©1993 Stephen Mark Rainey
Previously published in Midnight Shambler,
and The Last Trumpet, 2000
UNTIL NOW, Jonathan Crane had
never actually heard the portrait speak.
For years, stories about
the painting’s unusual talent had crept into guarded conversations at
community gatherings, or onto the Reidsville Reader’s back page
following some hysterical witness’s accounting of the event. Lawrence
Troy, the nefarious investigative reporter from The Greensboro News, had
once attempted an exposé on the fabled canvas’s reputation for
elocution, but had been foiled when it refused to answer any questions.
Crane had worked at the
hotel desk for nine years, and he always figured the ghostly voice of
the Henry Hotel was just a gimmick, devised for publicity. However, when
a hoarse cough and low mumbling came from the unoccupied gallery across
the hall, he suddenly found himself wishing he were a bit hard of
He left his desk and took
a few tentative steps into the antique-filled gallery. Above the
fireplace, the life-size painting of Dr. Jacob Rigney dominated the
room, its subject a gaunt, cruel‑looking figure with stark blue eyes and
sparse, white hair. The hotel’s founder was reputed to have been a
stern, miserly Irishman, who had gone to the great beyond the same day
the first H‑bomb exploded, leaving the hotel to his far more genial
daughter, whom Crane knew affectionately as “Ms. Kate.”
Crane’s eyes locked on
Jacob Rigney’s, but the image showed no sign of any unusual animation.
“Hello,” he said. “Was that you?”
The face in the oil made
no reply. With a sigh, Crane turned to the window, feigning an interest
in the lamp-lit sidewalk beyond. Then—quickly—he spun around, hoping to
catch the painting doing something it ought not.
Sheep in a jeep,
he thought. As if he really needed something to shatter his convictions
about reality. Of course, he’d have to keep this incident to himself,
for if he were to go running up and down the halls hollering about the
portrait that talked, the resulting ridicule would be quite intolerable.
In the hall, the bell on
the desk dinged: a guest requiring his attention. Still unnerved, he
decided to believe he had imagined the whole business, but before
returning to his desk, he closed and locked the gallery door. If the
portrait in there were to begin talking a blue streak, it was best he
didn’t hear it.
“IT SPOKE,” the rotund,
silver‑haired woman said, giving Crane a knowing look. “That’s it, isn’t
“Why, no!” he blurted,
surprised that Ms. Kate had so readily guessed the truth. “I was just
“No, John, it spoke.
That’s why you’re asking about it. No need to be embarrassed.”
Her voice was kind,
motherly, and he could not bring himself to lie. “Well,” he said, “I
thought I heard something.”
“It does happen, you
know. It’s not a made-up story.”
“Really? You said it was
“That’s just what I tell
people. It’s not good to say certain things to some people because some
people shouldn’t know certain things. For example, there are things I
know that my father knew, and other things he knew that I shouldn’t know
She reached out and
patted his knee. “Never mind. Now, I must tell you something, John. I’m
not a young person anymore, and I won’t be around much longer. When I
go, you are to close the hotel.”
“Wait. I thought you
“Yes, John. The guests
are to be cleared out, the doors locked. You must promise to do this.”
dumbfounded. Ms. Kate had no living heirs, and he had always hoped she
might leave the hotel to him. “If it’s your wish….”
“It is not a wish, John.
My father willed me this hotel with a very rigid set of conditions. Do
“Yes, ma’am. I mean, no,
“It doesn’t matter. Just
do as you’re told.”
“Please see to the guests
He turned to leave,
giving Ms. Kate a long, dubious look. She settled back in her chair and,
with a deep sigh, mouthed some odd syllables that sounded like “Eeya,
eeya, katooloo fahtagin.”
THAT EVENING, as Crane made his
rounds through the upstairs, making sure that Tazmen Traylor-Heim, the
new housekeeper, had completed her duties, he passed Ms. Kate’s door and
heard a low groan coming from the other side. Fearing his employer might
be in distress, he knocked but received no answer. Alarm mounting, he
drew his master key, unlocked the door, and pushed his way in. The old
woman was seated in her plush armchair, head tilted back, plainly
asleep. Just dreaming, he thought with relief. Then he noticed in
her lap a huge, leather-bound book, which at first he took to be her
antique King James Bible. However, on its pages, he saw not verses of
scripture, but strange drawings scrawled in deep red ink. One was a
ghastly rendition of a flayed human body, muscles and organs exposed.
Above it hovered something that looked like a big rhododendron bush,
only with eyeballs instead of leaves.
Wondering whether Ms.
Kate’s mind had finally gone south, he hurried down to the kitchen to
check on dinner. As he passed the gallery, he nearly jumped out of his
skin when he heard a low, throaty voice seemingly engaged in a
conversation with itself. He leaped through the door, ready to have it
out with the portrait, only to draw up short before the long, dour face
of Mrs. Lyndelia Drolet from Winston-Salem, who was lecturing a
cowed-looking Mr. Drolet: a pudgy, gray-haired gentleman with no fingers
on one hand, a club foot, and several million dollars in his money belt.
The tall woman gave Crane a blistering stare, then cleared her throat
haughtily before returning to her diatribe.
Suitably abashed, Crane
hurried to the kitchen, where he found Chef having a fit in front of a
pot of watery clam chowder. Frantically, the older man explained they
were short on veal—the evening’s special—and completely out of creamed
corn. Overjoyed to be confronting the sort of problems he had been born
to solve, Crane laid into Chef with proper indignation and commenced to
setting things right. When Ms. Kate came down for dinner, half an hour
later, the clam chowder was perfect, flounder had replaced veal as the
evening special, and Tazmen Traylor-Heim had been sent to the
supermarket to purchase corn.
IT WAS NEARLY ten o’clock when the
alarm came from upstairs. Mrs. Shirley McGregor, from Greensboro, had
discovered the hotel’s proprietor lying in a heap on the hallway floor,
face deathly white. Crane immediately called for an ambulance, which
arrived in less than a quarter-hour, since the Rescue Squad was just
around the corner. After many tense moments, the paramedics trundled an
unconscious Ms. Kate away on a gurney, though she roused just long
enough to whisper, “John…do it now!”
He stared after her in
shock. Did she know what she was asking? To close the hotel—now, of all
times, when many of the elderly guests might be on their ways to bed?
Ms. Kate’s mind must have snapped. Tomorrow—assuming she survived
that long—he would go to the hospital and make her understand that he
simply could not carry out her orders.
By eleven, the hotel was
quiet, with most everyone secured in their rooms. Per his custom, Crane
took a few minutes to look over the Reidsville Reader. The house lights
were low, his desk lamp providing a comfortable oasis in the otherwise
The first sounds came
from somewhere upstairs. At first, he paid them no mind, but soon his
trained ears realized these were not the usual noises of the old
building. These were low, mumbling sounds—all too similar to the “voice”
he had heard in the gallery. He rose, crept to the foot of the
staircase, and called, “Anyone there?”
When no one answered, he
ascended cautiously and peered into the darkness. The hall was empty,
all the doors closed. Had he imagined the sounds? Or had some guest with
an unknown impediment taken to jabbering? No. With a sigh of
frustration, he resolved to go confront what was surely the source of
his trials: the portrait of Jacob Rigney, down in the gallery. If that
thing wanted talk to someone, then it could by God talk to him!
He went around a corner,
only to find himself facing a leering fright-mask, which sent him
jumping backward with a shrill squeak of terror. It was the face of Mrs.
Lyndelia Drolet, her features twisted with inexplicable fury.
“M-Mrs. Drolet,” he
stammered, “you startled me. I, uh....” His voice trailed away as the
woman’s lower jaw dropped, exposing crooked, yellow teeth, and a long
gasp escaped her lungs—”Gyaaggh!”—blown quite rudely into Crane’s face.
“Oh! Oh!” he cried,
covering his mouth and nose. Her breath was the putrid odor of dead fish
washed onto a polluted beach.
Oh, God, had the
flounder been bad?
“Mrs. Drolet, I’m so
sorry!” But now the woman was gazing down at him with horribly
bulging eyes, and he realized that—good Lord!—her feet were no longer
touching the floor. Her thin body was hanging in the air like a puppet
suspended by invisible threads. Her limbs began to jerk spasmodically,
and then the floating figure spun and whisked toward the stairs, its
head turning backward, the glaring eyes locking on his.
“MRS. DROLET!” he cried,
leaping after the airborne woman—just in time to see her pitch headlong
down the stairs and crash in a twisted heap at its foot. Her voice
roared up from below—”Ghyaaaggh!”—her arms and legs thrashing like angry
snakes, her head twisted at an impossible angle.
“Oh! Oh!” Crane cried,
backing away from the stairs in horror. For several seconds, everything
went silent. Then, down the dark hallway behind him, a door creaked
open. But he couldn’t let anyone see that horrible thing at the foot of
the stairs! He turned and strode forward to intercept the guest, only to
find—much to his dismay—the hall was completely empty.
But then the floorboards
creaked as if someone had taken a heavy step. And from the empty air, a
deep voice growled, “Eyaagh, shog n’gai f’taghn!”
That was it—the voice
that had come from the painting of Jacob Rigney! He couldn’t see it, but
he felt something moving toward him. He began to back up, until,
finally, his only escape was down the stairs. At the bottom, Mrs.
Drolet’s struggles seemed to be diminishing, the rage in her face
softening. Somehow, she lived long enough for her eyes to gaze upon the
wreckage of her body; then her spirit rushed out of her mouth and wisely
Something bitterly cold
brushed his face, and he cried out in terror. Then his eyes fell upon a
little red box on the wall, and, unable to think of anything else, he
pulled the lever with all his strength. A shrill, jangling bell pierced
the air, and the next he knew, one of the doors down the hall was flying
A sleepy-looking man
wearing a bathrobe—Mr. Clarence Curry from Caswell County—stepped out
and regarded him with suspicious eyes. “Young man, what is going on?”
Crane felt another cold
brush against his cheek. All that squeaked past his lips was:
Then he was bellowing at
the top of his lungs, spinning wildly, fists flailing, as if to beat the
invisible horror to death. “Everybody out! Fire! Fire!”
Doors began opening, and
elderly folk came shuffling into the hallway, some plugging in hearing
aids and then pulling them out again as the fire bell shrieked at them.
He made his way through the evacuating senior citizens, beating on doors
and yelling, “Everybody out! Fire! Big fire!”
“Oh my God!” cried Mrs.
McGregor from Greensboro, who’d seen the shattered figure below. “What
can be happening?”
“Oh, an accident!”
someone cried. “A terrible accident!”
“Fire!” Crane screamed. A
cold fist had seized his skull, and he saw his feet leave the floor. His
flailing arms caught Mrs. McGregor in the temple and knocked her to the
floor. “Sorry!” he called, but was then thrown down the stairs, his head
banging sharply against the banister. He thudded into a heap at the
bottom, his face coming to rest directly in front of Mrs. Drolet’s
“Yaah!” he cried,
scrambling to his feet and bumping into a heavy woman, the cold once
again swirling hungrily around him. He caught a quick snippet of a
commentary on rudeness but forced himself to ignore it. Thankfully, the
guests were filing down the stairs, and a thoughtful Mr. Curry took hold
of Mrs. Drolet’s arms and pulled her body out of the way so the less
agile among them might not trip.
Then Crane felt something
frigid and wet, like a cold, squirming earthworm, trying to wriggle into
his mouth. He fell into the gallery and rolled choking and sobbing on
the floor, in full view of the painting on the wall. Jacob Rigney stared
disdainfully at him, as chilling spikes of evil energy drilled into his
Then cold was all he
“GET AWAY! GET away!”
Crane woke thrashing and
squalling, but after a moment, he realized it was a gloved hand gripping
his arm, and that flashing red lights surrounded him. The fire
department. They had brought him outside!
He looked around and saw
a crowd gathered in the street. He feared everyone would be staring at
him, for he knew his behavior had been deplorable. But all eyes were
locked on the old Henry Hotel. From within it came a deep rumbling
sound, and the window panes began to shake. He freed himself from the
fireman’s grip as a violent tremor sent the old structure swaying
He heard the sound of
shattering glass, and a foul, fishy stench washed over the crowd,
causing many to gag. Then Mrs. McGregor yelled, “Look there!” and he saw
a hazy, swirling shape creeping up from the building’s foundations. One
of the front windows blew out, and a thick, smoky mist rolled over the
sill to encircle the building. The near-liquid substance began to rush
faster and faster, forming a roaring black funnel that spiraled into the
sky. The spectators began backing away in panic, and Crane threw himself
beneath the shelter of a nearby oak tree. The roar formed a weirdly
modulated chorus of voices that rose higher and higher, like hundreds of
souls screaming in agony.
With a loud ripping
sound, the old Henry Hotel wrenched itself from its foundations and rose
into the air. Then, with a deafening boom, it exploded, hurling pieces
of itself high into the midnight sky. Thunder echoed for ages before
finally fading, leaving an all-encompassing, expectant silence.
Then the hotel’s wreckage
began to rain from the heavens, some of the larger bits—most
horribly—crushing a number of unlucky spectators, including poor Mrs.
McGregor from Greensboro. From all over town, loud thuds and
booms echoed for several minutes as far-flung pieces of the building
continued to fall to earth.
Beneath his tree, coated
in a layer of dust, Crane gazed at the sky and, for one brief moment,
glimpsed a swirling form that blotted out the stars before disappearing
into the night. A kindly fireman rushed to help him but paused when
Crane gave him a knowing smile and said, “The damned thing checked out.”
When Crane finally looked
down, he saw lying at his feet Ms. Kate’s evil book, placed there as if
That night, he was taken
to Morehead Hospital in Eden, where he collapsed, clutching the old
book, which not even the strongest attendant could pry from his grasp.
INDEED, MS. KATE had died of
congestive heart failure that evening—at precisely the time Crane began
to hear the strange noises that foreshadowed the hotel’s doom. After his
release from the hospital, he carried the book to a nearby alley and set
it on fire. Then he went very calmly mad and was sent to a pleasant
asylum up in Catawba Valley, Virginia.
The Henry Hotel, he’d
learned, before it was a hotel, had been a hospital, erected by the one
and only Dr. Jacob Rigney, Ms. Kate’s father. The book, which proved to
be Rigney’s personal journal, revealed that the hospital had been less a
house of healing than a house of death. From its opening in 1912 until
its conversion to a hotel in 1950, the building had been the site of
untold horrors that few people, even in its day, had suspected.
Dr. Rigney worshipped
strange gods—gods that demanded blood tributes. His hospital was little
more than a slaughterhouse, where he might easily procure the sick, the
injured, the dying. Anyone was admitted, especially those who had no
families, no money—anyone who could be removed from existence with
minimal risk. The doctor, certainly, was nothing less than charitable.
Over the years, dozens of victims had died at Rigney’s hands, right
under the noses of the townsfolk.
Ms. Kate, much to Crane’s
shock, had known about her father’s work, but—thank God—had never
practiced his perverted religion. Near the end of his life, Dr. Rigney
had warned her that the deities he worshipped had betrayed him and that,
upon his death, the souls he had offered them would return to claim his.
He taught her certain banishment rituals, so he might escape the eternal
torment to which the dead intended to deliver him, and when he died, his
spirit found sanctuary in the hotel gallery—inside his portrait. While
she was alive, Ms. Kate wielded the power to restrain the angry spirits,
but upon her passing, the dead had come forth in a murderous, ghostly
Lawrence Troy, from The
Greensboro News, tried several times to interview Crane but was again
forced to admit defeat, for it was well over a year before the young
man’s mind found its way out of hiding.
MOST FOLKS in Reidsville theorize
that a freak tornado destroyed the Henry Hotel, claiming nine lives, and
that Jonathan Crane’s insanity was precipitated by the terrible death
and destruction he had witnessed. However, certain others in
town—particularly the families of the victims—still pray fervently for a
holy restraining order against an encore performance by unknown but
decidedly devilish powers.
Several days after the
hotel’s destruction, the portrait of Jacob Rigney turned up near
Charleston, South Carolina, over 200 miles away. Somehow, after being
hurled into the sky by the explosion, it was carried by the winds and
deposited back on earth, miraculously undamaged. It now hangs in the
foyer of the mortuary that was built to replace the hotel.
After his recovery, Crane
took a job as assistant manager at the Holiday Inn on Highway 29, but
sadly, his employment came to an abrupt end when he fatally assaulted a
guest registered under the name of Dr. J. R. Rigney. As the police
escorted him away, Crane was heard to shout something to the effect of
“Eeya, eeya, katooloo fahtagin, Rigney’s got a busted noggin!” He was
placed under lock and key but, later that night, mysteriously
disappeared from his jail cell. Jonathan Crane was never seen again.
Few dared speculate about
the young man’s fate, but Lawrence Troy, the nefarious investigative
reporter from The Greensboro News, wrote a book about the bizarre events
at the Henry Hotel, which became a bestseller. He married Tazmen
Traylor-Heim, the hotel’s unemployed housekeeper, and, after so many
years of frustration, finally, had his shining moment in the sun.