“The year was 2003 and I was a young, brash, know it all 32-year-old desk clerk at the Hilltop House Hotel. At this point in my life, I had an intimate knowledge of the hotel that not even our maintenance men could boast. I knew every creak, crack and groan of the floorboards. I knew where anything and everything was kept, and if it wasn’t in its proper place I could normally find it with relative ease. I would sometimes amuse the guests (on very slow evenings) by walking from the downstairs conference room to the door of room 66…blindfolded. Oh sure, id bump into an odd corner or two but I made it to the top every time. This was my home, and I was comfortable everywhere in the Hilltop.
Everywhere except the basement…
As the hilltop is, 4 of the 5 stories rise to meet the West Virginia sky, the lower level is carved into the hillside to provide a brilliant view of the Potomac River; and below THAT, chiseled into the living rock of the mountain is the basement of the hotel. It was always cold down there, and dimly lit by bare Edison bulbs that strained against all odds to battle back the encroaching darkness. The walls were smooth stone and covered in cobwebs and things that skittered away into the shadows. Steam would hiss in the dark recesses of the ancient boiler room. And shadows would play on the portraits of long forgotten people that littered the basement. Their eyes would follow you, wondering what you were doing in their dark domain. This was the basement that every child feared. This was the basement that every adult nervously laughed at, and tried to hide the twinge of fear that crossed their faces.
I recall, when the Hilltop had a new boiler installed, one of the workmen simply refused to go into the basement. I remember him, standing at the door just shaking his head. He didn’t say anything, just shook his head and walked away. He called his partner and told him to come and do the job (he did) and drove away. I do not know what he saw in the darkness, but whatever it was he refused to face it.
On one particularly chilly October evening, I was working the graveyard shift at the front desk. The night had been quiet and we had only a few guests in residence. I was reading in the lobby and having my 3 a.m. coffee break. normally the night clerks would have the radio or television on to keep them company. I preferred the company of my books and the relaxing calm of the quiet watches of the night.
An alarm rang sharply and startled me out of my Poe induced reverie. Startled me is quite an understatement. Scared the hell out of me is more an apt description. My coffee flew up and backwards, my book flew off to the right, and I yelped like a puppy kicked on accident. I laughed to myself and picked everything up. I’d clean up the coffee in a moment, I thought, better see what the alarm is. I made my way behind the front desk and looked at the antiquated alarm box. Flipping the switch as I wiped the coffee spots off my glasses. The alarm was coming from the basement.
I felt a cold shudder run down my spine. The basement was terrifying on the brightest and sunniest of days…but at 3 o’clock in the morning on an October night with the moon playing behind clouds…the basement was a thing of nightmares. I had absolutely no desire to go down into the depths to investigate the alarm that went off. But it was my job to do just that. It could be a false alarm (they normally were) or it could be someone or something has gotten into the basement, or it could be a burst water pipe, it could any myriad number of things. I didn’t really want to know, but again, it was my job. Fortunately for me, we had protocols set up for this kind of instance. The alarm that went off was a boiler alarm, meaning that a pipe had burst of something had gone wrong with the boiler itself. I placed a call to our maintenance chief and he grunted and said he was on his way.
It didn’t take him long to arrive, as he lived close by in Harpers Ferry. When he walked through the front door, it was painfully obvious that he was not amused by being rousted out of his warm bed at this hour, but being “on the clock” as we say, did take the sting out of it.
“John, good….morning?” i said and smiled as best i could.
“Ah, Jim, old son, it was a good morning until i saw yer ugly mug.” he joked and poured himself a cup of coffee. John and i had known each other for many years and we had a report with each other that the casual onlooker would think was gruff and rude, but they did not know it was all in jest. “so what mechanical wonders have you conjured up for me big guy?”
“Well…” i paused, “The boiler alarm went off.”
“The…..the boiler….of course it did.” he sighed.
He didn’t need to speak it out loud, but i knew he felt the same trepidation and dread about going into that deepening dark that i did. It was unspoken but agreed upon by all the hotel employees that the basement was not a good place to wander alone. maids never went down there, they would always send a maintenance man, or another employee to get what they needed from there. maintenance always went in twos, and front desk clerks went with anyone who they could get. No one liked to be there in the creeping eternal dark of the basement, and no one ever went down there alone.
“Shall we?” i offered up a giant 5 cell mag lite from behind the desk, and grabbed an identical one for myself.
John took the flashlight. “Dammit, i guess we better”
I nodded and placed the “back in 10 minutes sign” on the desk and we headed for the stairs that lead down. john flipped on the overly bright flourescent overheads in the downstairs conference room. The snapped and buzzed to life, hurting my eyes after coming from the relatively dim lights of the lobby. The conference room stood empty; the bright lights bouncing off of black windows that reflected our images back to us with a carnival fun house effect. We were already on edge and the images made us jump a bit. We laughed at ourselves and made our way to the basement door.
The basement door was a lie. it held no warning to the terror it held in check. It gave no sign to the old fears that hid behind it. The door was smooth, white, clean, very ordinary and had a simple little brass sign that read “basement”. The handle was a simple brass doorknob with a plain ordinary lock underneath. There was nothing about the door that would hint in any way that it was a place most feared.
“Once more into the breach…” I said and slid the key into the lock and turned.
“Shut up.” he grunted and opened the door.
The darkness that opened before us was intimidating. The Edison bulbs that hung from the ceiling seemed like lightning bugs that vainly tried to wink to life when he flipped the switch. Few worked at this late point in the hotel’s life, and those that did cast eerie yellow oasis of light on the flagstone floor beneath it. It was a thing from a late night horror movie, this basement. The pair of us stood there, immobilized by the sheer power of it. We felt the darkness ahead of us reaching out with midnight fingers to squeeze us in our souls.
“After you…” John quietly said and clicked on his light. With a rough hand on my shoulder he shoved me forward.
The change was palpable. I felt myself being drawn into the dark, almost pulled in, by it. It took me a second to get my shaking hands to click my own flashlight on and an even longer few seconds before John took his first step into the black. A frozen breeze hurried past us as we took our first tentative steps. it was always cold down here, but this air made our breath coalesce in the beams of our flashlights.
“Jim..” he said and stood shoulder to shoulder with me. “How many storage rooms are down here?”
I kept the beam of my light held in front of me like a sword. “Uh..12, 6 on each side of the hall.” the information came out of me unbidden, like a recording. The doors in the basement were slightly ajar, all of them. Our lights waved over the opening of the first. John took a steadying breath and peaked in. The chairs that were stacked in there were covered with sheets. Cobwebs hung like rigging on a mast from the ghostly statues. The light didn’t penetrate the darkest corners of the first store-room.
“You gotta be f**king kidding me.” john whispered wide-eyed.
“What?!” I asked not even wanting to look.
“Nothing.” He said.
“Check that one…” he said and pointe to the next door up.
I gulped down a ball of child-like fear that dread that rose in my throat. “Sure…no problem.” I tried to quip with bravado that I didn’t feel in my heart. I stepped ever so quietly to the door. As if silent footfalls would fool or confound any vengeful wraith that laid in ambush for me. I placed a hand on the door, more to steady my quaking legs and heart, than to open it, and peered into the chamber. My heart sank into my feet and I felt my mouth drop slightly. Faces looked back at me from under veils of dust and time. All of them pale, unfeeling and cold. I felt a gasp escape my mouth and a slight “eeep” followed behind it.
This time it was John’s turn for an expectant “What?!”
I turned and looked back at him holding my flashlight under my chin in the old traditional horror show lighting style….”The portrait room…”
I couldn’t see it but I knew he was rolling his eyes at me. “You know, the alarm went off in the boiler room, we don’t have to check the storage rooms.”
I nodded. “You’re right of course. Let’s go see whats what and get the hell out of here.”
With renewed purpose we soldiered on in the ever night of the basement. The journey to the boiler room was a mere 50, maybe 65 feet from the unassuming basement door to the boiler room, but in this inky dark it could have been a mile. Another frozen breeze whooshed past us, cold, fast and seemingly purposeful. John and I just pushed forward in steps that seemed to take a lifetime to make.
Then the door, the innocent and plain door, slammed close behind us.
The darkness consumed us. It felt the unwelcome light that flooded in from the conference room behind us blocked by its ally, the door, and pressed in on us from all sides. We both jumped and turned like soldiers with our beams at the door. If a shadow or some eldritch horror had been standing there blocking the way, we would have taken that better than the blank void of dark that greeted us. We saw two doors on either side of the hallway, but beyond that where the door should have been was simply black.
John shuddered. I felt it because he stood shoulder to shoulder with me at that point. “Dude,” he said dropping all sense of cockiness either of us could muster “let’s make sure the boiler isn’t going to explode, and get the f**k out of here.” He turned to the direction of the boiler room “We’ll let Jerry and his guys take care of it tomorrow.”
I nodded. That’s all I could do at this point. There was nothing more in the world than I wanted at this point, than to leave that basement and wash the dark off with the light of the conference room. “Yeah…come on.”
We pressed forward, tendrils of the dusty, cold night of the hallway slipped away from the beams of the flashlights. The time slowed perceptibly as the door to the boiler room loomed from the darkness ahead of us like a shark attacking from the depths. To be honest, had the door to the boiler room been an innocent looking door as was the door to the abysmal depths of the basement, I would have cried on the spot, for that surely would have been the door to hell. The door to the boiler room was what one would expect in a setting such as this.
The door was old, the paint peeling and cracked under the unbearable weight of time. It hung on rusty hinges and was curved at the top. The knob was gnarled and filthy with an old style tumbler lock underneath like a mouth permanently caught in a scream. The sign that had once read “boiler” hung on a single nail at a drunken angle.
John placed his hand on the door knob and pushed. It screamed on the hinges, with a sound that echoed down the hallway. The pair of us went into the blackness. The boiler stood there, mounted on a slab cut from the bedrock of the mountain. The boiler made the temperature of the room tolerable and the warmth seemingly chased away the chill of the oozing black terror of the hallway. I reached to the right of the door and flipped the antique light switch that hung there, barely tacked to the wall. The single dim yellow tinted, and shaded by dust light that hung there flickered to life.
The warmth of the room had restored some of our vigor. “I don’t know John, a couple of throw pillows, a cabinet or two a desk, you’d have a nice little office down here. No one would bother you for sure.”
“Sure, sure…” he half chuckled. “hey, check that out.” He pointed his light on the rock wall behind the boiler gurgling happily away being fed a constant supply of fresh water to use. On the hard rock of the wall was a carving “JL 1886“
“Oh yeah…look there’s another one” I pointed. We found 5 in all. They were the initials (we assume) of the masons who carved the foundations of the hotel into the earth.
And then the bottom fell out of our reverie. The bulb dimmed quickly, raised to life then exploded with a loud pop and flash of electric sparks that dimmed as they fell to the floor. Again, the black; again the dark; again the fear. The boiler’s light from below cast a hellish glow in the room. Hades, had opened before our eyes in an instant.
Then the skittering on the walls surrounding us began. Quick and short at first, then picking up pace until it seemed as though it was racing around us. Our eyes strained in the dark to catch a glimpse of anything moving only to see the briefest shadow pass. I felt a tug on my pants leg, quick and insistent. then the other leg.
“JOHN?!” I half whispered. “There’s something…”
He cut me off with a tight grip on my shoulder. His eyes popped open wide and he finished my sentence with a yell in my ear “ON MY LEG!”
The pair of us burst through the door. neither of us were exactly “small” and the door stood little chance against two 260 pound plus full-grown men. It splintered and exploded into the hallway. We tumbled onto the filth that covered the flagstones of the basement floor in a heap and clamored over one another to get up. When we did, the dust fell off of us in a cloud that hovered around our feet. We broke and ran for the door in an instant. We raced past open doors and, in our minds, greedy, groping hands reached out to hold us back. The darkness raced ahead of us, jeering and laughing. John reached the door first his hand slipping on the knob as I slammed into the back of him. our flashlights, fell to the floor, illuminating long evil tentacles at our feet.
“Open the door!!!” I yelled in his ear. And pushed him aside to open it myself. With a heave and a grunt the pair of us tumbled into the light of the conference room. John rolled over and kicked the basement door closed. We sat there staring at the door panting, and covered in a film that was cold sweat mixed with the dust of the basement. There was a clawing at the door, that then forced us back on our elbows, crab like, away from the door. It stopped as suddenly as it started and the room then fell silent.
We stood up quickly and speed walked our way to the stairs that led to the lobby. The light was welcoming and soothing, like the arms of an avenging angel that kept at bay the demons of night. the clock read, 4:15 a.m.
“That was the worst hour of my entire life.” John said knocking the dust off himself.
I nodded in agreement and fished a cigarette from the crumpled pack in my pocket. I clicked my lighter and blew a plume of smoke into the lobby air, completely forgetting the no smoking policy in my relief. John looked at me with a raised eyebrow, and we went outside. The air washed the last remnants of the horror we shared from us.
We silently vowed to put the event behind us.
Two days later….
John and I were talking on the front porch of the hotel as he was leaving for the day and I was coming in for the evening when my mother waved us to come into her office from the window. We nodded and walked into her office from the lobby and saw My mother and two other managers standing there smiling and applauding, and laughing. We didn’t know what they were viewing on my mother’s computer screen but we were told to look.
Apparently, when Jerry and his crew went to see what was wrong with the boiler, they found the boiled room door in pieces on the floor. There wasn’t a problem with the boiler at all. Something had been chewing on the wires that fed information to the alarm system. So when Jerry, in his diligence went to see who broke the door down, he found the video (long since lost to time, the elements, and poor record storage) of John and I tumbling through the basement door. John kicking it closed. (the video had no sound) We scampered like crabs backwards…stood and speed walked in a ridiculous over compensating fashion as if to say “nothing is wrong”…and disappeared up the stairs side by side….(12 minutes pass on the tape)…the door to the basement slowly opens…
John and I are nudging each other waiting for some dusty, undead thing to reach from the hated dark.
A squirrel, poked its head from behind the door. It looked at the camera…the thing looked at the camera…and then popped from behind the door, ran across the conference room floor. twitched his tail before jumping out of a small window. The events staff had left a window open when cleaning up from the final conference earlier that day.
The laughter from my Mom’s office rolled into the lobby.