In celebration of the month of October, I’ll be sharing 31 of my favorite spooky, eerie and creepy stories, one per day. The stories will range over an array of genres: horror, suspense, science fiction, mysteries and dark fantasy.
The October Country
…that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain…
— Ray Bradbury
A Home Away From Home by Robert Bloch
Tales in a Jugular Vein
“The train was late, and it must have been past nine o’clock when Natalie found herself standing all alone, on the platform before Hightower Station.”
Robert Bloch is remembered today primarily as the author of Psycho, which inspired the Hitchcock masterpiece. Not to knock Psycho, but I find this to be a sad, unfortunate crime. Bloch was a hell of a writer, and he excelled in the short form, where his sharp, snappy sentences could truly shine.
Along with Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury, Bloch was one of the great masters of the macabre writing in the middle of the 20th century. Early on, he wrote a number of Lovecraftian tales, but his real talent lay in stories about abnormal psychology. Basically crazy people.
A Home Away From Home is one of his best efforts. The story starts simply enough. Young Natalie has arrived by train to a tiny rural village in England where her uncle lives. Her parents died in an untimely motor accident, and though she is not a child, she has come to live with her uncle until she is legally an adult.
Finding herself alone at the station, she finds a phone and calls her uncle’s home. When the phone is answered, it is clear there is a party going on in the background, and her uncle seems surprised by her arrival.
“Unexpected? But I sent you a ‘gram from London this afternoon.” Natalie checked herself as she realized the slight edge of impatience which had crept into her voice. “Didn’t it arrive?”
“I’m afraid service is not the best around here,” Dr. Bracegirdle told her, with an apologetic chuckle.
Her uncle is the local psychiatrist. He operates a small but successful asylum, but this being rural England he also makes house calls. He tells Natalie he is heading out on just such an appointment now, but he will send Miss Plummer to fetch her.
Miss Plummer arrives poste haste, gathers up Natalie in the car, and they hit the road. Miss Plummer asks about Natalie’s parents.
“They were in a motor smashup two months ago,” Natalie said. “Didn’t the Doctor tell you?”
“I’m afraid not—you see, I haven’t been with him very long.” Miss Plummer uttered a short bark and the car swerved wildly across the road. “Motor smashup, eh? Some people have no business behind the wheel.”
Natalie arrives safely, and indeed there is a party going on. Dr. Bracegirdle’s home is full of guests, most of them drunk and still drinking. Natalie tries to slip away to a bedroom and freshen up, but the guests pull her right on into the party, chatting away, teasing, offering her drinks.
After being accosted by one particular guest, Major Hamilton, Natalie breaks away from the crowd long enough to spot Miss Plummer exiting her uncle’s office, carrying a pair of shears. Curious, Natalie enters Dr. Bracegirdle’s office.
Inside, she finds his office phone with the cord neatly cut.
What Bloch executes so successfully is the simple, quiet building of unease. Nothing in A Home Away From Home necessarily leaps out to startle the reader. But tension is added one disquieting detail after another, like tumblers clicking away in a lock, until the door finally opens and the horror is revealed.
Dr. Bracegirdle’s nervous chuckle. Miss Plummer’s uneasy bark. The unwillingness to let Natalie wander the house alone.
As Miss Plummer and the other guests push into the room, Natalie recognizes one man as the voice she heard on the phone.
“But you’re playing a joke!” she exclaimed. “You’re Dr. Bracegirdle, aren’t you?”
“No, my dear.” He shook his head as he moved past her across the room. “It’s just that no one expected you. We were about to leave when your call came. So we had to say something.”
Natalie, of course, wants to know where her uncle is. So they show her.
“Messy,” the tall man nodded. “Of course it was all too sudden, the opportunity, I mean. And then they would get into the liquor–”
Natalie, terrified, turns to Miss Plummer, hoping to find an ally. She notes, perceptively, that the tall man is quite insane. He belongs in an asylum.
“My dear child,” murmured Miss Plummer as she quickly closed and locked the door and the silent starers moved forward. “This is the asylum…”
A Home Away From Home is wicked bit of fun, clearly an homage to Poe’s The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether. A quick reading might dismiss just how well-crafted this little gem truly is. Bloch’s strengths are all on display: the carefully honed sentences, the steady building of tension, the intelligent wit, the sharp twist at the end.
Few writers today are in this league.
More October Stories
For the month of October, you can download
Tyler Miller’s The Other Side of the Door
In celebration of my favorite month, I’m giving away my collection The Other Side of the Door. These are stories inspired by so many of my favorite writers: Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Richard Matheson, Shirley Jackson.
Stories like the award-winning Til Death Do Us, about a man who believes he’s gotten away with his wife’s murder…at least until her severed finger is delivered to him in a box. Somebody knows the truth…
Or another first-place winner: Not Dead, Not Even Past, the story of a small-town sheriff confronted with a string of suicides he can’t explain. Each of the victims share a disturbing trait: no matter how they died, all of them have lungs full of water.
I loved working on these stories, and I truly believe that you’ll enjoy reading them just as much as I enjoyed writing them. Check them out. For the entire month, they’re free. What have you got to lose?
Except a little sleep…
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