Village of the Walking Dead

Walking-Dead

by Valentine Dyall

The following article appeared in the October 1961 issue of FATE. 

A tall, splendidly garbed stranger rode into the courtyard of the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, on a May morning in 1730, reined-up with a flourish and loudly demanded the way to the rector’s office.

A group of students strolling under the portico turned curious eyes upon the rider. He had the lean, elegant features of an aristocrat, the proud yet easy bearing of a soldier. His voice was deep and cultured, but the accent foreign.

What could such a man want with the rector? This was no scholar — his very presence seemed to shatter the academic tranquility.

One of the students advanced and bowed politely.

“The rector is not here, Sir. He is ill. But I will take you to the offices.” The stranger nodded and dismounted. The student stepped nearer and added: “If you will tell me your name, and the nature of your business here…?”

But the visitor was not to be drawn so easily. “Just take me to the offices, lad,” he said curtly. “I will explain myself there.”

The youngster flushed and, striving to ignore the soft laughter of his companions, led the way across the courtyard. Minutes later, after sharp exchanges with clerks and minor officials, the stranger was ushered into the office of the university librarian.

The small, elderly figure behind the huge desk in the mid­dle of the room rose and greeted his anonymous caller in a mild, piping voice, “I’m at your service, sir, whoever you are …”

The stranger hesitated, looking all about him — at the shelves packed tight with volumes of every size and description, at the maps of remote, newly discovered lands which draped one wall, and the jumble of scientific papers that littered the librarian’s desk. Then he drew himself up, bowed stiffly and said, “I am the Count de Cadreras. My home is in Austria, but I am spending some time in your country, and I have heard that here a scholar’s mind remains free and open — not ruled by church or state. Is this true?”

The old man stared for a moment, taken aback by the directness of the question. Then he nodded, “Yes — it is quite true, Count.”

“Very well, then.”

The Count strode to the desk, brushed books and papers to one side, dipped a quill in ink and handed it to the startled librarian.

An Amazing and Terrible Story

“I have a story to tell — an amazing and terrible story, but a true one. I will give you the facts, and you can write them down. If they are properly recorded, perhaps one day men will find a natural explanation.”

He spoke urgently and with obvious sincerity. The old man took the pen and sat down without protest.

For the next two hours the only sounds in the room were the drone of that deep, guttural voice, the scratching of the quill — and an occasional gasp from the librarian.

The Count’s story was set down exactly as it fell from his lips — in blunt, matter-of-fact phrases. The completed, signed manuscript was left in the University’s keeping — but from that day to this no natural solution has been found to the grim problem it posed.

Through the intervening centuries the Cadreras manuscript has led many investigators to comb the museum archives of Austria and half a dozen other countries. A wealth of documentary evidence has been unearthed to corroborate, down to the smallest detail, the mystifying, terrifying tale of “the village of walking dead.”

The facts are placed beyond all doubt by the number and rank of the witnesses supporting Cadreras — eminent lawyers and theologians, Austria’s foremost surgeons and physicians, a host of distinguished army officers and various personal emissaries of the Emperor Charles VI.

Fraud is inconceivable; what could such a large and diversified company possibly hope to gain by confirming the weird reports of superstitious peasants and soldiery? Indeed, they had everything to lose by incurring the wrath of outraged religious leaders and an incredulous Emperor.

Reliable Testimony

It is difficult to imagine how more reliable testimony is to be obtained of any event of the past. Working from translations of the original documents, and guided by the writings of the Rev. Montague Summers, a 20th-Century Englishman and prominent occult investigator who carried out meticulous research into the affair, I have built up this picture of the horror that threw a nation into panic and despair.

In 1720, the Austrian Empire of the Hapsburgs was going through a period of comparative calm after nearly two centuries of almost continuous wars — mainly with Turkey and France. Military leaders took advantage of the breathing space to build up the army to maximum strength, ready for an early renewal of fighting.

Joachin Hubner, a young man from Vienna, was one of many thousands of newly trained troops concentrated that year in the southeastern provinces. In June he found himself billeted with a family of farming folk in the lonely village of Haidam, close to the Hungarian frontier.

Joachin thought himself lucky. In mid-summer the countryside was beautiful and duties were light. His billet was comfortable, the food was good, and he was treated as one of the family. He was a man of simple needs and easy contentment, and rural life suited him so well that he swore he never wanted to see the city again.

After dinner one evening, while the women of the household were at work in the kitchen, Joachin lingered at the table drinking wine and talking with his host and the farmer’s 15-year-old son. It had been an exceptionally hot day and now the main door had been opened wide to catch the cool breezes which sprang up with the dusk.

The host was telling a tale of his youth, laughing merrily, when suddenly a shadow fell across the table. Instantly the farmer stiffened, stopped in mid-sentence and stared towards the door with glazed eyes. Joachin and the boy were sitting together with their backs to the door. Simultaneously they turned their heads to see who had entered.

Standing just inside the room was an old man. Untidy locks of snow-white hair surmounted a deeply wrinkled, rather vacant face. Large, watery eyes blinked at them and a gnarled hand was raised in customary greeting.

Fear, Amazement, and Infinite Sorrow

At first sight of the newcomer, the boy stiffened as his father had done scant seconds before and sat like one in a trance. Joachin was puzzled — the old fellow seemed a harmless, even pathetic figure.

“What’s the matter?” the soldier asked after a long silence. But he got no answer.

The old man shuffled forward to the table and lowered himself into a chair. The farmer and his son continued to stare fixedly at him, and Joachin noticed that both their faces held the same expression — one he had never seen before. At once he could read the signs of fear, amazement, and a deep, infinite sorrow.

For several minutes they sat in silence, the four of them. From the kitchen there drifted the cheerful chatter and laughter of the women of the house, and the clatter of dishes. Somewhere outside a dog barked and a cart rumbled by. But in the main room nobody spoke and nobody moved.

At length Joachin, bewildered and embarrassed, tried to break the spell. Self-consciously he muttered a welcome and pushed the wine jug towards the old man.

The visitor did not seem to notice the gesture: he remained silent for fully a minute more, then suddenly stretched one hand across the table and touched the farmer’s shoulder.

For the first time the host moved. He slumped forward, buried his face in his hands and drew a deep, heartrending sigh. A moment later the old man got up and slowly walked out into the deepening twilight.

Joachin went to the door and watched him cross the road and disappear among the lengthening shadows in the village square. When he turned back, the farmer had raised his head: great tears were rolling down his face.

“What ails you?” Joachin demanded. “What does all this mean?”

But still no one answered him. The farmer got to his feet, stumbled across the room and up the stairs to his bedroom. The boy watched him go, then suddenly gave a loud cry and rushed into the kitchen.

Joachin heard him talking excitedly, but the words were lost in a chorus of feminine shrieks and a crash of breaking crockery. Then all the womenfolk, wide-eyed and gasping, came scurrying across the room and, led by the excited youth, charged upstairs.

The young soldier stood at the bottom of the stairs, listening to a growing commotion — wails, moans and sobbing. He started to climb the steps, but changed his mind. The cause of the alarm was probably some family problem, some intimate affair that was none of his business.

Having no wish to intrude, he shrugged off his curiosity and slipped away to spend the evening at the village inn. When he returned at midnight the house was in darkness and all was quiet. He went to bed and, heavy with wine, soon fell into a deep sleep.

In the morning he was awakened by the sound of women crying. Hurrying from his room, he almost collided with the farmer’s son. The youth was carrying a wreath.

“What has happened?” Joachin asked.

“My father is dead.” The boy’s voice was flat and his expression was strangely listless.

Joachin was amazed. The farmer had been a robust, vigorous man in the prime of life.

“B-but how can that be? Only last…” And then he broke off, remembering the peculiar episode he had witnessed. “That old man — what had he to do with this?”

The lad regarded him in silence for several seconds, then answered in the same impassive tones, “That old man was my grandfather — my father’s father.”

“Yes? Well, I don’t see what that has to do with it.”

“No?” Into the boy’s eyes there crept a strange and dreadful light. “My grandfather has been dead and buried for 10 years,” he said.

Summoned to the Grave

Within the hour the fantastic tale had spread throughout the village and the surrounding countryside. Joachin told his comrades, and they repeated it to their officers and the families with whom they were billeted. The old man, it was said had come back “to summon his son to the grave.”

Two days later an angry general ordered an official inquiry into “this wicked rumor that causes such perturbance among the troops and citizens…” To supervise the investigation he chose the commander of a corps of Alandetti Infantry — the Count de Cadreras.

Accompanied by an experienced Army surgeon, a notary and several other officers, the Count journeyed to Haidam and set up headquarters in the small church there. Joachin Hubner was interrogated throughout the whole of one day, then a sworn deposition was taken from each member of the dead man’s household.

At the end of it all the investigators, deeply impressed, unanimously decided that the old man’s body should be exhumed. Without delay they went out into the little churchyard. Before a silent crowd of villagers and troops, the coffin was taken up and opened…

The army physician gave a startled cry as he bent over the body — the old man who had been buried 10 years ago looked as though he had been dead only a few hours….

The more nervous onlookers turned and hurried to their homes, and the others stood huddled together, some distance from the graveside, as the surgeon took a knife and pricked a vein in the corpse’s arm. Warm, red blood trickled from the wound.

Dead Yet Alive

“Incredible,” breathed the surgeon. “He is dead — and yet alive. As they say a vampire endures.”

“Then I suggest we deal with him as a vampire,” the Count said grimly. “Drive a stake through the heart and strike the head from the body.”

The other investigators nodded. None of them believed in the existence of vampires but there seemed nothing else to do. There could be no denying that somehow the old man’s body had become reanimated and they must take each and every precaution to ensure that it did not happen again…

The gruesome operation was duly carried out and the corpse was laid back in its grave. The villagers and soldiers sighed with relief, satisfied that it would rise no more.

The Count’s report, countersigned by the other investigators, so startled the general that he forwarded it to the highest army tribunal. The tribunal, equally astounded, sent it to the Emperor.

A few weeks later Cadreras was ordered to present himself at court. For hours on end Charles VI sternly questioned him, going over every point of the story, plainly striving to trap him into some contradiction.

Failing to shake the Count’s testimony, Charles ordered him to return to the village accompanied by a Royal Commission. There was no mistaking the veiled threat. If the second investigation did not yield the same results, Cadreras and his colleagues would be punished.

A Terrifying New Mystery

The learned members of the Commission made no effort to conceal their scepticism during the journey to Haidam, and the Count must have wondered whether, at this late date, he would be able to convince them of the truth. But he need not have worried: waiting for them now was a mystery infinitely more terrifying than the first.

Entering the village, they found many houses abandoned, others barred and shuttered. Although it was broad daylight the streets were empty. At the army post they found only the officers and a handful of men — the bulk of the troops had deserted.

From those who still remained they heard a story of death and horror — a living nightmare that had driven whole families raving mad and sent villagers and soldiers fleeing in terror into the open country.

Witness after witness, some half-crazed and gibbering with fear, others stunned and grief-stricken, attested on oath that they had been visited by long-dead relatives. And on each occasion, a villager had died within a few hours.

Haidam, they swore, was besieged by “an army of corpses.” Each evening, as the sun began to set, the churchyard gave up its dead. All night long corpses stalked the streets, trying to get into the houses where they had once lived.

Loathsome Harbingers

And when the barred doors and windows denied them entrance, the ghastly invaders often cried aloud the names of their victims — with the same terrible effect. In all, the loathsome harbingers had taken 21 people, of all ages, back to the churchyard with them.

The Commissioners did not wait for dusk to bring visual proof. They made a list of all the “walking dead” and ordered the graves to be opened immediately. Each body was found in the same remarkable state of preservation as that of the old man had been weeks before. By unanimous agreement the same grim ceremony was performed.

Dusk was falling as the last of the “exorcised” coffins was replaced in its grave. In the sanctuary of the church, villagers, soldiers and investigators waited tensely — but nothing stirred. The “army of corpses”‘ had been routed forever.

Accusations of Witchcraft and Necromancy

In the years that followed the story became so garbled and confused that Cadreras frequently found himself the subject of derision, angry criticism, and even, on occasion, accusations of witchcraft and necromancy. He appealed to the royal court to issue some public statement which would save his reputation and make the facts clear. But the Emperor, on the advice of religious leaders and statesmen, remained silent. It was feared that any such proclamation would cause a renewal of the panic that had swept the nation at the time of the occurrences — and which had led to the desecration of hundreds of cemeteries in country districts.

So the Count de Cadreras became a social outcast…and then an exile. Ten years after the sensational events, he presented himself at Fribourg University to set down the plain, unadorned facts, determined to preserve his honor at least in the eyes of later generations.

Long after his death researchers, intrigued by the Fribourg document, tracked down the signed reports of the Royal Commissioners who had accompanied him on that last visit to Haidam and found irrefutable confirmation. But it was in vain that they sought some explanation in keeping with the laws of nature as we know them.

Today we have reviewed the evidence — “sensible, circumstantial and complete,” to quote Montague Summers’ assessment of it in The Vampire in Europe. Can this age of enlightenment provide a likely answer to the riddle?

Or do you accept the supernatural explanation — that a legion of ghosts, with all the vitality and “solidity” of the living, returned from the tomb to claim their kinsmen as companions in death?