"The Empty House" is a famous ghost story by the British author Algernon Blackwood. The short story was first collected in the 1906 anthology The Empty House and Other Stories.
In the story, a man accompanies his adventurous aunt to a notorious house where, a century ago, a servant was murdered by her jealous suitor. As the two visitors spend the night exploring the dark, empty rooms, it becomes more and more apparent that the house has not forgotten the old tragedy.
A popular, classic haunted-house story, "The Empty House" can be found in many anthologies.
Jim Shorthouse is asked by his elderly spinster aunt Julia to spend a night with her in a haunted house. The house is an ordinary-looking one in a row of identical houses in the square, but it is said to be so disagreeable that no one will stay in it for long. Julia has heard that the haunting dates back a century to a murder committed by a jealous stableman. The man went upstairs to the servants' quarters during the night, chased a girl downstairs to a landing, and threw her over the banisters.
At half past ten, Shorthouse accompanies his aunt from her house on a walk to the square. They find the house, number 13, halfway up the square. Beginning to feel nervous, Shorthouse fumbles with the key to open the door. They walk into the dark house and the heavy door slams behind them. As the sound echoes through empty halls, they hear a man cough beside them. Suspecting a practical joker, Shorthouse swings his heavy walking stick at the sound. Finding no one there, he strikes a match and lights a candle.
Shorthouse and Julia find themselves standing in a wide hallway with an open door to the left and a broad staircase rising in front of them. They agree to make a thorough search of the house to make sure no one is hiding. They go through the open door into the unfurnished dining room which leads to another unfurnished room. From the inner room, they go out to the back end of the hallway and down the pitch-black service stairs to the kitchen below.
In the gloomy kitchen, beetles scurry and something the size of a cat scampers. The door to the scullery is ajar. They push it open and see a woman standing there, her face white and frozen in terror. Julia screams. The next second, the candle flickers and the figure disappears. Although shaken, Shorthouse quickly dismisses it as an illusion caused by the flickering candlelight. He drags Julia into the cold scullery and makes sure the door into the yard and the windows are fastened. He then leads his aunt upstairs, locking the kitchen door behind them. From the hall, they go up the broad staircase to search the upper floors.
Finding nothing in the double drawing rooms on the first floor, Shorthouse and Julia come back out to the landing. As they begin to go up the stairs, they hear the sound of doors closing from the rooms they just left. They go back into the front drawing room and find the folding doors between the two rooms closed. They open the doors and test them but cannot make them close on their own. Julia whispers "It's beginning." Shorthouse writes down the time, 11:45 pm, and the occurrence in his notebook. Just then, from the inner room comes a sound of rushing feet and Shorthouse comes face to face with a man. The man's face, savage and malignant, is so close that it almost touches Shorthouse. Shorthouse cries out as the candle goes out. Julia grabs him and Shorthouse quickly frees himself to strike a match. To their surprise, they see that the candle was not blown out but instead crushed out, with the wick flattened down into the wax. Shorthouse admires his aunt's self-control as he relights the candle and they resume their search.
After going through the servants' quarters at the top floor, Shorthouse and Julia decide to settle into a small room on the floor just below. The room is said to be where the groom caught the girl after a chase. It is now midnight, and Shorthouse feels something in the room depleting his vital forces. He leaves the door to the landing ajar and positions himself so he can see the main staircase leading down and the servants' stairs going up. Shorthouse and Julia become more and more nervous as they wait. Shorthouse thinks he hears faint sounds of movement downstairs, but cannot figure out exactly where they are coming from. Then suddenly he realizes the sounds are upstairs in the servants' quarters. He glances at his aunt and is shocked to see the change that has come over her. Fear has wiped all other emotions off Julia's face, leaving a vacant and innocent mask which looks eerily young and girlish.
Feeling Shorthouse's stare, Julia comes out of the trance and smiles. Shorthouse takes out the flask and offers her some brandy. He waits a few minutes to let the spirits work then tells her that they must go upstairs to face whatever it is they have come to see. The sounds upstairs are becoming louder, and Shorthouse fears he may not have the strength left to act if they wait any longer. Julia rises beside him, and her courage amazes and inspires him. They cross the landing and begin ascending the narrow staircase. Halfway up the stairs, they hear a crash followed by a scream upstairs. Then someone comes racing down the stairs followed by heavier steps. Shorthouse and Julia hear, but do not see or feel, the two runners pass clean through them. They then hear the lighter, pursued runner enter the small room across the landing followed by the pursuer. After some scuffling noises and a smothered scream, footsteps emerge from the room on to the landing – heavy steps of someone carrying extra weight.
After a brief pause, Shorthouse and Julia hear a thud downstairs on the hall floor. In the silence that follows, Julia cries softly to herself as she walks down the main stairs supported by Shorthouse. They feel someone following them, but they do not dare look back. Without speaking a word, they walk out of the front door into the moonlight.
- Sound files of public domain audiobooks of "The Empty House" from LibriVox:
- "The Kit-Bag"
- A scullery is a secondary kitchen room used mainly for dish washing. It was common in old British homes to have a scullery adjacent to the kitchen and near a water source in the back of the house. The kitchen was dedicated to cooking, and messy kitchen tasks such as meat and vegetable preparation were performed in the scullery. The scullery with its large sinks was also used for laundry work.
- "First floor" in England is equivalent to the second floor in the United States. The street-level floor which is called the first floor in American English is called the ground floor in British English.