Somehow a whole month escaped without a single new posting to my blog! This newest offering is in a different vein from my usual tales of Gothic horror: here, I have tried my hand at something more along the lines of a Lovecraftian or Ligotti piece of cosmic terror. Or is it? What is it that our hero glimpses, or thinks he glimpses, within the shadowed walls of Eston? In penning an homage of sorts to the old masters, I came to write a piece that I like to think of as a loving tribute to the genre as a whole: a genre that, perhaps more than any other, teases its devotees with the mystery of its own appeal. In this tale, we are introduced to a man who wishes to discern the heart of his own peculiar, morbid taste. It is up to you, the reader, to discover what he discovers, and decide whether it is enlightenment or something even more tantalizing that awaits him…
He led Chanton out of the foyer and into the first of the drawing rooms, apologising as he did so for the dust.
“Years have passed since the last time I opened these doors,” Thibault admitted.
“Any particular reason why?” Chanton asked. He had been expecting such a confession. It came with the territory. His guide, as though sensing his cynicism, merely smiled and said, “The customary one, I expect.”
“That centre won’t hold, though.” Chanton’s eyes were roaming over the brass candlesticks and the mirrored walls, dulled with dust. “It’s all very well in the old tales to have the haunted lodge, abandoned for centuries – but we aren’t children, are we, Thibault? A place with a history like this ought to be overrun with thrill-seekers, at the very least. You’ll have to devise a better explanation than that, I’m afraid.”
Thibault grinned. Only an evening’s acquaintance and he already liked the man. For a month, they had corresponded facelessly, through a few calls and the occasional letter – and then last week Chanton had suggested that they meet at last. It had been easy, eerily easy, for Thibault to put a face to the voice that he had heard so often over the phone. Pushing through the smoke-filled room and edging past the dancing bodies, he had approached the stranger at the bar and said, “Mr. Chanton?”
“How did you know me?” Chanton’s voice had a dull redolence that could occasionally deepen into something like interest: tarnished copper held to the light. His face was untanned, his eyes dark and moving with a vague, secretive humour. Thibault did not know whether it would be politic to tell the man that he had recognised him by the air of desperation that infected his face as utterly as it did his voice; that it was so palpable that the women avoided him as though they suspected that he would have them in a back room if they were not cautious; that the men watched him the way that you keep your eye on a dog to see that it doesn’t slip its leash.
But Thibault was a politic man and so he said that he had only made a clever guess; and Chanton seemed satisfied with this reply and even more so when he saw the keys that Thibault pulled from his jacket – keys to Eston Place. They had wasted no more time in the company of strangers, but had gone with all speed into the night.
And now here they were beneath the domed ceiling, the dimming twilight sun staining the eastern wall of the drawing room, and Thibault began to wonder himself why this Chanton was the first stranger to come looking for a glimpse of Eston Place.
“I suppose it’s because so few people are acquainted with its history. I’m amazed, I’ll confess, that you discovered as much as you did.”
Chanton shrugged. His face was as unreadable as stone, but his gaze moved over it all with a rapid interest as if he were tasting the room with his eyes. Thibault wondered if he liked what he had sampled so far.
The vast chamber, save for the French windows, the candlesticks, and the mirrors, was made of white ivory. It must have cost a fortune for the owners to construct that world of reflected pallor. Thibault could only imagine how it must have appeared half a century ago.
“They used to draw the curtains, erect an additional gallery of mirrors in this room, and then set rows of candles before them,” he remarked. “To create an illusion of immense space, a duplication of infinity. It was one of the great exercises performed by adherents of the conclave: the ability to concentrate upon the darkness between the lights and consider that infinity with delight rather than horror. I was told by my grandfather that the experience was something like water torture and that many could not stand it. They left their chairs and fled into the daylight, never to return.”
“The Conclave, they called themselves?”
“The Secret Conclave of the Grotesque Sublime.” Thibault nodded.
Chanton shivered in that ivory drawing room, but a smile somehow, perversely, reached his lips. “What a mouthful.”
“But accurate enough, it seems. Their only concern was to discover more ways in which to create this sensation – what they called the highest experience available to the senses.”
“And cults these days think they’re edgy.”
Chanton had been disappointed too often in the past to keep the bitterness out of his voice. He did start for a moment when – as Thibault led him out of the ivory drawing room – he fancied that he saw a shadow, tall as an elephant, darken the far wall momentarily. But when he turned and saw nothing, he laughed at what tricks his own hopes and fears could play upon him. These tricks seemed to make up the very fabric of his life.
They next entered a hallway, again with walls of white. Ornamented tusks of black wood protruded from these walls and it was with caution that the two men negotiated past them to the chamber beyond. In spite of himself, Chanton could not help marvelling at the sheer, obsessive attention to minutiae that had consumed the builders of Eston. Not only had they made a cavern of teeth out of a simple hallway, but they had somehow constructed it in such a way that Chanton felt as though he walked at a slant – as though there was a crookedness in how the high walls met the ceiling. It was dizzying and exhilarating and Chanton felt his heart burn beneath the pressure of these stimuli. He gave a soft cry when they passed out of the hallway and into the chamber beyond. Whether it was gladness or repulsion that he felt, he could not tell – and he wondered whether that was not part of the charm.
The hall had expanded into a circular chamber, roofed by a parabolic ceiling, beneath which shimmered a pool of dark water. The walls on either side were ribbed like the nave of a church and Thibault’s electric torch as it flashed from one end of the chamber to the other seemed an inconsequential grain of light in an ocean of darkness. The pool easily occupied as great a space as the floor of the ivory drawing room; it was like stepping into the vast lower jaw of a whale.
Thibault smiled at Chanton’s shock. “This place apparently had that effect on people quite often,” he said. “Or so my grandfather claimed. He said that they would come here on certain days of the week, one at a time, and gaze into the waters. Some of them fancied that they saw a dark thing move beneath the surface, but they never…”
Chanton was only half-listening to the man, his talk of afternoon rituals and rites of initiation. He was suddenly aware that he had grown hot, uncomfortably so, in the last few minutes. Even after removing his jacket, he felt a trickle of sweat crease the back of his shirt.
“Did you hear something?” Thibault asked abruptly. When Chanton merely returned his look, he said, “Give me just a moment and I’ll be right back. I don’t think this place has been troubled with intruders before, but it’s always best to be safe, don’t you think?”
Chanton gave a brief nod. Once the man was gone, he stooped by the side of the vast pool and cupped some water into his palms, lifting it to his burning face like an offering. He happened then to raise his eyes and when he did, nearly stumbled back. Thibault had left the electric torch behind and as Chanton followed the direction of its beam, he saw that the waters a yard away had begun to ripple. But there was nothing underneath, he told himself – couldn’t be. It was his reason, his dumb, bull-headed reason, that kept him calm. Yet while he crouched there, motionless, watching the approaching darkness beneath those waters, he felt his flesh grow wet with perspiration and his knees incline towards buckling with a cowardice that he had never felt before – never in city alley, country road, the quiet of solitude or the loneliness of a crowd.
The next instant, he nearly laughed. The ‘darkness’ that he had seen was merely the reflection cast by a banner of black cloth that hung from the rafters of the chamber; a sudden draft must have stirred it and its movement then threw a shadow upon the waters, causing him to startle. The knowledge was both a relief and a rancour. Was this how he titillated himself, then? By imagining perils only to have them evaporate into nothingness? How much lower could one fall, to thrill at the mind firing upon itself, exhilarate in the imagination’s own capacity for engineering terror? He very nearly hated himself at that moment.
Thibault returned then with a shrug of self-deprecating bemusement. Chanton looked up at him, almost wonderingly. The man was smiling, but he looked a little worse for wear himself and Chanton saw him replace a handkerchief that he had been using to wipe his forehead. Perhaps, Chanton thought, the place was beginning to get to him as well.
“No one there,” Thibault said. “Guess I must have been hearing things. Easy to do here. The acoustics in this place are mad.”
“Why don’t you just give me the rest of the tale so that we can get out of here, then?”
“The rest?” Thibault blinked.
“I know that something happened to the Conclave. Something ended them. What was it?”
Thibault was now leading him back down the hallway of teeth and into the familiar world of the ivory drawing room. “I thought that you wanted to see the rest of the place first.”
“I have seen enough.” Chanton said each syllable distinctly, each word more bitter than the last.
This man was a mystery, Thibault decided. His words were full of self-loathing, but the way that he glanced at Thibault occasionally with that look of wordless desperation convinced Thibault that he was longing to be dissuaded from his despair. He was a man who would have loved for some epiphany, no matter how dark and dreadful, to catch him fast and hold its truth to him like a knife.
“Well,” Thibault chose his words carefully, “My grandfather said that the adherents of the Conclave were always hoping that their constant watchfulness, their ardent devotions, would be rewarded with a sighting of the ultimate Horror. Towards the end, some of them even claimed that occasionally they glimpsed it – most describing it as a shadow, a moving darkness – and said that it had finally come into its own. That was when my grandfather began to think that some of them had gone mad – or began to be afraid that perhaps they hadn’t gone mad at all and that it was the truth – and decided to leave Eston Place for the last time. And then, a week later, they were all gone.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean that they vanished – that no members of the Conclave were ever heard from again. The property reverted to my grandfather and he kept it under lock and key all his life.”
“But surely he suspected something behind their disappearance?”
“Oh, he had his suspicions, certainly,” Thibault conceded. “But they were hardly the sort that the police would have cared to hear. The long and short of it amounted to his belief that they had succeeded in their endeavours.”
“You mean they came face to face with the ultimate Horror,” Chanton laughed.
“So he said.” Thibault chuckled as well. “It’s all so ludicrous, isn’t it?”
“God help me,” Chanton suddenly said, his face white as the ivory wall by which he stood. “As perverse as it may sound, I want to believe your grandfather, but then my mind throws up a thousand objections. Yet, when I’ve convinced myself that I should walk out the door, I remember the odd, disjointed impressions that I’ve experienced myself and begin to doubt my very doubt. Christ, I thought I saw what your Conclave imagined twice already this evening – that moving darkness – ”
“What are you talking about?” Thibault stared at him incredulously.
“I’m not sure myself,” said Chanton. “But I have a favour to ask of you. Will you give me leave to remain in this place for the rest of the night?”
“My grandfather said that men like you would come one day,” Thibault said. “And that this place would be a danger to your sort.”
“It would be more dangerous to lock me out.”
“Perhaps you’re right.” Thibault shrugged, disclosed the keys in his open palm. “The place is yours for the night.”
He left Chanton there and departed alone into the warm night. A detour through a short, lonely lane soon brought him back into town. On the street, girls in summer dresses wafted past him while the music of a street saxophonist merged with the thunder of traffic. He stopped to buy a coffee from a street vendor, considered throwing the street player a dime for a short rendition of the ‘Dies Irae,’ thought better of this whimsy, and returned home by the most well-lit and peopled path that he knew.