Gerhardt the Monster-Hunter
Gerhardt’s obsession with the paranormal that led to him becoming a semi-professional monster hunter began when he was barely four years old. His eccentric aunt Grethe invited the whole extended family to stay at her rambling, ranshackle old mansion for Halloween one year. It was a wonderful chance for family to catch up and for the hordes of cousins to meet each other. Much of the family was dispersed over great distances, so this was the first time Gerhardt had ever met most of the cousins who came to stay. The house seemed packed to the rafters with people, and at four, he found himself feeling rather shy and overwhelmed. A huge array of costumes had been provided for the children to find themselves outfits; Gerhardt opted to don a bright orange pumpkin-shaped beret. He’d never seen a pumpkin before and a gigantic one dominated the dining room where it peered over the room from the mantle-piece. In the carved face someone had put an old glass eye; it fascinated him with its shine and the way it seemed to follow him, and when no one was looking, he prised it out of the vegetable socket and popped it in his pocket. Years later, when much else had faded, he still kept the eye, on a little stand on his desk, as a kind of talisman against doubts.
The party was filled with games and jokes and everyone dressed up, including all the adults. Cousin Colin had found a vampire outfit and looked very scary with his fangs and dripping blood; aunt Grethe was a very convincing witch. Ghosts in sheets, zombies, wizards, ghouls and werewolves all gorged on sweets and cakes. By bedtime, Gerhardt had consumed almost his own body weight in candy. As his parents snored away in the big bed and the house fell first quiet and then silent, a raging thirst began to torment him, and taking Teddy and his blanky in hand, he ventured out to find some water.
Houses always seem very different at night, but even so, Gerhardt wandered down what seemed like countless corridors and stair cases, becoming more and more confused and lost in the semi-darkness. A few dim bulbs glowed in cobweb-bestrewn shades, creating more shadows than they banished. Behind him, he was sure he could hear footsteps but he told himself it was just the echo of his own feet on the bare wood floors. He clutched Teddy tighter, because as we all know, teddy-bears are guardians of frightened children and talismans against evil. A night wind blew through the passage way, catching the gauzy curtains and making them billow out as if someone were behind them. The sound of rasping breath from the end of the corridor were the darkness was deepest, made him hold his own breath and hear his heart begin to pound like jungle drums. As his nerves reached breaking point, from the deep shadows stepped two stooping figures. Dressed identically in old-fashioned school frocks, their long lank and dirty hair falling over their faces so that even their eyes were hidden, two thin girls lurched towards him, arms held out and fingers wriggling at him.
It was too much; Gerhardt fled screaming, pyjamas damp with the sudden shock, and ran away as fast as his legs would carry him. Later, his twin cousins Jessica and Jennifer confessed that they had also been out of bed, wandering the house in search of candy their other cousins had missed, but by then Gerhardt and his parents had gone home, and the family became estranged for all sorts of very trivial reasons, so that for Gerhardt, this became the only family gathering he ever attended.
The experience that night scarred him; he became a geography teacher. He took refuge in the routine, the mundane and the predictable for many years; yet a seed had begun to grow, and he started to explore the paranormal. A hobby at first, ordering books from the library, subscribing to many magazines and joining various groups, the arrival of the internet was a great boon to his studies. Eventually, his website dedicated to seeking monsters and spooks, became very successful, possibly due to being targeted by trolls, though not the type that live under bridges and eat goats.
He learned to be very cautious about how he responded to the many messages inviting him to investigate hauntings and sightings of paranormal beasts. Most proved to be pranks or misguided people who probably needed to get their spectacles checked. But sometimes there were ones that seemed so promising he followed them up, laden with his (mostly self-built) equipment and accompanied by his faithful ghost-hunting pooch Bob. Knowing that animals generally sense the presence of departed spirits and discarnate entities, Gerhardt had considered both cats and dogs, but eventually settled on Bob the dog because if nothing else, Bob would always give him an excuse to be out at night without looking like a prowler or a weirdo.
The email from a young couple who had stumbled upon a ruined church and a forgotten crypt intrigued him. The church had become ruinous many years ago, shortly after the final interment in the crypt of a lady whose family had been massacred by an axe-wielding maniac. Unable to forget what she had seen, she had fallen to her death in the river; compassionate lee-way was given to her regarding her burial in hallowed ground, and once the family crypt was resealed, building work hid the entrance. Like many remote country churches it fell into disuse, then disrepair and finally, the lead nicked from the roof, it more or less fell down. But the young couple had found the crypt entrance and had gone down with torches only to see phantoms and figures flitting around. Would Gerhardt like to come and investigate further?
So, weighed down with devices and protective amulets (the old glass eye tucked in his pocket) and with Bob the dog prancing along, Gerhardt arrived at twilight in the overgrown churchyard. There was no sign of his hosts, so he picked his way among the gravestones and table tombs, and tried not to trip up as the ground descended steeply towards the shadowy shell of a church. The ghost-monitor was beeping loudly, and the ectoplasm sensor was blinking, but Bob seemed unperturbed, so he carried on, picking his path with care as the darkness grew ever deeper.
Bob leapt up at him, startling him, and gave a little woof. Something or someone was watching them. Gerhadrt stiffened, a cold sweat breaking out beneath his tweed jacket with the leather elbow patches. Doggedly, he plodded on, when the earth broke open around a tomb with a terrific roar and from the blackness emerged a tall gaunt figure. Red-silk lined the heavy black cloak that swirled around the apparition, whose bloody fangs and white-streaked locks proclaimed his identity as a vampire.
Too scared to even squeak, Gerhardt cringed away, but Bob the dog bounced over and began to jump up at the figure to lick at the hands.
“Oh excellent!” said the vampire. “You’re here in good time. Just in time for dinner too!”
Gerhardt reeled, his heart leaping in his chest, and he staggered back, as the vampire stepped from the hole and came towards him, hand held out.
“It must be almost forty years,” he said. “You have no idea how hard we had to try and track you down. Family feuds are so last century, aren’t they? You can’t have got any letters. Or surely you would have replied.”
Gerhardt felt his skin crawling as if a million ants were running all over him; his eyes began to roll as the greyness flowed over him.
“You’ve not changed a bit,” said the vampire. “Surely you must remember me? I’m Cousin Colin. See, the fangs come out-”
But Gerhardt had fainted. When he came to, Colin had managed to drag him to the terrace of the old mansion, and someone else had fetched a deck chair and some refreshments. Colin held out a goblet of faintly luminous green liquid.
“Here, have some lime juice,” he said. “You’ll feel much better in a minute and then you can come and meet everyone. When Aunt Grethe passed away, she left the house to all of us and we decided to turn it into a themed hotel. We’ve had such smashing Trip Advisor reviews already. Tonight’s our first Halloween since we opened. We all wanted you to be here, so we concocted that tale of the crypt to winkle you out of your hermitage somehow. Come on in, the party is just getting started…”
© Vivienne Tuffnell October 2016
This is the first piece of fiction I’ve shared on the blog for simply ages. I’ve been saving up my short fiction to make into another collection. There’s one in the offing that’s going to be modern fables for grown-ups and another collection of ghostly tales that might be out in time for Halloween next year.
If you fancy some proper spooky stories for this Halloween, you could always try one of the following. Or all of them.