“The Haunted Spinney” First appeared in the November issue of THE IDLER in 1904.
ELLIOTT O’DONNELL (1872-1965) preceded, in the popular consciousness, the more familiar Harry Price as one of the most widely read figures purporting to be a ghost-hunter and investigator into the unknown. Born in Bristol, O’Donnell claimed an encounter at age 5 with an “elemental spirit”, as well as his family line being cursed by a Banshee, as prerequisites for his lifelong interest in the paranormal. On graduating The Queen’s Service Academy (where he claimed to have wrestled a spectral strangler), he went to America, where he lived as a rancher in Oregon, worked as a policeman in Chicago during the great railroad strikes and also claimed to have been a journalist in San Francisco and New York, all while collecting tales of ghosts in the New World, finally returning to England in 1900 to work as a schoolmaster and traveling actor. His first occult novel, FOR SATAN’S SAKE, made no impact in 1905 so he reinvented himself as a raconteur and ghost hunter – penning dozens of popular books in which he collected folklore about spirits and bogeys and told of his visits to famous haunted sites. He possibly originated the concept of hauntings as localized “recordings” (one of a number of classifications he posited), as later seen in Nigel Kneale’s THE STONE TAPE. Luckily for us, he also wrote many novels and pieces of short fiction designated as such. He never claimed to be a psychic investigator and his writings, when presented as true, still have a highly dramatic and atmospheric style that makes them dubious as true records but very enjoyable as entertainment. “Let me state plainly that I lay no claim to being what is termed a scientific psychical researcher. I am not a member of any august society that conducts its investigations of the other world, or worlds, with the test tube and weighing apparatus; neither do I pretend to be a medium or clairvoyant — I have never undertaken to ‘raise’ ghosts at will for the sensation-seeker or the tourist. I am merely a ghost hunter. One who lays stake by his own eyes and senses; one who honestly believes he inherits in some the degree the faculty of psychic perceptiveness from a long line of Celtic ancestry; and who is, and always has been, deeply and genuinely interested in all questions relative to phantasms and a continuance of individual life after physical dissolution.”
Your reader – Alasdair Stuart – may or may not exist – until someone opens the box and a deathly hand emerges….
“It was a cold night. Rain had been falling steadily not only for hours but days, the ground was saturated. As I walked along the country lane the slush splashed over my boots and trousers. To my left was a huge stone wall, behind which I could see the nodding heads of firs, and through them the wind was rushing, making a curious whistling sound, now loud, now soft, roaring and gently murmuring. The sound fascinated me. I fancied it might be the angry voice of a man and the plaintive pleading of a woman, and then a weird chorus of unearthly beings, of grotesque things that stalked along the moors, and crept from behind huge boulders.
Nothing but the wind was to be heard. I stood and listened to it. I could have listened for hours. for I felt in harmony with my surroundings, lonely. The moon showed itself at intervals from behind the scudding clouds, and lighted up the open landscape to my left.
A gaunt hill covered with rocks, some piled up pyramidically, others strewn here and there; a few trees with naked arms tossing about and looking distress-fully slim beside the more stalwart boulders; a sloping field or two, a couple of level ones, crossed by a tiny path, and the lane where I stood. The scenery was desolate, not actually wild, but sad and forlorn, and the spinney by my side lent an additional weird aspect to the place, which was pleasing to me.
Suddenly I heard a sound, a familiar sound enough at other times, but at this hour and in this place everything seemed different. A woman was coming along the road, a woman in a dark cloak with a basket under her arm, and the wind was blowing her skirts about her legs. I looked at the trees. One singularly gaunt and fantastic one appalled me. It had long, gnarled arms, and two of them ended in bunches of twigs like hands – huge, murderous-looking hands, with bony fingers. The moonlight played over and around me. I had no business to be on the earth; my poor place was in the moon; I no longer thought it. I knew it. The woman was close at hand. She stopped at a little wicket gate leading into the lane skirting the north walls of the spinney. I felt angry; what right had she to be there, interrupting my musings with the moon? The tree with the human hands appeared to agree. I saw anger in the movements of its branches, anger which soon blazed into fury, as they gave a mighty bend towards her as if longing to rend her to pieces.”