DOWNTON ABBEY MEETS LOVECRAFT MEETS NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in Deadtown Abbey.
It is a world few of us have ever known. A world of masters and servants, where everyone knows one’s place. A world of newfangled technology like telephones and motorcars. A world of vampires, werewolves, zombies, and monsters of the deep. At the center of his necropolis estate lives the Earl of Monroe, who must hold the family he loves and the servants he trusts together against the eldritch onslaught of this rapidly changing world.
John Jenkin tried to force his miniature dog snout between the weaved fibers of the wicker basket. There didn’t seem to be a weak spot in the basket anywhere, and it was too dark inside it to see if any part of the walls seemed farther apart than others.
So he started chewing. His rat teeth were able to first make a hole in the wood, then pursue that hole and unweave the twisted fibers within the wood. As he made his way through the first strand, it popped open with a plong and then it was easy to put his dog snout inside and get chewing again. He had been a dog-snouted pentadactyl monkey rat for so long now—he didn’t know how long, but it was certainly longer than a normal rodent could be expected to live—that chewing through the wicker basket seemed like a natural thing to do.
Eventually he made a hole large enough for his coffee-colored, wrinkled body to squeeze through. Then he reared up on his haunches and sniffed at the air, using his rattiness to his advantage: He would follow the smell of the food to where it mixed with the smell of his mother. He had to end her tyranny, and he would do it tonight.
He cleared his throat and slipped into a large open crack in the wall behind one of the cabinets. Now ensconced in the space between the walls, John Jenkin sniffed the air again to gain his bearings, then began threading himself though the hollow spaces of the house, letting his nose lead him towards the dining room.
* * *
They had all finished the soup course before conversation picked back up. As required by his role as host of the evening, Lord Monroe asked Johnny, “Does writing take up all of your time?”
“Well, no, not all of it …”
Lady Monroe smiled and chimed in, “What His Lordship is trying to ask is if you have an occupation that you work at for an income.”
“Talking religion during cocktails, and now money during dinner!?” the dowager countess spurted after a roll of her eyes. “My goodness, shall we discuss politics next? Perhaps Johnny will favor us with a frank account of his personal morning toilet habits!”
That made the family laugh—good ol’ Granny—but Johnny absolutely looked like a gryphon paralyzed by the headlamps of an oncoming motorcar.
“My dear boy, don’t be concerned,” Lord Monroe said. “My mother specializes in seeing the kingdom’s collars starched and its customs rigid.”
Johnny did allow himself a small smile. This Lord Monroe—Cousin George, he reminded himself sternly—was a good man. And he seemed to remain conservative in his spiritual life. He had fairly much said outright that he held the Old Truths as literally true, and kept at arm’s length the new beliefs that had all but supplanted them as a convenient fiction for the upper crust to tell themselves.
“So what do you do for an income, my boy?” Cousin George said, keeping his train of thought on the rails. “I imagine you’ll be too busy as steward of Monroeville Hall one day to keep any outside vocations current.”
“I am kept in food and shelter by membership dues to my organization. The news of this peerage coming to me one day has been quite a stunner, I must say. There are many goals of the organization that could be more efficiently fulfilled if my stipend were not to be necessary any longer,” Johnny said, perhaps for the first time really giving a good look to the majestic dining room and the money it represented. Or perhaps he was imagining this newfound bounty would allow him to make the place into his own version of the Oddfellows Club, drinking wine from the alchemist Isaac Newton’s skull and whatnot.
“Do tell us about this organization!” Maureen said with renewed vigor, which snapped Johnny out of his sudden reverie. “Something that takes your special skills must be fascinating.”
Eleanor’s wattle wagged as she tut-tutted her older sister. “Dear me, Johnny, such an audience must make you feel like a Kemble upon the stage!”
Maureen shot her a nasty glance, which only let Eleanor know she had hit her mark, to extend the theatrical metaphor.
“As much as I would enjoy informing you all about my organization,” Johnny said without irony, “it must remain secret. The first rule of the Order of the Elder Sign is that one does not speak about the Order of the Elder Sign.”
“It sounds intriguing, indeed,” George said.
“Truly?” Johnny said, leaning forwards to look his host in the eyes. “A man such as yourself would be most welcome to join.”
George appeared to ponder this for a moment and said, “Of course, I could not become a member of a group whose tenets are unknown to me.”
This was a serious point, and Johnny treated it as such. He said, “The only requirement for membership in the Order of the Elder Sign is that a current member judges one a good fit for membership.” He had a chuckle when he said this. “I know that’s an awful tautology, but the fact is, Cousin George, that is the only prerequisite. And I adjudge you to be a fine fit for the Order.”
“What is an ‘elder sign’?” Sheryl asked, forgetting her own news for a moment.
“I cannot say outright, Lady Sheryl, but it is a mark of great power to those who serve.” He did not elaborate on what or who would be served, and somehow even Sheryl knew this question would not receive a satisfactory answer.
“It sounds like a jolly good time, my dear boy,” George said with a big smile as he thought of the enjoyable nonsense he himself took part in as a member of the Society of Funny Fools at Eton. “I would be most honored to accept your invitation.”
You could have knocked Johnny Shambley over with a feather—well, he always looked like you could knock him over with a feather, but now he looked like a cripple could knock him over with a particularly unimpressive feather indeed. “That—that is wonderful, Cousin George! To have a peer of the realm in the Order, I—I …”
All those in the dining room, guest and servant alike, froze in position at the sight of the next Lord Monroe crying with happiness at the table.
“Em, should—” Foree began, but then the door swung open and Roger, followed closely by Peter, brought in the fish course. “Ah, very good! Thank you, gentlemen,” he said in real gratitude to the two footmen as they assumed their places to begin serving.
One never used silver to serve fish, so at first Roger didn’t notice anything as he lifted the filets from the tray onto His Lordship’s plate, but a strange gleam bounced off the stainless steel spatula, making Roger flinch and wrench his head about to look at the source of the muted light.
It was the moon. The full moon. This was it. He had wished he could rip these aristocrats limb from limb many times during his tenure at Deadtown Abbey, but he had never intended to do it in reality. But now he would. A shudder went up his spine.
“Roger, are you quite well?” Lord Monroe asked with gentle solicitousness.
The footman, knowing he looked far from “quite well,” gave His Lordship a curt nod that shook beads of cold sweat from his brow.
“I think I know this Order of the Elder Sign,” the dowager countess said, drawing all eyes in the room away from Roger. “It is to do with the Old Religion of the commoners, is it not?”
“Mother, Cousin Johnny has said he—”
“Then why would you ask an earl to join you? If you enjoy dabbling in the slum beliefs of the unenlightened, then please keep such … vulgar perversions to yourself.”
“Mother!” George cried.
“No, there has been altogether too much of this ribald metaphysical adventurism in this county, in this house, in this family!” his mother said in a voice very nearly a shout. “You see a pale man from Romania”—she looked directly at Maureen, who had gotten the odd benediction from Johnny—“and he must be a vampire. You see a hirsute man attack another person under the light of the full moon”—now she looked at Sheryl, whose question about the hounds of Baskerville to its duke had so embarrassed everyone—“and he must be a werewolf. The unsinkable Titanic goes down”—she looked at her son, who maintained it was not an iceberg—“and it must have been a suicide mission because the ship was overrun with zombies, or maybe a giant tentacled monster from the depths grabbed it and dragged it under.”
She was shaking with anger and frustration as she looked at everyone seated at the table in turn. “These are folk beliefs, peasant beliefs, and we of the more refined Christish persuasion do not truck with such animistic, low-class views! The gullible people in this house must know there are no such things as vampires, no such things as werewolves, no such things as sea monsters, and no such thing as zombies!”
Sheryl spoke up almost before her grandmother had completed her tirade: “But there is a Satan personage. There is! I can prove it. I can show you.”
NEXT WEEK: PART 14 — JOHN JENKINS SPEAKS UP
 Or perhaps his dogginess.