— Judith O’Dea, “Barbra” from the original Night of the Living Dead
“Don’t worry, you needn’t be a fan of the BBC or PBS’ Masterpiece Theater to enjoy the story, as the characters are so well written and the plot moves at a breakneck pace.” — Amazon.com
“It’s Downton Abbey with Lovecraftian mythos and traditional supernatural monsters and deals with the devil. Best of all, it’s written in a style that kept me cackling all the way through.”
— The Horror Fiction Review
News of the events of April 1912 wended its icy tendrils across the Atlantic Ocean, over the cliffs of Dover, through the smoke and grime of London, and up into the bucolic boroughs of England to Yorkshire. Its reach extended even to the tiny hamlet of Monroeville, known as “Deadtown” for its tens of thousands of graves radiating out from the nearby manor house as far as the eye could see.
A bicycle messenger coasted past the dignified gates and up the fine gravel path to the door of Monroeville Hall, a stately manor house built on the site of a former abbey which burned down under mysterious circumstances in the early seventeenth century. The abbey itself had been nominally Christish, but that faith never caught on with the regular folk of Yorkshire, and it should not come as a surprise that the Old Religion of the masses may have inspired the destructive blaze.
The bicyclist rang at a back door and, when it was answered and the fee paid with a tuppence, gave the man the telegram and rode away ever as fast as he could. He didn’t care for “Deadtown Abbey,” and would’ve said so if it hadn’t meant a dressing down from his superior, who thought all addresses were equal inasmuch as they paid up for telegrams.
Peter, a young blond footman in spotless livery, was handed the rolled parchment, which he took past the stairs and through a winding hallway to Mister Foree, the staid butler of Deadtown Ab—excuse me, Foree would much prefer it called by its proper name, so let us say the staid butler of Monroeville Hall. Mister Foree nodded his thanks to Peter, who then glided back to the kitchen, where he could be of more use at the moment.
Mister Foree’s thick eyebrows furrowed into a V as he unfurled the telegram:
Mister Foree had been in service for too long to allow the death of a thousand people—or their second death, perhaps—to make his hands shake as he held the slip of paper. But the death of the heir of Monroeville Hall, dear Stuart, was enough to make the butler fortify himself with a peg of whisky before taking the note to His Lordship.
He knocked the shot back, steeled himself, and started up the stairs.
* * *
“What’s got into him?” Roger the footman said to his friend, the lady’s maid, Miss O’Dea, after they watched the funereal heaviness that was Mister Foree glide past the doorway to the servants’ dining hall.
“Probably just learned His Highness had to wipe hisself,” she said, and they both stifled a laugh.
“You shouldnae talk that way,” the skinny, pale kitchen maid said.
“Ah, what’s it to you, Dawn?” Roger said with a smile. “He doesn’t even know you exist down here, scrubbing pots from morning ’til night.”
“That’s not true,” O’Dea said with a tiny smirk, and Roger knew she was about to unleash a zinger on the stupid kid. “I’m sure he knows who cocks up his meals.”
They laughed. Dawn didn’t. Mrs Gonk, the chubby house cook, didn’t either, but then, she hardly ever laughed.(No time.) “Dawn, don’t you have something better to do than flirting with the footmen?”
“I wasnae flirtin’, Mrs Gonk, I swear!”
“Just get back to work, girl.”
“Yes, Mrs Gonk. Sorry, Mrs Gonk.” Dawn didn’t spare a glance back to O’Dea and Roger, who got up from the long table and headed outside for a wee smoke.
* * *
“I understand you have a new valet coming, George?” the Countess of Monroe asked her husband at the breakfast table. “So sad what happened to Monty.”
George, the Earl of Monroe, looked away from his newspaper and out into space. “Poor man. But then, he wasn’t a fool. He had to know what he was getting himself into, walking alone in London during the witching hour.”
Air escaped Countess Barbara’s lips in a raspberry of derision. “Honestly, George, ‘the witching hour’? You sound like a fishwife, telling tales to spook shoeless children.”
“You just fail to understand what’s going on because you’re an American,” he said, teasing his wife a little. “Not to mention a Christist.”
“We are Christists. And one does not have to be American to be skeptical of the English habit of jumping at shadows and calling them monsters.”
Lord Monroe let his newspaper fall as he fixed his wife with a look that was neither kind nor unkind and said, “The man’s head had been bitten off and his entrails—”
“Really, George! The girls don’t need to hear your gruesome recaps.”
“I quite like it, Mama,” said Lady Sheryl, the youngest daughter of three who made up the total, heir-free production of the Earl and Countess of Monroe.
“Oh, you’ll fancy anything that disgusts others,” the eldest, Lady Maureen, said plainly. “That must be why you’re so fond of Eleanor.”
“Hey!” cried Lady Eleanor, middle child of the family, a fish-faced girl of one-and-twenty afflicted with dishwater blonde hair. “That’s dirty pool!”
“Dirty pool?” Maureen said, her mouth quivering on the edge of a laugh. “Did you pick that up during a visit to the ale house, looking for a beau?”
Eleanor’s face turned an unfortunate shade that made her slightly batrachian features even froggier. “You are such—”
“Telegram for you, milord,” Foree the butler said in his overpowering baritone, fortunately shutting Eleanor down before she could say something everyone would regret. “I’m afraid it’s not good news.”
“It so rarely is,” George said, and took the rerolled parchment from Foree’s silver tray without taking his eyes off the newspaper.
“This is worse than usual, milord.”
That made everyone look up from what he or she was doing: Lord Monroe from his ’paper, Lady Monroe from her kippers and eggs, Maureen from her Strand magazine, Sheryl from spreading jam on a scone, and Eleanor from her hand mirror in which she was deciding what she would change about her face first if she were ever granted three wishes.
Lord Monroe read the telegram with increasing dismay, saying finally, “The Titanic has sunk. Cousin Stuart has been lost at sea. Drowned, I assume.”
Shocked silence weighed upon the room. Slowly, all eyes turned to Maureen, who had returned to her mystery story. “What?” she said as she noticed their stares.
“Maureen, darling, he was your fiancé!” her mother said at last.
“Barely,” Maureen said, not looking up from the magazine.
Lady Monroe threw her hands up and made a sound that could only be interpreted as frustration.
“Better dead than undead,” Sheryl said with an air of insouciance. “Three out of five ships leave Liverpool with a zombie somewhere on board. That is a statistic! You think that’s happened, right, Papa?”
Lady Monroe sighed with a weariness borne of three daughters always trying to see who could get the greatest rise out of their mother. “Even you don’t believe the claptrap that you’re saying, Sheryl. Once again, to all of you, we are Christists, for the merciless sake of Yog-Sothoth.”
But Lord Monroe fixed his gaze on Sheryl and said, “I agree with your mother that this is all a joke to you, but the ravenous undead are suspected to be the cause, yes.”
His wife now put a hand over her eyes. “George,” she sighed wearily, “stop winding them up, if you please.”
“And don’t those luxury ships usually have some kind of protocol if the undead have multiplied and overrun the ship?” Sheryl said. “They usually ram the boat into an iceberg if they can, I believe. To sink it.”
“But not on a maiden voyage, surely!” Eleanor cried.
Sheryl said sadly, “Zombies don’t care how many times a ship has sailed. They only know that they want to eat flesh and make more zombies.”
“Ye gods!” cried Lady Maureen.
“Honestly, Sheryl, you’re as bad as your father,” Barbara said, and the look exchanged between their youngest daughter and her husband told her that this was not necessarily taken as a criticism. “What kind of ideas are you young people playing with? And George—zombies and ghouls, indeed! Folk tales told by commoners.”
“You hold to that, even after they had to burn Brighton to the ground?” Sheryl asked.
“I think that rather improved it,” Maureen snarked with a mean smile.
“You’re on a cruel roll today, Mo,” Eleanor said. “Not enough to mock a dead fiancé, now you have to make fun with an entire city up in flames?”
“The undead are as real as you and me, Mama,” Sheryl finished. “Now they’ve killed Cousin Stuart as well. At least, if the zombies did get him, he drowned not long afterward.”
“Zombies don’t drown, stupid,” Eleanor said. “They don’t breathe.”
“Really!” Barbara interjected. “Enough of this talk, girls. Maureen will go into mourning, and we shall all say a prayer to the Jesus god for Stuart.”
“A prayer? I thought you just said you didn’t go for supranatural stuff.” Maureen took a sip of her tea, which Peter had just topped off. “Besides, it was more of an agreement than an engagement. I won’t be mourning much.”
“Lovely,” Barbara said, but then looked over at her husband, who had balled up the telegram and was staring into space, tears in his eyes. Unlike Maureen, George was gutted by the loss of his beloved designated heir, zombies or no.
* * *
On the morning that Lord Monroe learned of his heir’s fate aboard the Titanic, a solid-looking man in a humble black suit and vest was riding aboard the early train that passed through Monroeville. He was well groomed and gave a smile to the other passengers as they chugged across the English countryside, but as soon as they looked away, a certain sadness settled on the man’s features. He had seen things. Awful things. And, as the train came to a halt at the tiny Monroeville station, Howard Bubb swung his good leg out into the aisle and then moved so his artificial leg would help support him as he stood.
The metal leg was a constant reminder that he hadn’t just seen things.
But this day could be the beginning of a new life, a better life, working as his old comrade George Shambley’s personal valet. It was true that he didn’t get along as well as some when it came to limber walking and bending, but he felt no man was his equal when it came to facing the dangers of the night. He limped off the train, tipping his bowler hat at a young girl who seem transfixed by the silver of Mister Bubb’s ankle, which flashed as he stepped down.
“What’s happened to your foot, sir?” the girl asked.
“Karen Cooper, mind yourself!” her guardian snapped, looking aghast at the young one’s rudeness. “I’m terribly sorry, sir. She—”
Mister Bubb’s smile appeared again. “No apology shall be accepted, madam. A curious child is an asset to this world.” He lifted up the right leg of his trousers a couple of inches and said, “Stainless steel, my dear. It’ll never rust.” He didn’t like to lie to anyone, especially not little girls, but there was no reason to frighten her.
That made the girl giggle a little bit, something she probably wouldn’t have done if she knew his leg was plated with silver and hollowed out to be filled with stakes, truncheons, and other supranatural fighting gear. “Where’s your real leg?”
A twitch crossed Bubb’s face, but he kept smiling at the dear girl. He said, “I lost it in a fight with goblins.”
“No,” Bubb said, letting his trouser leg down again, “but that’s better than the truth.”
* * *
Peter the footman held the handrail as he came down the stairs into the servants’ dining area. He felt weak and he knew he had no color in his face. He strode as manfully as he could to a wooden chair at the table and sat.
Mrs Gonk took one look at him and said, “What’s wrong, my dear? You look like you’ve been drained of blood and propped up like a mannikin.”
“Oh, no, Mrs Gonk, nothing like that. It’s—well, I lingered in the breakfast room, filling tea and such, when they started talking about …”
Suddenly there were four more servants in the room: O’Dea and Roger, who had been smoking right outside the door; Dawn, who had been scrubbing a particularly obstinate suet pan; and Mrs McDermott, the Hall’s housekeeper, who happened to be passing through the room when she overheard what Peter said.
“Yeah?” O’Dea said, “Come on, what was it? A calamity like the Duke tipping his egg cup?”
Mrs McDermott moved to censure her, but stopped when Peter spoke again.
“No,” Peter answered her without irony, still dazed. “That ship, the Titanic? It sank. Everybody’s dead, or most of them.”
“That’s ridiculous, even for you,” Roger said. “That ship’s unsinkable.”
“Not if they sank it on purpose,” Peter said.
“What? Why in the name of the Prophet would they do that? Don’t be stupid.”
Peter didn’t say anything else, but Dawn said suddenly, “Zombies! The undead! Don’t they scramble boats when there’s zombies on board?”
“Scuttle,” Mrs Gonk corrected her.
“Pssh.” Roger wasn’t having any of it.
“Or a Kraken! Sea monsters could take down a big boat, right?”
There were nods around the room, and Miss O’Dea was just about to add something she thought Roger would find amusing when the deep bass voice of Mister Foree filled the room. “Sea monsters are mythical. Most of them, in any event. So why don’t we stick to what is real, like the danger of being let go from your current situation if you don’t get back to work.”
“I think I’d prefer a sea monster to Mister Foree,” Roger whispered to O’Dea as the staff dispersed from the room.
* * *
“What does it mean, George? If Stuart is really gone?” Barbara avoided using the word dead, since her husband thought it unclear who was dead and who was merely undead.
“It means that Monroeville Hall, upon my death, will go to the next heir in line, a distant cousin named Johnny, I believe.”
“Johnny? What, is he a toddler? Or an imbecile? By the gods, I can’t imagine our lovely home in the hands of a pinhead!”
George gave his wife a smile, the first he had felt on his face all morning. “No, he is a scholar and writer living with his mother just south of London. Perhaps that’s why a man of eight-and-twenty would keep such a moniker.”
“He probably lives with her because he’s a slope-shouldered man-child.”
“That’s very generous of you, dear.”
A half smile made Barbara’s lips into a loving smirk as she said, “I just hate that the entail means this property can’t go to Maureen, to keep it in the family.”
“Maureen was engaged to marry the heir. It would have remained in the family had Stuart not just perished, or worse, on the Titanic.”
“Or worse? George, dear, please stop with your stories. My father threw all of that balderdash right out the door when he made his fortune. Christism is for people such as we. It’s like a monarchy.”
“With three kings at once? Or is it one at a time, and they switch places? The whole thing is confusing to me.”
“I said like a monarchy. I would think that you being Lord Monroe, of all people, would appreciate a tidy, hierarchical theology rather than that rogue’s gallery the servants hold dear.”
George held out a palm to his wife to signal surrender. “Maybe I just wish Maureen had been more interested in Stuart. So what if he was a bit too interested in musical theatricals and the design of homes’ interiors to offer her all his attentions? Marriage is a partnership, not a loss of individual identity like being bitten by a zombie.”
Barbara shook her head in exasperation at the word. “Be that as it may, the best people stick to marrying the best people. I always believed Stuart’s interest in ballet rather than the hunt a sign of refined quality.”
“Maureen apparently is uninterested in that kind of quality.”
“I know, I know. Well, perhaps the dinner tonight shall present someone more suitable. The Duke is a bachelor, I understand.”
George groaned. In all the drama of the morning, he had completely forgotten that the esteemed Duke of Baskerville was coming that evening, and bringing with him a sub-ambassador from one of those eastern countries. He beseeched her: “Perhaps we could cancel the whole thing? I’m not feeling much up to entertaining today, especially not for some nabob or whatever the Duke is dragging along with him.”
“No, dearest, we cannot. It is our job, I might remind you, to represent the best in this hamlet, this county, and this country. This guest the Duke is bringing is one Kasztelan Tarboosh, assistant to our ambassador in Romania. The country is practically European these days—”
“As long as no one steps out after dark. It’s a blasted menagerie of soul-suckers out there in the near East.”
“Ugh, you and your Old Religion supranatural obsessions.”
George had been looking out the window of their bedroom, but now turned to look at Barbara as her hair was being styled by Miss O’Dea, before whom they discussed private matters as if they were alone. “They are not obsessions, my dear, only smart precautions. I have a hard time understanding how you can overrule the evidence of your own eyes.”
“Evidence!” Barbara cackled, almost making O’Dea drop her ribbons. “Mutilated cows and missing women of low trade hardly qualify as ‘evidence.’”
“It just hasn’t reached us up in the higher classes yet, that is all. I bet Miss O’Dea knows of plenty of eyewitness accounts she could share of zombies, goblins, vampires, that sort of thing.”
Barbara’s eyes met O’Dea’s in the mirror of the vanity. She raised her brows as if to say, “Do you?”
“I shouldn’t like to disagree with Her Ladyship,” O’Dea said carefully, “but I have lost a sister and a nephew to werewolf attacks just this past full moon. It is all real enough, milady.”
“Balderdash,” Barbara said with an exasperated air. “The working classes are more superstitious than peers and other nobles. You all see ghosts and phantoms when all there really is are shadows and scurrying mice. No offense intended, O’Dea.”
“None taken, milady,” O’Dea automatically replied, but she remained tight-lipped for the rest of the Countess’s preparations for the day. She knew what she had seen, and what she had seen was the remnants of her sister and her sister’s young son in their ransacked house that night.
“But look at this Titanic business, my dear,” George said. “Our own heir lost at sea, in all likelihood due to a zombie infestation out of steerage. I do believe times are changing, and it won’t be just the lower classes’ problem for long.”