This coastal city has old roots, old bones, and old souls, all of which are wave-worn and damp. Attrition and erosion affect more than the rocks and seawall bordering the dark waves, more than the structures built and rebuilt from furious hurricanes. Massachusetts is not often assaulted by hurricanes, normally averaging about one hurricane every six years or so. But this city is not normal. We don’t show up on any map. We get hurricanes every September like clockwork on our little island just off the Massachusetts coast, where the land gives way to unforgiving sea. I was born thirty years ago at midnight on September first during a massive hurricane that rocked the island. Everyone says it was an omen, but I have yet to discover what it was an omen of. It’s my birthday today, actually.
Lighthouses typically give two foghorn blasts every two minutes during foggy conditions, which is the usual condition here. Locals are so accustomed to foghorn bellows that silence would be more unnerving- not that it’s ever entirely silent with the waves, wind, and the cries of gulls- but there would be an odd anxiousness in the air without the lonesome, booming calls. The lighthouse is tended by three men, and only those three. Our keepers do not switch out in turns every so many weeks like most houses do. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the men leave their post. We don’t tend to get tourists or visitors here, only occasional lost ships that see the lighthouse, turn, and go on their merry way. It seems every family that comes here, remains here, for a long stay.
The hurricanes will start soon, I can feel it. The rain today is coming down harder than usual, angry tears pelting my skin as I scuttle down the walk and stoop beneath a shop door’s Georgian style overhang. The shop is one of several small, dingy stores crowded together like crooked teeth along the meandering main road. Storefronts as worn and weathered as the city they reside in peek out through the rain, their grey colors matching the fog and deteriorating sidewalk. Faint, flickering electric signs shudder through the cloak of fog like a quiet plea for attention, illuminating the flaking building paint in an eerie, somber glow.
Not all the shops have lit signs, in fact there are more without than with, but they all have names somewhere among their broken-down storefronts. The shop I am hiding under and staring at apprehensively is the most decrepit of them all, like a tiny but putrescent cavity in the jagged mall maw. It is the only store without a sign and without a name. I suppose it is not noticeable enough to warrant a name, and if it had had one at any point in time, the lettering peeled off long ago. The nature of the shop should be enough to deter me, but a foolish man knows no fear, and I so desperately want out of the deluge. Time to play the fool. A secret part of me whispers inside that I have long been curious about this shop, this hidden emporium that goes intentionally unnoticed and un-discussed by our little society. I have always played by the rules and avoided it, but today I feel like stepping outside of the rules- and out of the rain.
A marred brass bell dings faintly as I open the door, which squeaks in protest of disuse, but is surprisingly unlocked. My boots drag against the entry floorboards before meeting a dusty blue Persian rug, and I stagger as the floor slopes, the boards uneven and warped from the never-ending damp. My eyes slowly adjust to the dim atmosphere. The only source of light is emanating from two faded yellow bulbs mounted on the far wall, one on each side. It looks like they are meant to be in sconces. They may have been once, but now they are naked bulbs jutting out of connections in the wall, with what looks like visible wiring that is shrouded in dust. It’s an electrician’s nightmare, though there probably isn’t much risk of fire spreading with how soggy everything is.
I look about the store, noticing that it seems to be a single square room with a mostly cleared, carpeted path straight ahead. Flanked on either side of the path are stacks of clutter taller than myself. Vintage trinkets, porcelain figures, broken fine china, abandoned toys, stray piano keys and a keyless piano are some of the items congesting the left side of the room. The right side is covered in piles of faded books, tangled marionettes, barren cookie tins, sole-less shoes, moth-eaten velvet, shredded curtains, and a barnacle-encrusted old anchor all making their home here in the grime. A small grey blur that is probably a spooked mouse darts across the path and disappears into the left side heap, and I realize there are so many more items in the mounds that it is hard to distinguish between the mess and poor lighting. It looks like a tossing ocean of bric-a-brac, a hoarder’s dream vomiting treasures out o’er the floor. The only item not a part of the two towering junk piles is a little table dead-center against the far wall, directly across from me by about ten feet.
I squint through the dark and see, sitting atop the little table, rests an antique phonograph. There is a pile of wax cylinders stashed haphazardly below it. Curious, I start walking forward, watching my feet to avoid slipping on little scattered toys- flightless balsa wood airplanes, metal jacks, and rusty tin racecars. Clouds of dust stir beneath my feet as I creep forward, and I sneeze before shivering from the dank coldness of the room. Feeling more uncertain by the moment I decide to call out “Hello? Hello, does anyone work here? I’m just trying to stay out of the storm . . .” No reply, there is only the muted sound of rain from outside to keep me company in this strange shop. I didn’t really expect an answer. There aren’t many places to hide in such a crowded space.
I reach the table and marvel at the antique beauty of the player- the black metal of its body is smooth and accented by worn gold paint on its finer details. Golden, floral filigree line the rim of the mouth. The small table it rests on is evenly spaced between the two bare lights, making it the only part of the room I can distinguish clear details in. I skim my hands over the table and pause. There is no dust on my fingertips. The rest of the room is suffocating under dust, but this table and player are immaculately kept, aside from some light aesthetic wear from age. Someone must care very much about this to keep it clean while the rest of the shop is in such a filthy state.
I notice a cylindrical package propped next to the player and pick it up, making out a faint inscription at the top: “The Ghostly Crew, 1874. A sea shanty performed by the Childr- ” the rest of the label is worn off. Most likely a recording of a sea shanty sung by a children’s choir, just as I had sung it in school as a boy for “appreciation of local history” and all that. I suppose the curriculum hasn’t changed much over the centuries. I gingerly slide the brown wax cylinder out of the tube, running my hands over it and feeling the smooth grooves cut into the wax. There is a long metal bar on the phonograph (something tells me that it’s called a feed screw), and I carefully slide the cylinder on and press the stylus down. I reach for the wooden grip on the side crank and push it gently, quickly receiving a large splinter for my efforts. I quickly pull my hand back, hissing in pain, and a stream of blood slithers down my palm and lands on the wax. I have no time to panic and wipe it off as the machine comes to life, spinning the wax as children’s voices ring out. I clutch my bleeding hand to my jacket and listen- the song is just as I remember it.
One night as we were sailing, we were off land away–
I shall never forget until me dying day–
It was in our dim dark watches I felt a chilly dread–
Rather morbid for children to sing if you ask me, but this town is steeped in its own morbidity as thick as the murk outside.
Come over me as though I heard one calling from the dead…
The record skips for a moment, releasing a strange screech that fades into the sound of dripping water that is not from the storm outside. I frown as I realize the sound isn’t coming from the player, but from somewhere nearby in the room, the drips sounding near my left ear then near my right. Must be a leak, though I don’t see any water coming down the ceiling. . . Just a leak. The song continues.
…Right o’er our rail came climbing, all silent, one by one,
A dozen dripping sailors- just wait till I am done.
The record fades again as the water’s volume increases, a persistent drip-drop-drip-drop of water that sounds closer and closer yet still alternating direction of sound. “What the hell?”
…Their faces pale and sea-wet shone ghostly through the night,
Each fellow took his station as if he had a right.
My chest tightens and I start to hyperventilate. I breathe shakily and force myself to stay calm- it’s just an old roof leak and a stupid old song! An old shanty that everyone in this town knows, no reason to panic and get superstitious like the old sailors.
…And then those ghostly sailors moved to the rail straightaway
And vanished like the misty scud before the break of day.
The record begins to slow and distort, the sound warping so that the children’s voices come out increasingly scratchier and deeper, the lyrics muddled and unintelligible. It spins on, emitting a low, near indiscernible hum. A sudden crackling blasts out, hurting my ears and then . . . screams replace the static. The children’s voices have vanished in place of screaming men experiencing what could only be the greatest degrees of pain and pure terror. It is an inhuman noise clawing through the soundwaves, a choir of piercing otherworldly wails that I know is not meant to be heard by men of still-warm flesh and blood.
Paralyzed in place, I am fixated on the device as wretched screams and the crash of pounding waves make my eardrums ache. I beg my body to move but an unseen force prevents me. What the hell is this!? I mentally struggle, and with great effort my legs begin to respond. I pull myself from the petrified trance and it feels like I am clawing through mud to move. I rush at the table as fast as my limbs will let me. Terror-stricken, I grab the phonograph handle with all my might and force it to stop turning, stilling the cylinder’s rotation, and the infernal player is as silent as the grave once more. My hands are shaking and bleeding from the white-knuckled grip I have on the splintered handle, and I cautiously command my fingers to release one-by one. Handle released, I hoist the cursed machine high and smash it against the table. It barely makes a dent. I scream, enraged, and smash it again. Again. Again! AGAIN!
My abuse works and the wax cylinder cracks, the metal dents, the corners chip and little shards of debris and paint fly off. The remaining piece of the crank handle is hanging crookedly, half of it snapped off from the force of my frenzied hands. I throw it down to the floor and take a heavy step backward, then another, my eyes never leaving the cylinder. It remains still. I laugh like I have never laughed before. It is a hysterical hyena cry of a man scared shitless. I drag my shaky, bloody fingers through my hair roughly, seeking some small physical comfort; but I know it is not nearly enough to ease my fright. The record player isn’t moving. . . because I broke the damn thing.
“It’s brokennnn!” I crow triumphantly. I don’t need to keep an eye on it. It’s fine. I can just leave. There’s an explanation for this, and it’s probably all in my head. I don’t need to stay here any longer. I plant my feet and turn around, ready to sprint to the door right across the room. I need to go home for a beer (and schedule a psych eval). But I pause as a slight scratching sound teases my ears. The mere whisper of a threat to come. It sounds like a rat stuck within a wall. A faint but frenzied scratching, scrambling, something increasingly desperate and determined to get free. I slowly turn around and see that the machine is back on the table, perfectly centered. I can only watch aghast as the broken cylinder starts to spin, the undeniably unusable handle turning itself without issue.
My vision blurs, the edges of my mind become hazy and black as my eyes roll backwards, and the impossible sound resumes. The scratching turns into a horrible caterwauling shriek even louder than before! It is pounding in my ears; I feel it throbbing under my eyes. Through the floor. Into my soles. Even between the folds of my brain! The screams are seeping into my grey matter and pushing like a tidal wave until all thought but the invading noise is extinguished. My ears are so assaulted they burst and bleed, crimson sliding down my neck and soaking my shirt. All I can hear are the damned screams, screams, screams!
The screaming is now accompanied by the snap of sails whipping in high winds, the creaking of straining ropes, and long-past echoes of the clash of rusty swords. The cries of agony rise in fervor, and I hear the nauseating splatter of what can only be the sailors’ life blood spilling. The sick splashing waves of wine-dark blood are audible above the ocean’s ultramarine tumult. I creak open my eyes, my blood-slick hands shaking over my ears as I shriek in a futile attempt to drown the noise out with my mortal throat. I can tell that I am screaming and can distantly feel that my physical body is straining. My throat is burning but my voice is lost in the sea of sounds. My miserable cries make no difference to the din, and I am swept away in it. Suddenly the sound is gone, and the cylinder is still. The phonograph is unbroken, sitting on the table glaringly before me, looking brand new. My lungs ache as though all the air in the room has been removed with the sound. It is a vacuum chamber, deadly silent. I can’t hear the storm that I know is still raging outside. I can’t hear my own ragged breaths or my heartbeat. I wonder numbly if I have gone deaf. Nothing matters as I stare at the phonograph, processing the shock, rooted to the spot. But I am not free. Not yet.
A spectral chill creeps down my spine as a rush of freezing air causes each hair on my body to stand up. My arms are covered in goosebumps. Out of the corner of my eye I see evanescent, wispy tendrils forming and snaking through the air, emerging from the shadows cast along the wall. The wisps writhe and pulse steadily, as if breathing, and out from the shadows step semi-transparent figures that glide like smoke. They step through the mounds of junk carelessly as their bodies phase through the items, unaffected. They grow darker, more corporeal, as they grow closer, their bodies now disturbing objects as they pass. I begin to make out the features of mangled and water-bloated bodies wounded from battle. Adorned with barnacles and kelp, “their faces pale and sea-wet”, the figures sneer at me with twisted, cadaverous grins. A crew of dead men, their tale told in songs and preserved in wax, immortal and resurrected.
There is one figure at the front, the most visible of them all, who can only be the captain. He has no eyes, only empty hollows resting above emaciated cheekbones. Even so, I know he is looking straight at me just as I am looking at him. His crooked, ancient hand crooks a bony finger at me, beckoning. Though my consciousness is starting to fade, I feel a ferocious wave rise from below and wash before him, close enough to smell the wet decay of his ghastly company. This small room holds a dead man’s crew and a personal hurricane. The last thing I see is the phonograph before my vision is lost. Everything that I am. Everything that I was or could have been, is swallowed in darkness as I join the ghostly crew.
“I do believe in spirits–since that time anyway.”
The shanty expresses what was a widely-held belief among seamen at the time- that if a ship crossed a spot where a past ship’s sailors had fallen overboard and drowned, that the ghosts of those lost sailors would climb aboard the passing ship of the living. I imagine this Twilight Zone-esque island is haunted by many such tales.
“The Ghostly Crew” is a real shanty, and locations mentioned in the full song are based in and around Newfoundland (“The Banks” is a famous cod fishing ground, a large underwater plateau in the Atlantic Ocean, stretching 1,100 miles from Nantucket to Newfoundland. “Georges Bank” lies off of Cape Cod, MA. The “Western Bank” lies southeast of Nova Scotia. The “Grand Bank” lies south and east of Newfoundland. I excluded those lines from the story for concision’s sake.) Earliest records of the shanty go back to a book from 1874 called “Fisherman’s Ballads and Songs of the Sea”- Harvard University retains a record of the book and the contents are viewable for free online.
For more information, visit:
The Ballad Index: The Ghostly Crew
Library of Congress: History of the Cylinder Phonograph
Rough Science: How does a phonograph work?