"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Horror distilled: Notes on The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories

Starting Friday afternoon, I read The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories in three days. I read it cover to cover, starting on page 1 going all the way to 278. I did not skip any stories. They were all new to me, and of very high quality. Thoughtful editorial notes enriched and contextualized the stories. I highly recommend it. I have never read an anthology cover-to-cover before.

30 July 2017


edited by James D. Jenkins & Ryan Cagle
VALANCOURT BOOKS Richmond, Virginia 2016


Editors' Foreword • essay by James D. Jenkins and Ryan Cagle
….Since 2005, Valancourt Books has made available almost 400 neglected classics by dozens of authors, most of them out of print for decades, sometimes even for a century or two. Our catalogue includes Gothic novels from the late 1700s and early 1800s, Victorian ‘penny dreadfuls’ and ‘sensation’ novels, vintage mystery and horror fiction from the 1 920s, ’30s and ’40s, rediscovered gay interest fiction from the mid-20th century, and more recent horror and science fiction from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. The idea behind this anthology was, “What if we distilled the best of each part of our catalogue into a single volume? What would a horror anthology spanning two centuries, and featuring only Valancourt authors, look like?”

....we have for the most part tried to avoid stories that are widely available in other anthologies.

Aunty Green • (1977) • short story by John Blackburn
....Sir James Crampton, K.C.M.G. (awarded for services to the export drive) had many enviable chattels: machines and money, men and women, bricks and mortar, but there were other possessions no one would envy. An army of malignant cells was consuming his lungs and liver and emotion had already consumed his soul. Anger directed against an old, frail woman he hadn’t seen for thirty-­five years.

....‘You did it on purpose, Jim. You killed my husband deliberately, and now you’ll pay for him. The oil stove’s nice and hot, so let’s go into the kitchen and have a feel of it.’ He’d paid all right. Sir James flexed his fingers. He had paid in full, and been too frightened to tell the teachers or the Child Care Officer what Aunty Green did to him. She was a witch who could read his thoughts and sear his brain as well as his body. He’d suffered patiently until breaking point came and knowledge came too. The realisation that, though Aunty dominated him mentally, he was physically stronger.

That wonderful day when she failed to force his fingers against the paraffin heater. He picked the heater up and threw it at her.

Miss Mack • (1986) • short story by Michael McDowell

The Florida panhandle, 1957.

Coca-Cola. Snickers bars. An old trailer by a lake where you can camp and eat and relax.

Miss Mack and Janice Faulk are school teachers. They are also inseparable friends. Much to the fury of Mr. Hill, the school principle. He's having a hard time bullying Miss Faulk into marriage; Miss Mack takes her away fishing every weekend.

But Mr. Hill has an ace up his sleeve: his old mother is a witch.

....After lunch they rowed over to the little cemetery. There among the Gavin graves, the two women ate sandwiches and drank Coca-­Cola, though Janice, deliberately to antagonize her friend, sometimes insisted on Dr Pepper instead. Over this lapse of taste, Miss Mack and Janice passed the time in pleasant and practiced argument. In the heat of the afternoon, they returned to the trailer. While Janice napped, Miss Mack sat in the Pontiac – hot though the vinyl seats were – and listened to the baseball game over the radio. This weekly indulgence necessitated always carrying an extra battery in the trunk against the possibility of failure.

....Through her friendship with Miss Mack, Janice had changed, and – so far as Mr Hill was concerned – not for the better. Janice no longer wanted to go to Milton for pizza, because Miss Mack didn’t like pizza and Janice had decided that she didn’t like it either. Janice no longer considered it a wonderful privilege to be asked to go to Pensacola to a movie, because it was so much more fun to go to the airport and watch the planes take off and land, and try to guess which relatives waiting in the coffee shop would go with which passengers coming through the gate. Mr Hill didn’t even get to see Janice in church on Sunday morning, and sit next to her, and hold her hymnbook, because on Sunday morning Janice was fishing out at Gavin Pond with Miss Mack, getting burned by the sun and eaten up by mosquitoes.

....Though Janice and Miss Mack returned to Gavin Pond every weekend in September and October, Mr Hill didn’t come to visit them there.

Finally one day, toward the end of October, Janice said to Mr Hill, ‘Mr Hill, I thought you were gone go see your mama sometime and stop by and see Miss Mack and me out at the pond. I wish you had, ’cause now it’s starting to get cold, and it’s not as nice. We’re going out this Halloween weekend, but that’s gone have to be the last time until spring.’

‘Oh lord!’ cried Mr Hill, evidently in some perturbation. ‘Didn’t I tell you, Janice?’

‘Tell me what?’

‘You’re gone be needed here at the school for Halloween night.’

‘Saturday?’ ‘That’s right. I was gone get Miz Flurnoy to do it, but her husband’s getting operated on in Pensacola on Friday, and she says she cain’t. Gallstones.’

....In the pine forest it was almost dark. Mr Hill had just turned onto the track that would lead him back to the dirt road to DeFuniak­ Springs. He killed the ignition, got out quietly, and opened the trunk. He took out a small corrugated box filled with heavy black ashes mixed with cinders. The rank odor and the lumpish consistency of the blackened remains suggested not the sweeping-­out of a coal-­burning fireplace, nor a shovelful of some ash heap, but rather something organic, recently dead or even still living, which had been burned, and burned with difficulty.

With a measuring cup that he took from a paper bag in the trunk, Mr Hill scooped out a portion of the cinders and the ashes, and sprinkled them in one of the ruts of the track that led away from the pond and toward the road. Then he poured a cupful into the other rut, and so alternated until he had distributed the ashes and cinders evenly. Then he tossed the measuring cup and the cardboard box back into the trunk of the car and shut it. Taking then a piece of yellow notepaper from his shirt pocket, he unfolded it, held it close to his eyes in the decreasing light, and in a low voice read the words that had been written upon it. From the same pocket he took a single calendar page – October of the current year – and set fire to it with his cigarette lighter. After this was burned, and the ashes scattered on the ground, Mr Hill pulled from his trousers a child’s compass and a cheap wristwatch – such items as are won in ring-­toss booths at traveling carnivals. He checked that the compass needle did indeed point north. He put the wristwatch to his ear to hear its ticking. He dropped both into the heaps of ashes, and crushed them beneath the heel of his shoe.

As Mr Hill got quietly into his car and drove slowly away, the twilight was deepening into night. The piles of ashes began to blow away. The heavier cinders alone remained, dull and black and moist. The broken springs and face and glass of the wristwatch and compass gleamed only faintly. At a little distance, Miss Mack’s crickets in their rabbit cage produced one loud, unison chirp....

McDowell's lovely story first appeared in Alan Ryan's 1986 anthology Halloween Horrors. I just read it in The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories, Volume One, which can be purchased here.

McDowell wrote the finest Southern regional fiction of the 1980s. "Miss Mack" does not disappoint. When the story began, the ease and clarity of style quickly worked it's arresting magic. I thought I had a "horrible teacher" story on my hands.  I got something much stronger.

School Crossing • (1979) • short story by Francis King

[Mark is an older man with an Aston Martin he can no longer afford, a younger second wife, and twin offspring he cannot stand. He has been sacked from his career at a comprehensive school due to scandal.

[Every time he drives by the school, Mark sees a flood of students suddenly choking the crosswalk.

[Or is it just the smeared lenses of his glasses? He cleans then continuously and obsessively, so maybe it's not the glasses that are smeary.

[There are some wonderful Campbellian touches of misperception here, though the reader, stomach tightening, begins to realize what that flock of students portends.]

....He was always wiping the glasses. On a handkerchief. On the end of his tie. On a paper-­tissue or a table-­napkin or a sheet of lavatory paper. But the imprints of those two pairs of hands perpetually renewed themselves, just as the imprint of those twin lives now perpetually marked each hour of his existence.

....The Aston Martin, which he could no longer afford to run, leaped effortlessly up the hill; and suddenly, for a moment, there they were, boys and girls straggling across the road. Faces turned at the sound of the engine. Some drew back, others scuttled over to the further side, jostling, ungainly, undignified. But why should they be out of school as early as this? School holiday? No. He had braked to a halt. And then, to his amazement, he had seen that there was no one there at all. The late sun glinted on the crown of the road; the conifers soared up on either side, their green encrusted here and there near their summits with rust; somewhere far off an owl hooted. Odd. He could have sworn. But it was the glasses of course. He took them off, fumbled in his pocket for a handkerchief, found he had none and then, as so often, used the end of his tie.

....There was a lot that he never mentioned to Clare: a whole secret life of hurt feelings, humiliation, disappointment and resentment. She herself was so candid, telling him all her most intimate thoughts and feelings, that she could not guess at the depth of his lack of candour­.

....the girl came up from behind and her greasy fingers....
....He looked across at Clare and he could hardly see her face. The smears seemed to be across it, not on his glasses.

....He felt old and tired; a sour envy had invaded him, like the aftertaste of the acid Spanish wine, for the youth not merely of the students but also of his colleagues.

....Now that his joints so often ached and were stiff with rheumatism in the mornings, now that he found himself out of breath at the top of a hill or even of the stairs, now that one set of tennis, one swim, one orgasm, was enough for him, he found a compensation in the undiminished ferocity and pounce of that engine.

....It was some silly kind of optical illusion. The trees with the sun low behind them or with the headlights thrust against them. Some trick of shadow. And the fact that he was tired, the glasses, the wine. Nothing odd about it really.

....Would they never allow him any peace? Such was his fury against them that he hardly thought of those phantoms suddenly emerging out into the road. It was only later that he began to worry.

‘I should ignore the whole thing. Drive through your vision! Why not? Prove to yourself that there’s nothing there at all.’

‘Yes.’ The ophthalmologist realised that, so far from encouraging his patient, he had only discouraged him further.

....‘The eyes are perfectly normal for a man of your age. In fact, I don’t think I’d have even prescribed those glasses for you. You could easily do without them.’

A Psychological Experiment • (1900) • short story by Richard Marsh

Have you ever heard of an author named De Quincey? He wrote on murder, considered as a fine art. It is as a fine art I have had to consider it. In that connection I have had to consider three things: 1. That you must be killed. 2. That you must be killed in such a manner that you shall suffer the greatest possible amount of pain. 3. – and not the least essential – That you must be killed in such a manner that under no circumstances can I be found guilty of having caused your death. I have given these three points my careful consideration, and I think that I have been able to find something which will satisfy all the requirements. That something is in this box.’

The Progress of John Arthur Crabbe • (1982) • short story by Stephen Gregory

....John Arthur was a remarkable little boy. For one thing, it was realized within 18 months of his birth that he was severely mentally handicapped. As he grew into a strapping toddler it was obvious that his mind was defective. For such a young child he had a disconcerting, rasping, even sonorous voice, which he produced from his chest in a series of garbled speeches made up of sounds not unlike real words.

The Frozen Man • (1910) • short story by John Trevena

[A brilliant story evoking the same atmosphere as Blackwood's "The Wendigo." And "To Build a Fire by Jack London."]

....Nature has especially ordained that when the temperature reaches an extremely low point two things may not happen: a fire cannot burn dully, nor may the wind blow. Were it otherwise human existence in the far north would often be impossible.

We smoked silently for an hour or more, only rising at intervals for fresh supplies of wood. The mysterious atmosphere bathed us in its red waves; the fiery cones and spindles above kept on darting and flashing; the shuddering shadows crept upon the trees. It was a remarkable night indeed.

Presently MacDonald drew the last mouthful of smoke from his pipe. As he drew the little canvas bag out of his pocket – in winter he always carried his tobacco cut – he eyed me in a solemn fashion, and said, ‘Do ye see, Angel?’

‘I’m not blind,’ I answered a bit testily, for I looked upon him as a superstitious old fool.

‘Do ye hear, Angel?’ he continued in the same monotonous voice.

‘Quit calling me Angel!’ I shouted. ‘And talk of something else. It’s nothing but the aurora.’

‘That’s what they say. What makes the sounds? What makes the red lights jump around in the sky? What makes the shadows we see crawling around? Men whose heads are too big for their bodies talk about electricity and terrestrial magnetism, and clever enough they think themselves I have no doubt. But get ’em together, drive ’em in a bunch, and ask ’em straight what is electricity an’ what is terrestrial magnetism? You’ll see them sit down and suck their thumbs.’

‘There are wiser men than us, Mac.’

‘There’s a clever and common-sense way of looking at things,’ he said stubbornly. ‘One man wants to find the height of a wall. He takes a sheet of paper and a lot of fiddling tools, draws pictures, and decorates them with half the letters in the alphabet. At last he works out a sort of answer, mostly wrong. Another man slips to the top of the wall, drops a plumb-line down, makes a knot in the line, and measures it. One’s the clever way of finding the height of that wall and the other is the natural way. Give me the last.’

‘What’s your idea, then, about the red lights?’

‘The devil fixes ’em up to scare us lonely fellows, and to warn us there’s trouble coming.’

‘Why do we only see them out here? Why only in the extreme cold?’

‘Don’t you try and corner the devil. He uses different methods to scare folk in other places. The red lights do show further south, and harm always comes with them. Sinapis will die.’

‘Because the aurora happens to be red once in a way, it’s no reason why a man should die.’

‘Two years ago there was just such another night, the sky on fire and the snow bloody,’ went on MacDonald, in his unhappiest voice. ‘Factor Robinson went out on the ice of the bay to look for his little dog, which had strayed from the fort. We picked him up next morning, smashed by a bear, so that his own mother wouldn’t ha’ known him. I helped to carry him back, took the shoulders, I did, and his head was like a rotten apple some one had set their foot on. Kept touching my legs, too. Man, I had to shut my eyes.’

I tried to laugh his words away, but only a dry sound came from my throat. No man could have been light-hearted amid such weird surroundings.

‘This night, further south, no electric instruments will obey the hand of any man,’ my cheerful comrade rambled on. ‘Telephones, telegraphs, all the rest of ’em, won’t work, or will perform on their own account. Aye, on nights of this sort messages come along the wires, and the operators are called up by hands which have no flesh on ’em.’

‘Free electricity has powers of which we know little,’ I said.

‘There ye are again. You’re welcome to your notion and all you can make of it. Here’s a little story, and if it isn’t true, may my tongue be frost-bitten. In a small town, a year or two agone, the red lights came along, and all the telegraph stations were closed. Late at night one of the operators went into the office for something, and while there the signal sounded. He stepped up and prepared to take down the message. The needle ticked away, only one word was transmitted, only one word, Angel. They say he fainted right off.’

‘What was it?’

‘Death. Just that one word. Three months later it came for him.’

‘You’ve got queer notions, Mac.’

‘Maybe, Angel. There are queerer round us. I remember a fellow telling me once how, when the lights were bad, he switched on his telephone and listened. He wasn’t a chap of powerful imagination, but he fairly made me shiver when he described how he heard the things twisting and turning round the wire outside, whispering and chattering, and groaning – ’

‘Quit it, Mac,’ I interrupted. ‘If you haven’t got anything better to talk about, let’s sit quiet.’

California Burning • (2009) • novelette by Michael Blumlein

A strange story in the Aickmanesque sense; questions are posed, evidence detailed, answers demanded, denied, refused, ultimately deemed irrelevant.

The narrator is arranging his father's cremation. The unexpected announces itself:

....My father, it seemed, did not want to burn. His skin and nails and organs, yes. They were gone. But his bones, no. Somehow they had resisted twenty-­four hours of thirteen hundred degree heat and flame. Greg had never seen anything like it.

His boss, however, had. He’d been in the business almost thirty years and had seen, in his words, ‘a little bit of everything.’ We met in his office, which adjoined the crematorium. There was an old-­fashioned oak desk piled with papers, a chair behind it and one in front of it, a dirty window, a concrete floor. By the look of things he wasn’t used to visitors....

....‘What’s the problem with my father’s bones?’

He was leaning against the front edge of his desk, his shirt collar open, his thick, calloused hands on his thighs. He looked like he could have been a fighter at one time. His face was carefully composed.

‘They don’t want to burn,’ he said.

‘And why is that?’

‘I wish I had an answer. We gave it all we got.’

‘Greg mentioned something about the oven. Thought maybe it was acting up.’

‘Nothing wrong with the oven. We just had it serviced. It’s working fine.’

‘But this is what you do, right? You cremate bodies.’

‘Twenty-­nine years,’ he said.

‘But not mine.’ I meant my father’s, of course....

....My father actually had suggested that when the time came, he be buried, but my mother was opposed. Her mind was set on cremation. She wanted to scatter his ashes and be done. She didn’t want a grave to have to visit. Her mother and father, whom she adored, were buried in graves, and she didn’t enjoy the feelings that visiting them stirred up in her. She didn’t like being tied to her loved ones in that particular way. Ever the gentleman, my father had agreed.

Two odd-acting men who claim they are with the government show up at the son's house. They seem to be confused and menacing at the same time; they never demand the bones the son has brought home from the crematorium.

....What did your dad die of?’

The strange thing was, no one knew. He went into the hospital complaining of shortness of breath and twelve days later he was dead. Having lost his mind completely – ­ also for unknown reasons – ­ in the process.

‘Not his heart. His heart was fine. What did you do? The other time?’

‘I called around. Talked to some guys in the business. Everyone had had a case or two. Or if they didn’t, they knew of one.’

‘So this is not unheard of.’

‘No. It’s not.’

‘It happens a lot?’

He shrugged. ‘It happens.’

The son takes the file box of his father's no as to Adolph, his dad's old friend. Piecemeal anecdotes and allusions proliferate.

....An old man peered out. Day old whiskers, hawk-shaped nose, boxy black-rimmed glasses that magnified his eyes two or three-fold, a flurry of white hair.

I gave him my name.

A moment passed, and then he offered his hand. ‘I’m Krantz. Call me Adolph. I was sorry to hear about your dad. Come in.’

He led me inside, moving slowly but steadily, down a hall and into a small, paneled room full of books and odds and ends. There were two leather armchairs facing each other across a chess board. Only a few pieces remained in play.

He took one of the chairs. ‘Do you play?’

‘I know how the pieces move. That’s about it.’

He studied the board for a moment, then leaned forward and advanced one of the pawns. ‘Your father never liked the game. Though he’d play if I asked him to, back in the day. He hated this part. Endgame. Too slow for him. Not enough action.’

He pointed to a pawn on my side of the table and asked me to move it. He studied the board a minute or two more, and satisfied, sat back and studied me.

‘You look like your father. You have his eyes. People used to say I looked like him too. To me that was a great compliment. I admired him enormously. There’re not a lot of us left.’


‘That’s right. Hardly any.’

‘What do you mean “us”?’

‘The gang. The tribe.’ He paused. ‘What did we call ourselves?’ He couldn’t remember.

‘FOOD?’ I ventured.

‘What about it?’

‘Was that the name?’

He gave me a look. ‘Food?’

I nodded.

‘What kind of name is that?’

I told him what it stood for, at which point, I believe, he ceased to take me seriously.

‘You’re needling me.’

‘I’m not.’

‘Your dad used to needle.’

‘I’m only telling you what they said.’

‘Such a needler. The King of Needling. The Needlemeister. What an education, watching him work. A thing of beauty, your father. He had the softest touch.’ He fell silent, and I could see him remembering. The years seemed to melt away. A smile lit his old, craggy face.

‘We did pretty well for ourselves, didn’t we, Mickey? Considering what we had to work with. Where we came from. What we had to do. Pretty damned well.’

Mickey was my father’s nickname, from the old days. Only a handful of people used it. Evidently, Adolph was talking to him.

‘We’ve got nothing to be ashamed of. You a high school dropout. Me a college bum.’


He glanced at me.

‘Mickey’s not here.’

He looked lost, but only for a moment. ‘Why would he be? But you. Listen. Be proud of your father. He was a good man. A wonderful person. You know how we met? The story. You know the story?’

Some of it I did, but only bits and pieces, mostly from my mom. Dad didn’t talk much about the past.

‘I came over when I was just a kid. Your father was a year or two older and already here. My family took a room in a house in the neighborhood. Five of us in a single room. I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t know my way from a hole in the ground. Scared? You bet I was scared. Excited too. Scared and excited at the same time. Everything was so different, so strange and unusual, and one day I walked out the door, and there was your father. He was sitting on a fire hydrant, playing with a piece of string. He smiled when he saw me. “I’ve been waiting for you,” he said.’

‘He spoke your language? He spoke German?’

‘Your father? German? Never. Not a word.’

‘So how’d you understand him?’

‘How do you think I understood him? He made himself understood. He took me under his wing. Became a big brother to me. That’s how they worked it. The buddy system. Everything in pairs.’

‘Who worked it?’

‘The ones who sent us. The program. For me, mandatory. Your dad, if I’m not mistaken, was a volunteer.’

‘For what? A volunteer for what?’

He thought for a moment, and a smile spread across his face. ‘The rest of his life. And then some. That’s for what. Don’t ask me how long, because I can’t tell you. As you see, I’m still here.’

Apparently, he found this amusing. To me it was annoyingly obtuse.

‘You said you were sent. By whom?’

‘The senders.’

‘Who are the senders?’

‘I was five. What does a kid know when he’s five?’ He gave me a look. ‘Your father never talked to you about this?’



I shook my head.

‘Then I assume he didn’t want you to know.’

‘Know what?’

‘Some do, some don’t. Tell people. It’s an individual decision. It’s not up to me to decide otherwise. Out of respect for your father, may he rest in peace. Out of respect for your mother. And for you.’

This wasn’t good enough, not by a long shot. I asked him again what it was I didn’t know, but he refused to say another word. I wasn’t about to get down on my knees. Not literally. I did, however, let a certain plaintive, importuning tone enter my voice. But he wouldn’t budge.

So I tried a different tactic. ‘The men who visited me. Are they part of this thing? Do they know?’

He didn’t recognize either of their names, but my description of Michaels seemed to ring a bell.

‘They came to pay their respects?’

‘They wanted a look at him. At his bones. Who are they, Adolph?’

‘I’d imagine another unit. Another pair. Did you let them see?’

‘No. I didn’t trust them.’

‘They were secretive?’


‘And you found that annoying. Distasteful. Unpleasant.’


He nodded, then fell silent. Nearly a minute passed before he spoke. ‘I understand. I do. But imagine for a moment if they weren’t.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Imagine if they were completely open and honest. Imagine if everyone was. Now take that one step further and imagine if everyone shared everything. If there were no secrets, no hidden thoughts, no privacy. If everyone knew everything about everybody. No separation between people. No boundaries. No mystery. Imagine a world like that. Every channel open all the time. Everything revealed. How does that sound to you?’

He didn’t wait for an answer. ‘We’ve tried it. It fried our little brains. Almost fried our future too. Better a little privacy. A little ignorance. Trust me, it’s no crime to know a little less.’

Then I’m in good shape, I thought. I had no idea what he was talking about.

‘Why won’t his bones burn, Adolph?’

‘Ah, yes. That question. Do you have them?’

As a matter of fact, I did. ‘They’re in the car.’

He nodded, as if he’d expected no less. ‘The answer to your question is I don’t know why. I only know what you know, that they won’t.’

He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He did resemble my father, and the look he gave me – searching and warm – resembled him too.

‘Have you thought of burying him?’ he asked.

‘My mother won’t allow it.’

‘It’s a common custom, you know.’

‘I do know. But it’s not up to me.’

‘Throughout the world. Among a great many groups, as different and diverse as they can be. To hazard a guess, I’d say the custom is quite universal. And I use that term in the broadest possible way.’

He replaced his glasses and leveled his eyes at me. ‘Did it ever occur to you that the men were there for that?’

‘What? To bury my father."

‘Yes. To bury him. Simply that.’

‘They didn’t mention it. And it didn’t occur to me. Not once.’

Let Loose • (1890) • short story by Mary Cholmondeley

....Ten years ago, I was asked to read a paper on English Frescoes at the Institute of British Architects. I was determined to make the paper as good as I could, down to the slightest details, and I consulted many books on the subject, and studied every fresco I could find. My father, who had been an architect, had left me, at his death, all his papers and note-books on the subject of architecture. I searched them diligently, and found in one of them a slight unfinished sketch of nearly fifty years ago that specially interested me. Underneath was noted, in his clear, small hand – Frescoed east wall of crypt. Parish Church. Wet Waste-on-the-Wolds, Yorkshire (viĆ¢ Pickering.)

The sketch had such a fascination for me that I decided to go there and see the fresco for myself. I had only a very vague idea as to where Wet Waste-on-the-Wolds was, but I was ambitious for the success of my paper; it was hot in London, and I set off on my long journey not without a certain degree of pleasure, with my dog Brian, a large nondescript brindled creature, as my only companion....

[The narrator meets first with the local vicar, who at first refuses to unlock the crypt.]

....‘There are diversities of gifts, and if the Lord has entrusted you with a talent, look to it. Lay it not up in a napkin.’

I said I would not do so if he would lend me the keys of the crypt. He seemed startled by my recurrence to the subject and looked undecided.

‘Why not?’ he murmured to himself. ‘The youth appears a good youth. And superstition! What is it but distrust in God!’

He got up slowly, and taking a large bunch of keys out of his pocket, opened with one of them an oak cupboard in the corner of the room.

‘They should be here,’ he muttered, peering in; ‘but the dust of many years deceives the eye. See, my son, if among these parchments there be two keys; one of iron and very large, and the other steel, and of a long and thin appearance.’

I went eagerly to help him, and presently found in a back drawer two keys tied together, which he recognized at once.

‘Those are they,’ he said. ‘The long one opens the first door at the bottom of the steps which go down against the outside wall of the church hard by the sword graven in the wall. The second opens (but it is hard of opening and of shutting) the iron door within the passage leading to the crypt itself. My son, is it necessary to your treatise that you should enter this crypt?’

I replied that it was absolutely necessary.

‘Then take them,’ he said, ‘and in the evening you will bring them to me again.’

I said I might want to go several days running, and asked if he would not allow me to keep them till I had finished my work; but on that point he was firm.

‘Likewise,’ he added, ‘be careful that you lock the first door at the foot of the steps before you unlock the second, and lock the second also while you are within. Furthermore, when you come out lock the iron inner door as well as the wooden one.’

I promised I would do so, and, after thanking him, hurried away, delighted at my success in obtaining the keys. Finding Brian and my sketching materials waiting for me in the porch, I eluded the vigilance of my escort of children by taking the narrow private path between the parsonage and the church which was close at hand, standing in a quadrangle of ancient yews.

The church itself was interesting, and I noticed that it must have arisen out of the ruins of a previous building, judging from the number of fragments of stone caps and arches, bearing traces of very early carving, now built into the walls. There were incised crosses, too, in some places, and one especially caught my attention, being flanked by a large sword. It was in trying to get a nearer look at this that I stumbled, and, looking down, saw at my feet a flight of narrow stone steps green with moss and mildew. Evidently this was the entrance to the crypt. I at once descended the steps, taking care of my footing, for they were damp and slippery in the extreme. Brian accompanied me, as nothing would induce him to remain behind. By the time I had reached the bottom of the stairs, I found myself almost in darkness, and I had to strike a light before I could find the keyhole and the proper key to fit into it. The door, which was of wood, opened inwards fairly easily, although an accumulation of mould and rubbish on the ground outside showed it had not been used for many years. Having got through it, which was not altogether an easy matter, as nothing would induce it to open more than about eighteen inches, I carefully locked it behind me, although I should have preferred to leave it open, as there is to some minds an unpleasant feeling in being locked in anywhere, in case of a sudden exit seeming advisable.

I kept my candle alight with some difficulty, and after groping my way down a low and of course exceedingly dank passage, came to another door. A toad was squatting against it, who looked as if he had been sitting there about a hundred years. As I lowered the candle to the floor, he gazed at the light with unblinking eyes, and then retreated slowly into a crevice in the wall, leaving against the door a small cavity in the dry mud which had gradually silted up round his person. I noticed that this door was of iron, and had a long bolt, which, however, was broken. Without delay, I fitted the second key into the lock, and pushing the door open after considerable difficulty, I felt the cold breath of the crypt upon my face. I must own I experienced a momentary regret at locking the second door again as soon as I was well inside, but I felt it my duty to do so. Then, leaving the key in the lock, I seized my candle and looked round. I was standing in a low vaulted chamber with groined roof, cut out of the solid rock. It was difficult to see where the crypt ended, as further light thrown on any point only showed other rough archways or openings, cut in the rock, which had probably served at one time for family vaults. A peculiarity of the Wet Waste crypt, which I had not noticed in other places of that description, was the tasteful arrangement of skulls and bones which were packed about four feet high on either side. The skulls were symmetrically built up to within a few inches of the top of the low archway on my left, and the shin bones were arranged in the same manner on my right. But the fresco! I looked round for it in vain. Perceiving at the further end of the crypt a very low and very massive archway, the entrance to which was not filled up with bones, I passed under it, and found myself in a second smaller chamber. Holding my candle above my head, the first object its light fell upon was – the fresco, and at a glance I saw that it was unique. Setting down some of my things with a trembling hand on a rough stone shelf hard by, which had evidently been a credence table, I examined the work more closely. It was a reredos over what had probably been the altar at the time the priests were proscribed. The fresco belonged to the earliest part of the fifteenth century, and was so perfectly preserved that I could almost trace the limits of each day’s work in the plaster, as the artist had dashed it on and smoothed it out with his trowel. The subject was the Ascension, gloriously treated. I can hardly describe my elation as I stood and looked at it, and reflected that this magnificent specimen of English fresco painting would be made known to the world by myself. Recollecting myself at last, I opened my sketching bag, and, lighting all the candles I had brought with me, set to work.

Brian walked about near me, and though I was not otherwise than glad of his company in my rather lonely position, I wished several times I had left him behind. He seemed restless, and even the sight of so many bones appeared to exercise no soothing effect upon him. At last, however, after repeated commands, he lay down, watchful but motionless, on the stone floor.

I must have worked for several hours, and I was pausing to rest my eyes and hands, when I noticed for the first time the intense stillness that surrounded me. No sound from me reached the outer world. The church clock which had clanged out so loud and ponderously as I went down the steps, had not since sent the faintest whisper of its iron tongue down to me below. All was silent as the grave. This was the grave. Those who had come here had indeed gone down into silence. I repeated the words to myself, or rather they repeated themselves to me.

Gone down into silence.

I was awakened from my reverie by a faint sound. I sat still and listened. Bats occasionally frequent vaults and underground places.

The sound continued, a faint, stealthy, rather unpleasant sound. I do not know what kinds of sounds bats make, whether pleasant or otherwise. Suddenly there was a noise as of something falling, a momentary pause – and then – an almost imperceptible but distinct jangle as of a key.

I had left the key in the lock after I had turned it, and I now regretted having done so. I got up, took one of the candles, and went back into the larger crypt – for though I trust I am not so effeminate as to be rendered nervous by hearing a noise for which I cannot instantly account; still, on occasions of this kind, I must honestly say I should prefer that they did not occur. As I came towards the iron door, there was another distinct (I had almost said hurried) sound. The impression on my mind was one of great haste. When I reached the door, and held the candle near the lock to take out the key, I perceived that the other one, which hung by a short string to its fellow, was vibrating slightly. I should have preferred not to find it vibrating, as there seemed no occasion for such a course; but I put them both into my pocket, and turned to go back to my work. As I turned, I saw on the ground what had occasioned the louder noise I had heard, namely, a skull which had evidently just slipped from its place on the top of one of the walls of bones, and had rolled almost to my feet. There, disclosing a few more inches of the top of an archway behind was the place from which it had been dislodged. I stooped to pick it up, but fearing to displace any more skulls by meddling with the pile, and not liking to gather up its scattered teeth, I let it lie, and went back to my work, in which I was soon so completely absorbed that I was only roused at last by my candles beginning to burn low and go out one after another....

Out of Sorts • (1983) • short story by Bernard Taylor

....And why, she sometimes asked herself, didn’t she leave him? But what would she do if she did? Paul wouldn’t support her, and she’d been trained for no particular occupation. For the past twenty-­five years she’d known only this life – marriage to a man whose gratitude for her understanding had in no time worn threadbare.

But for all of that, she thought, she could have put up with it – had it not been for his affairs. One after the other they had punctuated the years of their married life. And for that she was resentful – not just because of his infidelity and his rejection of her, but because he gave to those other women what he never gave, never had given, to her – not after the first few months of their courtship, anyway. Those other women – they were allowed to see only the best side of him – the cheerfulness, the gentlemanliness, the solicitousness. She, through her near-­total acceptance of the real person, the person they never saw, was doomed to live with it, warts and all.

The Head and the Hand • (1972) • short story by Christopher Priest

….It was his sudden and unexpected fame that separated us. No one had anticipated it, least of all Todd. Yet when he recognised its potential, he embraced it readily.

I was not with him when it began, though I saw him soon after. He told me what happened, and though it differs from the popular anecdote I believe it.

He was drinking with some friends when an accident with a knife occurred. One of his companions had been cut badly, and had fainted. During the commotion that followed, a stranger made a wager with Todd that he would not voluntarily inflict a wound on his own body.

Todd slashed the skin of his forearm, and collected his money. The stranger offered to double the stake if Todd would amputate a finger.

Placing his left hand on the table in front of him, Todd removed his index finger. A few minutes later, with no further encouragement from the stranger – who by this time had left – Todd cut off another finger. The following day a television company had picked up the story, and Todd was invited to the studio to relate what had happened. During the live transmission, and against the wishes of the interviewer, Todd repeated the operation.

It was the reaction to this first broadcast – a wave of prurient shock from the public, and an hysterical condemnation in the media – that revealed to Todd the potential in such a display of self-mutilation.

Finding a promoter, he commenced a tour of Europe, performing his act to paying audiences only.

It was at this point – seeing his arrangements for publicity, and learning of the sums of money he was confident of earning – that I made the effort of dissociating myself from him. Purposely, I isolated myself from news of his exploits and would take no interest in the various public stunts he performed. It was the element of ritual in what he did that sickened me, and his native flair for showmanship only made him the more offensive to me.

It was a year after this alienation that we met again. It was he who sought me out, and though I resisted him at first I was unable to maintain the distance I desired.

I learned that in the intervening period he had married….

The Ghost of Charlotte Cray • (1883) • short story by Florence Marryat

….He tried to hide the state of his feelings from Mrs Braggett, but she was too sharp for him. The simple, blushing Emily Primrose had developed, under the influence of the matrimonial forcing-frame, into a good watch-­dog, and nothing escaped her notice.

Left to her own conjecture, she attributed his frequent moods of dejection to the existence of some other woman, and became jealous accordingly. If Siggy did not love her, why had he married her? She felt certain there was some other horrid creature who had engaged his affections and would not leave him alone, even now that he was her own lawful property. And to find out who the ‘horrid creature’ was became Mrs Emily’s constant idea. When she had found out, she meant to give her a piece of her mind, never fear! Meanwhile Mr Braggett’s evident distaste to returning to business only served to in­crease his wife’s suspicions….­

The Grim White Woman • (1801) • poem by Matthew Gregory Lewis [as by M. G. Lewis]

….If you bid me, fair damsels, my moral rehearse, It is that young ladies ought never to curse; For no one will think her well-bred, or polite, Who devotes little babes to Grim Women in White.

The Terror on Tobit • (1933) • short story by Charles Birkin

….Ten o’clock. The firelight flickered eerily, throwing into brief illumination the faces of the two girls, and causing dark shadows to dart momentarily to the very edge of the crackling, salt-­­saturated fire.

‘Don’t you think we should try to sleep?’ Daphne suggested. ‘It’s after ten.’

‘Yes. Daphne – I hate to admit it – but I’m frightened. Where’s Jean?’

‘Over there to the left – about a hundred yards.’

‘Is he asleep?’

‘No, he said he’d . . . watch.’

‘What for?’

‘Goodness only knows. The Bogey, perhaps!’ Anne snuggled down more comfortably into her blankets. It was so easy to imagine things, she told herself. ‘Good night.’

‘Good night.’

And the waves splashed softly on the shore. Two hours passed. Daphne stirred restlessly. Then she sat up. What was that? The air seemed to vibrate with a high singing sound – oddly penetrating, like the noise of a swarm of giant mosquitoes. It rose and fell in a monotonous cadence. Paralysed with foreboding she lay motionless. She knew she could not bear to listen to it alone for another moment….

Furnished Apartments • novelette by Forrest Reid

‘It is cheap,’ I answered, ignoring his ironical tone. ‘On the other hand, it has several disadvantages.’

‘What’s the matter with it?’ Bingham persisted. ‘I mean, what is your real reason – apart from the several disadvantages?’

‘I see. . . . Well, if you want to know, I went there last night – late – just to take a few measurements for bookshelves, and – I didn’t like it.’

Bingham looked at me searchingly, but he only said, ‘Nothing more than that? Nothing definite?’

‘No,’ I answered. ‘The place struck me as depressing – that is all.’

He sighed faintly – perhaps at my inability, or reluctance, to pursue a subject which lent it itself so invitingly to the kind of imaginative speculation he loved….

Something Happened • short story by Hugh Fleetwood

….This most beautiful of all the swans had left the circle. It had swum right up to Mr Smith. And then the man had raised his arms – ‘only they didn’t look like arms any longer,’ Marek whispered. ‘They looked like wings. Great black wings, as if he were becoming a swan himself. A black swan. Or – an angel.’ He stopped, and waited for the others to jeer. They didn’t. They were looking at him, rapt.

‘And then the swan reared up out of the water and seemed to embrace Mr Smith, and – she became a woman,’ Marek whispered. ‘A white, beautiful woman like a swan. Like the moonlight. But still . . .’ Marek hesitated. He didn’t dare look at the others, but he was aware they were staring at him not even remotely with derision now but only, all three of them, with a pity they could scarcely bear. It was as if their hearts were breaking for him. Nevertheless, he had to go on. To tell them –

The Tarn • (1923) • short story by Hugh Walpole
….He must get up and close the window. He drew his legs above the sheets and blankets and looked down. He shrieked. The floor was covered with a shining film of water. It was rising. As he looked it had covered half the short stumpy legs of the bed. It rose without a wink, a bubble, a break!

Over the sill it poured now in a steady flow, but soundless. Fenwick sat up in the bed, the clothes gathered up to his chin, his eyes blinking, the Adam’s apple throbbing like a throttle in his throat.

The Gentleman All in Black • (1942) • short story by Gerald Kersh

….‘Very well,’ said the visitor, quite unmoved. ‘I’ll be even more generous. Fifty million a second. Will you sell me one second of your time?’

‘Done,’ said Mahler.

The gentleman in black said, ‘Put the money away. Have no fear; it is real. And now I have bought one second of your time.’

Silence for a little while. Then they both walked to the window, which was a first-floor one, and I heard the stranger say:

‘I have bought one second of your time for fifty million francs. Ah well. Look down at all those hurrying people, my friend. That busy street. I am very old, and have seen much of men. Why, Monsieur Mahler . . . once, many years ago, I offered a man all the kingdoms of the earth. He would not take them. Yet in the end he got them. And I stood with him on a peak, and said to him what I say to you now – Cast thyself down!’