The Vaguest Monster

Last March I submitted an unsuccessful entry to the open call for submissions to Beasts 2, the second Jacob Covey-edited collection of illustrated folkloric monsters. Between storms, floods, a new roof, and bad nerves I’d forgotten that I had intended to post it here.

Rejected Beasts Submission

So, you’re asking, which of those things is the Beast? That’s a long story.

It starts with a ghost story I read somewhere when I was a kid–something about a ghost that climbed the stairs of its house from the cellar to the attic in the dead the night to kill anybody it found there. Many years later I read M. R. James’s “A School Story” and recognized a reference to the tale (or a distorted version of it—see this essay at the Ghosts and Scholars website). It turned out to be a bona-fide 19th century urban legend—the story of 50 Berkeley Square, a London house which in the 19th century was rumored to be haunted by some kind of, y’know, thing. When I decided to submit something for Beasts 2 I tried to think of a subject others were unlikely to come up with. The Thing in Berkeley Square, which had stuck in my memory for so long, won out.

The Thing is one of the most enjoyably pulpy and lurid “true” ghost stories in the annals of mass delusion. The house at 50 Berkeley Square was rumored to be haunted by the first half of the 19th century. Supposedly a maid was found in her room, suffering from shock. She lived, for a while, and died with a look of horror on her face. It was in the 1870s that the story got its legs. It seems to have spread mostly via letters to the magazines Notes and Queries and Mayfair.

You’ll find two incidents in any self-respecting retelling of the Berkeley Square legend. The first is the skeptical houseguest who offers to spend a night in the haunted room. This guy has a lot of names. I’ve most often seen him called “Lord Warboys,” a title which doesn’t actually seem to exist. (Although Warboys is a real village. According to the Huntingdonshire District Council, the name means “Look-Out Wood,” and the place was the site of a famous 16th-century witch trial.) His Lordship hauls his pajamas to the top floor and says he’ll ring a bell if he needs anything. (No one ever thinks to say what kind of bell this is, but it sounds like one of those bell-pulls used for summoning servants. What one of these bell-pulls was doing in the maids’ quarters I have no idea. Maybe the servants at 50 Berkeley square did not always know where they were, and at these times needed to summon themselves.) Anyway, during the night the family hears the bell ring frantically. They all rush upstairs and find Lord Warboys sprawled lifeless across the bed, a look of horror on his face.

Later, two sailors looking for a place to spend the night break into the now vacant house and head straight for the top floor. In the dark of night they hear something coming up the stairs. The door opens to reveal… the Thing! A freakout ensues. One sailor leaps from the window to escape the Thing while the other makes for the door, runs downstairs, and fetches a policeman. They return to find the first sailor on the ground—or, in more enthusiastic retellings, impaled on the fence—with a look of horror et cetera. Depending on who you ask, this happened either in the 1880s or the 1940s. Or possibly both; the sailors would have been quite old after sixty years and may have forgotten what happened to them the first time.

It’s a great story, and even better when retold by somebody who can actually write worth a damn. So I Googled it to refresh my memory. It dawned on me pretty quickly that drawing a picture of the Thing would be a challenge. Nobody seemed to agree on what the hell the Thing was supposed to have been.

One school of thought—if you can call these “schools of thought,” when nobody who repeats the story seems remotely aware of the discrepancies between accounts—holds that the thing was a somewhat human figure with a gaping mouth. Others claim the Thing was a sort of octopoid creature. The third group casts the Thing as a shapeless, amorphous mass. That sounds like a cop-out to me. I don’t think this bunch is even trying.

In the end the disagreements forced a stronger concept than I otherwise might have come up with, depicting all three Things and the wild rumors that gave them birth.

For all its vagueness, people still believe in the Thing in Berkeley Square today. You can find the story repeated on ghost story websites and in collections of “true” ghost tales. One site makes much of a notice from a building inspector declaring the top floor of 50 Berkeley Square—supposedly the haunted floor—“unsafe,” even as storage space. I suspect this has more to do with the state of the floorboards than any spectral inhabitant. (Also, the memoirist referenced below seems to think an additional story was added to the house after the time of the “haunting.”) Another cryptozoology website, inspired by descriptions of the Thing as a sort of octopus, proposes—perhaps in all seriousness—that the Thing was a freshwater octopus that periodically crawled out of the sewers of London to climb the stairs to the top floor, drag off-duty sailors back down to the cellar, and dismember them. You know, as octopi are known to do.

After wading through the undying, zombielike legends it’s kind of surprising to learn that the truth has been out there for a century now. In the course of refreshing my memory of the Berkeley Square storiy I came across the memoirs of one Lady Dorothy Nevill on Google Books. Lady Nevill appears to have been one of those people whose main accomplishment in life is having a title. In modern America this kind of person just has a lot of money and is usually along the lines of Paris Hilton, but in England 100 years ago some of these people could think and even write complete sentences and so we are blessed with such forgotten volumes as The Reminiscences of Lady Dorothy Nevill. Lady Dorothy was distantly related to an elderly woman, last of the family who owned the house, and one day asked her about the rumors. Her question was not enthusiastically received. “People were constantly ringing up the servants in charge of [the house],” says Lady Dorothy, “asking whether there was any possibility of obtaining permission to pass a night in the haunted room, or whether anything had lately been seen of the ghost,” and the old lady was sick of it.

Ultimately, though, Lady Dorothy learned the truth. I’ll leave the last words to her:

But to return to the haunted house; the real cause of its weird reputation was this: Mr. Myers, the brother of the old lady, was exceedingly eccentric, to a degree which bordered upon lunacy. Many years ago he had taken 50, Berkeley Square, with the intention of living there with his wife, for at the time he was engaged to be married. He got the house, I believe, on very advantageous terms, as there was already some idea about that it was haunted. Be this as it may, he made every preparation to receive his bride in it—ordered furniture, carpets, pictures, china, everything—but a few days before the day fixed for the wedding the lady to whom he was engaged threw him over and married another man, which affected him so terribly as to shake his intelligence and render him exceedingly eccentric, if not worse. He did not give up the house, but remained there, leaving everything in exactly the same state as when he had heard the news which had ruined his life; the furniture was left just as it had been moved in, whilst some of the carpets were not even unrolled, and remained for years tied up just as they had left the warehouse. The whole house fell into a state of disorder and decay, nothing being ever done to it. During the day Mr. Myers (whose presence in the house was not believed in by the neighbours) remained quiescent, but at night-time he would flit about, rambling from room to room, producing in his nocturnal progress the weird sounds which occasioned so much gossip. Deserted and mournful by day, its windows black with the dust of years, the old house would occasionally appear to be lit up at the dead of night. No one was ever seen to go out of it, though coals and provisions were observed to be delivered to a servant whose reticence baffled all inquiry. As a matter of fact, I believe that Mr. Myers really did not leave the house at all for about twenty years; his sister, however, used very occasionally to pay him a visit, but when she did it was done in a manner to avoid attracting attention.

In course of time he died, and left everything to her. She sent a house agent to inspect the house, with a view to discovering whether it would be worth while putting it into thorough repair for the remainder of the lease. The agent afterwards declared that he had never seen anything like the dreadful state of dilapidation which prevailed—everything neglected and mouldering into dust—in fact, it seemed impossible that any human being could have lived in such a state of squalor and decay. This man, I was told, questioned the two old maid-servants he found in the house, saying, ‘ Well, is it true that strange things happen here and odd noises can be heard ?’ In reply, they denied ever having heard anything at all, and when he further inquired, ‘Do you never see ghosts?’ they burst into a laugh, saying, ‘We never see’d none.’

Today 50 Berkeley square is the home of dealers in antiquarian books. They never see’d none, either.