using The House for a bootleg den and had a reason for keeping the curious out but no light has ever been seen there, and no one is ever seen slinking about the place.”
We had passed through the circling ring of sullen oaks and stood before the building.