©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 hearing.

         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 it?”

         “Why, no!” he blurted, surprised that Ms. Kate had so readily guessed the truth. “I was just curious.”

         “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 horse-hockey.”

         “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 but do.”


         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 said—”

         “Yes, John. The guests are to be cleared out, the doors locked. You must promise to do this.”

         Crane nodded, 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 you understand?”

         “Yes, ma’am. I mean, no, I don’t.”

         “It doesn’t matter. Just do as you’re told.”

         “Yes, ma’am.”

         “Please see to the guests now.”

         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 dark hallway.

         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 fled.

         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 open.

         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: “”


         “Fire. FIRE!”

         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 vacant eyes.

         “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 skull.

         Then cold was all he knew.


“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 precariously.

         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 by magic.

         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 stampede.

         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.



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