• The Haunting of Suzanna Blackwell

    by Richard Setlowe

    Holt Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1984

    ISBN 0-03-057786-1     Buy This Book


    SUZANNA RACED FROM THE HOUSE. IN THE MERCURY she fumbled with the keys, dropping them once on the floor, before she finally stabbed the right key into the ignition. The starter whined rather than turned over, and she immediately shut it off.

    She tried again. This time it turned over with a harsh, grating noise, as if the battery were almost dead. She clicked it off again.

    She sat a moment, breathing deeply to calm herself, her panic mounting. The benighted street was hazy with fog, and the house lights about her were ringed with rainbows. The moisture was probably shorting out the starter.

    She tried once again, turning the key with a quick, desperate twist. The starter churned over, the engine coughed, then caught and roared with the excess of gasoline.

    She sped straight down Walnut Avenue until she came to the fence delimiting the north end of the base, and spun east toward the river. She turned so sharply that for a moment she lost control of the car and ricocheted off the curb.

    The car screeched to a stop at the end of the asphalt parking pad. The gray official navy sedan that her father drove was parked at the water's edge. It was empty. She stared fearfully at the convoy of forsaken warships. A sheet of summer lightning somewhere inland briefly silhouetted the steepled and spiky shapes and then they dissolved back into the darkness and fog.

    Suzanna was very frightened. She knew now that she had some strange power. All that day she had wandered about the empty house, exhausted, half conscious, still stunned by the previous night's encounter, yet feeling as if she had been liberated from some undefined thralldom.

    But her mother's ghost had really existed.

    Doug Kennedy was gone. Gone to Arcturus, the Elysian Fields, or heaven itself. She did not know exactly where. Her passion had somehow released him. She knew that with the same certainty that she had known, at eighteen, on the night she had left Grey Knolls for college, that she would never see her mother's ghost again.

    And Doug Kennedy had really materialized before her and held her in his arms. It had admittedly been a weird, kinky, neurotic love affair, because it had not been her own. She had been the medium of her mother's thwarted passion, implanted in Suzanna's psyche for thirty years, ticking there like some proximity fuse waiting for detonation. Now that it had finally exploded, she herself had somehow also been blown free.

    At the dock, Suzanna did not stop. She ran down the pier, stumbling over unseen ropes, cables, and boxes that snatched at her legs from the ground. The ghosts of her mother and Doug Kennedy had demonstrated that she could safely converse with the spirits of the dead. Suzanna's love and fear for her father now forged the hope that she might intervene and save him from their wrath.

    At the gangway of the Santa Cruz, she stopped and leaned on the railing for breath. The massive black structure, looming over her like an evil castle, suddenly intimidated her. Her father was somewhere in the maw of this ship, confronting God knows what. She took a deep breath to quell her heart, now surging to her throat, and strode up the gangway onto the quarterdeck of the Santa Cruz.

    The hatch was open and she stuck her head into the dark compartment and shouted, "Daddy. Daddy. Captain Blackwell. It's Suzanna. Please answer me."

    There was no reply. She repeated her call. Still there was silence.

    She spotted a battle lantern on the wall. She clicked it on, and a strong yellow beam shot across the empty space to a staircase leading below. She unhooked the battery-powered light, shone it down the stairwell, and called out a third time, again without receiving a reply. She took another deep breath to allay the fear that was threatening to gallop away with her wits at any moment, and ventured down into the labyrinth below.

    From all her visits aboard navy ships, she knew the wardroom, lounges, and officers' staterooms were at this level. At the foot of the stairs she paused to get her bearings. The corridor was very cold, a deep chill that sent spasms of shivers through her. She noticed a dim glow ahead in the passageway. Hesitantly she moved toward it on her tiptoes. Then she realized that she could not hide from whatever was aboard the Santa Cruz.

    "Captain Blackwell. Where are you?" In a quieter, more timid voice she called, "Daddy. Are you here? Daddy."

    The eternal chill was like being in the underground catacombs of Saint Callisto in Rome. The narrow passageways and gloomy recesses on either side of her held the secrets of the dead. She was an intruder here. She was suddenly terrified of being lost, stumbling into dark warrens filled with corpses, slowly going mad trying to find a way out of this maze of the dead.

    The corridor ahead appeared to open into a larger space from which the glow emanated. The air was freezing, a fierce, unnatural cold that drew the heat from her flesh like the touch of icy metal. She instinctively moved faster, breaking into a hurried run, and burst into a large mess hall. Scores of spectral figures sprawled on the benches and tables.

    The phantasma were like the light play of an old black-and-white movie on an invisible screen. Suzanna gasped in amazement. At the sound the apparitions all turned toward her. Their manner was shy, hesitant, as though awed by her presence.

    As they became aware of her, they appeared to shift into sharper focus, their faces and bodies taking on a solidity they had not had a moment before. Each seemed wounded, disfigured in some terrible, fatal way.

    "Daddy, are you there?" she whispered, her voice tremulous and hardly audible.

    The ghosts rose and came toward her, drifting rather than ambulating on weightless legs. She was paralyzed with terror, one so deep and primal that her limbs went numb. Her brain stormed with confused thoughts and emotions.

    They were all so young and they had all died so agonizingly. There was a flash of pity so sharp it made tears surge, only to be quashed in an instant by the pain of the next thought. Her father had been responsible for their deaths. He had never denied it, he had only sought to justify it. She was his daughter and she loved and honored him. She could not judge him for something that had happened in the fury of a war at another time and place before she was born.

    But Suzanna saw now, and understood, the horror of what he had done. In some blood reckoning, she felt she shared the guilt of it. A ghastly change took place in each of the specters as he appeared to recognize her. The expressions transformed, and she saw in their faces something uglier, obscene, a lust that craved to devour her.

    At the touch of dank, icy fingers on her face, she shrieked and broke down the passageway. An anguished howl exploded behind her. She raced down the corridor. From compartments ahead of her, hideous figures materialized, blocking her way. She stopped dead in her tracks. The wail behind her came from throats that sounded half human, half wolf.

    She fled into a side passage. But that way was immediately choked off by other demons. She was trapped. There was no escape.

    She pressed against the wall, cringing. She shut her eyes against the approaching horror. Her legs gave out and she slid down the wall and curled tightly into a fetal position. Icy hands brutally pulled and clawed at her. She heard herself whimper involuntarily from fear and the intense cold that permeated her body.

    She fought to withdraw into herself, seeking some safe spot deep within, where these demons of the past could never touch her. She would never surrender to them.

    She was so cold, she felt herself going numb. Phalluses of ice violated her, and other glacial tentacles invaded her every orifice and pore, sucking heat and life from her flesh.

    She felt that strings were being pulled from her as though she were a cloth doll being unraveled thread by thread. She retreated deeper and deeper, plunging into herself as if into a bottomless pool. And then she was falling into an abyss where there was no sound or light, but only the sensation of falling.

    It was a fall into blackness without beginning or end.


    Copyright © Richard Setlowe, 1984



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