Howard at Ravenswood

Rob Dinsmoor

John Weir was irritated having to wait for Howard. “I would be so appreciative if you could take my son Howard out on a nature walk,” his cousin Susie had said. “He’s quite sickly, he does very little but read, and he has frequent nightmares. I think it would really be wonderful if he got out for some fresh air, sunshine, and nature! Naturally, I will consider such a walk as the highest form of tutelage and will compensate you handsomely for it!”

Everyone in the family knew that Susie had money, but she and her son were very strange. After Susie’s husband, Winfield, had been committed to Butler Hospital for a nervous breakdown and subsequently died, Susie had raised young Howard herself and was said to be very overprotective, not to mention that she and the boy lived in nearly total isolation in their decaying Providence home.

When he arrived at the house in his brand-new 1914 Detroiter, one of the few indulgences he allowed himself, he heard a woman’s voice orating from inside the house, but he couldn’t tell what she was saying. He went up the front steps and knocked on the door. It took more and more insistent rapping before there was a break in the oratory and, finally, a woman Weir assumed to be Susie answered the door.

She had long, sandy-colored hair adorned with a garland. Her gown was unusual, very light and flowing, and she was holding a big, dusty book. “Please excuse me! I was rehearsing some lines from one of my favorite plays, ‘Hamlet.’ Won’t you come in and have a spot of tea? Howard is sleeping late this morning, and since the poor boy doesn’t sleep very well, we must let him sleep.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Weir said and followed her into the parlor. She laid the tome down on the coffee table and retreated to the kitchen to make tea. The book was open, and opposite the title page was a print of a wood carving of a woman wearing a flowing white gown and a garland wandering through the woods picking flowers. Under it was a caption: “Ophelia goes mad after the death of her father, Polonius.”

When the tea arrived, it was extremely weak, as if Susie were carefully rationing her tea supply. And then they sat. And sat. And sat. Weir was ready to crawl out of his skin. Every minute spent indoors was anathema to him, whether it was a social gathering, an academic conference, or a lecture—and this particular venture wasn’t helping his career at all. He would much rather have been out amongst the trees and forests that surrounded his home on Cape Ann—alone.

As they sat drinking their watery tea, Susie looked nervous and kept reacting to any sounds she heard coming from upstairs, which came frequently. It was an old house, Weir observed, and so there were always the sounds of it settling. And it was such a large house for just a widow and her son.

“I should probably warn you,” Susie said, staring down into her tea. “Howard is rather frightful to look at. Not deformed, really, but far from what you’d call handsome.”

At that moment, the creaking upstairs took on a kind of deliberation. Someone, undoubtedly Howard, was coming down the stairs. Steeling himself, Weir put his tea down, for fear he might spill it if the boy were that shocking to look at.

He was expecting a young boy with a cleft palate, some awful skin condition, or perhaps a hideous bone-wasting disease that affected his skull. The young man he saw, whom he estimated to be in his mid-twenties, was big-boned and gawky, calling to mind an under-aged English butler, but hardly shocking or even ugly. Weir heaved a sigh of relief, though he tried to keep it from being audible.

The young man was dressed in a suit and carrying a straw hat. Weir stood and shook his hand. “I’m very pleased to meet you,” he said, but Howard just put on a very tentative smile.

“I hope you realize that we’re going to be walking through the woods. There are plenty of pine needles that might stick to your trousers and certain parts of the walk can be exceedingly muddy.”

“Howard never goes anywhere without looking his best!” his mother said.

***

They stepped into Weir’s Detroiter, a fine-looking automobile, black and shiny with a canvas top. Howard placed on the back seat a wicker picnic basket, which Susie had packed for the two of them.

As Weir shifted into “drive” and started down the road, Howard said, “I should warn you, I’m sometimes prone to motion sickness.”

Fortunately, Howard did not take ill, although he sometimes covered his mouth as if he might and, after a while, Weir reckoned that this strange young man might be actually enjoying the ride. “Do you enjoy nature, Howard?”

“I enjoy science. I’ve studied chemistry, but the mathematics were too complicated for me,” Howard said, never making eye contact. “I’ve got a telescope! I’ve spent a lot of time staring at the moon.”

I’ll bet you have, thought Weir. “Well, that’s just terrific, Howard! Any other hobbies?”

“Well, I’m an amateur journalist, but what I really want to do is write fiction and poetry. My personal hero is Edgar Allen Poe. Have you read him?”

“I’ve heard of him, certainly,” Weir said. “But I’ve never read him.” Weir never saw much point in reading stories about black cats, crazy murderers, and people being buried alive or walled up in wine cellars, written by a drunk and an opium addict. It was all too gruesome and, frankly, there were horrors enough in the real world without having to make up more.

***

As they got out of the car, Weir noticed that Howard was carrying a notebook. “Is that your sketch pad?” he asked.

“In a sense,” Howard said. “But I sketch with words.”

Weir took him down his favorite trail in Ravenswood Park, where there was plenty to look at, especially in the spring with its vernal pools. “This is one of my favorite spots,” said Weir. “Not many people seem to know about it.” He pointed to the vines that were spiraling around some of the trees in a death grip. Howard seemed to take immediate notice of them. “That’s bittersweet. It wraps itself around anything it can and, unfortunately, kills it off in the process.”

After hearing that pronouncement, Howard seemed to keep to the center of the trail so as to avoid touching anything. Nonetheless, several hundred feet down the trail, he paused and looked down at a sticker on his trousers. He reached down to pull it off and then cried out in pain—a little too dramatic for such a minor discomfort, Weir thought. “What is this horrible thing?” he asked.

“It’s just a sticker. It sticks to clothing—and fur—so that it gets carried great distances to spread its seeds.” Slightly exasperated, Weir plucked it from his trousers and flicked it into the woods.

Further along, Weir athletically jumped up on one of the boulders that lined the path. “Have a look at this, Howard! It’s a glacial erratic!”

“Pardon me?”

“Back in the Ice Age, while glaciers were moving across North America, they crushed everything in their path, even solid rock, leaving these boulders we call glacial erratics. Some are huge. If you’d like, we can visit Agassiz Rock next. It’s not far from here and it’s as big as the Ritz!”

Rather than respond to the invitation, Howard opened his notebook and began writing, which Weir saw as a good sign. 

The Ravenswood Estate is shrouded in secrecy. None of the denizens of the neighboring villages dare to speak of it, and if the unfortunate traveler dares to ask about it, he is met with dark and brooding silence. In ancient times, long before civilized man walked the earth, the Great Old Ones had trod through this cursed tract of land, destroying everything in their path and tossing boulders to and fro like marbles, rendering cultivation essentially impossible.

They came to the boardwalk, which Weir had helped to build, and traversed hundreds of feet of swamp. The wondrous variety of fauna and flora were waking to Spring. Water lilies spread across the large expanses of water, their pink buds just starting to open, casting reflections in the still water of the swamp. It called to mind all those wonderful paintings by Monet. It sometimes boggled Weir’s mind that life—especially plants—could live and thrive just about anywhere. The sound of peepers, like the sound of giant, hollow crickets, surrounded them. He couldn’t help but beam at Howard.

Howard was looking around, nervously. “What’s that horrible sound?”

“They’re peepers!” Weir said, and when Howard looked less than enlightened, he explained, “Peepers are young male frogs, and they use that sound to attract mates.” When Weir saw Howard open his notebook and begin scribbling, he assumed that Howard had found something else noteworthy. “They fertilize the females’ eggs, which they lay in large egg sacs just under the surface of the water. Eventually, they hatch into tadpoles, which are aquatic, water-breathing creatures. The tadpoles sprout arms and legs and then crawl out of the water as frogs, where they breathe air. It’s quite fascinating.”

Nothing wholesome can grow at Ravenswood, as vile, woody tendrils reach out of the earth and strangle everything within their splintery reach . . . The rare, intrepid soul who ventures into its swamps hears a cacophonous symphony of a myriad subhuman creatures that could only have come from the depths of hell, communicating in an ancient and profane language that they alone could understand. They were loathsome creatures. Not content to slither around in the depths of the swamp, they metamorphosed, growing hideous webbed appendages, surfaced, walked the earth amongst mankind, procreated, and spawned more of their own kind.

“The other fascinating thing about frogs,” Weir went on, “is that some of them actually freeze solid in the winter, but they have this natural antifreeze in their bodies that helps them thaw in the spring.”

For long stretches of time, these freaks of nature lay dormant, frozen in the swamp that gave birth to them. Yet, with the passing of the vernal equinox, they awakened . . .

Howard looked up from his reverie and scanned the swamp around them. He gazed at the many trees, most with the life drowned out of them by the swamp, and he seemed to take particular interest in a nearby tree trunk that had toppled over, tearing its roots out of the floor of the swamp and exposing a cavernous underside. And then he looked at the yellowish flakes that had covered much of the trunk. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing to it.

“Fungus,” Weir explained. “Fungus plays an important role in decay.” When Howard made a face, he further explained, “If it weren’t for decay, the tree would just lie there, taking up space, depriving other plants of sunlight. As it is, the water, the fungus, and the soil all help break it down into carbon dioxide and material that can serve as nutrition for the other plants. It’s nature’s life cycle and it’s very much on display here in the swamp.”

Trees cannot thrive in the miasmal swamp surrounding them. As they grow toward the light, the deadly vines reach out of the swamp and pull them back down. They fall prey to fungus and other primitive life form, which infiltrate them, corrupt them, and slowly suck the life right out of them.

After they came away from the swamp and onto the main trail, Weir showed Howard a small shack and a plaque commemorating The Hermit of Ravenswood. Knowing Howard’s literary bent, Weir said, “This is where Mason Walton, the Hermit of Ravenswood, lived. He had a wife and child who died, he may have developed tuberculosis and decided to live life in the forest, surrounded by nature. He was something of an amateur naturalist who wrote several essays on nature. He was a kindred spirit of Thoreau, who wrote some essays about him, I believe.”

Again, Howard opened his journal and began writing:

The hideous old hermit of Ravenswood chose to live apart from the judging eyes of decent men. He was rarely seen, but those unfortunate few who had chanced upon him called him an abomination, an obscene half-breed between something human and something else entirely. Among the villagers, he was rumored to be the Gatekeeper, the half-human creature who guarded the unearthly portal through which the Great Old Ones had emerged several millennia ago.

After only a couple of hours, Howard insisted on heading back to Providence to be in time for tea and biscuits at four. By that time, Weir was very amenable to leaving as he grew tired of the company. As they climbed into the Detroiter, he tried to peek at what Howard had written in his notebook, but Howard immediately snapped it shut defensively.

During the ride, Howard reached back into the back seat and retrieved the picnic basket. From it, he pulled a small dish covered with cloth. He undid the cloth and underneath was an assortment of carrot sticks and radishes. So much for the picnic lunch, Weir thought. Although he helped himself to a few carrots, his stomach growled much of the way home.

When they arrived back at the house, Howard went back upstairs for his nap. Susie retrieved her purse out of the kitchen and from it she pulled a small handful of coins, which she gave to Weir. He looked at them incredulously. “You do realize, of course, that I work professionally as a teacher and lecturer at Harvard and Brown Universities, and I’ve just spent most of the day with Howard.”

“This is all I have on hand,” she responded. “I’ll send you a check with the balance in good time.”

When he left, he knew that no such a check would ever arrive. If they asked for his service again, he would decline, but of course there was never again such an invitation. He learned later that Winfield Lovecraft’s estate had been slowly dwindling.

***

A dozen years later, Weir received a package in the mail, addressed to him, from someone named H.P. Lovecraft, living in Providence, Rhode Island. Why did something about the name ring familiar? Ah yes, the Lovecrafts were the eccentric side of the family—the extended family, that is. He opened it to discover the latest issue (April 1929) of a pulp magazine called Weird Tales: The Unique Magazine. The cover illustration was of some sort of Oriental devil brandishing a sword at a pale white maiden.

He opened the cover and saw a signature inside: “Dear Mr. Weir: I’ve never properly thanked you for that stroll we took through Ravenswood. I shall never forget it.” Right under Lovecraft’s signature on the table of contents was a short story, “The Dunwich Horror,” by H.P. Lovecraft.


About the Author

Rob Dinsmoor is the author of three fictive memoirs: Tales of the TroupeThe Yoga Divas and Other Stories, and You Can Leave Anytime. He also co-authored a children's picture book titled Does Dixie Like Me? His story in Lowestoft Chronicle, 'Kundalini Yoga at the Arkham YMCA,' was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Recently, he appeared on stage on The Moth Story Slam. He lives on the North Shore of Massachusetts. Visit his Website at www.robertdinsmoor.com.