"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Haunted Rest House; Or, The Dangers of Developing Cursed Real Estate

Frank Hives



In the days of pre-World War I Colonial Nigeria, a man named Frank Hives served as District Commissioner on the upper regions of the Cross River. Some years later, his livelier reminiscences of this period were collected in a 1930 book, "Ju-Ju and Justice in Nigeria." It contains many colorful and curious anecdotes, of which the weirdest was related in the chapter titled, "The Haunted Rest House." It is a memorable first-hand account of someone who does not believe in ghosts, does not want to believe in ghosts...but concedes that on one particular night, he met one very angry ghost.

Hives' brush with The Weird began with a tour of the communities under his rule. Nothing of any importance happened until he approached the town of Isuingo, in the Bende district. The place had "none too good a reputation." The residents were unfriendly and hostile to any outside interference. The roads and water supply were bad, and although the "rest house" had been built only two years before, it too was decrepit. Accordingly, Hives sent ahead of him instructions to have the house cleaned and repaired for his use.

When he arrived at Isuingo, he found that the rest house had indeed been cleaned, but not with any willing spirit on the part of the locals. Hives noted that they looked "sulky and decidedly unfriendly." He was told that the local chiefs had been most reluctant to have the rest house repaired. In fact, Hives noticed, no one wanted to be anywhere near the place. When he summoned the town's chiefs to meet with him, they very clearly looked as if they'd rather be anyplace else in the world. When Hives asked them about this curious reluctance, one of the patriarchs said hesitantly, "We do not mean to be disrespectful; but we did not want you to come here--it means trouble." Hives was not able to get them to say just what sort of "trouble" they were expecting.

After a day of dealing with routine administrative duties, Hives had dinner and retired to the rest house. The two-room dwelling had walls of red mud six feet high and a palm-leaf roof, with servants' quarters about thirty yards away. All seemed perfectly ordinary until evening, when Hives began to notice a "particularly unpleasant odour." He was unable to find any source for the smell, but it somehow pervaded the entire house. It reminded him of the odor of decomposing bodies. Hives instructed his servants to find where the awful smell came from and, hopefully, get rid of the source, but after a very perfunctory search--the servants shared in the unexplained universal antipathy to the house--they announced that they could find nothing. The men all escaped to their own quarters as soon as they possibly could.

Hives found himself wishing he could join them. In addition to the mysterious smell, he was feeling "an unnatural something about the place that gave me an eerie feeling. I found myself peering into the gloomy corners, though what I expected to see I could not have described." He forced himself to ignore his increasing unease and went to bed.

Sleep, however, proved impossible. He kept hearing what he could only describe as "inaudible sounds" coming from the darkness around him. He kept listening for something--"for what, I could not have said." Then he heard a knock outside his veranda. It was his cook, standing outside the house holding a lantern, and trembling from fright. The cook begged Hives to sleep elsewhere. It was a "bad place," he stammered. Men have died there. A "bad thing" lived there.

Hives was beginning to find that all too believable. The "corpsey" smell was becoming stronger and stronger, and the whole atmosphere was giving him a fine case of the creeps. He would have most happily slept elsewhere, if there had been anyplace else to go. Besides, if he were to flee, he feared this act of cowardice would lower his "prestige" among the people he had been assigned to rule. Hives decided there was nothing to be done but stick it out, and if that meant enduring the most unpleasant night of his life, well, so be it.

After his cook had fled to barricade himself in his own hut, Hives felt more uncomfortable than ever. He could not shake the feeling that someone--some thing was watching him. He took up his lamp and made a tour of the house, finding nothing. The sensation of being spied on persisted, however. After making sure his lamp was burning well--the idea of being in complete darkness was unthinkable--he loaded his revolver, put it under his pillow, and lay himself down. He felt like he was in the middle of "a tiny oasis of light in the midst of a desert of black nothingness." The night was completely silent. Hives longed for sleep, yet feared losing consciousness amid such a menacing atmosphere. He was not a superstitious man, but he had to acknowledge that there was something uniquely eerie about the rest house. The locals' aversion to the place was completely justified. And it was so quiet. Too quiet. "The stillness was appalling. I could have yelled with the horror of it."

Time passed. Hives must have managed to drop off into sleep, because he suddenly found himself jerked wide awake. He felt a sudden sense of panic--at what, he could not say. He heard a noise at the end of the veranda. He grabbed his gun and warily sat up in bed. As he stared into the gloom, he saw a chair suddenly dragged back against the wall, and toppled over by an invisible hand.

By this point, Hives would have been very happy to use his gun, if he could only have seen something to shoot.

He assumed--he hoped--that this was just some unfriendly townspeople trying to scare him away. He stepped outside and grabbed a handful of sand. He scattered it around the floor of the rest house. Anyone who entered the dwelling would leave tracks, and Hives would finally know his enemy. He settled back on the bed, and was just drifting back to sleep when he noticed that the nauseating smell had suddenly become stronger. It seemed to be approaching him. Hives began to feel "a sense of some impending horror that sent cold shivers down my spine." He was too terrified to even move. After a moment, he saw something moving just outside the veranda. It appeared to be the head of a very old native man. The rest of the body gradually appeared, crawling slowly on hands and knees, and trailing a length of rope behind it. It was utterly silent. The being eventually came within the radius of the lamplight, enabling Hives to see the intruder clearly.

Hives desperately regretted this closer look. It was the most appalling thing he had ever seen. The creature's face was mottled with pock marks. The nose had been eaten away. The naked body was "like old and mouldy leather, shrivelled and grey in patches." The lifeless, staring eyes were even worse. Hives soon realized that he was staring at a partly decomposed corpse.

A partly decomposed corpse that was crawling in his direction.

As Hives trembled in terror, the creature slowly got to its feet, until it stood upright. Still holding the rope, it lifted its withered arms, gripped the wall plate of the veranda, and began to climb the post supporting the roof. Hives finally found the power to speak. He yelled at the creature to stop. It ignored him. Hives fired two shots at the intruder. They had absolutely no effect. It continued to climb. Hives moved within only three or four feet of the thing and fired again. Useless.

Hives finally had to accept that he was dealing with something not at all of this world. He fled the house, screaming for his servants, for the police, for anyone at all. Hives' entourage was not at all eager to come anywhere near the house. They all were in such a state of fear that they looked ready to flee for their lives.

Hives declared that a thief had entered the house, and ordered that the dwelling be surrounded. Then, accompanied by two servants, he made a thorough search of the residence. Nothing was found, although he noticed that the horrible smell had somewhat dissipated. The sand "traps" he had laid did not have a single mark on them. He found bullet holes where the "thing" had been crawling, proof that the shots must have gone right through the creature. It "made the whole thing more mysterious than ever."

What was it that had entered his room that night? A ghost? Hives found that hard to believe. The thing had certainly looked solid enough. And he had never heard of a smelly ghost before. On the other hand, what he had seen--and shot at--was clearly not human.

When morning finally came, he was determined to find out anything he could about that rest house. He sent his interpreter into town to find someone who might be willing to tell him about the house's history. The interpreter came back with a young man named Benjamin Oku, a clerk at a trading firm in Calabar.  He spoke English and was willing--in return for a "present" of money--to tell all he knew about the rest house.

The story Oku told was this: Long ago, before the arrival of the white men, the site of the rest house had been a "ju ju sacrificial grove." The ju ju priest was a "very, very bad man," and had sacrificed many people in the name of his spiritual practices. The priest was greatly feared in the area, as "he was not at all particular" about how he chose his victims. About two years before Hives' visit, some British troops had camped out for some weeks in Isuingu. It was their commander who had ordered that the rest house be built on this "sacrificial grove." The locals had begged him to pick another site for the house, but, thinking that this was the best way to stamp out "the superstitious and savage customs," the officer refused to change his mind.

The old priest went into a fury when he learned how his sacred ground was being violated, and he protested vehemently. The officer retaliated by forcing him to assist in the site's demolition. That night, the priest cast spells putting a curse on the place. No white man, he vowed, would ever have a peaceful moment in that sacrilegious rest house. On the day after it was completed, the priest was seen pacing around the house, repeating his spells and wailing loudly. The next morning, he hanged himself inside the dwelling. The locals had been too terrified to even cut down the body, so it simply hung there until it rotted. It eventually fell piece-meal to the ground, where it was eaten by pigs.

Afterwards, many people returning to their farms after dark would see the ghost of the old man, dragging the rope he had used to commit suicide. No one ever willingly went near the rest house.

Hives had to admit that he couldn't blame them. He summoned the local chiefs.  Without mentioning anything of his horrific experience the previous night, he announced that the rest house was in appalling condition. He proposed to burn it down, and build a new house on a different site.

The men enthusiastically agreed that it was an excellent idea.

Hives personally torched the cursed rest house, watching it burn until only a few charred uprights remained, and oversaw the construction of the new dwelling. He slept peacefully in it on a number of occasions. The former sacrificial grove forever remained a shunned place, and grew overgrown and decrepit.

"What was it I saw that night?" Hives wondered. "An elemental? The earth-bound spirit of the old priest paying for the crimes he had committed during his life? And how to account for the horrible and indescribable stench that pervaded the house when the apparition was 'appearing?'

"I cannot."

7 comments:

  1. I haven't heard an inaudible sound in ages. On the other hand I know the smell of a decomposing corpse way too well from a few instances at work. Don't shoot corpses, the best you can do is make them angry, the worst - you don't wan to think about.

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    1. Um, do I dare ask where you work?

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    2. 30+ years in local public health which includes responding to complaint about bad odors (ain't they bad though!)

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  2. Wow, that was a creepy one. I wouldn't have lasted as long as Hives did in that house, but then, empires aren't built on shaky nerves. I'm sure his reputation as an intelligent and sensible man rose after that.

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  3. another story about ghostly odors. http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/FurRoo.shtml


    The Furnished room by O. Henry

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  4. Now that's a proper ghost story!

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