Since it’s World Goth Day, I wanted to share this macabre story of foul play, family curses, and graveyard disturbances, originally published in American Gothic Short Stories:
Adrian Hawthorne died, and was subsequently buried, the way he spent the last months of his life – hidden away, a wealthy family’s secret shame.
The Hawthornes were the last old money family in a town that had long ceased producing any new money. As with many families of their ilk, the last few generations had been unremarkable: Linus Hawthorne, a widower and the final patriarch of the line, had some dealings in real estate, but spent most of his time administering the family fortune; his daughter, a bright enough young woman, was studying to be an architect; and Adrian, his youngest, had been an aspiring artist before his untimely death. Adrian had never exhibited his art, so it is unknown what sort of talent he possessed; if he had any, it had deserted him long ago.
Adrian’s last days were spent in solitude, although not peacefully. Awakened by nightmares, he would rage in the night, turning his wrath towards any unhappy servants who dared check in on him. By the spring of his final year, the staff stopped checking in. Unable to bear the mutterings of the house, Adrian spent his nights outside, wandering the woods in a state of profound disquiet.
The instant he died, screaming and raving, his sister woke up a hundred miles away, clutching her heart.
The Wednesday after Adrian’s passing, and the three men informally known as the town’s “death committee” gathered at a diner on Moore Street for their weekly lunch.
The committee was made up of Mort Blake, the coroner; Spencer Greevely, the mortician; and Damien O’Malley, the gravedigger. These men were not the sort one would generally expect to see socializing together. Spencer fancied himself a cosmopolitan, while Mort was firmly of the working class; Damien, the youngest of the group, was the most inscrutable, a morbidly philosophical vulgarian who confounded them both. They didn’t enjoy each other’s company, per se, but bonded over their similar professions, which were unsuitable for discussion in other company.
An air of suspicion and some bitterness hung over this week’s proceedings. The night before, Mort had walked into the local bar and paid for a round – an unusual show of generosity for the frugal public servant. Something was amiss, and some of the crasser patrons had suggested that Mort’s sudden windfall must have something to do with the unfortunate artist. Making the whole thing even odder was that the wealthy family of the deceased had refused the services of the local funeral home, opting for a quickie service and burial that was unbefitting of their status.
By lunchtime Wednesday, Spencer was still smarting from the snub. “It’s not like they don’t have the money!” he lamented, stirring a pinch of salt into his coffee.
The coroner raised an eyebrow. Suddenly aware of his petulance, the mortician added: “Of course, I’m not upset for myself – I just don’t think it’s a dignified way to honour one’s departed son. Even if the boy was somewhat of a black sheep.”
The mortician shrugged, taking a large bite from his tuna sandwich. “They probably don’t realize how grubby a corpse looks after a few days on a slab,” he remarked, crassly.
Damien laughed and Greevely cringed, craning his neck to ensure none of the other patrons had overheard. Other than the committee and the kitchen staff, the only other occupants of the restaurant were two old men from the lumber mill, both deaf as bats. The mortician settled back down and took another sip of his coffee.
“I daresay, Adrian wasn’t looking too hot when he was alive,” Damien added.
Both Mort and Spencer looked up from their meals. “What are you talking about?”
Damien shrugged. “I saw him a few weeks ago. He didn’t look great.”
“Adrian was an invalid,” Spencer corrected. “He hadn’t left his room in months.”
“That’s what old Linus is saying,” Damien said, a perversion of a smirk crossing his pallid features. “I was walking through the cemetery last month around midnight…”
“And what, precisely, were you doing there at that hour?” Spencer interrupted, irritation in his voice.
The gravedigger glowered. “Business. Now do you want the story or not?” Spencer shut up.
Damien continued. “So, anyway, I was at the edge of the yard when I heard something crack behind me, like someone stepping on a branch. So, I turned around. And that’s when I saw young Adrian Hawthorne skulking around right next to his family’s mausoleum.”
The men fixed their gazes to him, half-suspecting he was pulling their legs.
“Now, why would he do that?” Mort asked.
Damien shrugged. “I figured he was doing the tortured artist thing – wandering around, brooding about death and the decaying family line. I didn’t know he was sick.”
“Oh, come on,” Spencer said. “The whole town knew something was wrong with him.”
“I don’t get my gossip ‘til the body’s cold,” the gravedigger retorted. “But by then I know everything.”
He glanced out the restaurant window as a cluster of dried leaves, lifted by the wind, brushed against the glass before continuing to somersault along the sidewalk. “That said, the Hawthorne kid didn’t look well. He was talking to himself and staggering around like an old hunchback. Say, Mort, how old was the kid anyway?”
“Older than you,” Mort replied. “Almost twenty-eight.”
Damien shook his head. “Geez. What’d he die of?”
Mort picked up a spare crust of bread and began to dramatically wipe every spare glob of mayonnaise off his plate. He replied, “Long illness,” without looking up.
Damien and Spencer exchanged a quizzical glance. The mortician shook another pinch of salt into his coffee cup.
“Why do you do that, anyway?” Damien asked.
“Cuts the bitterness,” Spencer replied, his eyes drifting towards the coroner, who’d grown oddly quiet.
“You don’t say,” Damien replied, picking up a saltshaker and eying it suspiciously.
Mort remained fixed on the remains of his sandwich.
“So,” Damien said, holding the shaker experimentally above his mug, “I’ve shared a tidbit of insensitive gossip about the dead. Someone else’s turn now – Spence, we know that the Hawthornes are giving you the cold shoulder, so that begs the question of what they paid Mort for.”
Mort jumped, his dishes rattling as his knee flinched upwards and hit the underside of the table. The man winced. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Damien raised an eyebrow. “Don’t evade us, Morty,” Spencer said. “We weren’t the only ones who thought it odd when you bought that round of pitchers.”
“And the mirthless way you went about it,” Damien chimed in. “Like it was blood money and you just wanted to get rid of it.”
Mort was about to respond defensively when Spencer piped up. “Damien has a point. I was chatting with the bartender, and he said he thought he saw guilt in your eyes.”
That last part was a bald-faced lie, but it shook Mort’s resolve. His eyes fell to his crumbs. “Linus Hawthorne called me up the day after Adrian died. Wanted to meet with me.” The man sighed. “He did offer me money, but it wasn’t about that. He just looked so desperate that I didn’t think any good could come of refusing him.”
Spencer leaned forward hungrily, his voice a near-hiss. “What did he offer you?”
Mort looked into the eyes of his confidants, as if evaluating their hearts for the first time in many years of acquaintance. Damien’s eyes widened with anticipation.
Then, in an agonized moan, Mort confessed, “He paid me not to examine the body.”
The Hawthorne house was set on a steep hill overlooking the highway. A set of rock-cut stairs formed a steep, snaking path, more like a cliff than a walkway. The driveway was well-paved but treacherous, and as Damien forced his car up the incline, he got the impression that one always would have to go out of their way to enter or leave the property.
No wonder the Hawthornes were all batty, the gravedigger thought.
The front door was an elaborate wrought iron construction, engraved with impressions of gargoyles and other grotesque protector-spirits. He was greeted on the stoop not by a servant, but by a cat, a pure-white creature with piercing green eyes, who proceeded to weave its way between his legs, impertinently meowing for entry. He was staring confusedly at the cat when the door swung open, a grey-eyed butler on the other side.
The butler ignored Damien and swept the cat up in his arms, cooing at the animal before remembering himself and meeting the gravedigger’s eyes. “Apologies. She wasn’t supposed to be out.”
“Good thing I showed up when I did, then,” Damien replied.
The butler blinked. “She would have found her way home regardless,” he replied, a hint of robotic hostility in his slate-coloured eyes.
He probably thinks I expect a reward, Damien thought. Rich bastards are always worried about that kind of thing.
“I’m the gravedigger,” Damien said, eager to alleviate the tension.
“Eloquently put,” the butler said.
“There ain’t a lot of eloquence in my job.”
Was there a hint of alarm in the butler’s expression? Or was it anger?
The man sputtered: “Well, mister – ”
“Damien,” the gravedigger replied.
“Mister…Damien. I can assure you that my master expects your duties to be carried out with as much professionalism and taste as possible, given the circumstances.”
“Professionalism, I can do,” Damien retorted. “Taste is Spence Greevley’s territory.”
The butler scowled. “I assume you know that the Hawthornes have chosen not to solicit the services of Mr. Greevley. It is to be a simple funeral – family only.”
Will I be dumping him in the mass grave with the paupers, then? Damien thought, and bit back the urge to turn the thoughts into words. He frowned; perhaps Spencer’s cattiness was starting to catch.
Instead, Damien said, “Understood. Will that be all?”
“No. My master would like to meet with you.” The butler blinked, and his expression softened, as if this brief fluttering of the eyelids had waved away all but the faintest hint of irritation. “I fear we keep him waiting.”
Damien extended an arm towards the hallway. “Lead the way.”
The inside of the house was even grimmer and more daunting than the exterior. The hallways were cavernous and had been decorated at great expense but without much taste. The high walls were panelled in wood so dark it was almost black, ornamented by gaudy bronze sculptures of knights and nothing, hung with tall, stern paintings of dead Hawthornes and doubly dead greyhound dogs. Some long-ago patriarch who’d fancied himself a medieval lord had decorated this place a hundred years ago, and no one since had seen fit to update it.
Some houses are tombs, Damien mused; just holding cells for successive generations of decreasingly impressive families, places where mediocre heirs shelter themselves from the elements while they wait around to join their ancestors in the crypt. The big family reunion, six feet under.
The butler showed Damien into a large study and motioned for him to sit opposite a bulky wooden desk. The walls of this room were blocked by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, packed with dozens of rows of ancient leather-bound tomes, unopened and unread. Above the desk, a large, greyish chandelier hung from the ceiling, emitting neither brightness nor beauty.
After a few minutes, Linus Hawthorne walked in.
Much like the house, Linus was elegantly-dressed but decrepit; as he limped around to the other side of the desk and lowered himself gingerly into his chair, the man gave Damien the impression, somehow, of being covered in dust.
“So,” Linus said, fixing Damien with an intense, inscrutable stare. “You’re the gravedigger.”
“Yes,” said Damien, taken aback by the man’s bluntness. He remembered Mort’s impression of the man, and found himself in agreement. Linus Hawthorne looked much more haggard than any of the rich men Damien had ever dealt with, like he’d been to the depths and clawed his way back up. It wasn’t just grief; there was a manic intensity in his eyes that reminded Damien of an insane man he’d once seen preaching on a street corner.
Hawthorne spoke in a jagged, stilted tone, as if reading from a script that was painful to him, with no pleasantries to ease the transition. “My son’s body is already in its casket,” Linus croaked. “There will be no showing. His was not an easy death, and I don’t believe he would have wanted anyone to see him in his current state.”
Damien nodded, wondering idly who had been made to lift the corpse into the casket. He couldn’t see Hawthorne doing it himself, but surely he hadn’t assigned the grisly task to a servant?
Hawthorne was still speaking. “It is imperative that no one is to see or touch the body. The casket is not to be opened for any reason. You may have heard that the coroner received similar instructions.”
Damien feigned surprise. “Did he?”
Linus narrowed his eyes. “Yes. I assume he mentioned something to you.”
“I hadn’t heard anything,” Damien replied.
“Very good,” Linus responded, not quite convinced. “Either way, I’m prepared to compensate your generously for your discretion on this matter.”
Damien interrupted. “You said the body’s already in the casket? In that case, I’m perfectly capable of shepherding it to the mausoleum intact – you don’t need to pay me extra not to crack open the coffin and take a peak.”
Hawthorne regarded him harshly. “I’m well aware, Mr. O’Malley – and you need not confirm nor deny – that it is not uncommon for medical students to contract men such as yourself to help them acquire research cadavers. I would be willing to pay double their going rate to ensure that my son does not meet this fate.”
The gravedigger’s hackles were up now. “That won’t be necessary, Mr. Hawthorne. I don’t deal with any of that.”
Hawthorne looked suddenly touched. “You’re an honest man,” Linus replied. “I wonder – would you be willing to perform another service for me?”
Damien’s veins turned to ice. “And what would that be?”
“You maintain the grounds at the cemetery, correct?”
“So, you patrol the property often?”
“Yes,” Damien said, thinking the man was going to ask him to spruce up the plot along the mausoleum, or to take extra care of the grave of some Hawthorne familiar who hadn’t warranted inclusion in the family crypt. Instead, the old man extended an arthritic hand leftward, fingering an ornately framed photo of a young woman.
“This is my daughter, Lillian. She’s away at school but she’ll be in town briefly for the funeral. Do you think you would recognize her if you saw her in person?”
Damien studied the photo. It was black and white, and the girl was dressed in elegant formal clothes that looked to him like period garb. Her face was pale, with a long, slender nose ending on a slight hook. That nose, as well as her wide, protruding eyes, slightly too large for her face, gave her a sort of emaciated look. Otherwise, though, she was very pretty.
“Probably,” he said.
The old man nodded. “If you ever see my daughter at the gravesite, I want you to turn her away.”
Damien blinked in surprise. “I’m not sure I understand.”
Linus seemed annoyed. “I don’t want my daughter visiting Adrian’s grave. I know it’s an odd request, but you’ll have to take my word that I have the best of intentions. Lillian was hit very hard by Adrian’s illness, and I don’t think it’s healthy for her to dwell on it further.”
“May I ask – what illness did Adrian have?”
“A family illness,” Hawthorne replied. “Nothing sensational, I’m afraid, but not very pleasant either. I’m glad Lillian was in Boston for the end of it.” The old man gazed lovingly at the photo, running his finger across a grey cheek. He looked back at the gravedigger. “But enough brooding on that! Can you help me, or not?”
“I think I can,” Damien said, immediately regretting his anwer
The old man’s face lit up. He reached into a drawer, pulled out a stack of bills, and thrust them into the gravedigger’s hand. And then he called the butler.
And thus, Damien left the Hawthorne Estate, mind whirling as he tried to make sense of what exactly he had agreed to, and wondered how much this bribe would eventually cost him.
The funeral was very small and very brief.
Lillian Hawthorne sat in the front row, closest to the casket; an elderly servant sat adjacent, between father and daughter. A handful of other servants filled the rows behind them, and some very elderly, out-of-town relatives brought up the rear.
Rites were read, followed by a few stilted eulogies, and the coffin was handed off to Damien. On his way into the mausoleum, the gravedigger locked eyes with Lillian Hawthorne, before turning to stare into the crypt.
Lillian didn’t try to visit the grave the next day, or the day after that, and the gravedigger almost thought his duties had been discharged. That was fine by Damien; he didn’t exactly relish the idea of turning a grieving woman away from her brother’s grave.
Two days after the funeral, night fell colder and darker than it had all winter. It was such a night in which no one, save for the insane or the up-to-no-good, would leave their homes, and even the hardest of deviants would hesitate to cross the threshold of an isolated cemetery surrounded only by woods, and guarded solely by a vacant Presbyterian church.
It was on this night that Damien finally encountered Lillian, skulking around the mausoleum the way her brother had, weeks before his own death.
At first, Damien thought he was hallucinating. The woman was still dressed as she had been at the funeral, cloaked in a long black trench, her face masked by a wispy black veil hanging from a pillbox hat. The only deviations were her gloves and her shoes; the conservative patent leather flats she’d worn at the service had been replaced by a pair of heavy black boots, more suitable for the night and the cold.
Damien was about to walk over to the crypt and shoo her away, when she swiftly turned and darted straight towards him. His first instinct was to run, as it always was when he was being chased. Then he regained his senses and stood stock still and waited as she walked up to him, her veiled hat in hands, her face bare and stricken.
It occurred to him that his presence there, at this hour, was as anomalous as hers; thankfully, she was too concerned by her own tragedy to request an explanation.
“You’re the groundskeeper here, right?” she demanded. “I’m Lillian Hawthorne.”
“I know,” Damien said.
If the remark struck her as odd, she didn’t show it. “You handled my brother’s funeral.”
“In a sense,” Damien replied warily, remembering the indignation of the mortician.
There was an urgency in her face, and a flash of red seemed to swell within her cheeks. “So, you saw him then? The body, I mean.”
Damien shook his head. “All I did was deliver the coffin into the crypt.”
Lillian’s face fell. “Then who -?”
“No one I know.”
At that point, silence would have been wise. Instead, the gravedigger’s gossipy streak revealed itself. “The town coroner never examined the body, and your father didn’t hire a mortician. I don’t know who dumped the corpse in the casket—” – Lillian cringed at his crass phrasing – “—but I’d guess one of your father’s servants, or maybe even your father himself. He was very intent that no one see that body.”
And Lillian slumped to the ground, her body sliding down the wall of the crypt and landing indelicately on the leaf-strewn, frostbitten earth. It was not a swoon; rather, her face wore an expression of defeat and resignation. Damien was wondering if he should comfort her when, just as suddenly as she had sat down, she stood up, pouncing on him like a cat.
Damien stepped back, his beady eyes meeting hers, shining abnormally bright and large in the gloom. Her index finger was extended inches away from his nose. “And you all just went along with it! Why? Why did you let him get away with it?”
Damien blinked. “Get away with –?”
And then he understood.
Damien was not easily spooked, but tonight the Hawthorne crypt spooked him. So, he took Lillian by the elbow (she was trembling, but it was adrenaline rather than fear) and escorted her to the other end of the cemetery, where they sat on the cold metal planks of a bench while Lillian recounted her family’s sordid tale.
“My brother was ill, and my father thought he could handle it all on his own. Oh, he called in doctors, always from out of town. But the doctors never seemed to come to any conclusions, and if they did, my father never shared them with us. And all the while, Adrian just got worse and worse. At first, his symptoms were just a fever, and some strange dreams in the night. Dreams. But then, he started seeing things while he was awake – things no one else could see.”
In the distance, an animal stepped lightly onto the chilled ground. She cocked her head in its direction, as if hearing footfalls over her shoulder, and continued, eyes still fixed somewhere in the distance.
“One day, I came home to find him pressed against the wall of one of the stables, his arms and legs outstretched and his whole body just plastered against the brick, like someone had tied him there. But there was nothing holding him. And he was screaming, ‘Lilly, they’ve got me.’ I had to pretend to cut him down with scissors before he would believe he was free.”
“So, he was delirious a lot of the time,” the gravedigger summarized. “He was sick. Why would that make your father kill him?”
Lydia looked at the ground. “Father was always about keeping up appearances – or keeping secrets, I should say. He never particularly cared if we were seen, just that we weren’t seen doing anything that would disgrace the family. If my brother had been sick, fine. But if my brother had been insane and raving, embarrassing him in front of the neighbours and scaring away the help – well, I wouldn’t rule out my father…putting him out of his misery.”
Damien didn’t reply. “I know it seems flimsy,” she said. “But the way he handled all of this – why wouldn’t he let anyone see the body?”
“Is that why you’re here? You want to see the body?”
“I need to be sure,” she said, lowering her eyes and raising them again. “Would you let me in, Damien?”
Damien sighed. “Would seeing him be enough for you? I mean – would it prove what you’re trying to prove? I’m not a medical examiner, and I’m not sure there’s a whole lot of difference between a murder and a violent illness, as far as appearances go.”
Even before she replied, the gravedigger was wondering if he could somehow loop the Mort in. But the coroner had been paid well enough to let the dead sleep.
Lillian’s reply nullified the debate. “I’ll know. He was my brother. If something’s wrong, I’ll be able to tell – and if I look at him and he’s at peace, I’ll leave with no doubts in my mind. But if I don’t do this now, I’ll never know, and that’s enough to drive a person insane.”
Damien looked at his feet, and then looked across the graveyard towards the mausoleum, looming tall and bleak over the other headstones. He exhaled, and a stream of mist escaped from his mouth. “Fine.”
The marble of the Hawthorne Mausoleum glowed phosphorescent in the moonlight. A soft mist clung to the ground and congregated at the foot of the structure, like the substance of a thousand unsettled spirits. Damien wondered if he shouldn’t still abandon the girl and leave this strange family to their problems.
All thoughts halted when he heard a screech from over his shoulder. Lillian shrieked.
Damien spun around to see a white cat standing behind him, eyes blazing green. “You’re not supposed to be out,” Damien said. The cat hissed and darted off. Damien continued into the mausoleum.
As he walked down the echoing corridor, he couldn’t help glancing at the older Hawthorne caskets. The coffins were all made of heavy stone or marble, and several of the older ones appeared to be affixed with ancient, rusted padlocks. Had this family always had such a morbid fear of grave robbers?
Finally, they reached Adrian’s coffin, the one Damien had personally delivered to rest in permanent tranquility. It too was padlocked; a pair of bolt cutters made short work of that. Each link of the chain seemed to echo individually as it slipped to the ground, sending cold metallic pings ricocheting from wall to wall. The lid groaned as the pair lifted it up and slid it across the mouth of the casket, lowering it gingerly onto the floor. That done, they took a step back to look at the body.
Lillian screamed. All at once, Damien understood why Spencer’s services had not been required.
Adrian Hawthorne’s face was monstrous. By conventional definitions, it wasn’t a face at all. Not even the staunchest of scientific skeptics could formulate a medical explanation for the disfigurement, and even the most skilled mortician could have never made the insectoid thing before them look remotely human.
Lillian had sensed something suspicious about her brother’s death, and her mind had gravitated towards the foulest crime she could think of – the murder of a child by a parent. But even that had not come close to the awful truth of her brother’s transformation.
But she had guessed one thing correctly: staining the creature’s left breast was a pomegranate-sized patch of crimson, where a wooden stake had been jabbed through its heart.
(C) Madison McSweeney. Originally published in American Gothic Short Stories (Flame Tree Publishing, 2019)
If you liked this story, you can purchase the whole anthology here.
If you thought this tale needed more grave-robbing, you should check out my novella The Doom That Came to Mellonville, an occult horror comedy and cautionary tale about insufficient estate planning. Buy it here or on Amazon.
If you’re looking for something spooky on the shorter side, you can read my heavy metal/folk horror novelette The Forest Dreams With Teeth. Buy it on Amazon in print or e-book.