The following haunting appeared in Elliott O’Donnell’s Haunted Houses of London 1910.
THE MOVING STAIRCASE
THE CHATTERING WOMAN AND THE AWFUL HEAD OF
When I was living in Cornwall I met a Mr. Scaran, who told me of a house he had once rented in Wandsworth that was very badly haunted. I do not know the exact locality of the house, saving that it was close to the common but whether on the north or south end I cannot say.
"It was a large, quaint old place, Mr. Scaran informed me, with a big entrance hall and a flight of low, broad oak stairs leading to a gallery that connected the east and west wings.
“But the staircase arrested my attention the moment I entered the house why, I cannot exactly say, but there was something indefinably odd about it.
"I mentioned this to my Wife and asked her if she had noticed anything peculiar.
''Only that it is not quite in to centre of the hall'' she replied; and then pointing to a mark on the ceiling of the gallery, “surely there was a joining there once.” Yes you may depend upon it the staircase has been moved. How very queer! It makes the hall and gallery feel quite lopsided.’
“That night we both lay awake and heard the stairs creak and groan as if the feet of innumerable people trod up and down them.
The sounds began at midnight, and lasted incessantly till two, when they stopped abruptly.
“Neither my wife nor I believed in ghosts, but we did not think it possible the disturbance could have bed, caused by rats.
“It did not appear to be anywhere else but on the staircase.
“The next night I happened to be out till rather late, and on my return found the hall in darkness, my wife and family having gone on to bed.
“I struck a light and, walking to the staircase candle in hand, began to mount.
“Nothing unusual occurred till I got to the sixth step, when suddenly there was a rush of icy cold wind; my candle went out, the staircase collapsed beneath me, and I came to the ground with a crash.
“As I did so, I heard me one laugh-a low, diabolical chuckle, full of satanical glee.
"The next moment my wife and eldest girl Joan came screaming out on to the landing, thinking I had had a fit or that something equally dreadful had happened.
“I then discovered that I was lying on the floor exactly opposite the marks on the ceiling, the real staircase being some eight or nine feet to my left, so that what I had taken for steps could only have been imaginary ones-yet how did I manage to ascend to, the sixth?
''We were all now rather scared being driven to the conclusion that the house, if not actually haunted, contained the element of something that was very baffling to our senses.
“Joan had the next experience.”
"She was going up the stairs early one morning with a cup of tea for her mother, when to her astonishment she ran into some one who, although invisible, was apparently sitting on the staircase facing her.
''She said there could be no doubt at all that it was material, as she felt the concussion of her limbs with its knees, and it seemed to her that it raised its hands and, placing them under her tray, tossed the latter over her head, so that it fell with a smash in the hall beneath-this little antic being accompanied by a short sharp, ghoulish laugh.
''Joan beat a precipitate retreat, and on returned to the spot with her brother Dick (an athletic young fellow in the sixth form at Dulwich) find the mysterious presence had gone.
“Dick was inclined to regard the episode as a huge joke, and teased Joan accordingly. In the evening however, the tables were completely turned, and it was his turn to feel small.
“He was running up the stairs in his usual breakneck fashion, when. to his amazement he saw a girl ascending a few feet ahead of him.
“He stared at her, as he said, for all he was worth-she was dressed in such an extraordinary fashion - in the sort of costume he had seen in pictures of Charles the Second’s time; but he thought from the exquisite modeling of her head and her abundant black ringlets that she must be very pretty. “Consequently, the sly rogue followed her rather less timidly than he would have done had he fancied she was ugly.
“On arriving at the top of the stairs she paused, as if debating whether to go on, and Dick, burning with anxiety to see her face caught her up.
“In an instant she wheeled round revealing as she did so such an indescribable hellish countenance that poor Dick, frightened out of his wits, tumbled backwards, his misfortunes being consummated by a violent push that sent him whizzing head over heels into space.
“Fortunately, the gallery is no great height, and Dick, being slight and agile, managed to alight on his feet, otherwise he might have incurred a serious accident, but it quite cured him of making fun of Joan and also of tearing about the house in such a tremendous hurry.
"Well Mr. O'Donnell, after all this we were obliged to admit the house was haunted.
“Nor did the phenomena end there.
"Molly, our youngest girl was the next victim.
"She was in the hall alone one afternoon at twilight, when she suddenly felt she was being watched -that numbers of eyes were fixed on her with relentless persistency.
"She very timidly looked around and saw to her horror, the staircase gradually and very slyly shift its position to the centre of the building.
"' It moved sideways she told us, ' like some queer sort of crab and seemed bristling all over with life. Then she went on, “as I gazed at it in spellbound expectancy it slowly shot towards me, gliding noiselessly over the ground like some horrible black clad inquisitorial machine.
“'Nearer and nearer it came, its funereal steps increasing in stature until they attained an enormous altitude, and towered menacingly over me.
"' Its polished balustrades, shining with ten thousand times their accustomed lustre, reflected dozens of strange, distorted faces-faces I seemed to have seen long, long ago, maybe in a previous lifetime.
“' Had I remained where I was I should have been annihilated, but at the critical moment, just as the great horror about to fall and crush me their hypnotic influences which had cast ever me caused, dodging on one side, I evaded it.
"' With a dull crash I heard the bottom stair come in contact with the wall.
"' Bounding forward, I made for the first door I saw, and the steps followed me
"'Round and round the hall I tore, always pursued, always prevented from escaping, until at last, wearied and exhausted, I tumbled against the panel in of the wall.
“’I have dim recollections of the dreadful stairs darting malignantly at me, of a thick and suffocating pall descending from the balustrades, as if thrown by human hands, and enveloping Inc from head to foot, of the whirling and tearing of some monstrous body I through the air, of an excruciating sensation of being squashed, and then—a blank.
“’A happy, merciful blank, terminating only when I recovered consciousness to find Joan bending over me with a glass of water.
“’I am sure,’ she continued, ‘that staircase is alive! that it is no staircase at all, but some malevolent monstrosity that is biding its time to kill us all.’
“It certainly did seem so after the way Joan, Dick and I had been served, and I began to wonder if it were wise to remain in the house; but, having taken it on a three years’ lease, I didn’t see how I could get out of paying the rent for that length of time, and to be renting another house at the same time was simply out of the question.
“So we stayed on, trusting that the phenomena— now that the ghosts had got used to us—would cease; and it did, indeed, seem to, as no further manifestations occurred for nearly a year, Will –one of my nephews—being the next to experience them.
“Will is a sailor, second officer on an Anglo Japanese liner, and had come home for a spell of rest after being away from England for more than three years.
“He was only with us for a week or ten days, as his people naturally wanted him to spend Christmas with them.
“He hadn’t the remotest idea the house was haunted; as we had all agreed to keep it secret, just to see whether he would find it out.
“Willis such a practical, level-headed fellow that we all felt we should have the greatest confidence in his judgment; if he said he saw a ghost, we should know he had really seen one.
“Moreover, he was a confirmed sceptic—the sort of young man who would go off into loud peals of laughter at the very mention of a spook.
"Well he came to us on a Friday—the second Friday in December, and on Saturday morning he looked anything but himself.
“‘Why, Will,’ my wife exclaimed, ‘how seedy you look! Didn’t you sleep well?’
“Will gave a nervous laugh—very unlike him, and, shrugging his shoulders, replied, ‘I can’t say I did, aunt; indeed, I didn’t go to sleep at all. I never even dozed.’
“‘Bed uncomfortable?’ Dick suggested.
“Will shook his head. ‘Couldn’t have been more comfortable,’ he said; ‘it was absolutely stunning after what one has to put up with on board ship. How would you like to be stowed away on a bunk barely five and a half feet long, with a mattress as hard as nails ?—yet I always sleep like a top!’
“’Then how was it you couldn’t sleep last night?’ Joan queried, giving Molly a sly kick under the table.
“Will, with every one’s eyes on him, grew very embarrassed.
“’Honest Injun, aunt!’ he blurted out at last; ‘I think there is something jolly queer about this house. It takes a good lot to scare me as a rule, but I was in a blue funk at midnight; I could never have believed such weird things existed had I not seen and felt them!’
“’Weird things!’ Molly ejaculated, as innocent as you please. ‘Why, whatever do you mean, Will? I am afraid it was the whisky! Oh, Will!’ and Molly looked so prettily reproachful that Will kissed her, amidst the most uproarious laughter from all present.
“When silence was once again restored we returned to the attack.
“’Come, Will!’ I exclaimed, ‘tell us what happened, there’s a good fellow. It would be very shabby of you to keep it to yourself after exciting our curiosity.’
“’But have you never had any uncanny experiences here, uncle?’ Will observed, eyeing me quizzically.
“’Never mind my experiences,’ I replied; “yours are what we want to hear now—relate them to us first, and you shall hear all we have to say afterwards.’
“‘It was all so deuced odd!’ Will began, leaning back in chair and sipping a cup of coffee, ‘that I’m afraid you will scoff at it, and only regard it in the light of a fairy tale, though I can assure you it was real enough to me at the time.
“’You know I stayed down in the study after you had all gone to bed, in order to do a bit more writing— the MS. of my forthcoming lecture before the Geographical Society
“’Being a sailor, I am a precious slow penman. Well, I wrote till I grew so sleepy I couldn’t see a line, and, coming to the conclusion I had better leave off, I put away my materials and, throwing open the door, strode into the hall.
“’The house was wonderfully still—almost abnormally so, I thought.
“’I went up to the table, took my candle, lit it, and mounted the staircase.
“’Before I had ascended four steps I cannoned into somebody coming down!
“‘I looked—no one was visible.
“’I rubbed my eyes and looked again.
“’Still I could see no one, and you can take it from me I have pretty sharp sight—what officer aboard ship hasn’t?
“’Well,” I said to myself, “if this isn’t a rum go I don’t know what is! I’ll have another try.”
“‘So up I went again, and, by Jove! I tumbled into some one else—also invisible.
“’A third step—and I encountered yet another person—then I came to a halt. Upon my word, uncle, I was afraid to go on!
“‘The staircase was fairly alive with ghosts; there was a regular procession of them—men and women! I could distinguish the difference in the sexes more by the touch of their dresses than by their voices, for I could not hear anything they said distinctly; indeed, they only seemed to speak in whispers—whispers such as the wind makes when rustling through the shrouds of a ship.
“’But the rich brocade of the ladies’ trains swept over my feet, whilst their scented tresses brushed against my cheeks.
“’I am not, as a rule, in the background where ladies are concerned, as you have discovered to your cost, Molly—what sailor is? but I’ll eat my hat if I wouldn’t rather have tried to embrace a polar bear as any of that icy crew; their breath literally froze me.
“’Well, uncle, down they came in swarms, the ladies chinking their fans and tapping on the staircase with their high-heeled shoes, whilst the gallants rattled their sword scabbards, and occasionally chuckled—such chuckles! Egad, Dick! they wanted their chests rubbing with lubricating oil.
“’I soon grew heartily sick of it; my teeth chattered, my limbs shivered, and I was every whit as cold as if I had been at the North Pole.
“’By Jove!” said I to myself, “if the procession doesn’t end pretty soon it will take me all tomorrow to thaw.”
“’Suddenly from the direction of the Common came the faint but unmistakable sounds of a horse’s hoofs pounding over the turf.
“’Pound! pound! pound!
“’Nearer and nearer they drew, until with a thrill of dreadful expectation I heard them approach this house, the rattling of trappings, intermingled with the frantic snortings of the steed, being distinctly audible.
“‘Crunch! My heart died within me! the horse was at this gate!
“’Crunch! The perspiration burst out all over me; the beast was careering up the drive.
“’Crunch! All the prayers of a lifetime were of no avail now! the horse was at the foot of the outer step!
“’Crash; and—oh, damn! it had leaped into the vestibule!
“‘Bang! it had burst open the door!
“‘Smash! and—oh, Hades! It had entered the hall!
“’Although I couldn’t see it, uncle, for it was invisible like the other ghosts, I could feel its presence in a most unpleasant manner.
“’My sense of hearing had become abnormally acute.
“’I could hear its rider draw in a deep breath and ease himself in the saddle; I could hear the harness creak beneath his weight, and his spurs jingle; and— marvel of marvels—I even fancied I could hear a series of ghostly quivers!
“’But all other sounds were soon deadened by a shrill neigh—the very intensity of which froze the marrow in my bones—as the horse, collecting its limbs beneath it, suddenly plunged forward and, sweeping over the floor with the impetuosity of a tornado, sprang up the stairs
“’I tell you, uncle, the stampede that ensued was indescribably awful.
“’I was squashed up against the balustrade by two or three phantasms who trod on my toes with their Louis heels and half choked me with chunks of their thickly-pomaded hair.
“‘I wonder the whole house did not come down!
“‘The horse pawed its way past me, mowing the panic-stricken men and women down, until, aiming at some two or three steps above me, it found a foot hold and halted.
“‘Some one—the rider, I presumed—then uttered a few stern words of admonition, which were immediately succeeded by the sound of the swishing of a sword, and a scream—a scream of the most agonizing terror and pain—the pain of a lost limb swallowed up by the terror of a lost soul.
“‘My face was deluged in blood, and as I endeavoured to wipe it off on the shoulder of the figure in front of me, it was further increased by a renewed shower that followed the dull crack of a ghostly pistol.
“’What it all meant, and who was killed, God alone knows! I don’t.
“’I merely felt by instinct as well as by contiguity that the blood belonged to two people—people of entirely different temperaments: for whereas the first shower, which was burning hot, filled me with extreme repulsion, the second only struck me as being cold.
“’But I had little time for meditation, for the echoes of the firearm had barely ceased reverberating, when the horse, slipping backwards, came crashing down, and, amidst the frantic shrieks of the crowd (many of whom it must have literally kicked to pieces, for I could hear the most excruciating and suggestive sounds), slithered, rolled, and finally thundered on to the floor of the hall.
“‘Half-a-dozen phantasms now seemed to grab hold of me at the same moment, and, as I was endeavouring to throw them off and so avoid suffocation, the balustrades and staircase simultaneously gave way, and we fell to the ground in a heap, I—unlucky wight that I was—underneath.
“‘Whether I was knocked on the head by a ghost or by the floor I cannot say, but something gave me a confoundedly hard rap. I lost consciousness, and when I recovered I was alone and in total darkness.
“‘Scrambling to my feet I relit my candle, and, in a blue funk, once again mounted the stairs, which, oddly enough, appeared to have shifted their place.
“’This time nothing happened, and I got to my bedroom all right; but, hang me, uncle, if I should like to go through it all again tonight!’
“’This adventure of Will’s pretty plainly showed that the house was still haunted, and, as if to remove any further doubts on that score, we were all subjected in turn to reoccurrences of the same and similar phenomena.
“’Joan was pursued round and round the hall by the staircase, that subtly drove her into a corner and tried to choke her; Molly ran up the phantom stairs instead of the real ones, and, tumbling down them, sprained her ankle.
“’Dick was compelled to be an auditor of all that had befallen Will, whilst I was frightened out of my senses by hearing a horse in the hall snort violently in my ear.
“The climax, however, was reached one afternoon about twilight, when my wife—never very robust—was descending the stairs and suddenly found herself in the midst of a crowd of phantom men—young bloods, I suppose—who, not content with kissing and otherwise insulting her, jostled and hustled her to such an extent that she fainted. Fortunately her screams for help had been heard, and as Dick and I ran to her aid the invisible miscreants, with loud and mocking laughs, made off.
“That settled it; I came to an agreement with my landlord (needless to state, very one-sided as far as I was concerned), and within a fortnight of the last incident shut up the house and left.
“’We never discovered anything very definite as to its history, only that there was a tradition that a lady of the time of Charles the Second had poisoned her husband there, and that on the eve of her marriage to her accomplice she had been killed on the staircase by the twin brother of the murdered man, who had dashed into the hall on horseback.
“Assailed on all sides by the friends of the murderers, the avenger was overwhelmed, shot and buried—his corpse, so the story goes, being flung into the same grave as that of his brother.
“Superphysical manifestations presumably took place directly after the enactment of these tragedies, for the house was then declared untenantable, and has never been occupied since for any length of time at a stretch.
`“And that is all I can tell you,” Mr. Scaran remarked.
Some months after my meeting with Mr. Scaran I was introduced to a lady in London who incidentally remarked that she had once lived in a haunted house in Wandsworth.
I begged her to give me her experiences, and she told me that day after day she had been disturbed by an old woman who used to chatter outside her bedroom door.
She grew so accustomed to the noise that she was not in the least bit nervous, and used to call out to the phantasm and bid it be silent—an injunction it some times obeyed.
Both she and her sister often saw the old woman in various parts of the house, generally on the stair case or flitting about the passages, but she was so entirely harmless and natural that no one paid her much attention.
They had no experience of any manifestations similar to those which gave the Scarans so much trouble.
I again heard of a haunted house at Wandsworth Common from a Mrs. Neuville, who kindly described in detail the phenomena she had witnessed in it.
“The most remarkable feature in the house,” Mrs. Neuville observed to me, “was the main staircase, which was, I think, the most gloomy and suggestive staircase I have ever seen.
“I never passed it without a shiver and the uncanny conviction that it was alive! Absurd as you may think it, I have actually felt that staircase looking at me, and I could be certain that more than once it has moved noiselessly and stealthily forward, stepping back again the instant it perceived I was on the alert.
“I grew so terrified at it that I positively dreaded to be even within sight of it after dusk.
“I had never known what fear was until I lived in that house and watched the fading sunlight on those grim, forbidding stairs.
“I tell you, Mr. O’Donnell, there were certain bends in that staircase and certain steps that I never loitered upon, but always flew past, and was convinced they harboured some strangely hideous creature.
“Well, one evening in August, as I was sitting alone in the study about eight o’clock, I heard my aunt call to me from her bedroom, which was on the first floor. The rest of the family being out, I at once grew in a panic, for I ‘funked’ the idea of the staircase, at the same time dreading to keep my aunt waiting, as her crotchety temper if the slightest thing went wrong was very hard to bear.
“Hence I was on the horns of a most unpleasant dilemma.
“My aunt called again, and, fearing to daily any longer, I threw down my book and hastening out of the room made for those awful stairs.
“The evening shadows were already visible on them, imparting to them the one touch necessary to render them absolutely diabolical.
“I ascended as fast as I could, without daring even to raise my eyes, until a peculiar bluish light playing on the silver buckles of my shoes compelled me to glance up.
“And there—there on the landing directly above me, and some six or so feet from the ground—was a ball of cerulean phosphorus, that developed quite suddenly into a ghastly head.
“I was so dumfounded that I could only gaze at it in speechless horror; in my wildest imagination I had never conjured up anything so truly hellish, nor can 1 compare it with anything save one of Gustave Doré’s inimitable drawings.
“It was big, round and gross, and crowned with a mass of matted, tow-coloured hair.
“The face, of a sickly yellowish-white, was broader than that of any human being, the features being large in proportion.
“I can’t recollect the nose and ears, but the mouth had long, thin lips, which were wreathed in a fiendish grin.
“There was no hair on the lower part of the face, and only an inch or two of neck.
“The leering, mocking eyes were green, and full of malignant expression—an expression that was positively satanic in its intensity.
It looked at me exultingly, as if gloating over the terror it had inspired, and indeed I do not think I could have been more frightened had I been sudden transported to Dante’s Purgatorio.
“Whilst I was staring at it, too fascinated to remove my eyes, my aunt came out on to the landing, and, approaching the balustrades, called me angrily by name.
“The Thing instantly vanished, nor did I ever see it again.
“My aunt was so cross with me for keeping her waiting that I had not the courage to tell her what had occurred; had I done so, she would doubtless, when her anger had subsided, have pitied me, for she was a very practical old lady, who had the loftiest contempt for ghosts.
“You may imagine, Mr. O’Donnell, that after this experience I was more afraid of the staircase than ever; nor do I, indeed, even now ascend any stairs without glancing cautiously above me first, to make sure there are no ghostly lights nor evil heads resting on the balustrades.
“I don’t think any one can truly appreciate horror till one has encountered a phenomenon of this kind; nor do I think houses ought ever to be built on other than consecrated ground, for I some how think that what I saw was associated with the ground more than with the house. What is your opinion, Mr. O’Donnell?”
“My opinion,” I replied, “is that the head belonged either to a Vice or Vagrarian Elemental.
“If the former, it had been attracted to the house through the crime or bestiality of some former occupant; if the latter, either because the soi1 on which the house is built contains relics of prehistoric man or beast, or because the house is in a lonely, isolated portion, or simply because of the structure of the house—gloomy houses in which are attics, lofts and roomy cupboards present peculiar attractions to the vagrarian type of elemental.
“For some inexplicable reason, at times, the head only of this species of elemental is seen, where as at other times the entire body materializes.
“The house in which you saw it is most probably the same in which my friends, the Scarans, experienced mixed forms of psychic phenomena—phantasms of the dead and vagrarian elemental; the latter assuming the rare guise of a moving, pursuing, collapsible staircase, the real staircase, of course, being stationary all the while. But I will give you their address, so that you may compare notes with them.”
As usual Mr O’Donnell jazz’s it up in his usual way