The Silent Symphony, by Sam Gafford

Art by Peter Szmer – – click to enlarge

The Diary of Dr. Edward Burke.

March 11, 1846.

Ardraham, Ireland.

After many long months of negotiation, Robinson House is now mine. Although some minor repairs are still needed, I feel it will be the perfect location for my sanitarium. I plan on moving in tomorrow and beginning set-up. The house is almost perfectly constructed for my needs with many large, open rooms and even a solarium where patients can receive light therapy. Arrangements have already been made and the first cases will arrive next week. I am as eager as a school boy! At last I can begin my great work and hopefully bring some peace to these wretched people.

If I have any regrets, it is that I will no longer be near any music. I had grown accustomed to attending the symphonies in Edinburgh and was a frequent guest at the opera. I fear that the remoteness of this location makes such luxuries impossible now. Still, it is important for the ease and comfort of the patients. They must have quiet and, if my theories are true, bucolic and natural surroundings. Thankfully, there is a piano in the main hall of Robinson House which I am retaining and I plan to make good use of it. I confess that, at times, I still feel the pull of music upon my soul. Were it not for my father’s influence, I would have been very content to be a pianist and a composer. But I must not complain. After all, it was his money that paid for my education at the University of Scotland and has allowed me to set up my own sanitarium here in Ireland. He has great hopes that I will distinguish myself in the medical field and I must not disappoint him.

Of the house itself, I have only visited it once and immediately pronounced it perfect for my needs. It is a bit older than I would have liked, built around 1815, but the rooms are large and airy and, most importantly, it is has a splendid view of the ocean. I admit, being on a cliff has given me pause but the sea is a powerful balm and I plan to exploit it.

Tomorrow, I take possession! If only I can manage to sleep tonight!

March 12, 1846

Robinson House

Kraighten, Ireland

At last I am here! I arrived early this morning and was met by the estate agent who, muttering apologies, made a quick retreat after the final signing of papers and transfer of keys. With trembling hands, I unlocked the front door and walked inside.

The rooms were supposed to have been cleaned prior to my arrival but they have not been. A thick layer of dust and cobwebs lies over everything. I shall have to go into town in the morning to arrange for a cleaning staff. The nursing staff I have already recruited and will be here within five days. Perhaps, in my eagerness, I have planned things too closely but I could not wait any longer.

The plan is simple. There will be a dormitory for the patients and a separate one for the staff. A kitchen and a dining hall are already present but need a thorough cleaning. My rooms and office will be on the top floor and the furniture has remained from the previous owners.

As I walked up the main stairs, the sounds of my footsteps echoed dully through the rooms. I could have believed that I was the last person on Earth at that moment. But, with a joyful tune playing in my head, I went to my rooms, flung open the huge bay windows and let the sea wind blow through me. Within moments, I felt relaxed and comfortable. I was home.

The rest of the day was spent cleaning and organizing. I hope to hire some of the local men as grooms and groundskeepers. If nothing else, they will be glad of the money and the work as this is a woefully poor area. The village of Kraighten is pitifully small but within travel distance of the town of Ardrahan which is connected to civilization by a railway station. I curse myself for not thinking of having the estate agent arrange all this before my arrival but it is just as well. I prefer to choose my staff myself rather than relying on others. I have very specific needs.

I am tired and there was no one here to provide me with dinner. The night is cold and dark but it is only the night, after all. The wind off of the ocean blows around the house and makes odd noises. I laid in bed and listened to them for over an hour to the point where I could swear that they were notes in some unearthly melody.

When I go into town tomorrow, I must get a carpenter to prepare new signs for the building. I am having the old ones removed and have decided to rename the house, “Elysium Fields”.  There is so much I want to do here that it feels as if my body cannot contain my ambitions any longer.

March 13, 1846

Elysium Fields

I am not happy with today’s results.

After stopping at the local inn for some breakfast, I let it be known that I had just taken residence at Robinson House and was looking to hire house and garden staff. I was met with stares and unenthusiastic responses. After some time, I was begrudgingly told to call at the Rectory and that they ‘might’ be able to help me.

The Rector himself, an argumentative sort named Samuel Lumbdon Brown, did not receive me happily. I informed him of my intention to open a sanitarium in the old house and felt that the old man was about to expire from an epileptic fit.

“That would be most unwise, sir,” the Rector said. “The house has been empty for some time now and should remain so. Bringing the mentally disadvantaged here would only exacerbate their condition.”

I shook my head. “Surely you aren’t going to tell me that the house is haunted now? I mean, really?”

“No, nothing like that. You’ll find no ghosts or spirits at Robinson House. But the ground itself is sour. Best to leave it alone and go away. You were a fool to buy the place, sir.”

I continued to press him for details but none would come. In the end, my persistence resulted only in the Rector’s agreement to send over a cook, three maids, and several grounds men but their price was higher than I had anticipated. Still, I had no choice but to agree as the Rector well knew.

The staff arrived promptly, if not happily, a few hours later and soon Elysium Fields was bustling with activity. Rooms were aired out and cleaned while dust was swept away. Several men had arrived from the railroad with my shipments of medical beds and equipment and I quickly had them moving and installing them. One of the men the Rector sent was a Mr. Martyn who, despite a gruff and unpleasant manner, soon proved himself so capable of managing the workers that I instantly made him foreman. This promotion brought no further joy to Martyn who merely nodded and shook my hand in a perfunctory way.

The carpenter arrived, quickly removed the building’s signs and promised to return promptly with the replacements. Despite the amount of money I was spreading around freely in the town, I felt that my presence was not appreciated. My money, however, was still accepted.

Everyone left before the sun went down. The new cook, having cleaned, filled, and overhauled the kitchen, served me an excellent Irish stew before she, too, left. I ate in the solarium, watching the sun set over the ridge of the ocean.

Tonight, I am still alone in the house but feel more comfortable between clean sheets and blankets. The wind is not as strong tonight and soon there will be activity aplenty here.

I miss the sound of the music that the wind made. I miss music.

March 16, 1846

Elysium Fields

Much work has been done over the last several days and the sanitarium has finally taken shape. The nursing staff arrived today and is settling into their new accommodations. There are nine so that there will always be at least three of them on duty. The oldest and most experienced is a Mrs. Creighton who came with excellent references. I interviewed her in Dublin before heading here and she has established an excellent staff.  All have worked in previous mental wards and knew what they would be facing. Tomorrow, I will meet with them and give them their instructions. It is vital they understand this is an entirely ‘new’ method of treatment I am developing. I am following in the footsteps of Phillippe Pinel and William Tuke, who so bravely restored humanity to the treatment of mental illness, but I will be taking the approach even further. I plan to include nature, as well as nurturing techniques into my methods, and I am confident that these measures will lead us to new cures for insanity.

I know that my treatment will work. I know that it has to work.

I played the piano in the main hall for over two hours today until my fingers were bleeding.

I must have music.

March 20, 1846

Even in these enlightened days, the mentally ill are considered to be little more than human waste. It is hard to believe that the Lunacy Act was only passed a year ago. Still, in that year some advancement has been made. They are finally designated as ‘patients’ where, up to last year, they were classified as ‘inmates’. And it was as inmates that they were treated.

I, myself, witnessed many examples of depravity concerning the ‘treatment’ of the mentally ill. There are still tales arising from the black hole known as Bedlam Hospital. I have seen patients chained, naked, to the floor or walls, wallowing in their own filth and left to starve. Beatings were frequent and common. These poor people were considered to be ‘sub-human’ and not worthy of any basic human rights either morally or under the law. Crematoriums and cemeteries were frequent destinations in these barbaric places. It was generally considered that if one entered a lunatic asylum, one did not leave alive. For this reason, some families kept their afflicted at home, confined to either attics or basements. The outcomes were no better in these cases.

Beating the patient is no cure for insanity. These wretched souls do not choose this condition. Rather, it is thrust upon them in much the same way that their height and the color of their hair or eyes is determined before birth. I know this is true but I maintain hope that, within each insane patient, there is a sane mind waiting to be freed. I simply have to reach it.

The first of my patients arrived today.

I shall designate him in my journal here simply as ‘Patient X’. Like all of the patients that will be here at Elysium Fields, he was specially chosen by me. In order for my treatment to work at this stage, the patients must have certain criteria. They must, of course, not be catatonic or raving. Much of my treatment depends upon being able to engage with the patients both verbally and mentally. Also, I take care to avoid violent cases both for their safety and that of my staff. There was a particularly promising patient that I had to refuse because of his propensity for sexual violence against women. Still, taking from hospitals across the British Isles, I have accepted 35 new cases.

I wonder if, perhaps, I chose Elysium Fields unconsciously because of its remoteness. As I isolate the patients from their madness, am I not also isolating society from them?

Patient X is the son of a prominent English family who is paying well for his ‘stay’ here. At the age of 14, X exhibited extreme fluctuations in mood and habits. He would be gregarious and highly energetic one minute and then deeply depressed and suicidal the next. He has, in fact, attempted suicide several times. His family has kept X sheltered after he was asked to leave Oxford under dubious circumstances. His official diagnosis has been “chronic melancholia”. When I first met X, we spent some time discussing his past and our mutual love of music. He is a surprisingly intelligent and sensitive man who feels his illness most acutely.

X has free use of the sanitarium’s grounds and I plan to meet with him at least once a day to record his thoughts. Perhaps there is a pattern to his madness. It is truly a shame that he has no musical talent as I would have dearly welcomed an accompanist.

The cook has informed me that two of the maids have already quit, citing some unnamed fear. They were young girls, so perhaps that is not surprising, and I have already been promised that replacements will be sent. Martyn has whipped the grounds into a delightful shape and has proven to be extremely useful in many other ways. Although he seems of limited intelligence, I doubt he has ever read a book or even has the ability to read, he has natural skills with landscaping and construction. He seems to know some of the history of this place but has not spoken of it. When I can, I must question him more intently. If the townspeople have prejudices against this place, I cannot allow it to harm my patient’s state of mind.

I have spent most of the day whistling a tune that I do not recognize.

March 23, 1846

Mrs. Creighton reports that several of the nurses, particularly on the night shift, are complaining of unsettling noises. When pressed, they cannot describe what these noises actually are but one stated it was like hearing a song from a great distance. One is not aware of the exact notes, but the music impresses upon the mind. I’ve explained that they are most likely simply hearing the sound of the wind sweeping in around the house. They are pleasant girls but of limited intelligence. But if they are restless, they will make the patients restless as well, so I will have to have Mrs. Creighton monitor their moods carefully.

March 26, 1846

I’ve had a very unsettling conversation with Martyn which I feel the need to record here before I forget the particulars.

He’d spent most of the day having the workmen clear the ivy that clung very thickly to the entire left side of the house and revealed a very nasty crack in the outer wall. Martyn had me come outside to inspect the crack and informed me it would be best if none of the rooms on that side of the building be used while they repaired it.

That was the area containing the nurse’s dormitory and they would simply have to make do in another room for the month or so until it was fixed. I told him I’d inform the nurses and that he should get a carpenter or someone from the village to help out but he scoffed at my suggestion.

“No use in trying that,” he said. “Ain’t none of them that’ll come near this house once they see this. And everyone thought old William was just mad but here it is; a crack in the house as big as life.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

Martyn looked at me. “I guess no one’s told you yet then. The last owner of this place, William Cross, killed himself and his sister here in the house. Blunderbuss to the head. This was about ten years ago now, I suppose. None of us were really surprised. He’d always been a bit tetched in the head, you know? Saying he kept hearing things and that something was trying to get at him through a crack in the house. We always figured he was just a nutter but here it is. Wait until the lads hear about this.”

“Wait,” I said, “he killed himself and his sister? Why did he do that?”

“Ah, well, no one really knows that but he was one of those fellows who always felt something’s after them. He was a little guy but always itching for a fight. You know, some people just aren’t fit for living out so far from people. It does things to them.”

“Are you saying that he and his sister are haunting Elysium Fields?”

He laughed. “Nah, nothing like that. You want to see a ‘real’ haunted house? There’s a place I know over in Ardrahan that’s full of spirits. It’s a pub!” Martyn walked away, laughing.

I remembered the Rector saying how the ground was ‘sour’.

I’ve explained to the nurses that the crack in the wall likely caused the sounds that were disturbing them but they seemed to take little comfort in my words. One mentioned that the dormitory was the one room in which they had not heard any odd noises.

The new signs are finally up and the remaining patients are arriving. I have to get to work. There is still much to be done. Patients have to be seen. Treatment procedures finalized and distributed. But all I can think of is that crack in the house and a man who shot himself and his sister to death. Perhaps in the same room where I am now writing this journal.

I long for the serenity of the symphony.

March 30, 1846

The construction has continued although Martyn has had to send to Ardrahan for workers. He was right in that none of the locals would agree to do it no matter what I offered. It didn’t stop them from coming by and looking at the crack in the wall though. More than one time I had to have people escorted from the grounds so that they would not disturb the patients.

For their part, the patients have not all settled in as well as I had hoped. Some of them seemed greatly disturbed at the isolation out here and have refused to sleep at night. They have kept the night staff running and I’ve received numerous complaints from them. I may have to add some sort of sleep medicine to these patients’ routine, although I have been loath to use any medicines so far. I want their cures to be based entirely on nature. Still, if I cannot establish calm, their treatments will suffer.

I have discovered, to my amazement, that some of the patients have stated they have a little skill in music and have ordered instruments to be delivered. I cannot believe I had not considered adding some sort of music therapy already. Truly, the peace I have found through music may enable me to reach them as well. If for nothing else, it will remove the all-encompassing silence that has begun to wear upon me. Other than an occasional scream from a patient, Elysium Fields is as quiet as a cemetery.

April 3, 1846

Ever since I was a child, music has been my passion. My mother died when I was only five and my father was, at best, ‘otherwise engaged’. That left me mostly in the care of my tutors who generally did their jobs in an able, but perfunctory, manner. All except for my music tutor, Miss Simons. It was she who opened up the world of music to me and showed me how to use it when I was scared or frightened or lonely. She made my childhood bearable especially during my dark turns. When she left to get married I was eleven, and devastated. But, as she taught me, I used music to calm myself. It became my center, my focus. Eventually, I could write in music as easily as I wrote English. I could compose entire symphonies in my head and carried them with me wherever I went.

When my father refused to allow me to study music at the conservatory (or anywhere else, for that matter) my mind turned to medicine instead, but not to the study of the diseases of the body. I wanted to understand the mind and why it worked the way it did. I’d hoped it would lead to a better understanding of mental illness and why I am the way that I am.

The work with the patients goes much slower than I had anticipated. Perhaps it was foolish of me to expect quick results but, for some of them, their confinements have covered decades and they have become conditioned to their former states. I have seen such reactions before in war veterans who, years later, still jump at loud noises and in some conditions believe they are back in their war. If I have to heal these wounds first, I may never get to the root of their illnesses.

Patient X is my only successful case so far. His response to the natural light and open grounds has had an invigorating effect and his episodes of manic depression are becoming less intensive. Still, he had an attack today which worried me. I had been walking through the solarium, humming some nonsense tune that has been stuck in my mind this past week when X, upon hearing me, became violent. It took several of the grounds workers to restrain X. As much as it pained me, I had to isolate X in a separate room where we bound him to the bed. I gave him a powerful dose of morphine but he was so disturbed that it took some time for it to have any effect.

What disturbed me the most were his screams.

Before he finally fell unconscious, his yells were only sounds, no words. It was more of a pulse, really. And it followed the same cadence and tonality as the music I had been absently humming. This was music never written down or heard by anyone else. But the screams took the tune further than I had hummed and, this is the unsettling portion, his additions to the score beyond what I had hummed were absolutely correct.

April 7, 1846.

The instruments arrived yesterday but all hopes I’d had of putting together any type of orchestra or even a quartet have been dashed. The patients who had professed some proficiency in such have either been lying or it’s part of their delusion. They are about as proficient with the instruments as the average sheep dog. In addition, each of them has been exhibiting high levels of paranoia. At the slightest hint of any music, they fly into the most pitiful spells. Several of them have even caused themselves harm. One unfortunate patient was able to grab a pencil from an unsuspecting nurse and plunged it into his own ear. I have no idea if there is any brain damage at this point. I have had to ban all music from Elysium Fields for the time being which is causing me immeasurable pain.

I feel my depression growing daily. Nothing is going as I had planned. We have gone through still more maids and even some workmen. They complain that there is something wrong with the patients. But that is nothing more than the fear of the unhealthy. The Rector came to visit today and voiced concerns over the already frequent turnover and warnings that the village only had so many young women who would agree to come to Elysium Fields. I fear that I was less than welcoming and perhaps impolitely requested that the asylum here was not his concern. The man has come to annoy me greatly and I am beginning to hate the sight of his ignorant face. He has no right to come here and tell me how I should handle my inmates. Pompous fool!

The crack on the side of the building refuses all attempts to repair it. As soon as the stone is mended, it splits again. In fact, it has even grown. Martyn states that the wing may be a total loss and recommends that it be torn down and rebuilt but I sense he is only trying to get more money from me. I would not be surprised if he is sending his mongrel friends during the night to undo the previous day’s work. Perhaps I should stay awake one night so that I can catch them in the act and settle the matter with my blunderbuss. I carry it with me regularly now as brute force is the only thing that these locals seem to understand or obey.

I am tired. So tired. Father writes nearly every day asking for updates. His contempt for me is barely veiled in his letters. He writes of others making medical discoveries in diseases and anatomy and the petty cures of the mediocre. How I pray for his death!

The nurses report that the troublesome inmates are now sleeping at night due to the evening dose of morphine I have been dealing out. In this, at least, I have been successful. Someday, others will agree that a good night’s sleep is an important factor in curing mental illness. If only my sleep were so easily delivered.

There is a strong wind blowing off of the ocean tonight. I have ordered all of the windows opened to allow the zephyr to run through the house. Mrs. Creighton has reported that several of the inmates and nurses have complained of the unnaturally cold air. The nurses have been disciplined and the inmates secured to their beds without benefit of blankets. If they complain again, I will have both them and their beds stripped.

April 8, 1846.

I fear that I may be going mad myself. I have no recollection of writing the previous day’s entry and am shocked and appalled at the venom and viciousness that drip from every word. In opposition of everything that I hold dear and my theory of treatment of the mentally ill, I note that I have referred to the sanitarium as an ‘asylum’, a word I despise, and to the patients as ‘inmates’. Everyone is walking around me very quietly today and I am afraid to inquire if I really ordered the patients to be lashed to their beds and stripped naked. I’m afraid of what the answer might be.

April 15, 1846.

A patient is dead. I can write no more right now as I cannot bear the guilt that I suffer from this matter. I have started a cemetery in the far corner of the lawn, overlooking the ocean. The Rector refused to officiate so I read some verses from the Bible as Martyn and I laid him to rest. I have not informed the patient’s parents yet. I may not.

I have been pushed to these lengths.

April 20, 1846.

I will have music, damn you all! If I have to, I will force you all to sing or scream or make whatever noises I choose but there will be music! I have been developing my plan slowly but now I can see it spread out before me. Over the last three days, I have shut myself up in my rooms, only taking food and wine as needed, and composed my symphony. Each has their part to play and they will play it, damn their eyes! I have already lost one instrument due to its being imperfect and flawed. X is the key even though he does not know it. He will be the center of the symphony. Everything is built around him. I have kept him heavily medicated since the events of the 15th. His faculties are limited but he is now extremely susceptible to suggestion. I will teach him the score and, together, we will build the orchestra that I need. Skill with physical instruments is no longer necessary. All they have to do is think their parts in perfect synchronization. I have no idea what will happen when we perform the piece but I am eager to find out. I have strange thoughts whenever I play the music in my head.

I told Martyn several days ago to leave the crack in the house alone. Then I fired both him and his men. I have no further need for them now. The blunderbuss never leaves my side in case they decide to return in the night, or should I need it to restore discipline as I did on the 15th. I may fire the nurses as well, although they follow their orders well enough now. They do double duty as maids as all of those sullen cows have deserted the house. Mrs. Creighton protested at first but since her permanent detention in the left wing she has not complained.

The crack reaches almost to the roof of the house now.

April 23, 1846.

The pounding in my head will not cease no matter how much morphine I take. I cannot sleep and I see strange things that I scarcely dare to believe are real. Something visits me in the night and hums my symphony into my brain.

April 25, 1846.

I am nearly ready although I am continually frustrated by having to deal with such inferior instruments. They resist me at every stage and require frequent ‘encouragement.’ Still, I have separated them into their proper stations with strings, winds and brass sections. I have taught X the entire score but only in parts. I fear what might happen should he give voice to the entire symphony at one time, and for good reason.

I held a rehearsal yesterday and the results were chaotic. Several were woefully out of sync but perhaps that is to be expected when the music is entirely silent. I use metronomes to keep the time and have them running in several spots throughout the room. X led the orchestra and, as they moved through the first movement, I could feel the music form around me. It swirled silently through the sanitarium and I closed my eyes in glorious exultation. In my mind, I sensed something opening. A gateway, in the center of winding colors appeared to me and widened as I focused on it. There was something else beyond it, something that was beckoning to me, urging me onward and the same music as my symphony was oozing outwards towards me.

Then I heard the loud crack break through their concentration. Everyone stopped.

I screamed in frustration and the orchestra flinched away from me in fear. Furious, I bounded outside and saw that the crack in the side of the house had gotten even larger. It was now so profound that I could almost see through the inner wall into the old dormitory where Mrs. Creighton lay unseeing.

It is close now.


I do not know what day this is or how long it has been since my last entry.

X is dead. Last night, I think it was last night, we performed the entire symphony. All four parts. X conducted the orchestra although now I know that it was a mistake to use him. He was too heavily medicated. The morphine had poked holes in his mind and he stumbled and paused during the Adagio. When they reached the third movement, the man was already dead but stood, unseeing, and still conducting. The wind seemed to hold him up and supported him as his arms moved.

Before me, the opening swirled and I could hear the house groaning and moaning like a patient dying upon the table. But, just as the orchestra entered the fourth movement, the wind fell and so did X. With an audible gasp, the opening closed and the performance was over.

X was not strong enough. The conductor must live through the entire symphony for it to work. Nothing else is acceptable. For this to conclude, I must conduct the orchestra myself. Only my brain can withstand it long enough to make it to the finish. Several of the instruments are cracked now and drooling but they can be easily removed from the score without any great sacrifice.

I will try again tonight and I will finish! I will know what it is that beckons to me through that portal and why I am compelled to let it through. Why do I get images of my mother being beaten to death by my father when I hear this music? Why did I never hear from Miss Simons again after she left to get married? Why am I always filled with such rage?

The clouds over the ocean are heavy and dark. There is a storm approaching and the wind is picking up speed. All the nurses have fled but they are unimportant. I have my orchestra, and tonight I shall have my silent symphony.

I must have music.

(Excerpts from a diary found in the ruins of Robinson House on May 2nd, 1846. Several bodies of patients were recovered from under the wreckage. It is believed that the left side of the building collapsed inward and brought the rest of the house down on top of it. The corpses showed signs of malnutrition and, in some cases, injuries from torture. The body of Dr. Edward Burke was not recovered. Robinson House remains empty and none will approach the site where there have been reports of distant music being heard at night.)

sam gaffordSam Gafford has written articles for Lovecraft Studies, Crypt of CthulhuFungi Quarterly and many others. As one of the leading authorities on the life and work of weird literature & science fiction pioneer William Hope Hodgson, he is currently running the William Hope Hodgson Blog, is editor/publisher of Sargasso: The Journal of William Hope Hodgson Studies, and is writing a book length critical biography of Hodgson. Gafford’s fiction has been published in numerous small press magazines and anthologies, and has a 120+ page graphic novel biography of H.P. Lovecraft, illustrated by Jason Eckhardt, coming out in 2016.

He has probably watched far more TV than recommended. He lives in Rhode Island with his long-suffering wife and three ambivalent cats.

If you enjoyed this story, let Sam know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.

Story illustration by Peter Szmer.

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