Nothing and no one lived in the house. Nothing except the creeping moss and the attic spiders. No sounds of mirth emanated from within, no did lights of joviality come forth from its large grey windows. For all intents and purposes, it was as silent and welcoming as the grave. The house had no neighbours, unless you can count the toads and bats of the surrounding woodland as fellow men. The crumbling and decayed property stood alone in the horrid dark of deepest Gunner’s Clough, a large and foreboding patch of woodland on the outskirts of haunted Barton. It had no claim to fame and as a haunted house it was overshadowed by the nearby mythical Byron Manor, a home for the mentally disturbed that also nestled among the sloping bungalows of the small village. Yet those who did know of the house were aware of the magic that soaked into its very foundations and spread into the soil around the property. Like a crawling plague, this miasma poisoned the whole area with a sick, creeping ambience. Many could feel this unseen necromancy on a primal, instinctive level and were alerted by whatever feral defences remained in the human brain to avoid the house at all costs. Rare bleak souls such as myself were instead attracted to that same sorcery like a moth to a candle flame and sought to be ever closer to that spark of magic, no matter how much it burned.
By good fortune, purchasing the house had been a simple affair, whatever family had once possessed it had long relinquished all claims and the estate had instead passed into the remit of the local parish council, who had no objections about selling it on to me. The last scion of that decaying dynasty had left instructions that should no family heir make himself known, the house would become the property of the town council, who were to keep it for a period of twenty years, after which they could do as they please. Most likely they would have demolished it, had I not come along.
A fair bit of money must have been left in the hands of the council in order to keep the property from such destruction, certainly none of it had been spent on the building’s upkeep. For decades the house had stood alone and unoccupied, quietly crumbling as it struggled to keep vigil over the encroaching wilderness that threatened to engulf it, but no longer.
It would be mine and once I had died and been interred in the property, it would pass to another of my family. It would stay with me and my kin and if no-one came forth to claim the house at the time of my death, my instructions were to have it pulled down brick by brick, forever mine and mine alone.
Perhaps I should enlighten the reader as to my demeanor in hope that it shall shed some light on why someone such as I would wish to buy and indeed live in such a lonely place as the Gunner’s Clough house. I had lived in the village of Barton for my entire childhood, only leaving the village as a youth to attend the Eastwich College before moving on to Manchester to finalize my studies. However, no matter how far I strayed from the place of my birth, I could never fully leave it behind in my mind. There were far too many memories, both good and ill attached to that place, dreams of summers spent running around the plentiful woodlands and the cramped crooked alleys that snaked around the living abodes of Barton’s residents. I would often make a trip to Barton on my free days, taking the train to Eastwich and then boarding the bus to the village, watching out of the window for persons familiar to me. There were often many of these, for Barton had within it a rather peculiar magic that seemed to prevent most of its population from moving beyond its reach and into the greater world outside. It was during one of my many sojourns into Barton that I first came across the house.
I had known since I was a child that there was supposedly a ‘haunted house’ deep in Gunner’s Clough, but never set eyes upon it until I was an adult. No, it was only a few years ago that I made the pilgrimage into the woods, past the old stream that was now little more than black, sticking slop. Past the curious worn grey stones that the old timers called the ‘pixie thrones ‘and finally beneath the ivy-strangled wych elms that shaded the acrid brown earth where nothing ever truly grows until finally, I stood before the house in horrid, silent awe. The greasy grey windows and boarded up door called to me, and I knew that finally I was home. The house had called to me then and it felt as if I had always known it. I had come face to face with a legend, whose story was only half-remembered in hushed whispers by those Barton folk who were themselves, not long for this world.
My interest in death and haunted houses had stemmed, as most deficiencies of the mind do, from early childhood experiences and associations. I had personally witnessed two family deaths before I was 12 years old, first watching my grandmother waste away from alcohol consumption until her organs dried up and failed her and losing my dear friend and cousin, who had hanged himself in his own home, without so much as a word of goodbye, or a letter to explain why. By age 15 I had become increasingly afflicted with nightmares of my own death, vivid dreams depicted my demise on a weekly and eventual nightly basis. Despite their fevered frequency, I failed to capture many details about my death dream, for the vividness eroded with the merciful clarity of the waking mind. The place and time of my death remained unknown to me during these nocturnal harrowings, but curiously I grew to learn two strong reoccurring details about my death, I would not die alone, and I would not die hungry.
I had made it my lifetime’s ambition to capture this nightmarish scene upon my canvas, for I am an artist, of sorts. I never seemed to quite seize the true essence of that last final moment. Something was missing, either from my conscious or unconscious mind and I charged myself with the duty to discover that missing spark of clarity. This brings me to my true motive for buying the house, it would serve as my muse, my conduit to those bygone days of old Barton town. Within those rotting beams and creaking sagging roof I would live in isolation, channeling the old magic whilst I painted my masterpiece and once and for all unravel the mystery surrounding what I grew to believe was my impending preordained death.
I decided early on that I would do very little, if any renovation to the house. I needed it to stand in its perfect decomposing glory if it was indeed going to enlighten me to the extent required to spark my imagination into painting my crowning achievement. After signing the necessary paperwork, I still had business to attend to in Manchester, so painfully I had to leave Barton behind for a week or so to sort out these pressing affairs. I left a solicitor, Mr. Fisher, with a small list of work I wanted him to organize concerning the house in my absence and he was happy enough to do so. The house had no electricity, but I was more than happy with gaslight, so this needed to be looked into. Running water too was a necessity, as were new doors and locks.
A few of the windows needed replacing too, but I made it clear to him that I wanted as much of the original glass preserved as possible so only those windows that had fallen into irreversible repair were to be replaced. Mr. Fisher advised me that the land around the house was also in need of some attention, the feeble wooden fence surrounding the main house had fallen in many places and the gardens were so overgrown that you could barely see the difference between them and the woodland beyond, but I insisted on keeping these undisturbed.
The meagre appointments that kept me away from my beloved house began to wear away at my patience and the longing to be at the house, and my separation from it, grew to the point of impossible madness. I worked feverishly to settle all my affairs in Manchester and managed to return to Barton a few days ahead of schedule. I dropped in to see Mr. Fisher and he assured me that all the work I requested had been done and with that I signed the last bit of necessary paperwork, took the keys and made my way straight to Gunner’s Clough with a reserved, hidden joy.
There were two main ways to access the house, the first was a feeble back path that branched out from Elmwood Road and eventually degenerated into an overgrown woodland byway that nobody used. This path would bring me out at the bottom of a small bank, through which a fern choked stream cut lazily through the woods. From the bank, some rough stone steps, slick, green and fungus ridden would lead haphazardly upwards and to the back garden of my new home. The second method of entry was quicker and by far my more preferred. This path cut through the cemetery of Barton Parish and led to the Gunner’s Clough at the back. This path would lead me through the trees and after a decent walk through would bring me to the front of the house, and so it became my preferred journey.
The towering wyche elms greeted me as I reached the far end of the graveyard and into Gunners Clough proper, the autumn sun disappeared quickly as the tangled and gnarled canopy strangled out the rays of light and in very little time, all was dark and muted. I must re-emphasize the latter because it was unearthly silent in the woodland, no birds or insects agitated me with their incessant twitter or buzzing as I travelled deeper into the trees and I developed a half-fancy in my mind that the creatures of Gunner’s Clough were showing respectful silence, for a new master had arrived and adoration must be shown. Then, abruptly and with the rekindled, but welcomed terror of childhood fantasies, the house came into view. I increased my step, not from fear of the dark trees or the eerie forest quiet, but from pure, distilled excitement.
The house stood before me, I dropped my bags in awe – just as I had done when I first saw the titanic terror as a child – and gaped, slack jawed at the majesty and beauty of the structure that stood before me. The windows had been fixed, but there was enough of the original smoky glass left that the repairs were barely noticeable. Like everything else in the immediate vicinity, these had been engulfed by the aura of dread the house emitted. I cannot say for how long I stood there, in hushed ecstasy, but eventually I regained my sense of self and snapped out of the hypnosis, taking my bags to the front door. The large iron key provided by Mr. Fisher slotted into the lock with a fantastic and sinking ‘clunk’ and I turned it laboriously, slowly and deliberately in order to savor the sights and smells of what lay beyond the threshold. There was little sound, I expected a creak from the door, but it swung open smoothly, silently. I walked forward and fully drank in the gloomy scene. There was enough light reaching through the windows to permit me to see, but not in great detail. This I greatly enjoyed, as it allowed me to conjure up whatever imagined phantoms I desired.
I half-danced through the hall and into the lounge, to the kitchen and the empty rooms beyond whose original purpose was lost on me. My mind was in a haze of delight as every childhood horror and imagined terror played out before me like a grand play, fanaticized noises and sights spewed forth from the depths of my subconscious and for a moment I was in Tartarus itself.
There was one detail however that was not fantasy and that was the overpowering musk of decay that assaulted my nostrils and brought me once again back to the physical plane. It was a charnel smell, at once sweet and sickly, it was the scent of death, and it was everywhere. I concluded, erroneously, that an animal must have crawled into the house and died, leaving its rotting carcass concealed somewhere beneath the floorboards or in the attic above. I searched at once for the source of the sepulcher fragrance, but to no avail. There was no sign of a dead animal anywhere, not downstairs, not in the bedrooms above or the small, cramped attic overseeing the whole rotting affair.
The investigation into the cause of the smell was not entirely fruitless, for it revealed to me fully the horrifying glory of the afore mentioned attic space. For such a large house, the attic was tiny, the roof was so low that I had to stoop once inside and to my dismay, it was barren and empty. I had hoped to find some relic from the house’s past, but there was only dust and dry cobwebs. The entire structure felt wrong, the beams sloped at queer angles and created all manner of visual vicissitudes that caused my mind to spin. Areas of the roof bend inwards and then sharply outwards with no reason or rhyme. Small needless corners had been created from the beams for no apparent purpose. I felt like I stood trapped within some kind of impossible triacontahedron, a mental hall of mirrors that reflected all the unknown laws of the universe back upon themselves. I quickly concluded that the original builder had either been a genius or a lunatic.
I made the decision on the spot right there, here I would paint my masterpiece. Here I would sit in the shadows with the feeble light from the singular round window that loomed menacingly above me and vomit forth my Magnum Opus. Despite the banquet of horrors my brain had feasted upon since my arrival, I had no desire to start my painting just yet, instead I moved all my equipment into the attic, ready for when the black mood would take me.
I retired downstairs for the evening, I had yet to buy a bed to sleep in and the crumbling, rotting frame of what was left in the master bedroom was hardly fitting. I unpacked my cases and arranged the essentials, my painting tools, my coffee (which I immediately set to boil on the kitchen stove) and my cigarettes. I had brought some simple foodstuffs, cheese, bread, and cold cooked meat, which I ate in my usual detached way. I resigned myself to an early night, equipping the dusty sofa with a sleeping bag I had bought in Manchester and slowly welcomed the coming darkness.
I had hoped that my first day in the house would inspire in me my usual nightmarish death scene, from which I would transmute paint to the canvas with untold dread in the morning. The dream however did not come, at least it did not come in the usual fashion I had come to expect. In its place an all-new terror had shambled on to the mind’s midnight stage, it’s curtains slowly opening as I my eyes gradually closed.
I found myself lost in a maze of earth-hewn tunnels, slick with niter and damp to the touch. I knew I had to be underground, but how far down, I could not tell. I had only a hand lamp for light, and I made my way along the twisting charnel corridor with no sense of purpose or reason, pressing forward into the waiting gloom. Gibbering sounds could be heard echoing all around me from an unknown direction, half barks, and half hushed voices. I strained to make out the words they spoke. I could hear only a few scratching utterances, but what I could hear terrified me to my core. Small semi-comprehensive sentences such as ‘He has come’ ‘Shall we feast?’ and ‘Quiet, he is listening’.
I saw shapes dart around just out of my radius of vision, hideous canine countenances grinned at me with bestial craving. Semi-human eyes rolled loose in their sockets and mocked me from the shadows. I tried to run, but lost my footing, crashing to the floor – I expected to wake, as was typical in a dream when you fall- but I did not. My lamp shattered on the ground and the light instantly disappeared, gobbled up by the hungry darkness. Then they came for me, dozens upon dozens of eyes, swollen and misshapen. I felt claws embrace me like iron vices and in the blackness I felt my body rise from the floor.
My scene suddenly shifted. I now found myself in the attic, sat in front of my canvas, straining to see what image lay upon it. A cacophony of crashing noises stampeded below me, growing closer and closer. I panicked, picking up a nearby brush and frantically tried to finish the piece I had started. Then slowly the hatch to the attic, a small square on the floor by my feet opened, revealing again those almost human eyes that looked upon me with ghoulish lust. I screamed and then awoke.
The cold sweat chilled me as I stirred on the sofa. I looked around and half expected to see one of my fiendish adversaries waiting to pounce, but mercifully I was alone. Sunlight penetrated the lounge window and I looked at my watch to see the morning had passed me by, it was 2:15 in the afternoon and I had grossly overslept. Despite my uncharacteristic dozing I did not feel refreshed in the least, in fact I felt quite the opposite and could have slept for much longer, had I been an undisciplined man. I made breakfast and went into the back garden where I lit a cigarette and strolled around in the brisk air, taking in the sights of the woodland beyond. Unlike my initial arrival, there was now activity among the creatures of Gunner’s Clough and all manner of beasts were happily singing, chirping, and croaking away. The noise was so loud in fact that I finished my cigarette quickly and went back into the house, pulling my collar up against the cold.
I still felt no compulsion to paint and did not visit the attic at all that day. In fact, I actively avoided entering the place. My muscles were sore, a product of my poor sleeping conditions and I wandered around the house from room to room like a lost soul searching for purpose. As I made a second trip around the ground floor rooms, I also noticed that the rotten smell I first encountered the day before was now gone. I cannot say I was not pleased about this. Perhaps a scavenger had visited during the night and taken the foul source away to its den to feast upon in safety. With the day drawing on and nothing to do but drink coffee and smoke I decided instead to pack some sandwiches and spend what was left of the day in Barton village.
Barton had a small, humble library and what it lacked in academic literature it made up for in local history and folklore. My area of search was, quite naturally, the house. With help from the hoary librarian who had served at the library for as long as I could remember, I was able to track down some scant information concerning the house in the woods and the family who had once laid claim to it. From a small book entitled: ‘A Treaty of Demonic Influences in Cheshire’ penned by an Eastwich author called Samuel Gaunt, I was able to find an obscure reference to a man called Jonathan Bickham who had once lived in the house which was known simply as ’The House in Elmwood’. Bickham– according to the librarian- was forced to flee Barton all together some 120 years past when it became known that he was in possession of a small library of forbidden books that had, at the time, been banned by the church. The worst of these offenders had been titled ‘Les Cults Des Goules’, a tome not wholly unfamiliar to me. I had heard of this particular book whilst at university and it was always mentioned in hushed whispers by unsavory types. I found the name of Bickham to be of special interest, for my own surname of Pickman was somewhat similar – having a common origin in the Old Saxon tribe of Bikome. Of the afore mentioned ghoulish tome I could find no further information other than the author being a Frenchman called The Comte d’Erlette, but I had a name of Bickham to go on and I instead focused upon that line of investigation.
With the few hours of sunlight remained me, I traced all reference to the Bickham family and their lineage. The family had both built and owned the house I now lived in for many generations, but had forsaken it several decades before I was born. These then must be the blighted bloodline that had laid claim to my beloved house and abandoned it or instead faded into oblivion, leaving it behind. Of the fate of the Bickham line nothing could be found, it was suggested that the last scion of the family had died with no heir, but there were also references to a family of the same name leaving for New England many years ago. It seemed unlikely that I could ever piece together the ultimate fate of the family, but they didn’t overly concern me, the house was mine now and would remain so forever.
My sandwiches remained un-eaten, and I discarded them into a nearby hedge on my walk back through the crooked alleyways and cramped bungalows of Barton. The dying sun painted the village with maddening shades of oranges and pinks, all the while casting long, mutated shadows that transformed even the most innocuous of objects into nameless terrors. As I opened the gate to take my cadaverous short cut I realised the unique opportunity presented to me to further my research and took it with celeritous conviction.
Row upon row of weathered head stones offered me a different sort of library and I searched gleefully for the name of Bickham among the weathered gravestones. Confusingly, my search ended in disappointment, for not a single stone bore the name I feverously sought. That not a single Bickham graced those lifeless cribs diffused me greatly and I retired back to my house, defeated and sour.
As I made my way along the darkening woodland path I once again noticed the lack of animal sounds, this was no surprise as I assumed most of the creatures who had participated in the morning’s cacophony were diurnal and had likely retired, but still the silence was oppressive and followed me all the way back to my home.
I lit the gas lamps in the lounge and drank in the somber surroundings I would once again be calling my bedroom for the night. The sun had now completely vanished from the sky, allowing the stars and moon to take the stage and perform their indifferent watch over the darkened earth. It had been my intention to pen a letter to a learned friend in Manchester concerning Les Cultes Des Goules but as I took pen to paper a wave of apathy took hold of me and I suddenly found myself drowsy and languid
Once more, I found myself in the tunnels, this time the light was even dimmer as I gripped a half dying candle and not a lamp. The impression of being even further beneath the earth gripped me and I wandered aimlessly in random directions, occasionally tripping over stray rocks and other debris whose hollow clicking and clattering sent a chill racing up my spine. The tunnel grew wider as I travelled and opened up before me in a large, almost square chamber lined with row upon row of long wooden coffins. The darkness hampered my investigation, but I could make out dozens of the horrid cradles, some open and scattered, others arranged haphazardly atop one another. For the first time in my history of nightmarish hallucinations, the reality of what I was seeing started to become apparent. This did not feel like a dream!
As this realization overtook me, a voice whispered from behind and into my ear, its words mumbled and mercifully incomprehensible. As I felt that fetid breath upon the back of my neck, I was taken by the sensation of a sudden rising and found myself flung once more into the lonesome confines of the attic above. Again, I squatted in front of the canvas, straining to see what was painted upon it. The work appeared more complete than in my previous dream and I noticed I was holding a brush in my right hand, whilst something cold and gelatinous lay clutched in the other. The face at the attic door gibbered once again and I as I looked down, I saw not one, but several sets of eyes through the thin gap. Several sets of huge swollen spheres of mad jelly lay focused upon me, rolling around, unblinkingly in their dead, fleshy sockets. I did my best to ignore them and continued to paint. I strained greatly to actually see what I was painting, but the image was blurry and shifted unreasonably before my eyes. In one brief moment of clarity, I have fancied that I saw my own face looking back at me from the stained canvas. As this realization swept over me, and I started to panic. The smashing sounds below erupted once more, and the attic door swung open violently. My heart leapt into my throat, and I raised my arms defensively to try and beat away the swarms of clawed hands that grasped at me. I screamed into the void as a deeper darkness engulfed the attic and swallowed me whole.
Morning came, and relieved, I awoke from the sofa, my heart racing. The usual ritual of coffee, cigarettes and breakfast followed, but I felt more like a spectator watching these mundane events from a distance, as opposed to being actively involved in them. Once more, I failed to muster the energy to paint, but only this time I felt a shred of genuine fear when the thought of sitting in the attic with my canvas entered my mind. I scolded myself internally, had this not been what I wanted? To feel terror and use it as a muse to help me create? But try as I might, I just could not start my painting and avoided the upper rooms of my house. Instead I looked upon the makeshift writing desk where I had begun my letter the night before and decided to finish what I had started.
In addition to asking my friend about Les Cultes Des Goules, I also asked if he could make use of the superb facilities of the Manchester library and find out all and any information concerning the Bickham family of Cheshire. I would have left for Manchester myself, but I was loathe to leave my house, less I lose the aura of horror it has projected upon me, for no matter how much the fear would grip me, in the end I was certain in my conviction that I could transform it into creativity. In the meantime, I would impose upon a nearby source of information that quite literally stood on my doorstep.
Leaving my house I walked towards the parish church in search of its priest in hopes that he may know why no Bickham rested in his cemetery. As luck would have it, I stumbled upon him just as I exited the woodland. He stood, with his back turned to me, slightly hunched over a headstone on the outskirts of the graveyard and as I approached I could see that it was curiously entangled with a matted net of lush green ivy that had snaked its way around a peculiar worn and weather-beaten headstone. I made no attempt to mask my presence as I didn’t wish to startle him, for he seemed oblivious and lost in his work. He had in his hand a notepad and on the floor nearby lay several old and large tomes, similar in character to those I had read at the Barton library. I had to cough in that repugnant and obvious manner in order to gain his attention, which it did. I introduced myself quickly and he likewise, Rev. Stephen Spencer was his name, and he did not seem keen to speak to me at all. I got straight to the point quickly and asked why, despite being a resident family for generations, there were no Bickham family buried on the grounds. In a detached and wholly disinterested manner he replied quickly and simply. The Bickman family, he explained, had special permission from the council to inter their dead upon their property. There was, he guessed, a family tomb or crypt of some sorts in the Gunner’s Clough where the deceased Bickmans now lay. He did however warn that several years ago an incident of flooding had caused large sections of the woodland bank to collapse and erode, revealing long buried caskets that may or may not belong to the family. With that he went straight back to his ivy shrouded headstone, and even when I thanked him for the information, he dismissed it with a wave of his hand in a clearly agitated manner.
I recognized a kindred soul within that grey flesh of Rev. Spencer and did not wish to disturb him further. I had instead a much more exciting engagement to keep and after dropping off my letter to my Manchester colleague at the local post office, I started my lurid treasure hunt in the Gunner’s Clough woodland. I had little idea of where to start my search for the hidden mausoleum, but due to the reverend’s story of exhumed graves, assumed it would be somewhere near the sloping forest banks to the back of the property. As I have said earlier, the distinction between garden and forest was at best difficult to discern and I stumbled through bramble and nettle alike, suffering the tiny barbs those of needless weeds as I pressed on further and further. The trees and ferns grew denser and thicker as I ambled carelessly through the foliage and after what seemed like an eternity of struggling and scraping, my eyes finally set sight upon that which I had sought. Standing proudly and defiant within a clearing that was no less than a perfect circle of withered wyche elms, the final resting place of the deceased Bickmans lay before me.
I walked within that ring of sinister, ligneous guardians and watched as a cascade of brown leaves danced around the clearing, carried upon a chill breeze that manifested as I drew ever closer to my prize. The stone was grey in areas, but mostly covered in fine green moss that looked like a coat of sickly fur. The roman-like pillars that crowned the rusted metal entrance had cracked and crumbled beyond repair, but betrayed an obvious 18th century romantic period construction. Two large vases sat squat in front of the pillars, and both had accumulated a body of brown, foul-smelling water above which scores of insect intruders buzzed. The appearance of flies was uncommon for this time of year, but given their appetites they could flourish into autumn and beyond, providing the right banquet was provided. Corpse consuming invertebrates however were not the reason I had come, and I walked past the stagnant chalices and up the steps to the tomb entrance. No lock or chain barred my entrance to this house of the dead and I swung open the door with little resistance, so much so that it almost left its hinges entirely, for it was brittle and decayed with centuries of rust.
What lay inside the dark was of little surprise. Shelves had been carved into the walls for the express purpose of housing mortal remains, of which only a few rotted coffins remained. Unable to resist the urge to look upon those who had possessed what was now mine, I removed the lid on what was the most intact casket to gaze at what laid within. To my surprise, no grinning skulls or osseous fragments lay within. Rather, there was something that was at once so mundane and harmless and yet also so horrifyingly suggestible. For within the coffin there simply lay a mass of rocks and bricks, far too many to have been placed there by mistake and there was no way that they had come there by accident. I quickly inspected the other coffins and they too held within their depths only the same cold collection of stone.
I learned against the inner wall of the mausoleum and rattled my brains for an explanation and just as one was forming in that dark corner of my mind from whence the fantastical is drawn, I noticed something on the floor that I had previously missed during my investigation, a door. It was a stone hatch shot through with a thick rusted ring that lay at the back of the tomb, fitting into the floor. Rocks and debris lay upon it, along with piles of dust, but even though there was precious little light in the building, I could see the unmistakable outline of this hidden entrance. I hurried over and dropped to my knees, swatting the sediment of ages away until the trap door was free of obstacles. I tried the ring and found it stubborn and difficult to dislodge, but bracing myself with both legs bent and both hands wrapped around the iron ring I pulled with all the strength my feeble frame could muster and in one moment of total victory, the trap door relinquished and gave up its secret.
What greeted me once the lid was removed, was a thin cast iron ladder, bolted to the side of the cavity and leading directly downwards into the dark below. I cursed inwardly for not having a source of light with me and then remembered my matches in my trouser pocket.
Striking one against the stone floor I looked at it reluctantly, clearly it would not provide much and had I been in a more reasonable frame of mind I would have made my way back to the house to fetch a lantern. I had come so far however, and I longed to press forward further. I descended the ladder and thankfully found it quite sturdy despite its obvious age, it was more or less still attached to the wall, even though it rattled with a hollow metallic sound as I descended. The journey downwards lasted much longer than I anticipated and on occasion I could feel the ladder sway gently as I forced my weight downwards. Thankfully it held throughout my entire descent and when I finally reached the bottom, the entrance at the top looked further away than I was comfortable with.
My match had of course extinguished, so I lit another and walked forward.
I was in a tunnel, it was damp and musty and even though it was obviously manmade, there was a slick, natural look to the walls. There were no sconces for candles or lanterns lining those brown walls, a fact I cursed as the match quickly burnt out, forcing me to light another. I had travelled some twenty yards when the tunnel turned into a crossroads, intersecting with another passage which gave me three new possible routes with which to continue my insane sojourn. I decided to head straight forward, less chance of getting lost that way, and just as I was about to press forward, I stood upon something that crunched underfoot. A little startled, my match dropped to the ground and I knelt down to light another so I could see what I had disturbed on the ground. As the pale orange glow flared up and then shrunk into the semi-useful flame that had guided me this far, I could see the light reflect off what appeared to be broken glass. I looked around and instantly recognised what was cast upon the floor of that nightmarish burrow; it was my lamp, the one I had dropped and shattered during that insane dream I experience several nights past. Panicking, I knelt down and picked up the shards, frantically examining them in the hopes that I was wrong. I flitted between rationality and insanity. How could this be? As I pondered the madness of my situation, I suddenly became aware of a presence behind me. I froze, unable to move. I knew I was awake, but I closed my eyes in the hopes that I was wrong. As the shuffling noise behind me edged closer, I squinted my eyes as hard as I could. Begging whichever god was listening to allow me to leave this nightmare. A cold hand gently laid itself upon my right shoulder, followed by another on my left. The chill caused my flesh to crawl and shrink away, and without a moment’s hesitation, I ran into the darkness. Somewhere ahead, I stumbled and was sent crashing into the ground. The darkness slowly coalesced around me as a welcoming unconsciousness washed over my mind.
It was dark when I awoke upon the sofa. I must have passed out and hit my head upon the tunnel floor, for several small cuts now graced my brow. I looked in my pocket mirror and confirmed this as I could see the congealed blood where the stones had struck. My feet were soggy with mud, and I had no recognition of how I made it back to the house. If it weren’t for the blood and the dirt I wouldn’t have been able to separate dream from reality and would have remained ignorant of the horror that had gripped me. I braced myself and stood up, making my way into the kitchen hoping a cup of coffee could clear the fog from my brain. I touched my wounded brow once again and winced sharply and as I did so, that’s then the smell hit me. It was similar to the scent that had first greeted me days ago when I had entered the house. A carrion stench, charnel and nauseous, it invaded my senses with disgusting impunity. I walked again around the house, going from room to room, searching for the source of the new cadaverous stench.
Growing frustrated, I let out a long sigh and with ultimate horror discovered that it was my own mouth that was the root of the offending aroma. I reached inside and with a rising revolting realization, I ran my tongue over my teeth, feeling chunks of something trapped between them. I had not eaten for hours and wondered how this could be. I ran back over to the sofa and picked up my pocket mirror, realising as I did so just how dark the room had grown. I angled the mirror as best I could against the light of a freshly lit candle to better see what foreign object was lodged in my mouth. I could see brown, stringy matter hanging loosely from my front teeth. I pulled it forward with my forefinger and thumb and with a quick, wet tug it came away. It smelled repulsive beyond belief and resembled decayed poultry of some variety. I felt vomit rise in my throat and ran for the front door in need of fresh air, which greeted me with a gust as I swung the door open and emptied the contents of my stomach on the front step.
Instantly I felt better, though I could not bring myself to look upon that which had just exited my innards and collapsed in the doorway. It was dark outside, it must have been either early in the morning or late at night, but I could not tell either way. My hand brushed something in the doorway, and I instinctively picked it up to inspect, it was a letter. I murmured confused to myself for it was unusual for me to receive any post with so few friends or family knowing my address. It must be from Mr. Fisher I concluded as I opened the envelope and read the contents. I was however from my friend in Manchester, a reply to the letter I believed to have sent him that very day. Disbelief engulfing me, I looked at the date, it was several days after I had sent the original correspondence. Had I been sleeping that long? What had happened to me underneath that dreadful mausoleum? I pulled sleep from my eyes and read the letter, its contents taking several readings to sink in fully.
Not only do I never hear from you unless you want something from me, but now you want me to research your own lineage for you! Oh well I guess you are either too focused on your painting or too lazy to get this information for yourself, but ever your servant I have done as you asked. Concerning Les Cultes des Goules, yes I have heard of it as I am sure many of our ‘associates’ have. It is, to be frank, a book concerning the workings of black magic, written by Francois-Honore Balfour – the ‘Comte d’Erlette’ sometime in the early 18th century. It concerns itself mainly with an underground cult who are said to worship the Ghouls, semi human cannibals who themselves revere much older and darker gods. Balfour is said to have made contact with this cult and through them learned of the horrid metamorphosis mankind can undergo to join the Ghouls, who are immortal and live in endless death.
Pure fantasy really, it was denounced by the church not long after its printing, Balfour himself vanished, but I suspect he fled to England or Italy and took another name.
I find it amusing you should ask of the Bickham name, you being a descendant of the line yourself. They are indeed from Cheshire, but some of them later moved to Massachusetts I believe, following accusations of witchcraft. Those in America changed their name and instead became known as Pickman, of which you are descended when they later returned to Britain and once again took up their original surname.
The last person to bear the Bickham / Pickman blood in Cheshire was one Nathan Bickham, who resided in the house you know own, but that you already knew surely? Or do you mean to tell me that your obsession with the house has developed independently of your knowledge of this lineage? Fascinating, you clearly are a sensitive soul, I look forward to your next painting! Incidentally, Haywood has been showing off that painting you sold him to every twit in Manchester, who fancies himself a Poe or Goya. He’s had offers for it you know, twice and thrice as much as he paid for it, the cretin. It may very swell your ego to know that he hangs it next to the crowning masterpiece of his collection – ‘The Lesson’ that hideous and perverted monstrosity of unknown origin.
Oh well I hope your work is going well, I really must come and visit you, time permitting.
I crumpled up the letter and cast it aside, knowing now the full horror of what was in store for me. Smudges of paint on my hands confirmed what I had suspected, my painting was finished, created during the grip of that perverse somnambulism that had cursed me since I entered the house. Aided by the night-time lords of Elmwood House , they who had once wore the faces of the mortal Bickham bloodline.
Now I sit in horrid semi-darkness, the flickering of dying candles my only source of light and warmth. I stare across the attic and upon the finished canvas and at the figures painted upon it. They almost come to life as my eyes adjust to the blackness. I can see hordes of white fleshed naked corpses clambering and colliding into a pile of madness and cadaverous peaks, upon which I have painted myself sat atop.
A slab of meat has been painted clutched in my hands and a look of unbridled lust portrayed on my face. I can hear the horde below me, crashing and breaking through the house, they are coming for me, coming to welcome one of their own into the pack. This is how I will die, this is how I always knew I would die. Even though I now understand the horrid truth, one detail still eludes me. They are here to force upon me that last and final act that will secure my place in their immortal ranks for all time, until the stars die and the Old Ones are free once more to roam the dark corners of man’s domain.
What I do not know however is this, when the end comes and I look upon that lifeless flesh in my hands, will I lick my lips with glee as the painting shows I will. Or will my weak and feeble body instead provide the feast for those hideous tenants who even now slowly open the door to the attic and who, since time immemorial, have laired beneath the Elmwood House. The house in the woods. The house of dead gods.
Credit: Nick Lowe
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