PseudoPod 618: Goblins & Little Orphant Annie
Goblins: “I don’t remember why my friend Reyna and I ended up having a discussion about a creepy undertaker pickling kids and turning them into goblins, but we did, and the idea was so perfect that I knew immediately that it had to turn into a story someday. So she deserves at least some of the credit for this one.”
Little Orphant Annie
by James Whitcomb Riley
Little Orphant Annie’s come to our house to stay, An’ wash the cups an’ saucers up, an’ brush the crumbs away, An’ shoo the chickens off the porch, an’ dust the hearth, an’ sweep, An’ make the fire, an’ bake the bread, an’ earn her board-an’-keep; An’ all us other childern, when the supper things is done, We set around the kitchen fire an’ has the mostest fun A-list’nin’ to the witch-tales ‘at Annie tells about, An’ the Gobble-uns ‘at gits you Ef you Don’t Watch Out! Onc’t they was a little boy wouldn’t say his prayers,-- So when he went to bed at night, away up stairs, His Mammy heerd him holler, an’ his Daddy heerd him bawl, An’ when they turn’t the kivvers down, he wasn’t there at all! An’ they seeked him in the rafter-room, an’ cubby-hole, an’ press, An’ seeked him up the chimbly-flue, an’ ever’wheres, I guess; But all they ever found was thist his pants an’ roundabout-- An’ the Gobble-uns’ll git you Ef you Don’t Watch Out! An’ one time a little girl ‘ud allus laugh an’ grin, An’ make fun of ever’one, an’ all her blood an’ kin; An’ onc’t, when they was “company," an’ ole folks was there, She mocked ‘em an’ shocked ‘em, an’ said she didn’t care! An’ thist as she kicked her heels, an’ turn’t to run an’ hide, They was two great big Black Things a-standin’ by her side, An’ they snatched her through the ceilin’ ‘fore she knowed what she’s about! An’ the Gobble-uns’ll git you Ef you Don’t Watch Out! An’ little Orphant Annie says when the blaze is blue, An’ the lamp-wick sputters, an’ the wind goes woo-oo! An’ you hear the crickets quit, an’ the moon is gray, An’ the lightnin’-bugs in dew is all squenched away,-- You better mind yer parents, an’ yer teachers fond an’ dear, An’ churish them ‘at loves you, an’ dry the orphant’s tear, An’ he’p the pore an’ needy ones ‘at clusters all about, Er the Gobble-uns’ll git you Ef you Don’t Watch Out!
by Orrin Grey
The undertaker lived with his wife in a long, low house in the farthest corner of the cemetery, built of dark brown stone that looked perpetually damp and covered almost completely with trumpet vines and creeping ivy. It had been the town’s mortuary once, before the mortuary facilities moved into a larger and more modern building a few blocks down the street.
The undertaker’s house was only one story tall, but it was built over a basement that stuck up a bit from the ground—the kind with a hopper window filmed over with dust—so that to get to the front door you went up three stone steps, bordered by a black wrought-iron railing. There was a detached garage made of the same damp stone where the undertaker parked the hearse. Whenever there was a funeral, you could sit in Ryan’s bay window and watch the long black car pull slowly out of the graveyard and onto the street.
Ryan lived with his mom in a house by the cemetery, with nothing between his bedroom window and all those dead people but the first floor of the house, the front yard, the street, and a low, moss-covered stone wall. Ryan’s mom worked at the hospital and she was gone a lot, so Ryan’s house was our favorite place to hang out. We’d ride our bikes over there and leave them in a big pile of wheels and chrome on the front lawn while we played tag or touch football or had imaginary shootouts and sword fights among the graves. When Ryan’s mom worked the night shift, we’d rent a bunch of scary movies—anything we could get from the video section of the Golden Apple Grocery down the street that was likely to feature moldy corpses crawling up out of loamy earth—and stay up all night watching them in Ryan’s living room, with the big bay window that faced the graveyard. The cemetery was our playground, but the undertaker’s house was the one corner of it where even we never dared to go.
The undertaker didn’t work at the big white mortuary building down the street, wasn’t even really an undertaker anymore, but the new owners kept him on staff, maybe because they felt sorry for him, or maybe for some other reason. As kids, none of us ever questioned the why of it. His job was to drive the hearse for the funerals, and he looked after the graveyard the rest of the time. In an old ghost story he would have been a sexton, but by our time the grave digging was done by backhoes, and a grounds crew from the city came out every other week to mow the grass with wide red riding lawnmowers.
The undertaker was an anachronism, a relic from another era, and he terrified us. Though the graveyard sent a little shiver of fear up our spines, especially at night, it was always a pleasing terror, the kind we got from watching a scary movie. The undertaker was something else. The fear he carried was the sick dread of the principal’s office, of bad news or waking up from a nightmare.
He was tall and bony, the kind of figure that’s described as “all knees and elbows,” always dressed for a funeral in a natty black suit. He looked like the Tall Man from Phantasm, or like Uncle Creepy from the old black-and-white horror comics that Cody had inherited from his older brother.
His wife was smaller, but equally wizened, like one of those shrunken apple heads that Vincent Price used to sell in the backs of comic books. Prime witch material, in other words. We saw her less often than her husband, but she occasionally came outside to do chores, and Matt said that he once saw her at the Golden Apple, buying canned corn like a regular person.
Though the undertaker would chase us away from the graveyard if he happened to catch us inside crypts or climbing on tombstones, we really had very little actual cause to be scared of either of them, but we were. Petrified. And we weren’t alone, even the high school kids sometimes talked about how “creepy” they were, and Matt’s older sister used to tell us all stories about them, how they stole kids like us and cooked them up for dinner. Whenever she did I would remember the flyers for missing children that decorated a board inside the front doors of the Golden Apple Grocery.
More than either the undertaker or his wife, though, we were afraid of the house, tucked away in the deepest corner of the graveyard. Everyone knew that, back when the house had still been a mortuary, the old embalming room had been in the basement. That was the room that was the center of our dread, and so also the room that held the most fascination for us all. Sometimes we would dare each other to run from the cover of the nearest gravestone to peer in through the window and try to catch a glimpse of whatever the room housed now. The stories that we returned with varied wildly, and the fact was that none of us was ever able to see much. The window was covered over with grime on the inside, and the basement was always dark.
While Cody once said that there was still an embalming table there in the center of the room, a sheeted form resting upon it, none of the rest of us ever saw any such thing. The only detail we could agree upon was that the walls were lined with wooden shelves, where glass jars held murky liquid with indefinite shapes floating inside. Of course, the most likely conclusion was that the undertaker or his wife had turned the basement over to canning, but as kids that’s not what we saw. I can say from experience that my own grandmother’s canning cellar—from which we ate bread and butter pickles and raspberry preserves—was filled with pickled punks and deformed embryos, jarred space aliens and mandrake roots as far as I was concerned. So of course the undertaker’s basement had to be populated by all that times ten.
Once school started back up, we were able to play in the graveyard and have video nights at Ryan’s less often, but we’d still ride our bikes over after school pretty much every day. As fun as the graveyard had been during the summer, it was even better as the leaves began to turn, and it didn’t take long for conversation to shift to what we were going to do for Halloween.
We all loved Halloween, but were mired in that awkward in-between age where we felt like we were too old for trick-or-treating, but were still too young for much of anything else. We had talked about staying in and renting movies, but that seemed too much like something we already did every day. Cody’s dad was taking us all out to the haunted houses in the city on the weekend before Halloween, but on the night itself we had nothing planned, until Ryan hit upon the idea of breaking into the undertaker’s house.
On Halloween night we didn’t dress up, just zipped our oldest coats on over our street clothes, though we told our parents that we were going out trick-or-treating, and painted our faces to help sell the illusion. Ryan’s was a skull, Cody’s some kind of dripping zombie. Matt’s face all red, with black circles around his eyes, while I painted myself green. A gillman, maybe, or an orc.
We left Ryan’s house before his mom had left for work, walking along the road for a few blocks, in case she was watching us out the front window, before we doubled back and jumped the stone wall into the cemetery. After that it was dodging from one headstone to the other, pretending there was someone out there to see us, or that they could see us in the dark if there were.
It was a cold night, and damp. The moon was big and orange and full, looking appropriately like a grinning pumpkin in the October sky, and just enough thin trailing clouds scudded in front of it to keep up the atmosphere.
The undertaker’s house was dark, save for a dim porch light that glowed like a gaslamp above the front steps. We had no way of knowing if the undertaker and his wife were home, though we also pretty much never saw them leave, and Cody snuck over to look through a crack in the garage door and said that the hearse was there, beetle-black in the darkness.
Because it had been Ryan’s idea, he was also automatically volunteered to go first, and as the rest of us took cover behind one of those big family tombstones, he crept toward the house, keeping low, his arms practically dragging the ground. And still he seemed too big out there, too visible. The rest of us huddled where we were and shushed one another, giggling nervously and trying to keep quiet, squinting at the house to somehow see more in the dark.
We saw Ryan reach the window and fiddle with the latch for a while, saw it hinge open and him slide through. He had a flashlight in his pocket, and we saw the thin beam of it flick on in the murky basement.
There was a whispered debate about moving closer, which culminated in Matt getting pushed out from behind the headstone, and all of us gradually following his lead to inch out into the open space between the graves and the house. We had nearly crossed the graveled drive that led to the garage when Cody cursed under his breath and pointed.
The flashlight beam beyond the window was tilted up and at an angle, and it looked like maybe Ryan was going up the stairs, or at least looking up them. At the same time, a wedge of orange light had appeared in the upper part of the window. A door opening on the basement from the inside of the house.
The three of us froze, caught between rushing forward to help our friend—or at least see what was going to become of him—and running away as fast as we could. There was a sound from the basement—it could have been Ryan, I suppose, but it didn’t sound human. It sounded like the shriek of a hunting bird, like how an owl must sound to a field mouse. The wedge of orange light disappeared from the top of the stairs, and Ryan’s flashlight dropped from his fingers, struck the steps once, and went out.
The basement window went dark like someone switching off a television, and that broke the spell that had frozen us in place. I’d love to say that we rushed to the window, that we shouted Ryan’s name, but what we actually did was run as fast as we could in different directions, all of them away from the undertaker’s house.
I was probably halfway back to my own house—my bike forgotten in its tangle on Ryan’s front lawn—when it happened. I was running down the middle of the street, the sidewalks too dark and shadowed, with too many lurking bushes and looming trees for my liking. Just as I passed into the glow of a streetlamp—brighter here than out by Ryan’s, the lights now a fluorescent blue rather than sodium orange—a black cat ran across my path. It came up from one of the storm drains and crossed the street in a dark streak, stopping right in the middle of the road and looking at me with bright, gold coin eyes for a moment before disappearing into the shadows on the far side.
It was enough to stop me in my pell-mell flight, and that was enough to make me think, as I really hadn’t since Ryan’s flashlight beam had been extinguished. Standing in the middle of the road, panting from the exertion of having run blocks and blocks through the chill night, I realized that I had to go back.
Had I managed to make it all the way home before I had this revelation, I would probably have called the police, or at the very least told my parents what happened. Had I been in my own brightly lit living room, or the safety of my bed, I would have made a wiser decision. But right then, on Halloween night in the middle of the street, I knew that I had to go back and check on my friend. I didn’t know what had happened to him, couldn’t guess. Grisly scenes spun like a macabre carousel through my mind, too quick to grasp any one of them for very long.
Even then, I knew that the most likely scenario wasn’t any of the ones I was imagining. The undertaker wasn’t a ghoul, his wife wasn’t a witch. They were just a poor old couple who had been left behind by time, and Ryan was probably in trouble, sitting on a ratty old couch while Mrs. Undertaker called his mother at the hospital. But even then, even if that was all that had happened, I knew that I still had to go back. I couldn’t abandon him, not completely. The shame of having done so even temporarily was acid in my stomach, and I knew that if I went on home I would never be able to look him in the eyes again, assuming he still had eyes to look in.
I wasn’t able to run back. My flight up ’til then had been pure adrenaline dumped into my system, and now that I had broken my stride inertia had settled in. My lungs were working like a bellows trying to get enough air, and my heart was pounding so hard that I was afraid it could be heard outside my body. I don’t know how long it took me to walk back, but when I reached the entrance to the graveyard I stood under the streetlight for longer than I’d care to admit, working up the nerve to walk down the gravel drive to the undertaker’s house.
When I got to that low stone dwelling, it was completely dark. Even the orangey porch light had been extinguished, and the night seemed darker than it had earlier, the moon veiled behind thicker clouds. I had a flashlight in my coat pocket, a cheap plastic one that had beaten itself against my side with every step when I ran. I pushed the button as I crept up to the window, and the beam that sputtered forth seemed woefully inadequate against the dusty darkness inside the basement.
The hopper window was still open where Ryan had crept inside, and I was able to slip in just as he had. There was a smell coming from out of the open window, like what I always imagined embalming rooms smelled like. Directly below the window as an old stove that I could step down onto, and beyond it I could see stacked trunks and the dangling pull-string of a light bulb and then my flashlight beam glanced off the rounded glass of the jars on the shelves.
Of Ryan there was no immediate sign. Overcome by curiosity, I temporarily forgot the purpose of my mission, and crept closer to the jars along the wall. There were dozens of them, all of them larger than the jars I was used to seeing in my grandmother’s cellar, big enough to hold a football or a watermelon. Some were empty, and the beam of my flashlight passed through them, while others were full of some dark, cloudy liquid thick with particles, suspending something large and gnarled, like a grotesque root vegetable.
The things in the jars had an oddly familiar shape, and I strained to identify them. Too gnarled and twisted to be fetal animals of any kind, too dark to be potatoes or carrots or any other plant with which I was familiar. And then I saw the face. Pop-eyes squinted closed in the murky liquid, pointed ears, needle teeth. I knew what I was seeing. Goblins. Row upon row of pickled goblins.
I stumbled backward, and my shoulder collided with the shelves. I felt my foot strike against something, and the beam of Ryan’s flashlight came back on where it lay on the concrete floor, rolling back and forth, throwing a circle of light on the space under the stairs. The tank there was like a mason jar itself, but easily twice the size of the ones on the shelves. Floating in it was a larger version of the homunculi behind me.
No, not a larger version, just one that hadn’t yet finished its process. One that was still pickling.
But that wasn’t what finally prompted the strangled noise from my throat, the sound that was half-terror and half-denial, the sound that brought hurried footsteps on the floorboards above. It wasn’t the sight of the creature in the vat, it was the recognition of it. The skull-painted features had already begun to shrink and darken, but it was still dressed in its street clothes, and I immediately recognized Ryan’s red sneakers.
Before I could do anything—try to smash open the vat, climb out the window and run screaming into the night, whatever it is I would have done—the door at the top of the stairs came open. There stood the undertaker, holding a kerosene lantern, and behind him his wife, peering beneath his upheld arm, their eyes glittering blackly down at me. I tried to move away, and my foot came down on Ryan’s flashlight. It went out from under me, and I sprawled backward, striking against one of the big wooden shelves.
The first of the jars to pitch off the shelf exploded on the floor next to me with a sound like a gunshot. The thing inside let out a sound half-croak and half-yawn as it began to move, to unfold, to stretch out limbs held too long in confinement. But one jar wasn’t all that was coming. The shelf was already beginning to fall, and I was crawling away as the whole thing came down, and the shelf next to it. The room was filled with the sound of breaking glass and the stench of strange liquid.
That’s the last thing I remember clearly. I don’t know what caused the undertaker to drop the lantern. Was it surprise? Was it concern for the destruction of the creatures? Did he rush down to try to save them, or to capture me? I don’t know. All I know is that when the lamp struck the liquid on the floor, it ignited. I heard the whoosh of the flames, and the screeching of the goblins, but I was already running again, turning my back once more on my friend, and on all the other things in the jars that had once been children like me.
This time I ran up the stairs, dodging around the grasping limbs of the undertaker and his wife in some sort of panic fugue. I don’t even know how I did it. I don’t remember the inside of their house, except as a stuttering sequence of old furniture and cobwebbed corners, all of it dark and covered in a layer of dust. By the time my thoughts cleared I was already outside, somewhere far out in the headstones, and behind me the night was lit up with the flames that were consuming the undertaker’s house.
It burned to the ground that night, left nothing behind but scorched stone walls in the shape of a building. When I got home my parents were still out, and I sat in the living room with all the lights on until the phone rang and I knew that it was Matt or Cody’s mom calling. We told all our parents, and then the police, about Ryan, about what we’d seen that night, though I left out the part about going back, about what happened in the basement. They sifted through the charred wreckage, but no remains were found. Not of any kids, and not of the undertaker or his wife, though the long black hearse was still parked in the garage.
I grew up. I moved away, got married, had a child of my own, and tried not to think about what I had seen that night. When we bought a house in another town, I went to the grocery store and the post office first and stared at the boards where they posted the photos of missing kids, and I tried to remember if the ones in my home town had held more than their fair share. Mostly, I succeeded in putting it out of my mind, but then, the other day, an old couple moved in down the block from us, into a house I’d somehow never noticed before, screened by thick bushes. The moving van unloaded box after clinking box of big glass jars, carrying them down through the outside doors to the basement. For canning, my wife says, and she’s probably right. But my daughter is terrified of the old couple, crosses the street when she walks past their house, and next week is Halloween.
About the Authors
James Whitcomb Riley
James Whitcomb Riley was born in Greenfield, Indiana, on October 7, 1849. He left school at age sixteen and served in a variety of different jobs, including as a sign painter and with a traveling wagon show. He was the author of several books of poetry, including Home-Folks (Bowen-Merrill, 1900), The Flying Islands of the Night (Bowen-Merrill, 1892), and Pipes o’ Pan at Zekesbury (Bobbs-Merrill, 1888). He also served on the staff of two local newspapers, the Anderson Democrat and, later, the Indianapolis Journal. Riley was known as “the poet of the common people” for his frequent use of his local Indiana dialect in his work. He died in Indianapolis, Indiana, on July 22, 1916.
Orrin Grey is a writer, editor, tabletop game designer, amateur film scholar, and monster expert whose stories of monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year. He’s the author of several books, including Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts and Guignol & Other Sardonic Tales.
About the Narrators
Leeman Kessler is a Nigerian-born American actor who, since 2010, has been performing as HP Lovecraft on stage, film, and in his popular web-series advice show, Ask Lovecraft. In between being a dad and village mayor, he can be heard regularly on his pop culture podcast Geekually Yoked and on his scifi drama Moonbase Theta Out. To find out more, go to www.leemankessler.com
Hailing from the rainy North West of England, Phil Lunt has dabbled in many an arcane vocation during his lifetime. From attempted rock-star to conveyor-belt scraper at a bread factory, Easter Egg Wrangler to World’s Worst Waiter. Actor, designer and very infrequent writer, he now works full-time as a Casting Booker but likes to read stories to you whenever he gets a chance. Having an entry on Wookiepedia is one of his greatest achievements but for his sins he supports Bolton Wanderers. You could always check him out on Twitter to see what shenanigans he’s currently involved with. Phil served as Chair of the British Fantasy Society for four years.