HORRORS!: Rarely-Reprinted Classic Terror Tales #1
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by J. L. Hill
Description: A "Must Read" Horror Anthology. HORRORS! unearths and restores to print classic tales of grim and grue that have languished unnoticed and unreprinted for too long. Among the selection of rarely seen horror masterpieces from the early years of the past century are "Meshes of Doom," a tale of sentient plants, by Neville Kilvington, "Unburied Bane," a tale of ghostly revenge, by N. Dennet, "The Whistling Room," a tale of invasion from another dimension, by William Hope Hodgson, "The Caretaker's Story," a tale of supernatural horror, by Edith Olivier, "Nightmare Jack," who will haunt your own nightmares forever, by John Metcalfe, and other gems of terror and the supernatural. How many have you read before?
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner, 2003
eBookwise Release Date: July 2004
4 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [172 KB]
Reading time: 114-160 min.
It all began (said Frances Windthrop) when I was led by my husband excitedly over three-and-a-half miles of wet moor to inspect the old farm he had recently discovered. It was not only the fact that it was incredibly lonely, was at least two hundred years old, and probably possessed, as he explained with enthusiasm, Lord knew what queer history, but it was--though dilapidated to a degree--occupied by an old scrag of a woman whom he declared gave him the shivers.
Beyond demurring mildly that neither could possibly interest me to the extent it did himself, I consented to tramp along to see the farmhouse and its grim-sounding occupant. I had discovered long ago, in the early days of my marriage, that it was not everything to be the wife of a popular playwright; one, moreover, who specialized in those of a sensational character, and was, consequently ever on the look out for likely material.
I realized that for some months now his pen had been idle; that, possibly through overwork or lack of change, no themes had come to his harassed brain except those which had been used countless times before. Here in the old farm he had found the necessary impetus: he declared the very look of the place inspired him; that, if he could only obtain admission, he was sure he would find his plot already made within its four walls. Further, so better to soak in its atmosphere, he suggested that we occupied the place ourselves until such time as the play was written, providing, of course the old woman now living there was agreeable. There was a village of a sort half-a-mile away, and probably she would be only too glad to move there, he said; unless, as an alternative, she agreed to stay and 'do' for us while letting us have a room or two for a consideration.
I was against it from the first; but seeing him so eager and hopeful, and dreading a continuance of his moody irritability, the restless pacing and sleepless nights while he vainly pursued the illusive idea; I forebore to mention how much I disliked the project. For myself I foresaw many hours of loneliness and boredom.
One afternoon in late September, then, we set off; not, from my point of view, what one might call a promising beginning. Oliver strode on rapidly, impatient to be there, scarcely noticing how I stumbled over the heathery ground. At length, after what seemed hours, we climbed a rise of the moor where beyond, in a shallow basin of desolate land, showed the shale roof of a building, its lines half obliterated in the failing light.
"Is that the place?" I asked, my heart sinking inexplicably.
Oliver ran down the curve and stopped before a broken-down gate covered with lichen.
Out of the shadows the farm arose in a chaos of neglect and decay. Hideous fungus was growing everywhere, between the chinks of the cobblestones, on the rotten and broken fences--even the walls of the farmhouse itself were smeared with curious green vegetation, while the rock moss flourished on its roof. Trunks of old apple trees in an orchard beyond were grey with lichen and twisted by age into fantastic shapes. In the moor twilight which was creeping up cold and cheerless, with strange ominous streaks of colour where the sun had gone down, it was a dreary, desolate place.
I drew back; an indefinable fear possessed me. "I won't go in," I said, in a rather shaking voice.
"Rubbish, Frances; why on earth not?" demanded my husband.
He climbed determinedly over a tumbled-down wall, and stood in what had once been the farmyard, now a rat-infested wilderness. A pool to one side was green with slime, and sodden straw lay littered about in heaps. The farmhouse, a low, squat building whose ancient roof sagged and humped crazily in a last effort to avoid slipping off bodily, with its close shut door and secretive-looking window, appeared dead and deserted amid its army of strange and hideous weeds.
I could see, as Oliver stood staring, that he was frankly revelling in it all, in its possibilities for the production of a real 'thriller.' And indeed, what with its dismal and forsaken appearance, its air of sinister and brooding quiet, its very situation, hidden away there in the fastnesses of the moor, with only the owls and the conies for any signs of life--even I, who am no dramatist, could understand the attraction it held for Oliver. Meanwhile I stood beside him, protest in every line of my body. A chilly wind sighed and whispered about our ears, and stirred the few stunted bushes growing against the crumbling walls. It was unbelievably lonely.
"There's that old harridan who's living in the place at present--what about knocking her up and getting her to show us over tonight?" Oliver proposed enthusiastically.
It was with, I knew, a mental picture of the posters outside a well-known London theatre announcing Oliver Windthrop's new success that he raised his hand and knocked loudly on the door, set so deep in a porch as to be almost invisible in the growing darkness.
The echo died away in a series of muffled responses. We waited, and five minutes passed away--ten, and still no one came. Then, just as Oliver was going away disappointed, the door silently opened the width of an inch or two. Someone made a mumbling inquiry as to what we wanted. Oliver asked, might he and his wife step in and rest for a moment, as both were tired with walking over the moors? There was no reply, but a face, white and curiously vacant, appeared round the narrow opening and peered closely into ours. Apparently satisfied with what it saw there, the door was opened a fraction wider and we were motioned to come in. We bent our heads low and entered a dark, flagged passage, then into another door which led into a black-raftered kitchen, dimly illuminated by the waning daylight that came in through a window covered with dirt and cobwebs.
Two chairs were pushed out ungraciously. We seated ourselves. I looked around uneasily, with a creeping aversion. The misshapen old creature who lived there was surely the most silent thing I had ever seen, and also the most repulsive. So bloodless, so emaciated was her face, with one shoulder held higher than the other so that her body was awry, and her gait a twisted see-sawing motion, there was something supernatural about her--something quasi-human that went with the brooding house, the lonely moor, and the night winds that swept blackly about it. She stood with a pallid watchfulness, silently waiting for us to speak.
"Do you not find life here very lonely?" I observed at length, unable to bear longer the heavy silence, the shadowy room, and the odour of damp and decay that hung clammily about it.
Her voice, a thin, bodiless whisper, replied she was never lonesome, she was one that preferred her own company.
"You live here, then, quite alone?" said my husband, rising as he spoke to put a match to the old-fashioned lamp that stood on the table, having received a nodded permission.
"Eh? Iss, quite alone, except for my thoughts--and my gert old black cat."
She gave him a strange, unfathomable look from her sightless-looking eyes, and as she moved, so the figure of the cat sitting motionless in the gloom behind her came into view, its eyes glittering greenly. Their shadows grotesquely outlined against the wall, on a sudden rose up till they touched and spread along the ceiling, and appeared to crouch menacingly over our heads.
Nervously, I averted my gaze, but found it riveted instead on the face of the attenuated old creature standing opposite us. It was with a shock that I really saw that countenance for the first time: so fleshless the bones showed beneath its covering of skin--an expression both fixed and mask-like, a wide and lipless mouth, no eyebrows, eyes sunken in discoloured sockets, a nose with the left nostril black and closed, and one or two crooked and pointed teeth.
A tremor of repugnance shook me from head to foot. She was horrible, unnatural. It took all my will-power not to rise from my seat and run from the house there and then.
"Might I inquire why the farmhouse has been allowed to fall into its present neglected condition, which obviously is a matter of some time?" Oliver inquired at this point.
"Eh?" mumbled the old hag vaguely, as if she were a little hard of hearing. Her speech, a sequence of inarticulate sounds, was faint and difficult to understand. "Eh, but a power o' years ago it were a proper fine farm, but they do say as how it were the scene o' turrible deeds; and now neither man nor maid will come a-nigh en after the dimpse; and if it warn't for me nobody'd a-live in en."
An eerie sound moved in her throat, which faintly resembled a chuckle. An amusement not shared by Oliver and myself; it was a sound that seemed full of a hidden meaning, and sent a cold shiver down my spine.
"'Witch's Bane' they calls the farm round these yur parts, or mebbe tes 'Wolfsbane'--I disremember now--on account o' they weeds, I reckon," she gibbered, with a silent person's garrulity; "but, for certain sure, thy'm mortal afeard to come down-along because o' thicky--but come 'long up over, and then I'll show it 'ee."
There was something almost frightful in her smooth, noiseless movements as she twisted from side to side in ceaseless contortion. So unsubstantial was she, she seemed merely the envelope that covered a thing of skin and bones. She led us upstairs first, up a rickety staircase, impossibly steep and damp, into several empty bedrooms, all with low and sloping ceilings crossed by heavy black beams, and with the tiniest of windows that had the appearance of being sealed, so long unopened did they look. The floors, too, had a downward tilt, and sagged as one stepped upon them.
With our shadows now weirdly elongated to an exaggerated height, and now dwindling down to nothing as we wandered through the musty-smelling house--the eerie old woman like a distorted shadow herself--it was daunting to a degree. I followed shrinkingly, with a fear none the less real for being non-susceptible to definition. I could see, however, that it would be useless to appeal to Oliver: by the excited way his eyes shone he was resolved more than ever to put his crazy plan into execution. To imagine living in this ghostly place even for a day filled me with horror.
Down the stairs we creaked again, and into what once had been the farmhouse parlour. A room rather long and low, the smell of damp and mouldiness which pervaded it was made more apparent by the wooden window shutters that were tightly shut on the outside. The ceilings, bisected by heavy oak beams, was discoloured and dropping off in places with mildew, while ancient paper hung and rotted from the walls. There was a broad window seat, with low wide windows which, when opened, gave on to a stretch of moorland extending as far as the eye could reach; and there on the sill, grinning at me, was ?
I started back all at once, uttering a startled exclamation. It was an object so unexpected to see there, and yet so in keeping with this room, with the strange house that lodged it.
I rubbed my hands, the slim white fingers that had touched it, with fastidious distaste. I have ever hated touching anything that is not fresh and sweet and clean--not that this thing on the window-sill was not clean: it was as clean as age and decay could make it. Yellow and smooth, it shone almost as if polished with oil: a broken, weather-beaten skull. Extremely old, it was certainly human, the forehead being very low and badly proportioned.
"O-ha-ha; her's nothin' to be afeard of--now." Again that unpleasant sound agitated the ancient creature's throat. "Eh, but a famous witch she were. There's folks what do mind even now how pigs and cattle died quick and mysterious-like if her were offended, and no amount o' salt round the stys and barns would avert it, neither."
Oliver pricked up his ears; I too, listened with a half-willing, half-fascinated interest. This story of witchcraft of a less matter-of-fact age was strangely compelling. The odious old creature appeared to delight in it--liked to dwell on an the things that were ghoulish and horrible. The influence of the 'evil eye,' the propitiating of the powers of darkness; and so forth.