The Ghouls of Holy Hill
St. Charles Church, up on Holy Hill, loomed over the town like God’s own fortress. The church was older than any other structure in Goodville, and had been there longer than any of its living residents. There was a reverence for it, even among the few Protestants and non-believers who made their homes in town. It wasn’t uncommon to see parishioners arriving for Sunday Mass blessing themselves at the mere sight of the broad stone front, pitched roof, and tall steeple reaching Heavenward. Really, though, the power of St. Charles — and all of Holy Hill — rested with its churchyard, where row upon row of weather-worn gravestones memorialized many of the town’s earliest settlers. On the western side of the church were the newer graves, home to the dearly-departed mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, friends and enemies of current day Goodvillians.
By midday the bells had been rung; mass had been said, and the parishioners had made their way back to town for Sunday lunch. Before sitting down to a bowl of tomato soup myself I decided to take a stroll through the churchyard to clear my head after a particularly trying sermon on the nature of evil. The cool spring air did me good, and it wasn’t long before I was feeling myself again. I strode around the eastern side of the church where I was greeted suddenly by Donovan Small, the church deacon, who regarded me with a nervous smile.
It was his turn to bring Holy Communion to the home-bound, and the last stop of the day was Mrs. Nottingham who lived in a small brick cottage at the edge of the churchyard, just before the land gave way to a sprawling forest. Aside from myself she was the only other living soul who called Holy Hill their home. Mrs. Nottingham typically received Donovan with enthusiasm and some home baked treats to take home to his nephews, but this morning all was quiet at her place no matter how hard Donovan banged on the door.
“I tell you, Father Tom, I went around to the back to see if she wasn’t outside, but there wasn’t a sign of her anywhere,” Donovan said. “Think we should call the sheriff?”
“No, no,” I said. “Her hearing isn’t what it used to be. I’ll take the Eucharist over myself before long. I’m sure she was just napping.”
Donovan nodded cautiously, looking as though he wanted to say something else before turning and trotting along on his way.
As I continued my walk I resolved to check in on Mrs. Nottingham sooner than later that afternoon, but my attention was drawn away from my thoughts by the distinct sound of children giggling. Spotting a flash of blonde hair behind one of the oldest headstones in the churchyard, I knew right away who it was.
“Timmy and Jason Wiley, come out from behind there right now, boys!”
Two toe-headed boys of 10 and 8, still dressed in their Sunday best, slinked out from behind the large gravestone, their heads cast downward.
“Now what have I told you about playing around among these headstones?” I asked.
“You said not to,” the older boy, Timmy, replied sheepishly.
“Yes, because it’s not safe to be running about. This is a very old cemetery. You could easily fall and hurt yourself, and it’s disrespectful to the dead.”
“Sorry, Father,” Timmy said.
“This is your last warning,” I said.
“Can I ask you a question, Father?” Jason, the younger boy, asked as if he hadn’t heard a word I said.
“What is it?”
“Why you suppose this metal hook’s posted here?”
“This?” I asked, indicating a tall iron shepherd’s hook planted in the ground in front of the large headstone they had been playing by. “Well, it’s for hanging flower baskets in memory of those who’ve gone home to God.”
“See!” Timmy hissed. “I told you it wasn’t for no dead man’s bell.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“The dead man’s bell, Father,” Jason said eagerly. “Surely you’ve heard the story.” My blank stare spurred him on. “Oh, well, back a hundred years ago, when they buried the people here, they rigged up a bell tied to a cord. The bell hung here on the hook, and the cord dropped down into the grave, tied around the dead one’s wrist. That way if they came back to life in the grave, they could ring the bell, and the priest would come dig ‘em up.”
“It’s true,” Jason insisted. “I read it in Granddad’s book.”
“It’s not real,” Timmy said. “He’s just trying to scare me.”
“Leave those stories be, Jason,” I said firmly. “There’s nothing to be afraid of here in this cemetery. This is a place of quiet and rest, God’s own place for his beloved.”
I smiled at both boys. They were good kids, whose only real sin here was curiosity. I reiterated my warning to them, waved to the town below, and told them to get themselves home before their ma came looking for them.
Mrs. Nora Nottingham lived mostly off the fruits and vegetables she grew in her garden, along with the generous hospitality of St. Charles and its parishioners. She’d kept chickens too at one time, but these days she had a hard enough time just keeping the cottage up. It had been built around the same time the church had in the mid-eighteenth century to house the churchyard groundskeeper, long before there were much better accommodations to choose from in town. The cottage passed from one groundskeeper to the next until it came into the hands of Andre Nottingham around the turn of the 20th century. After his death the church chose to allow his widow and son to remain there, and it had been in the Nottingham family ever since.
By the early 1950s, when John and Nora Nottingham moved in, it was showing signs of its age. Mr. Nottingham did what he could, but after his death in ’74, the place was still in pretty sorry shape. I just about begged Mrs. Nottingham to give it up then and take a room at a senior center in town, but she wouldn’t hear it. It was Donovan Small who recruited a dozen parishioners to undertake the renovations needed to keep it habitable; no wonder Mrs. Nottingham was so partial to him.
That Sunday I meant to check in on Mrs. Nottingham shortly after lunch, but phone calls, an unexpected visitor, and a pile of correspondence filled my day, so I didn’t make it there until close to 7 in the evening. With dusk quickly closing in I knocked forcefully on her front door and took a step back. I waited a good minute before knocking again. After the third knock I peered through the uncurtained front window, but could see nothing in the dim light of the drawing room.
Growing more worried I checked around back, just as Donovan had. The cottage looked as if it had been shut up tight, the way you might before taking a long trip. There was no way, however, that Mrs. Nottingham had gone away without my knowing. She had no kin here, or anywhere else, and all her friends belonged to the parish and lived in town. On the side of her cottage I examined her vegetable garden closely. She was a remarkable gardener who took great care with everything she grew. Many in Goodville, myself included, sought her advice for their own gardens. Yet, on this night, her crops looked dry and neglected, her large watering can tossed on its side by the fence post.
At the back door I pounded on the glass and called, “Mrs. Nottingham! It’s Father Tom. Are you okay?” After again getting no response I tried the doorknob. To my surprise it turned, and the door opened inward. The air was stuffy inside the cottage and thick with the smell of ripe trash that needed to be taken out. Mrs. Nottingham, though, was nowhere to be found.
Once outside I crossed her large backyard to the edge of the woods. I wondered whether she could have wandered off amongst the trees to gather berries or sticks for a fire; something like that. She could so easily have twisted her ankle or fallen over an embankment, and no one would have heard her cries - not even me, so relatively close by. I prayed that this was not the case, and that I’d find her safe and sound before long, but my hope waned with every step I took into the thick canopy of trees.
It was dark in there, much more so than in the clearing. I knew that if Mrs. Nottingham was lost that there was little I could do with night essentially upon us. I was retracing my steps back into the clearing when I heard something, a scuttling sound, and my heartbeat quickened. There was movement, I quickly determined, along the edge of the clearing by a large bush. Squinting in the twilight I could just about make out something thin and pale, on all fours, sneaking through the tall grass. It was only an animal of some kind scavenging for its evening meal.
Sighing, I made one more venture into the forest, taking a deer path to the left that ran parallel to Mrs. Nottingham’s garden. It was becoming darker by the minute, and I was all but ready to turn back when a large, rounded shadow caught my eye just up ahead. It was lumpy and strange, sticking out like a sore thumb amidst all the tall, thin trees that surrounded it. Covering my nose and mouth, I made my way carefully to the place where two trees came together like a letter V, and there, lodged in between, was the lifeless body of a woman, old and bloodied, hunched forward on her stomach. I shook at the sight of her, too stunned to do anything but gasp, “My God, my God!”
For a moment I thought I would be sick, but I quickly pulled myself together and resolved to return to the rectory to telephone Sheriff Willcocks — something I should have done as soon as Donovan found me earlier that day. I castigated myself for delaying as I had, refusing to take seriously his concern about the poor old woman.
As I made my way out of the trees I heard a loud shriek pierce the otherwise quiet spring night. I turned back instinctively, thinking it had come from Mrs. Nottingham, but another scream rang out, this time clearly coming from the other side of the cottage. It was raw, full of pain and shock, and unmistakably human. Without thinking I rushed around the side of the cottage to the front, where I saw two shadows — one short and stout, the other lean and rat-like — joined in a struggle. I didn’t give much thought to the thin, pale animal I had seen skulking in the grass earlier, but it appeared now to be on its hind legs clawing ferociously at the short man who moaned in agony. Before I could make a move another one of the vicious things flew out of the darkness straight at the man, knocking him to his knees.
As the clouds shifted overhead, giving the moon space to shine its light upon the chaotic scene, I could see in the pale-yellow light the face of Donovan Small, dripping in blood and screaming out in anguish as the two awful creatures tore at his shoulders and arms with razor-like claws.
Not knowing what else to do I charged full speed at them, shouting and waving my arms, hoping to scare and scatter them. One of the creatures, when I got close enough, dove at me, forcing me to quickly sidestep it. Whatever these creatures were they had no intention of backing down. I spun around and took off back in the direction of my rectory, hoping that I had created enough of a disturbance to draw them away from poor Donovan.
It worked. With both of them on my heels I ran faster than I ever had before. I came around the northeastern end of the churchyard, close to where I had admonished Timmy and Jason earlier that day. The tall shepherd’s hook came into view; I never would have noticed it had Jason not spun that crazy tale about a dead man’s bell, and seeing it sparked an idea. If I could get my hands on that metal hook perhaps I could dislodge it from the ground and wield it as a weapon. What good it would do against these ungodly monsters I didn’t know, but I had to do something. They were incredibly fast, and it would not be long before one of them overtook me.
As I came around the large tombstone a small rock caught under my left shoe. I went flying chin-first into the dirt, right at the foot of the shepherd’s hook. What I saw next I still can’t say if it were real or a terror-induced vision. Hanging there from the shepherd’s hook was a brass bell, and it was ringing. Its shrill clang struck me like a lightning bolt to the chest, but the cord pulling the bell up and down, giving it sound — that sent shivers up my spine. No one held the other end, at least no one I could see, for the cord seemed to drop down straight into the ancient grave itself.
This inexplicable bell, ringing out in the moonlit night, paralyzed me. I couldn’t take my eyes off it as I remembered Jason’s incredible tale. The longer I stared the faster the cord pulled, and the more violent the bell rang. The long-dead corpse, buried more than a century before, was ringing its bell as loudly as it could to call me — the priest — to come to its aid.
What a fool I was, with those creatures on my tail, lying prone on the ground just staring at the impossibly-ringing bell. It was only a moment before one of them was upon me, rolling me onto my back and leaning over me, its putrescent breath reeking of death and rot, sickening me all over again. I pushed back at it, but it held me with the strength of a grizzly bear.
“You like the ringing bell, do you, Father?” the ghoul whispered in a raspy voice. “You know, it rings for you.”
The other creature, up on hind legs, slid into view just behind its companion. “Don’t play with your food, Malachi,” it said to the one holding me down.
“Wha…what are you?” I asked breathlessly.
The one called Malachi, leaning its strong elbow into my chest, smiled at the question.
“We’ve dwelt among these woods, on this hill, long before you and your kind came to be here,” it said. “We’ve been forced to live underground, rising to the surface only to devour the carcasses of deer, foxes, or coyotes — whatever we could scavenge. We were always told to keep our distance from you and your kind.”
“Don’t be so dramatic, Malachi,” a third one said as it sashayed up on all fours by my right shoulder.
“Why should we?” Malachi asked. “Why should we hide away, eating dead animals? Why should we, when you and your kind have built a buffet of the dead right here under our feet?”
“End him,” one of the ghouls said.
Malachi leaned his decaying face close to mine and licked the tip of my nose. I closed my eyes and prayed to God that it might go fast, that He would simply free my soul from this unearthly nightmare.
But, instead, I felt Malachi ripped away from me, giving me space to push myself up by my arms and scooch away from the others. The bell was ringing louder than ever close to my ear as I looked this way and that to see what had happened to Malachi. Then, I saw it in the moonlight: two gray hands sticking out of the hard earth, gripping tightly to Malachi’s forearms, holding the ghoul close to the ground on its back. Malachi stammered and cursed as the dead hands from the grave tightened around his arms, pulling the creature down until it disappeared into the craggy ground.
There were three other ghouls watching what had happened to Malachi with open mouths. One stood atop a nearby grave, unaware of the cold hand rising up from the dirt by its left ankle. It went down in a flash, and the other two did not wait to see what happened this time.
When it was over I struggled to get to my feet, questioning whether anything I had just seen was real. Ghouls in the churchyard, the dead rising up from the grave — this was the stuff of one of Jason’s scary stories. This was not the life of the pastor of St. Charles Church on Holy Hill.
Or perhaps it was, I considered. An unspeakable evil, ancient and hidden, emerged from the forest to invade this holy place, God’s own place for his beloved, and God himself commissioned the dead to rise up and protect it. It wasn’t a scary story at all, I told myself. It was a holy story, a miraculous story.
The bell had stopped its ringing, and a quiet descended once more upon the churchyard. With the full night arrived I felt a peace come over me, making me feel almost light-headed, dizzy even. I lowered myself to the ground again, hugging my knees to my chest, breathing deliberately in and out as I considered what I should do next.
The bell behind me, all at once, began ringing again, faster and louder than it had before. I whirled my neck around to see what threat approached now, but nothing stirred in the darkness; nothing that I could see, at least. Then I felt the cold dead hand grab ahold of my right thigh, another wrapped around my left forearm and a third held my left ankle.
“But I’m not the threat!” I shouted. “I’m the one who takes care of this churchyard, this church and these people.”
A fourth hand gripped my right shoulder, a fifth took my right foot, a sixth latched onto the nape of my neck.
Just before the hands tightened all around my body I had a moment of epiphany. I understood what was happening, and why. It made sense. It fit, just like my belief and faith in God and my love for and commitment to my parishioners. I had it all figured out for just a second.
Then, in a blink of an eye, it was lost — and down I went.
Chris Lilienthal is a dark fiction writer whose work has been published in anthologies from Eerie River Publishing and Unsettling Reads and featured on The Other Stories podcast. He lives with his wife, two sons, and two dogs. Learn more at www.ChrisLWrites.com.