From even the greatest of horrors irony is seldom absent. Some times it enter_irectly into the composition of the events, while sometimes it relates onl_o their fortuitous position among persons and places. The latter sort i_plendidly exemplified by a case in the ancient city of Providence, where i_he late forties Edgar Allan Poe used to sojourn often during his unsuccessfu_ooing of the gifted poetess, Mrs. Whitman. Poe generally stopped at th_ansion House in Benefit Street - the renamed Golden Ball Inn whose roof ha_heltered Washington, Jefferson, and Lafayette - and his favourite walk le_orthward along the same street to Mrs. Whitman's home and the neighbourin_illside churchyard of St. John's whose hidden expanse of eighteenth-centur_ravestones had for him a peculiar fascination.
Now the irony is this. In this walk, so many times repeated, the world'_reatest master of the terrible and the bizarre was obliged to pass _articular house on the eastern side of the street; a dingy, antiquate_tructure perched on the abruptly rising side hill, with a great unkept yar_ating from a time when the region was partly open country. It does not appea_hat he ever wrote or spoke of it, nor is there any evidence that he eve_oticed it. And yet that house, to the two persons in possession of certai_nformation, equals or outranks in horror the wildest phantasy of the geniu_ho so often passed it unknowingly, and stands starkly leering as a symbol o_ll that is unutterably hideous.
The house was - and for that matter still is - of a kind to attract th_ttention of the curious. Originally a farm or semi-farm building, it followe_he average New England colonial lines of the middle eighteenth century - th_rosperous peaked-roof sort, with two stories and dormerless attic, and wit_he Georgian doorway and interior paneling dictated by the progress of tast_t that time. It faced south, with one gable and buried to the lower window_n the east ward rising hill, and the other exposed to the foundations towar_he street. Its construction, over a century and a half ago, had followed th_rading and straightening of the road in that especial vicinity; for Benefi_treet - at first called Back Street - was laid out as a lane winding amongs_he graveyards of the first settlers, and straightened only when the remova_f the bodies to the North Burial Ground made it decently possible to cu_hrough the old family plots.
At the start, the western wall had lain some twenty feet up a precipitous law_rom the roadway; but a widening of the street at about the time of th_evolution sheared off most of the intervening space, exposing the foundation_o that a brick basement wall had to be made, giving the deep cellar a stree_rontage with the door and two windows above ground, close to the new line o_ublic travel. When the sidewalk was laid out a century ago the last of th_ntervening space was removed; and Poe in his walks must have seen only _heer ascent of dull grey brick flush with the sidewalk and surmounted at _eight of ten feet by the antique shingled bulk of the house proper.
The farm-like grounds extended back very deeply up the hill, al most t_heaton Street. The space south of the house, abutting on Benefit Street, wa_f course greatly above the existing sidewalk level, forming a terrace bounde_y a high bank wall of damp, mossy stone pierced by a steep flight of narro_teps which led inward be tween canyon-like surfaces to the upper region o_angy lawn, rheumy brick walls, and neglected gardens whose dismantled cemen_rns, rusted kettles fallen from tripods of knotty sticks, and simila_araphernalia set off the weather beaten front door with its broken fanlight,
rotting Ionic pilasters, and wormy triangular pediment.
What I heard in my youth about the shunned house was merely that people die_here in alarmingly great numbers. That, I was told, was why the origina_wners had moved out some twenty years after building the place. It wa_lainly unhealthy, perhaps because of the dampness and fungous growth in th_ellar, the general sickish smell, the draughts of the hallways, or th_uality of the well and pump water. These things were bad enough, and thes_ere all that gained belief among the person whom I knew. Only the notebook_f my antiquarian uncle, Dr. Elihu Whipple, revealed to me at length th_arker, vaguer surmises which formed an undercurrent of folk- lore among old-
time servants and humble folk, surmises which never travelled far, and whic_ere largely forgotten when Providence grew to be a metropolis with a shiftin_odern population.
The general fact is, that the house was never regarded by the solid part o_he community as in any real sense "haunted." There were no widespread tale_f rattling chains, cold currents of air, extinguished lights, or faces at th_indow. Extremists sometimes said the house was "unlucky," but that is as fa_s even they went. What was really beyond dispute is that a frightfu_roportion of persons died there; or more accurately, had died there, sinc_fter some peculiar happenings over sixty years ago the building had becom_eserted through the sheer impossibility of renting it. These persons were no_ll cut off suddenly by any one cause; rather did it seem that their vitalit_as insidiously sapped, so that each one died the sooner from whateve_endency to weakness he may have naturally had. And those who did not di_isplayed in varying degree a type of anaemia or consumption, and sometimes _ecline of the mental faculties, which spoke ill for the salubriousness of th_uilding. Neighbouring houses, it must be added, seemed entirely free from th_oxious quality.
This much I knew before my insistent questioning led my uncle to show me th_otes which finally embarked us both on our hideous investigation. In m_hildhood the shunned house was vacant, with barren, gnarled and terrible ol_rees, long, queerly pale grass and nightmarishly misshapen weeds in the hig_erraced yard where birds never lingered. We boys used to overrun the place,
and I can still recall my youthful terror not only at the morbid strangenes_f this sinister vegetation, but at the eldritch atmosphere and odour of th_ilapidated house, whose unlocked front door was often entered in quest o_hudders. The small-paned windows were largely broken, and a nameless air o_esolation hung round the precarious panel ling, shaky interior shutters,
peeling wallpaper, falling plaster, rickety staircases, and such fragments o_attered furniture as still remained. The dust and cobwebs added their touc_f the fearful; and brave indeed was the boy who would voluntarily ascend th_adder to the attic, a vast raftered length lighted only by small blinkin_indows in the gable ends, and filled with a massed wreckage of chests,
chairs, and spinning-wheels which infinite years of deposit had shrouded an_estooned into monstrous and hellish shapes.
But after all, the attic was not the most terrible part of the house. It wa_he dank, humid cellar which somehow exerted the strongest repulsion on us,
even though it was wholly above ground on the street side, with only a thi_oor and window-pierced brick wall to separate it from the busy sidewalk. W_carcely knew whether to haunt it in spectral fascination, or to shun it fo_he sake of our souls and our sanity. For one thing, the bad odour of th_ouse was strongest there; and for another thing, we did not like the whit_ungous growths which occasionally sprang up in rainy summer weather from th_ard earth floor. Those fungi, grotesquely like the vegetation in the yar_utside, were truly horrible in their outlines; detest able parodies o_oadstools and Indian pipes, whose like we had never seen in any othe_ituation. They rotted quickly, and at one stage became slightl_hosphorescent; so that nocturnal passers-by sometimes spoke of witch-fire_lowing behind the broken panes of the foetor-spreading windows.
We never - even in our wildest Hallowe'en moods - visited this cellar b_ight, but in some of our daytime visits could detect the phosphorescence,
especially when the day was dark and wet. There was also a subtler thing w_ften thought we detected - a very strange thing which was, however, merel_uggestive at most. I refer to a sort of cloudy whitish pattern on the dir_loor - a vague, shifting deposit of mould or nitre which we sometimes though_e could trace amidst the sparse fungous growths near the huge fireplace o_he basement kitchen. Once in a while it struck us that this patch bore a_ncanny resemblance to a doubled-up human figure, though generally no suc_inship existed, and often there was no whitish deposit whatever. .On _ertain rainy afternoon when this illusion seemed phenomenally strong, an_hen, in addition, I had fancied I glimpsed a kind of thin, yellowish,
shimmering exhalation rising from the nitrous pattern toward the yawnin_ireplace, I spoke to my uncle about the matter. He smiled at this od_onceit, but it seemed that his smile was tinged with reminiscence. Later _eard that a similar notion entered into some of the wild ancient tales of th_ommon folk - a notion likewise alluding to ghoulish, wolfish shapes taken b_moke from the great chimney, and queer contours assumed by certain of th_inuous tree-roots that thrust their way into the cellar through the loos_oundation-stones.