Of course everyone claiming residence in Arthur’s Wake knows tales associated with the Wicker House. It seems that every small province plays host to some structure of ill repute which, as if by supernatural magnetism, draws rumor of ghosts and bogies, wrapping the timber and stone of its foundation in a shroud of darkness and horror. In Arthur’s Wake, the Wicker House fills this odious task.
Scant days after arriving in town, while taking the time to familiarize myself with the local watering hole and its residents, I became introduced to the well known superstitions surrounding the Wicker House. As a man of science, I knew any truths to be found in these outlandish stories were likely embellished to points unrecognizable. Nothing was first hand; all experiences were from a friend who knew a fellow who may have seen something. It is the provincial mind which transforms wild dogs into wolves that walk like men and interprets astronomical phenomena as harbingers of certain doom. Still, my curiosity sufficiently piqued, I endeavored to better inform myself upon the subject through more objective means. To my great surprise, while failing to confirm the more supernatural claims of the tales, the town records in the basement of the local library did provide aspect to a most sinister reality all their own.
The house was built in 1920 by the millionaire Tomas Wicker who, in addition to being both a successful oil prospector and fishing magnate, was by all accounts completely insane. No one knows what first drew Wicker to Arthur’s Wake. Some speculate this as the first outward sign of his impending madness. What is known was that the foundations of the house which would come to assume his name were poured almost immediately upon his arrival.
The structure was supremely modest for a man of Wicker’s means, rising a mere two stories in height and composed of scarcely a dozen rooms plus cellar and attic for storage. The house was built on Blackwood Drive, a major tributary of the town’s main street, and close to the industrial center, such as it was. The plot itself consisted of about a quarter acre, the yard home to a few blossoming trees and a small garden, the whole of which was surrounded by a high wrought iron fence accessed by a similar gate. The posts of this formidable perimeter were topped by wicked spikes to discourage would-be trespassers. Construction concluded rapidly and the autumn of 1920 saw Wicker take up residence in the house accompanied by a maid, groundsman, and his wife.
The lady of the house quickly became the subject of gossip among the townsfolk. During the construction Wicker had boarded his wife in parts unknown. None could recall when she arrived at the house; one day she was simply there. As the groundskeeper cared for the exterior yard and garden and the maid handled all domestic chores including trips to market, the lady was herself never seen to exit the house. Due to this complete lack of socialization, the townsfolk did not learn so much about the woman as her Christian name. The servants themselves shed no light upon the subject. The man hailed from a remote part of the Dark Continent and the woman appeared to be a mixed-breed, vaguely of the Orient. Wicker had acquired the service of each while abroad for business dealings and neither spoke a word of English. Naturally, the Lady Wicker was the object of most persistent rumor.
Early speculation was she suffered from some exotic malady which left her drawn and bedridden. These theories were repudiated by those few who would occasionally spy her from the street. In each case she was seen exclusively at night, staring forlornly through the second story window of what was assumed to be her bedchamber, lit only by candlelight from within and to all appearances the picture of health. Additionally, there was little chance the typically damp and sunless climate of the Wake would be prescribed to improve one’s constitution by even the most inept of physicians. As common folk are wont to do, with a logical explanation absent more fantastic theories were crafted. Some began to speculate the woman was a witch, others an enslaved angel won by Wicker whilst dicing with Satan. What all who observed her agreed upon was her singular beauty.
I gleaned much of this information from archives of the local paper, especially one curiosity piece which was accompanied by a photograph of the lady in question. The scene was just as I had heard described, the single lonely prisoner peering through the window and across that terrible iron fence into the darkness of the night. The photograph was muddled due to the quality of the prehistoric equipment and the lack of natural light, effectively obscuring the lady’s features. Indeed it was difficult to distinguish whether the blurred form was in fact human, though it did project an impression of unmistakable femininity. And yet, even through that grayish haze I could perceive a certain piercing, almost hypnotic quality of her eyes.
Wicker himself was something of a mystery though considerably less so than his bride. An attractive man, tall, dark haired and well featured, many a young woman found herself unequivocally jealous of the seldom observed Lady Wicker. Though often away for long periods on business excursions, at home Wicker would frequent the only drinking establishment in the Wake, an illicit locale consistently ignored by the well-bribed police force charged with upholding Prohibition. Although he had no one in town that might be explicitly named ‘friend’ Wicker was known to purchase drinks for the house on his occasions of patronage and was as such engaged in conversation by no few number of fellow revelers.
It never took long for Wicker’s tongue to be sufficiently loosened at which time he would regale his latest passel of hangers-on with fantastic stories of his journeys abroad; forbidden hoodoo rights in the Caribbean, strange tribal sacrifices in the heart of Africa, dead men who walked in Eastern Europe, and countless others, each one stranger and blacker than the last. Though Wicker never spoke of his wife directly, these tales only served to expound upon the rumors of her origins.
Things progressed much in this way for some five years. Wicker would travel and carouse upon his return. The servants went about their business without comment or complaint. The townsfolk gossiped. The lady remained a shut-in. The horror occurred without warning.
The events that took place on the eve of Samhain in the year 1925 have gone down in the history of Arthur’s Wake as unembellished fact. Among the town records I discovered the report of the patrolmen dispatched to respond to the disturbance at the Wicker House. The narrative was itself accompanied by the most gruesome of photographs from the scene in question. I will summarize their contents directly.
Tomas Wicker returned from his latest trip abroad on the thirty-first of October. Having stopped briefly at home, he arrived at the aforementioned drinking establishment in a clearly agitated state. The always impeccably dressed Wicker was sloppily garbed, one shirt tail hanging out of his trousers, shoes scuffed beyond repair. It was obvious he had not recently bathed or shaved, his well-groomed hair was mussed, and his eyes were bloodshot and wild. Approaching the bar he seized an entire bottle of liquor, took several long swallows without use of a glass, and ignored all attempts of other patrons to engage him in conversation. Taking a final drink from the bottle he placed his wallet and the entirety of its contents on the bar, smashed the now almost empty receptacle upon the ground and exited with the astonished eyes of all present following him. That this entire portion of the episode occurred within a completely illegal establishment is not lost on me, although it apparently was on the investigating patrolmen. As I have said, they were well bribed.
That no mortal eye remains which observed what happened next is surely proof of a merciful God. The two patrolmen who first came upon the scene were summoned by terrified reports of shrill cries and demonic cackles. Long-term veterans and hard men both they were nevertheless ill prepared for what they would soon find at the Wicker House. Armed with a lantern and clubs in hand the men carefully approached the dwelling now ominously quiet.
The great iron gate was open askew as was the oaken door at the top of the steps leading to the interior of the house. Receiving no response to their shouted inquiries, the patrolmen cautiously entered the foyer and proceeded to search the ground floor. They found the first horror in the kitchen. The maid had been tied with thick hemp rope to a large table, limbs spread and secured to each of the four legs. She was naked, the butcher knife which had been used to slit her throat permanently sheathed in her heart. Glistening blood dripped from the cruel altar, slowly pooling on the floor while tell-tale splatters painted the walls like macabre decoration. The patrolmen shared a glance of mutual, unbelieving dread, tightened their grips upon their clubs and continued to search the premises in complete, terrified silence.
Having determined the cellar empty through a brief yet understandably taut examination, they exited the back door to the yard and discovered the groundsman’s body. A thick wooden stake had been erected in the center of the garden and crossed by a perpendicular beam. The man hung naked, suspended from the crossbeam by spikes harshly driven through his wrists and ankles in a grotesque simulacrum of Christ’s crucifixion. He had been disemboweled, ropey innards pouring out of his belly dripping blood and excrement.
Horrified, the patrolmen reluctantly agreed that a premature conclusion of their search to summon reinforcements would provide a very dangerous murderer a chance at escape. The men reentered the house and agonizingly proceeded up the winding stair to the second floor. Systematically they searched each room, uncovering nothing until only one remained; the bedchamber of the elusive Lady Wicker.
Eyes wide, heart pounding wildly the lead man slowly eased the latch. Raising their clubs the men burst through the door and stopped dumbfounded. The room was completely dark and empty, devoid of trappings or furniture of any kind. By the thin beam of their lantern light the men saw that strange occult symbols had been scrawled on every surface of the room though those on the far wall had been somehow marred. Of the murderous Tomas Wicker or his mysterious wife there was no sign.
A noise from above alerted the men to their quarry’s location. Returning to the hall, they spied a trap door operated by a string which, when pulled, revealed a ladder leading up into the lightless storage space of the attic. The two patrolmen stared at the entrance yawning black and wide as the maw of some infernal creature, beckoning fools to wander to their doom. Unable to decide who would proceed first, the men threw evens. The unlucky loser took the lantern and ascended the ladder.
He stopped halfway through the aperture, lantern held high to better diffuse its light and ready to beat a hasty retreat to the relative safety of the hallway below. The attic was in a state of disorder, strange souvenirs of Wicker’s trips abroad stacked haphazardly throughout. The constable slowly played his beam about, gradually revealing each disjointed mound of clutter. At last the light fell upon the attic’s far corner revealing the huddled gibbering mass of the man they sought.
Or what had been the man. Indeed whatever reason serves to separate man from beast had, sensing it was no longer a suitable dwelling place, fled the form of Tomas Wicker. The handsome features were gone, replaced by deeply sunken cheeks and a hideous grin. As the patrolman stared terrified, he could see the creature was covered in the blood of his victims left below. Hands about his knees, Wicker slowly rocked, babbling to himself.
Joined by his fellow, the constables steadily advanced. Arms outstretched they readied to seize the thing that had been Tomas Wicker when his mad eyes shifted upon them and the muttering stopped. In a moment of seeming clarity he whispered, “She’s gone,” before emitting a maniacal howl and leaping to his feet. Taken aback, the patrolmen hesitated, affording the lunatic room to bound past them to the window and hurl himself through the glass. His desperate shriek gave way to a sickening thud.
The men rushed to the broken window. Far below by the light of the moon they saw the body of Tomas Wicker jerk spastically, impaled by the wicked spikes atop the iron wall. By the time the patrolmen descended from the attic, the hideous motion had mercifully stopped.
The remainder of the report is, compared to the extraordinary events that had thus far taken place, remarkably mundane. Determining that the murderer was indeed dead the patrolmen called for reinforcements. The house was searched in detail and much speculation was made regarding the fantastic totems and fetishes populating every nook and cranny. All who set foot on the premises were in unanimous agreement that Tomas Wicker was unequivocally mad. Most confounding of all, there was no sign to what fate befell the mysterious Lady Wicker. Taking the lunatic’s final utterance as related by the patrolmen, the investigators deduced that the lady, tired of being regularly abandoned, had fled to parts unknown during Wicker’s latest trip abroad. Upon his return the shock had been enough to push the man into a murderous rage. Since virtually nothing was known of the woman, neither whence she came nor even her proper name, no search was mounted and the case dismissed.
It is from this point that the tale departs from the realm of logical reason to instead delve into the twisted byways of urban legend. About a month after the death of Tomas Wicker was when the disappearances began, the investigation of which ultimately lead to my arrival in Arthur’s Wake.
Parents would put their children to bed at night and find them gone the next morning. Exhaustive searches of the Wake uncovered nothing. Strangers new to the town were accosted, imprisoned and, in one instance, lynched by a frightened mob. Some questionable “evidence” was found on the man’s body after the fact and, with the suspect too dead to proclaim his innocence, the police happily declared the case closed. That the pattern of disappearances has continued for more than sixty years would suggest they were mistaken.
I have been unable to identify the first to claim seeing a strange light emitted from the long abandoned window of the Lady Wicker’s bedchamber, nor the one who swore he heard the sound of children playing as he hurriedly passed the accursed house. I do know that the tales have spread and grown to the point they are not so easily dismissed. Shortly, I will ascertain any truth to them that may be.
Slender tendrils of fog quest hungrily between my feet like living things as I approach the ruins of the Wicker House. Pushing through the rusted iron gate, a trick of the moonlight suggests a soft glow emanating from the second story window as if from a candle lit within and, were it not impossible, the visage of a beautiful woman stares down and smiles at me approvingly. My hand tightens on the knob as children’s laughter reaches my ears. I open the door.