The Haunted Van Gogh
Derek A. Schneider
Derek A. Schneider
Clinton Berger dropped the phone down on its cradle knowing there would be no turning back from this point. After the last time, he swore to himself he would never do it again. He swore he would never use his daughter in that way again, but now…
He shot the whisky and felt the calming burn down the back of his throat. Taking a deep breath to steady himself, he then placed the shot glass on his desk and walked toward the door of his office. The drive ahead of him would be long and lonely. An agonizing journey with nothing more than his wretched thoughts and unending guilt to keep him company. In the doorway he stopped, turned back to the room, and returned to his desk to retrieve the bottle of whisky. He needed something to keep his mind soggy.
“Are you sure you know where we’re going?” Ted asked from the backseat of Chrissie’s car.
“Calm down, man,” Rick replied. “Chrissie spent half of her childhood down here, I’m sure she knows the way.” After a couple of minutes he turned to Chrissie and said; “You do know where to go right?”
“Yes,” she reassured them. “Would you guys stop worrying about it?”
“We’ve been driving for a long time,” Beth added.
Chrissie turned in her seat and looked back at Beth with an expression of disbelief. “It’s The Smokey Mountains; they kind of cover a large area.”
Chrissie went back to staring at the trees outside, which were familiar to her even though it had been nearly six years since she’d last stayed in the old cabin. Feeling the level of uncomfortable silence growing between her friends she decided to try and lighten the mood.
“I can’t believe you convinced my dad to let us see the painting,” she commented to Rick. “He’s never even let me look at it.”
“Are you serious?” Ted asked.
“Yeah, he always said it was too horrifying to let his little girl see it.”
“Has he described it to you?” Beth inquired.
“No, he’s never looked at it either.”
“What?” Ted nearly shouted. “What do you mean?”
“He said he’s seen what it does to people. He’s seen it first hand and he would never set his eyes on something so cursed.”
The silence was back for a moment. Then Rick said; “If he’s so superstitious about it, why doesn’t he sell it. He could make a fortune.”
“My dad is an art collector above all else. According to him, the painting is the greatest treasure in his collection and just having it is enough. He says he doesn’t need to look at it.”
“I’m sorry,” Rick added, “but I was always taught that art was there to be looked at. Great paintings are meant to be enjoyed.”
“Not this one,” Chrissie said with a foreboding note to her voice. She told Rick to turn down an old dirt path off the main road. They followed the path deeper and deeper into the dark woods.
“…so Ms. Stanton just said the hell with it and invited every Tom and Harry Dick in school to her house for a party,” Ted said as they walked through the front door of the cabin.
Chrissie laughed and said; “I think the saying is Tom, Dick, and Harry.”
“Not the way she does it,” Ted finished and the group chuckled together.
Rick looked around the cabin. “Wow! When you said your dad had a cabin in the woods I thought it would be Little House on the Prairie style. This place is amazing.”
“Yeah,” Chrissie said clearly glad to see the house after being away for so long. “C’mon, I’ll show you where the den is.”
The group walked into the den and the first thing that stood out was the wide picture frame that sat on an easel, a black cloth draped over its surface.
“Dad?” Chrissie called out. They heard the sound of a door opening and a few minutes later Clinton Berger walked into the room with an ax in his right hand and fresh firewood tucked under his left arm.
“Ah, you made it,” he said in a jolly tone. He dropped the head of the ax on the floor and leaned the handle against the fireplace, then placed one of the logs on the dwindling fire.
“Hi, Daddy,” Chrissie said as she hugged him around the waist. Ted and Rick glanced at each other and mouthed the word “daddy” with identical looks of disgust, each fully intent on teasing their friend later, when her father wasn’t around.
Chrissie made the introductions and her father studied her friends. “So, you all go to the Herron School of Art there in Indianapolis, uh?”
“Yes, sir?” Rick answered while the other two nodded.
“A fine school,” Clinton pointed out.
The others agreed. A silence set in between them that was only broken when Clinton clapped his hands together. “Well, let’s get on with it, shall we? I’ve brought four folding chairs in from the garage, if you’d all take one, I will start the presentation.”
Chrissie could see by the look on Ted’s face that he wasn’t in the mood for a lesson. Nevertheless, once the four art students were seated, the older man began.
“Now, many have heard the story of Vincent van Gough and the famous ear incident. It is often told that he cut off his ear and gave it to a woman as a token of his love. This is not quite what happened. Van Gough had met another artist named Paul Gauguin who was a companion for some time in the city of Arles in the south of France and later in Montpellier. The two were very close for a time, but something happened that created a rift in their relationship. Many believe this rift was caused by escalating arguments about art. One night, after an intense disagreement, Gauguin walked out on Vincent, but Vincent, unbeknownst to his friend, followed with a razor in his hand. After stalking Gauguin through the streets for some time, van Gough decided he couldn’t commit any kind of violence toward his friend. Instead, he used the razor to cut off his earlobe. Then he wrapped it in newspaper and gave it to a prostitute named Rachel and told her to ‘keep this object carefully’.
“But, what happened next? There is no documentation on what went on after the events of that night. There is, however, a theory, or more of a legend. It is said in the collector’s circles that van Gough returned to his painting that night and created a work of art unlike anything that had ever been seen before or since. He poured all of his sadness, anger, despair, fear, feelings of abandonment, and madness into this one painting. What he saw when he finished was so terrifying that he hid the painting away in the hopes that no one would ever see it again.”
Clinton Berger finished his story and was satisfied to see that his daughter and her friends were enraptured.
“Without further ado, I give you the lost painting of Vincent van Gough.” He pulled the black cloth away and revealed the horror beneath.
Ted began to whimper. He could hear the sound escaping him from the back of his throat. He was scared. The image that was before him drove a cold spike of fear into his psyche like an imaginary ice cycle driven into his brain. He began to shake violently, his eyes burned, his tongue went dry and swelled to twice its normal size and he knew, with absolute certainty that he would die from the painting.
Beth felt abandoned. Tears began to fall from her eyes in fat streams and though her throat had closed up, she wanted to stand up and scream. She wanted to call for them all to come back and beg them not to leave her in this way. She wasn’t even sure who they were.
Rick felt angry. He was angry at his friends, he was angry at his girl, but most of all, he was angry at her father for showing them this thing. This painting that was cursed. A haunted thing with a haunted past that caused his face to blaze red and his veins to pulse and swell.
Chrissie felt the madness. It burned in her like a furnace on the brink of explosion. It seethed in her stomach like a sickness from raw meat. Through the deafening screams of the voices that were echoing and rebounding in her skull, she found the strength to stand up. She found the fortitude to turn away from the painting. She found the insanity to pick up the ax.
Clinton Berger was always amazed at the varying reactions the painting created in those that laid eyes upon it. He would never dare to look on the thing himself for fear of what it might do to him, but the damage it caused was astounding.
Of course, for Chrissie the effect was always the same. He watched as his daughter quietly and calmly stood behind Ted and buried the ax in his skull. The boy fell over and Chrissie pried the ax away, moving now behind Beth. The remaining two seemed to know what was coming, but neither could tear their attention away from the art. Another swing of the ax and Beth lost her head. The silent killer moved behind her boyfriend and her father held up a hand. She stopped at his command.
Clinton Berger walked over and bent to Rick’s ear. “Did you really think I would let you get away with it? I do not respond well to blackmail and now, you and your friends have been made to pay for the notion that I would.”
He stood and nodded to Chrissie. She brought the ax down and created a new part in Ricky’s hair.
As Clinton pulled the three bodies out of the house and, with the help of his daughter, weighed them down with rocks and tossed them into the raging stream near the cabin, he couldn’t help but wonder why Chrissie had had a sudden recollection of the very immoral way her father had acquired the painting or that he had the painting at all for that matter. And he didn’t know why she had let it all slip to her boyfriend. The last body hit the water and he wondered further how many people he had dumped in this same stream with his daughter’s help, each time swearing that it would be the last. Fourteen, Fifteen, he was sure it was less than twenty. Enemies, it seemed, were easier to come by than friends. This time, he didn’t swear to himself he would stop. “Why bother,” he said out loud.
With the dirty work done and the den cleaned he took Chrissie back to the cabin and put her to bed, confident that she would have no memory of the incident in the morning, just like all the other times.
As he shut off her light and retired to his bedroom, Chrissie’s eyes opened and she stared at the moon through her window. She remembered everything.
Clinton Berger came out of his deep sleep to the sound of his daughter’s voice. “Rise and shine sleepy head. It’s time to get up.”
Grogginess swallowed his head and he vaguely had a sense of Chrissie moving behind him. He heard the curtains push open along the rod, but when no sunlight poured in he turned to see why, only to find the lost van Gough staring back at him.
Chrissie backed into the corner of the room and watched her father’s reaction to the painting. A shrill scream erupted from his mouth that no mortal being should ever be capable of emitting. The scream came at a constant pitch and the man never paused for a breath. He just kept on screaming. At the same time, he got off of the bed and backed into the opposite corner of the room. Once there, he kept backing away as if the walls would come down and allow him further escape from the horrific painting. Instead of going through the wall, he began to climb up it, arms and legs bent at an insane angle; he looked like a demented spider crawling inexplicably up to the nook where the walls met the ceiling.
Still, the screaming came. Chrissie held her hands over her ears, but it did little to quiet the madness in the room. She couldn’t take her eyes off of him. He couldn’t take his eyes off of the painting.
Jammed in the nook high up on the walls, her father was still attempting to move further away from the painting. Finally under the pressure of the unmoving walls, there were several snapping and crunching sounds as his arms and legs broke inward. Now his head was shaking back and forth while at the same time jerking up and down and the scream only stopped when his face caved in on itself. Imploding into Clinton Berger’s brain.
In the silence that followed, after her breathing had slowed down, Chrissie could hear an eerie wind blowing through ancient leaves. Carried on this wind was the lonely moan of something long dead yet still hungry. Grasped by a heart stopping terror, she realized the sound came from the painting itself. Being careful not to look, she picked up the black cloth and tossed it over the painting. She picked up the painting from the back of the frame and looked once more to the thing that used to be her father, jammed in the upper corner like a lump of wet clay. Then she left the cabin.
The sun was rising over the mountains and had the situation been different, Chrissie would have stopped in wonder at the breathtaking view from the cabin. Instead, she walked down to the stream and tossed the painting in. With that done, she got in her car and drove away. Her crying didn’t stop until the Smokey Mountains were far behind her.