The House Detective: by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector
Dear Barry: You never do columns that recognize holidays. Even at Christmas time and the 4th of July, your articles are always about property defects, real estate disclosure, and home inspections. Now that Halloween is here, how about a spooky house story? Something in keeping with the season. Surely you’ve inspected a few creaky old houses. How about it? Bram
Dear Bram: Home inspections tend to be business-as-usual events: checking the foundations, roofing, plumbing, electrical wiring, etc. But there was one inspection that I recall with dread and discomfort; an inspection where property defects ceased to be of concern, where routine was over-shadowed by fear, where disclosures were eclipsed by a frenzied struggle to flee the premises. And it just so happened that this inspection occurred on the eve of Halloween.
The house was an old, neglected, two-story Victorian, with leaning fences, tangled vegetation, and dense vines engulfing the walls, windows, and roof. The property, in escrow as a probate sale, had been the subject of headlines when the owner was found hanging from the rafters of the foyer. The police investigation had not determined whether death was from suicide or foul play, and the body’s subsequent disappearance from the local mortuary had unsettled the community.
The buyers and agent were unable to attend the inspection, but the agent had left a key under the mat. Bracing myself in the cold gloom of the dilapidated porch, I pressed open the massive door, entered slowly, and commenced what I had hoped would be a routine inspection. But then, beneath the lofty ceiling of the dark interior, I beheld the silhouette of the noosed rope, still attached to a high, dusty beam. A foul odor of decay permeated the stagnant air, and I recalled reading that the previous owner had spent many days at the end of that rope before the neighbors had found him. The prospect of working alone in those dim, silent rooms unsettled me, and my foremost thought was to complete the job and get out of that ominous place.
A steep, ladder-like stairway descended to the unpaved basement floor, where I proceeded to inspect the moss-covered stone foundation walls, but the sounds of creaking timbers echoed throughout the building, disrupting my attention. In spite of this distraction, I busied myself and tried to dismiss my uneasiness. But then there seemed to be a different sound, somewhere at the far end of the upstairs hallway. At first, it blended with the incessant creaking of the structure, but the difference was unmistakable. This was not the sound of old rafters. It was the slow but steady cadence of footsteps. Someone was in the house.
Hoping to hear the voice of the real estate agent, I called out, “Hello, is someone upstairs?” No one answered, but the footsteps continued toward the basement entrance and suddenly stopped at the top of the stairwell. I called again, “Hello, who’s there?” Again, no answer. Then, a shadow appeared on the stairs and moved slowly, silently downward.
A dark, disfigured form gradually took shape, the head laid awkwardly against the left shoulder. Yet my attention was drawn from this to some shadowy, indistinct object that dangled from his left hand. As he reached the basement floor, a putrid foulness filled the room, so that breathing became forced and repugnant. Gripped with horror and disbelief, I was unable to move. But then, the eyes of that disjointed head found me, the lips formed a sardonic grin, dripping with thick gray saliva, and my mobility was wakened by a wave of terror. Grasping the top of the nearest foundation wall, I squeezed into the narrow space between the ground and the floor framing, seeking desperately for any path of escape. But as I looked back, the advancing form appeared atop the foundation wall and steadily pursued me into the dark crawlspace.
I scrambled breathlessly past rows of old stone piers, reaching a dead-end corner where the foundation walls joined, and realized with desperate finality that I could flee no further. Somewhere is the nearby darkness, I could hear that half dead form crawling toward me. Clutching at my flashlight, I pressed the switch and was startled by the impending nearness of the face: the glare of cold eyes, the glint of gray teeth, the viscous fluid that dripped from grimacing lips — and that mysterious object gripped in his left hand and dragging on the ground as he approached.
Terror pounded in my chest as I faced those final, hopeless, remaining seconds. The feet between us became inches. His right hand gripped my ankle with frightful force as he drew forward. Then his left hand extended the old gunny sack that he held, and the acrid smell of cold breath filled my face, as he cried, “Trick or Treat!!”