The Painting: A Ghost Story

This is an older text, written back in 2011 as part of a Halloween theme for the English class I was teaching. I wanted it to contain the most common ghost story-tropes in order to give the students inspiration and tools for their own stories. Feel free to leave a comment.


It was a dark and stormy night. A man was walking slowly through his equally dark house, admiring through the gloom his collection of old and fantastical things. He was old himself, and had been interested in antiquities his whole life – and because of this his collection had grown large.

An old grandfather clock struck midnight. He had acquired it from decedent estate sale ten years ago. From the same place came the crystal chandelier in the ceiling and the oaken chair in the corner. He stopped in front of his newest acquisition, a large painting depicting a house by the sea. It had been auctioned out for almost no money at all at a local sale that very same day, and he had bought it without hesitation. Now that he stood regarding it more closely, though, he could not help feeling icy shivers running down his spine.

He had bought it because the house in the painting looked a lot like his own house, down to the old willow tree that grew outside his bedroom window. The sea in the panting, of course, did not match reality. There actually was a lake some distance from his house, but no sea. He had thought the similarities to be amusing when he had first seen the painting in broad daylight. However, now that he stood looking at it in the middle of the night in the light of the full moon, he did not feel amused at all.

The similarities to his own house now made him feel uneasy, and he wondered suddenly if there really had been a candle burning in the painted window earlier that day. A sudden pang of superstitious horror struck him, and he hurriedly took the painting off the wall and hid it deep in a closet. He didn’t know why, but he didn’t like the way the branches of the painted tree reached for the little house by the sea.

Several weeks passed, and he forgot about the painting. He added even more artifacts to his collection and grew even older. It was not until autumn had closed around his house and robbed the willow outside his window of all its leaves, that he even thought about the painting again.

It happened late one night, when he was just about to go to sleep. The roof of his house was creaking in the wind and the tree branches were scratching against his window. A sudden noise caught his attention, and he realized that the photograph on the wall opposite from his bed had fallen to the floor, seemingly without explanation. As he inspected the damage done, he concluded that the frame was totally broken. He would not be able to put the photography back up without first replacing the broken frame.

Sighing, he picked up the glass and splinters and carried them into the next room to throw them away. It was when he passed the closet that he suddenly came to think of the painting he had hidden there. Much time had passed, and he could not remember what had gotten him so worked up, giving him such goose bumps. So he took the painting out of the closet and looked at it again.

Nothing had changed in the panting, of course. It was probably just his imagination that made him think that the tree in the picture had had leaves when he last looked at it, and the sea had probably always been full of billowing waves. Looking at it now he felt silly for ever having hidden it away in the first place. And he certainly needed to replace the broken photograph with something. So he did.

Pleased to have accomplished something at this late hour, he lay down in his antique bed and looked at the painting now hanging on the wall across the room from him. It certainly was a work of skill, with its masterfully executed details. It was almost as if he could see the flame in the portrait house’s window flickering. His imagination again, of course. And soon he drifted away into the land of sleep.

It must have been the roaring of the waves that awakened him. It was still pitch black outside. He lay still in the darkness for a while without opening his eyes, trying to go back to sleep – but sleep wouldn’t come. If the sea would just go quiet… Then he opened his eyes in horrible realization. Dread started to creep over him as he came to his senses and suddenly remembered that there was no sea – apart from that in the panting.

Now wide awake, he stared at the portrait on the opposite wall and gasped. The candle in the painted window was now clearly flickering in the wind that was obviously tearing at the spiny branches of the oil-color willow tree. And the sound that had woken him up really did come from the painted waves throwing themselves against the rocks by the beach.

But none of these things was what made his breath catch in his throat and his limbs go numb. No, what made his blood freeze in his veins and his hair stand on end, was the sickening sight of the corpse-like creature that came crawling out of the sea, dripping of sea weed and death even as he watched helplessly.

He tried to scream, but like in a nightmare where you can do nothing but watch, not a single sound escaped his parted lips. A smell like that of putrid flesh spread in his room as the hellish wraith drew closer to the frame of the painting, and when it was almost past the tree a black liquid, like rotten tar, began oozing out of the picture, down the wall and towards his bed.

The last thing he saw was the demon’s eyes, staring ravenously at him as it closed in and pressed its decomposing face to the inside of the portrait and began tearing away at it with talons dripping with something red.

They found him the next day, hanging from the old willow tree outside his bedroom window. Rumor had it that he had finally gone mad from living all by himself in that old cottage, his only company thousands and thousands of dollar’s worth of remnants from other people’s lives. Some of his collection was claimed by distant relatives, but some of the belongings were too grisly even for his greedy kin.

For example they found an old painting hanging on his bedroom wall, opposite from his bed. In an eerie way it seemed to depict the late old man’s house, willow tree and all. But this was not what made the relatives instantly send it away to be sold cheaply at an auction. No, what made them turn away in disgust and try their best to forget about it was another distasteful similarity.

Because from one of the branches of the painted willow tree, a body was hanging. So masterfully painted was it that the startled relatives later could have sworn that they had seen it swinging back and forth in the autumn wind…

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All Lost In the Mail

Another story in response to a writing prompt. This one turned out a little longer than the previous ones – I just couldn’t help it, sorry 😉 Feel free to leave comments!


Sometimes when I passed by the old Foursquare on my daily delivery round I allowed myself to fantasize about how it would look with a fresh layer of white paint and some refurbishment. It must have been beautiful once, with its huge garden and inviting dormer windows. I used to wonder who once lived there, if children had at one point run laughing down the slight slope in the lawn and what boring office positions those children held now. Of course I also wondered what had once caused the old building to be so thoughtlessly abandoned. There was no one to ask, however, since the house had stood empty for as long as anyone could remember.

Imagine my surprise, then, when one day I found in my delivery bag a bundle of envelopes, cards and parcels clearly to be delivered to this very address. I thought about returning it to the post office for redirection at once, but then I thought better of it. I reckoned I should at least try to make the delivery before dismissing it, as was the policy. To be honest I was also secretly excited about finally having an excuse for taking a closer look at the mysterious building.

It was autumn, and the leaves rustled under my feet as I made my way up the garden path towards the structure. The grass, trees and bushes had not seen proper care for a very long time, and  the season’s added effects didn’t do them any favors. I considered making a beat around the house to sate my curiosity, but decided against it. For some reason I felt as if the dark windows were silently watching me, and I felt the excitement from only minutes earlier drain from my body with every step I took. I wanted to be done here, I realized, and looked forward to returning the letters to the office and continuing on my round. To houses more inhabited, friendly and alive.

The porch creaked as I stepped on it. The sound sent shivers down my spine and I stopped and listened. Nothing. One of the dusty lite panels in the front door was broken and the wind made the worn linen door curtain ripple on the inside. I knocked, first cautiously but then decidedly. I would be accused of neither cowardice nor negligence.

”Come in”, a faint voice said, and my heart almost stopped. I considered running, but duty and curiosity got the better of me and instead I opened the door.

Inside, the house was silent and calm. Dust drifted through the air like particles of memory, and the homely but dated furnishing spoke of love and dedication long past. A grey layer covered everything, as if this place had been frozen in time decades ago.

”Anybody home?”

”Here.” That faint voice again, cracked and hollow as that of a phantom – or a very old person not accustomed to using it.

I wound my way through the house and found myself in a small bedroom. The pattern on the wallpapers matched the dried flowers on the windowsill, and everywhere I looked there were old photographs in ornate frames. On the bed lay a woman, her hair white as snow and the shape of her slight body barely showing from under the heavy covers.

I looked down at the bundle in my hand and read the faded address on the topmost envelope. ”Mrs. Lapwing?”, I chanced.

She looked tiredly at me and nodded. ”Yes”, she rasped. ”Are you from the police?”

I shook my head. ”I’m from the post office. I have some letters for you. Where can I put them?”

She smiled faintly, but it was a sad smile. And that’s when I realized she was not looking at me at all. ”Mr. Postman, I’m sorry but I will not be able to read your letters. I’m blind, you see.”

”Oh”, I said, not knowing what to do. ”I’m sorry, I didn’t know that.”

”How could you?” She reached out towards me. ”Maybe you could read the letters to me? That would be wonderful, dear.”

”There are many letters”, I said while quickly thumbing through them. ”Maybe Mr. Lapwing can read them to you? There are letters for him here as well.”

Her hand dropped, and the smile disappeared. ”My husband has been gone for many years, Mr. Postman. He ran away with another woman thirty years ago.”

The silence lasted for several seconds, but for me it felt like far longer than that. ”I’ll read them to you”, I said and sat down in the chair next to her bed. What else could I do?

”Thank you, dear”, she whispered and seemed to relax.

I opened the first envelope and reacted to the old letter stamp. This letter should have been delivered several decades ago. A quick investigation of the rest of the bundle revealed that this was the case with all of them. I cleared my throat.

”These letters are old”, I told her. ”I don’t know why they haven’t been delivered already. This first one was sent back in 1951, and it is from your sister, Ruth.”

”My sister died in the war”, she said blankly.

I skimmed through the letter, the handwriting was not all that easy to read but I managed. ”Well, no. She writes here that she is – was – well and that she’s living together with a kindly man, a fisherman, in Sweden. This is the first letter she has dared to write, and she would like to know if you are alive and well. She wants to come visit you.”

She shook her head slowly. ”Are you sure? Are you sure it is from Ruth?”

”It says so here. And she asks if you remember the kittens, says that she has gotten herself a new one just like the ones you had as children.”

Mrs. Lapwing’s unseeing eyes filled with tears. ”I didn’t know”, she whispered. ”All these years, and I didn’t know.”

”There are more letters from her here”, I said, not knowing what to do. ”She writes that her children are starting school, and that they are moving into a bigger house. She thinks about you often and would love to hear from you.”

The old woman said nothing, so I opened more letters. ”In this one her daughter is getting married. She wants you to be there, but she is afraid that she’s writing these letters to a person long gone. The last letter is not that old, actually… Five years. Well, I guess that’s pretty old as well under these circumstances.”

”Read it”, she mouthed between the tears.

”Here she… Oh.” I paused. ”She is in the hospital. Cancer. The doctors have given her a month, and she’s writing mainly to force herself to accept it. She thinks that you are dead, and she’s glad that she will soon be able to meet you again. This is the last letter from her. I’m sorry.”

Mrs. Lapwing was silent for a long time, her milky eyes staring blindly in front of her. ”What’s in the rest of the letters?”, she said finally.

I didn’t want to do this anymore, but I couldn’t leave her like this. ”There’s one from someone called Becca…”

”My daughter. I haven’t heard from her in twenty years or more.” There was wounded disappointment in her voice.

”It’s from fifteen years ago. To the day, actually. She writes that she has tried calling so many times now that she thinks it’s on you to contact her, if you want to speak. She wants you to know that she and Felicia are happy together, and that no matter what you think about that, she hopes that you will be happy to know that you will soon become a grandmother.”

”A… grandmother? She is having a baby? Together with that woman?”

”I would seem so. There is a phone number here too, if you want to call her.”

”She hasn’t called”, Mr. Lapwing muttered. ”That’s all a lie. I haven’t received any calls for several years.”

I bit my lip. ”That might be due to the… reminders of unpaid phone bills I have here…” I browsed through them. They were old as well, and the final one should have been delivered almost twenty years ago. I felt sick when I realized what this meant. ”The phone company cancelled your number in 1981, you had not payed your bills.”

”But I didn’t get any bills!”, she protested weakly. And she was right. She hadn’t gotten them.

”I’m sorry”, I said. ”There must have been a terrible mix up in the delivery. With all these letters. Of course you will be compensated for –”

”Just read the rest of them, will you Mr. Postman.” She looked defeated, and I guess that’s exactly what she was.

”This one is a letter for Mr. Lapwing. Sent in the early seventies.”

”Around the time when he ran away and left me, then.”

”Well… maybe. Yes, that seems right. The letter is from someone named Susan Green, and it’s very short. She writes that she can’t meet him at the station after all. That she has decided to stay with her family and that it’s over between them.”

”So he didn’t run away with her?”

”No, it doesn’t seem so. But he still sent you divorce papers, they’re here in the next letter.”

”I won’t sign them.”

”No, you don’t have to. Here’s a parcel from the police here as well. They got no answer at the door and couldn’t reach you on the phone. It’s from 1985. Mrs. Lapwing, I’m sorry to say it, but your husband is dead.”

”This whole time? Dead?”

”I’m afraid so.” I lowered my head, but then remember that she couldn’t see me.

”There’s only one letter left. Do you want me to open it? It’s from last year.” She nodded, and I tore open the envelope. ”It’s from Becca.” This instantly caught her attention. ”She writes that everything is great and that she’s starting a new job. There’s a photograph in here, too. It’s of two women and two children. The kids seem to be in their early teens. They are all smiling. One of the women has long, brown hair and –”

”That’s my Becca. Oh my God, that’s my little Becky…”

”There’s the same phone number at the bottom of the page. You could call her.”

She reached for the photograph and I gave it to her. She caressed the glossy surface with her pale fingertips and tears again started falling from her eyes. I knew she couldn’t see the picture at all. ”My little Becky…”

I had no letters left. I rose hesitantly. ”Mrs. Lapwing, I’m sorry but I have to go. I hate to leave you like this, but I have many other houses to visit. And I’m terribly sorry these letters haven’t reached you until now, I understand how horrible this must feel…”

She just continued stroking the picture, and I slowly backed away. ”I will make some calls”, I said. ”I will tell the phone company to come here and fix your phone. And maybe someone from the social services too. To, you know, come check that everything is okay with you. Help you out with things around here.”

I paused at the door, but got no response. ”Of course I will report this terrible misconduct to the post office, too. Things like this shouldn’t happen. Ever.”
I hated myself when I turned my back on her and left the house the same way as I had come, my delivery bag much lighter but my heart significantly heavier.

I borrowed a phone in the next house over and made the calls I had promised to make, and some more I came to think of as I did so. Mrs. Lapwing had suffered terribly at the hands of the system. It was almost as if the entire establishment had gone out of its way to conspire against her. But now, finally, everything would be put right. I had seen to that.

I completed my round in less than an hour, and decided to double back on my route back to the office. I wanted to make sure that someone had heeded my reports and gone to check on the poor Mrs. Lapwing. And quite correctly, when I approached the old house I could see several police cars on the driveway and by the street in front of it. There was also an ambulance, and I was instantly worried.

I ran up to one of the officers. He had just finished a phone call and put the phone back in his pocket. ”Excuse me”, I said. ”But I was the one who called earlier. About Mrs. Lapwing. How is she?”

The officer looked me up and down and frowned. ”So you’re the one who called? Good, I know some people who would like a serious word with you. We got the impression that the woman was alive.”

My worry and guilt peaked. ”Oh my god, isn’t she? I was only gone for a hour, and –”

”What are you talking about?”, the officer said. ”It’s good that she was found finally, but we don’t appreciate being lied to. This woman has been dead for several years. If you would please come with me here…”

I followed. And as I did so, I again let my eyes wander towards the old house. The dark windows watched unblinkingly and in silence as the covered stretcher was carried out into the autumn air, leaving the house again to its quiet calm, memories of laughter and sorrow and long forgotten secrets.