I’m really bummed that we don’t get to hang out with George again tonight. Even though I know he’s made up, I have to tell you, I have an overwhelming desire to drive up to Gallatin and just check in on him, to make sure he’s okay. I imagine this time of year is hard on a man who doesn’t know he’s a werewolf. (He’s totally a werewolf! Come on! He survived a basement full of sulfuric acid!)
The blinding maelstrom of greenish-yellow vapor which surged tempestuously up from that hole as the floods of acid descended will never leave my memory. All along Peach Valley Drive and up toward town, people still talk about the yellow day, when a barge filled with god-knows-what leaked into the Cumberland River, but I know how mistaken they are to the source. They tell, too, of the hideous roar which came at the same time, possibly the hull of the barge tearing open on some long-forgotten building drown by the TVA—but again I could correct them if I dared.
I don’t see how I lived through it. Certainly none of the sensitive equipment we had carried into the basement with us did. All was ruined and the information on it unsalvageable. I passed out after emptying the fourth container, which I had to handle after the fumes had begun to penetrate my mask. But when I recovered, I saw that the bodies were all gone and the hole was emitting no fresh vapors.
The two remaining containers I emptied down without particular result, and after a time, I felt it safe to shovel the earth back into the pit. It was twilight before I was done, but the fear had gone out of the place. The dampness was less noticeable and all the strange fungi had withered to a grayish powder which blew ash-like all along the floor. Hell had received at last the demon soul of an unhallowed thing. As I patted down the last spadeful of dirt, I shed the first of many tears with which I have paid tribute to my beloved uncle.
The next spring, the daffodils bloomed at Allendale and shortly afterward the Fitzgeralds rented the place. The barren old catalpa tree in the yard was white with flowers, and last year the birds nested in its gnarled boughs.
I still have wolfish-dreams, dreams that I am being pursued by a thing, something like a cross between a bear and a wild hog and a wolf and a mountain lion. But my father assures me that this is another family matter, a separate problem unique to the Allens, long left in the past, nothing to worry about. And, as long as I don’t dream in French or wake to small scratches or bite marks, I shall continue to believe him.
At 11 a.m. the next day, I began to dig. The weather was sunny and I was glad for it. I was still alone, because, as much as I feared the unknown horror, I feared telling anyone—feared they’d think I was mad, feared they’d think I killed my dear uncle. Later, I told the Fitzgeralds out of necessity, and because they were already somewhat aware of the circumstances of the house. As I turned up the stinking black earth in front of the fireplace, my spade causing a viscous yellow ichor to ooze from the white fungi which it severed, I trembled at the thought of what I might uncover. Some secrets are better left undiscovered and I worried this might be one of them.
My hand shook perceptibly, but still I dug. After a while I was standing in a large hole I had made. With the deepening of the hole, which was about six feet square, the evil smell increased, and I lost all doubt of my imminent contact with the hellish thing whose emanations had cursed the house for two centuries. I wondered what it would look like—what form it might take, and how big it might have grown, through the long ages of preying on my family.
After a while I climbed out of the hole and arranged the containers of acid around two sides, so that I could empty them into the hole quickly. After that, I dumped earth only on the other two sides and I worked more slowly. I donned my gas mask as the smell grew.
Suddenly my spade struck something softer than earth, the gentle give of rotting wood. I shuddered and turned to climb out of the hole, which was now as deep as my neck. Then courage returned. I thought back to Demonbreun’s letter— Jean Deraque, “deux fils, ainsi que quatre Indiens.” I couldn’t know which crude coffin contained the garou, but I knew I had to uncover all seven bodies. Slowly, so slowly, the layer of dead men revealed itself, some covered still with planks not yet rotted completely away, some so bare all that was left of them were bones and bits of metal—buttons, buckles, coins, and the like. One of the partial skeletons—one of the Deraques, I presume—was larger than the rest and its skull was obviously lupine, even in the dimly lit hole. Though the rest of the bones were gray and crumbling, the teeth of this one were still sharp and white. Whether it was a trick of light, I cannot say, but I swear I saw the jaw open slightly and then seem to snap shut, as if whatever vital animating force compelled the beast was not thwarted by barely having a body to animate.
The rest is so terrible. There was no one on that soaked hill and no one I dared tell. I walked aimlessly down toward the river and then back up to Peach Valley Road and out to Route 109, just to see the passing cars and have the reassurance of the continued existence of the rest of the world. Then the gray dawn unfolded wetly from the east, silhouetting the archaic hill and the old house, and beckoning to the place where my terrible work was still unfinished. And in the end I went, wet, hatless, and dazed in the morning light, and entered that awful door to the basement of Allendale, which I had left open, and which still swung cryptically in the morning light.
The grease was gone and in front of the fireplace was no remaining hint of the giant doubled-up form. I looked at the cot, the chairs, the neglected equipment, and the yellow straw hat of my uncle. I was so dazed I could scarcely recall what was dream and what was reality. But then, it all came back to me. Sitting down, I tried to remember it all, in as minute a detail as possible, in order to gather some clue as to how I might, once and for all, end the horror. It didn’t seem to be real, not solid in form, but instead some kind of emanation, some vampirish vapor, a cemetery mist. Oh, this I felt was a clue, and again I looked at the floor in front of the fireplace, this time not for the oddly shaped mold, but for how the bricks had been arranged. In ten minutes, my mind was made up, and taking only my uncle’s hat, set now squarely on my head, I set out back to town, back home, where I bathed, ate, and gave an order by phone to the military surplus store for a pickaxe, a spade, a gas-mask, and six containers of sulfuric acid, all to be delivered the next morning at the basement door of Allendale. After that, I tried to sleep, and failing that I passed the hours reading and in the composition of inane verse to counteract my mood.
In the midst of this demonic spectacle, I saw a fresh horror which sent me fumbling and staggering toward that unlocked door and out into the rain-damp yard, completely careless about what abnormal terrors I might be freeing into the world. In that dim light, the form of my uncle had begun to liquefy and, as it had done so, I saw play across his face such changes of identity as one can scarcely conceive. He seemed at once to be a devil and a multitude. Lit by the strange light in the basement, that gelatinous face assumed a dozen—a score—a hundred—aspects, grinning, as it sank to the ground on a body that melted like tallow, in the caricatured likeness of legions strange and yet not strange.
I saw the features of the Allen line, masculine and feminine, adult and infantile, and other features old and young, course and refined, familiar and unfamiliar. It was frightful beyond conception, toward the last, when a curious blend of servant, slave, and baby faces flickered close to the fungous floor where a pool of greenish grease was spreading, it seemed as though the shifting features fought against themselves and strove to form into my uncle’s kindly face. I like to think that he existed at that moment, and that he tried to say good-bye to me. It seemed to me that I hiccupped a sobbing farewell to him as I lurched out into the yard; a thin stream of grease following me through the door.
I had been lying with my face to the outside door and so, when I started from my sleep, the first thing I saw was the door frame and then the flanking window frames. The windows themselves were black and yielded nothing of the outside, because the basement was lit. It was not a strong light, certainly not strong enough to read by, but it kept off the outside and cast a shadow of myself and the cot on the floor. It had an unhealthy yellowish glow, almost the color of an infection. This was what sprung to my mind, perhaps because the smell of the place, the stench, was so strong now, and my ears still rang from the horrific scream which had awoken me.
I leaped over to the equipment we had left trained on the moldy spot in front of the fireplace. As I turned, I dreaded what I was about to see, for I knew that scream had been in my uncle’s voice but I didn’t know what menace I would have to defend him and myself against.
It was worse than I could have ever dreamed. Out of the fungus-ridden earth steamed up a vaporous corpse-light, yellow and diseased, which bubbled and lapped almost to the ceiling in vague outlines half-human and half-monstrous, through which I could see the chimney and the fireplace beyond. Its wolfish and mocking eyes were the only distinctive feature I could make out. And yes, I say that I saw the damned thing, but it’s only as I write this that I can really begin to remember its outlines. At the time it seemed to me only a seething, dimly phosphorescent cloud of fungal loathsomeness, enveloping and dissolving the one thing I was focused on—my poor uncle, Elias Allen—whose blackening and decaying features leered and gibbered at me, who reached out dripping claws to rend me in the fury which this horror had brought.
Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. Blind training is all that saved me. Jesus Christ. I had drilled for this moment, imagined it before I went to sleep, played out on my drives to the store and to work—Jesus Christ—what I would do in circumstances that seemed beyond plausibility. Jesus Christ. I recognized immediately that the bubbling evil was of no substance reachable by ordinary measure—Jesus Christ—and so I ignored the flame throwers which loomed to my left. I pulled the EMP weapon from its place and took a deep breath. Jesus Christ. I pulled the trigger and there was a noise, almost like the thud you feel in your chest at a stop light when the neighboring car has its infernal music turned up too loud. Jesus Christ. I realized it was me saying that, praying for help without realizing it.
No help came.
Suddenly, his face was drenched in sweat and he leaped up abruptly, still half asleep. The jumble of French changed to a cry in English and he shouted in a hoarse voice I barely recognized as his “My breath, my breath!” Then he was completely awake and the expression on his face changed back into one I found familiar. He grabbed my hand on one of his and with the other reached under the pillow for the Bible.
“I dreamed,” he said. “I dreamed I was here, in this house, which was also not this house. It was a shelter of the most basic simplicity—some sticks and leaves leaned against a hollowed out tree in which I sought shelter from the storm. And also a small one-room cabin, which seemed also to be this house, but not quite. Imagine them all, superimposed on each other, as if you are seeing the past haunting through the present, like the underlying grain of wood through an old coat of paint. The scene kept changing, but still seemed the same. Once I was in a hastily dug open pit, with a crowd of angry faces around me. Another time, I felt myself confined to a coffin, able to see the mixed grief and relief on the faces of the mourners who gathered round me. And then again, I was confined to a bed, tended to by a constant vigilant crowd.
“So many of them looked like us, bore the unmistakable features of the Allen family. And all the while, I felt like I was choking, as if some presence, something I could not see but only feel, had spread throughout my body and was attempting to take over.”
I shuddered at the thought of that—my uncle in his ancient body struggling against forces that have had the better of much younger, more able-bodied men. But then, I thought, a dream is only a dream, and this one might well be the result of a man trying to process all of the information we had so lately learned.
As we talked, I found that I felt less ill-at-ease and soon I was yielding to yawns and so took my turn on the cot. My uncle seemed very much awake and he said he welcomed the chance to take his turn, even though the nightmare had awoken him far ahead of his allotted time.
I fell asleep quickly and my dreams were as nightmarish as my uncles. I dreamed I was confined and alone, bound and gagged. I felt trapped, as if I had been buried far beneath the earth and forgotten. I tried to scream, but, in the suffocating dark, it was useless. It was not a pleasant sleep and, for a second, I was not sorry for the echoing shriek which had flung me to a sharp and startled wakefulness.
Something like fear chilled me as I said there in the small hours alone—I say alone, for one who sits by a sleeper is indeed alone; perhaps more alone than he can realize. My uncle breathed heavily, his deep snores accompanied by the soft thunder outside, and punctuated by the sound of dripping water somewhere in the house—the house was repulsively damp even in dry weather and, in this storm, it seemed positively swamp-like.
I studied the loose, antique masonry of the walls by fungus-light, and once, when I felt that the thick, still, putrid air would choke me, opened the door and looked around the yard and down toward the river, feasting my eyes on the ordinary landscape of a dark hill in the night rain and my nostrils on the wholesome air. Nothing occurred to reward my watching and I yawned repeatedly, growing more tired and less fearful as the night wore on.
Then the stirrings of my uncle attracted my notice. He had tossed and turned restlessly on the cot during the first hour of his nap, but now he was breathing somewhat irregularly and occasionally he would sigh and moan, almost as if he were choking. I turned my flashlight on to see if he seemed to be in any pain, but he was turned away from me. I then walked to the other side of the couch and what I saw unnerved me, as small as it seemed. It was just that he didn’t look like himself. My uncle had always been so kind, so calm, so dignified, most of all, so pleasantly happy. But now, a variety of emotions crossed his face, all of which seemed so out of character for him. I think it was the variety of those emotions that disturbed me most. My uncle, as he gasped and tossed in increasing agitation, with unseeing eyes open even though he slept, seemed not one but many man.
All at once he began to mutter, and I did not like the look of his mouth or his teeth as he spoke. The words were at first indistinguishable and then—with a jolt—I recognized that old Elias Allen was muttering in French.
Our vigil began at 10 p.m. and for a long time, it seemed nothing would happen. We had, along with our weaponry, all the accoutrements fitting of a modern ghost hunter—EMF readers, voice recorders, video cameras, and motion detectors. They made no unusual noises, recorded no anomalies of any sort until they ceased to function. A weak light filtered in from the raining night, the red and green glows from our equipment, and a feeble phosphorescence from the detestable fungi within showed the dripping stone of the walls from which all traces of whitewash had vanished, the dank, foetid, and mildew-tainted hard earth floor with its obscene fungus, the damp and broken, uneven brick area, and even the someone new concrete had a sad, tired appearance. The heavy planks and massive beams of the ground floor overhead, the rickety staircase with the ruined wooden hand-rail, and the crude and cavernous fireplace of blackened brick—these thing and our austere cot and camping chairs and the heavy and intricate destructive machinery we had brought all seemed to emerge from the darkness according to the vagaries of the passing lightning.
We had, as I had done so many times before, left the basement door to the outside unlocked so that we had a direct and practical path of escape, should we be dealing with forces too great for us. It was our idea that staying overnight, continually, if necessary, would lure out whatever malign entity lurked there. And that, since we were so well-prepared, that we could dispose of the thing as soon as we had recognized it and observed it sufficiently. How long that might take, we had no idea. It occurred to us, too, that we had no idea how safe this whole adventure was, because we had no idea how strong the thing might be, in whatever form it might take. But we thought it was worth the hazard, even as we were conscious that, if we had to call for help, we would be a laughingstock and, perhaps, then, unable to secure the house from evil. The only hint we had that we were not alone in thinking that there might be some unexplainable element to Allendale was that the Fitzgeralds had given us a small statue of St. Hubert, the patron saint of hunters and the saint to whom one appeals in case of bite. I placed it near my Bible, which was tucked under the pillow on the cot. My uncle was tickled at the notion of a saint who might protect one from the bite of a supernatural being. And though we laughed at this, both of us took some comfort as well. Such was our frame of mind as we talked—far into the night, until my uncle’s growing drowsiness made me remind him to lie down for his two-hour nap.
I can’t say that my uncle and I weren’t nervous on that rainy night of watching. That would be ridiculous. We were not, as I’ve said, in any sense childishly superstitious, but this house had taught us that that there were mysteries in the world. In this case an overwhelming preponderance of evidence from numerous authentic sources pointed to the tenacious existence of certain forces of great power and, so far as the human point of view is concerned, exceptional evil. To say that we actually believed in vampires or werewolves would be a carelessly inclusive statement. Rather we were good Methodists, and, as such believed that the Devil could work with circumstances to make it seem so. We were also, though, educated men and believed, no matter what we found, there would be a rational explanation, even if the Supremely irrational Player was behind it.
In short, it seemed to my uncle and me that an incontrovertible array of facts pointed to some lingering influence in Allendale, traceable to one or another of the ill-favored French settlers of two centuries before, and still operative through some malignant will. Perhaps the trauma of the massacre at Lachine set moving certain kinetic patterns in the morbid brain of one or more of them—notably the sinister coffin-sleeping Michel Deraque—which somehow survived their bodies and continued to function in some way, perhaps some kind of contagious, inheritable post-traumatic stress disorder?
Such a thing was surely not a physical or biochemical impossibility in light of recent scientific discoveries—photons which appear to be two places at once or active human stem cells found in 17-day-old corpses. One might easily imagine certain genetic mutations or even foreign bodies kept alive by imperceptible or almost immaterial subtractions from the bodily tissues and fluids of other and more palpably living things into which it penetrates and with whose genetic fabric it sometimes completely merges itself. It might be actively hostile, or it might be dictated merely by blind motives of self-preservation. In any case such a monster must be by definition an anomaly and an intruder, which must be eradicated for humanity’s own safety.
What troubled us was that we had almost no idea what we were looking for. No sane person had ever seen it, and few had ever felt it definitely. It might be pure energy, or perhaps purely a soul—a form ethereal and outside the realm of substance—or it might be partly material, some unknown and equivocal mass capable of changing at will into any form it desired—solid, liquid, gas, or some tenuously in-between state. The anthropomorphic patch of mold on the floor argued at least a remote and reminiscent connection with the human shape, but how representative or permanent that similarity might be, we couldn’t say with any kind of certainty.
We had procured two weapons to fight it, a large and still-classified electromagnetic energy weapon operated by powerful storage batteries that we hypothesized would disrupt the energy necessary for anything—living, dead, or undead to function, and a pair of military flame-throwers in case it proved partly material and susceptible to mechanical destruction—for like those more superstitious, we were prepared to burn the thing to a crisp if there was anything that could be burnt. All this aggressive weaponry we set in the cellar in positions carefully arranged with reference to the cot and chairs, and to the spot before the fireplace where the mold had taken strange shapes. That suggestive patch, by the way, was only faintly visible when we placed our furniture and instruments, and when we returned that evening for the actual vigil. For a moment I half-doubted that I had ever seen it in the more definitely limned form—but then I thought of the legends.
After we told the Fitzgeralds that we had devised a plan to rid Allendale of its problems—we were vague about what we believed those problems to be—my uncle and I took two folding canvas chairs, a canvas cot, and some scientific equipment into the house. We placed these things in the basement during the day and planned to return in the evening for our first vigil. We had locked the door from the cellar to the ground floor; and having a key to the outside cellar door, we were prepared to leave our expensive and delicate equipment—which we had obtained secretly and at great cost—as many days as we might need to keep vigil. It was our plan to sit up together until very late and then watch alone until dawn in two-hour stretches, myself first and then my uncle, the inactive member resting on the cot.
The natural leadership with which my uncle procured the instruments from the laboratories at Austin Peay University and from locked rooms at Fort Campbell, and how he instinctively assumed direction of our venture, was a marvelous commentary on the vitality and resilience of a man of eighty-one. Elias Allen had kept himself in extraordinary health and if not for what happened later would be here in full vigor today. Only three people know what did happen—the Fitzgeralds and myself. I had to tell them because they owned the house and deserved to know what had gone out of it. And I felt that, after my uncle’s death, they would understand and assist me if some public explanation became necessary. They turned very pale but agreed.
I now visited that accursed place with increased frequency, studying the unwholesome vegetation in the flowerbeds, examining all the walls of the house, and poring over every inch of the basement floor. Finally, with the Fitzgeralds’ permission, I made myself a copy of the key to the disused door opening from the cellar out onto the country lane that circled around the back of the house and ran down to the Cumberland River, preferring to have more immediate access to the outside world than the darks stairs, ground floor hall, and front door could give. There, where morbidity lurked most thickly, I search and poked during long afternoons when the sunlight filtered in through the cobwebbed windows, and a sense of security glowed from the unlocked door which placed me only a few feet from the outside. Nothing new rewarded my efforts—only the same depressing mustiness and faint suggestions of noxious odors and nitrous outlines on the floor—and I fancy I must have been quite a sight to any hunters or fisherman that passed by.
After a while, upon the suggestion of my uncle, I decided to try the spot at night, and one stormy midnight ran the beam of a flashlight over the moldy floor with its uncanny shapes and distorted, half-phosphorescent fungi. The place had affected me curiously that evening and I was almost prepared when I saw—or thought I saw—amidst the whitish deposits and particularly sharp definition of the “huddled form” I had suspected from boyhood. Its clearness was astonishing and unprecedented—and as I watched I seemed to see again the thin, yellowish, shimmering exhalation which had startled me on that rainy afternoon so many years before.
Above the anthropomorphic patch of mold by the fireplace it rose: a subtle, sickish, almost luminous vapor which as it hung trembled in the dampness seemed to develop vague and shocking suggestions of form, gradually trailing off into nebulous decay and passing up into the blackness of the great chimney. It was truly horrible, and the more so to me because of what I knew of the spot. Refusing to flee, I watched it fade—and as I watched I felt that it was in turn watching me greedily with eyes more imaginable than visible. When I told my uncle about it he was very upset; and after a tense hour of reflection, arrived at a definite and drastic decision. Weighing in his mind the importance of the matter, and the significance of our relation to it, he insisted that we both hunt down—and if possible destroy—the horror of the house.
How far back the curse of the garou chased the Deraques is hard to say. The records are sketchy at best. But there had been problems in Montreal after the Lachine massacre in 1689. An early Deraque, Michel, had survived the Iroquois attack but had been badly bitten. After he recovered, he went on to marry and have children but it was rumored that his wife locked him in a casket at night. It’s not clear if he was infected then or if, by happenstance, someone had managed to bite a creature so famous for its biting.
Michel’s daughter, Élodie, was rumored to spend her afternoons reading strange books and drawing strange diagrams. She appears to have been a constant source of community gossip and though the French in the Americas did not share the same witchcraft panics of their Puritan neighbors, it was freely intimated by old wives that her prayers were neither uttered at the proper time nor directed toward the proper object. Her saints were, they said, unfamiliar to good Catholics.
I wondered how many of those who had known these legends realized that additional link with the terrible which my wide reading had given me, that ominous item in the annals of morbid horror which tells of the creature Jacques Deraque, who in 1743 was condemned to death as a demoniac but afterwards saved from the stake by local authorities who locked him in the city jail as a madman. He had been found covered with blood and shreds of flesh out in the woods, shortly after the killing and rending of a local boy by a pair of wolves. One wolf, specifically, was said to have an almost human manner. Surely a worthy campfire legend, with special significance as to the name, but I knew that it was unlikely that the people of Illinois, let alone Gallatin, Tennessee, had ever heard of it. Still the incident was enough to drive all the Deraques from Montreal and they made their way south, even as far as New Orleans and the swamps of Louisiana. The professor speculated that, when the local Cajuns warn you of the roux garoux that this is not some complete mangling of “loup garou” but instead a sensible caution against the Deraque garou who may still be in the area.
I must admit, my stomach flipped when I heard the name. I opened the books before me. One was a collection of newspaper articles and personal accounts of encounters with the Deraque garou under its Anglicized name, dating back almost 200 years. This was of less interest to me than the professor’s book.
It started out with an explanation of the garou. In some ways, it seemed indeed to function like classic werewolfism. A person might be bitten by this garou and find that he now was such a creature and had an insatiable, uncontrollable hunger for human blood. The curious thing was that, since the hunger was uncontrollable, the poor cursed soul would almost inevitably kill his victims. However, if he managed to bite someone and ingest their blood without killing them, his curse would pass along to them and he would be free of it.
In this way, the garou did not seem so terrible. There could be only one person so accursed at a time and, if that person were killed and their body disposed of in the proper manner—burned to ashes—the curse was broken. It was, then, incredibly unlikely that anyone would admit to being a garou, since the only cure was infecting someone else, which the community would not stand for, or death and proper disposal.
But the professor explained that the curse had a more insidious aspect—if the body of the garou was not properly burned to ashes, if it was, say, just buried or left on a hillside, the garou retained some limited powers to infect the living. Pass too near its grave and you might find yourself listless, tired, anemic as the garou feeds on you. To die from the attack of a dead garou was bad enough, but there seemed to be at least anecdotal evidence that some believed that a dead garou, if powerful enough, could create more garous from his living victims. In this way, it was very difficult for a community that didn’t know to burn the body away to nothing to ever escape the curse of the garou.
“Have you ever heard of the rock garou?” the young woman at Fort de Chartres asked me. Her enthusiasm for the matter startled me and set me on edge.
“The rock what?” I asked.
“Garou. Like loup garou. It’s French for werewolf,” she smiled at me, her high ponytail swinging wildly on the back of her head as she led me to a table where I could study the scrapbooks in her hands. “The rock garou is a local legend—an almost invincible creature, part man, part wolf, who’s supposedly been in these parts for years. There are all kinds of stories.”
I was trying to be polite, but I failed to see what the connection between my problems and her flight of fancy was.
“We finally had a folklorist from the University of Chicago come down and study it. I mean, it was that famous—the rock garou,” she set the books down and stood their pertly. “But he said it wasn’t ‘the rock garou’ at all. He gave us this book.” She pushed it across the table to me. “It’s full of his research on it. I thought you’d want to see it.”
“No,” I said. “I don’t think I have any interest in your werewolf at all.”
She raised one eyebrow at me, almost mocking. “Oh,” she said, “But I think you do. Because it wasn’t originally ‘the rock garou.’ Even back up in Canada, the creature was Deraque garou.”
As for me, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was more than a long string of bad luck—that something was causing the evil in the house. I began at one not only to review the evidence, but to do my best to collect more. I travelled immediately to the Tennessee State Library and Archives, hoping to discover a history of the land further back than the history of the county reached. Perhaps there were local Cherokee or Creek legends.
But the history seemed much as I already knew. The land was ours since it was deeded to my namesake as part of a Revolutionary War grant. I studied maps showing known Native American archaeological sites, but there was nothing to indicate that we had made a mistake worthy of a family in a Stephen King novel by building our home on an old Indian mound.
But it was while digging through the Native American history of the area that I came upon something that struck my curiosity—a letter from Timothy Demonbreun, a French fur trader who lived in the area before Nashville was settled. Demonbreun had addressed the letter to the French authorities at Fort de Chartres, but it had obviously never reached its destination. Instead it wound its way through history only to have been tossed into a box of thing marked “Sumner County Lore” though there was nothing in the letter to immediately suggest that it belonged among those items.
I was intrigued by the coincidence of a French letter among Sumner County items. And I grew more excited as I read the letter and realized it relayed a story similar in fact to those I had become so familiar with.
Jean Deraque et la plupart de son groupe de chasseurs (deux fils, ainsi que quatre Indiens) sont morts de la maladie familiale des Deraque. Seul le benjamin, Joseph Deraque, vit toujours, mais il est très affaibli et languissant. Je l’ai ramené en ville pour voir s’il peut être sauvé. Nous avons enterré les corps sur une falaise inhabitée un peu en amont, et les Indiens comprennent bien l’importance primordiale de ne pas perturber le site.
My French was perfunctory at best but an online translation rendered the following: “Jean Deraque and most of his hunting party (two son, and four Indians) died of the disease of family Deraque. Only the youngest, Joseph Deraque, still lives, but it is very weak and languid. I brought him into town to see if he can be saved. We buried the bodies on a deserted cliff a short distance upstream, and the Indians understand the importance of not disturbing the site.”
That was all the letter said on the matter. But that phrase—“de la maladie familiale des Deraque”—remained with me. Demonbreun wrote of it so casually, as if the authorities would have no question of what the malady of the Deraque family was. And was I reading too much into things to see an implication that the authorities would be familiar with the necessary burial customs one must take when dealing with someone who suffered from this malady?
I found many people in Nashville who could tell me at least some tales of Joseph Deraque, sometimes called DuRat, but the name “Jean Deraque” opened no doors in Tennessee. His life in our fine state escaped the notice of local historians. The only tantalizing clue the State Library and Archives could give me was a crudely drawn map, attributed by some historians to Joseph Deraque and by others to Timothy Demonbreun purporting to show the approximate locations of French hunting camps in Middle Tennessee. There certainly was one marked Deraque located near the water on our side of the river up by the present location of Gallatin, but whether it was where Allendale stood or whether I could even trust the map, I cannot say.
In the end, I had to travel to Fort de Chartres to find some record of the Deraque malady, and what I learned there sent me home to immediately examine the basement of Allenwood with a new and excited minuteness.
I am not a superstitious man but these matters shook me, and my unsettled feeling was intensified by a pair of widely separated newspaper cutting relating to deaths in Allendale—one from the Gallatin News dated April 12, 1915 and the other from The Nashville Banner dated October 27, 1945—each of which detailed an appallingly grisly circumstance whose duplication was remarkable. It seems that in both instances the dying person, in 1915 a gentle old lady named Stafford and in 1945 a school-teacher of middle age named Eleanor Murfree, became transformed in a terrible manner; glaring glassily and attempting to bite the throats of the attending physicians. Even more puzzling though was the final case that put an end to the renting of the house—an anemic teenager who succumbed to some kind of madness that caused him to attempt to slit the throats, necks, and wrists of his sleeping family members.
This was in the 60s, when my uncle had just graduated from college and not yet left for Vietnam. He said that the teenager was the talk of the town with people blaming his behavior on that rock and roll music. But the really inexplicable thing was the way in which all the victims—somewhat desperate people whose lives had already been difficult, for the ill-smelling and widely shunned house could be rented to no others—would babble maledictions in French, a language they could not possibly have studied to any extent. Again I was reminded of Eliza and the children’s song. And, in fact, it was the common fact of French being spoken that so moved my uncle to begin collecting all of the data I was now sorting through.
I could see that my uncle had fretted over the troubles with the house and that he was relieved to have someone to share his interest. Finally he could discuss the matter with someone who would not laugh or shy away from the subject. He had not begun to imagine the possibilities of vampires or other outside curses, but he felt that the place was rare and strange and, perhaps, if he could come to understand what made it so, he could understand why such stories emerged about it.
My uncle’s collected scraps, hints of outside knowledge of our family’s plight, were, for the most part, much like the song Tanya knew—specific enough to be tantalizing, too vague to be useful. There was little in the way of direct lore from the people enslaved on the land. One woman, identified only as S.A. by the W.P.A. worker who took her testimony, told him that there was something bad in the cellar, a demon recognizable by its smell and by the shape it made on the floor. This was interesting, matching as it did what I had seen as a boy in the cellar myself.
But the other mention was by a man who claimed that George Allen had brought with him the Wampus Cat when he crossed the Appalachians to settle in the area and then buried it in the basement. Later servants and tenants claimed that the Bell Witch haunted the place and the additions of bits of borrowed local legends obscured what, if anything, might be useful in these accounts.
The most useful bit of story came from the account of Ann White, a maid in the house who was married to one of the Allens’ post-War sharecroppers. Whether this Ann White has any familial ties to Dr. White at the archives, I must admit, I have never asked. Mrs. White, with her inherent superstitions, told the wildest and at the same time most consistent tale about the house. She alleged that there must be something buried beneath the house, perhaps one of those things who retain their bodily form and live on the blood and breath of the living. She called it an Old Hag, but in reading her description, I immediately thought of a vampire. And it’s apparent that the two legends are linked for one destroys an Old Hag much like one destroys a vampire. You must dig it up and drive a stake through its heart, at the least. Preferably, you would drag the thing out into the sunlight and burn it. Mrs. White’s dogged insistence on digging in the cellar for such a creature had featured prominently in her dismissal.
Her tales, however, spread through the black community, and were all the more readily accepted because the house stood so near an ancient cemetery the hallowing of which no one could attest to. I was certain that they’d already heard other rumors. Mrs. Smith, who had preceded Mrs. White, complained that something “sucked her breath” when she slept in the house. And I’m sure the slaves had more tales that have been lost to us. I’m also sure that it quickly passed around town that, when Eliza died after her bout of madness, the physician who tended to her claimed that she was unaccountably lacking in blood.
“Mr. Allen?” She asked. I agreed that I was Mr. Allen. “I’m Tanya White. Well, I’m not white, obviously, but that’s my name. That’s a joke, sir.” She paused. I didn’t laugh. “Okay, well, the maps. It’s strange. But I think I’ve figured it out. All the maps drawn by locals appear to have the same error. But if you look at these maps, made by national interests, there’s the bluff and there’s the river, right where they should be.”
“Why would that be done?” I asked. But I was already shuddering under a creeping sense of dread. Maybe most in Gallatin did not now think the house was haunted, but perhaps they had feared it once.
“You know, when I was in grad school, we’d sometimes do stuff like this to hide the locations of significant archaeological sites,” she smiled at me. “Maybe you’ve got an Indian site up there?”
“The house might be built on an Indian burial ground?” I asked.
“Oh, no, really, I doubt it,” she said, “They’ve all been pretty well-documented. But you’ve got something out there folks wanted to keep hidden. Gold, maybe?” I could see that she was teasing me, but I couldn’t match her light-hearted mood.
“My ancestor, Elias Allen?” I asked, somewhat morosely. I pointed to the genealogy book on the table. “He also appears to have been erased from history.”
“Oh, my god,” she smiled again, “We used to have the creepiest little jump-rope rhyme we’d sing. Uncle Elias, comment allez-vous? Uncle Elias is coming for you. Jump down, turn around. He’s gonna get you. How soon will he steal your breath? Run away or it’ll be your death. Then you’d have to see how many jumps you could do in a row and that was how long you had to live, I guess. It’s kind of stupid, but wow, I hadn’t thought about that in a long time.”
I was, I’m sure, as white as a sheet. “You sang that as a child, here?” She took my arm and guided me into a hard wooden chair.
“Are you all right?” She asked.
“Here?” I asked again.
“Yeah, all the kids in my neighborhood knew it. My mom said they used to sing just the first part when she was a kid,” Tanya said. “She lived out… oh… down Odom’s Bend road.”
“Of course she did,” I sank as best I could into the uncomfortable chair. Here was my forgotten ancestor, the bogey-man in a children’s nursery rhyme. And here was another mention of French. And was it too much to draw a connection between the stealing of one’s breath and the wasting mentioned in my family records? It seemed to fit. I wondered if the unburdened Allens had been the ones to compose the ditty.
You can imagine how it affected me to read these stories about the sufferings of my own family. But in this continuous record there seemed to me to be a persistent evil and, considering the fortunes of the family when away from Allendale, the evil seemed clearly to me to be connected with the house and not the family. This was confirmed by the other set of records my uncle kept—a miscellaneous array of legends passed down by slaves, newspaper cuttings, death certificates, and quips from histories of the area.
I won’t relate all of these in this space, but I will share with you some of the more interesting items. First, though, let me instead share with you a most perplexing problem I had getting information on the house other than what Uncle Elias had collected. Having spent so much of my childhood with my uncle, I felt at home in museums and archives. I didn’t hesitate to make my way to the Sumner County Archives to see what they had on Allendale.
They had nothing.
When I relayed the history of the house, from one-room cabin to stately, though ramshackle, ruin on the bluff three miles south of town, one of the women, who I knew as the mother of a girl I’d gone to school with, became agitated.
“Well, that’s just not right, George,” she said, shaking her head at me. “You couldn’t live in a cabin here back then. The Indians would have scalped you alive. Your family must either have been in one of the stations around here or come later than you think.”
“I know when my family came,” I said. “The Allens built the cabin and Elias Allen was the first to live in it.”
“Now see here,” she said, shoving a thick, musty reference book across the table to me, “There is no Elias Allen who’s a son of George Allen.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. But I looked down at the list of Allens in the genealogy book she’d shoved at me and, no, there was no Elias Allen listed.
“But Mrs. Anderson,” I said, “You’ve known me since I was a boy. You know my uncles and my cousins. You know we exist.”
“I think you just have the wrong ancestor,” she said. “That’s all.”
“Well, surely we can settle this by looking on a map,” I said. “You must have a map that shows the location of the old families.”
I waited for her to bring out another large book filled with sections of a map from 1840. When she turned to the section containing our bend in the river I quickly found Allenwood and then I moved my finger west and the most peculiar thing happened. I hit the river.
“Well, this is not right,” I said. “The river doesn’t run here.”
“Maybe it did back then,” Mrs. Anderson said, with what I now felt was too much enthusiasm.
“Ma’am,” I was exasperated. “The house is on a high bluff. Unless the river defied gravity, it did not run two hundred yards up hill. The river is in the wrong spot.”
“Well, I don’t know much about maps,” she said, as if her knowledge of maps might somehow affect what was shown in them. “Let me go find Tanya. She’ll know.” While Mrs. Anderson was gone, I examined the map more closely. Just south of Allenwood, I found a home labeled “The Anderson Place.” I tried to find Mrs. Anderson again, but was thwarted by the arrival of young Tanya, barely bearing up under the weight of the books she was carrying.
By 1880, the house had fallen into the possession of my direct ancestor, Lewis’s son, also named George. From him comes my great grandfather John, my grandfather, George, my father, Lewis, and me, also George after my grandfather. The house did not come down to me, obviously, but lies now in the hands of the Fitzgeralds, a lovely couple also descended from my great grandfather John.
They, like the Allens have since 1880, either rent or attempt to rent the place. For as fine a house as it was, it has never attracted upscale tenants. And the ones it did attract all have either died in the place or left it quickly. And the poor Fitzgeralds have, for as long as I’ve been alive, been unsuccessful at getting anyone in there even to look at it. At least until they heard my story. They have now decided to let it stand, refurbish it, and rent it. At least three families from Nashville, looking for better schools, have inquired about it. The horror is gone.
There seems to have been no surprise when Elias was found dead, slumped over by the fireplace in the oldest part of the house.
Elias’s oldest son George inherited the place and once he married, he moved his bride into the family home. Their first three children were stillborn and then there was the War. George went off to fight and his letters, in retrospect, have a sad humor. He writes to his wife about how good it feels to be out and moving around, how the longer he walks, the better he feels. While everyone else was suffering and getting sick, shot, or dead, George seems to have come into his own.
“I have been captured by the detestable Yankees,” he writes at one point, “And am being sent to Ohio. Join me there, my beloved Abigail. I hear it is lovely this time of year.” The letter was written in January. And yet, he seems not to have been delusional. When he wrote his brother later that year, he said that Abigail was able to visit him regularly and that they were both finding the change of scenery delightful. Abigail was pregnant again and due in the spring.
Reading the letters the first time, I had to fight the urge to pick up my pen and write to this distant ancestor and beg him to not come back from Ohio. But the past is settled and return to Allendale they did. By 1867, George was dead of an infection that settled in after he broke his foot and George’s sister, Liza, who had never married, moved into the house to help care for the children.
Liza came down to breakfast one day to find Abigail and the children slumped over the kitchen table, all dead. The strain was too great for the poor woman and she went mad from grief.
There was some talk of trying one of the servants for poisoning the family, but she, too, died before she could be arrested. This resolved the matter for people at the time, but, though I am certain the deaths were unnatural, I am more certain that the servant girl was not to blame.
And what to make of the stories they tell about Eliza, who at the height of her fits would, they say, shout out in French? On the one hand, a schooled woman would have learned some rudimentary French as a part of her education. On the other hand, I found no evidence that Eliza had such an education. I mention it only because it is odd, though I must admit there could be a rational explanation. I have no rational explanation for her complaints of a staring thing that bit and chewed her.
Much like the daffodils that grew and yet never seemed to thrive at Allendale, Elias never saw the same success or prominence as his brothers. While Allenwood–by the time John Allen was hosting grand engagement parties for his daughter and Sam Houston–was a lavish house on 800 acres with ninety slaves to work it all and Elias’s other brothers had moved out to Smith County and set themselves up in similar situations just outside of Carthage, Allendale sat on just 200 acres and was tended by twenty slaves.
Elias married a local girl, Rebecca Lewis, when he was twenty and they had three children—George, Lewis, and Eliza. Neither Rebecca nor their fourth child, a girl, survived childbirth and they were buried in the cemetery across the lane. Eliza appears to be the last child born in that house to survive, even up until modern times.
Which is not to say that there weren’t more Allen children. Even among my father’s generation, when you’d leave a door open on your tear through the house to tattle on a brother and someone would ask if you were born in a barn, all the Allens would laugh and say, “Yes,” so well-known was the long-standing tradition of moving the Allen wives to the an outbuilding when the time came.
Elias remarried after a short time and his second wife, Amy, also gave him three children—John, James, and Robert. In 1838, she died of what the farm ledger records as “wasting.” Letters sent to family in Smith County seem to suggest that she was suffering from what we might be tempted to call post-partum depression, describing her as listless and tired, unable to be made to care even about the well-being of her small children. Except that soon James and Robert also became listless and sleepy and, before long, they, too, were in the cemetery across the lane. Infants and toddlers don’t, by definition, suffer from post-partum depression.
The remaining children were sent to Allenwood to live with their uncle John. Elias did not remarry. Still, trouble plagued the farm. In 1843, he wrote to his brother, William, that he could not keep a dog or cat on the property and that the slave women begged him not to use the children for minor household tasks, like firetending, which meant he had to devote an adult to it, a waste, he thought, of labor better used for more difficult tasks.
“They have superstitions about the place,” he wrote, “that no amount of reason or whippings can take out of them.”
The history of the house Elias collected was extensive and was, as well, a history of our branch of the family. George Allen, who was the first Allen in Middle Tennessee arrived with his oldest sons—Elias (b. 1772) James (b. 1774), and John (b. 1776)—and two trusted slaves before 1790 in the area that was to become Gallatin. The cabin they erected was the very one later incorporated into the first floor of Allendale. When George’s wife and the rest of the children were finally sent for, the house was transformed into a dog-trot, but for some reason the men seem to have quickly abandoned this home to the two slaves and set about to building Allenwood, just up the bend. I found correspondence from late 1791 in which George asks his lawyer to sell Dan down in Nashville as soon as possible and to expect to see him, George, before the turn of the year to replace the two slaves. Why George would sell an able-bodied man without having someone to replace him is not clear from the letter. What happened to the other slave remains unspoken.
But that is as much of a hint of a beginning as we get to the house’s impending long, sad history. By the time the rest of the family installs itself at Allenwood, Elias is living at Allendale.