Thy Deep and Dreaming Sleep
by Richard W. Straw
Arrived just after half two, and settled into the cottage. It’s decent, a small bungalow, one of those old shepherds’ cottages that pop up all around the countryside, everything that I need for a couple of weeks of writing. The place is so quiet, the one thing that I’ve got here is time. God knows, I need it – the Knowles book is never going to get done, and April has been getting pushier. The mobile signal’s pretty poor around here, so that should keep her off my back for a few days, anyway. But I’ve got to get something done – that advance is spending itself pretty fast.
There’s a small old-fashioned desk in the lounge, and I’m sitting there now, writing this. It’s a good sized room, so it serves as lounge, dining room and study. The telly is five channels only, but there’s nothing on anyway. From the window there’s a lovely picturesque view of the railway line and motorway. Still, I suppose nothing’s perfect, and the joys of double glazing mean that peace and quiet are pretty much assured. There’s an open log fire against the far wall that’s enough to keep the place heated, and some very odd art on the walls – there’s a picture above the fireplace that’s just a random mass of colour. No accounting for taste, but this stuff is just nasty.
Tebay isn’t much of a village – nice enough, but little more than a couple of long streets. The local shops are actually in the motorway services, so I’ll be able to get a paper every morning, and eat breakfast in the company of lorry drivers and sulking kids. There’s a bizarre local legend about a witch and an egg but nothing much else – the place seems to have sprung up around the railway, and so it’s not much more than a commuter village for Kendal and a load of holiday cottages for the sort of lunatics who think getting lost in the fog on Scafell Pike constitutes having a good time.
Something odd when I went to light the fire. I had to clean out the grate, and there was a weird hollow sound to the tray when I was scraping out the ashes. Sounds like there’s a large open space beneath the fireplace, which seems peculiar. When I was little, we had a fire in my parent’s house, and my dad used to say that the grate was bottomless, and if you fell in, you would fall to the centre of the earth. Of course, the older I got, the more I realised he just had a bizarre sense of humour. Still, just for a moment…
Knock on the door about five o’clock, received a visit from the woman who owns the place, Joanna Allen. She lives about five minutes down the road, told me to call if there was anything I needed. She seems OK, young (about thirty-five, I would guess, but then anyone under forty seems young these days), very pretty. That odd local accent. She told me a few things about the area that I already knew, rambled a bit about how the house had been in the family for a long time and recommended the sausages from the local butcher. Maybe it was just me, but I seemed to think there was – well, a spark between us? I don’t know – maybe it’s just been a long time.
Dinner at six, then spent most of the rest of the evening writing. Got past the 1960s section, but that was the easy bit. His notes of 1970 onwards are just a mess – drinking, drugs and prostitutes, largely. Trying to get it into some sort of readable order is going to be a hell of a job.
* * *
Slept badly, just kept waking up at random intervals. I think I’m used to the noise of the city – the countryside is just too quiet for me, even on the motorway’s doorstep. Woke up with a headache and a bad back.
Procrastinated over the book. I’ve got to a section about coke that is just a shambles – Knowles is just screwed up. So I took the bus to Kendal. I bought a few supplies, got a John Connolly from an Oxfam shop, then went to the local library and looked a few things up. Idle curiosity really, a few things that Joanna had said about the house. Seems it has been in her family for a very long time indeed – hundreds of years, in fact, as far back as records go. It was only sold in the last few years to a company who run these holiday cottages. One note of interest – her grandfather was a local painter of some note – William Hawesworth, a minor national celebrity. His work was compared to some of the greats, and some of his stuff ended up in the National Gallery for a while. He started out as a war artist in the RAF, went to places like Iraq and Poland, but spent the rest of his life in Tebay. The records aren’t very clear, but it seems he went a bit odd – what they think was Parkinson’s disease. His works became more and more abstract, and less and less popular, and he spent his last days in the house, before dying in 1981 pretty much alone except for his daughter and two grandkids. Wonder if some of the pictures in the house might be his – it would explain the fact that they’re awful.
Just as I was leaving, I ran into Joanna. I don’t generally believe in coincidence, but I suppose there’s always room for these things to happen. We had a coffee in the library café and talked about this and that – nothing major, but it was relaxing in a way I haven’t felt for a while. If I had the time here I might be interested in her – I think she was flirting with me. I tried to ask about her grandfather, but she didn’t seem keen to talk. She did tell me she was with him shortly before he died – I suppose nobody wants to open up about something like that to someone she doesn’t really know.
She left me to go to Morrisons, so I decided to be lazy and get a taxi back to Tebay. Taxi driver was the usual talkative type, rambling on about a combination of immigration, VAT and the environment. About halfway back to the village, I asked him to stop the car. Maybe I just couldn’t bear to hear any more of his assorted wisdom, but I’d also seen something that caught my attention. It was a sign for a private lake, Whinfell Waters. There was a footpath, chained off to keep anyone out, but I doubted that would work for the truly curious. And I admit it, I was curious. The sign threatened prosecution to unauthorised visitors and sounded off about the dangers of bodies of open water. I asked the driver to drop me off there. He was a little pissed off, but I paid him over the odds, so off he went.
The way to the lake was heavily overgrown, a mess of brambles and nettles and hawthorns that was a much better deterrent than the sign. I don’t know why I kept on – I’m not sure why I even wanted to see it, and I was very aware that I was trespassing, but something kept me going. I suppose a visit to the Lake District wouldn’t be complete without a visit to a lake. This was the ‘real’ Lake District, away from the overcrowded tourist centres of Bassenthwaite and Windermere. Sitting here and writing that makes it sound ridiculous, but somehow it seemed logical at the time. Eventually I came to an open area, and the lake itself. It’s not huge – maybe a couple of hundred metres long, and a seventy metres across, ringed on all sides by rising banks of still leafy trees. There was nothing very interesting about the scene, except for one thing. The surface of the water was absolutely still, as flat and plain as a table top. I stood very still for a long time, just watching and listening. The road was still near enough away that an occasional passing car could be heard, but aside from that, there was nothing. No birds, no animals, no movement, no breath of breeze on a cold October afternoon, not a ripple or a bubble breaking that sheet of black water. It was as if the whole of nature came to a stop in this small clearing.
That’s quite poetic. I think I’ll keep hold of that. Might be able to use it one day.
And yet, in the midst of that lifelessness, there was one other thing – I am positive that I was being observed. Nobody was to be seen, but the feeling was very clear. It was getting dark, so I pushed my way back to the road, and managed to coax a signal out of my phone to order another taxi. All the time, to the moment that I got into the car, the feeling of being watched never left me.
When I got home, I had a look at that picture again. It’s odd, but it doesn’t look quite as much of a mess as it did the other day. I looked closely at it, and sure enough, there’s a scrawled signature in the corner – I’m sure it’s ‘W. Hawesworth’. If I’m honest, I felt a bit uncomfortable. The chaos, the lack of even the slightest order - is this what it’s like to have Parkinson’s? Certainly it wasn’t quite – well, quite right, really.
Had to put it out of my mind. Dinner of sausages from the local – Joanna was right about the butchers – then a drink at the Cross Keys, and finally some work. Knowles’ stuff gets worse and worse. There’s an unbelievable rant about Marc Bolan that I’ve tried to edit into something coherent. It’s just as well you can’t defame the dead, or this book will never get to the printers. It’s half eleven now, and bed beckons.
* * *
Another bad night – the third in a row. I dreamt a lot – normally, I don’t tend to remember these things, but this one stuck in my head. Swimming in an ocean, no sign of land, and I wasn’t alone, but I couldn’t see where the other person was. Then a face appeared. I couldn’t make out the features. The shock woke me up.
Got about a thousand words down on the laptop, more drugs hazes and orgies, but my mind wasn’t on things. I took the bus to Kendal, and did a little more local research. Nothing very major, a few bits about Whinfell waters. There was a news clipping about an American tourist drowning there a few weeks ago. I tried to find out who owns the lake – nothing came up.
I’m sure I’m being watched again. The feeling was very strong when I was in Kendal. I didn’t see anyone, but I felt the same as I did the other day at the lake. Why someone would be interested in me is beyond me. Maybe April’s got someone checking up on me. That would be paranoid, even for her.
Another odd thing after dinner. I went to light the fire, and I would swear that the picture had changed. It had previously been a mass of colours, mainly reds and greens, no obvious shape. It had been pretty offensive to look at. Now, the colours appear to have moved into a swirl, a clearer sweep and form, more arranged and ordered than before. There seems to be a shape at its centre, but I can’t quite make it out. I swear I stared at that picture for more than an hour before I realised what I was doing. There’s something not right there. It freaks me out.
Tried to spend the rest of the evening watching TV, but I couldn’t concentrate. Shooting Stars and Newsnight passed me over; I’m now writing this before going to bed.
* * *
Another bad night, with dreams that stayed with me longer after I woke up. The dreams are getting clearer, and the same images recur. I am treading water. Something moves about me, vast and unseen. A huge ripple breaks the surface nearby, and then something moves towards me so fast I have no time to react. Then the face again. It’s not human, that is the only thing I know. And then I either wake, or there is a flash, and it all begins again. I lay in bed this morning for a very long time, trying to get the images and the terror that they created out of my head, without success. The house is cold this morning, and there is a distinct feeling of damp in the air, although I can’t find any source.
And one other thing. Try as I might, I can’t rid myself of the idea that there was someone else in the house last night. I can’t see any evidence of it, the door is still locked, there’s nothing been disturbed, but even in the light of day, the house feels less than empty.
Had an extremely disconcerting experience in the afternoon. I’ve tried to write it down as clearly as I can remember it, but it’s not been easy.
I needed to get out of the house, so I decided, for reasons that seemed to make sense at the time, to go back to Whinfell Waters. I called a taxi and had it drop me off in the same place as before, then fought my way through the undergrowth to the lake shore.
It looked the same as it had. Just still and black. I knelt by the water, staring hard it, trying to see the slightest ripple. Nothing. There was a slight breeze, but even that failed to disturb those dead waters. Odd doesn’t even begin to describe the atmosphere. I bent towards the water, reaching out for it.
“I really wouldn’t do that.”
I pulled back my hand suddenly, stood and turned. There was a man standing about ten feet behind me. He was short, rounded, dressed in a sports jacket and brown corduroys. His hair was thin at best, and his face was covered with a smile that seemed glued on. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
“I’m sorry?” I said to him.
“I really wouldn’t touch the water.” He was American, by his accent.
The two word answer was not particularly helpful, but somehow I believed him. I drew back from the shore of the lake, and walked to stand beside him.
“Alan Locksley,” he said, holding out his hand. I shook it, but it felt the very definition of a cold fish. His hand was wet with cold sweat, and that combined with the round, empty smile to give me a proverbial shiver.
I’ve realised now who his accent reminded me of. Loyd Grossman. What is he, New Englander? Best guess, that was where he was from.
“I suppose you know this is private property?” he said. I bristled at that. I wasn’t about to be told what to do by this guy.
“Yeah, well I’m fairly sure that it’s not your private property,” I replied.
He shrugged an acknowledgement, then winked. “I won’t tell if you won’t.”
I didn’t reply. Despite an assumed mateiness, there was something about him that I didn’t like. After a while, I said, “I just come here for the fishing.”
He laughed at that. “You forgot your line. And there’s no fish here. There’s nothing. That’s why I come here. The peace. Kinda like death, don’t you think?”
The morbidity repelled me, and I was silent again. We stood there for a long time, saying nothing, for at least fifteen minutes, looking out across the water. I could feel his attention on me for the entire time, but I didn’t react.
“This is an odd area,” he said at last. “Stone circles, witches and in-breeding. Reminds me of home.” He gave a low bark of a laugh. “But this place is the limit. They say there’s no life in the water whatsoever. Not even a microbe. That fascinates me. I’m a scientist by trade. Physics, but everything’s interesting. I’m always looking out for something…different. Guess that’s why you’re here.”
I didn’t know what to say to him. If I truly thought about it, I had no idea why I was here. So I said nothing. Finally, he seemed to take the hint.
“Well,” he said, “Gotta be going. Work to do. I expect you too. Books don’t write themselves.”
It was a good ten seconds before I realised what he had said. How the hell had he known that? I turned to ask, but he was gone already. For a second, I thought to follow him, but something told me not to. I didn’t really want to talk to him, with his odd manner and false smile. I gave him a while, watching the lake and thinking, then made my way back to the road to call a taxi. I didn’t see him again. That was some relief.
Saw Joanna as I was arriving back at the cottage. Invited her to dinner tonight, and she said yes. I think I could do with the company.
There is something very wrong about that picture. It is definitely not the same as it was yesterday. The shape at the centre is clearer again, and the colours more green than before. Am I losing my mind, or have those dreams simply made me see things? I really don’t know, but this house is beginning to get to me. I may give it one more day, but I think the hotels of Kendal are beginning to appeal to me.
Half past six. I have to stop writing for now. Joanna will be arriving very soon, and I haven’t got started on dinner yet.
* * *
A better night, solely down to Joanna. She came over, and we had a good dinner. We talked for a long time. I told about the exciting life of a ghost-writer for footballers and rock stars, and the fun of trying to put together a coherent narrative from the various ramblings I’ve been given over the years. I even told her about Ventures and The Last Kingdom. She thinks I should go back to novel writing. I think she was just trying to be nice, but maybe it’s time for a change. Advances for biogs are a lot better, though, and at least I know the beginning, middle and end when I’m writing them.
She told me about her life in this village. Seems very quiet, and rather lonely, she seems to have looked after her grandfather and then her mother for a very long time. The house was sold by her brother a few years back. He’s a city analyst in London, and there’s no love lost there. She said he doesn’t understand the area. She’s carried on working here as caretaker. She says she misses the place. God knows why.
She stayed the night. I woke up alone this morning, but she’d left a note to say she had a few jobs to do, and would be away for a day or two.
No regrets, although I know it can’t go anywhere.
No dreams last night, at least none that come back to me. I suppose I had other things on my mind – but a gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell, not even to his diary.
Back to Kendal. I seem to be spending my, life in the library, but the experience with the American had bothered me. Looked him up online, not a great deal but I finally found something in the Boston Herald. Seems I was right about the New England thing. And he was telling the truth about being a scientist. He’d been a physicist at MIT, a pretty good one, some radical stuff that I didn’t understand, but then he’d left under a bit of a cloud after a fire and a death two years ago. The details were vague, but he and some other guy, a research assistant named Jake Hauser, had been thrown out of the university, and had pretty much vanished. The other searches for Locksley didn’t go anywhere, so I tried this Hauser instead.
What came up was pretty amazing. A piece from the News and Star, dated just over a month ago. A man found dead on the shores of a lake. No obvious injuries, but wearing diving gear, so drowning assumed, but no sign of water in lungs. Inquest to take place in the next few days.
The man was Jake Hauser. The lake was Whinfell Waters.
This just left me with one question. Just what the hell would two American physicists want with an obscure Cumbrian lake?
When I got back, I looked at the painting again. It had changed, I was certain of it. It was forming a picture of what seemed to be a living thing, with a face and body emerging from what had seemed just a couple of days ago to be random smudges of paint. I was so freaked by this that I reached for it, to take it off the wall and hide it away. The moment my fingers touched the wooden frame, I felt a tremor running through it. It ran into me, like a tingle of electricity. There was no shock or pain, but I still jumped back. I stood there for a long time, breathing hard. Then, I got my phone, and took a picture of the painting. It was the only way I knew for sure to see if the thing was changing like I thought.
Went to the pub for dinner. Not sure I want to be in the house with that thing.
* * *
Last night was terrible – the same dreams as before, each time cutting out before the final moment. And this time, waking was even worse. There were times when I wasn’t sure if I was awake or dreaming, but all the time I could feel something else. A person? No, the word is presence. That seems so stupid when I write it, but it’s the only word I can think of. Watching, contemplating me, examining me in every detail. I couldn’t move, not to flee, not to shrink under the covers and hide. I just lay there, second after minute after hour, until the morning. The daylight hasn’t made it any better, really. I found myself able to move, but the house remains hateful, an object of speculation by something that I cannot see.
And the picture has changed again. The shape is there, clearer than ever, form, eyes, face. I know the face that is slowly appearing. It is the face of the thing that threatens me in my dreams. I took my phone out, but the picture I had taken yesterday was gone, replaced by an image of pure, deep black. It doesn’t want me to see too much. It prefers to look at me instead.
It is alive.
I must talk to Joanna.
Five o’clock – no sign of Joanna at her house. There’s a van outside, seems to be a builder’s, bricks and cement, but nobody at home. I don’t know what else to do – I stumbled around the village for a while, and somehow I ended up in the tiny parish church. The vicar was nowhere about, so I sat in one of the pews and tried to pray. I swear I don’t believe in that stuff, but at that point God seemed my only hope. No answer to the prayers. Hadn’t really been expecting one.
I went to the Cross Keys and ate something. The food had no taste – I was aware of the actions, cutting, stabbing, chewing, swallowing, but they had no meaning to me beyond basic animal instinct. I have come back to the house. I cannot hide from it; at least in the house I might try to understand it.
* * *
Watching, watching, where is it, why can’t I see it, it can see me, it’s not fair.
It is alive. It is awake.
And that painting, I hate it, I will smash it, smash, kill, break it, break smash please please make it go away.
Make it go away.
* * *
I am looking at what I wrote yesterday, and I am shocked. I do not know where the words came from. Something deep inside me, something reacting to the voyeurism of my constant and unseen house guest. I feel it even now, but today I can react with greater rationality.
Last night was, somehow, a better night. The dreams were still there, but an incident around two o’clock in the morning lent a solidity to what I am experiencing. Despite everything, despite all my terror and desperation, I remained in the house last night. I fear that I cannot escape the gaze of whatever it is that has found me, so I stayed in the heart of the storm, waiting, watching. I fell asleep in a large armchair in the bedroom, at least for a while.
At about two o’clock, I heard something move. This was not the presence that has so tormented me, it was concrete, real. A floorboard creaking, a door opening, a furtive but physical feeling of not being alone. I stood, quietly as I could, and made my way to the bedroom door. I had left it open, and slipped quietly through to where it opened onto the lounge.
A shape stood by the fireplace, a human shape, hands on the painting. There was nothing very interesting about the figure, and in that I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. It was a human being, an intruder, perhaps a burglar, yet I was almost happy to see him. He was so unutterably banal when compared to what I have experienced. The room was dark, and I could make out nothing of the intruder’s features, but it was also clear that he had not seen me. In the instant of realising this, my foot caught the door, causing it to move slightly. The smallest of creaks, but he noticed. His head flashed in my direction, and I knew he had now seen me. And he ran. Fled for the door, faster than I could react. I made after him, but by the time I reached the door, there was no one to be seen.
The lock was forced. I propped a large chair against it and spent the rest of the night in the lounge. Nothing else happened.
Where does this leave me? I do not know. I want to run. I know every rational thought is begging me to flee, to run as far away as I can, and never look back, but I know that it would do no good. What I have found – what has found me – is too great to escape that way. There is nowhere in the world that is beyond its shadow. And the knowledge that there are also human agencies interested in this house, in that painting, does nothing to reassure my fears.
I am trying to write it all down, to put into words what I have felt and heard. Words are my skill. Perhaps in their exercise I can come nearer to understanding. I have kept a diary for seventeen years, now. Nothing but the routine of daily life. And yet now it feel that it may hold my salvation.
I must find Joanna.
There is someone at the door. I will continue writing later.
* * *
I am trying to get this down on paper as fast as I can. Recording this is pretty much the last thing I will ever do. I need to put my thoughts in some sense of order before the end comes. I need to occupy my mind against thoughts that are literally unthinkable. And yet I find myself far calmer than I thought I would be. Maybe it is because I finally know. I have seen the thing that has been haunting my dreams for the last few days. I have seen it, and nothing will ever be the same again.
So I sit and wait to die. The blood loss may do that. Or perhaps I might let it take me. I have a choice. Plunge into the darkness or sit and drift away. The former might be preferable, but I am too scared of what might be in that darkness. I am scared that I might not die. And so I sit. I might try to sleep later. But not yet. Too much to say.
I had been attempting to write my diary when there had been a knock at the door. Hoping that it was Joanna, I went to the door and opened it. Locksley was standing there, an innocuous smile on his face. He was dressed in overalls, a large rucksack slung over his back, heavy boots on his feet, looking as if he was off potholing or climbing. His left hand rested on a large sledgehammer. In his right hand he held a gun, and it was aimed at me. I had to look at it a couple of times, it seemed so comically out of place. I surprised myself by my lack of panic. Shock, perhaps, but I simply stood there, calmly appraising him.
“I assume you were the one who broke in last night.”
He nodded in response. “I regret having to resort to such extremes, but I find that I need your help,” he said. His voice was very steady, but there was a tone in it that told of someone keeping something in check. I don’t know what it was, a twitchy energy, boiling away beneath the veneer of calm. Even if I hadn’t seen the gun, that voice would have told me that something was badly wrong.
I didn’t say anything, I just stood back and let him pass. He moved into the house, never taking his eyes away from mine, the gun never wavering. It seemed foolish to ask where he wanted to go so I simply walked over to the fireplace and the picture. It had, of course, changed again, tinted with green, and the face at its centre was now extremely clear. It wasn’t human, or for that matter anything that I recognised from this world. But on seeing it, Locksley’s smile broadened, and he gazed on it almost religiously. For the first time, the gun moved, his hands shaking with excitement.
“You want it, take it.”
“It is hardly yours to give away,” he replied, “and whilst important, it is not the ultimate reason why I am here..” He looked back to me. “Do you know what this is?” At the shake of my head, he laughed. “Pathetic. So close to this pure perfection, to the point where you even commune with it, and you don’t know.” A pause, then he indicated the picture with the gun. “That is a key. A key to a door to a world beyond anything you could ever have hoped to see. But thanks to me, you will see it. Now.” He gestured to the hammer, and flicked the gun back in my direction. “Take the picture off the wall. Then use the hammer.”
“To do what?” I thought I knew, but I wanted him to say it.
He seemed amused by the question. Another gesture at the fireplace “Break it. Break through the wall. And then…” – a laugh that was not sane – “then we shall see.”
I didn’t feel that I had any choice. Besides, I wanted to know. I was more than curious to find out what it was that was haunting me, that drew this man here all the way from Massachusetts. And if this was a way to accomplish that, then so be it.
I reached for the picture. As my fingers made contact, I flinched, expecting the same tingle I had felt before. But nothing happened. I felt a wooden frame beneath my fingers, a length of wire at the back, a small picture hook in the wall. The picture was off the wall in seconds, and passed to Locksley. He threw it onto the sofa. For all his earlier words about it, it was clear that he placed little value on the picture in itself. To me, the act seemed calculatedly casual, almost sacrilegious in its triviality.
I picked up the hammer, swearing under my breath at the weight. I’ve never been one for manual work, but the gun was a great motivator. So I gave the hammer a few practice swings, then brought it down upon the lintel of the fireplace. My arms jarred badly with the impact, my shoulders screaming out with pain, but the structure of the fireplace gave way almost immediately, crashing down. Four or five further swings and the whole of the fireplace was a mass of rubble and metal. I put the hammer down, and cleared the rubble to one side, pulling the metal of the grate clear from the floor.
And in that moment, my childhood nightmares were real. My father had told the truth. Beneath the grate was an open space of an impenetrable depth, dark and cold, stinking with rot and damp. I fell back, gagging, but Locksley was unmoved.
“The doorway to hell,” he murmured, as if reading my thoughts. I looked over to where he was sitting on the arm of the sofa. He simply waved the gun. “The wall. Keep going.”
I picked up the hammer again, and started on the wall. Swing after swing, eventually, my arms threatening to snap at the repeated impacts, the bricks collapsed in, fell into darkness. The smell was now worse than ever, rising up from a large, open blackness. When I had opened up a gap large enough to accommodate a man, Locksley indicated to stop. He threw the rucksack to me. I opened it up. What he wanted was fairly clear – a rollout ladder of metal and wire, that secured to the remaining brickwork with a hook. As I assembled it, and then dropped it down into the darkness, he was retrieving a pair of large torches from the rucksack. He handed one to me. Then he made another gesture with the gun.
Gripping the torch in one hand, and the ladder in the other, I swung myself into the gap, and started a slow, reluctant descent into the dark. It was cold and damp, and more than once my fingers nearly lost their grip, but the descent was not far, and after about twenty feet or so, my feet felt floor beneath them again.
I shone the torch about me, its beam picking out the details of a plain, bare, empty cellar of stone. It seemed to be a perfect square, twenty metres across in every dimension, and the walls, the ceiling and the square flagstones beneath my feet were all coated in a foul green mould that was the source of the smell that had nearly overpowered me.
Locksley was now down beside me. He had thrown the rucksack to one side, and, ignoring the fetid green infestation, had thrown himself onto his hands and knees and was scouring the floor for something.
I could have run then, raced to the ladder, been up and out in seconds, pulling the ladder up and trapping him there, fleeing the cottage and never looking back. But he had me and he knew it. That was why he wasn’t even bothering to threaten me now. I wanted to know. I needed to know. And so I walked over and squatted down beside him.
“What are you looking for?”
He grunted, a cynical laugh. More amusement at my ignorance, I supposed. “We’ll know when I find it.”
I stood and watched him scrabbling about the floor, scraping at the filth with a small trowel, the sort you would use for archaeology, minutely examining each stone for some unknown detail. Finally, a low mutter of satisfaction. I walked over to him, as he shone the torch beam down onto a small symbol, a crude trident shape etched deep into one of the flagstones.
“What is that?”
“His name,” he replied, as if this was meant to mean something. He pressed his fingers to the shape, tracing it carefully, first one way, then the other. For a moment, nothing happened. Then, the stone moved. There was no obvious sign of any mechanism, but the entire flag simply lifted up and away, revealing another dark opening.
Locksley stared at me, the dim torchlight illuminating an exultancy as it spread across his face. He pointed down into a further darkness, and I could see a stone spiral staircase descending even deeper into the earth.
“Layers beneath layers,” he told me, “We are getting very close now.”
This time he went first, and I followed him down those stairs. This descent was much more difficult than the first. It was hard to keep the torch beam on the steps before me, and the slippery lichen and mould constantly threatened to send me off my feet and tumbling down into the dark. We descended much further – maybe more than a hundred feet, it was so difficult to tell in the isolating inkiness, but finally, I heard him breathe out and stop. A few seconds later, I had also reached the bottom.
Words can barely explain just how claustrophobic and lost that dark space felt. We shone the torches around, to show only one way forward, a dank looking stone passage that sloped gently down, encrusted walls about three feet apart, just over six feet high, enough for smaller men to walk comfortably in single file, but little more. Locksley smiled again, the torchlight lending his rounded features the quality of a demonic cherub, then he started down the tunnel, with me close behind. By now, I did not dare let him get far out of sight, lest the torch fail and I be left alone in this madness. I was in fact so close that when he stopped very suddenly, I nearly ran into his back. He switched off the torch and indicated that I should do the same.
Of all the things I had been asked to do, this was the one thing I could not. I feared that blackness more than anything, and I couldn’t understand why he wanted me to do this. Impatiently, he grabbed the torch from me and pressed the switch. I flinched, as if hit, but then I realised one thing – I could still see him. The tunnel, and Locksley, were lit by a yellowing glow that seemed to flow from the stones of the tunnel itself. It was not a healthy light, but it was enough. Locksley smiled yet again, as if satisfied that he had been correct about something.
“Bioluminescence. Suggestive.” That was all he would say. He started off again down the passage. As we continued, he spoke. It was half a lecture, half a confession, a commentary on our endless descent towards whatever it was waited for us.
“I used to be a very good scientist. I researched physics at the highest level, ran the advanced particle research laboratory at MIT. I was invited to advise the CERN project. People valued me. I was touching on the very nature of what we understood as matter and reality. I touched the edge of space and time, and I came so closed to seeing and understanding what it all meant.
“And then one day, one experiment, it happened. We were running an experiment to simultaneously split and accelerate the quark. Something happened. Something gave in the universe. A – a split opened, and I saw through to somewhere else. To the real world.”
He stopped walking, turned and looked at me angrily. The anger wasn’t directed at me. It was sheer frustration at everything, at the universe. “How can I explain in words? Language doesn’t exist to express what I saw. This world…” - he waved his arms about him – “None of it is real. We are just the foundations at the base of reality. And what is built upon it? Existences layered on top of each other, nothing that we could understand, realities so vibrant as to make our brightest stars look withered and dead. And at their summit, the realm of gods and angels, creatures to whom we are merely constituent atoms. I saw it for one second. Any more and I would have become insane. And I wept that I could not be mad, for it would have been worth it. To gaze upon them for one second longer I would have sacrificed the last vestiges of my sanity.” He spat his last word out bitterly.
He started walking again. “There was a fire. They said I’d been careless, that I hadn’t followed acceptable safety standards in my work. I think something touched us that wasn’t meant to. The equipment I was using simply couldn’t deal with the load that was placed on it. Whatever the cause, the laboratory was burnt to the ground. One of my assistants was killed. My other assistant, Hauser and I were fired, made to look fools when we had pushed their work further than it had ever been.
“We left them to their ignorance. I had begun to realise that science was a blind alley anyway. Its dead hand could not bring me back to what I had seen. So I started to look elsewhere. New England is awash with stories about things that touch upon our universe in ways we don’t understand. Ghosts, they call them, demons. Nobody realises. I looked farther afield. Venezuela, Peru, Russia, New Zealand, I have travelled the world to find it again. And then I came across a story in one small place.
“In 1799, Samuel Taylor Coleridge visited the Lake District to see William Wordsworth, and the two of them went to the stone circle at Castlerigg. It’s a popular tourist site, but nobody quite knows what it was built for. They even say that the place is bewitched, and the number of stones changes from year to year. There are so many theories, and they are all wrong. I know it was a place of worship. Ancient Britons gathered there to worship their god. Coleridge wrote in his diary that Castlerigg troubled him in his dreams for a very long time – he saw things, things that people put down to his laudanum use, but what he was doing was communing with the life form that the stones venerated. His mind was open. Artistic minds are susceptible to these things. Minds such as yours and William Hawesworth’s. When I saw Coleridge’s words, when I read about Hawesworth and his madness, I knew at once. The stones, the house, they were all part of the same thing. And in a direct line between the two of them was that lake.
“I knew now that I was on the verge of something significant. Art and science combining to show me the face of my god once again. When Hauser and I arrived here, I ran tests on that lake. There was nothing – not a trace of life within its waters, not even the tiniest of microbes. The vegetation that ran to its shores shrivelled and died when it touched the waters. Hauser was prepared to look further. He went into the water. He was fully equipped with the best diving gear, he was an accredited A1 diver who had explored the Great Barrier Reef and the Indian Ocean. But the second he went beneath the surface of the lake, he was dead. The thing in there would not suffer him to live. It will not suffer anything to come near it and know it. But his death was not in vain, however. Because now I knew. It is in the lake. It sleeps down there. I reasoned that the house must have some connection to the lake, otherwise why would it inspire such visions and madness in Hawesworth. There was nothing particularly interesting about the house itself, it had been around for several hundred years. But what had been there before? If we could break that shell, see what lay beneath…”
He paused. I realised that he had stopped yet again. This time, however, it was different. As I caught up with him, I saw that the passage had opened up into a vast space, a stone-built underground cathedral, a circle of at least seventy metres diameter and as much again up. The ceiling was lost in yellow darkness. And at one end, a large opening, rectangular, twenty metres high by fifteen across.
How can I describe what lay beyond that opening? Locksley was right, words are inadequate to express it. But I must try. What I saw appeared to be water. It moved in the opening without ever entering the chamber, as if held back by a window, but there was no glass there. The water was green, dark. I knew that I was looking at the bottom of Whinfell’s lake. And in the water, there was something moving. Not a fish, nor an animal or bird.
It was huge. Any other time, I might have taken it for a giant squid, perhaps a vast octopus. To find something like that in the Lake District would have been ridiculous enough, but I knew that this was not what I was seeing. I could only get the vaguest sense of it, as it moved in the water. No real sense of shape, the edges blurred and undefined, as if its form defied the eye, its horizons not existing within my perceptions. And all the while, it pulsed with a slow, clear rhythm of movement. Breathing, or an unpleasant parody of it. For an amused moment, I felt that it was snoring. Locksley seemed to read my thoughts, and he nodded.
“It sleeps,” he murmured quietly.
And then, the final madness. Defying his words, something moved.
It blinked at me.
I thought that we had experienced into every level of darkness possible as we had moved further and further down into the earth, but it had been nothing compared to the darkness within that eye. A huge black pupil, more than two metres across, purest jet black, and heavily lidded, so that the movement was slow and deliberate. As it blinked just once, I stared at it, and I knew that, even in this dormant, docile state, it was staring back.
When Locksley saw that movement, he was lost. He fell to his knees, utterly enraptured, arms reaching out like a small child to its parent.
“Master, I am here,” he gurgled. His voice was barely intelligible, all rationality had finally been purged by the ecstasy of what we saw.
“What is it?” The words were dragged from me.
He looked up. His smile was simple, one of pure happiness. The same image of a small child, how he might have looked on being rewarded by an indulgent parent. It was the only truly genuine smile I had seen on his face.
“God,” he told me. “What else could it be?” He began to laugh, and it echoed horribly around the cavern. “All my life spent trying to unlock the secret of the universe, and I find it in a British backwater. Literally!” The laughing increased, became strained. The man was on the verge of total insanity. I think he would have called it euphoria. Either way, I knew that we were very close to the end. The knowledge of what I had seen had snapped me away from any further curiosity. If I had any move to make, it had to be now.
I moved back to the passageway, as fast as I could. But I had barely moved five steps when the crack of a gun rang around the chamber, and I felt something hit me in the shoulder. I fell to the ground, almost unbelieving. As I twisted on the ground, I looked at Locksley, who held the gun by his side. He had stood again, and was shaking his head.
“Proceedings will not be interrupted,” he told me, then sadly added, “why can’t you understand the gift I have given you?”
The pain in my shoulder was unbelievable, spreading down my arm and across my chest. I could barely breathe to speak, but I managed a few words through gritted teeth.
“What are you going to do?”
“Worship him. Commune with the lord.”
Even in my semi-delirium, that seemed crazy. Was he going to stay down here, simply kneel before that thing until he simply died of starvation and madness? I pulled myself to my knees using my good arm, and tried to crawl towards the passage again.
Another shot rang out. This one did not hit me. I looked back at him again. Locksley was walking towards me, face set. He raised the gun and pointed it at my head.
The creature blinked again.
A hollow, echoing roar of awakening tore through me, shaking the chamber. I saw the eye blink several times, and then move towards us. A slow trickle of greenish water oozed into the chamber from the opening, followed by an amorphous blackness.
Locksley turned away from me. The gun, forgotten, drifted from his fingers and fell to the floor. I grabbed for it, for all the good it would do. Locksley was no longer a danger, and against that thing, I knew bullets would be useless. Locksley was now a mere six feet from the emerging creature, and he was laughing and shouting continuously, words lost in the returning echoes of the roaring. He reached out to touch the darkness, and then turned back suddenly, staring me straight in the face. That was when he realised, just too late, that he had been wrong.
And then a million tentacles exploded into the room, wrapping themselves around his body from feet to head, latching onto him, pulling him back towards the opening and the dark. One final moment of horror in his eyes, one last scream dwarfed by the sound of the creature that took him, and then the tentacles were forcing their way into his eye sockets, filling his throat, tearing at flesh and bone relentlessly. The scream was stifled, the moment passed, and he was gone, eaten by the dark.
The water continued to flow into the chamber, faster now, accelerating towards me. I could no longer see the eye, but I knew that it still saw me, wanted to take me as it had its acolyte. That was the spur I had to overcome the pain of my injury. Screaming against the dark, I got to my feet, and I ran.
What had seemed a slow and gentle slope as we descended now seemed a terrifying upwards ascent. I ran as fast as I could, stumbling from wall to wall, scarcely daring to look back. The occasions when I did, I could see the water following me, getting faster, from trickle to torrent to full wave. Things moved in the water, questing for me. I threw my arm back and let go two shots from the gun, the recoil threatening to send me off my feet and making me cry out with pain. The useless act of defiance was rewarded with a further scream from the creature, less of pain than anger. Something surged from the water and the gun was plucked from my hand. It was barely three feet from me now, the water licking at my heels, and I knew I could not go on. Maybe if I surrendered, it would be quick. I knew this was a lie, but now I had nothing left but the comfort of lying. I closed my eyes, and stopped running.
The quiet feminine voice, the soft accent, sounded so out of place that at first I did not react. Then I opened my eyes, to see the water and the darkness flowing away from me as fast as it had come. I turned back to the source of the voice. Joanna stood behind me, the painting in her hands, held out directly in front of her. Her face was set in gentle determination. She didn’t look directly at me, never took her eyes off the passageway.
“Hurry,” she repeated, “this will hold it back, but we must be quick.”
I moved past her and continued up the passageway. She followed, still holding the picture out in front of her, backing up behind me. After an eternity we reached the stairs and ascended back into the cellar beneath the house. A pair of large industrial torches illuminated the room, but there was no time to examine things. She handed the picture to me, and told me to hold it towards the opening in the floor. Then she moved to the ladder, nimbly climbing back up into the house. Awkwardly pushing the painting under my arm, I made to follow, but as I put pressure on the first rung of the ladder, I felt it give. I jumped back, just in time to see the whole ladder fall, rungs and rope clattering on the stone floor, trapping me in the chamber.
Had it come free by accident? Was she going to find another way to get me out? I hoped against hope. I shouted up for her. At first, there was no reply, then her voice, heavy with sadness, drifted down and echoed around the room.
“It’s too late for you. I’m sorry. It’s seen you. You might have escaped if it had only been in your dreams, but now you’ve been down there, it knows you for certain. You can’t come back up again. Not ever. I’m sorry.”
“What about you?” I shouted up. “Hasn’t it seen you?”
There was silence for a few seconds. Then she sighed, loud enough to echo around the chamber. “I hope not. I have to take the chance. Someone up here has to close it off again.”
A rope was passed down into the chamber, with a large metal hook attached. I knew that she was asking for the painting. For a moment, I held out, thought of holding it hostage against my being left down here. But the moment only held briefly. I hooked the back of the painting to the rope. It disappeared up into the ceiling, and there was silence. Finally, the silence was broken by the sound of masonry pressing on masonry. I knew what she was doing, I realised why she had bricks and cement outside her house the other day. It was as if she had known.
She was bricking me in.
I went crazy at this point. I ran up and down the room, screaming, shouting, swearing at her, at Locksley, at whatever it was that had brought us to this, venting my fury and terror at the world. I kicked over one of the torches, smashing it, plunging part of the room into the dark. It was this that brought me back to some sense of order. I ran to beneath the opening in the ceiling and shouted up, pleading with her, tears running down my face as I begged her not to do this. For a long time, there was no answer save the slow scrape of the bricks being put into place. Then, as the small gap of light from above gradually narrowed, minute by minute, she started to speak. Like Locksley, her words sounded like a confession. Unlike Locksley, there was little emotion in her voice, save regret.
“It’s been in the lake forever – as far as we understand that word. The Celtic people worshipped it at the stones above and in their chamber beneath the ground. They could not enter the lake itself as they knew that meant death, so they built the tunnel that gave them access. I don’t know what it is that holds the water back.” She laughed. “There are so many things I don’t know about it. I have read so many books to try to understand, but I can still only guess.
“They say it is one of the children of Cthulhu. It has a name, the symbol on the stone, but nobody knows what it is. I think it came here by accident. It slipped quietly through a weak point between its realm and ours and came to lie under the water, asleep. In time, it was forgotten, its influence over the local people faded in the light of reason and science. It stayed there, and nobody paid it any notice. The tunnel was lost, and they built the village over its foundations.
“My family own the lake and they used to own the house. They have done so for a very long time. Nobody knew the secret it concealed until my grandfather came back from the war and continued his painting. I think he had touched its mind in his dreams, and he realised that this house was special. Once he realised what was down there, he fled, and sealed it in. But he was never the same again. He started to paint strange things. He became more and more incoherent, and his friends and family became more afraid of him and his paintings. This picture was the last thing he did. It is one of the Old Ones, who warred with Cthulhu and his spawn.”
“I’ve seen that picture move,” I told her. She laughed again, as if I had stated the obvious like a child.
“Of course. I think, in its own way, it is alive. It created itself through my grandfather, to balance the thing in the lake. Once he had done that, there was no further use for him. We were told he had Parkinson’s disease, but my mother knew better. She had spoken to him when he was lucid, and she had believed him when he told her what he saw. She pledged to do what she had to, and she stayed here with the painting, guarding it.
“When my mother died, and the place was sold by Simon, I was terrified of what might happen, but I managed to be taken on as a caretaker. I hoped that this meant I could keep an eye on things. Until now, there hasn’t been any trouble. I don’t think most people can sense it.
“That man changed everything.” I assume she meant Locksley. “His malevolence and stupidity disrupted things. I know all about his work. I think he saw Cthulhu. And so it has felt his presence since he came to the area, it has reacted and reached out – and then it touched you, felt your mind. Once it started to stir, I had to do something. I’m sorry I deceived you. I like you, but there are more important things to consider. I hoped I could stop it from taking you too far. But I failed. It must be locked away. I will replace the painting on the wall, and I hope that it can hold it.”
Time was nearly up. I only had one last thing to say.
“You can’t keep it locked down here forever. It’s too powerful.”
“I can try.”
No more words. The last of the light from above was extinguished. The final brick went into place.
I sat on the floor, and wept. I am not sure how long I sat there, but eventually there were no tears left. As rationality returned, so did the pain in my shoulder. In the dim light of the remaining torch, I removed my shirt, and examined the mess of torn flesh. Eventually, I tore the shirt into strips and tried to bind it across the wound.
Locksley’s rucksack lay in the corner. Too weak to stand, I pulled myself across the floor and opened it. Some sort of knife, for hunting and fishing, a number of scientific pamphlets, a map of the area, a few items of warm clothing, and a notebook and pens. I pulled one of the jumpers over my head, then I took the notebook and a pen and crawled to the opposite wall, where the last torch continued its lone fight against the darkness. Propping myself up against the wall, I rested the book against my knees, and began to write.
* * *
That is all. The torch is fading, its batteries are drained. I feel so weak that I can barely hold the pen any longer. My writing has become fragmented, illegible. I have tried my best to say what I saw, and these few words will remain testament to the thing that lies dreaming at the bottom of Whinfell Waters, and the sacrifices that have been made to keep it that way. I am going to switch off the torch now, and go to sleep. I pray that I do not dream.
One last thing. If by any chance you are reading this, then pray. Because the wall will have been broken again. And it will be awake.