THE HELL HOUND

Lancaster stood along a waning highway in the Midwest. Its brief heyday had passed long ago, and the town was dying with slow dignity. A day would come when the last generation would move out and the old fogies rocking on front porches on Jefferson Street would fade away. Very little of Lancaster would be remembered.

One story, however, would be carried across the country with the fleeing generation, told, retold and exaggerated until it became unrecognizable.

A wizard lived in Lancaster until 1956. He occupied a Victorian house that was as modest as a Victorian house could be at the end of Old Church Street. Shortly after he moved in on a rainy night in October of 1910, nature began to claim the house. Vines as fat as ship rope crawled up the shingle fa├žade and onto the roof. Thick grass consumed the cobblestone porch leading to his porch, and the willow trees in the front yard grew into monstrous sentinels. On some nights, the house was as dark and silent as a coffin. On other nights, the street was flooded by strange, cold light shooting through the windows. Sometimes ethereal sounds that struck neighbors with inexplicable dread wafted through the vine-choked walls. People said that clouds sometimes circled high over the house by day, taking bizarre forms.

Old Church Street understandably deteriorated. People would lose sleep at night over the otherworldly lights and noises and warn their children to stay away from the old house. Only the most reckless or stupid disobeyed. Even the kids who did venture into his yard returned pale and quivering. One boy, John Garrison, touched the door before running back to his awestruck friends. He died a few weeks later of a horrible illness that even the old doctor couldn't explain. Both the Lutheran and Baptist churches agreed that some terrible evil lurked behind the doors of the house, but neither was about to confront it. A few complaints were filed to the sheriff, but everyone knew that no one in town would walk up to the door and ask the owner to please keep the noise down for consideration of the neighbors.

In time, Old Church Street emptied save for a few houses farthest from the wizard's. And one night in 1956, as suddenly as he had come, the wizard left. A red FOR SALE sign glared on the rusty iron gate. Months passed, and a group of teenagers made a bold expedition into the vacant house through a back window. They returned with news that the house was empty. Completely empty. No spiders spun cobwebs in the corners, no mice ran through the walls and no bats roosted in the upper floors. If not for four months of dust on the old floors, the house could have been abandoned yesterday.

Three years passed before a wealthy young couple from St. Louis bought the house for a summer getaway. They listened to the horror stories from the real estate agent like bored kids in a middle school history class and bought it for a song. The fact that it had remained intact for so many years was a pleasant surprise. And on the second day of moving everything in, the young woman found a single box in the corner of the attic that the adventurous teenagers had overlooked three years ago. Inside was an antique camera.

She had always loved photography, and laughed with delight at her find. She experimented with it, taking pictures of landscapes and her family. But as she took more pictures, something strange happened. A black blotch appeared in the background, and with each picture she took, it got larger and larger.

At first she thought it was an error in processing, but when she tried to point it out to anyone, they couldn't see it. Even her husband gave up trying to find it. As the blotch grew with each picture, she began to fear her sanity. In one exposure, she studied it and realized that it was no blotch. It was a dog, a huge jet black dog with two white eyes and gleaming teeth exposed in a hungry sneer. Still, no one could see it. And in each picture, the hound grew closer and closer, until its colorless eyes stared straight into hers and its mouth opened wide for an attack.

She hid the camera in the box she found it and tucked it away in the corner. It didn't matter if the thing was real or not anymore. Either way, it terrified her. She burned the pictures she'd taken and the dog vanished from her life. Years passed, and she forgot about it. One day, her grandchildren came to visit her. While she chatted merrily in the lounge with their parents, the two grandchildren snuck into the attic.

Neighbors said that they saw a flash of white light from the attic that looked like a lightning bolt. Then an earth-rending howl tore through the night. It was a sound that the world had not heard in countless ages, and would never hear again. It drowned the screams of the children and echoed through the house until the foundations rattled. The children's parents and grandparents rushed up the stairs, shouting their names. When they burst into the attic, they saw fresh blood pooling in huge paw prints pressed in the wooden floor as if it were mud. The prints led to a great arched window and vanished. Next to the blood lay the broken remains of an old camera.

The grandmother crumpled without a sound, dead before shehit the dusty floor.