When I’d last seen Allan Tremaine, he was embarking on a long tour of Europe, as was then the custom of idle young men of means. For a time his adventures on the Old Continent supplied copy for the yellow press: there was mention of a scandalous love affair with the wife of a British Peer in London, lurid tales of riotous orgies that had both outraged and delighted the high society circles of Paris, sightings of him in the company of swarthy, armed rebels in the Caucasus mountains. Then nothing, as the sensational papers found other debauchery to feast upon. Nine years had elapsed since, and during that time not a word had reached me of the heir to the Tremaine fortune. Yet our friendship had been sealed many years ago, in childhood, and when the unexpected invitation came to visit him I did not hesitate to accept it. On a bright, crisp autumn morning I found myself in the smoke-filled compartment of a passenger train bound for Providence, watching the somnolent New England countryside turn from green to russet and gold.
A short cab ride through the wide streets and decayed squares of that strange, silent town, past rows of weathered pastel-colored abodes, brought me to the steps of the handsome Georgian mansion on College Hill that has been the ancestral home of the New England Tremaines for close to three hundred years. Allan greeted me at the door himself. Time had wrought its changes upon my old friend: his dark, lustrous curls were thinner at the front than I recalled, his face bore the marks of overindulgence and dissipation, and the expert fit of his trousers and waistcoat did little to conceal the stodgy fleshiness of middle age. But the smile and the devil-may-care look in his eyes belonged to the Tremaine I knew, and he still carried himself with an air of rakish charm, undimmed by the years.
My host seemed genuinely pleased to see me, and regaled me with many stories of his travels abroad. Hours passed like minutes as he described to me the haunting, barren landscapes of Central Asia, the mystical reaches of the Far East and the grim ruins of forgotten empires in the black jungles of the Amazon, tainted by evil far older than man. Before I knew it, night had descended over the crooked rooftops and tall church-spires of the town below. We sat in Tremaine’s oak-paneled study, brandy glasses in hand and logs crackling in the ornate fireplace, each lost in his own reveries.
“I don’t suppose,” Allan said, leaning back in his chair and watching the flickering firelight dance in the amber depths of his glass, “that you heard of the recent death of my uncle, Charles Atworth.”
I nodded, vaguely recalling an obituary in a regional paper. Charles Atworth had been a scholar and wealthy eccentric, well known for his contributions to the field of anthropology; several of his volumes repose on the shelves of my home library. “But I didn’t know you were related.”
“On my mother’s side.” He gave a wry smile. “Between the Tremaines and the Wards, there are few New England families to whom I’m not related. Anyway, the old boy is dead, and I’m the sole heir to his estate. He had never married or had children. I was the closest thing he had for a grandson, I suppose.” There was a telling glow in his eye; despite the matter-of-fact tone in which this was delivered, the renewal of our acquaintance had not been accidental. “As a matter of fact, Singleton, that’s what I wanted to speak to you about. The estate has something of a history.”
“What sort of history?”
“Bad history.” He assumed his most confidential mien. “Uncle Charles was found dead in his library. The police found no evidence of foul play, and the coroner decreed that his death was due to natural causes. He was an old man, and there was no trace of injury or poison.”
“Yet you have your doubts.” There was something he was keeping from me; I could tell by the way his gaze drifted into the dark corners of the room, as if half expecting something to emerge from the shadows.
“I do.” He took a large gulp of brandy. “Some months before my uncle’s death the house was broken into. One of the doors in the rear was forced open, and there were footprints and other traces of entry in the back hallway. But nothing was found missing; something had frightened the thieves away before they could complete the job. Uncle Charles never reported the burglary to the police, but I could tell he was badly shaken.”
“So you think he was murdered after all?”
“I’m not sure what to think,” Allan said, shivering in spite of the warmth of the room. “My uncle was an old man who enjoyed his solitude. In the thirty years he’d lived at Atworth Manor, he’d never been able to keep a servant longer than a month or so. They would flee the house and no amount of money could entice them to return. Rumors started to go around — strange noises in the night, voices whispering in the woods, other superstitious drivel. You know what backwoods New Englanders are like. I never paid them much heed until I saw the photographs taken during the Coroner’s inquest. The look on his dead face… it was enough to turn a man’s hair white. He had died of sheer terror.”
“Terror — of what?”
“A presence,” he said. “A malefic agency not of this world.”
I had never thought Allan to hold beliefs in the supernatural, and my astonishment must have shown, for he laughed and rose to refill my glass.
“I assure you that my concerns are practical rather than occult. I had hoped to dispose of the property at a good price, but there have been damn few prospective buyers. Atworth Manor already has an evil reputation in the area, and my uncle’s death will only make matters worse.”
“So you wish to exorcise a ghost.” I searched his face for a hint of mockery, found none. “But how do I fit into this plan of yours?”
“Who better than Alastair Singleton, whose aid has been much sought after by the Boston police department in cases of a mysterious and — dare I say — esoteric nature?” From a pile of books he produced a leather-bound ledger full of newspaper clippings. “Your reputation precedes you. If there is anything that can be done, you are the man to do it. I have no time to waste on parlor charlatans and babbling priests. You will, of course, be well compensated for your time.”
There was a long silence as I allowed his words to sink in. “This is not a matter to be taken lightly. If you have read about my methods of work, you’ll know that I’m no believer in the mystical or diabolical. Rather, it is my opinion that our world is filled with forces and phenomena which science is still unable to explain. But the deeper we delve into this forbidden lore, the greater the peril. There will come a day when our thirst for discovery opens up strange and terrifying vistas of knowledge, for better or worse.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Some things are beyond the reckoning of man, not to be trifled with.” I had an evil foreboding that this was one of them. Yet from the set of my friend’s features I could tell his mind was made up and he would not be swayed. Allan Tremaine was accustomed to having his way. “If we are to proceed, we must do so with the utmost caution. There is no knowing what to expect, but of one thing you can be certain: it is no apparition, no ghost haunting your late uncle’s manor. Such things have no existence save in the imagination of idle matrons who hold frivolous seances.”
“Then what is it?”
“I don’t know, but I intend to find out.” I gave him a hard stare. “You must promise me one thing, Allan. If I deem it too dangerous to proceed, you’ll leave it alone — the house and whatever it is that inhabits it.”
“You have my word for it,” he said, and foolishly I believed him. “Tomorrow we’ll visit Atworth Manor and see what we can make of this business. But let’s postpone all dark thoughts until the morning. The decanter is still half full, and I have a story to tell you about a curious thing that happened to me one evening in Monte Carlo.”
The house was a ponderous old brick affair with a high gabled roof and ivy-covered wings, situated in a stretch of gloomy woodland some ten miles from the city of Hartford. Allan parked his motor-car in the overgrown courtyard, beneath rows of tall, dusty windows. The watchful gaze of a verdigris-stained Cupid followed us from a long-dry fountain full of yellow leaves. The overall impression of the place was one of neglect and disrepair; as far as I could tell, there was nothing to suggest the malevolent presence suspected by my friend.
An iron key grated in the lock and the entrance door creaked open on rusted hinges. The entryway was dark and musty, dominated by an immense fireplace of antique design. A flight of stairs led upward into darkness, and a long corridor to the left terminated in the arched doorway of the library. The heavy doors leading into the west wing of the manor had been boarded shut; sections of the west wing roof had collapsed from neglect, but Charles Atworth had never bothered to repair them.
The more I learned about Allan’s reclusive uncle, the more I understood that the house had come to reflect the old man’s peculiar mood and mind: dark and brooding, steeped in isolation, its once intricate interior slowly crumbling beneath the weight of years.
Local lore held that the house was built on unhallowed ground — the remains of a colonial prison according to some, the ancient burial site of an Algonquian tribe according to others — but Allan’s research had proven this to be false. From what he could gather, the fanciful stories told by former servants and the queer and reclusive manner of its owner were alone responsible for the air of superstition and credulity that had settled around the place. I was uncertain that our search would yield anything, but decided to indulge my friend’s newfound interest in what he called the supernatural — an interest that was beginning to take on all the characteristics of an obsession.
Soon the gas-lamps were turned on and the great hallway swam out into the dim glow. A gray layer of dust lay over everything, and the corners of the peeling walls were draped with cobwebs. We made our way into the library; here too the dust lay thick, a large black stain spread across the cracked ceiling, and plaster had crumbled on a pile of old books heaped atop the great mahogany desk that occupied the center of the room. The carpets had been rolled back to the walls and the floorboards were bare, inscribed with strange diagrams and symbols in bright scarlet paint.
“This is where he was found,” Allan said, patting the headrest of a scuffed leather armchair. “A storm had blown some telephone wires down. Two repairmen from Newington came to the house to ask if they could drive onto the property and saw him through the library window. He’d been dead for days, that horrific grimace frozen on his face.”
“Your uncle lived here thirty or so years.” I laid the contents of my satchel out on a lacquered coffee table: a heavy revolver, an electric torch, a notepad, a sketching pad and several pencils. The symbols on the floor intrigued me: three years ago I’d seen similar marks at the site of a ritualistic murder in an insalubrious neighborhood in East Boston. “Did he ever mention any peculiar events, or occurrences that defied logical explanation?”
“Never. But Uncle Charles rarely noticed anything.” Allan laughed. “We used to joke that the house could burn down around him without him noticing — so absorbed was he in his work.”
“But he discovered the burglary.” I made a few hasty sketches of the marks on the floor. “Can you show me how the thieves broke in?”
At the back of the entryway was a smaller chamber that connected the kitchen to the empty servants’ quarters. A massive old door of stained oak opened on the back lawn and a row of long-abandoned stables; the lock was new and shiny. I examined the doorway and the clutter of cardboard boxes and jars in the room, but found nothing save another odd symbol painted above the lintel.
“He claimed he found muddy footprints here,” said Allan, pointing along the floor into a dark, narrow passage. “At least two men, judging from the sizes.”
“Where does this passage lead to?”
“Past the old scullery and back into the entryway,” he replied. “Or so I believe. Uncle Charles forbade me from going there; he was so agitated that I didn’t even try to object. He didn’t find a trace of the prints in the front of the house. The thieves must have fled through the same door they had come in by.”
I shone my torch into the corridor and took a cautious step forward. Streaked yellowed wallpaper had peeled off in blotches, revealing rotten masonry; a black stain like the one on the library ceiling ran along the walls at about shoulder height. Several doors down, the beam of light revealed a charred mark on the wallpaper: soot from a gas lantern where the burglars had halted to ply their trade. The handle turned and the door swung open: a rickety wooden staircase descended into the blackness beneath, and a faint smell of corruption reached my nose. Allan joined me and stared with growing horror down the stairs.
“What’s in the cellar?” The unspeakable implications of that charnel-house stench chilled my blood. The weight of the pistol in my pocket was suddenly reassuring.
“I don’t know.” His voice was barely above a whisper. “I’ve never been in this part of the house. You — you don’t suppose Uncle Charles…” He could not bring himself to finish.
I ran the beam of the torch across the packed dirt floor, but the only thing I could see was a rack of gardening tools and an old workbench. The staircase creaked beneath my weight as I ventured into the damp chill of the cellar, my heart in my throat. But there was no grisly sight to greet me at the bottom: nothing but old dusty furniture and junk, and a solid steel door set into the far wall.
I turned on the lights and called out to Allan to come down. Together we approached the vault door: the metal surface bore the marks of crowbar and chisel, and a curious stone relief lay in pieces by the wall. The wall around the doorway was stained black, as if something had seeped into the brickwork.
Failing to pick the lock, the burglars had resorted to brute force, but their furious blows had not so much as dented the barrier. Nothing short of a charge of dynamite would get us past the door, and I was no longer certain I wanted to know what lay beyond it. The old scholar had kept a secret vile enough to be locked away behind a foot of iron and steel. Opening the vault would make us privy to this secret, place us on a terrible and unknowable course from which there would be no return.
Allan’s face was as white as a sheet. He rummaged through his pockets and produced a heavy, star-shaped iron key.
“I got this from the police, but could not figure out which lock it opened,” he said. “They found it clutched in his dead hand.”
“Drink this.” I thrust a metal flask a Allan. His eyelids were half open and his breathing was labored; he took a cautious sip and groaned, but some of the color returned to his cheeks. I settled into a low chair and tried to control the shaking of my hands. Images swarmed my mind; I buried my face in my hands, feeling the walls edge closer, a whisper of insanity tickle the back of my skull, promising oblivion.
Of our venture into the pit of horrors beneath Atworth Manor, the less is said the better. The stench that rushed out at us was like a thousand open graves; it sent us reeling and retching in great gasping spasms. A vast underground chamber sprawled before our eyes, lit by strong electric arc lights. At the center of the hall stood a semisphere of brass-like metal inlaid with glass gauges and small round windows, like the portholes of a ship. From it spread a complex network of copper pipes and tubes that fed into metal vats sunk into the floor. A mechanism of gears and valves and levers governed this bizarre machine, but it appeared to be jammed or broken, for we made several fruitless attempts to set it into motion and got nothing but a grinding noise in return.
Overcoming the reek and the feeling of dread that welled up in my stomach, I pressed on. Behind the machinery was a small, tidy area in which stood a sloping autopsy table, and next to it a short tray on which mortician’s instruments gleamed in neat rows. At the back were long, deep shelves filled with beakers and vials and specimen jars in which pale forms floated, casting eerie shadows on the stone walls of the cellar, and beneath them a row of drawers.
I glanced at Allan and opened one of the drawers. Inside was a decaying wooden box with a carved lid, and at its bottom lay an inch or two of gray ash and fragments of bone. We inspected the rest of the drawers and found the same in all of them: human remains, some in coffins or burial urns and some without, centuries old and crumbling to dust. I walked the length of the back wall, trying to determine the source of the abominable stench.
A shriek made my blood run cold. I turned and saw Allan, eyes wide with terror, shrink away from one of the metal vats, clutching at the pipes for support. Drawing my revolver I approached the riveted lid and peered through the slitted window.
At first I saw nothing, for the inside of the vat floated in shadow and a film of dark green slime covered the other side of the glass. Then the pale, raw shape within moved and the pistol dropped from my palsied hand. My mind picked over the hideous sight, searching for a weakness, a flaw that would reveal it to be false; a rush of madness darkened my thoughts and I tried to scream, but no sound came out. I fell to my knees and crawled away, pressing the heels of my hands against my eyes and stopping my ears.
Words are inept to describe what I saw in the sunken vat: a hideous mass of pink and scarlet flesh, with vestigial arms and clawed hands and a raw, glistening head in which rudimentary human features could be vaguely discerned. It writhed and mewled in frenzy or agony, dark veins and malformed organs pulsing beneath the translucent skin, black, depthless eyes staring into mine.
This, then, was the secret old Atworth had kept for decades: this basement of horrors, the result of some unspeakable experiment. The vats held dozens of the pale fleshy abominations, but only a few still showed signs of life; the rest had been reduced to liquid putrescence. Whatever these things were, it was plain that they depended on the strange apparatus for sustenance and survival, and the failure of the machinery had precipitated their demise. But of this I had no thought at the time: reason had retreated into the deepest recesses of my brain and all that remained was the primitive urge to flee. Allan lay insensate on the flagged floor and I half-dragged, half-carried him out of that mad, reeking pit and up the cellar stairs, into the dank, musty darkness above.
Sitting in the library, dim late afternoon light filtering through the dusty panes, I felt some of my sanity return. My friend was still pale, but he had regained his senses. For a long time neither of us spoke a word; the silence enshrouded us like a living thing, and beneath it something lurked, its poison breath tainting the stale air. Allan was right: there was a presence in the old house, a malevolent, formless essence bleeding through the rotting walls and worm-eaten beams, watching from under the dark vaulted ceilings, biding its time with inhuman patience. Both of us sought to occupy our thoughts with mundane tasks: I copied the symbols on the library floor and Allan set about lighting a fire in the enormous hearth. From the entryway came muttered curses and the clatter of the heavy iron grate: the flue was blocked up and the flames would not take hold.
Feeling restless, I began to pace the room, my gaze roaming from shelf to shelf. The heap of old tomes on the table drew my attention: brushing off the rubble, I leafed through the brittle pages. The writing was Latin, the ink brown and faded with age. To my great surprise, I recognized some of the titles: medieval tracts and treatises on the secret lore of alchemy and necromancy and witchcraft, the black arts of conjuring and transmutation. Many among them had been considered blasphemous and diabolical in less enlightened epochs; the mere suspicion of perusal of such works was sufficient to condemn the unfortunate subject to the stake or the torturer’s rack.
My pulse quickened as my finger traced the forbidden incantations. Here they were, these grim, dark, centuries-old tomes, in the library of Charles Atworth, eccentric and erudite, author of two acclaimed books on the long-forgotten tribal cultures of the Polynesian isles, patron of science and benefactor of museums around the world. Only hours ago the notion would have struck me as preposterous; but in the light of the hideous discovery in the cellar, the presence of these dread volumes furthered my unease.
Allan returned from the hallway, his hands blackened with soot. The unspoken question hung between us. He was shaken by the ordeal, but his mouth was a thin, bloodless line of determination. I saw there was little hope of persuading him to leave.
“What we saw in the cellar.” His voice was cracked and hoarse. “Are they… did they kill him?”
“No,” I replied. “The things in the vats are the result of an experiment. Some kind of obscure ritual of communing with the dead — conjuring living flesh from ashes and dust, then summoning the spirit of the deceased and binding it to the tissue.” As I spoke the words, some of the pallor returned to my friend’s face. “The process relies on the machine in the center of the room: without it the animating essence flees to the nether spheres, and the transmuted flesh decays rapidly.”
“But to what end, Singleton? He was a scientist, not How did he die?”
“Here is what I think.” I struggled for an explanation he would understand. “Your uncle combined ancient rites with modern science to open a gateway to realms beyond our own and speak to the spirits of the dead who dwell therein. But these hidden dimensions, these nighted planes of existence, are populated by entities whose nature is beyond mortal ken; and when a door is opened there is no knowing what may come through it.
“Atworth had some understanding of the forces he was dealing with. He took precautions, barred the way out of the cellar with a powerful warding glyph. But the burglars smashed the stone tablet to pieces trying to force their way into the vault. Whatever was inside escaped: Atworth died in the middle of a banishment ritual. Something found its way into our world — something older than time, an evil beyond our comprehension– something that’s still between these walls!”
“This is absurd.” My friend collapsed on the battered sofa. “Rituals, spirits, entities from other dimensions — all this from a dreary old bookworm like Uncle Charles.”
“Curiosity knows no bounds,” I said. “Clearly there is danger in this place. We must decide how to proceed from here.”
“Proceed?” Allan’s eyes gleamed with barely contained hysteria, his lips pulled back in a sickly grin. “I want to draw this thing out of hiding, and rid the house of it forever.”
This was the reply I feared. “That could prove to be a grave mistake.”
“At this time the being lies in some sort of suspended dream-state, drifting in the inchoate space between worlds, neither dead nor alive. Yet this is no blind force of nature; it is an alien intelligence, vast and infinitely superior to ours, waiting, plotting. It can afford to be patient: the passage of centuries is to it no more than the blink of an eye. The more we learn about it, the more it learns about us — the more material it becomes in our sphere of existence. To know the nature of this evil is to open the door further, inviting it in.”
“What am I to do, then?”
“Leave this house,” I said, weighing my words. “Leave it and never come back.”
The flash of fury on his face took me aback: there was a mad light in his eyes that spoke of murder. This gave way to a mask of unnatural calm, the change so sudden that I almost doubted the evidence of my senses. When he spoke, his voice was even and controlled.
“I understand your reservations, Alastair, and I realize what I’m asking of you. But if we leave now, it will all have been in vain.” I assumed he was talking about Atworth’s death; it was not until much later that I came to suspect the true meaning of his words. “What if by doing nothing we unleash this horror upon the world? Perhaps there is a way to complete the ritual and banish it back to the hell it crawled out of. You said you’d see me through this, and I need your help.”
To this I had no response, for the fears he had voiced were also my own. Yet although I tried to convince myself that I was doing this for Allan’s sake, the worm of curiosity gnawed at me: I had glanced into the abyss and needed to know what lay in the black depths, even if the knowledge came at the price of my sanity.
“There is something we can try,” I said at last. “Help me with the big trunk in the back of your car. Let us see if we can’t conduct an experiment of our own.”
It was near midnight by the time we had assembled the device. A jumble of brass capacitors, magnetic rods and coiled copper wires with a set of glass triodes protruding from its top, it resembled an electromagnet — which in part it was. I placed the construction in the middle of a conjurer’s circle and turned on the battery: slowly the rods began to turn and the filaments in the glass vacuum tubes assumed a low reddish glow. A faint electrical crackle indicated that current was flowing through the wires.
Allan watched in puzzlement as I chalked a second circle around his feet and scrawled the warding symbols at the five conduit-points; whether they would work or not remained to be seen. The formulations in old Atworth’s manuscripts were cryptic and arcane, written in an obscure dialect of Latin. I found some solace in the thought that our attempt to contact the presence in the house could be terminated at any time: all it would take was a flick of a switch.
“What is this thing?” asked Allan.
“Our sacrificial offering.” He gazed at me blankly. “In centuries long past, conjuring rituals were thought to require a living sacrifice — an animal, or even a human being. It was thought that the blood appeased the inscrutable gods, or demons. Today we know that the death itself is of no consequence. Rather, it is the disturbance in the unseen fields around us — electric, magnetic and others not yet fully understood — that, combined with the right invocation, precipitates a rift in reality through which we can glimpse the other side. This machine emulates the field shift: the vacuum tubes act as amplifiers, increasing the output of the coils by a factor of several hundred. Instead of slaughtering animals at an altar, all we need to do is push a lever.”
I did so as I spoke and the air filled with a low thrum, like the distant droning of a great beehive. The glass tubes burned brighter and a dry smell of burned dust permeated the room. I felt the hairs at the back of my neck and hands rise; there was a queasy sensation in the pit of my stomach of the perspective shifting, the outlines of the room growing vague. A rasping sound came from the walls, from the ceiling, beneath the old floorboards. The great beams in the hallway creaked. Allan cast an uneasy glance at the humming machine, but said nothing. I made the invoking sign and uttered the first incantation.
The lights in the library dimmed as unctuous black matter, neither gas nor liquid, swirled out of the walls, coiling across the floor and surrounding the lamps in greasy halos. It touched the edges of the two warding circles and retreated, causing the symbols to flare faintly. The house shook and groaned: cracks raced up the rotted walls and ceiling, dislodging a fine shower of dust.
“Stay in the circle,” I said to Allan, trying to keep my voice above the rising cacophony. The wall that stood between the library and the kitchen was gone; in its place yawned a blackness fringed with pale green mist. Something moved within, a shadow against a background of shadows. Whatever it was, it resented our intrusion: a heavy oak bookcase flew from the wall, missing me by no more than a foot, and crashed through a tall library window. The thrumming noise increased in pitch: there was a dull crack as one of the glass tubes exploded. As I completed the last of the conjuring incantations, a blast of cold wind swept from the misted void, scattering the ancient pages of Atworth’s tomes and snuffing out the lights.
The room was plunged into near-total darkness, interrupted only by the glow of the filament-tubes and occasional flashes of light in the mist. I felt a presence in my head, thousands of fingers exploring the secret spaces behind my eyes, searching for a way in. Across a great distance I could hear Allan screaming and gibbering, pleading with the thing in the dark. Drops pattered on my hands and neck. I lifted my eyes upward just as a burst of radiance from the abyss turned the night into day.
The stain on the ceiling had come alive. A wet black mass hung from above me, changing shape and trailing ropes of slime. Darkness swallowed it in an instant: I caught a glimpse of hundreds of tumorous growths, of maws filled with hooked, razor-like teeth, of the human features that formed and reformed in the waves of rubbery flesh, set in expressions of agony, or ecstasy, or both.
For a moment I knew true madness: I tittered and pranced and opened my arms to embrace the dripping horror. My mind had fled the confines of my skull and the green mists of the void called out to me, filling my soul with painful yearning for the oblivion they promised. Then my senses returned to me; with trembling hands I reached for the apparatus and threw the lever that controlled the flow of current.
A tremor raced through the walls and the windows shattered as if from a tremendous gale. Splinters and fragments of glass cut my exposed hands and face. I took a step back, tripped and struck my head on something hard and sharp-edged: the coffee table. I groped in the darkness for the electric torch. From the far wall came an oily, slithering sound and the crash of overturned furniture. My fingers found the cylindrical shape of the torch, and its weak beam revealed the doorway. I did not dare look behind me to see what was happening to Allan, but fled blindly through the passage, through the entryway and into the night. Half-insane I raced into the woods, branches and brambles tearing at my clothes, shrieking and laughing under the pale, swollen moon.
The sky was lightening in the east when I found myself on the outskirts of a nearby town. How I had gotten there and what I had seen on my wanderings in the night — all this was mercifully blank. The sight of the woods behind me filled me with indescribable horror and I could think of nothing save the most hurried flight. A kindly old farmer gave me a ride to Hartford and nodded as I told him a story of getting lost in the woods, but every now and then his crinkled eyes strayed to the dark line of trees and his leathery face grew pale.
From Hartford I took the noon train to Boston, drawing many a curious stare on account of my disheveled appearance. Once safely inside my apartment, having locked and bolted the door and shuttered the windows, I telephoned Providence. The Tremaine housekeeper, indignant at being roused at so ungodly an hour, told me her master had left the day before with another gentleman and given no indication when he would return.
I spent the next few days in a blur of panic, torn between guilt at the abandonment of my friend and fear at being somehow brought into connection with his disappearance. At times I drifted into restless sleep in which I was assailed by nightmares of creaking floors and strange angles, of immense shapes streaming across the frozen chasms between stars. I would start awake at the slightest of sounds, imagining policemen at my door, or my ceiling taken over by a seeping black stain.
Yet nothing happened. The vanishing of Allan Tremaine was briefly mentioned in the society columns of local papers, where it was hinted that he had fled to Europe to avoid bankruptcy and disgrace: the libertine heir had not only squandered the family fortune on debauchery and gambling, but had become involved in speculations which went awry, bringing financial ruin to dozens of investors.
Now I saw why Allan had been so eager to sell Atworth Manor, and began to doubt his story of the break-in. No thief from any of the surrounding towns, no matter how desperate or depraved, would have set foot in the old, crumbling house. Could it be that Allan had suspected there were treasures hidden in the cellar, and hired professional burglars to rob old Atworth? Could it be that the thieves never left, that the monstrous inhabitant of the manor had got to them first? How much had my friend known or suspected — had the thing in the house driven him mad, whispering and beckoning, drawing him closer? The image of that decaying, cursed dwelling came to my mind unbidden, and I knew what had to be done.
On a late morning in November, I once again stood in the derelict courtyard. No one had ventured near the house since I’d been here last: Allan’s vehicle was parked in the corner, a splintered bookcase lay under a broken ground window and the huge entrance door was slightly ajar. I opened the first large can of coal oil and splashed it around the car’s interior. Then I stepped inside, half expecting to see Allan standing in the shadows, dead black eyes vast in the whiteness of his face. But there was nothing – only the great gloomy entryway shrouded in cobwebs and dust.
For an hour or so I went about my business, pouring the oil on anything that would burn, opening all the gas valves I could find. I used two cans on the things in Atworth’s cellar, fighting the waves of nausea and revulsion that threatened to overcome me. The library I left for last: the room was a shambles of scattered pages and broken furniture. At first glance, it appeared that Allan’s body had vanished without a trace. The field emulator was destroyed in the mayhem: I was picking through the smashed capacitors and torn wiring when a curious object hanging from the wall between the library and the kitchen caught my attention.
It was a human hand, and it wore Allan’s ring on its finger. What had happened with the rest of the body I knew not, nor did I want to know. I backed away from the grisly trophy on the wall and completed my unpleasant task, then doused the heavy drapes and walls of the passage that led to the entryway. The sharp smell of coal oil mixed with the aroma of the hissing gas and the carrion stench of the cellar, and I longed to be out in the open air, as far from Atworth Manor as I could get.
As I was preparing to leave, a familiar stirring, rasping sound came from overhead and something landed in the cold cinders of the fireplace with a soft thud. I picked it up and examined it, gazing with mounting horror into the darkness of the flue. The shadowy hallway spun around me; I lurched through the door and fell to my knees in the gravel of the courtyard. It all happened swiftly after that: I struck the match and watched the tongue of flame lick into the dark interior, the blaze and explosion that followed, the black smoke of conflagration rising into the sky behind me as I drove away. Atworth Manor burned to the ground, and whatever was wedged in the chimney above the hearth burned with it.
But the memory of what I saw in the ashes will haunt me until the day I die. It was a shoe — a man’s shoe, a perfect match for the muddy footprints one of the burglars had left by the back door.
Originally published in Occult Detective Monster Hunter anthology by Emby Press (April 2015)
Damir is the author of the sci-fi thriller Kill Zone, the occult mystery Always Beside You, and short stories featured in multiple horror and speculative fiction magazines and anthologies, including the Lovecraft eZine, Martian Migraine Press, and Scare Street’s Night Terrors series. He lives in Virginia with his wife and his feline writing assistant. An auditor by trade and traveler by heart, he does his best writing on cruise ships, thirty-plus thousand feet in the air, and in the terminals of far-flung airports. He can be contacted at https://darkerrealities.wordpress.com.