I learned to read through ghost stories. My late grandmother filled my bookshelves with children’s tomes packed with cartoonish and playful tales of poltergeist activities, long-gone family members, pets returning to the save lives and historical figures cursed to roam the halls and battlefields of their mortal existences.
My head would hang over these books for hours, taking in fantastic tales of the macabre. I studied intently grainy black and white photos of odd buildings, castles and churches in far off lands, each marked by supernatural phenomenon that chilled my youthful bones.
For the most part, these tales were well scrubbed of actual terror, designed to spark interest in reading rather than drive 6-year old Chris to scream for his mother with every headlight that bounced into his nighttime bedroom.
But there is one story I remember that was truly scary. So much so that I wonder how it was ever deemed suitable for a kid’s book. Maybe it was the fault of some bitter editor who saw himself writing the Great American Novel instead of proofreading “The Ghostly Hand of Fartmiser Castle!” for a second-rate publishing company. Because “The Terror of 50 Berkeley Square, London” could soil the britches of children well past their diaper years. Just thinking about it still sends shivers down my spine to this day.
The house on Berkeley Square is a residence built in the Georgian style popular in the 1700s — a time when London was divided by class lines too broad to bridge. The building stood as a testament to the privileged, while only a few blocks away, London’s poor dwelt in filth, crime and starvation. Occupying one of the city’s chic districts, it has been home to Prime Ministers, socialites and high-ranking military officials. Yet for many decades, the house remained abandoned.
The Berkeley Square story transcends your typical ghost yarn — no white phantoms stalk the hallways, nothing goes bump in the night. Instead, the building houses a terrifying, Lovecraftian presence bent on corrupting all those who live there, dubbed “the Beast.” In the 1800s, a young man dared to spend the night in a bedroom the entity was said to occupy, a challenge he laughed off with blustery confidence. Late in the evening, his associates heard him screaming. Rushing into the bedroom, they found him standing upright, eyes bulging from his head and sweating in panic. The man went into a delirious shock and died shortly thereafter.
Following this incident the house went unoccupied for decades. Empty, maybe, but hardly quiet: some wandering passersby reported screams of lunacy emanating through the thick walls of the vacant estate.
There is a subsequent tale of two sailors taking advantage of England’s “squatter’s law, through which an unoccupied building can be temporarily used as housing by anyone who gained entrance. Shrugging off the paranormal “nonsense” of 50 Berkeley Square, the seamen broke in to spend a night on shore-leave. That same night, one of them was found cowering in a nearby alleyway. He spoke, almost incoherently, of an “oozing” creature that entered the room through a closet door. His last recollection was of the entity “filling the room” as his colleague stood frozen in terror. When the sailor and a local constable returned to the home, they found the other man forcibly impaled on the iron gates below a broken window.
Theories have emerged to debunk this supernatural history: tales of “afflicted” relatives, banished from status-conscious London, returning in confusion to the place of their original confinement. Shunned family members haunt Berkeley Square as much as ghosts: symbols of genetic imperfections in a high society that refused to tolerate any flaws, whether organic or social.
There are other stories of those whose sanity imploded when met with the Berkeley Square Beast — the formless monster that enters unseen and pulls you out of your world and into something much darker and more sinister. Perhaps these tales were invented to keep the vagabonds and Cockneys, and squatters out of Berkeley Square’s general vicinity. Perhaps the Beast of Berkeley Square is the manifestation of the fears of the upper echelon: that the undesirables living mere blocks away could invade their pampered lives and force them to contemplate a truly terrifying world of pain, disease and death.
Those who currently occupy the building (now as an office complex) still speak of strange occurrences: smells, screams and strange mists that fill rooms. Whatever haunts the halls, rooms and minds of 50 Berkeley Square remains a tale of madness and mystery for all ages.