Saturday, September 18, 2021

Richard Connell's tale of a most dangerous game at a grim house in Pelham Manor, NY

Richard Connell (1893-1949), author of "The Most Dangerous Game" (1924), wrote countless short stories in a variety of moods and genres, as used to be the case with most fiction writers before they found work at the troughs of academe. 

"The Grim House" (Detective Story Magazine, 28 May 1921) is a non-supernatural weird menace thriller. The narrator, a local doctor living in "the suburb of Pelham Manor, on the rim of Greater New York," observes a new neighbor moving into the empty, sinister house next door.

     "Oh, my dear Doctor Wain, forgive my rudeness," he said in a voice that seemed to me to purr. "One naturally must be on one's guard in a strange place, you know."

     "Of course," I assented, "but you need not worry about thieves or tramps out here. The place is singularly free from them."

     "That is fortunate— for them," he said.

     "For them?" I repeated, mystified.

     "You see," explained my neighbor, "I am a somewhat nervous man, so I keep four very large and fierce Great Danes. They are trained to tear the throat out of any person who should venture on my property after dark."

     He looked at me steadily as he said this, and there was a note in his voice that disturbed me; I could not help feeling that he was giving me a warning.

     "Well, good night," he said abruptly and went crunching up the gravel walk to my own house

     I walked on. He had not mentioned his name. He had given me no clew as to why he had taken The Grim House. But he had given me a very definite warning not to go there after dark.

     The next morning I glanced at the old house, but there were no signs of occupancy ; the new tenant was not to be seen. But late that night I heard the chug of a motor van and from my study window I saw the midnight movers at work again.

     I do not approve of prying into one's neighbors' private affairs, but I felt that The circumstances in this case warranted my watching The Grim House. The objects the men carried were evidently quite heavy; frequently it took all four of them to carry one piece The sky was overcast and the moon gave forth only an occasional feeble beam, so that it was impossible for me o see what they were carrying into the house ; of one thing I felt sure, and that was that their load was not ordinary furniture. Once, as they were carrying what I thought at first to be an enormous vase, as tall as a man, the moon, for just a second, came from be- hind a cloud, and its rays were reflected by the shiny surface of the strange object. Then the moon retired, and in the dimmer light I saw one of the men slip and I heard the shivering crash of breaking glass. My bearded neighbor broke into a fit of swearing.

     I never remember hearing a man so completely lose control of himself; he raged and cursed like a wild thing.

     "You clumsy dogs," I heard him say angrily, "that was worth two thousand dollars."

     Several more of these large glass objects were unloaded, with great care, and carried into the house. Then I heard what I believed to be hammer blows, as if some repairing were being done.

     I sat at my window, letting my fancy supply all sorts of strange solutions to the riddle I had witnessed, when I heard a sound that froze my blood.

     It was a prolonged, eerie, moaning sound, now very loud, now falling way to a deep, guttural muttering. Then the moon came out, and I made out, vaguely, several black shapes roving through the tall grass of The Grim House lawn. Animals as big as small ponies! I had heard the baying of the giant dogs that my neighbor said would tear the throat out of any nocturnal visitor.

The new neighbor, Dr. Karl Raffin, has a reputation even Dr. Wain has heard of: "That was the name of a physician who had published in Vienna, some years before, some curious monographs on the possibility of a man creating human life. His theories had been generally discredited in the medical world, but they had been so plausible and so daring that for a time he had created quite a stir."

Raffin's household habits strike an odd note, to say the least:

     About a week after The Grim House had become inhabited, I became aware that my neighbor with the black beard was not a hermit; he had a companion. I made this discovery as the result of an odd adventure.

     I was strolling along past the privet hedge that girdled the old house, having found out that the dogs were kenneled up during the day, and was peering through the hedge, where it was thin enough, when I became aware that two sharp eyes were watching me through the leaves.

     I paused, and made out the sketchy outlines of a face; it was not my neighbor of the beard, but a little, old man, with a weazened, lined face, like faded leather; it was the sort of face one seldom sees except on beds of pain.

     As our eyes met, he looked alarmed; he glanced behind him several times, as if to see if he were watched.

     "Good evening," I said to him.

     For reply the old man opened wide his mouth and pointed into it. Then he shut it and motioned with his arm toward my house; it was a motion as if he would push me away. The gesture said as plainly as words could that I had better go to my own home and avoid the vicinity of The Grim House. But although the old man seemed to have a real concern for my safety, I stood rooted to the spot, for with the trained eye of a physician I had followed the finger of the man when he had pointed to his open mouth, and I had seen a shocking thing. The man had no tongue!

     Before I could answer his wordless warning, the old man turned and scurried away toward the house like a venerable frightened rabbit. As he went I could see that he was dressed in the semiformal garb of an English man-servant.

     A fascination that was stronger than my half-formed fears caused me to pass close to the hedge at about the same time the following evening; I was convinced that his gesture had not been a hostile one. As I passed along the hedge a wrinkled, bony hand was thrust through the hedge, and I started back, fearing, in a sudden panic, a knife thrust, but the hand of the tongueless old man contained nothing more deadly than a scrap of paper, which I took. I unfolded the scrap of rough wrapping paper, but before I could read the message he had turned and hurried away.

     In a convulsive, hurried scrawl, I read:


     If my master asks you to dinner, for God sake, don't come


     Back in my study I read the note again and again, and I looked out at the great, square shape of the old house with a renewed interest.

     That night I was called to New York for a consultation, and didn't get home till nearly one o'clock. It was a cool, crisp autumn night and before retiring I looked out at the shadowy outlines of The Grim House. A beam of light stealing through a chink in the blinds told me that it was brilliantly lighted inside, but there was nothing unusual that. My neighbor, I had long since concluded, was a very late reader, or else he was afraid of the dark. Tired, I went to bed at once, and had fallen into a doze, when the night was cut by a sound so ghastly and terrible that I bounded from my bed, trembling, It was the scream of a human being, a man, in an extremity of pain and terror, and it came from The Grim House. it was followed by words, shrieked, almost squealed :

     "Mercy, mercy, for God's Sake man, mercy, mer—"

     And then there was a muffled crash, and dead, awful silence.

     I did not go up to The Grim House, as a braver man might have done; I quieted my conscience by telling my- self that the tall with the black beard could take care of himself. As for the old servant, it could not have been he who cried out.

     I did not sleep well the rest of the night, and at daybreak I was awake. I looked out of the window where I could see the sickly gray walls of The Grim House, looking like the ghost of a dwelling in the morning mist. I saw that my fears for the safety of my bearded neighbor were unfounded, for I made out his figure, surrounded his huge dogs, which fawned about him and sprang into the air to snatch bits of meat from his hand. Then a second figure, bent and small, from the house, carrying more meat on a platter, and I recognized the tongueless servant, who held the platter while the black-bearded man made the great brutes beg for their breakfast. Who was it, then, who had cried out in the night in such anguish of body and spirit? 

     After that incident I decided that it was my duty as a member of the community to keep an even closer watch on The Grim House. My curiosity had a lot to do with it, too, for what I had seen and heard had served to deepen the atmosphere of mystery old place had always held for me. 

     Two nights after I had heard the cry, the noise of a motor car at The Grim House gate brought me to my observation post, and I saw the tall,  bearded tenant alight from one of the public taxicabs, followed by another man. The man, so far as I could tell in the moonlight, was young, rather fat, and roughly dressed. From the way he lurched as he went up the walk, I judged that he had been drinking. 

     My neighbor, however, walked with a steady step, sometimes helping his companion by taking him by the arm. They disappeared into the house, the lights were lit, and I heard no more that night. 

     The nocturnal visitors of my bearded neighbor increased in number. Sometimes for a whole week straight, he brought home some one with him every night, usually around midnight, and always— of this I felt certain— a different person. 

     Most of his visitors appeared to be young. Several times there were women. This continued for nearly a month. The visitors were quiet enough; once the door of The Grim House closed behind them, I had no cause to complain, for I never heard a sound after that. 

     The Great Danes could be seen, now and then, roaming through the uncut grass of the lawn, but they, too, it seemed, had taken on the silence of the old house, and their baying grew more and more infrequent. 

     A motley collection of visitors came out with my bearded neighbor, always at night, and I had about decided to put him down as a harmless eccentric, possibly a bit demented, who enjoyed playing the Caliph of Bagdad, when one of those clear and obvious things which are often so near and plain that one does not perceive them, struck me. Although I had seen my strange neighbor leave the grounds early in the evening numerous times, I had never seen a single one of his guests leave! 

     The only exit from the grounds of The Grim House lay directly in the path of my observation, and I felt sure that had any of that numerous company of nocturnal visitors left I'd have seen them. I smoked many a pipe over the problem that night, and strange, disquieting theories crossed my mind. When I finally retired, only one thought was clear in my brain, and that was that I must get to the bottom of this strange-looking business.

The unravelling of all this, the rise in action, is handled in a fruitful way by Connell. Instead of Wain figuring out the mystery and the weird crime on his own, he observes the final dramatic explosions, then reads depositions of three people involved to various degrees with Raffin and the carnage. It's a clever cubist-collagist way to ring changes and preserve some dramatic plausibility.

"The Grim House" can be read here.


18 September 2021


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