Let's talk, you and I. Let's talk about fear.
The house is empty as I write this; a cold February rain is falling outside. It's night. Sometimes when the wind blows the way it's blowing now, we lose the power. But for now it's on, and so let's talk very honestly about fear. Let's talk very rationally about moving to the rim of madness
and perhaps over the edge.
My name is Stephen King. I am a grown man with a wife and three children. I love them, and I believe that the feeling is reciprocated. My job is writing, and it's a job I like very much. The stories - Carrie, 'Salem's Lot, and The Shining - have been successful enough to allow me to write full-time, which is an agreeable thing to be able to do. At this point in my life I seem to be reasonably healthy. In the last year I have been able to reduce my cigarette habit from the unfiltered brand I had smoked since I was eighteen to a low nicotine and tar brand, and I still hope to be able to quit completely. My family and I live in a pleasant house beside a relatively unpolluted lake in Maine; last fall I awoke one morning and saw a deer standing on the back lawn by the picnic table. We have a good life.
let's talk about fear. We won't raise our voices and we won't scream; we'll talk rationally, you and I. We'll talk about the way the good fabric of things sometimes has a way of unravelling with shocking suddenness.
At night, when I go to bed, I still am at pains to be sure that my legs are under the blanket after the lights go out.
I'm not a child any more but
I don't like to sleep with one leg sticking out. Because if a cool hand ever reached out from under the bed and grasped my ankle, I might scream. Yes, I might scream to wake the dead. That sort of thing doesn't happen, of course, and we all know that. In the stories that follow you will encounter all manner of night creatures; vampires, demon lovers, a thing that lives in the closet, all sorts of other terrors. None of them are real. The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn't real. I know that, and I also know that if I'm careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle.
Sometimes I speak before groups of people who are interested in writing or in literature, and before the question-and-answer period is over, someone always rises and asks this question: Why do you choose to write about such gruesome subjects?
I usually answer this with another question: Why do you assume that I have a choice?
Writing is a catch-as-catch-can sort of Occupation. All of us seem to come equipped with filters on the floors of our minds, and all the filters having differing sizes and meshes. What catches in my filter may run right through yours. What catches in yours may pass through mine, no sweat. All of us seem to have a built-in obligation to sift through the sludge that gets caught in our respective mind-filters, and what we find there usually develops into some sort of sideline. The accountant may also be a photographer. The astronomer may collect coins. The schoolteacher may do gravestone rubbings in charcoal. The sludge caught in the mind's filter, the stuff that refuses to go through, frequently becomes each person's private obsession. In civilized society we have an unspoken agreement to call our obsessions 'hobbies.'
Sometimes the hobby can become a full-time job. The accountant may discover that he can make enough money to support his family taking pictures; the schoolteacher may become enough of an expert on grave rubbings to go on the lecture circuit. And there are some professions which begin as hobbies and remain hobbies even after the practitioner is able to earn his living by pursuing his hobby; but because 'hobby' is such a bumpy, comon-sounding little word, we also have an unspoken agreement that we will call our professional hobbies 'the arts.'
Painting. Sculpture. Composing. Singing. Acting. The playing of a musical instrument. Writing. Enough books have been written on these seven subjects alone to sink a fleet of luxury liners. And the only thing we seem to be able to agree upon about them is this: that those who practise these arts honestly would continue to practise them even if they were not paid for their efforts; even if their efforts were criticized or even reviled; even on pain of imprisonment or death. To me, that seems to be a pretty fair definition of obsessional behaviour. It applies to the plain hobbies as well as the fancy ones we call 'the arts'; gun collectors sport bumper stickers reading you WILL TAKE MY GUN ONLY WHEN YOU PRY MY COLD DEAD FINGERS FROM IT, and in the suburbs of Boston, housewives who discovered political activism during the busing furore often sported similar stickers reading YOU'LL TAKE ME TO PRISON BEFORE YOU TAKE MY CHILDREN OUT OF THE NEIGHBOURHOOD on the back bumpers of their station wagons. Similarly, if coin collecting were outlawed tomorrow, the astronomer very likely wouldn't turn in his steel pennies and buffalo nickels; he'd wrap them carefully in plastic, sink them to the bottom of his toilet tank, and gloat over them after midnight.
We seem to be wandering away from the subject of fear, but we really haven't wandered very far. The sludge that catches in the mesh of my drain is often the stuff of fear. My obsession is with the macabre. I didn't write any of the stories which follow for money, although some of them were sold to magazines before they appeared here and I never once returned a cheque uncashed. I may be obsessional but I'm not crazy. Yet I repeat: I didn't write them for money; I wrote them because it occurred to me to write them. I have a marketable obsession. There are madmen and madwomen in padded cells the world over who are not SO lucky
I am not a great artist, but I have always felt impelled to write. So each day I sift the sludge anew, going through the cast-off bits and pieces of observation, of memory, of speculation, trying to make something out of the stuff that didn't go through the filter and down the drain into the subconscious.
Louis L'Amour, the Western writer, and I might both stand at the edge of a small pond in Colorado, and we both might have an idea at exactly the same time. We might both feel the urge to sit down and try to work it out in words. His story might be about water rights in a dry season, my story would more likely be about some dreadful, hulking thing rising out of the still waters to carry off sheep
and finally people. Louis L'Amour's 'obsession' centres on the history of the Amen-can West; I tend more towards things that slither by starlight. He writes Westerns; I write fearsomes. We're both a little bit nuts.
The arts are obsessional, and obsession is dangerous. It's like a knife in the mind. In some cases - Dylan Thomas comes to mind, and Ross Lockridge and Hart Craine and Sylvia Plath - the knife can turn savagely upon the person wielding it. Art is a localized illness, usually benign -creative people tend to live a long time - sometimes terribly malignant. You use the knife carefully, because you know it doesn't care who it cuts. And if you are wise you sift the sludge carefully
because some of that stuff may not be dead.
After the why do you write that stuff question has been disposed of, the companion question comes up: Why do people read that stuff? What makes it sell? This question carries a hidden assumption with it, and the assumption is that the story about fear, the story about horror, is an unhealthy taste. People who write me often begin by saying, 'I suppose you will think I'm strange, but I really liked 'Salem's Lot,' or 'Probably I'm morbid, but I enjoyed every page of The Shining..
I think the key to this may lie in a line of movie criticism from Newsweek magazine. The review was of a horror film, not a very good one, and it went something like this:'
a wonderful movie for people who like to slow down and look at car accidents.' It's a good snappy line, but when you stop and think about it, it applies to all horror films and stories. The Night of the Living Dead, with its gruesome scenes of human Cannibalism and matricide, was certainly a film for people who like to slow down and look at car accidents; and how about that little girl puking pea soup all over the priest in The Exorcist? Bram Stoker's Dracula, often a basis of comparison for the modern horror story (as it should be; it is the first with unabashedly psycho-Freudian overtones), features a maniac named Renfeld who gobbles flies, spiders, and finally a bird. He regurgitates the bird, having eaten it feathers and all. The novel also features the impalement - the ritual penetration, one could say - of a young and lovely female vampire and the murder of a baby and the baby's mother.
The great literature of the supernatural often contains the same 'let's slow down and look at the accident' syndrome: Beowulf slaughtering Grendel's mother; the narrator of 'The Tell-Tale Heart' dismembering his cataract-stricken benefactor and putting the pieces under the floorboards; the Hobbit Sam's grim battle with Shelob the spider in the final book of Tolkien's Rings trilogy.
There will be some who will object strenuously to this line of thought, saying that Henry James is not showing us a car accident in The Turn of the Screw; they will claim that Nathaniel Hawthorne's stories of the macabre, such as 'Young Goodman Brown' and 'The Minister's Black Veil', are also rather more tasteful than Dracula. It's a nonsensical idea. They are still showing us the car accident; the bodies have been removed but we can still see the twisted wreckage and observe the blood on the upholstery. In some ways the delicacy, the lack of melodrama, the low and studied tone of rationality that pervades a story like 'The Minister's Black Veil' is even more terrible than Lovecraft's batrachian monstrosities or the auto-da-fe of Poe's 'The Pit and the Pendulum'.
The fact is - and most of us know this in our hearts - that very few of us can forgo an uneasy peek at the wreckage bracketed by police cars and road flares on the turnpike at night. Senior citizens pick up the paper in the morning and immediately turn to the obituary column so they can see who they outlived. All of us are uneasily transfixed for a moment when we hear that a Dan Blocker has died, a Freddy Prinze, a Janis Joplin. We feel terror mixed with an odd sort of glee when we hear Paul Harvey on the radio telling us that a woman walked into a propeller blade during a rain squall at a small country airport or that a man in a giant industrial blender was vaporized immediately when a co-worker stumbled against the controls. No need to belabour the obvious; life is full of horrors small and large, but because the small ones are the ones we can comprehend, they are the ones that smack home with all the force of mortality.
Our interest in these pocket horrors is undeniable, but so is our own revulsion. The two of them mix uneasily, and the by-product of the mix seems to be guilt
a guilt which seems not much different from the guilt that used to accompany sexual awakening.
It is not my business to tell you not to feel guilty, any more than it is my business to justify my novels or the short stories which follow. But an interesting parallel between sex and fear can be observed. As we become capable of having sexual relationships, our interest in those relationships awakens; the interest, unless perverted some-how, tends naturally towards copulation and the continuance of the species. As we become aware unavoidable termination, we become aware of the fear-emotion. And I think that, as copulation tends towards self-preservation, all fear tends towards a comprehension of the final ending.
There is an old fable about seven blind men who grabbed seven different parts of an elephant. One of them thought he had a snake, one of them thought he had a giant palm leaf, one of them thought he was touching a stone pillar. When they got together, they decided they had an elephant.
Fear is the emotion that makes us blind. How many things are we afraid of? We're afraid to turn off the lights when our hands are wet. We're afraid to stick a knife into the toaster to get the stuck English muffin without unplugging it first. We're afraid of what the doctor may tell us when the physical exam is over; when the airplane suddenly takes a great unearthly lurch in mid-air. We're afraid that the oil may run out, that the good air will run out, the good water, the good life. When the daughter promised to be in by eleven and it's now quarter past twelve and sleet is spatting against the window like dry sand, we sit and pretend to watch Johnny Carson and look occasionally at the mute telephone and we feel the emotion that makes us blind, the emotion that makes a stealthy ruin of the thinking process.
The infant is a fearless creature only until the first time the mother isn't there to pop the nipple into his mouth when he cries. The toddler quickly discovers the blunt and painful truths of the slamming door, the hot burner, the fever that goes with the croup or the measles. Children learn fear quickly; they pick it up off the mother's or father's face when the parent comes into the bathroom and sees them with the bottle of pills or the safety razor.
Fear makes us blind, and we touch each fear with all the avid curiosity of self-interest, trying to make a whole out of a hudred parts, like the blind men with their elephant.
We sense the shape. Children grasp it easily, forget it, and relearn as adults. The shape is there, and most of us come to realise what it is sooner or later: it is the shape of a body under a sheet. All our fears add up to one great fear, all our fears are part of that great fear - an arm, a leg, a finger, an ear. We're afraid of the body under the sheet. It's our body. And the great appeal of horror fiction through the ages is that it serves as a rehearsal for our own deaths.
The field has never been highly regarded; for a long time the only friends that Poe and Lovecraft had were the French, who have somehow come to an arrangement with both sex and death, an arrangement that Poe and Love-craft's fellow Americans certainly had no patience with. The Americans were busy building railroads, and Poe and Lovecraft died broke. Tolkien's Middle-Earth fantasy went kicking around for twenty years before it became an aboveground success, and Kurt Vonnegut, whose books so often deal with the death-rehearsal idea, has faced a steady wind of criticism, much of it mounting to hysterical pitch.
It may be because the horror writer always brings bad news: you're going to die, he says; he's telling you to never mind Oral Roberts and his 'something good is going to happen to you', because something bad is also going to happen to you, and it may be cancer and it may be a stroke, and it may be a car accident, but it's going to happen. And he takes your hand and he enfolds it in his own and he takes you into the room and he puts your hands on the shape under the sheet
and tells you to touch it here
Of course, the subjects of death and fear are not the horror writer's exclusive province. Plenty of so-called 'mainstream' writers have dealt with these themes, and in a variety of different ways - from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment to Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer stories. Fear has always been big. Death has always been big. They are two of the human constants. But only the writer of horror and the supernatural gives the reader such an opportunity for total identification and catharsis. Those working in the gentre with even the faintest understanding of what they are doing know that the entire field of horror and the supernatural is a kind of filter screen between the conscious and the subconscious; horror fiction is like a central subway station in the human psyche between the blue line of what we can safely internalize and the red line of what we need to get rid of in some way or another.
When you read horror, you don't really believe what you read. You don't believe in vampires, werewolves, trucks that suddenly start up and drive themselves. The horrors that we all do believe in are of the sort that Dostoyevsky and Albee and MacDonald write about: hate, alienation, growing lovelessly old, tottering out into a hostile world on the unsteady legs of adolescence. We are, in our real everyday worlds, often like the masks of Comedy and Tragedy, grinning on the outside, grimacing on the inside. There's a central switching point somewhere inside, a transformer, maybe, where the wires leading from those two masks connect. And that is the place where the horror story so often hits home.
The horror-story writer is not so different from the Welsh sin-eater, who was supposed to take upon himself the sins of the dear departed by partaking of the dear departed's food. The tale of monstrosity and terror is a basket loosely packed with phobias; when the writer passes by, you take one of his imaginary horrors out of the basket and put one of your real ones in - at least for a time.
Back in the 1950s there was a tremendous surge of giant bug movies - Them!. The Beginning of the End, The Deadly -Mantis, and so on. Almost without fail, as the movie progressed, we found out that these gigantic, ugly mutants were the results of A-bomb tests in New Mexico or on deserted Pacific atolls (and in the more recent Horror of Party Beach, which might have been subtitled Beach Blanket Armageddon, the culprit was nuclear-reactor waste). Taken together, the big-bug movies form an undeniable pattern, an uneasy gestalt of a whole country's terror of the new age that the Manhattan Project had rung in. Later in the fifties there was a cycle of 'teen-age' horror movies, beginning with such epics as Teen-Agers from Outer Space and The Blob, in which a beardless Steve McQueen battled a sort of Jell-Omutant with the help of his teen-aged friends. In an age when every weekly magazine contained at least one article on the rising tide of juvenile delinquency, the teenager fright films expressed a whole country's uneasiness with the youth revolution even then brewing; when you saw Michael Landon turn into a werewolf in a high-school leather jacket, a connection happened between the fantasy on the screen and your own floating anxieties about the nerd in the hot rod that your daughter was dating. To the teen-agers themselves (I was one of them and speak from experience), the monsters spawned in the leased American-International studios gave them a chance to see someone even uglier than they felt themselves to be; what were a few pimples compared to the shambling thing that used to be a high-school kid in I Was a Teen-Age Frankenstein? This same cycle also expressed the teen-agers' own feeling that they were being unfairly put upon and put down by their elders, that their parents just 'did not understand'. The movies are formulaic (as so much of horror fiction is, written or filmed), and what the formula expresses most clearly is a whole generation's paranoia - a paranoia no doubt caused in part by all the articles their parents were reading. In the films, some terrible, warty horror is menacing Elmville. The kids know, because the flying saucer landed near lovers' lane. In the first reel, the warty horror kills an old man in a pickup truck (the old man was unfailingly played by Elisha Cook, Jr.). In the next three reels, the kids try to convince their elders that the warty horror is indeed slinking around. 'Get here before I lock you all up for violating the curfew!' Elmesville's police chief growls just before the monster slithers down Main Street, laying waste in all directions. In the end it is the quick-thinking kids who put an end to the warty horror, and then go off to the local hangout to suck up chocolate malteds and jitterbug to some forgettable tune as the end credits run.
That's three separate opportunities for catharsis in one cycle of movies - not bad for a bunch of low-budget epics that were usually done in under ten days. It didn't happen because the writers and producers and directors of those films wanted it to happen; it happened because the horror tale lives most naturally at that connection point between the conscious and the sub-conscious, the place where both image and allegory occur most naturally and with the most devastating effect. There is a direct line of evolution between I Was a Teen-Age Werewolf and Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and between Teen-Age Monster and Brian De Palma's film Carrie.
Great horror fiction is almost always allegorical; sometimes the allegory is intended, as in Animal Farm and 1984, and sometimes it just happens - J. R. R. Tolkien swore and down that the Dark Lord of Mordor was not Hitler in fantasy dress, but the theses and term papers to just that effect go on and on
maybe because, as Bob Dylan says, when you got a lot of knives and forks, you gotta cut something.
The works of Edward Albee, of Steinbeck, Camus, Faulkner - they deal with fear and death, sometimes with horror, but usually these mainstream writers deal with it in a more normal, real-life way. Their work is set in the frame of a rational world; they are stories that 'could happen'. They are on that subway line that runs through the external world. There are other writers - James Joyce, Faulkner again, poets such as T. S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton - whose work is set in the land of the symbolic unconsciousness. They are on the subway line running into the internal landscape. But the horror writer is almost always at the terminal joining the two, at least if he is on the mark. When he is at his best we often have that weird sensation of being not quite asleep or awake, when time stretches and skews, when we can hear voices but cannot make out the words or the intent, when the dream seems real and the reality dreamlike.
That is a strange and wonderful terminal. Hill House is there, in that place where the trains run both ways, with its doors that swing sensibly shut; the woman in the room with the yellow wallpaper is there, crawling along the floor with her head pressed against that faint grease mark; the barrowwights that menaced Frodo and Sam are there; and Pickman's model; the wendigo; Norman Bates and his terrible mother. No waking or dreaming in this terminal, but only the voice of the writer, low and rational, talking about the way the good fabric of things sometimes has a way of unravelling with shocking suddenness. He's telling you that you want to see the car accident, and yes, he's right - you do. There's a dead voice on the phone. something behind the walls of the old house that sounds bigger than a rat.. movement at the foot of the cellar stairs. He wants you to see all of those things, and more; he wants you to put your hands on the shape under the sheet. And you want to put your hands there. Yes.
These are some of the things I feel that the horror story does, but I am firmly convinced that it must do one more thing, this above all others: It must tell a tale that holds the reader or the listener spellbound for a little while, lost in a world that never was, never could be. It must be like the wedding guest that stoppeth one of three. All my life as a writer I have been committed to the idea that in fiction the story value holds dominance Over every other facet of the writer's craft; characterization, theme, mood, none of those things is anything if the story is dull. And if the story does hold you, all else can be forgiven. My favourite line to that effect came from the pen of Edgar Rice Burroughs, no one's candidate for Great World Writer, but a man who understood story values completely. On page one of The Land That Time Forgot, the narrator finds a manuscript in a bottle; the rest of the novel is the presentation of that manuscript. The narrator says, 'Read one page, and I will be forgotten.' It's a pledge that Burroughs makes good on -many writers with talents greater than his have not.
In fine, gentle reader, here is a truth that makes the strongest writer gnash his teeth: with the exception of three small groups of people, no one reads a writer's preface. The exceptions are: one, the writer's close family (usually his wife and his mother); two, the writer's accredited representative (and the editorial people and assorted munchkins), whose chief interest is to find out if anyone has been libelled in the course of the writer's wanderings; and three, those people who have had a hand in helping the writer on his way. These are the people who want to know whether or not the writer's head has gotten so big that he has managed to forget that he didn't do it by himself.
Other readers are apt to feel, with perfect justification, that the author's preface is a gross imposition, a multi-page commercial for himself, even more offensive than the cigarette ads that have proliferated in the centre section of the paperback books. Most readers come to see the show, not to watch the stage manager take bows in front of the footlights. Again, with perfect justification.
I'm leaving now. The show is going to start soon. We're going to go into that room and touch the shape under the sheet. But before I leave, I want to take just two or three more minutes of your time to thank some people from each of the three groups above - and from a fourth. Bear with me as I say a few thank-you's:
To my wife, Tabitha, my best and most trenchant critic. When she feels the work is good, she says so; when she feels I've put my foot in it, she sets me on my ass as kindly and lovingly as possible. To my kids, Naomi, Joe, and Owen, who have been very understanding about their father's peculiar doings in the downstairs room. And to my mother, who died in 1973, and to whom this book is dedicated. Her encouragement was steady and unwavering, she always seemed able to find forty or fifty cents for the obligatory stamped, self-addressed return envelope, and no one -including myself- was more pleased than she when I 'broke through'.
In that second group, particular thanks are due my editor, William G. Thompson of Doubleday & Company, who has worked with me patiently, who has suffered my daily phone calls with constant good cheer, and who showed kindness to a young writer with no credentials some years ago, and who has stuck with that writer since then.
In the third group are the people who first bought my work: Mr Robert A. W. Lowndes, who purchased the first two stories I ever sold; Mr Douglas Allen and Mr Nye Willden of the Dugent Publishing Corporation, who bought so many of the ones that followed for Cavalier and Gent, back in the scuffling days when the cheques sometimes came just in time to avoid what the power companies euphemistically call 'an interruption in service'; to Elaine Geiger and Herbert Schnall and Carolyn Stromberg of the New American Library; to Gerard Van der Leun of Pent-house and Harris Deinstfrey of Cosmopolitan. Thanks to all of you.
There's one final group that I'd like to thank, and that is each and every reader who ever unlimbered his or her wallet to buy something that I wrote. In a great many ways, this is your book because it sure never would have happened without you. So thanks.
Where I am, it's still dark and raining. We've got a fine night for it. There's something I want to show you, some-thing I want you to touch. It's in a room not far from here-in fact, it's almost as close as the next page.
Shall we go?
Bridgton, Maine 27 February 1977
2 October 1850
How good it was to step into the cold, draughty hall here at Chapelwaite, every bone in an ache from that abominable coach, in need of instant relief from my distended bladder - and to see a letter addressed in your own inimitable scrawl propped on the obscene little cherry-wood table beside the door! Be assured that I set to deciphering it as soon as the needs of the body were attended to (in a coldly ornate downstairs bathroom where I could see my breath rising before my eyes).
I'm glad to hear that you are recovered from the miasma that has so long set in your lungs, although I assure you that I do sympathize with the moral dilemma the cure has affected you with. An ailing abolitionist healed by the sunny climes of slavestruck Honda! Still and all, Bones, I ask you as a friend who has also walked in the valley of the shadow, to take all care of yourself and venture not back to Massachusetts until your body gives you leave. Your fine mind and incisive pen cannot serve us if you are clay, and if the Southern zone is a healing one, is there not poetic justice in that?
Yes, the house is quite as fine as I had been led to believe by my cousin's executors, but rather more sinister. It sits atop a huge and jutting point of land perhaps three miles north of Falmouth and nine miles north of Portland. Behind it are some four acres of grounds, gone back to the wild in the most formidable manner imaginable - junipers, scrub vines, bushes, and various forms of creeper climb wildly over the picturesque stone walls that separate the estate from the town domain. Awful imitations of Greek statuary peer blindly through the wrack from atop various hillocks - they seem, in most cases, about to lunge at the passer-by. My cousin Stephen's tastes seem to have run the gamut from the unacceptable to the downright horrific. There is an odd little summer house which has been nearly buried in scarlet sumac and a grotesque sundial in the midst of what must once have been a garden. It adds the final lunatic touch.
But the view from the parlour more than excuses this; I command a dizzying view of the rocks at the foot of Chapelwaite Head and the Atlantic itself. A huge, bellied bay window looks out on this, and a huge, toadlike secretary stands beside it. It will do nicely for the start of that novel which I have talked of so long [and no doubt tiresomely].
Today has been grey with occasional splatters of rain. As I look out all seems to be a study in slate - the rocks, old and worn as Time itself, the sky, and of course the sea, which crashes against the granite fangs below with a sound which is not precisely sound but vibration - I can feel the waves with my feet even as I write. The sensation is not a wholly unpleasant one.
I know you disapprove my solitary habits, dear Bones, but I assure you that lam fine and happy. Calvin is with me, as practical, silent, and as dependable as ever, and by midweek I am sure that between the two of us we shall have straightened our affairs and made arrangements for necessary deliveries from town - and a company of cleaning women to begin blowing the dust from this place!
I will close - there are so many things as yet to be seen, rooms to explore, and doubtless a thousand pieces of execrable furniture to be viewed by these tender eyes.
Once again, my thanks for the touch of familiar brought by your letter, and for your continuing regard.
Give my love to your wife, as you both have mine.
6 October 1850
Such a place this is!
It continues to amaze me - as do the reactions of the townfolk in the closest village to my occupancy. That is a queer little place with the picturesque name of Preacher's Corners. It was there that Calvin contracted for the weekly provisions. The other errand, that of securing a sufficient supply of cordwood for the winter, was likewise taken care of. But Cal returned with gloomy countenance, and when I asked him what the trouble was, he replied grimly enough:
'They think you mad, Mr Boone!'
I laughed and said that perhaps they had heard of the brain fever I suffered after my Sarah died - certainly I spoke madly enough at that time, as you could attest.
But Cal protested that no one knew anything of me except through my cousin Stephen, who contracted for the same services as I have now made provision for. 'what was said, sir, was that anyone who would live in Chapelwaite must be either a lunatic or run the risk of becoming one.'
This left me utterly perplexed, as you may imagine, and I asked who had given him this amazing communication. He told me that he had been referred to a sullen and rather besotted pulp-logger named Thompson, who owns four hundred acres of pine, birch, and spruce, and who logs it with the help of his five sons, for sale to the Mills in Portland and to householders in the immediate area.
When Cal, all unknowing of his queer prejudice, gave him the location to which the wood was to be brought, this Thompson stared at him with his mouth ajaw and said that he would send his sons with the wood, in the good light of the day, and by the sea road.
Calvin, apparently misreading my bemusement for distress, hastened to say that the man reeked of cheap whiskey and that he had then lapsed into some kind of nonsense about a deserted village and cousin Stephen's relations -and worms! Calvin finished his business with one of Thompson's boys, who, I take it, was rather surly and none too sober or freshly-scented himself. I take it there has been some of this reaction in Preacher's Corners itself, at the general store where Cal spoke with the shop-keeper, although this was more of the gossipy, behind-the-hand type.
None of this has bothered me much; we know how rustics dearly love to enrich their lives with the smell of scandal and myth, and I suppose poor Stephen and his side of the family are fair game. As I told Cal, a man who has fallen to his death almost from his own front porch is more than likely to stir talk.
The house itself is a constant amazement. Twenty-three rooms, Bones! The wainscoting which panels the upper floors and the portrait gallery is mildewed but still stout. While I stood in my late cousin's upstairs bedroom I could hear the rats scuttering behind it, and big ones they must be, from the sound they make - almost like people walking there. I should hate to encounter one in the dark; or even in the light, for that matter. Still, I have noted neither holes nor droppings. Odd.
The upper gallery is lined with bad portraits in frames which must be worth a fortune. Some bear a resemblance to Stephen as I remember him. I believe I have correctly identified my Uncle Henry Boone and his wife Judith; the others are unfamiliar. I suppose one of them may be my own notorious grandfather, Robert. But Stephen's side of the family is all but unknown to me, for which I am heartily sorry. The same good humour that shone in Stephen's letters to Sarah and me, the same light of high intellect, shines in these portraits, bad as they are. For what foolish reasons families fall out! A rifled escritoire, hard words between brothers now dead three generations, and blame-less descendants are needlessly estranged. I cannot help reflecting upon how fortunate it was that you and Join Petty succeeded in contacting Stephen when it seemed I might follow my Sarah through the Gates - and upon how unfortunate it was that chance should have robbed us of a face-to-face meeting. How I would have loved to hear him defend the ancestral statuary and furnishings!
But do not let me denigrate the place to an extreme. Stephen's taste was not my own, true, but beneath the veneer of his additions there are pieces [a number of them shrouded by dust-covers in the upper chambers] which are true masterworks. There are beds, tables, and heavy, dark scrollings done in teak and mahogany, and many of the bedrooms and receiving chambers, the upper study and small parlour, hold a sombre charm. The floors are rich pine that glow with an inner and secret light. There is dignity here; dignity and the weight of years. I cannot yet say I like it, but I do respect it. lam eager to watch it change as we revolve through the changes of this northern clime.
Lord, I run on! Write soon, Bones. Tell me what progress you make, and what news you hear from Petty and the rest. And please do not make the mistake of trying to persuade any new Southern acquaintances as to your views too forcibly - I understand that not all are content to answer merely with their mouths, as is our long-winded friend, Mr Calhoun.
Yr. affectionate friend,
16 October 1850
Hello, and how are you? I have thought about you often since I have taken up residence here at Chapelwaite, and had half expected to hear from you - and now I receive a letter from Bones telling me that I'd forgotten to leave my address at the club! Rest assured that I would have written eventually anyway, as it sometimes seems that my true and loyal friends are all I have left in the world that is sure and completely normal. And, Lord, how spread we've become! You in Boston, writing faithfully for The Liberator [to which I have also sent my address, incidentally], Hanson in England on another of his confounded jaunts, and poor old Bones in the very lions lair, recovering his lungs.
It goes as well as can be expected here, Dick, and be assured I will render you a full account when I am not quite as pressed by certain events which are extant here - I think your legal mind may be quite intrigued by certain happenings at Chapelwaite and in the area about it.
But in the meantime I have a favour to ask, if you will entertain it. Do you remember the historian you introduced me to at Mr Clary's fund-raising dinner for the cause? I believe his name was Bigelow. At any rate, he mentioned that he made a hobby of collecting odd bits of historical lore which pertained to the very area in which I am now living. My favour, then, is this: Would you contact him and ask him what facts, bits of folklore, or general rumour - if any - he may be conversant with about a small, deserted village called JERUSALEM'S LOT, near a township called Preacher's Corners, op the Royal River? The stream itself is a tributary of the Androscoggin, and flows into that river approximately eleven miles above that river's emptying place near Chapelwaite. It would gratify me intensely, and, more important, may be a matter of some moment.
In looking over this letter I feel I have been a bit short with you, Dick, for which I am heartily sorry. But be assured I will explain myself shortly, and until that time I send my warmest regards to your wife, two fine sons, and, of course, to yourself.
Yr. affectionate friend,
16 October 1850
I have a tale to tell you which seems a little strange [and even disquieting] to both Cal and me - see what you think. If nothing else, it may serve to amuse you while you battle the mosquitoes!
Two days after I mailed my last to you, a group of four young ladies arrived from the Corners under the supervision of an elderly lady of intimidatingly competent visage named Mrs Cloris, to set the place in order and to remove some of the dust that had been causing me to sneeze seemingly at every other step. They all seemed a little nervous as they went about their chores; indeed, one flighty miss uttered a small screeth when I entered the upstairs parlour as she dusted.
I asked Mrs Cloris about this [she was dusting the downstairs hall with grim determination that would have quite amazed you, her hair done up in an old faded bandannal], and she turned to me and said with an air of determination: 'They don't like the house, and I don't like the house, sir, because it has always been a bad house.'
My jaw dropped at this unexpected bit, and she went on in a kindlier tone: 'I do not mean to say that Stephen Boone was not a fine man, for he was; I cleaned for him every second Thursday all the time he was here, as I cleaned for his father, Mr Randolph Boone, until he and his wife disappeared in eighteen and sixteen. Mr Stephen was a good and kindly man, and so you seem, sir (if you will pardon my bluntness; I know no other way to speak), but the house is bad and it always has been, and no Boone has ever been happy here since your grandfather Robert and his brother Philip fell out over stolen [and here she paused, almost guiltily] items in seventeen and eighty-nine.'
Such memories these folks have, Bones!
Mrs Cloris continued: 'The house was built in unhappiness, has been lived in with unhappiness, there has been blood spilt on its floors [as you may or may not know, Bones, my Uncle Randolph was involved in an accident on the cellar stairs which took the life of his daughter Maroella; he then took his own life in a fit of remorse. The incident is related in one of Stephen's letters to me, on the sad occasion of his dead sister's birthday], there has been disappearance and accident.
'I have worked here, Mr Boone, and I am neither blind nor deaf. I've heard awful sounds in the walls, sir, awful sounds - thumpings and crashings and once a strange wailing that was half-laughter. It fair made my blood curdle. It's a dark place, sir.' And there she halted, perhaps afraid she had spoken too much.
As for myself, I hardly knew whether to be offended or amused, curious or merely matter-of-fact. I'm afraid that amusement won the day. 'And what do you suspect, Mrs Cloris? Ghosts rattling chains?'
But she only looked at me oddly. 'Ghosts there may be. But it's not ghosts in the walls. It's not ghosts that wail and blubber like the damned and crash and blunder away in the darkness. It's-'
'Come, Mrs Cloris,' I prompted her. 'You've come this far. Now can you finish what you've begun?'
The strangest expression of terror, pique, and - I would swear to it - religous awe passed over her face. 'Some die not' she whispered. 'Some live in the twilight shadows Between to serve - Him!'
And that was the end. For some minutes I continued to tax her, but she grew only more obstinate and would say no more. At last I desisted, fearing she might gather herself up and quit the premises.
This is the end of one episode, but a second occurred the following evening. Calvin had laid a fire downstairs and I was sitting in the living-room, drowsing over a copy of The Intelligencer and listening to the sound of wind-driven rain on the large bay window. I felt comfortable as only one can on such a night, when all is miserable outside and all is warmth and comfort inside; but a moment later Cal appeared at the door, looking excited and a bit nervous.
'Are you awake, sir?' he asked.
'Barely,' I said. 'What is it?'
'I've found something upstairs I think you should see,' he responded, with the same air of suppressed excitement.
I got up and followed him. As we climbed the wide stairs, Calvin said: 'I was reading a book in the upstairs study - a rather strange one when I heard a noise in the wall.'
'Rats,' I said. 'Is that all?'
He paused on the landing, looking at me solemnly. The lamp he held cast weird, lurking shadows on the dark draperies and on the half-seen portraits that seemed now to leer rather than smile. Outside the wind rose to a brief scream and then subsided grudgingly.
'Not rats,' Cal said. 'There was a kind of blundering, thudding sound from behind the book-cases, and then a horrible gurgling - horrible, sir. And scratching, as if something were struggling to get out
to get at me!'
You can imagine my amazement, Bones. Calvin is not the type to give way to hysterical flights of imagination. It began to seem that there was a mystery here after all - and perhaps an ugly one indeed.
'What then?' I asked him. We had resumed down the hall, and I could see the light from the study spilling forth on to the floor of the gallery. I viewed it with some trepidation; the night seemed no longer comfortable.
'The scratching noise stopped. After a moment the thudding, shuffling sounds began again, this time moving away from me. I paused once, and I swear I heard a strange, almost inaudible laugh! I went to the book-case and began to push and pull, thinking there might be a partition, or a secret door.'
'You found one?'
Cal paused at the door to the study. 'No - but I found this!'
We stepped in and I saw a square black hole in the left case. The books at that point were nothing but dummies, and what Cal had found was a small hiding place. I flashed my lamp within it and saw nothing but a thick fall of dust, dust which must have been decades old.
'There was only this,' Cal said quietly, and handed me a yellowed foolscap. The thing was a map, drawn in spider-thin strokes of black ink - the map of a town or village. There were perhaps seven buildings, and one, clearly marked with a steeple, bore this legend beneath it: The Worm That Doth Corrupt.
In the upper left corner, to what would have been the north-west of this little village, an arrow pointed. Inscribed beneath it: Chapelwaite.
Calvin said: 'In town, sir, someone rather superstitiously mentioned a deserted village called Jerusalem's Lot. It's a place they steer clear of.'
'But this?' I asked, fingering the odd legend below the steeple.
'I don't know.'
A memory of Mrs Cloris, adamant yet fearful, passed through my mind. 'The Worm
' I muttered.
'Do you know something, Mr Boone?'
it might be amusing to have a look for this town tomorrow, do you think, Cal?'
He nodded, eyes lighting. We spent almost an hour after this looking for some breach in the wall behind the cubbyhole Cal had found, but with no success. Nor was there a recurrence of the noises Cal had described.
We retired with no further adventure that night.
On the following morning Calvin and I set out on our ramble through the woods. The rain of the night before had ceased, but the sky was sombre and lowering. I could see Cal looking at me with some doubtfulness and I hastened to reassure him that should I tire, or the journey prove too far, I would not hesitate to call a halt to the affair. We had equipped ourselves with a picnic lunch, a fine Buckwhite compass, and, of course, the odd and ancient map of Jerusalem's Lot.
It was a strange and brooding day; not a bird seemed to sing nor an animal to move as we made our way through the great and gloomy stands of pine to the south and east. The only sounds were those of our own feet and the steady pound of the Atlantic against the headlands. The smell of the sea, almost preternaturally heavy, was our constant companion.
We had gone no more than two miles when we struck an overgrown road of what I believe were once called the 'corduroy' variety; this tended in our general direction and we struck off along it, making brisk time. We spoke little. The day, with its still and ominous quality, weighed heavily on our spirits.
At about eleven o'clock we heard the sound of rushing water. The remnant of road took a hard turn to the left, and on the other side of a boiling, slaty little stream, like an apparition, was Jerusalem's Lot!
The stream was perhaps eight feet across, spanned by a moss-grown footbridge. On the far side, Bones, stood the most perfect little village you might imagine, understandably weathered, but amazingly preserved. Several houses, done in that austere yet commanding form for which the Puritans were justly famous, stood clustered near the steeply-sheared bank. Further beyond, along a weed-grown thoroughfare, stood three or four of what might have been primitive business establishments; and beyond that, the spire of the church marked on the map, rising up to the grey sky and looking grim beyond description with its peeled paint and tarnished, leaning cross.
'The town is well named,' Can said softly beside me.
We crossed to the town and began to poke through it -and this is where my story grows slightly amazing, Bones, so prepare yourself!
The air seemed leaden as we walked among the buildings; weighted, if you will. The edifices were in a state of decay - shutters torn off, roofs crumbled under the weight of heavy snows gone by, windows dusty and leering. Shadows from odd corners and warped angles seemed to sit in sinister pools.
We entered an old and rotting tavern first - somehow it did not seem right that we should invade any of those houses to which people had retired when they wished privacy. An old and weather-scrubbed sign above the splintered door announced that this had been the BOAR'S HEAD INN AND TAVERN. The door creaked hellishly on its one remaining hinge, and we stepped into the shadowed interior. The smell of rot and mould was vaporous and nearly overpowering. And beneath it seemed to lie an even deeper smell, a slimy and pestiferous smell, a smell of ages and the decay of ages. Such a stench as might issue from corrupt coffins or violated tombs. I held my handkerchief to my nose and Cal did likewise. We surveyed the place.
'My God, sir -' Cal said faintly.
'It's never been touched,' I finished for him.
As indeed it had not. Tables and chairs stood about like ghostly guardians of the watch, dusty, warped by the extreme changes in temperature which the new England climate is known for, but otherwise perfect - as if they had waited through the silent, echoing decades for those long gone to enter once more, to call for a pint or a dram, to deal cards and light clay pipes. A small square mirror hung beside the rules of the tavern, unbroken. Do you see the significance, Bones? Small boys are noted for exploration and vandalism; there is not a 'haunted' house which stands with windows intact, no matter how fearsome the eldritch inhabitants are rumoured to be; not a shadowy graveyard without at least one tombstone upended by young pranksters. Certainly there must be a score of young pranksters in Preacher's Corners, not two miles from Jerusalem's Lot. Yet the inn-keeper's glass [which must have cost him a nice sum] was intact - as were the other fragile items we found in our pokings. The only damage in Jerusalem's Lot has been done by impersonal Nature. The implication is obvious:
Jerusalem's Lot is a shunned town. But why? I have a notion, but before I even dare hint at it, I must proceed to the unsettling conclusion of our visit.
We went up to the sleeping quarters and found beds made up, pewter water-pitchers neatly placed beside them. The kitchen was likewise untouched by anything save the dust of the years and that horrible, sunken stench of decay. The tavern alone would be an antiquarian's paradise; the wondrously queer kitchen stove alone would fetch a pretty price at Boston auction.
'What do you think, Cal?' I asked when we had emerged again into the uncertain daylight.
'I think it's bad business, Mr Boone,' he replied in his doleful way, 'and that we must see more to know more.'
We gave the other shops scant notice - there was a hostelry with mouldering leather goods still hung on rusted flatnails, a chandler's, a warehouse with oak and pine still stacked within, a smithy.
We entered two houses as we made our way towards the church at the centre of the village. Both were perfectly in the Puritan mode, full of items a collector would give his arm for, both deserted and full of the same rotten scent.
Nothing seemed to live or move in all of this but ourselves. We saw no insects, no birds, not even a cobweb fashioned in a window corner. Only dust.
At last we reached the church. It reared above us, grim, uninviting, cold. Its windows were black with the shadows inside, and any Godliness or sanctity had departed from it long ago. Of that I am certain. We mounted the steps, and I placed my hand on the large iron door-pull. A set, dark look passed from myself to Calvin and back again. I opened the portal. How long since that door had been touched? I would say with confidence that mine was the first in fifty years; perhaps longer. Rust-clogged hinges screamed as I opened it. The smell of rot and decay which smote us was nearly palpable. Cal made a gagging sound in his throat and twisted his head involuntarily for clearer air.
'Sir,' he asked, 'are you sure that you are
'I'm fine,' I said calmly. But I did not feel calm, Bones, no more than I do now, I believe, with Moses, with Jeroboam, with Increase Mather, and with our own Hanson [when he is in a philosophical temperament], that there are spiritually noxious places, buildings where the milk of the cosmos has become sour and rancid. This church is such a place; I would swear to it.
We stepped into a long vestibule equipped with a dusty coat rack and shelved hymnals. It was windowless. Oil-lamps stood in niches here and there. An unremarkable room I thought, until I heard Calvin's sharp gasp and saw what he had already noticed.
It was an obscenity.
I daren't describe that elaborately-framed picture further than this: that it was done after the fleshy style of Rubens; that it contained a grotesque travesty of a madonna and child; that strange, half-shadowed creatures sported and crawled in the background.
'Lord,' I whispered.
'There's no Lord here,' Calvin said, and his words seemed to hang in the air. I opened the door leading into the church itself, and the odour became a miasma, nearly overpowering.
In the glimmering half-light of afternoon the pews stretched ghostlike to the altar. Above them was a high, oaken pulpit and a shadow-struck narthex from which gold glimmered.
With a half-sob Calvin, that devout Protestant, made the Holy Sign, and I followed suit. For the gold was a large, beautifully-wrought cross - but it was hung upside-down, symbol of Satan's Mass.
'We must be calm,' I heard myself saying. 'We must be calm, Calvin. We must be calm.'
But a shadow had touched my heart, and I was afraid as I
had never been. I have walked beneath death's umbrella and thought there was none darker. But there is. There is.
We walked down the aisle, our footfalls echoing above and around us. We left tracks in the dust. And at the altar there were other tenebrous objets d'art. I will not, cannot, let my mind dwell upon them.
I began to mount to the pulpit itself.
'Don't Mr Boone!' Cal cried suddenly. 'I'm afraid -'
But I had gained it. A huge book lay open upon the stand, writ both in Latin and crabbed runes which looked, to my unpractised eye, either Druidic or pre-Celtic. I enclose a card with several of the symbols, redrawn from memory.
I closed the book and looked at the words stamped into the leather: De Vermis Mystenis. My Latin is rusty, but serviceable enough to translate: The Mysteries of the Worm.
As I touched it, that accursed church and Calvin's white, upturned face seemed to swim before me. It seemed that I heard low, chanting voices, full of hideous yet eager fear -and below that sound, another, filling the bowels of the earth. An hallucination, I doubt it not - but at the same moment, the church was filled with a very real sound, which I can only describe as a huge and macabre turning beneath my feet. The pulpit trembled beneath my fingers; the desecrated cross trembled on the wall.
We exited together, Cal and I, leaving the place to its own darkness, and neither of us dared look back until we had crossed the rude planks spanning the stream. I will not say we defiled the nineteen hundred years man has spent climbing upwards from a hunkering and superstitious savage by actually running; but I would be a liar to say that we strolled.
That is my tale. You mustn't shadow your recovery by fearing that the fever has touched me again; Cal can attest to all in these pages, up to and including the hideous noise.
So I close, saying only that I wish I might see you [knowing that much of my bewilderment would drop away immediately], and that I remain your friend and admirer,
17 October 1850
In the most recent edition of your catalogue of household items (i.e., Summer, 1850), I noticed a preparation which is titled Rat's Bane. I should like to purchase one (1)5-pound tin of this preparation at your stated price of thirty cents ($.30). I enclose return postage. Please mail to: Calvin McCann, Chapelwaite, Preacher's Corners, Cumberland County, Maine.
Thank you for your attention in this matter.
I remain, dear Gentlemen,
19 October 1850
Developments of a disquieting nature.
The noises in the house have intensified, and I am growing more to the conclusion that rats are not all that move within our walls. Calvin and I went on another fruitless search for hidden crannies or passages, but found nothing. How poorly we would fit into one of Mrs Radcliffe's romances! Cal claims, however, that much of the sound emanates from the cellar, and it is there we intend to explore tomorrow. It makes me no easier to know that Cousin Stephen's sister met her unfortunate end there.
Her portrait, by the by, hangs in the upstairs gallery. Marcella Boone was a sadly pretty thing, if the artist got her right, and I do know she never married. At times I think that Mrs Cloris was right, that it is a bad house. It has certainly held nothing but gloom for its past inhabitants.
But I have more to say of the redoubtab!e Mrs Cloris, for I have had this day a second interview with her. As the most level-headed person from the Corners that I have met thus far, I sought her out this afternoon, after an unpleasant interview which I will relate.
The wood was to have been delivered this morning, and when noon came and passed and no wood with it, I decided to take my daily walk into the town itself. My object was to visit Thompson, the man with whom Cal did business.
It has been a lovely day, full of the crisp snap of bright autumn, and by the time I reached the Thompsons' homestead [Cal, who remained home to poke further through Uncle Stephen's library gave me adequate directions] I felt in the best mood that these last few days have seen, and quite prepared to forgive Thompson's tardiness with the wood.
The place was a massive tangle of weeds and fallen-down buildings in need of paint; to the left of the barn a huge sow, ready for November butchering, grunted and wallowed in a muddy sty, and in the littered yard between house and outbuildings a woman in a tattered gingham dress was feeding chickens from her apron. When I hailed her, she turned a pale and vapid face towards me.
The sudden change in expression from utter, doltish emptiness to one of frenzied terror was quite wonderful to behold. I can only think she took me for Stephen himself, for she raised her hand in the prong-fingered sign of the evil eye and screamed. The chicken-feed scattered on the ground and the fowls fluttered away, squawking.
Before I could utter a sound a huge, hulking figure of a man clad only in long-handled underwear lumbered out of the house with a squirrel-rifle in one hand and a jug in the other. From the red light in his eye and unsteady manner of walking, I judged that this was Thompson the Woodcutter himself.
'A Boone!' he roared. 'G- d-n your eyes!' He dropped the jug a-rolling and also made the Sign.
'I've come,' I said with as much equanimity as I could muster under the circumstances, 'because the wood has not. According to the agreement you struck with my man -'
'G- d-n your man too, say I!' And for the first time I noticed that beneath his bluff and bluster he was deadly afraid. I began seriously to wonder if he mightn't actually use his rifle against me in his excitement.
I began carefully: 'As a gesture of courtesy, you might -'
'G- d-n your courtesy!'
'Very well, then,' I said with as much dignity as I could muster. 'I bid you good day until you are more in control of yourself.' And with this I turned away and began down the road to the village.
'Don'tchee come back!' he screamed after me. 'Stick wi' your evil up there! Cursed! Cursed! Cursed!' He pelted a stone at me, which struck my shoulder. I would not give him the satisfaction of dodging.
So I sought out Mrs Cloris, determined to solve the mystery of Thompson's enmity, at least. She is a widow [and none of your confounded matchmaking, Bones; she is easily fifteen years my senior, and I'll not see forty again] and lives by herself in a charming little cottage at the ocean's very doorstep. I found the lady hanging out her wash, and she seemed genuinely pleased to see me. I found this a great relief; it is vexing almost beyond words to be branded pariah for no understandable reason.
'Mr Boone,' said she, offering a half-curtsey. 'If you've come about washing, I take none in past September. My rheumatiz pains me so that it's trouble enough to do my own.'
'I wish laundry was the subject of my visit. I've come for help, Mrs Cloris. I must know all you can tell me about Chapelwaite and Jerusalem's Lot and why the townfolk regard me with such fear and suspicion!'
'Jerusalem's Lot! You know about that, then.'
'Yes,' I replied, 'and visited it with my companion a week ago.'
'God!' She went pale as milk, and tottered. I put out a hand to steady her. Her eyes rolled horribly, and for a moment I was sure she would swoon.
'Mrs Cloris, I am sorry if I have said anything -'
'Come inside,' she said. 'You must know. Sweet Jesu, the evil days have come again!'
She would not speak more until she had brewed strong tea in her sunshiny kitchen. When it was before us, she looked pensively out at the ocean for a time. Inevitably, her eyes and mine were drawn to the jutting brow of Chapelwaite Head, where the house looked out over the water. The large bay window glittered in the rays of the westering sun like a diamond. The view was beautiful but strangely disturbing. She suddenly turned to me and declared vehemently:
'Mr Boone, you must leave Chapelwaite immediately!'
I was flabbergasted.
'There has been an evil breath in the air since you took up residence. In the last week - since you set foot in the accursed place - there have been omens and portents. A caul over the face of the moon; flocks of whippoorwills which roost in the cemeteries; an unnatural birth. You must leave!'
When I found my tongue, I spoke as gently as I could. 'Mrs Cloris, these things are dreams. You must know that.'
'Is it a dream that Barbara Brown gave birth to a child with no eyes? Or that Clifton Brockett found a flat, pressed trail five feet wide in the woods beyond Chapelwaite where all had withered and gone white? And can you, who have visited Jerusalem's Lot, say with truth that nothing still lives there?'
I could not answer; the scene in that hideous church sprang before my eyes.
She clamped her gnarled hands together in an effort to calm herself. 'I know of these things only from my mother and her mother before her. Do you know the history of your family as it applies to Chapelwaite?'
'Vaguely,' I said. 'The house has been the home of Philip Boone's line since the 1780's; his brother Robert, my grand-father, located in Massachusetts after an argument over stolen papers. Of Philip's side I know little, except that an unhappy shadow fell over it, extending from father to son to grandchildren - Marcella died in a tragic accident and Stephen fell to his death. It was his wish that Chapelwaite become the home of me and mine, and that the family rift thus be mended.'
'Never to be mended,' she whispered. 'You know nothing of the original quarrel?'
'Robert Boone was discovered rifling his brother's desk.'
'Philip Boone was mad,' she said. 'A man who trafficked with the unholy. The thing which Robert Boone attempted to remove was a profane Bible writ in the old tongues -Latin, Druidic, others. A hell-book.'
'De Vermis Mystenis.'
She recoiled as if struck. 'You know of it?'
'I have seen it
touched it.' It seemed again she might swoon. A hand went to her mouth as if to stifle an outcry. 'Yes; in Jerusalem's Lot. On the pulpit of a corrupt and desecrated church.'
'Still there; still there, then.' She rocked in her chair. 'I had hoped God in His wisdom had cast it into the pit of hell.'
'What relation had Philip Boone to Jerusalem's Lot?'
'Blood relation,' she said darkly. 'The Mark of the Beast was on him, although he walked in the clothes of the Lamb. And on the night of 31 October 1789 Philip Boone disappeared
and the entire populace of that damned village with him.'
She would say little more; in fact, seemed to know little more. She would only reiterate her pleas that I leave, giving as reason something about 'blood calling to blood' and muttering about 'those who watch and those who guard'. As twilight drew on she seemed to grow more agitated rather than less, and to placate her I promised that her wishes would be taken under strong consideration.
I walked home through lengthening, gloomy shadows, my good mood quite dissipated and my head spinning with questions which still plague me. Cal greeted me with the news that our noises in the walls have grown worse still- as I can attest at this moment. I try to tell myself that I hear only rats, but then I see the terrified, earnest face of Mrs Cloris.
The moon has risen over the sea, bloated, full, the colour of blood, staining the ocean with a noxious shade. My mind turns to that church again and
(here a line is struck out)
But you shall not see that, Bones. It is too mad. It is time I slept, I think. My thoughts go out to you.
(The following is from the pocket journal of Calvin McCann.)
20 October 1850
Took the liberty this morning of forcing the lock which binds the book closed; did it before Mr Boone arose. No help; it is all in cypher. A simple one, I believe. Perhaps I may break it as easily as the lock. A diary, I am certain the hand oddly like Mr Boone's own. Whose book, shelved in the most obscure corner of this library and locked across the pages? It seems old, but how to tell? The corrupting air has largely been kept from its pages. More later, if time; Mr Boone set upon looking about the cellar. Am afraid these dreadful goings-on will be too much for his chancy health yet. I must try to persuade him -But he comes.
20 October 1850 BONES,
I can't write I cant [sic] write of this yet I I I
(From the pocket journal of Calvin McCann)
20 October 1850
As I had feared, his health has broken -Dear God, our Father Who art in Heaven!
Cannot bear to think of it; yet it is planted, burned on my brain like a tin-type; that horror in the cellar -!
Alone now; half-past eight o'clock; house silent but -Found him swooned over his writing table; he still sleeps; yet for those few moments how nobly he acquitted himself while I stood paralyzed and shattered!
His skin is waxy, cool. Not the fever again, God be thanked. I daren't move him or leave him to go to the village. And if I did go, who would return with me to aid him? Who would come to this cursed house?
O, the cellar! The things in the cellar that have haunted our walls!
22 October 1850
I am myself again, although weak, after thirty-six hours of unconsciousness. Myself again
what a grim and bitter joke! I shall never be myself again, never. I have come face to face with an insanity and a horror beyond the limits of human expression. And the end is not yet.
If it were not for Cal, I believe I should end my life this minute. He is one island of sanity in all this madness.
You shall know it all.
We had equipped ourselves with candles for our cellar exploration, and they threw a strong glow that was quite adequate - hellishly adequate! Calvin tried to dissuade me, citing my recent illness, saying that the most we should probably find would be some healthy rats to mark for poisoning.
I remained determined, however; Calvin fetched a sigh and answered: 'Have it as you must, then, Mr Boone.'
The entrance to the cellar is by means of a trap in the kitchen floor [which Cal assures me he has since stoutly boarded over], and we raised it only with a great deal of straining and lifting.
A fetid, overpowering smell came up out of the darkness, not unlike that which pervaded the deserted town across the Royal River. The candle I held shed its glow on a steeply-slanting flight of stairs leading down into darkness. They were in a terrible state of repair - in one place an entire riser missing, leaving only a black hole - and it was easy enough to see how the unfortunate Marcella might have come to her end there.
'Be careful, Mr Boone!' Cal said; I told him I had no intention of being anything but, and we made the descent.
The floor was earthen, the walls of stout granite, and hardly wet. The place did not look like a rat haven at all, for there were none of the things rats like to make their nests in, such as old boxes, discarded furniture, piles of paper, and the like. We lifted our candles, gaining a small circle of light, but still able to see little. The floor had a gradual slope which seemed to run beneath the main living-room and the dining-room - i.e., to the west. It was in this direction we walked. All was in utter silence. The stench in the air grew steadily stronger, and the dark about us seemed to press like wool, as if jealous of the light which had temporarily deposed it after so many years of undisputed dominion.
At the far end, the granite walls gave way to a polished wood which seemed totally black and without reflective properties. Here the cellar ended, leaving what seemed to be an alcove off the main chamber. It was positioned at an angle which made inspection impossible without stepping around the corner.
Calvin and I did so.
It was as if a rotten spectre of this dwelling's sinister past had risen before us. A single chair stood in this alcove, and above it, fastened from a hook in one of the stout overhead beams, was a decayed noose of hemp.
'Then it was here that he hung himself,' Cal muttered. 'God!'
with the corpse of his daughter lying at the foot of the stairs behind him.'
Cal began to speak; then I saw his eyes jerked to a spot behind me; then his words became a scream.
How, Bones, can I describe the sight which fell upon our eyes? How can I tell you of the hideous tenants within our walls?
The far wall swung back, and from that darkness a face leered - a face with eyes as ebon as the Styx itself. Its mouth yawned in a toothless, agonized grin; one yellow, rotted hand stretched itself out to us. It made a hideous, mewling sound and took a shambling step forward. The light from my candle fell upon it -And I saw the livid rope-burn about its neck!
From beyond it something else moved, something I shall dream of until the day when all dreams cease: a girl with a pallid, mouldering face and a corpse-grin; a girl whose head lolled at a lunatic angle.
They wanted us; I know it. And I know they would have drawn us into that darkness and made us their own, had I not thrown my candle directly at the thing in the partition, and followed it with the chair beneath that noose.
After that, all is confused darkness. My mind has drawn the curtain. I awoke, as I have said, in my room with Cal at my side.
If I could leave, I should fly from this house of horror with my nightdress flapping at my heels. But I cannot. I have become a pawn in a deeper, darker drama. Do not ask howl know; I only do. Mrs Cloris was right when she spoke of blood calling to blood; and how horribly right when she spoke of those who watch and those who guard. I fear that I have wakened a Force which has slept in the tenebrous village of 'Salem's Lot for half a century, a Force which has slain my ancestors and taken them in unholy bondage as nosferatu - the Undead. And I have greater fears than these, Bones, but I still see only in part. If I knew
if I only knew all!
Postscriptum - And of course I write this only for myself; we are isolated from Preacher's Corner. I daren't carry my taint there to post this, and Calvin will not leave me. Perhaps, if God is good, this will reach you in some manner.
(From the pocket journal of Calvin McCann)
23 October 1850
He is stronger today; we talked briefly of the apparitions in the cellar; agreed they were neither hallucinations nor of an ectoplasmic origin, but real. Does Mr Boone suspect, as I do, that they have gone? Perhaps; the noises are still; yet all is ominous yet, o'ercast with a dark pall. It seems we wait in the deceptive Eye of the Storm.
Have found a packet of papers in an upstairs bedroom, lying in the bottom drawer of an old roll-top desk. Some correspndence & receipted bills lead me to believe the room was Robert Boone's. Yet the most interesting document is a few jottings on the back of an advertisement for gentlemen's beaver hats. At the top is writ:
Blessed are the meek.
Below, the following apparent nonsense is writ:
bke dshdermthes eak
I believe 'tis the key of the locked and coded book in the library. The cypher above is certainly a rustic one used in the War for Independence known as the Fence-Rail. When one removes the 'nulls' from the second bit of scribble, the following is obtained:
Read up and down rather than across, the result is the original quotation from the Beatitudes.
Before I dare show this to Mr Boone, I must be sure of the book's contents
24 October 1850
An amazing occurrence - Cal, always close-mouthed until absolutely sure of himself [a rare and admirable human trait!], has found the diary of my grandfather Robert. The document was in a code which Cal himself has broken. He modestly declares that the discovery was an accident, but I suspect that perseverance and hard work had rather more to do with it.
At any rate, what a sombre light it sheds on our mysteries here!
The first entry is dated 1 June 1789, the last 27 October 1789 - four days before the cataclysmic disappearance of which Mrs Cloris spoke. It tells a tale of deepening obsession - nay, of madness - and makes hideously clear the relationship between Great-uncle Philip, the town of Jerusalem's Lot, and the book which rests in that desecrated church.
The town itself, according to Robert Boone, pre-dates Chapelwaite (built in 1782) and Preacher's Corners (known in those days as Preacher's Rest and founded in 1741); it was founded by a splinter group of the Puritan faith in 1710, a sect headed by a dour religious fanatic named James Boon. What a start that name gave me! That this Boon bore relation to my family can hardly be doubted, I believe. Mrs Cloris could not have been more right in her superstitious belief that familial blood-line is of crucial importance in this matter; and I recall with terror her answer to my question about Philip and his relationship to 'Salem's Lot. 'Blood relation,' said she, and I fear that it is so.
The town became a settled community built around the church where Boon preached - or held court. My grandfather intimates that he also held commerce with any number of ladies from the town, assuring them that this was God's way and will. As a result, the town became an anomaly which could only have existed in those isolated and queer days when belief in witches and the Virgin Birth existed hand in hand: an interbred, rather degenerate religious village controlled by a half-mad preacher whose twin gospels were the Bible and de Gourdge's sinister Demon Dwellings; a community in which rites of exorcism were held regularly; a community of incest and the insanity and physical defects which so often accompany that sin. I suspect [and believe Robert Boone must have also] that one of Boon's bastard offspring must have left [or have been spirited away from] Jerusalem's Lot to seek his fortune to the south - and thus founded our present lineage. I do know by my own family reckoning, that our clan supposedly originated in that part of Massachusetts which has so lately become this Sovereign State of Maine. My great-grandfather Kenneth Boone, became a rich man as a result of the then-flourishing fur trade. It was his money, increased by time and wise investment, which built this ancestral home long after his death in 1763. His sons, Philip and Robert, built Chapelwaite. Blood calls to blood, Mrs Cloris said. Could it be that Kenneth was born of James Boon, fled the madness of his father and his father's town, only to have his sons, all-unknowing, build the Boone home not two miles from the Boon beginnings? If tis true, does it not seem that some huge and invisible Hand has guided us?
According to Robert's diary, James Boon was ancient in 1789 - and he must have been. Granting him an age of twenty-five in the year of the town's founding, he would have been one hundred and four, a prodigious age. The following is quoted direct from Robert Boone's diary:
4 August 1789
Today for the first time I met this Man with whom my Brother has been so unhealthily taken; I must admit this Boon controls a strange Magnetism which upset me Greatly. He is a veritable Ancient, white-bearded, and dresses in a black Cassock which struck me as somehow obscene. More disturbing yet was the Fact that he was surrounded by Women, as a Sultan would be surrounded by his Harem; and P. assures me he is active yet, although at least an Octogenarian
The Village itself I had visited only once before, and will not visit again; its Streets are silent and filled with the Fear the old Man inspires from his Pulpit: I fear also that Like has mated with Like, as so many of the Faces are similar. It seemed that each way I turned I beheld the old Man's Visage
all are so wan; they seem Lack-Lustre, as if sucked dry of all Vitality, I beheld Eyeless and Noseless Children, Women who wept and gibbered and pointed at the Sky for no Reason, and garbled talk from the Scriptures with talk of Demons P wished me to stay for Services, but the thought of that sinister Ancient in the Pulpit before an Audience of this Town's interbred Populace repulsed me and I made an Excuse.
The entries preceding and following this tell of Philip's growing fascination with James Boon. On 1 September 1789, Philip was baptized into Boon's church. His brother says: 'I am aghast with Amaze and Horror - my Brother has changed before my very Eyes - he even seems to grow to resemble the wretched Man.'
First mention of the book occurs on 23 July. Robert's diary records it only briefly: 'P. returned from the smaller Village tonight with, I thought, a rather wild Visage. Would not speak until Bedtime, when he said that Boon had enquired after a Book titled Mysteries of the Worm. To please P.I promised to write Johns & Goodfellow a letter of enquiry; P. almost fawningly Grateful.'
On 12 August, this notation: 'Rec'd two Letters in the Post today
one from Johns & Goodfellow in Boston.
They have Note of the Tome in which P. has expressed an Interest. Only five Copies extant in this Country. The Letter is rather cool; odd indeed. Have known Henry Goodfellow for Years.'
P. insanely excited by Goodfellow's letter; refuses to say why. He would only say that Boon is exceedingly anxious to obtain a Copy. Cannot think why, since by the Title it seems only a harmless gardening Treatise.
Am worried for Philip; he grows stranger to me Daily. I wish now we had not returned to Chapelwaite. The Summer is hot, oppressive, and filled with Omens.
There are only two further mentions of the infamous book in Robert's diary [he seems not to have realized the true importance of it, even at the end]. From the entry of 4 September:
I have petitioned Goodfellow to act as his Agent in the matter of the Purchase; although my better Judgement cries against It. What use to demur? Has he not his own Money, should I refuse? And in return I have extracted a Promise from Philip to recant this noisome Baptism.
yet he is so Hectic; nearly Feverish; I do not trust him. I am hopelessly at Sea in this Matter.
Finally, 16 September:
The Book arrived today, with a note from Goodfellow saying he wishes no more of my Trade
P. was excited to an unnatural Degree; all but snatched the Book from my Hands. It is writ in bastard Latin and a Runic Script of which I can read Nothing. The Thing seemed almost warm to the Touch, and to vibrate in my Hands as if it contained a huge Power
I reminded P. of his Promise to Recant and he only laughed in an ugly, crazed Fashion and waved that Book in my Face, crying over and over again: 'We have it! We have it! The Worm! The Secret of the Worm!'
He is now fled, I suppose to his mad Benefactor, and I have not seen him more this Day
Of the book there is no more, but I have made certain deductions which seem at least probable. First, that this book was, as Mrs Cloris has said, the subject of the falling-out between Robert and Philip; second, that it is a repository of unholy incantation, possibly of Druidic origin [many of the Druidic blood-rituals were preserved in print by the Roman conquerors of Britain in the name of scholarship, and many of these infernal cook-books are among the world's forbidden literature]; third, that Boon and Philip intended to use the book for their own ends. Perhaps, in some twisted way, they intended good, but I do not believe it. I believe they had long before bound themselves over to whatever faceless powers exist beyond the rim of the Universe; powers which may exist beyond the very fabric of Time. The last entries of Robert Boone's diary lend a dim glow of approbation to these speculations, and I allow them to speak for themselves:
26 October 1789 A terrific Babble in Preacher's Corners today; Frawley, the Blacksmith, seized my Arm and demanded to know 'What your Brother and that mad Antichrist are into up there.' Goody Randall claims there have been Signs in the Sky of great impending Disaster. A Cow has been born with two Heads.
As for Myself, I know not what impends; perhaps 'tis my Brother's Insanity. His Hair has gone Grey almost Overnight, his Eyes are great bloodshot Circles from which the pleasing light of Sanity seems to have departed. He grins and whispers, and, for some Reason of his Own, has begun to haunt our Cellar when not in Jerusalem's Lot.
The Whippoorwills congregate about the House and upon the Grass; their combined Calling from the Mist blends with the Sea into an unearthly Shriek that precludes all thought of Sleep.
27 October 1789
Followed P. this Evening when he departed for Jerusalem's Lot, keeping a safe Distance to avoid Discovery. The cursed Whippoorwills flock through the Woods, filling all with a deathly, psycho-pompotic Chant. I dared not cross the Bridge; the Town all dark except for the Church, which was litten with a ghastly red Glare that seemed to transform the high, peak'd Windows into the Eyes of the Inferno. Voices rose and fell in a Devil's Litany, sometimes laughing, sometimes sobbing. The very Ground seem'd to swell and groan beneath me, as if it bore an awful Weight, and I fled, amaz'd and full of Terror, the hellish, screaming Cries of the Whippoorwills dinning in my ears as I ran through those shadow-riven Woods.
All tends to the Climax, yet unforeseen. I dare not sleep for the Dreams that come, yet not remain awake for what lunatic Terrors may come. The night is full of awful Sounds and I fear -And yet I feel the urge to go again, to watch, to see. It seems that Philip himself calls me, and the Old Man. The Birds
cursed cursed cursed
Here the diary of Robert Boone ends.
Yet you must notice, Bones, near the conclusion, that he claims Philip himself seemed to call him. My final conclusion is formed by these lines, by the talk of Mrs Cloris and the others, but most of all by those terrifying figures in the cellar, dead yet alive. Our line is yet an unfortunate one, Bones. There is a curse over us which refuses to be buried; it lives a hideous shadow-life in this house and that town. And the culmination of the cycle is drawing close again. I am the last of the Boone blood. I fear that something knows this, and that I am at the nexus of an evil endeavour beyond all sane understanding. The anniversary is All Saints' Eve, one week from today.
How shall I proceed? If only you were here to counsel me, to help me! If only you were here!
I must know all; I must return to the shunned town. May God support me!
(From the pocket journal of Calvin McCann)
25 October 1850
Mr Boone has slept nearly all this day. His face is pallid and much thinner. I fear recurrence of his fever is inevitable.
While refreshing his water carafe I caught sight of two unmailed letters to Mr Granson in Florida. He plans to return to Jerusalem's Lot; 'twill be the killing of him if I allow it. Dare I steal away to Preacher's Corners and hire a buggy? I must, and yet what if he wakes? If I should return and find him gone?
The noises have begun in our walls again. Thank God he still sleeps! My mind shudders from the import of this.
I brought him his dinner on a tray. He plans on rising later, and despite his evasions, I know what he plans; yet I go to Preacher's Corners. Several of the sleeping-powders prescribed to him during his late illness remained with my things; he drank one with his tea, all-unknowing. He sleeps again.
To leave him with the Things that shamble behind our walls terrifies me; to let him continue even one more day within these walls terrifies me even more greatly. I have locked him in.
God grant he should still be there, safe and sleeping, when I return with the buggy!
Stoned me! Stoned me like a wild and rabid dog! Monsters and fiends! These, that call themselves men! We are prisoners here -The birds, the whippoorwills, have begun to gather.
26 October 1850
It is nearly dusk, and I have just wakened, having slept nearly the last twenty-four hours away. Although Cal has said nothing, I suspect he put a sleeping-powder in my tea, having gleaned my intentions. He is a good and faithful friend, intending only the best, and I shall say nothing.
Yet my mind is set. Tomorrow is the day. I am calm, resolved, but also seem to feel the subtle onset of the fever again. If it is so, it must be tomorrow. Perhaps tonight would be better still; yet not even the fires of Hell itself could induce me to set foot in that village by shadowlight.
Should I write no more, may God bless and keep you, Bones.
Posiscriptum - The birds have set up their cry, and the horrible shuffling sounds have begun again. Cal does not think I hear, but I do.
(From the pocket journal of Calvin McCann)
27 October 1850
He is impersuadable. Very well. I go with him.
4 November 1850
Weak, yet lucid. I am not sure of the date, yet my almanac assures me by tide and sunset that it must be correct. I sit at my desk, where I sat when I first wrote you from Chapelwaite, and look out over the dark sea from which the last of the light is rapidly fading. I shall never see more. This night is my night; I leave it for whatever shadows be.
How it heaves itself at the rocks, this sea! It throws clouds of sea-foam at the darkling sky in banners, making the floor beneath me tremble. In the window-glass I see my reflection, pallid as any vampire's. I have been without nourishment since the twenty-seventh of October, and should have been without water, had not Calvin left the carafe beside my bed on that day.
0, Cal! He is no more, Bones. He is gone in my place, in the place of this wretch with his pipestem arms and skull face who I see reflected back in the darkened glass. And yet he may be the more fortunate; for no dreams haunt him as they have haunted me these last days - twisted shapes that lurk in the nightmare corridors of delirium. Even now my hands tremble; I have splotched the page with ink.
Calvin confronted me on that morning just as I was about to slip away - and I thinking I had been so crafty. I had told him that I had decided we must leave, and asked him if he would go to Tandrell some ten miles distant, and hire a trap where we were less notorious. He agreed to make the hike and I watched him leave by the sea-road. When he was out of sight I quickly made myself ready, donning both coat and muffler [for the weather had turned frosty; the first touch of coming winter was on that morning's cutting breeze. I wished briefly for a gun, then laughed at myself for the wish. What avails guns in such a matter?
I let myself out by the pantry-way, pausing for a last look at sea and sky; for the smell of the fresh air against the
putrescence I knew I should smell soon enough; for the sight of a foraging gull wheeling below the clouds.
I turned - and there stood Calvin McCann.
'You shall not go alone,' said he; and his face was as grim as ever I have seen it.
'But, Calvin -' I began.
'No, not a word! We go together and do what we must, or I return you bodily to the house. You are not well. You shall not go alone.'
It is impossible to describe the conflicting emotions that swept over me; confusion, pique, gratefulness - yet the greatest of them was love.
We made our way silently past the summer house and the sun-dial, down the weed-covered verge and into the woods. All was dead still - not a bird sang nor a wood-cricket chirruped. The world seemed cupped in a silent pall. There was only the ever-present smell of salt, and from far away, the faint tang of woodsmoke. The woods were a blazoned riot of colour, but, to my eye, scarlet seemed to predominate all.
Soon the scent of salt passed, and another, more sinister odour took its place; that rottenness which I have mentioned. When we came to the leaning bridge which spanned the Royal, I expected Cal to ask me again to defer, but he did not. He paused, looked at that grim spire which seemed to mock the blue sky above it, and then looked at me. We went on.
We proceeded with quick yet dread footsteps to James Boon's church. The door still hung ajar from our latter exit, and the darkness within seemed to leer at us. As we mounted the steps, brass seemed to fill my heart; my hand trembled as it touched the door-handle and pulled it. The smell within was greater, more noxious than ever.
We stepped into the shadowy anteroom and, with no pause, into the main chamber.
It was a shambles.
Something vast had been at work in there, and a mighty destruction had taken place. Pews were overturned and heaped like jackstraws. The wicked cross lay against the east wall, and a jagged hole in the plaster above it testified to the force with which it had been hurled. The oil-lamps had been ripped from their high fixtures, and the reek of whale-oil mingled with the terrible stink which pervaded the town. And down the centre aisle, like a ghastly bridal path, was a trail of black ichor mingled with sinister tendrils of blood. Our eyes followed it to the pulpit - the only untouched thing in view. Atop it, staring at us from across that blasphemous Book with glazed eyes, was the butchered body of a lamb.
'God,' Calvin whispered.
We approached, keeping clear of the slime on the floor. The room echoed back our footsteps and seemed to transmute them into the sound of gigantic laughter.
We mounted the narthex together. The lamb had not been torn or eaten; it appeared, rather to have been squeezed until its blood-vessels had forcibly ruptured. Blood lay in thick and noisome puddles on the lectern itself, and about the base of it
yet on the book it was transparent, and the crabbed runes could be read through it as through coloured glass!
'Must we touch it?' Cal asked, unfaltering.
'Yes. I must have it.'
'What will you do?'
'What should have been done sixty years ago. I am going to destroy it.'
We rolled the lamb's corpse away from the book; it struck the floor with a hideous, lolling thud. The bloodstained pages now seemed alive with a scarlet glow of their own.
My ears began to ring and hum; a low chant seemed to emanate from the walls themselves. From the twisted look on Cal's face I knew he heard the same. The floor beneath us trembled, as if the familiar which haunted this church came now unto us, to protect its own. The fabric of sane space and time seemed to twist and crack; the church seemed filled with spectres and litten with the hell-glow of eternal cold fire. It seemed that I saw James Boon, hideous and misshapen, cavorting around the supine body of a woman, and my Grand-uncle Philip behind him, an acolyte in a black, hooded cassock, who held a knife and a bowl.
'Deum vobiscum magna vermis -,
The words shuddered and writhed on the page before me, soaked in the blood of sacrifice, prize of a creature that shambles beyond the stars -A blind, interbred congregation swaying in mindless, demonic praise; deformed faces filled with hungering, nameless anticipation -And the Latin was replaced by an older tongue, ancient when Egypt was young and the Pyramids unbuilt, ancient when this Earth still hung in an unformed, boiling firmament of empty gas:
'Gyyagin vardar Yogsoggoth! Verminis! Gyyagin! Gyyagin! Gyyagin!'
The pulpit began to rend and split, pushing upwards -Calvin screamed and lifted an arm to shield his face. The narthex trembled with a huge, tenebrous motion like a ship wracked in a gale. I snatched up the book and held it away from me; it seemed filled with the heat of the sun and I felt that I should be cindered, blinded.
'Run!' Calvin screamed. 'Run!'
But I stood frozen and the alien presence filled me like an ancient vessel that had waited for years - for generations!
'Gyyagin vardar!' I screamed. 'Servant of Yogsoggoth,
the Nameless One! The Worm from beyond Space! Star-
Eater! Blinder of Time! Verminis! Now comes the Hour of
Filling, the Time of Rending! Verminis! Alyah! Alyah!
Calvin pushed me and I tottered, the church whirling before me, and fell to the floor. My head crashed against the edge of an upturned pew, and red fire filled my head -yet seemed to clear it.
I groped for the sulphur matches I had brought.
Subterranean thunder filled the place. Plaster fell. The rusted bell in the steeple pealed a choked devil's carillon in symJ)athetic vibration.
My match flared. I touched it to the book just as the pulpit exploded upwards in a rending explosion of wood. A huge black maw was discovered beneath; Cal tottered on the edge his hands held out, his face distended in a wordless scream that I shall hear for ever.
And then there was a huge surge of grey, vibrating flesh. The smell became a nightmare tide. It was a huge outpouring of a viscid, pustulant jelly, a huge and awful form that seemed to sky-rocket from the very bowels of the ground. And yet, with a sudden horrible comprehension which no man can have known, I perceived that it was but one ring, one segment, of a monster worm that had existed eyeless for years in the chambered darkness beneath that abominated church!
The book flared alight in my hands, and the Thing seemed to scream soundlessly above me. Calvin was struck glancingly and flung the length of the church like a doll with a broken neck.
It subsided - the thing subsided, leaving only a huge and shattered hole surrounded with black slime, and a great screaming, mewling sound that seemed to fade through colossal distances and was gone.
I looked down. The book was ashes.
I began to laugh, then to howl like a struck beast.
All sanity left me and I sat on the floor with blood streaming from my temple, screaming and gibbering into those unhallowed shadows while Calvin sprawled in the far corner, staring at me with glazing, horror-struck eyes.
I have no idea how long I existed in that state. It is beyond all telling. But when I came again to my faculties, shadows had drawn long paths around me and I sat in twilight. Movement had caught my eye, movement from the shattered hole in the narthex floor.
A hand groped its way over the riven floorboards.
My mad laughter choked in my throat. All hysteria melted into numb bloodlessness.
With terrible, vengeful slowness, a wracked figure pulled itself up from darkness, and a half-skull peered at me. Beetles crawled over the fleshless forehead. A rotted cassock clung to the askew hollows of mouldered collarbones. Only the eyes lived - red, insane pits that glared at me with more than lunacy; they glared with the empty life of the pathless wastes beyond the edges of the Universe.
It came to take me down to darkness.
That was when I fled screeching, leaving the body of my lifelong friend unheeded in that place of dread. I ran until the air seemed to burst like magma in my lungs and brain. I ran until I had gained this possessed and tainted house again, and my room, where I collapsed and have lain like a dead man until today. I ran because even in my crazed state, and even in the shattered ruin of that dead-yet-animated shape, I had seen the family resemblance. Yet not of Philip or of Robert, whose likenesses hang in an upstairs gallery. That rotted visage belonged to James Boon, Keeper of the Worm!
He still lives somewhere in the twisted, lightless wanderings beneath Jerusalem's Lot and Chapelwaite - and It still lives. The burning of the book thwarted It, but there are other copies.
Yet I am the gateway, and I am the last of the Boone blood. For the good of all humanity I must die
and break the chain for ever.
I go to the sea now, Bones. My journey, like my story, is at an end. May God rest you and grant you all peace.
The odd series of papers above was eventually received by Mr Everett Granson, to whom they had been addressed. It is assumed that a recurrence of the unfortunate brain fever which struck him originally following the death of his wife in 1848 caused Charles Boone to lose his sanity and murder his companion and longtime friend, Mr Calvin McCann.
The entries in Mr McCann's pocket journal are a fascinating exercise in forgery, undoubtedly perpetrated by Charles Boone in an effort to reinforce his own paranoid delusions.
In at least two particulars, however, Charles Boone is proved wrong. First, when the town of Jerusalem's Lot was 'rediscovered' (I use the term historically, of course),the floor of the narthex, although rotted, showed no sign of the explosion or huge damage. Although the ancient pews were overturned and several windows shattered, this can be assumed to be the work of vandals from neighbouring towns over the years. Among the older residents of Preacher's Corners and Tandrell there is still some idle rumour about Jerusalem's Lot (perhaps, in his day, it was this kind of harmless folk legend which started Charles Boone's mind on its fatal course), but this seems hardly relevant.
Second, Charles Boone was not the last of his line. His grandfather, Robert Boone, sired at least two bastards. One died in infancy. The second took the Boone name and located in the town of Central Falls, Rhode Island. I am the final descendant of this offshoot of the Boone line; Charles Boone's second cousin, removed by three generations. These papers have been in my committal for ten years. I offer them for publication on the occasion of my residence in the Boone ancestral home, Chapelwaite, in the hope that the reader will find sympathy in his heart for Charles Boone's poor, misguided soul. So far as I can tell, he was correct about only one thing: this place badly needs the services of an exterminator.
There are some huge rats in the walls, by the sound.
Signed, James Robert Boone 2 October 1971.
Two A.M., Friday.
Hall was sitting on the bench by the elevator, the only place on the third floor where a working joe could catch a smoke, when Warwick came up. He wasn't happy to see Warwick. The foreman wasn't supposed to show up on three during the graveyard shift; he was supposed to stay down in his office in the basement drinking coffee from the urn that stood on the corner of his desk. Besides, it was hot.
It was the hottest June on record in Gates Falls, and the Orange Crush thermometer which was also by the elevator had once rested at 94 degrees at three in the morning. God only knew what kind of hellhole the mill was on the three-to-eleven shift.
Hall worked the picker machine, a balky gadget manufactured by a defunct Cleveland firm in 1934. He had only been working in the mill since April, which meant he was still making minimum $1.78 an hour, which was still all right. No wife, no steady girl, no alimony. He was a drifter, and during the last three years he had moved on his thumb from Berkeley (college student) to Lake Tahoe (busboy) to Galveston (stevedore) to Miami (short-order cook) to Wheeling (taxi driver and dishwasher) to Gates Falls, Maine (picker-machine operator). He didn't figure on moving again until the snow fell. He was a solitary person and he liked the hours from eleven to seven when the blood flow of the big mill was at its coolest, not to mention the temperature.
The only thing he did not like was the rats.
The third floor was long and deserted, lit only by the sputtering glow of the fluorescents. Unlike the other levels of the mill, it was relatively silent and unoccupied - at least by the humans. The rats were another matter. The only machine on three was the picker; the rest of the floor was storage for the ninety-pound bags of fibre which had yet to be sorted by Hall's long gear-toothed machine. They were stacked like link sausages in long rows, some of them (especially the discontinued meltons and irregular slipes for which there were no orders) years old and dirty grey with industrial wastes. They made fine nesting places for the rats, huge, fat-bellied creatures with rabid eyes and bodies that jumped with lice and vermin.
Hall had developed a habit of collecting a small arsenal of soft-drink cans from the trash barrel during his break. He pegged them at the rats during times when work was slow, retrieving them later at his leisure. Only this time Mr Foreman had caught him, coming up the stairs instead of using the elevator like the sneaky sonofabitch everyone said he was.
'What are you up to, Hall?'
'The rats,' Hall said, realizing how lame that must sound now that all the rats had snuggled safely back into their houses. 'I peg cans at 'em when I see 'em.'
Warwick nodded once, briefly. He was a big beefy man with a crew cut. His shirtsleeves were rolled up and his tie was pulled down. He looked at Hall closely. 'We don't pay you to chuck cans at rats, mister. Not even if you pick them up again.'
'Harry hasn't sent down an order for twenty minutes,' Hall answered, thinking: Why couldn't you stay the hell put and drink your coffee? 'I can't run it through the picker if I don't have it.'
Warwick nodded as if the topic no longer interested him.
'Maybe I'll take a walk up and see Wisconsky,' he said.
'Five to one he's reading a magazine while the crap piles up in his bins.'
Hall didn't say anything.
Warwick suddenly pointed. 'There's one! Get the bastard!'
Hall fired the Nehi can he had been holding with one whistling, overhand motion. The rat, which had been watching him from atop one of the fabric bags with its bright buckshot eyes, fled with one faint squeak. Warwick threw back his head and laughed as Hall went after the can.
'I came to see you about something else,' Warwick said.
'Is that so?'
'Next week's Fourth of July week.' Hall nodded. The mill would be shut down Monday to Saturday - vacation week for men with at least one year's tenure. Layoff week for men with less than a year. 'You want to work?'
Hall shrugged. 'Doing what?'
'We're going to clean the whole basement level. Nobody's touched it for twelve years. Helluva mess. We're going to use hoses.'
'The town zoning committee getting on the board of directors?'
Warwick looked steadily at Hall. 'You want it or not? Two an hour, double time on the fourth. We're working the graveyard shift because it'll be cooler.'
Hall calculated. He could clear maybe seventy-five bucks after taxes. Better than the goose egg he had been looking forward to.
'Report down by the dye house next Monday.'
Hall watched him as he started back to the stairs. Warwick paused halfway there and turned back to look at Hall. 'You used to be a college boy, didn't you?'
'Okay, college boy, I'm keeping it in mind.'
He left. Hall sat down and lit another smoke, holding a soda can in one hand and watching for the rats. He could just imagine how it would be in the basement - the subbasement, actually, a level below the dye house. Damp, dark, full of spiders and rotten cloth and ooze from the river
- and rats. Maybe even bats, the aviators of the rodent family. Gah.
Hall threw the can hard, then smiled thinly to himself as the faint sound of Warwick's voice came down through the overhead ducts, reading Harry Wisconsky the riot act.
Okay, college boy, I'm keeping it in mind.
He stopped smiling abruptly and butted his smoke. A few moments later Wisconsky started to send rough nylon down through the blowers, and Hall went to work. And after a while the rats came out and sat atop the bags at the back of the long room watching him with their unblinking black eyes. They looked like a jury.
Eleven P.M., Monday.
There were about thirty-six men sitting around when Warwick came in wearing a pair of old jeans tucked into high rubber boots. Hall had been listening to Harry Wisconsky, who was enormously fat, enormously lazy, and enormously gloomy.
'It's gonna be a mess,' Wisconsky was saying when Mr Foreman came in. 'You wait and see, we're all gonna go home blacker'n midnight in Persia.'
'Okay!' Warwick said. 'We strung sixty lightbulbs down there, so it should be bright enough for you to see what you're doing. You guys -' he pointed to a bunch of men that had been leaning against the drying spools - 'I want you to hook up the hoses over there to the main water conduit by the stairwell. You can unroll them down the stairs. We got about eighty yards for each man, and that should be plenty. Don't get cute and spray one of your buddies or you'll send him to the hospital. They pack wallop.'
'Somebody'll get hurt,' Wisconsky prophesied sourly. 'Wait and see.'
'You other guys,' Warwick said pointing to the group that Hall and Wisconsky were a part of. 'You're the crap crew tonight. You go in pairs with an electric wagon for each team. There's old office furniture, bags of cloth, hunks of busted machinery, you name it. We're gonna pile it by the airshaft at the west end. Anyone who doesn't know how to run a wagon?'
No one raised a hand. The electric wagons were battery-driven contraptions like miniature dump trucks. They developed a nauseating stink after continual use that reminded Hall of burning power lines.
'Okay,' Warwick said. 'We got the basement divided up into sections, and we'll be done by Thursday. Friday we'll chain-hoist the crap out. Questions?'
There were none. Hall studied the foreman's face closely, and he had a sudden premonition of a strange thing coming. The idea pleased him. He did not like Warwick very much.
'Fine,' Warwick said. 'Let's get at it.'
Two A.M., Tuesday.
Hall was bushed and very tired of listening to Wisconsky's steady patter of profane complaints. He wondered if it would do any good to belt Wisconsky. He doubted it. It would just give Wisconsky something else to bitch about.
Hall had known it would be bad, but this was murder. For one thing, he hadn't anticipated the smell. The polluted stink of the river, mixed with the odour of decaying fabric, rotting masonry, vegetable matter. In the far corner, where they had begun, Hall discovered a colony of huge white toadstools poking their way up through the shattered cement. His hands had come in contact with them as he pulled and yanked at a rusty gear-toothed wheel, and they felt curiously warm and bloated, like the flesh of a man afflicted with dropsy.
The bulbs couldn't banish the twelve-year darkness; it could only push it back a little and cast a sickly yellow glow over the whole mess. The place looked like the shattered nave of a desecrated church, with its high ceiling and mammoth discarded machinery that they would never be able to move, its wet walls overgrown with patches of yellow moss, and the atonal choir that was the water from the hoses, running in the half-clogged sewer network that eventually emptied into the river below the falls.
And the rats - huge ones that made those on third look like dwarfs. God knew what they were eating down here. They were continually overturning boards and bags to reveal huge nests of shredded newspaper, watching with atavistic loathing as the pups fled into the cracks and crannies, their eyes huge and blind with the continuous darkness.
'Let's stop for a smoke,' Wisconsky said. He sounded out of breath, but Hall had no idea why; he had been goldbrickmg all night. Still, it was about that time, and they were currently out of sight of everyone else.
'All right.' He leaned against the edge of the electric wagon and lit up.
'I never should've let Warwick talk me into this,' Wisconsky said dolefully. 'This ain't work for a man. But he was mad the other night when he caught me in the crapper up on four with my pants up. Christ, was he mad.'
Hall said nothing. He was thinking about Warwick, and about the rats. Strange, how the two things seemed tied together. The rats seemed to have forgotten all about men in their long stay under the mill; they were impudent and hardly afraid at all. One of them had sat up on its hind legs like a squirrel until Hall had got in kicking distance, and then it had launched itself at his boot, biting at the leather. Hundreds, maybe thousands. He wondered how many varieties of disease they were carrying around in this black sumphole. And Warwick. Something about him -
'I need the money,' Wisconsky said. 'But Christ Jesus, buddy, this ain't no work for a man. Those rats.' He looked around fearfully. 'It almost seems like they think. You ever wonder how it'd be, if we was little and they were big -' 'Oh, shut up,' Hall said.
Wisconsky looked at him, wounded. 'Say, I'm sorry, buddy. It's just that
' He trailed off. 'Jesus, this place stinks!' he cried. 'This ain't no kind of work for a man!' A spider crawled off the edge of the wagon and scrambled up his arm. He brushed it off with a choked sound of disgust.
'Come on,' Hall said, snuffing his cigarette. 'The faster, the quicker.'
'I suppose,' Wisconsky said miserably. 'I suppose.'
Four A.M., Tuesday. Lunchtime.
Hall and Wisconsky sat with three or four other men, eating their sandwiches with black hands that not even the industrial detergent could clean. Hall ate looking into the foreman's little glass office. Warwick was drinking coffee and eating cold hamburgers with great relish.
'Ray Upson had to go home,' Charlie Brochu said.
'He puke?' someone asked. 'I almost did.'
'Nuh. Ray'd eat cowflop before he'd puke. Rat bit him.' Hall looked up thoughtfully from his examination of Warwick. 'Is that so?' he asked.
'Yeah.' Brochu shook his head. 'I was teaming with him. Goddamndest thing I ever saw. Jumped out of a hole in one of those old cloth bags. Must have been big as a cat. Grabbed on to his hand and started chewing.'
'Jee-sus,' one of the men said, looking green.
'Yeah,' Brochu said. 'Ray screamed just like a woman, and I ain't blamin' him. He bled like a pig. Would that thing let go? No sir. I had to belt it three or four times with a board before it would. Ray was just about crazy. He stomped it until it wasn't nothing but a mess of fur. Damndest thing I ever saw. Warwick put a bandage on him and sent him home. Told him to go to the doctor tomorrow.'
'That was big of the bastard,' somebody said.
As if he had heard, Warwick got to his feet in his office, stretched, and then came to the door. 'Time we got back with it.'
The men got to their feet slowly, eating up all the time they possibly could stowing their dinner jackets, getting cold drinks, buying candy bars. Then they started down, heels clanking dispiritedly on the steel grillework of the stair risers.
Warwick passed Hall, clapping him on the shoulder. 'How's it going, college boy?' He didn't wait for an answer.
'Come on,' Hall said patiently to Wisconsky, who was tying his shoelace. They went downstairs.
Seven A.M., Tuesday.
Hall and Wisconsky walked out together; it seemed to Hall that he had somehow inherited the fat Pole. Wisconsky was almost comically dirty, his fat moon face smeared like that of a small boy who has just been thrashed by the town bully.
There was none of the usual rough banter from the other men, the pulling of shirt-tails, the cracks about who was keeping Tony's wife warm between the hours of one and four. Nothing but silence and an occasional hawking sound as someone spat on the dirty floor.
'You want a lift?' Wisconsky asked him hesitantly.
They didn't talk as they rode up Mill Street and crossed the bridge. They exchanged only a brief word when Wisconsky dropped him off in front of his apartment.
Hall went directly to the shower, still thinking about Warwick, trying to place whatever it was about Mr Foreman that drew him, made him feel that somehow they had become tied together.
He slept as soon as his head hit the pillow, but his sleep was broken and restless: he dreamed of rats.
One A.M., Wednesday.
It was better running the horses.
They couldn't go in until the crap crews had finished a section, and quite often they were done hosing before the next section was clear - which meant time for a cigarette. Hall worked the nozzle of one of the long hoses and Wisconsky pattered back and forth, unsnagging lengths of the hose, turning the water on and off, moving obstructions.
Warwick was short-tempered because the work was proceeding slowly. They would never be done by Thursday, the way things were going.
Now they were working on a helter-skelter jumble of nineteenth-century office equipment that had been piled in one corner - smashed rolltop desks, mouldy ledgers, reams of invoices, chairs with broken seats-and it was rat heaven. Scores of them squeaked and ran through the dark and crazy passages that honeycombed the heap, and after two men were bitten' the others refused to work until Warwick sent someone upstairs to get heavy rubberized gloves, the kind usually reserved for the dye-house crew, which had to work with acids.
Hall and Wisconsky were waiting to go in with their hoses when a sandy-haired bullneck named Carmichael began howling curses and backing away, slapping at his chest with his gloved hands.
A huge rat with grey-streaked fur and ugly, glaring eyes had bitten into his shirt and hung there, squeaking and kicking at Carmichael's belly with its back paws. Carmichael finally knocked it away with his fist, but there was a huge hole in his shirt, and a thin line of blood trickled from above one nipple. The anger faded from his face. He turned away and retched.
Hall turned the hose on the rat, which was old and moving slowly, a snatch of Carmichael's shirt still caught in its jaws. The roaring pressure drove it backward against the wall, where it smashed limply.
Warwick came over, an odd, strained smile on his lips. He clapped Hall on the shoulder. 'Damn sight better than throwing cans at the little bastards, huh, college boy?'
'Some little bastard,' Wisconsky said. 'It's a foot long.'
'Turn that hose over there.' Warwick pointed at the jumble of furniture. 'You guys, get out of the way!'
'With pleasure,' someone muttered.
Carmichael charged up to Warwick, his face sick and twisted. 'I'm gonna have compensation for this! I'm gonna -,
'Sure,' Warwick said, smiling. 'You got bit on the titty. Get out of the way before you get pasted down by this water.'
Hall pointed the nozzle and let it go It hit with a white explosion of spray, knocking over a desk and smashing two chairs to splinters. Rats ran everywhere, bigger than any Hall had ever seen. He could hear men crying out in disgust and horror as they fled, things with huge eyes and sleek, plump bodies. He caught a glimpse of one that looked as big as a healthy six-week puppy. He kept on until he could see no more, then shut the nozzle down.
'Okay!' Warwick called. 'Let's pick it up!'
'I didn't hire out as no exterminator!' Cy Ippeston called mutinously. Hall had tipped a few with him the week before. He was a young guy, wearing a smut-stained baseball cap and a T-shirt.
'That you, Ippeston?' Warwick asked genially.
Ippeston looked uncertain, but stepped forward. 'Yeah. I don't want no more of these rats. I hired to clean up, not to maybe get rabies or typhoid or somethin'. Maybe you best count me out.'
There was a murmur of agreement from the others. Wisconsky stole a look at Hall, but Hall was examining the nozzle of the hose he was holding. It had a bore like a.45 and could probably knock a man twenty feet.
'You saying you want to punch your clock, Cy?'
'Thinkin' about it,' Ippeston said.
Warwick nodded. 'Okay. You and anybody else that wants. But this ain't no unionized shop, and never has been. Punch out now and you'll never punch back in. I'll see to it.'
'Aren't you some hot ticket,' Hall muttered.
Warwick swung around. 'Did you say something, college boy?'
Hall regarded him blandly. 'Just clearing my throat, Mr Foreman.'
Warwick smiled. 'Something taste bad to you?'
Hall said nothing.
'All right, let's pick it up!' Warwick bawled.
They went back to work.
Two A.M., Thursday.
Hall and Wisconsky were working with the trucks again, picking up junk. The pile by the west airshaft had grown to amazing proportions, but they were still not half done.
'Happy Fourth,' Wisconsky said when they stopped for a smoke. They were working near the north wall, far from the stairs. The light was extremely dim, and some trick of acoustics made the other men seem miles away.
'Thanks.' Hall dragged on his smoke. 'Haven't seen many rats tonight.'
'Nobody has,' Wisconsky said. 'Maybe they got wise.'
They were standing at the end of a crazy, zigzagging alley formed by piles of old ledgers and invoices, mouldy bags of cloth, and two huge flat looms of ancient vintage. 'Gah,' Wisconsky said, spitting. 'That Warwick -'
'Where do you suppose all the rats got to?' Hall asked, almost to himself. 'Not into the walls -' He looked at the wet and crumbling masonry that surrounded the huge foundation stones. 'They'd drown. The river's saturated everything.'
Something black and flapping suddenly dive-bombed them. Wisconsky screamed and put his hands over his head.
'A bat,' Hall said, watching after it as Wisconsky straightened up.
'A bat! A bat!' Wisconsky raved. 'What's a bat doing in the cellar? They're supposed to be in trees and under eaves and -'
'It was a big one,' Hall said softly. 'And what's a bat but a rat with wings?'
'Jesus,' Wisconsky moaned. 'How did it -'
'Get in? Maybe the same way the rats got out.'
'What's going on back there?' Warwick shouted from somewhere behind them. 'Where are you?'
'Don't sweat it,' Hall said softly. His eyes gleamed in the dark.
'Was that you, college boy?' Warwick called. He sounded closer.
'It's okay!' Hall yelled. 'I barked my shin!' Warwick's short, barking laugh. 'You want a Purple Heart?'
Wisconsky looked at Hall. 'Why'd you say that?'
'Look.' Hall knelt and lit a match. There was a square in the middle of the wet and crumbling cement. 'Tap it.'
Wisconsky did. 'It's wood.'
Hall nodded. 'It's the top of a support. I've seen some other ones around here. There's another level under this part of the basement.'
'God,' Wisconsky said with utter revulsion.
Three-thirty A.M., Thursday.
They were in the north-east corner, Ippeston and Brochu behind them with one of the high-pressure hoses, when Hall stopped and pointed at the floor. 'There I thought we'd come across it.'
There was a wooden trapdoor with a crusted iron ring-bolt set near the centre.
He walked back to Ippeston and said, 'Shut it off for a minute.' When the hose was choked to a trickle, he raised his voice to a shout. 'Hey! Hey, Warwick! Better come here a minute!'
Warwick came splashing over, looking at Hall with that same hard smile in his eyes. 'Your shoelace come untied, college boy?'
'Look,' Hall said. He kicked the trapdoor with his foot. 'Sub-cellar.'
'So what?' Warwick asked. 'This isn't break time, col-'
'That's where your rats are,' Hall said. 'They're breeding down there. Wisconsky and I even saw a bat earlier.'
Some of the other men had gathered around and were looking at the trapdoor.
'I don't care,' Warwick said. 'The job was the basement, not -'
'You'll need about twenty exterminators, trained ones,' Hall was saying. 'Going to cost the management a pretty penny. Too bad.'
Someone laughed. 'Fat chance.'
Warwick looked at Hall as if he were a bug under glass. 'You're really a case, you are,' he said, sounding fascinated. 'Do you think I give a good goddamn how many rats there are under there?'
'I was at the library this afternoon and yesterday,' Hall said. 'Good thing you kept reminding me I was a college boy. I read the town zoning ordinances, Warwick they were set up in 1911, before this mill got big enough to co-opt the zoning board. Know what I found?'
Warwick's eyes were cold. 'Take a walk, college boy. You're fired.'
'I found out,' Hall ploughed on as if he hadn't heard, 'I found out that there is a zoning law in Gates Falls about vermin. You spell that v-e-r-m-i-n, in case you wondered. It means disease-carrying animals such as bats, skunks, - unlicensed dogs - and rats. Especially rats. Rats are mentioned fourteen times in two paragraphs, Mr Foreman. So you just keep in mind that the minute I punch out I'm going straight to the town commissioner and tell him what the situation down here is.'
He paused, relishing Warwick's hate-congested face. 'I think that between me, him, and the town committee, we can get an injunction slapped on this place. You're going to be shut down a lot longer than just Saturday, Mr Foreman. And I got a good idea what your boss is going to say when he turns up. Hope your unemployment insurance is paid up, Warwick.'
Warwick's hands formed into claws. 'You damned snot-nose, I ought to -' He looked down at the trapdoor, and suddenly his smile reappeared. 'Consider yourself rehired, college boy.'
'I thought you might see the light.'
Warwick nodded, the same strange grin on his face.
You're just so smart. I think maybe you ought to go down 'There, Hall, so we got somebody with a college education to give us an informed opinion. You and Wisconsky.'
'Not me!' Wisconsky exclaimed. 'Not me, I-'
Warwick looked at him. 'You what?'
Wisconsky shut up.
'Good,' Hall said cheerfully. 'We'll need three flashlights. I think I saw a whole rack of those six-battery jobs in the main office, didn't I?'
'You want to take somebody else?' Warwick asked expansively. 'Sure, pick your man.'
'You,' Hall said gently. The strange expression had come into his face again. 'After all, the management should be represented, don't you think? Just so Wisconsky and I don't see too many rats down there?'
Someone (it sounded like Ippeston) laughed loudly.
Warwick looked at the men carefully. They studied the tips of their shoes. Finally he pointed at Brochu. 'Brochu, go up to the office and get three flashlights. Tell the watchman I said to let you in.'
'Why'd you get me into this?' Wisconsky moaned to Hall. 'You know I hate those -'
'It wasn't me,' Hall said, and looked at Warwick.
Warwick looked back at him, and neither would drop his eyes.
Four A.M., Thursday.
Brochu returned with the flashlights. He gave one to Hall, one to Wisconsky, one to Warwick.
'Ippeston! Give the hose to Wisconsky.' Ippeston did so. The nozzle trembled delicately between the Pole's hands.
'All right,' Warwick said to Wisconsky. 'You're in the middle. If there are rats, you let them have it.'
Sure, Hall thought. And if there are rats, Warwick won't see them. And neither will Wisconsky, after he finds an extra ten in his pay envelope.
Warwick pointed at two of the men. 'Lift it.'
One of them bent over the ringbolt and pulled. For a moment Hall didn't think it was going to give, and then it yanked free with an odd, crunching snap. The other man put his fingers on the underside to help pull, then withdrew with a cry. His hands were crawling with huge and sightless beetles.
With a convulsive grunt the man on the ringbolt pulled the trap back and let it drop. The underside was black with an odd fungus that Hall had never seen before. The beetles dropped off into the darkness below or ran across the floor to be crushed.
'Look,' Hall said.
There was a rusty lock bolted on the underside, now broken. 'But it shouldn't be underneath,' Warwick said. 'It should be on top. Why -'
'Lots of reasons,' Hall said. 'Maybe so nothing on this side could open it - at least when the lock was new. Maybe so nothing on that side could get up.'
'But who locked it?' Wisconsky asked.
'Ah,' Hall said mockingly, looking at Warwick. 'A mystery.'
'Listen,' Brochu whispered.
'Oh, God,' Wisconsky sobbed. 'I ain't going down there!'
It was a soft sound, almost expectant; the whisk and patter of thousands of paws, the squeaking of rats.
'Could be frogs,' Warwick said.
Hall laughed aloud.
Warwick shone his light down. A sagging flight of wooden stairs led down to the black stones of the floor beneath. There was not a rat in sight.
'Those stairs won't hold us,' Warwick said with finality.
Brochu took two steps forward and jumped jip and down on the first step. It creaked but showed no sign of giving way.
'I didn't ask you to do that,' Warwick said.
'You weren't there when that rat bit Ray,' Brochu said softly.
'Let's go,' Hall said.
Warwick took a last sardonic look around at the circle of men, then walked to the edge with Hall. Wisconsky stepped reluctantly between them. They went down one at a time. Hall, then Wisconsky, then Warwick. Their flashlight beams played over the floor, which was twisted and heaved into a hundred crazy hills and valleys. The hose thumped along behind Wisconsky like a clumsy serpent.
When they got to the bottom, Warwick flashed his light around. It picked out a few rotting boxes, some barrels, little else. The seep from the river stood in puddles that came to ankle depth on their boots.
'I don't hear them any more,' Wisconsky whispered.
They walked slowly away from the trapdoor, their feet shuffling through the slime. Hall paused and shone his light on a huge wooden box with white letters on it. 'Elias Varney,' he read, '1841. Was the mill here then?'
'No,' Warwick said. 'It wasn't built until 1897. What difference?'
Hall didn't answer. They walked forward again. The sub-cellar was longer than it should have been, it seemed.
The stench was stronger, a smell of decay and rot and things buried. And still the only sound was the faint, cavelike drip of water.
'What's that?' Hall asked, pointing his beam at a jut of concrete that protruded perhaps two feet into the cellar. Beyond it, the darkness continued and it seemed to Hall that he could now hear sounds up there, curiously stealthy.
Warwick peered at it. 'It's
no, that can't be right.'
'Outer wall of the mill, isn't it? and up ahead
'I'm going back,' Warwick said, suddenly turning around.
Hall grabbed his neck roughly. 'You're not going anywhere, Mr Foreman.'
Warwick looked up at him, his grin cutting the darkness. 'You're crazy, college boy. Isn't that right? Crazy as a loon.'
'You shouldn't push people, friend, keep going.'
Wisconsky moaned. 'Hall -'
'Give me that.' Hall grabbed the hose. He let go of Warwick's neck and pointed the hose at his head. Wisconsky turned abruptly and crashed back towards the trapdoor. Hall did not even turn. 'After you, Mr Foreman.'
Warwick stepped forward, walking under the place where the mill ended above them. Hall flashed his light about, and felt a cold satisfaction - premonition fulfilled. The rats had closed in around them, silent as death. Crowded in, rank on rank. Thousands of eyes looked greedily back at him. In ranks to the wall, some fully as high as a man's shin.
Warwick saw them a moment later and came to a full stop. 'They're all around us, college boy.' His voice was still calm, still in control, but it held a jagged edge.
'Yes,' Hall said. 'Keep going.'
They walked forward, the hose dragging behind. Hall looked back once and saw the rats had closed the aisle behind them and were gnawing at the heavy canvas hosing.
One looked up and almost seemed to grin at him before lowering his head again. He could see the bats now, too. They were roosting from the rough-hewn overheads, huge, the size of crows or rooks.
'Look,' Warwick said, centring his beam about five feet ahead.
A skull, green with mould, laughed up at them. Further on Hall could see an ulna, one pelvic wing, part of a ribcage. 'Keep going,' Hall said. He felt something bursting up inside him, something lunatic and dark with colours. You are going to break before I do, Mr Foreman, so help me God.
They walked past the bones. The rats were not crowding them; their distances appeared constant. Up ahead Hall saw one cross their path of travel. Shadows hid it, but he caught sight of a pink twitching tail as thick as a telephone cord.
Up ahead the flooring rose sharply, then dipped. Hall could hear a stealthy, rustling sound, a bit sound. Some-thing that perhaps no living man had ever seen. It occurred to Hall that he had perhaps been looking for something like this through all his days of crazy wandering.
The rats were moving in, creeping on their bellies, forcing them forward. 'Look,' Warwick said coldly.
Hall saw. Something had happened to the rats back here, some hideous mutation that never could have survived under the eye of the sun; nature would have forbidden it. But down here, nature had taken on another ghastly face.
The rats were gigantic, some as high as three feet. But their rear legs were gone and they were blind as moles, like their flying cousins. They dragged themselves forward with hideous eagerness.
Warwick turned and faced Hall, the smile hanging on by brute willpower. Hall really had to admire him. 'We can't go on, Hall. You must see that.'
'The rats have business with you, I think,' Hall said.
Warwick's control slipped. 'Please,' he said. 'Please.'
Hall smiled. 'Keep going.'
Warwick was looking over his shoulder. 'They're gnawmg into the hose. When they get through it, we'll never get back.'
'I know. Keep going.'
'You're insane -' A rat ran across Warwick's shoe and he screamed. Hall smiled and gestured with his light. They were all around, the closest of them less than a foot away now.
Warwick began to walk again. The rats drew back.
They topped the miniature rise and looked down. Warwick reached it first, and Hall saw his face go white as paper. Spit ran down his chin. 'Oh, my God. Dear Jesus.
And he turned to run.
Hall opened the nozzle of the hose and the high-pressure rush of water struck Warwick squarely on the chest, knocking him back out of sight. There was a long scream that rose over the sound of the water. Thrashing sounds.
'Hall" Grunts. A huge, tenebrous squeaking that seemed to fill the earth.
'HALL FOR GOD'S SAKE -'
A sudden wet ripping noise. Another scream, weaker. Something huge shifted and turned. Quite distinctly Hall heard the wet snap that a fractured bone makes.
A legless rat, guided by some bastard form of sonar, lunged against him, biting. Its body was flabby, warm. Almost absently Hall turned the hose on it, knocking it away. The hose did not have quite so much pressure now.
Hall walked to the brow of the wet hill and looked down. The rat filled the whole gully at the far end of that noxious tomb. It was a huge and pulsating grey, eyeless, totally without legs. When Hall's light struck it, it made a hideous mewling noise. Their queen, then, the magna mater. A huge and nameless thing whose progeny might some day develop wings. It seemed to dwarf what remained of Warwick, but that was probably just illusion. It was the shock of seeing a rat as big as a Holstein calf.
'Goodbye, Warwick;' Hall said. The rat crouched over Mr Foreman jealously, ripping at one limp arm.
Hall turned away and began to make his way back rapidly, halting the rats with his hose, which was growing less and less potent. Some of them got through and attacked his legs above the tops of his boots with biting lunges. One hung stubbornly on at his thigh, ripping at the cloth of his corduroy pants. Hall made a fist and smashed it aside.
He was nearly three-quarters of the way back when the huge whirring filled the darkness. He looked up and the gigantic flying form smashed into his face.
The mutated bats had not lost their tails yet. It whipped around Hall's neck in a loathsome coil and squeezed as the teeth sought the soft spot under his neck. It wriggled and flapped with its membranous wings, clutching the tatters of his shirt for purchase.
Hall brought the nozzle of the hose up blindly and struck at its yielding body again and again. It fell away and he trampled it beneath his feet, dimly aware that he was screaming. The rats ran in a flood over his feet, up his legs.
He broke into a staggering run, shaking some off. The others bit at his belly, his chest. One ran up his shoulder and pressed its questing muzzle into the cup of his ear.
He ran into the second bat. It roosted on his head for a moment, squealing, and then ripped away a flap of Hall's scalp.
He felt his body growing numb. His ears filled with the screech and yammer of many rats. He gave one last heave, stumbled over furry bodies, fell to his knees. He began to laugh, a high, screaming sound.
Five A.M., Thursday.
'Somebody better go down there,' Brochu said tentatively.
'Not me,' Wisconsky whispered. 'Not me.'
'No, not you, jelly belly,' Ippeston said with contempt.
'Well, let's go,' Brogan said, bringing up another hose. 'Me, Ippeston, Dangerfield, Nedeau. Stevenson, go up to the office and get a few more lights.'
Ippeston looked down into the darkness thoughtfully. 'Maybe they stopped for a smoke,' he said. 'A few rats, what the hell.'
Stevenson came back with the lights; a few moments later they started down.
After the guy was dead and the smell of his burning flesh was off the air, we all went back down to the beach. Corey had his radio, one of those suitcase-sized transistor jobs that take about forty batteries and also make and play tapes. You couldn't say the sound reproduction was great, but it sure was loud. Corey had been well-to-do before A6, but stuff like that didn't matter any more. Even his big radio/tape-player was hardly more than a nice-looking hunk of junk. There were only two radio stations left on the air that we could get. One was WKDM in Portsmouth -some backwoods deejay who had gone nutty-religious. He'd play a Perry Como record, say a prayer, bawl, play a Johnny Ray record, read from Psalms (complete with each selah', just like James Dean in East of Eden), then bawl some more. Happy-time stuff like that. One day he sang Bringing in the Sheaves' in a cracked, mouldy voice that sent Needles and me into hysterics.
The Massachusetts station was better, but we could only get it at night. It was a bunch of kids. I guess they took over the transmitting facilities of WRKO or WBZ after every-body left or died. They only gave gag call letters, like WDOPE or KUNT or WA6 or stuff like that. Really funny, you know - you could die laughing. That was the one we were listening to on the way back to the beach. I was holding hands with Susie; Kelly and Joan were ahead of us, and Needles was already over the brow of the point and out of sight. Corey was bringing up the rear, swinging his radio. The Stones were singing 'Angie'.
'Do you love me?' Susie was asking. 'That's all I want to know, do you love me?' Susie needed constant reassurance. I was her teddy bear.
'No,' I said. She was getting fat, and if she lived long enough, which wasn't likely, she would get really flabby. She was already mouthy.
'You're rotten,' she said, and put a hand to her face. Her lacquered fingernails twinkled dimly with the half-moon that had risen about an hour ago.
'Are you going to cry again?'
'Shut up!' She sounded like she was going to cry again, all right.
We came over the ridge and I paused. I always have to pause. Before A6, this had been a public beach. Tourists, picnickers, runny-nosed kids and fat baggy grandmothers with sunburned elbows. Candy wrappers and popsicle sticks in the sand, all the beautiful people necking on their beach blankets, intermingled stench of exhaust from the parking lot, seaweed, and Coppertone oil.
But now all the dirt and all the crap was gone. The ocean had eaten it, all of it, as casually as you might eat a handful of Cracker Jacks. There were no people to come back and dirty it again. Just us, and we weren't enough to make much mess. We loved the beach too, I guess - hadn't we just offered it a kind of sacrifice? Even Susie, little bitch Susie with her fat ass and her cranberry bellbottoms.
The sand was white and duned, marked only by the high-tide line - twisted skein of seaweed, kelp, hunks of driftwood. The moonlight stitched inky crescent-shaped shadows and folds across everything. The deserted lifeguard tower stood white and skeletal some fifty yards from the bathhouse towards the sky like a finger bone.
And the surf, the night surf, throwing up great bursts of foam, breaking against the headlands for as far as we could see in endless attacks. Maybe that water had been halfway to England the night before.
'"Angie", by the Stones,' the cracked voice on Corey's radio said. 'I'm sureya dug that one, a blast from the past that's a golden gas, straight from the grooveyard, a platta that mattas. I'm Bobby. This was supposed to be Fred's night, but Fred got the flu. He's all swelled up.' Susie giggled then, with the first tears still on her eyelashes. I started towards the beach a little faster to keep her quiet.
'Wait up!' Corey called. 'Bernie? Hey, Bernie, wait up!' The guy on the radio was reading some dirty limericks, and a girl in the background asked him where did he put the beer. He said something back, but by that time we were on the beach. I looked back to see how Corey was doing. He was coming down on his backside, as usual, and he looked so ludicrous I felt a little sorry for him.
'Run with me,' I said to Susie.
I slapped her on the can and she squealed. 'Just because it feels good to run.'
We ran. She fell behind, panting like a horse and calling r me to slow down, but I put her out of my head. The wind rushed past my ears and blew the hair off my forehead. I could smell the salt in the air, sharp and tart. The surf pounded. The waves were like foamed black glass. I kicked off my rubber sandals and pounded across the sand barefoot, not minding the sharp digs of an occasional shell. My blood roared.
And then there was the lean-to with Needles already inside and Kelly and Joan standing beside it, holding hands and looking at the water. I did a forward roll, feeling sand go down the back of my shirt, and fetched up against Kelly's legs. He fell on top of me and rubbed my face in the sand while Joan laughed.
We got up and grinned at each other. Susie had given up running and was plodding towards us. Corey had almost caught up to her.
'Some fire,' Kelly said.
'Do you think he came all the way from New York, like he said?' Joan asked.
'I don't know.' I couldn't see that it mattered anyway. He had been behind the wheel of a big Lincoln when we found him, semi-conscious and raving. His head was bloated to the size of a football and his neck looked like a sausage. He had Captain Trips and n6t far to go, either. So we took him up to the Point that overlooks the beach and burned him. He said his name was Alvin Sackheim. He kept calling for his grandmother. He thought Susie was his grandmother. This struck her funny, God knows why. The strangest things strike Susie funny.
It was Corey's idea to burn him up, but it started off as a joke. He had read all those books about witchcraft and black magic at college, and he kept leering at us in the dark beside Alvin Sackheim's Lincoln and telling us that if we made a sacrifice to the dark gods, maybe the spirits would keep protecting us against A6.
Of course none of us really believed that bullshit, but the talk got more and more serious. It was a new thing to do, and finally we went ahead and did it. We tied him to the observation gadget up there - you put a dime in it and on a clear day you can see all the way to Portland Headlight. We tied him with our belts, and then we went rooting around for dry brush and hunks of driftwood like kids playing a new kind of hide-and-seek. All the time we were doing it Alvin Sackheim just sort of leaned there and mumbled to his grandmother. Susie's eyes got very bright and she was breathing fast. It was really turning her on. When we were down in the ravine on the other side of the outcrop she leaned against me and kissed me. She was wearing too much lipstick and it was like kissing a greasy plate.
I pushed her away and that was when she started pouting. We went back up, all of us, and piled dead branches and twigs up to Alvin Sackheim's waist. Needles lit the pyre with his Zippo, and it went up fast. At the end, just before his hair caught on fire, the guy began to scream. There was a smell just like sweet Chinese pork.
'Got a cigarette, Bernie?' Needles asked.
'There's about fifty cartons right behind you.'
He grinned and slapped a mosquito that was probing his arm. 'Don't want to move.'
I gave him a smoke and sat down. Susie and I met Needles in Portland. He was sitting on the kerb in front of the State Theatre, playing Leadbelly tunes on a big old Gibson guitar he had looted someplace. The sound echoed up and down Congress Street as if he were playing in a concert hall.
Susie stopped in front of us, still out of breath. 'You're rotten, Bernie.'
'Come on, Sue. Turn the record over. That side stinks.'
'Bastard. Stupid, unfeeling son of a bitch. Creep!'
'Go away,' I said, 'or I'll black your eye, Susie. See if I don't.'
She started to cry again. She was really good at it. Corey came up and tried to put an arm around her. She elbowed him in the crotch and he spit in her face.
'I'll kill you!' She came at him, screaming and weeping, making propellers with her hands. Corey backed off, almost fell, then turned tail and ran. Susie followed him, hurling hysterical obscenities. Needles put back his head and laughed. The sound of Corey's radio came back to us faintly over the surf.
Kelly and Joan had wandered off. I could see them down by the edge of the water, walking with their arms around each other's waist. They looked like an ad in a travel agent's window - Fly to Beautiful St Lorca. It was all right. They had a good thing.
'What?' I sat and smoked and thought about Needles flipping back the top of his Zippo, spinning the wheel, making fire with flint and steel like a caveman.
'I've got it,' Needles said.
'Yeah?' I looked at him. 'Are you sure?'
'Sure I am. My head aches. My stomach aches. Hurts to piss.
'Maybe it's just Hong Kong flu. Susie had Hong Kong flu. She wanted a Bible.' I laughed. That had been while we were still at the University, about a week before they closed it down for good, a month before they started carrying bodies away in dump trucks and burying them in mass graves with payloaders.
'Look.' He lit a match and held it under the angle of his jaw. I could see the first triangular smudges, the first swelling. It was A6, all right.
'Okay,' I said.
'I don't feel so bad,' he said. 'In my mind, I mean. You, though. You think about it a lot. I can tell.'
'No I don't.' A lie.
'Sure you do. Like that guy tonight. You're thinking about that, too. We probably did him a favour, when you get right down to it. I don't think he even knew it was happening.'
He shrugged and turned on his side. 'It doesn't matter.'
We smoked and I watched the surf come in and go out. Needles and Captain Trips. That made everything real all over again. It was late August already, and in a couple of weeks the first chill of fall would be creeping in. Time to move inside someplace. Winter. Dead by Christmas, maybe, all of us. In somebody's front room with Corey's expensive radio/tape-player on top of a book-case full of Reader's Digest Condensed Books and the weak winter sun lying on the rug in meaningless windowpane patterns.
The vision was clear enough to make me shudder. Nobody should think about winter in August. It's like a goose walking over your grave.
Needles laughed. 'See? You do think about it.'
What could I say? I stood up. 'Going to look for Susie.'
'Maybe we're the last people on earth, Bernie. Did you ever think of that?' In the faint moonlight he already looked half dead, with circles under his eyes and pallid, unmoving fingers like pencils.
I walked down to the water and looked out across it. There was nothing to see but the restless, moving humps of the waves, topped by delicate curls of foam. The thunder of the breakers was tremendous down here, bigger than the world. Like standing inside a thunderstorm. I closed my eyes and rocked on my bare feet. The sand was cold and damp and packed. And if we were the last people on earth, so what? This would go on as long as there was a moon to pull the water.
Susie and Corey were up the beach. Susie was riding him as if he were a bucking bronc, pounding his head into the running boil of the water. Corey was flailing and splashing. They were both soaked. I walked down and pushed her off with my foot. Corey splashed away on all fours, spluttering and whoofing.
'I hate you!' Susie screamed at me. Her mouth was a dark grinning crescent. It looked like the entrance to a fun house. When I was a kid my mother used to take us kids to Harrison State Park and there was a fun house with a big clown face on the front, and you walked in through the mouth.
'Come on, Susie. Up, Fido.' I held out my hand. She took it doubtfully and stood up. There was damp sand clotted on her blouse and skin.
'You didn't have to push me, Bernie. You don't ever -' 'Come on.' She wasn't like a jukebox; you never had to put in a dime and she never came unplugged.
We walked up the beach towards the main concession. The man who ran the place had had a small overhead apartment. There was a bed. She didn't really deserve a bed, but Needles was right about that. It didn't matter. No one was really scoring the game any more.
The stairs went up the side of the building, but I paused
for just a minute to look in the broken window at the dusty wares inside that no one had cared enough about to loot -stacks of sweatshirts ('Anson Beach' and a picture of sky and waves printed on the front), glittering bracelets that would green the wrist on the second day, bright junk earrings, beachballs, dirty greeting cards, badly painted ceramic madonnas, plastic vomit (So realistic! Try it on your wife!), Fourth of July sparklers for a Fourth that never was, beach towels with a voluptuous girl in a bikini standing amid the names of a hundred famous resort areas, pennants (Souvenir of Anson Beach and Park), balloons, bathing suits. There was a snack bar up front with a big sign saying
TRY OUR CLAM CAKE SPECIAL.
I used to come to Anson Beach a lot when I was still in high school. That was seven years before A6, and I was going with a girl named Maureen. She was a big girl. She had a pink checked bathing suit. I used to tell her it looked like a tablecloth. We had walked along the boardwalk in front of this place, barefoot, the boards hot and sandy beneath our heels. We had never tried the clam cake special.
'What are you looking at?'
'Nothing. Come on.'
I had sweaty, ugly dreams about Alvin Sackheim. He was propped behind the wheel of his shiny yellow Lincoln, talking about his grandmother. He was nothing but a bloated, blackened head and a charred skeleton. He smelled burnt. He talked on and on, and after a while I couldn't make out a single word. I woke up breathing hard.
Susie was sprawled across my thighs, pale and bloated. My watch said 3.50, but it had stopped. It was still dark out. The surf pounded and smashed. High tide. Make it 4.15. Light soon. I got out of bed and went to the doorway. The sea breeze felt fine against my hot body. In spite of it all I didn't want to die.
I went over in the corner and grabbed a beer. There were three or four cases of Bud stacked against the wall. It was warm, because there was no electricity. I don't mind warm beer like some people do, though. It just foams a little more. Beer is beer. I went back out on the landing and sat down and pulled the ring tab and drank up.
So here we were, with the whole human race wiped out, not by atomic weapons or bio-warfare or pollution or anything grand like that. Just the flu. I'd like to put down a huge plaque somewhere, in the Bonneville Salt Flats, maybe. Bronze Square. Three miles on a side. And in big raised letters it would say, for the benefit of any landing aliens: JUST THE FLU.
I tossed the beer can over the side. It landed with a hollow clank on the cement walk that went around the building. The lean-to was a dark triangle on the sand. I wondered if Needles was awake. I wondered if I would be.
She was standing in the doorway wearing one of my shirts. I hate that. She sweats like a pig.
'You don't like me much any more, do you, Bernie?'
I didn't say anything. There were times when I could still feel sorry for everything. She didn't deserve me any more than I deserved her.
'Can I sit down with you?'
'I doubt if it would be wide enough for both of us.'
She made a choked hiccuping noise and started to go back inside.
'Needles has got A6,' I said.
She stopped and looked at me. Her face was very still. 'Don't joke, Bernie.'
I lit a cigarette.
'He can't! He had -, 'Yes, he had A2. Hong Kong flu. Just like you and me and Corey and Kelly and Joan.'
'But that would mean he isn't -'
'Yes. Then we could get it.'
'Maybe he lied when he said he had A2. So we'd take him along with us that time,' I said.
Relief spilled across her face. 'Sure, that's it. I would have lied if it had been me. Nobody likes to be alone, do they?' She hesitated. 'Coming back to bed?'
'Not just now.'
She went inside. I didn't have to tell her that M was no guarantee against A6. She knew that. She had just blocked it out. I sat and watched the surf. It was really up. Years ago, Anson had been the only halfway decent surfing spot in the state. The Point was a dark, jutting hump against the sky. I thought I could see the upright that was the observation post, but it probably was just imagination. Sometimes Kelly took Joan up to the point. I didn't think they were up there tonight.
I put my face in my hands and clutched it, feeling the skin, its grain and texture. It was all narrowing so swiftly, and it was all so mean - there was no dignity in it.
The surf coming in, coming in, coming in. Limitless. Clean and deep. We had come here in the summer, Maureen and I, the summer after high school, the summer before college and reality and A6 coming out of South-east Asia and covering the world like a pall, July, we had eaten pizza and listened to her radio, I had put oil on her back, she had put oil on mine, the air had been hot, the sand bright, the sun like a burning glass.
I AM THE DOORWAY
Richard and I sat on my porch, looking out over the dunes to the Gulf. The smoke from his cigar drifted mellowly in the air, keeping the mosquitoes at a safe distance. The water was a cool aqua, the sky a deeper, truer blue. It was a pleasant combination.
'You are the doorway,' Richard repeated thoughtfully. 'You are sure you killed the boy - you didn't just dream it?'
'I didn't dream it. And I didn't kill him, either - I told you that. They did. I am the doorway.'
Richard sighed. 'You buried him?'
'You remember where?'
'Yes.' I reached into my breast pocket and got a cigarette. My hands were awkward with their covering of bandages. They itched abominably. 'If you want to see it, you'll have to get the dune buggy. You can't roll this -' I indicated my wheelchair - 'through the sand.' Richard's dune buggy was a 1959 VW with pillow-sized tyres. He collected driftwood in it. Ever since he retired from the real estate business in Maryland he had been living on Key Caroline and building driftwood sculptures which he sold to the winter tourists at shameless prices.
He puffed his cigar and looked out at the Gulf. 'Not yet. Will you tell me once more?'
I sighed and tried to light my cigarette. He took the matches away from me and did it himself. I puffed twice, dragging deep. The itch in my fingers was maddening.
'All right,' I said. 'Last night at seven I was out here, looking at the Gulf and smoking, just like now, and J
'Go further back,' he invited.
'Tell me about the flight.'
I shook my head. 'Richard, we've been through it and through it. There's nothing -'
The seamed and fissured face was as enigmatic as one of his own driftwood sculptures. 'You may remember,' he said. 'Now you may remember.'
'Do you think so?'
'Possibly. And when you're through, we can look for the grave.'
'The grave,' I said. It had a hollow, horrible ring, darker than anything, darker even than all that terrible ocean Cory and I had sailed through five years ago. Dark, dark, dark.
Beneath the bandages, my new eyes stared blindly into the darkness the bandages forced on them. They itched.
Cory and I were boosted into orbit by the Saturn 16, the one all the commentators called the Empire State Building booster. It was a big beast, all right. It made the old Saturn 1-B look like a Redstone, and it took off from a bunker two hundred feet deep - it had to, to keep from taking half of Cape Kennedy with it.
We swung around the earth, verifying all our systems, and then did our inject. Headed out for Venus. We left a Senate fighting over an appropriations bill for further deep-space exploration, and a bunch of NASA people praying that we would find something, anything.
'It don't matter what,' Don Lovinger, Project Zeus's private whiz kid, was very fond of saying when he'd had a few. 'You got all the gadgets, plus five souped-up TV cameras and a nifty little telescope with a zillion lenses and filters. Find some gold or platinum. Better yet, find some nice, dumb little blue men for us to study and exploit and feel superior to. Anything. Even the ghost of Howdy Doody would be a start.'
Cory and I were anxious enough to oblige, if we could. Nothing had worked for the deep-space programme. From Borman, Anders, and Lovell, who orbited the moon in '6~ and found an empty, forbidding world that looked like dirty beach sand, to Markhan and Jacks, who touched down on Mars eleven years later to find an arid wasteland of frozen sand and a few struggling lichens, the deep-space programme had been an expensive bust. And there had been casualties - Pederson and Lederer, eternally circling the sun when all at once nothing worked on the second-to4ast Apollo flight. John Davis, whose little orbiting observatory was holed by a meteoroid in a one-in-a-thousand fluke. No, the space programme was hardly swinging along. The way things looked, the Venus orbit might be our last chance to say we told you so.
It was sixteen days out - we ate a lot of concentrates, played a lot of gin, and swapped a cold back and forth - and from the tech side it was a milk run. We lost an air-moisture converter on the third day out, went to backup, and that was all, except for flits and nats, until re-entry. We watched Venus grow from a star to a quarter to a milky crystal ball, swapped jokes with Huntsville Control, listened to tapes of Wagner and the Beatles, tended to automated experiments which had to do with everything from measurements of the solar wind to deep-space navigation. We did two midcourse corrections, both of them infinitesimal, and nine days into the flight Cory went outside and banged on the retractable DESA until it decided to operate. There was nothing else out of the ordinary until.
'DESA,' Richard said. 'What's that?'
'An experiment that didn't pan out. NASA-ese for Deep Space Antenna - we were broadcasting pi in high-frequency pulses for anyone who cared to listen.' I rubbed my fingers against my pants, but it was no good; if anything, it made it worse. 'Same idea as that radio telescope in West Virginia - you know, the one that listens to the stars. Only instead of listening, we were transmitting, primarily to the deeper space planets - Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus. If there's any intelligent life out there, it was taking a nap.'
'Only Cory went out?'
'Yes. And if he brought in any interstellar plague, the telemetry didn't show it.'
'It doesn't matter,' I said crossly. 'Only the here and now matters. They killed the boy last night, Richard. It wasn't a nice thing to watch - or feel. His head
it exploded. As if someone had scooped out his brains and put a hand grenade in his skull.'
'Finish the story,' he said.
I laughed hollowly. 'What's to tell?'
We went into an eccentric orbit around the planet. It was radical and deteriorating, three twenty by seventy-six miles. That was on the first swing. The second swing our apogee was even higher, the perigree lower. We had a max of four orbits. We made all four. We got a good look at the planet. Also over six hundred stills and God knows how many feet of film.
The cloud cover is equal parts methane, ammonia, dust, and flying shit. The whole planet looks like the Grand Canyon in a wind tunnel. Cory estimated windspeed at about 600mph near the surface. Our probe beeped all the way down and then went out with a squawk. We saw no vegetation and no sign of life. Spectroscope indicated only traces of the valuable minerals. And that was Venus. Nothing but nothing - except it scared me. It was like circling a haunted house in the middle of deep space. I know how unscientific that sounds, but I was scared gutless until we got out of there. I think if our rockets hadn't gone off, I would have cut my throat on the way down. It's not like the moon. The moon is desolate but somehow antiseptic. That world we saw was utterly unlike anything that anyone has ever seen. Maybe it's a good thing that cloud cover is there. It was like a skull that's been picked clean -that's the closest I can get.
On the way back we heard the Senate had voted to halve space-exploration funds. Cory said something like 'looks like we're back in the weather-satellite business, Artie.' But I was almost glad. Maybe we don't belong out there.
Twelve days later Cory was dead and I was crippled for life. We bought all our trouble on the way down. The chute was fouled. How's that for life's little ironies? We'd been in space for over a month, gone further than any humans had ever gone, and it all ended the way it did because some guy was in a hurry for his coffee break and let a few lines get fouled.
We came down hard. A guy that was in one of the copters said it looked like a gigantic baby falling out of the sky, with the placenta trailing after it. I lost consciousness when we hit.
I came to when they were taking me across the deck of the Portland. They hadn't even had a chance to roll up the red carpet we were supposed to've walked on. I was bleeding. Bleeding and being hustled up to the infirmary over a red carpet that didn't look anywhere near as red as I did
I was in Bethesda for two years. They gave me the Medal of Honor and a lot of money and this wheelchair. I came down here the next year. I like to watch the rockets take off.'
'I know,' Richard said. He paused. 'Show me your hands.'
'No.' It came out very quickly and sharply. 'I can't let them see. I've told you that.'
'It's been five years,' Richard said. 'Why now, Arthur? Can you tell me that?'
'I don't know. I don't know! Maybe whatever it is has a long gestation period. Or who's to say I even got it out there? Whatever it was might have entered me in Fort Lauderdale. Or right here on this porch, for all I know.'
Richard sighed and looked out over the water, now reddish with the late-evening sun. 'I'm trying. Arthur, I don't want to think that you are losing your mind.'
'If I have to, I'll show you my hands,' I said. It cost me an effort to say it. 'But only if I have to.'
Richard stood up and found his cane. He looked old and frail. 'I'll get the dune buggy. We'll look for the boy.'
'Thank you, Richard.'
He walked out towards the rutted dirt track that led to his cabin - I could just see the roof of it over the Big Dune, the one that runs almost the whole length of Key Caroline. Over the water towards the Cape, the sky had gone an ugly plum colour, and the sound of thunder came faintly to my ears.
I didn't know the boy's name but I saw him every now and again, walking along the beach at sunset, with his sieve under his arm. He was tanned almost black by the sun, and all he was ever clad in was a frayed pair of denim cutoffs. On the far side of Key Caroline there is a public beach, and an enterprising young man can make perhaps as much as five dollars on a good day, patiently sieving the sand for buried quarters or dimes. Every now and then I would wave to him and he would wave back, both of us non-commital, strangers yet brothers, year-round dwellers set against a sea of money spending, Cadillac-driving, loud-mouthed tourists. I imagine he lived in the small village clustered around the post office about a half mile further down.
When he passed by that evening I had already been on the porch for an hour, immobile, watching. I had taken off the bandages earlier. The itching had been intolerable, and it was always better when they could look through their eyes.
It was a feeling like no other in the world - as if I were a portal just slightly ajar through which they were peeking at a world which they hated and feared. But the worst part was that I could see, too, in a way. Imagine your mind transported into a body of a housefly, a housefly looking into your own face with a thousand eyes. Then perhaps you can begin to see why I kept my hands bandaged even when there was no one around to see them.
It began in Miami. I had business there with a man named Cresswell, an investigator from the Navy Department. He checks up on me once a year - for a while I was as close as anyone ever gets to the classified stuff our space programme has. I don't know just what it is he looks for; a shifty gleam in the eye, maybe, or maybe a scarlet letter on my forehead. God knows why. My pension is large enough to be almost embarrassing.
Cresswell and I were sitting on the terrace of his hotel room, sipping drinks and discussing the future of the US space programme. It was about three-fifteen. My fingers began to itch. It wasn't a bit gradual. It was switched on like electric current. I mentioned it to Cresswell.
'So you picked up some poison ivy on that scrofulous little island,' he said, grinning.
'The only foliage on Key Caroline is a little palmetto scrub,' I said. 'Maybe it's the seven-year itch.' I looked down at my hands. Perfectly ordinary hands. But itchy.
Later in the afternoon I signed the same old paper ('I do solemnly swear that I have neither received nor disclosed and divulged information which would
') and drove myself back to the Key. I've got an old Ford, equipped with hand-operated brake and accelerator. I love it - it makes me feel self-sufficient.
It's a long drive back, down Route 1, and by the time I got off the big road and on to the Key Caroline exit ramp, I was nearly out of my mind. My hands itched maddeningly. If you have ever suffered through the healing of a deep cut or a surgical incision, you may have some idea of the kind of itch I mean. Live things seemed to be crawling and boring in my flesh.
The sun was almost down and I looked at my hands carefully in the glow of the dash lights. The tips of them were red now, red in tiny, perfect circlets, just above the pad where the fingerprint is, where you get calluses if you play guitar. There were also red circles of infection on the space between the first and second joint of each thumb and finger, and on the skin between the second joint and the knuckle. I pressed my right fingers to my lips and withdrew them quickly, with a sudden loathing. A feeling of dumb horror had risen in my throat, woollen and choking. The flesh where the red spots had appeared was hot, feverish, and the flesh was soft and gelid, like the flesh of an apple gone rotten.
I drove the rest of the way trying to persuade myself that I had indeed caught poison ivy somehow. But in the back of my mind there was another ugly thought. I had an aunt, back in my childhood, who lived the last ten years of her life closed off from the world in an upstairs room. My mother took her meals up, and her name was a forbidden topic. I found out later that she had Hansen's disease -leprosy.
When I got home I called Dr Flanders on the mainland. I got his answering service instead. Dr Flanders was on a fishing cruise, but if it was urgent, Dr Ballanger -'When will Dr Flanders be back?'
'Tomorrow afternoon at the latest. Would that -' 'Sure.'
I hung up slowly, then dialled Richard. I let it ring a dozen times before hanging up. After that I sat indecisive for a while. The itching had deepened. It seemed to emanate from the flesh itself.
I rolled my wheelchair over to the bookcase and pulled down the battered medical encyclopedia that I'd had for years. The book was maddeningly vague. It could have been anything, or nothing.
I leaned back and closed my eyes. I could hear the old ship's clock ticking on the shelf across the room. There was the high, thin drone of a jet on its way to Miami. There was the soft whisper of my own breath.
I was still looking at the book.
The realization crept on me, then sank home with a frightening rush. My eyes were closed, but I was still looking at the book. What I was seeing was smeary and monstrous, the distorted, fourth-dimensional counterpart of a book, yet unmistakable for all that.
And I was not the only one watching.
I snapped my eyes open, feeling the constriction of my heart. The sensation subsided a little, but not entirely. I was looking at the book, seeing the print and diagrams with my own eyes, perfectly normal everyday experience, and I was also seeing it from a different, lower angle and seeing it with other eyes. Seeing not a book but an alien thing, something of monstrous shape and ominous intent.
I raised my hands slowly to my face, catching an eerie vision of my living room turned into a horror house.
There were eyes peering up at me through splits in the flesh of my fingers. And even as I watched the flesh was dilating, retreating, as they pushed their mindless way up to the surface.
But that was not what made me scream. I had looked into my own face and seen a monster.
The dune buggy nosed over the hill and Richard brought it to a halt next to the porch. The motor gunned and roared choppily. I rolled my wheelchair down the inclined plane to the right of the regular steps and Richard helped me in.
'All right, Arthur,' he said. 'It's your party. Where to?'
I pointed down towards the water, where the Big Dune family begins to peter out. Richard nodded. The rear wheels spun sand and we were off. I usually found time to rib Richard about his driving, but I didn't bother tonight. There was too much else to think about - and to feel: they didn't want the dark, and I could feel them straining to see through the bandages, willing me to take them off.
The dune buggy bounced and roared through the sand towards the water, seeming almost to take flight from the tops of the small dunes. To the left the sun was going down in bloody glory. Straight ahead and across the water, the thunderclouds were beating their way towards us. Lightning forked at the water.
'Off to your right,' I said. 'By that lean-to.'
Richard brought the dune buggy to a sand-spraying halt beside the rotted remains of the lean-to, reached into the back, and brought out a spade. I winced when I saw it. 'Where?' Richard asked expressionlessly.
'Right there.' I pointed to the place.
He got out and walked slowly through the sand to the spot, hesitated for a second, then plunged the shovel into the sand. It seemed that he dug for a very long time. The sand he was throwing back over his shoulder looked damp and moist. The thunderheads were darker, higher, and the water looked angry and implacable under their shadow and the reflected glow of the sunset.
I knew long before he stopped digging that he was not going to find the boy. They had moved him. I hadn't bandaged my hands last night, so they could see - and act. If they had been able to use me to kill the boy, they could use me to move him, even while I slept.
'There's no boy, Arthur.' He threw the dirty shovel into the dune buggy and sat tiredly on the seat. The coming storm cast marching, crescent-shaped shadows along the sand. The rising breeze rattled sand against the buggy's rusted body. My fingers itched.
'They used me to move him,' I said dully. 'They're getting the upper hand, Richard. They're forcing their doorway open, a little at a time. A hundred times a day I find myself standing in front of some perfectly familiar object - a spatula, a picture, even a can of beans - with no idea how I got there, holding my hands out, showing it to them, seeing it as they do, as an obscenity, something twisted and grotesque -'Arthur,' he said. 'Arthur, don't. Don't.' In the failing light his face was wan with compassion. 'Standing in front of something, you said. Moving the boy's body, you said': But you can't walk, Arthur. You're dead from the waist down.'
I touched the dashboard of the dune buggy. 'This is dead, too. But when you enter it, you can make it go. You could make it kill. It couldn't stop you even if it wanted to.' I could hear my voice rising hysterically. 'I am the doorway, can't you understand that? They killed the boy, Richard! They moved the body!'
'I think you'd better see a medical man,' he said quietly. 'Let's go back. Let's -,
'Check! Check on the boy, then! find out -'
'You said you didn't even know his name.'
'He must have been from the village. It's a small village. Ask -'
'I talked to Maud Harrington on the phone when I got the dune buggy. If anyone in the state has a longer nose, I've not come across her. I asked if she'd heard of anyone's boy not coming home last night. She said she hadn't.'
'But he's a local! He has to be!'
He reached for the ignition switch but I stopped him. He turned to look at me and I began to unwrap my hands.
From the Gulf, thunder muttered and growled.
I didn't go to the doctor and I didn't call Richard back. I spent three weeks with my hands bandaged every time I went out. Three weeks just blindly hoping it would go away. It wasn't a rational act; I can admit that. If I had been a whole man who didn't need a wheelchair for legs or who had spent a normal life in a normal occupation, I might have gone to Doc Flanders or to Richard. I still might have, if it hadn't been for the memory of my aunt, shunned, virtually a prisoner, being eaten alive by her own ailing flesh. So I kept a desperate silence and prayed that I would wake up some morning and find it had been an evil dream.
And little by little, I felt them. Them. An anonymous intelligence. I never really wondered what they looked like or where they had come from. It was moot. I was their doorway, and their window on the world. I got enough feedback from them to feel their revulsion and horror, to know that our world was very different from theirs. Enough feedback to feel their blind hate. But still they watched. Their flesh was embedded in my own. I began to realize that they were using me, actually manipulating me.
When the boy passed, raising one hand in his usual noncommittal salute, I had just about decided to get in touch with Cresswell at his Navy Department number. Richard had been right about one thing - I was certain that whatever had got hold of me had done it in deep space or in that weird orbit around Venus. The Navy would study me, but they would not freakify me. I wouldn't have to wake up any more into the creaking darkness and stifle a scream as I felt them watching, watching, watching.
My hands went out towards the boy and I realized that I had not bandaged them. I could see the eyes in the dying light, watching silently. They were large, dilated, goldenirised. I had poked one of them against the tip of a pencil once, and had felt excruciating agony slam up my arm. The eye seemed to glare at me with a chained hatred that was worse than physical pain. I did not poke again.
And now they were watching the boy. I felt my mind sideslip. A moment later my control was gone. The door was open. I lurched across the sand towards him, legs scissoring nervelessly, so much driven deadwood. My own eyes seemed to close and I saw only with those alien eyes -saw a monstrous alabaster seascape overtopped with a sky like a great purple way, saw a leaning, eroded shack that might have been the carcas of some unknown, fleshdevouring creature, saw an abominated creature that moved and respired and carried a device of wood and wire under its arm, a device constructed of geometrically impossible right angles.
I wonder what he thought, that wretched, unnamed boy with his sieve under his arm and his pockets bulging with an odd conglomerate of sandy tourist coins, what he thought when he saw me lurching at him like a blind conductor stretching out his hands over a lunatic orchestra, what he thought as the last of the light fell across my hands, red and split and shining with their burden of eyes, what he thought when the hands made that sudden, flailing gesture in the air, just before his head burst.
I know what I thought.
I thought I had peeked over the rim of the universe and into the fires of hell itself.
The wind pulled at the bandages and made them into tiny, whipping streamers as I unwrapped them. The clouds had blottered the red remnants of the sunset, and the dunes were dark and shadow-cast. The clouds raced and boiled above us.
'You must promise me one thing, Richard,' I said over the rising wind. 'You must run if it seems I might try
to hurt you. Do you understand that?'
'Yes.' He open-throated shirt whipped and rippled with the wind. His face was set, his own eyes little more than sockets in early dark.
The last of the bandages fell away.
I looked at Richard and they looked at Richard. I saw a face I had known for five years and come to love. They saw a distorted, living monolith.
'You see them,' I said. hoarsely. 'Now you see them.'
He took an involuntary step backwards. His face became stained with a sudden unbelieving terror. Lightning slashed out of the sky. Thunder walked in the clouds and the water had gone black as the river Styx.
How hideous he was! How could I have lived near him, spoken with him? He was not a creature, but mute pestilence. He was -'Run! Run, Richard!' And he did run. He ran in huge, bounding leaps. He became a scaffold against the looming sky. My hands flew up, flew over my head in a screaming, orlesque gesture, the fingers reaching to the only familiar thing in this nightmare world - reaching to the clouds.
And the clouds answered. There was a huge, blue-white streak of lightning that seemed like the end of the world. It struck Richard, it enveloped him. The last thing ~ remember is the electric stench of ozone and burnt flesh.
When I awoke I was sitting calmly on my porch, looking out towards the Big Dune. The storm had passed and the air was pleasantly cool. There was a tiny sliver of moon. The sand was virginal - no sign of Richard or of the dune buggy.
I looked down at my hands. The eyes were open but glazed. They had exhausted themselves. They dozed.
I knew well enough what had to be done. Before the door could be wedged open any further, it had to be locked. For ever. Already I could notice the first signs of structural change in the hands themselves. The fingers were begin-fling to shorten
and to change.
There was a small hearth in the living room, and in season I had been in the habit of lighting a fire against the damp Florida cold. I lit one now, moving with haste. I had no idea when they might wake up to what I was doing.
When it was burning well I went out back to the kerosene drum and soaked both hands. They came awake immediately, screaming with agony. I almost didn't make it back to the living room, and to the fire.
But I did make it.
That was all seven years ago. I'm still here, still watching the rockets take off. There have been more of them lately. This is a space-minded administration. There has even been talk of another series of manned Venus probes.
I found out the boy's name, not that it matters. He was from the village, just as I thought. But his mother had expected him to stay with a friend on the mainland that night, and the alarm was not raised until the following Monday. Richard - well, everyone thought Richard was an odd duck, anyway. They suspect he may have gone back to Maryland or taken up with some woman.
As for me, I'm tolerated, although I have quite a reputation for eccentricity myself. After all, how many ex-astronauts regularly write their elected Washington officials with the idea that space-exploration money could be better spent elsewhere?
I get along just fine with these hooks. There was terrible pain for the first year or so, but the human body can adjust to almost anything. I shave with them and even tie my own shoelaces. And as you can see, my typing is nice and even. I don't expect to have any trouble putting the shotgun into my mouth or pulling the trigger. It started again three weeks ago, you see.
There is a perfect circle of twelve golden eyes on my chest.
Officer Hunton got to the laundry just ag the ambulance was leaving - slowly, with no siren or flashing lights. Ominous. Inside, the office was stuffed with milling, silent people, some of them weeping. The plant itself was empty; the big automatic washers at the far end had not even been shut down. It made Hunton very wary. The crowd should be at the scene of the accident, not in the office. It was the way things worked - the human animal had a built-in urge to view the remains. A very bad one, then. Hunton felt his stomach tighten as it always did when the accident was very bad. Fourteen years of cleaning human litter from highways and streets and the sidewalks at the bases of very tall buildings had not been able to erase that little hitch in the belly, as if something evil had clotted there.
A man in a white shirt saw Hunton and walked towards him reluctantly. He was a buffalo of a man with head thrust forward between shoulders, nose and cheeks vein-broken either from high blood pressure or too many conversations with the brown bottle. He was trying to frame words, but after two tries Hunton cut him off briskly:
'Are you the owner? Mr Gartley?'
no. I'm Stanner. The foreman. God, this -'
Hunton got out his notebook. 'Please show me the scene of the accident, Mr Stanner, and tell me what happened.'
Stanner seemed to grow even more white; the blotches on his nose and cheeks stood out like birthmarks. 'D-do I have to?'
Hunton raised his eyebrows. 'I'm afraid you do. The call I got said it was serious.'
'Serious -' Stanner seemed to be battling with his gorge; for a moment his Adam's apple went up and down like a monkey on a stick. 'Mrs Frawley is dead. Jesus, I wish Bill Garley was here.'
Stanner said, 'You better come over here.'
He led Hunton past a row of hand presses, a shirt-folding unit, and then stopped by a laundry-marking machine. He passed a shaky hand across his forehead. 'You'll have to go over by yourself, Officer. I can't look at it again. It makes me
I can't. I'm sorry.'
Hunton walked around the marking machine with a mild feeling of contempt for the man. They run a loose shop, cut corners, run live steam through home-welded pipes, they work with dangerous cleaning chemicals without the proper protection, and finally, someone gets hurt. Or gets dead. Then they can't look. They can't -Hunton saw it.
The machine was still running. No one had shut it off. The machine he later came to know intimately: the HadleyWatson Model-6 Speed Ironer and Folder. A long and clumsy name. The people who worked here in the steam and the wet had a better name for it. The mangler.
Hunton took a long, frozen look, and then he performed a first in his fourteen years as a law-enforcement officer: he turned around, put a convulsive hand to his mouth, and threw up.
'You didn't each much,' Jackson said.
The women were inside, doing dishes and talking babies while John Hunton and Mark Jackson sat in lawn chairs near the aromatic barbecue. Hunton smiled slightly at the understatement. He had eaten nothing.
'There was a bad one today,' he said. 'The worst.'
Hunton did not reply immediately, but his face made an involuntary, writhing grimace. He got a beer out of the cooler between them, opened it, and emptied half of it. 'I suppose you college profs don't know anything about industrial laundries?'
Jackson chuckled. 'This one does. I spent a summer working in one as an undergraduate.'
'Then you know the machine they call the speed ironer?' Jackson nodded. 'Sure. They run damp flatwork through them, mostly sheets and linen. A big, long machine.'
'That's it,' Hunton said. 'A woman named Adelle Frawley got caught in it at the Blue Ribbon Laundry crosstown. It sucked her right in.'
Jackson looked suddenly ill. 'But
that can't happen, Johnny. There's a safety bar. If one of the women feeding the machine accidentally gets a hand under it, the bar snaps up and stops the machine. At least that's how I remember it.'
Hunton nodded. 'It's a state law. But it happened.'
Hunton closed his eyes and in the darkness he could see the Hadley-Watson speed ironer again, as it had been that afternoon. It formed a long, rectangular box in shape, thirty feet by six. At the feeder end, a moving canvas belt moved under the safety bar, up at a slight angle, and then down. The belt carried the damp-dried, wrinkled sheets in continuous cycle over and under sixteen huge revolving cylinders that made up the main body of the machine. Over eight and under eight, pressed between them like thin ham between layers of superheated bread. Steam heat in the cylinders could be adjusted up to 300 degrees for maximum drying. The pressure on the sheets that rode the moving canvas belt was set at 800 pounds per square foot to get out every wrinkle.
And Mrs Frawley, somehow, had been caught and dragged in. The steel, asbestos-jacketed pressing cylinders had been as red as barn paint, and the rising steam from the machine had carried the sickening stench of hot blood. Bits of her white blouse and blue slacks, even ripped segments of her bra and panties, had been torn free and ejected from the machine's far end thirty feet down, the bigger sections of cloth folded with grotesque and blood-stained neatness by the automatic folder. But not even that was the worst.
'It tried to fold everything,' he said to Jackson, tasting bile in his throat. 'But a person isn't a sheet, Mark. What I saw
what was left of her
' Like Stanner, the hapless foreman, he could not finish. 'They took her out in a basket,' he said softly.
Jackson whistled. 'Who's going to get it in the neck? The laundry or the state inspectors?'
'Don't know yet,' Hunton said. The malign image still hung behind his eyes, the image of the mangler wheezing and thumping and hissing, blood dripping down the green sides of the long cabinet in runnels, the burning stink of her
'It depends on who okayed that goddamn safety bar and under what circumstances.'
'If it's the management, can they wiggle out of it?'
Hunton smiled without humour. 'The woman died, Mark. If Gartley and Stanner were cutting corners on the speed ironer's maintenance, they'll go to jail. No matter who they know on the City Council.'
'Do you think they were cutting corners?'
Hunton thought of the Blue Ribbon Laundry, badly lighted, floors wet and slippery, some of the machines incredibly ancient and creaking. 'I think it's likely,' he said quietly.
They got up to go in the house together. 'Tell me how it comes out, Johnny,' Jackson said. 'I'm interested.'
Hunton was wrong about the mangler; it was clean as a whistle.
Six state inspectors went over it before the inquest, piece by piece. The net result was absolutely nothing. The inquest verdict was death by misadventure.
Hunton, dumbfounded, cornered Roger Martin, one of the inspectors, after the hearing. Martin was a tall drink of water with glasses as thick as the bottoms of shot glasses. He fidgeted with a ball-point pen under Hunton's questions.
'Nothing? Absolutely nothing doing with the machine?'
'Nothing,' Martin said. 'Of course, the safety bar was the guts of the matter. It's in perfect working order. You heard that Mrs Gillian testify. Mrs Frawley must have pushed her hand too far. No one saw that; they were watching their own work. She started screaming. Her hand was gone already, and the machine was taking her arm. They tried to pull her out instead of shutting it down - pure panic. Another woman, Mrs Keene, said she did try to shut it off, but it's a fair assumption that she hit the start button rather than the stop in the confusion. By then it was too late.'
'Then the safety bar malfunctioned,' Hunton said flatly. 'Unless she put her hand over it rather than under?'
'You can't. There's a stainless-steel facing above the safety bar. And the bar itself didn't malfunction. It's circuited into the machine itself. If the safety bar goes on the blink, the machine shuts down.'
'Then how did it happen, for Christ's sake?'
'We don't know. My colleagues and I are of the opinion that the only way the speed ironer could have killed Mrs Frawley was for her to have fallen into it from above. And she had both feet on the floor when it happened. A dozen witnesses can testify to that.'
'You're describing an impossible accident,' Hunton said.
'No. Only one we don't understand.' He paused, hesitated, and then said: 'I will tell you one thing, Hunton, since you seem to have taken this case to heart. If you mention it to anyone else, I'll deny I said it. But I didn't like that machine. It seemed
almost to be mocking us. I've inspected over a dozen speed ironers in the last five years on a regular basis. Some of them are in such bad shape that I wouldn't have a dog unleashed around them - the state law is lamentably lax. But they were only machines for all that. But this one
it's a spook. I don't know why, but it is. I think if I'd found one thing, even a technicality, that was off whack, I would have ordered it shut down. Crazy, huh?'
'I felt the same way,' Hunton said.
'Let me tell you about something that happened two years ago in Milton,' the inspector said. He took off his glasses and began to polish them slowly on his vest. 'Fella had parked an old ice-box out in his backyard. The woman who called us said her dog had been caught in it and suffocated. We got the state policeman in the area to inform him it had to go to the town dump. Nice enough fella, sorry about the dog. He loaded it into his pickup and took it to the dump the next morning. That afternoon a woman in the neighbourhood reported her son missing.'
'God,' Hunton said.
The icebox was at the dump and the kid was in it, dead. As mart kind, according to the mother. She said he'd no more play in an empty icebox than he would take a ride with a strange man. Well, he did. We wrote it off. Case closed?'
'I guess,' Hunton said.
'No. The dump caretaker went out next day to take the door off the thing. City Ordinance No.58 on the maintenance of public dumping places.' Martin looked at him expressionlessly. 'He found six dead birds inside. Gulls, sparrows, a robin: And he said the door closed on his arm while he was brushing them out. Gave him a hell of a jump. The mangler at the Blue Ribbon strikes me like that, Hunton. I don't like it.'
They looked at each other wordlessly in the empty inquest chamber, some six city blocks from where the Hadley-Watson Model-6 Speed Ironer and Folder sat in the busy laundry, steaming and fuming over its sheets.
The case was driven out of his mind in the space of a week by the press of more prosaic police work. It was only brought back when he and his wife dropped over to Mark Jackson's house for an evening of bid whist and beer.
Jackson greeted him with: 'Have you ever wondered if that laundry machine you told me about is haunted, Johnny?'
Hunton blinked, at a loss. 'What?'
'The speed ironer at the Blue Ribbon Laundry, I guess you didn't catch the squeal this time.'
'What squeal?' Hunton asked, interested.
Jackson passed him the evening paper and pointed to an item at the bottom of page two. The story said that a steam line had let go on the large speed ironer at the Blue Ribbon Laundry, burning three of the six women working at the feeder end. The accident had occurred at 3.45 p.m. and was attributed to a rise in steam pressure from the laundry's boiler. One of the women, Mrs Annette Gillian, had been held at City Receiving Hospital with second-degree burns.
'Funny coincidence,' he said, but the memory of Inspector Martin's words in the empty inquest chamber suddenly recurred: It's a spook. .. And the story about the dog and the boy and the birds caught in the discarded refrigerator.
He played cards very badly that night.
Mrs Gillian was propped up in bed reading Screen Secrets when Hunton came into the four-bed hospital room. A large bandage blanketed one arm and the side of her neck. The room's other occupant, a young woman with a pallid face, was sleeping.
Mrs Gillian blinked at the blue uniform and then smiled tentatively. 'If it was for Mrs Cherinikov, you'll have to come back later. They just gave her medication.'
'No, it's for you, Mrs Gillian.' Her smile faded a little. 'I'm here unofficially - which means I'm curious about the accident at the laundry. John Hunton.' He held out his hand.
It was the right move. Mrs Gillian's smile became brilliant and she took his grip awkwardly with her unburnt hand. 'Anything I can tell you, Mr Hunton. God, I thought my Andy was in trouble at school again.'
'We was running sheets and the ironer just blew up - or it seemed that way. I was thinking about going home an' getting off my dogs when there's this great big bang, like a bomb. Steam is everywhere and this hissing noise, awful.' Her smile trembled on the verge of extinction. 'It was like the ironer was breathing. Like a dragon, it was. And Alberta - that's Alberta Keene - shouted that something was exploding and everyone was running and screaming and Ginny Jason started yelling she was burnt. I started to run away and I fell down. I didn't know I got it worst until then. God forbid it was no worse than it was. That live steam is three hundred degrees.'
'The paper said a steam line let go. What does that mean?'
'The overhead pipe comes down into this kinda flexible line that feeds the machine. George - Mr Stanner - said there must have been a surge from the boiler or something. The line split wide open.'
Hunton could think of nothing else to ask. He was making ready to leave when she said reflectively:
'We never used to have these things on that machine. Only lately. The steam line breaking. That awful, awful accident with Mrs Frawley, God rest her. And little things. Like the day Essie got her dress caught in one of the drive chains. That could have been dangerous if she hadn't ripped it right out. Bolts and 'things fall off. Oh, Herb Diment - he's the laundry repairman - has had an awful time with it. Sheets get caught in the folder. George says that's because they're using too much bleach in the washers, but it never used to happen. Now the girls hate to work on it. Essie even says there are still little bits of Adelle Frawley caught in it and it's sacrilege or something. Like it had a curse. It's been that way ever since Sherry cut her hand on one of the clamps.'
'Sherry?' Hunton asked.
'Sherry Ouelette. Pretty little thing, just out of high school. Good worker. But clumsy sometimes. You know how young girls are.'
'She cut her hand on something?'
'Nothing strange about that. There are clamps to tighten down the feeder belt, see. Sherry was adjusting them so we could do a heavier load and probably dreaming about some boy. She cut her finger and bled all over everything.' Mrs Gillian looked puzzled. 'It wasn't until after that the bolts started falling off. Adelle was
about a week later. As if the machine had tasted blood and found it liked it. Don't women get funny ideas sometimes, Officer Hinton?'
'Hunton,' he said absently, looking over her head and into space.
Ironically, he had met Mark Jackson in a washateria in the block that separated their houses, and it was there that the cop and the English professor still had their most interesting conversations.
Now they sat side by side in bland plastic chairs, their clothes going round and round behind the glass portholes of the coin-op washers. Jackson's paperback copy of Milton's collected works lay neglected beside him while he listened to Hunton tell Mrs Gillian's story.
When Hunton had finished, Jackson said, 'I asked you once if you thought the mangler might be haunted. I was only half joking. I'll ask you again now.'
'No,' Hunton said uneasily. 'Don't be stupid.'
Jackson watched the turning clothes reflectively. 'Haunted is a bad word. Let's say possessed. There are almost as many spells for casting demons in as there are for casting them out. Frazier's Golden Bough is replete with them. Druidic and Aztec lore contain others. Even older ones, back to Egypt. Almost all of them can be reduced to startlingly common denominators. The most common, of course, is the blood of a virgin.' He looked at Hunton, 'Mrs Gillian said the trouble started after this Sherry Ouelette accidentally cut herself.'
'Oh, come on,' Hunton said.
'You have to admit she sounds just the type,' Jackson said.
'I'll run right over to her house,' Hunton said with a small smile. 'I can see it. "Miss Ouelette, I'm Officer John Hunton. I'm investigating an ironer with a bad case of demon possession and would like to know if you're a virgin." Do you think I'd get a chance to say goodbye to Sandra and the kids before they carted me off to the booby hatch?'
'I'd be willing to bet you'll end up saying something just like that,' Jackson said without smiling. 'I'm serious, Johnny. That machine scares the hell out of me and I've never seen it.,
'For the sake of conversation,' Hunton said, 'what are some of the other so-called common denominators?'
Jackson shrugged. 'Hard to say without study. Most Anglo-Saxon hex formulas specify graveyard dirt or the eye of a toad. European spells often mention the hand of glory, which can be interpreted as the actual hand of a dead man or one of the hallucinogenics used in connection with the Witches' Sabbath - usually belladonna or a psilocybin derivative. There could be others.'
'And you think all those things got into the Blue Ribbon ironer? Christ, Mark, I'll bet there isn't any belladonna within a five-hundred-mile radius. Or do you think someone whacked off their Uncle Fred's hand and dropped it in the folder?'
'If seven hundred monkeys typed for seven hundred years -'One of them would turn out the works of Shakespeare,'
Hunton finished sourly. 'Go to hell. Your turn to go across to the drugstore and get some dimes for the dryers.'
It was very funny how George Stanner lost his arm in the mangler.
Seven o'clock Monday morning the laundry was deserted except for Stanner and Herb Diment, the maintenance man. They were performing the twice-yearly function of greasing the mangler's bearings before the laundry's regular day began at seven-thirty. Diment was at the far end, greasing the four secondaries and thinking of how unpleasant this machine made him feel lately, when the mangler suddenly roared into life.
He had been holding up four of the canvas exit belts to get at the motor beneath and suddenly the belts were running in his hands, ripping the flesh off his palms, dragging him along.
He pulled free with a convulsive jerk seconds before the belts would have carried his hands into the folder.
'What the Christ, George!' he yelled. 'Shut the frigging thing off,
George Stanner began to scream.
It was a high, wailing, blood-maddened sound that filled the laundry, echoing off the steel faces of the washers, the grinning mouths of the steam presses, the vacant eyes of the industrial dryers. Stanner drew in a great, whooping gasp of air and screamed again: 'Oh God of Christ I'm caught I'M CAUGHT -,
The rollers began to produce rising steam. The folder gnashed and thumped. Bearings and motors seemed to cry out with a hidden life of their own.
Diment raced to the other end of the machine.
The first roller was already going a sinister red. Diment made a moaning, gobbling noise in his throat. The mangler howled and thumped and hissed.
A deaf observer might have thought at first that Stanner was merely bent over the machine at an odd angle. Then even a deaf man would have seen the pallid, eye-bulging rictus of his face, mouth twisted open in a continuous scream. The arm was disappearing under the safety bar and beneath the first roller; the fabric of his shirt had torn away at the shoulder seam and his upper arm bulged grotesquely as the blood was pushed steadily backwards.
'Turn if off!' Stanner screamed. There was a snap as his elbow broke.
Diment thumbed the off button.
The mangler continued to hum and growl and turn.
Unbelieving, he slammed the button again and again -nothing. The skin of Stanner's arm had grown shiny and taut. Soon it would split with the pressure the roll was putting on it; and still he was conscious and screaming. Diment had a nightmare cartoon image of a man flattened by a steamroller, leaving only a shadow.
'Fuses -' Stanner screeched. His head was being pulled down, down, as he was dragged forward.
Diment whirled and ran to the boiler room, Stanner's screams chasing him like lunatic ghosts. The mixed stench of blood and steam rose in the air.
On the left wall were three heavy grey boxes containing all the fuses for the laundry's electricity. Diment yanked them open and began to pull the long, cylindrical fuses like a crazy man, throwing them back over his shoulders. The overhead lights went out; then the air compressor; then the boiler itself, with a huge dying whine.
And still the mangler turned. Stanner's screams had been reduced to bubbly moans.
Diment's eye happened on the fire axe in its glassed-in box. He grabbed it with a small, gagging whimper and ran back. Stanner's arm was gone almost to the shoulder. Within seconds his bent and straining neck would be snapped against the safety bar.
'I can't,' Diment blubbered, holding the axe. 'Jesus, George, I can't, I can't, I -'
The machine was an abattoir now. The folder spat out pieces of shirt sleeve, scraps of flesh, a finger. Stanner gave a huge, whooping scream and Diment swung the axe up and brought it down in the laundry's shadowy lightlessness. Twice. Again.
Stanner fell away, unconscious and blue, blood jetting from the stump just below the shoulder. The mangler sucked what was left into itself
and shut down.
Weeping, Diment pulled his belt out of its loops and began to make a tourniquet.
Hunton was talking on the phone with Roger Martin, the inspector. Jackson watched him while he patiently rolled a ball back and forth for three-year-old Patty Hunton to chase.
'He pulled all the fuses?' Hunton was asking. 'And the off button just didn't function, huh?
Has the ironer been shut down?
Good. Great. Huh?
No, not official.' Hunton frowned, then looked sideways at Jackson. 'Are you still reminded of that refrigerator, Roger?
Yes. Me too, Goodbye.'
He hung up and looked at Jackson. 'Let's go see the girl, Mark.'
She had her own apartment (the hesitant yet proprietary way she showed them in after Hunton had flashed his buzzer made him suspect that she hadn't had it long), and she sat uncomfortably across from them in the carefully decorated, postage-stamp living room.
'I'm Officer Hunton and this is my associate, Mr Jackson. It's about the accident at the laundry.' He felt hugely uncomfortable with this dark, shyly pretty girl.
'Awful,' Sherry Ouelette murmured. 'It's the only place I've ever worked. Mr Gartley is my uncle. I liked it because it let me have this place and my own friends. But now.. it's so spooky.'
'The State Board of Safety has shut the ironer down pending a full investigation,' Hunton said. 'Did you know that?'
'Sure,' She sighed restlessly. 'I don't know what I'm going to do -'
'Miss Ouelette,' Jackson interrupted, 'you had an accident with the ironer, didn't you? Cut your hand on a clamp, I believe?'
'Yes, I cut my finger.' Suddenly her face clouded. 'That was the first thing.' She looked at them woefully. 'Sometimes I feel like the girls don't like me so much any more as if I were to blame.'
'I have to ask you a hard question,' Jackson said slowly. 'A question you won't like. It seems absurdly personal and off the subject, but I can only tell you it is not. Your answers won't ever be marked down in a file or record.'
She looked frightened. 'D-did I do something?'
Jackson smiled and shook his head; she melted. Thank God for Mark, Hunton thought.
'I'll add this, though: the answer may help you keep your nice little flat here, get your job back, and make things at the laundry the way they were before.'
'I'd answer anything to have that,' she said.
'Sherry, are you a virgin?'
She looked utterly flabbergasted, utterly shocked, as if a priest had given communion and then slapped her. Then she lifted her head, made a gesture at her neat efficiency apartment, as if asking them how they could believe it might be a place of assignation.
'I'm saving myself for my husband,' she said simply.
Hunton and Jackson looked calmly at each other, and in that tick of a second, Hunton knew that it was all true: a devil had taken over the inanimate steel and cogs and gears of the mangler and had turned it into something with its own life.
'Thank you,' Jackson said quietly.
'What now?' Hunton asked bleakly as they rode back. 'Find a priest to exorcise it?'
Jackson snorted. 'You'd go a far piece to find one that wouldn't hand you a few tracts to read while he phoned the booby hatch. It has to be our play, Johnny.'
'Can we do it?'
'Maybe. The problem is this: We know something is in the mangler. We don't know what.' Hunton felt cold, as if touched by a fleshless finger. 'There are a great many demons. Is the one we're dealing with in the circle of Bubastis or Pan? Baal? Or the Christian deity we call Satan? We don't know. If the demon had been deliberately cast, we would have a better chance. But this seems to be a case of random possession.'
Jackson ran his fingers through his hair. 'The blood of a virgin, yes. But that narrows it down hardly at all. We have to be sure, very sure.'
'Why?' Hunton asked bluntly. 'Why not just get a bunch of exorcism formulas together and try them out?'
Jackson's face went cold. 'This isn't cops 'n' robbers, Johnny. For Christ's sake, don't think it is. The rite of exorcism is horribly dangerous. It's like controlled nuclear fission, in a way. We could make a mistake and destroy ourselves. The demon is caught in that piece of machinery. But give it a chance and -'
'It could get out?'
'It would love to get out,' Jackson said grimly. 'And it likes to kill.'
When Jackson came over the following evening, Hunton had sent his wife and daughter to a movie. They had the living room to themselves, and for this Hunton was relieved. He could still barely believe what he had become involved in.
'I cancelled my classes,' Jackson said, 'and spent the day with some of the most god-awful books you can imagine.
This afternoon I fed over thirty recipes for calling demons into the tech computer. I've got a number of common elements. Surprisingly few.'
He showed Hunton the list: blood of a virgin, graveyard dirt, hand of glory, bat's blood, night moss, horse's hoof, eye of toad.
There were others, all marked secondary.
'Horse's hoof,' Hunton said thoughtfully. 'Funny -'
'Very common. In fact -'
'Could these things - any of them - be interpreted loosely?' Hunton interrupted.
'If lichens picked at night could be substituted for night moss, for instance?'