There are only three stories this time, but perhaps that’s a good thing because this show is much better than the first. The Old Chief bit is dumb, but The Raft; a cross between The Blob, Jaws and Stephen King’s Cujo; is interesting enough. It has four college partiers stranded in a lake, on a raft, at the mercy of killer slime. The best story is the final one, about a woman who accidentally kills a Hitchhiker on her way home from having sex with someone other than her husband. It’s the one tale that is truly creepy.
my rating = 3 of 5
2 October 1850
How good it was to step into the cold, draughty hall here at Chapelwaite, every bone in an ache from that abominable coach, in need of instant relief from my distended bladder – and to see a letter addressed in your own inimitable scrawl propped on the obscene little cherry-wood table beside the door! Be assured that I set to deciphering it as soon as the needs of the body were attended to (in a coldly ornate downstairs bathroom where I could see my breath rising before my eyes).
I’m glad to hear that you are recovered from the miasma that has so long set in your lungs, although I assure you that I do sympathize with the moral dilemma the cure has affected you with. An ailing abolitionist healed by the sunny climes of slavestruck Honda! Still and all, Bones, I ask you as a friend who has also walked in the valley of the shadow, to take all care of yourself and venture not back to Massachusetts until your body gives you leave. Your fine mind and incisive pen cannot serve us if you are clay, and if the Southern zone is a healing one, is there not poetic justice in that?
Yes, the house is quite as fine as I had been led to believe by my cousin’s executors, but rather more sinister. It sits atop a huge and jutting point of land perhaps three miles north of Falmouth and nine miles north of Portland. Behind it are some four acres of grounds, gone back to the wild in the most formidable manner imaginable – junipers, scrub vines, bushes, and various forms of creeper climb wildly over the picturesque stone walls that separate the estate from the town domain. Awful imitations of Greek statuary peer blindly through the wrack from atop various hillocks – they seem, in most cases, about to lunge at the passer-by. My cousin Stephen’s tastes seem to have run the gamut from the unacceptable to the downright horrific. There is an odd little summer house which has been nearly buried in scarlet sumac and a grotesque sundial in the midst of what must once have been a garden. It adds the final lunatic touch.
But the view from the parlour more than excuses this; I command a dizzying view of the rocks at the foot of Chapelwaite Head and the Atlantic itself. A huge, bellied bay window looks out on this, and a huge, toadlike secretary stands beside it. It will do nicely for the start of that novel which I have talked of so long [and no doubt tiresomely].
Today has been grey with occasional splatters of rain. As I look out all seems to be a study in slate – the rocks, old and worn as Time itself, the sky, and of course the sea, which crashes against the granite fangs below with a sound which is not precisely sound but vibration – I can feel the waves with my feet even as I write. The sensation is not a wholly unpleasant one.
I know you disapprove my solitary habits, dear Bones, but I assure you that lam fine and happy. Calvin is with me, as practical, silent, and as dependable as ever, and by midweek I am sure that between the two of us we shall have straightened our affairs and made arrangements for necessary deliveries from town – and a company of cleaning women to begin blowing the dust from this place!
I will close – there are so many things as yet to be seen, rooms to explore, and doubtless a thousand pieces of execrable furniture to be viewed by these tender eyes.
Once again, my thanks for the touch of familiar brought by your letter, and for your continuing regard.
Give my love to your wife, as you both have mine.
6 October 1850
Such a place this is!
It continues to amaze me – as do the reactions of the townfolk in the closest village to my occupancy. That is a queer little place with the picturesque name of Preacher’s Corners. It was there that Calvin contracted for the weekly provisions. The other errand, that of securing a sufficient supply of cordwood for the winter, was likewise taken care of. But Cal returned with gloomy countenance, and when I asked him what the trouble was, he replied grimly enough:
‘They think you mad, Mr Boone!’
I laughed and said that perhaps they had heard of the brain fever I suffered after my Sarah died – certainly I spoke madly enough at that time, as you could attest.
But Cal protested that no one knew anything of me except through my cousin Stephen, who contracted for the same services as I have now made provision for. ‘what was said, sir, was that anyone who would live in Chapelwaite must be either a lunatic or run the risk of becoming one.’
This left me utterly perplexed, as you may imagine, and I asked who had given him this amazing communication. He told me that he had been referred to a sullen and rather besotted pulp-logger named Thompson, who owns four hundred acres of pine, birch, and spruce, and who logs it with the help of his five sons, for sale to the Mills in Portland and to householders in the immediate area.
When Cal, all unknowing of his queer prejudice, gave him the location to which the wood was to be brought, this Thompson stared at him with his mouth ajaw and said that he would send his sons with the wood, in the good light of the day, and by the sea road.
Calvin, apparently misreading my bemusement for distress, hastened to say that the man reeked of cheap whiskey and that he had then lapsed into some kind of nonsense about a deserted village and cousin Stephen’s relations -and worms! Calvin finished his business with one of Thompson’s boys, who, I take it, was rather surly and none too sober or freshly-scented himself. I take it there has been some of this reaction in Preacher’s Corners itself, at the general store where Cal spoke with the shop-keeper, although this was more of the gossipy, behind-the-hand type.
None of this has bothered me much; we know how rustics dearly love to enrich their lives with the smell of scandal and myth, and I suppose poor Stephen and his side of the family are fair game. As I told Cal, a man who has fallen to his death almost from his own front porch is more than likely to stir talk.
The house itself is a constant amazement. Twenty-three rooms, Bones! The wainscoting which panels the upper floors and the portrait gallery is mildewed but still stout. While I stood in my late cousin’s upstairs bedroom I could hear the rats scuttering behind it, and big ones they must be, from the sound they make – almost like people walking there. I should hate to encounter one in the dark; or even in the light, for that matter. Still, I have noted neither holes nor droppings. Odd.
The upper gallery is lined with bad portraits in frames which must be worth a fortune. Some bear a resemblance to Stephen as I remember him. I believe I have correctly identified my Uncle Henry Boone and his wife Judith; the others are unfamiliar. I suppose one of them may be my own notorious grandfather, Robert. But Stephen’s side of the family is all but unknown to me, for which I am heartily sorry. The same good humour that shone in Stephen’s letters to Sarah and me, the same light of high intellect, shines in these portraits, bad as they are. For what foolish reasons families fall out! A rifled escritoire, hard words between brothers now dead three generations, and blame-less descendants are needlessly estranged. I cannot help reflecting upon how fortunate it was that you and Join Petty succeeded in contacting Stephen when it seemed I might follow my Sarah through the Gates – and upon how unfortunate it was that chance should have robbed us of a face-to-face meeting. How I would have loved to hear him defend the ancestral statuary and furnishings!
But do not let me denigrate the place to an extreme. Stephen’s taste was not my own, true, but beneath the veneer of his additions there are pieces [a number of them shrouded by dust-covers in the upper chambers] which are true masterworks. There are beds, tables, and heavy, dark scrollings done in teak and mahogany, and many of the bedrooms and receiving chambers, the upper study and small parlour, hold a sombre charm. The floors are rich pine that glow with an inner and secret light. There is dignity here; dignity and the weight of years. I cannot yet say I like it, but I do respect it. lam eager to watch it change as we revolve through the changes of this northern clime.
Lord, I run on! Write soon, Bones. Tell me what progress you make, and what news you hear from Petty and the rest. And please do not make the mistake of trying to persuade any new Southern acquaintances as to your views too forcibly – I understand that not all are content to answer merely with their mouths, as is our long-winded friend, Mr Calhoun.
Yr. affectionate friend,
16 October 1850
Hello, and how are you? I have thought about you often since I have taken up residence here at Chapelwaite, and had half expected to hear from you – and now I receive a letter from Bones telling me that I’d forgotten to leave my address at the club! Rest assured that I would have written eventually anyway, as it sometimes seems that my true and loyal friends are all I have left in the world that is sure and completely normal. And, Lord, how spread we’ve become! You in Boston, writing faithfully for The Liberator [to which I have also sent my address, incidentally], Hanson in England on another of his confounded jaunts, and poor old Bones in the very lions lair, recovering his lungs.
It goes as well as can be expected here, Dick, and be assured I will render you a full account when I am not quite as pressed by certain events which are extant here – I think your legal mind may be quite intrigued by certain happenings at Chapelwaite and in the area about it.
But in the meantime I have a favour to ask, if you will entertain it. Do you remember the historian you introduced me to at Mr Clary’s fund-raising dinner for the cause? I believe his name was Bigelow. At any rate, he mentioned that he made a hobby of collecting odd bits of historical lore which pertained to the very area in which I am now living. My favour, then, is this: Would you contact him and ask him what facts, bits of folklore, or general rumour – if any – he may be conversant with about a small, deserted village called JERUSALEM’S LOT, near a township called Preacher’s Corners, op the Royal River? The stream itself is a tributary of the Androscoggin, and flows into that river approximately eleven miles above that river’s emptying place near Chapelwaite. It would gratify me intensely, and, more important, may be a matter of some moment.
In looking over this letter I feel I have been a bit short with you, Dick, for which I am heartily sorry. But be assured I will explain myself shortly, and until that time I send my warmest regards to your wife, two fine sons, and, of course, to yourself.
Yr. affectionate friend,
16 October 1850
I have a tale to tell you which seems a little strange [and even disquieting] to both Cal and me – see what you think. If nothing else, it may serve to amuse you while you battle the mosquitoes!
Two days after I mailed my last to you, a group of four young ladies arrived from the Corners under the supervision of an elderly lady of intimidatingly competent visage named Mrs Cloris, to set the place in order and to remove some of the dust that had been causing me to sneeze seemingly at every other step. They all seemed a little nervous as they went about their chores; indeed, one flighty miss uttered a small screeth when I entered the upstairs parlour as she dusted.
I asked Mrs Cloris about this [she was dusting the downstairs hall with grim determination that would have quite amazed you, her hair done up in an old faded bandannal], and she turned to me and said with an air of determination: ‘They don’t like the house, and I don’t like the house, sir, because it has always been a bad house.’
My jaw dropped at this unexpected bit, and she went on in a kindlier tone: ‘I do not mean to say that Stephen Boone was not a fine man, for he was; I cleaned for him every second Thursday all the time he was here, as I cleaned for his father, Mr Randolph Boone, until he and his wife disappeared in eighteen and sixteen. Mr Stephen was a good and kindly man, and so you seem, sir (if you will pardon my bluntness; I know no other way to speak), but the house is bad and it always has been, and no Boone has ever been happy here since your grandfather Robert and his brother Philip fell out over stolen [and here she paused, almost guiltily] items in seventeen and eighty-nine.’
Such memories these folks have, Bones!
Mrs Cloris continued: ‘The house was built in unhappiness, has been lived in with unhappiness, there has been blood spilt on its floors [as you may or may not know, Bones, my Uncle Randolph was involved in an accident on the cellar stairs which took the life of his daughter Maroella; he then took his own life in a fit of remorse. The incident is related in one of Stephen’s letters to me, on the sad occasion of his dead sister’s birthday], there has been disappearance and accident.
‘I have worked here, Mr Boone, and I am neither blind nor deaf. I’ve heard awful sounds in the walls, sir, awful sounds – thumpings and crashings and once a strange wailing that was half-laughter. It fair made my blood curdle. It’s a dark place, sir.’ And there she halted, perhaps afraid she had spoken too much.
As for myself, I hardly knew whether to be offended or amused, curious or merely matter-of-fact. I’m afraid that amusement won the day. ‘And what do you suspect, Mrs Cloris? Ghosts rattling chains?’
But she only looked at me oddly. ‘Ghosts there may be. But it’s not ghosts in the walls. It’s not ghosts that wail and blubber like the damned and crash and blunder away in the darkness. It’s-‘
‘Come, Mrs Cloris,’ I prompted her. ‘You’ve come this far. Now can you finish what you’ve begun?’
The strangest expression of terror, pique, and – I would swear to it – religous awe passed over her face. ‘Some die not’ she whispered. ‘Some live in the twilight shadows Between to serve – Him!’
And that was the end. For some minutes I continued to tax her, but she grew only more obstinate and would say no more. At last I desisted, fearing she might gather herself up and quit the premises.
This is the end of one episode, but a second occurred the following evening. Calvin had laid a fire downstairs and I was sitting in the living-room, drowsing over a copy of The Intelligencer and listening to the sound of wind-driven rain on the large bay window. I felt comfortable as only one can on such a night, when all is miserable outside and all is warmth and comfort inside; but a moment later Cal appeared at the door, looking excited and a bit nervous.
‘Are you awake, sir?’ he asked.
‘Barely,’ I said. ‘What is it?’
‘I’ve found something upstairs I think you should see,’ he responded, with the same air of suppressed excitement.
I got up and followed him. As we climbed the wide stairs, Calvin said: ‘I was reading a book in the upstairs study – a rather strange one when I heard a noise in the wall.’
‘Rats,’ I said. ‘Is that all?’
He paused on the landing, looking at me solemnly. The lamp he held cast weird, lurking shadows on the dark draperies and on the half-seen portraits that seemed now to leer rather than smile. Outside the wind rose to a brief scream and then subsided grudgingly.
‘Not rats,’ Cal said. ‘There was a kind of blundering, thudding sound from behind the book-cases, and then a horrible gurgling – horrible, sir. And scratching, as if something were struggling to get out. . . to get at me!’
You can imagine my amazement, Bones. Calvin is not the type to give way to hysterical flights of imagination. It began to seem that there was a mystery here after all – and perhaps an ugly one indeed.
‘What then?’ I asked him. We had resumed down the hall, and I could see the light from the study spilling forth on to the floor of the gallery. I viewed it with some trepidation; the night seemed no longer comfortable.
‘The scratching noise stopped. After a moment the thudding, shuffling sounds began again, this time moving away from me. I paused once, and I swear I heard a strange, almost inaudible laugh! I went to the book-case and began to push and pull, thinking there might be a partition, or a secret door.’
‘You found one?’
Cal paused at the door to the study. ‘No – but I found this!’
We stepped in and I saw a square black hole in the left case. The books at that point were nothing but dummies, and what Cal had found was a small hiding place. I flashed my lamp within it and saw nothing but a thick fall of dust, dust which must have been decades old.
‘There was only this,’ Cal said quietly, and handed me a yellowed foolscap. The thing was a map, drawn in spider-thin strokes of black ink – the map of a town or village. There were perhaps seven buildings, and one, clearly marked with a steeple, bore this legend beneath it: The Worm That Doth Corrupt.
In the upper left corner, to what would have been the north-west of this little village, an arrow pointed. Inscribed beneath it: Chapelwaite.
Calvin said: ‘In town, sir, someone rather superstitiously mentioned a deserted village called Jerusalem’s Lot. It’s a place they steer clear of.’
‘But this?’ I asked, fingering the odd legend below the steeple.
‘I don’t know.’
A memory of Mrs Cloris, adamant yet fearful, passed through my mind. ‘The Worm . . .’ I muttered.
‘Do you know something, Mr Boone?’
‘Perhaps. . . it might be amusing to have a look for this town tomorrow, do you think, Cal?’
He nodded, eyes lighting. We spent almost an hour after this looking for some breach in the wall behind the cubbyhole Cal had found, but with no success. Nor was there a recurrence of the noises Cal had described.
We retired with no further adventure that night.
On the following morning Calvin and I set out on our ramble through the woods. The rain of the night before had ceased, but the sky was sombre and lowering. I could see Cal looking at me with some doubtfulness and I hastened to reassure him that should I tire, or the journey prove too far, I would not hesitate to call a halt to the affair. We had equipped ourselves with a picnic lunch, a fine Buckwhite compass, and, of course, the odd and ancient map of Jerusalem’s Lot.
It was a strange and brooding day; not a bird seemed to sing nor an animal to move as we made our way through the great and gloomy stands of pine to the south and east. The only sounds were those of our own feet and the steady pound of the Atlantic against the headlands. The smell of the sea, almost preternaturally heavy, was our constant companion.
We had gone no more than two miles when we struck an overgrown road of what I believe were once called the ‘corduroy’ variety; this tended in our general direction and we struck off along it, making brisk time. We spoke little. The day, with its still and ominous quality, weighed heavily on our spirits.
At about eleven o’clock we heard the sound of rushing water. The remnant of road took a hard turn to the left, and on the other side of a boiling, slaty little stream, like an apparition, was Jerusalem’s Lot!
The stream was perhaps eight feet across, spanned by a moss-grown footbridge. On the far side, Bones, stood the most perfect little village you might imagine, understandably weathered, but amazingly preserved. Several houses, done in that austere yet commanding form for which the Puritans were justly famous, stood clustered near the steeply-sheared bank. Further beyond, along a weed-grown thoroughfare, stood three or four of what might have been primitive business establishments; and beyond that, the spire of the church marked on the map, rising up to the grey sky and looking grim beyond description with its peeled paint and tarnished, leaning cross.
‘The town is well named,’ Can said softly beside me.
We crossed to the town and began to poke through it -and this is where my story grows slightly amazing, Bones, so prepare yourself!
The air seemed leaden as we walked among the buildings; weighted, if you will. The edifices were in a state of decay – shutters torn off, roofs crumbled under the weight of heavy snows gone by, windows dusty and leering. Shadows from odd corners and warped angles seemed to sit in sinister pools.
We entered an old and rotting tavern first – somehow it did not seem right that we should invade any of those houses to which people had retired when they wished privacy. An old and weather-scrubbed sign above the splintered door announced that this had been the BOAR’S HEAD INN AND TAVERN. The door creaked hellishly on its one remaining hinge, and we stepped into the shadowed interior. The smell of rot and mould was vaporous and nearly overpowering. And beneath it seemed to lie an even deeper smell, a slimy and pestiferous smell, a smell of ages and the decay of ages. Such a stench as might issue from corrupt coffins or violated tombs. I held my handkerchief to my nose and Cal did likewise. We surveyed the place.
‘My God, sir -‘ Cal said faintly.
‘It’s never been touched,’ I finished for him.
As indeed it had not. Tables and chairs stood about like ghostly guardians of the watch, dusty, warped by the extreme changes in temperature which the new England climate is known for, but otherwise perfect – as if they had waited through the silent, echoing decades for those long gone to enter once more, to call for a pint or a dram, to deal cards and light clay pipes. A small square mirror hung beside the rules of the tavern, unbroken. Do you see the significance, Bones? Small boys are noted for exploration and vandalism; there is not a ‘haunted’ house which stands with windows intact, no matter how fearsome the eldritch inhabitants are rumoured to be; not a shadowy graveyard without at least one tombstone upended by young pranksters. Certainly there must be a score of young pranksters in Preacher’s Corners, not two miles from Jerusalem’s Lot. Yet the inn-keeper’s glass [which must have cost him a nice sum] was intact – as were the other fragile items we found in our pokings. The only damage in Jerusalem’s Lot has been done by impersonal Nature. The implication is obvious:
Jerusalem’s Lot is a shunned town. But why? I have a notion, but before I even dare hint at it, I must proceed to the unsettling conclusion of our visit.
We went up to the sleeping quarters and found beds made up, pewter water-pitchers neatly placed beside them. The kitchen was likewise untouched by anything save the dust of the years and that horrible, sunken stench of decay. The tavern alone would be an antiquarian’s paradise; the wondrously queer kitchen stove alone would fetch a pretty price at Boston auction.
‘What do you think, Cal?’ I asked when we had emerged again into the uncertain daylight.
‘I think it’s bad business, Mr Boone,’ he replied in his doleful way, ‘and that we must see more to know more.’
We gave the other shops scant notice – there was a hostelry with mouldering leather goods still hung on rusted flatnails, a chandler’s, a warehouse with oak and pine still stacked within, a smithy.
We entered two houses as we made our way towards the church at the centre of the village. Both were perfectly in the Puritan mode, full of items a collector would give his arm for, both deserted and full of the same rotten scent.
Nothing seemed to live or move in all of this but ourselves. We saw no insects, no birds, not even a cobweb fashioned in a window corner. Only dust.
At last we reached the church. It reared above us, grim, uninviting, cold. Its windows were black with the shadows inside, and any Godliness or sanctity had departed from it long ago. Of that I am certain. We mounted the steps, and I placed my hand on the large iron door-pull. A set, dark look passed from myself to Calvin and back again. I opened the portal. How long since that door had been touched? I would say with confidence that mine was the first in fifty years; perhaps longer. Rust-clogged hinges screamed as I opened it. The smell of rot and decay which smote us was nearly palpable. Cal made a gagging sound in his throat and twisted his head involuntarily for clearer air.
‘Sir,’ he asked, ‘are you sure that you are
‘I’m fine,’ I said calmly. But I did not feel calm, Bones, no more than I do now, I believe, with Moses, with Jeroboam, with Increase Mather, and with our own Hanson [when he is in a philosophical temperament], that there are spiritually noxious places, buildings where the milk of the cosmos has become sour and rancid. This church is such a place; I would swear to it.
We stepped into a long vestibule equipped with a dusty coat rack and shelved hymnals. It was windowless. Oil-lamps stood in niches here and there. An unremarkable room I thought, until I heard Calvin’s sharp gasp and saw what he had already noticed.
It was an obscenity.
I daren’t describe that elaborately-framed picture further than this: that it was done after the fleshy style of Rubens; that it contained a grotesque travesty of a madonna and child; that strange, half-shadowed creatures sported and crawled in the background.
‘Lord,’ I whispered.
‘There’s no Lord here,’ Calvin said, and his words seemed to hang in the air. I opened the door leading into the church itself, and the odour became a miasma, nearly overpowering.
In the glimmering half-light of afternoon the pews stretched ghostlike to the altar. Above them was a high, oaken pulpit and a shadow-struck narthex from which gold glimmered.
With a half-sob Calvin, that devout Protestant, made the Holy Sign, and I followed suit. For the gold was a large, beautifully-wrought cross – but it was hung upside-down, symbol of Satan’s Mass.
‘We must be calm,’ I heard myself saying. ‘We must be calm, Calvin. We must be calm.’
But a shadow had touched my heart, and I was afraid as I
had never been. I have walked beneath death’s umbrella and thought there was none darker. But there is. There is.
We walked down the aisle, our footfalls echoing above and around us. We left tracks in the dust. And at the altar there were other tenebrous objets d’art. I will not, cannot, let my mind dwell upon them.
I began to mount to the pulpit itself.
‘Don’t Mr Boone!’ Cal cried suddenly. ‘I’m afraid -‘
But I had gained it. A huge book lay open upon the stand, writ both in Latin and crabbed runes which looked, to my unpractised eye, either Druidic or pre-Celtic. I enclose a card with several of the symbols, redrawn from memory.
I closed the book and looked at the words stamped into the leather: De Vermis Mystenis. My Latin is rusty, but serviceable enough to translate: The Mysteries of the Worm.
As I touched it, that accursed church and Calvin’s white, upturned face seemed to swim before me. It seemed that I heard low, chanting voices, full of hideous yet eager fear -and below that sound, another, filling the bowels of the earth. An hallucination, I doubt it not – but at the same moment, the church was filled with a very real sound, which I can only describe as a huge and macabre turning beneath my feet. The pulpit trembled beneath my fingers; the desecrated cross trembled on the wall.
We exited together, Cal and I, leaving the place to its own darkness, and neither of us dared look back until we had crossed the rude planks spanning the stream. I will not say we defiled the nineteen hundred years man has spent climbing upwards from a hunkering and superstitious savage by actually running; but I would be a liar to say that we strolled.
That is my tale. You mustn’t shadow your recovery by fearing that the fever has touched me again; Cal can attest to all in these pages, up to and including the hideous noise.
So I close, saying only that I wish I might see you [knowing that much of my bewilderment would drop away immediately], and that I remain your friend and admirer,
17 October 1850
In the most recent edition of your catalogue of household items (i.e., Summer, 1850), I noticed a preparation which is titled Rat’s Bane. I should like to purchase one (1)5-pound tin of this preparation at your stated price of thirty cents ($.30). I enclose return postage. Please mail to: Calvin McCann, Chapelwaite, Preacher’s Corners, Cumberland County, Maine.
Thank you for your attention in this matter.
I remain, dear Gentlemen,
19 October 1850
Developments of a disquieting nature.
The noises in the house have intensified, and I am growing more to the conclusion that rats are not all that move within our walls. Calvin and I went on another fruitless search for hidden crannies or passages, but found nothing. How poorly we would fit into one of Mrs Radcliffe’s romances! Cal claims, however, that much of the sound emanates from the cellar, and it is there we intend to explore tomorrow. It makes me no easier to know that Cousin Stephen’s sister met her unfortunate end there.
Her portrait, by the by, hangs in the upstairs gallery. Marcella Boone was a sadly pretty thing, if the artist got her right, and I do know she never married. At times I think that Mrs Cloris was right, that it is a bad house. It has certainly held nothing but gloom for its past inhabitants.
But I have more to say of the redoubtab!e Mrs Cloris, for I have had this day a second interview with her. As the most level-headed person from the Corners that I have met thus far, I sought her out this afternoon, after an unpleasant interview which I will relate.
The wood was to have been delivered this morning, and when noon came and passed and no wood with it, I decided to take my daily walk into the town itself. My object was to visit Thompson, the man with whom Cal did business.
It has been a lovely day, full of the crisp snap of bright autumn, and by the time I reached the Thompsons’ homestead [Cal, who remained home to poke further through Uncle Stephen’s library gave me adequate directions] I felt in the best mood that these last few days have seen, and quite prepared to forgive Thompson’s tardiness with the wood.
The place was a massive tangle of weeds and fallen-down buildings in need of paint; to the left of the barn a huge sow, ready for November butchering, grunted and wallowed in a muddy sty, and in the littered yard between house and outbuildings a woman in a tattered gingham dress was feeding chickens from her apron. When I hailed her, she turned a pale and vapid face towards me.
The sudden change in expression from utter, doltish emptiness to one of frenzied terror was quite wonderful to behold. I can only think she took me for Stephen himself, for she raised her hand in the prong-fingered sign of the evil eye and screamed. The chicken-feed scattered on the ground and the fowls fluttered away, squawking.
Before I could utter a sound a huge, hulking figure of a man clad only in long-handled underwear lumbered out of the house with a squirrel-rifle in one hand and a jug in the other. From the red light in his eye and unsteady manner of walking, I judged that this was Thompson the Woodcutter himself.
‘A Boone!’ he roared. ‘G- d-n your eyes!’ He dropped the jug a-rolling and also made the Sign.
‘I’ve come,’ I said with as much equanimity as I could muster under the circumstances, ‘because the wood has not. According to the agreement you struck with my man -‘
‘G- d-n your man too, say I!’ And for the first time I noticed that beneath his bluff and bluster he was deadly afraid. I began seriously to wonder if he mightn’t actually use his rifle against me in his excitement.
I began carefully: ‘As a gesture of courtesy, you might -‘
‘G- d-n your courtesy!’
‘Very well, then,’ I said with as much dignity as I could muster. ‘I bid you good day until you are more in control of yourself.’ And with this I turned away and began down the road to the village.
‘Don’tchee come back!’ he screamed after me. ‘Stick wi’ your evil up there! Cursed! Cursed! Cursed!’ He pelted a stone at me, which struck my shoulder. I would not give him the satisfaction of dodging.
So I sought out Mrs Cloris, determined to solve the mystery of Thompson’s enmity, at least. She is a widow [and none of your confounded matchmaking, Bones; she is easily fifteen years my senior, and I’ll not see forty again] and lives by herself in a charming little cottage at the ocean’s very doorstep. I found the lady hanging out her wash, and she seemed genuinely pleased to see me. I found this a great relief; it is vexing almost beyond words to be branded pariah for no understandable reason.
‘Mr Boone,’ said she, offering a half-curtsey. ‘If you’ve come about washing, I take none in past September. My rheumatiz pains me so that it’s trouble enough to do my own.’
‘I wish laundry was the subject of my visit. I’ve come for help, Mrs Cloris. I must know all you can tell me about Chapelwaite and Jerusalem’s Lot and why the townfolk regard me with such fear and suspicion!’
‘Jerusalem’s Lot! You know about that, then.’
‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘and visited it with my companion a week ago.’
‘God!’ She went pale as milk, and tottered. I put out a hand to steady her. Her eyes rolled horribly, and for a moment I was sure she would swoon.
‘Mrs Cloris, I am sorry if I have said anything -‘
‘Come inside,’ she said. ‘You must know. Sweet Jesu, the evil days have come again!’
She would not speak more until she had brewed strong tea in her sunshiny kitchen. When it was before us, she looked pensively out at the ocean for a time. Inevitably, her eyes and mine were drawn to the jutting brow of Chapelwaite Head, where the house looked out over the water. The large bay window glittered in the rays of the westering sun like a diamond. The view was beautiful but strangely disturbing. She suddenly turned to me and declared vehemently:
‘Mr Boone, you must leave Chapelwaite immediately!’
I was flabbergasted.
‘There has been an evil breath in the air since you took up residence. In the last week – since you set foot in the accursed place – there have been omens and portents. A caul over the face of the moon; flocks of whippoorwills which roost in the cemeteries; an unnatural birth. You must leave!’
When I found my tongue, I spoke as gently as I could. ‘Mrs Cloris, these things are dreams. You must know that.’
‘Is it a dream that Barbara Brown gave birth to a child with no eyes? Or that Clifton Brockett found a flat, pressed trail five feet wide in the woods beyond Chapelwaite where all had withered and gone white? And can you, who have visited Jerusalem’s Lot, say with truth that nothing still lives there?’
I could not answer; the scene in that hideous church sprang before my eyes.
She clamped her gnarled hands together in an effort to calm herself. ‘I know of these things only from my mother and her mother before her. Do you know the history of your family as it applies to Chapelwaite?’
‘Vaguely,’ I said. ‘The house has been the home of Philip Boone’s line since the 1780’s; his brother Robert, my grand-father, located in Massachusetts after an argument over stolen papers. Of Philip’s side I know little, except that an unhappy shadow fell over it, extending from father to son to grandchildren – Marcella died in a tragic accident and Stephen fell to his death. It was his wish that Chapelwaite become the home of me and mine, and that the family rift thus be mended.’
‘Never to be mended,’ she whispered. ‘You know nothing of the original quarrel?’
‘Robert Boone was discovered rifling his brother’s desk.’
‘Philip Boone was mad,’ she said. ‘A man who trafficked with the unholy. The thing which Robert Boone attempted to remove was a profane Bible writ in the old tongues -Latin, Druidic, others. A hell-book.’
‘De Vermis Mystenis.’
She recoiled as if struck. ‘You know of it?’
‘I have seen it. . . touched it.’ It seemed again she might swoon. A hand went to her mouth as if to stifle an outcry. ‘Yes; in Jerusalem’s Lot. On the pulpit of a corrupt and desecrated church.’
‘Still there; still there, then.’ She rocked in her chair. ‘I had hoped God in His wisdom had cast it into the pit of hell.’
‘What relation had Philip Boone to Jerusalem’s Lot?’
‘Blood relation,’ she said darkly. ‘The Mark of the Beast was on him, although he walked in the clothes of the Lamb. And on the night of 31 October 1789 Philip Boone disappeared . . . and the entire populace of that damned village with him.’
She would say little more; in fact, seemed to know little more. She would only reiterate her pleas that I leave, giving as reason something about ‘blood calling to blood’ and muttering about ‘those who watch and those who guard’. As twilight drew on she seemed to grow more agitated rather than less, and to placate her I promised that her wishes would be taken under strong consideration.
I walked home through lengthening, gloomy shadows, my good mood quite dissipated and my head spinning with questions which still plague me. Cal greeted me with the news that our noises in the walls have grown worse still- as I can attest at this moment. I try to tell myself that I hear only rats, but then I see the terrified, earnest face of Mrs Cloris.
The moon has risen over the sea, bloated, full, the colour of blood, staining the ocean with a noxious shade. My mind turns to that church again and
(here a line is struck out)
But you shall not see that, Bones. It is too mad. It is time I slept, I think. My thoughts go out to you.
(The following is from the pocket journal of Calvin McCann.)
20 October 1850
Took the liberty this morning of forcing the lock which binds the book closed; did it before Mr Boone arose. No help; it is all in cypher. A simple one, I believe. Perhaps I may break it as easily as the lock. A diary, I am certain the hand oddly like Mr Boone’s own. Whose book, shelved in the most obscure corner of this library and locked across the pages? It seems old, but how to tell? The corrupting air has largely been kept from its pages. More later, if time; Mr Boone set upon looking about the cellar. Am afraid these dreadful goings-on will be too much for his chancy health yet. I must try to persuade him -But he comes.
20 October 1850 BONES,
I can’t write I cant [sic] write of this yet I I I
(From the pocket journal of Calvin McCann)
20 October 1850
As I had feared, his health has broken -Dear God, our Father Who art in Heaven!
Cannot bear to think of it; yet it is planted, burned on my brain like a tin-type; that horror in the cellar -!
Alone now; half-past eight o’clock; house silent but -Found him swooned over his writing table; he still sleeps; yet for those few moments how nobly he acquitted himself while I stood paralyzed and shattered!
His skin is waxy, cool. Not the fever again, God be thanked. I daren’t move him or leave him to go to the village. And if I did go, who would return with me to aid him? Who would come to this cursed house?
O, the cellar! The things in the cellar that have haunted our walls!
22 October 1850
I am myself again, although weak, after thirty-six hours of unconsciousness. Myself again . . . what a grim and bitter joke! I shall never be myself again, never. I have come face to face with an insanity and a horror beyond the limits of human expression. And the end is not yet.
If it were not for Cal, I believe I should end my life this minute. He is one island of sanity in all this madness.
You shall know it all.
We had equipped ourselves with candles for our cellar exploration, and they threw a strong glow that was quite adequate – hellishly adequate! Calvin tried to dissuade me, citing my recent illness, saying that the most we should probably find would be some healthy rats to mark for poisoning.
I remained determined, however; Calvin fetched a sigh and answered: ‘Have it as you must, then, Mr Boone.’
The entrance to the cellar is by means of a trap in the kitchen floor [which Cal assures me he has since stoutly boarded over], and we raised it only with a great deal of straining and lifting.
A fetid, overpowering smell came up out of the darkness, not unlike that which pervaded the deserted town across the Royal River. The candle I held shed its glow on a steeply-slanting flight of stairs leading down into darkness. They were in a terrible state of repair – in one place an entire riser missing, leaving only a black hole – and it was easy enough to see how the unfortunate Marcella might have come to her end there.
‘Be careful, Mr Boone!’ Cal said; I told him I had no intention of being anything but, and we made the descent.
The floor was earthen, the walls of stout granite, and hardly wet. The place did not look like a rat haven at all, for there were none of the things rats like to make their nests in, such as old boxes, discarded furniture, piles of paper, and the like. We lifted our candles, gaining a small circle of light, but still able to see little. The floor had a gradual slope which seemed to run beneath the main living-room and the dining-room – i.e., to the west. It was in this direction we walked. All was in utter silence. The stench in the air grew steadily stronger, and the dark about us seemed to press like wool, as if jealous of the light which had temporarily deposed it after so many years of undisputed dominion.
At the far end, the granite walls gave way to a polished wood which seemed totally black and without reflective properties. Here the cellar ended, leaving what seemed to be an alcove off the main chamber. It was positioned at an angle which made inspection impossible without stepping around the corner.
Calvin and I did so.
It was as if a rotten spectre of this dwelling’s sinister past had risen before us. A single chair stood in this alcove, and above it, fastened from a hook in one of the stout overhead beams, was a decayed noose of hemp.
‘Then it was here that he hung himself,’ Cal muttered. ‘God!’
‘Yes. . . with the corpse of his daughter lying at the foot of the stairs behind him.’
Cal began to speak; then I saw his eyes jerked to a spot behind me; then his words became a scream.
How, Bones, can I describe the sight which fell upon our eyes? How can I tell you of the hideous tenants within our walls?
The far wall swung back, and from that darkness a face leered – a face with eyes as ebon as the Styx itself. Its mouth yawned in a toothless, agonized grin; one yellow, rotted hand stretched itself out to us. It made a hideous, mewling sound and took a shambling step forward. The light from my candle fell upon it -And I saw the livid rope-burn about its neck!
From beyond it something else moved, something I shall dream of until the day when all dreams cease: a girl with a pallid, mouldering face and a corpse-grin; a girl whose head lolled at a lunatic angle.
They wanted us; I know it. And I know they would have drawn us into that darkness and made us their own, had I not thrown my candle directly at the thing in the partition, and followed it with the chair beneath that noose.
After that, all is confused darkness. My mind has drawn the curtain. I awoke, as I have said, in my room with Cal at my side.
If I could leave, I should fly from this house of horror with my nightdress flapping at my heels. But I cannot. I have become a pawn in a deeper, darker drama. Do not ask howl know; I only do. Mrs Cloris was right when she spoke of blood calling to blood; and how horribly right when she spoke of those who watch and those who guard. I fear that I have wakened a Force which has slept in the tenebrous village of ‘Salem’s Lot for half a century, a Force which has slain my ancestors and taken them in unholy bondage as nosferatu – the Undead. And I have greater fears than these, Bones, but I still see only in part. If I knew. . . if I only knew all!
Postscriptum – And of course I write this only for myself; we are isolated from Preacher’s Corner. I daren’t carry my taint there to post this, and Calvin will not leave me. Perhaps, if God is good, this will reach you in some manner.
(From the pocket journal of Calvin McCann)
23 October 1850
He is stronger today; we talked briefly of the apparitions in the cellar; agreed they were neither hallucinations nor of an ectoplasmic origin, but real. Does Mr Boone suspect, as I do, that they have gone? Perhaps; the noises are still; yet all is ominous yet, o’ercast with a dark pall. It seems we wait in the deceptive Eye of the Storm .
Have found a packet of papers in an upstairs bedroom, lying in the bottom drawer of an old roll-top desk. Some correspndence & receipted bills lead me to believe the room was Robert Boone’s. Yet the most interesting document is a few jottings on the back of an advertisement for gentlemen’s beaver hats. At the top is writ:
Blessed are the meek.
Below, the following apparent nonsense is writ:
bke dshdermthes eak
I believe ’tis the key of the locked and coded book in the library. The cypher above is certainly a rustic one used in the War for Independence known as the Fence-Rail. When one removes the ‘nulls’ from the second bit of scribble, the following is obtained:
Read up and down rather than across, the result is the original quotation from the Beatitudes.
Before I dare show this to Mr Boone, I must be sure of the book’s contents
24 October 1850
An amazing occurrence – Cal, always close-mouthed until absolutely sure of himself [a rare and admirable human trait!], has found the diary of my grandfather Robert. The document was in a code which Cal himself has broken. He modestly declares that the discovery was an accident, but I suspect that perseverance and hard work had rather more to do with it.
At any rate, what a sombre light it sheds on our mysteries here!
The first entry is dated 1 June 1789, the last 27 October 1789 – four days before the cataclysmic disappearance of which Mrs Cloris spoke. It tells a tale of deepening obsession – nay, of madness – and makes hideously clear the relationship between Great-uncle Philip, the town of Jerusalem’s Lot, and the book which rests in that desecrated church.
The town itself, according to Robert Boone, pre-dates Chapelwaite (built in 1782) and Preacher’s Corners (known in those days as Preacher’s Rest and founded in 1741); it was founded by a splinter group of the Puritan faith in 1710, a sect headed by a dour religious fanatic named James Boon. What a start that name gave me! That this Boon bore relation to my family can hardly be doubted, I believe. Mrs Cloris could not have been more right in her superstitious belief that familial blood-line is of crucial importance in this matter; and I recall with terror her answer to my question about Philip and his relationship to ‘Salem’s Lot. ‘Blood relation,’ said she, and I fear that it is so.
The town became a settled community built around the church where Boon preached – or held court. My grandfather intimates that he also held commerce with any number of ladies from the town, assuring them that this was God’s way and will. As a result, the town became an anomaly which could only have existed in those isolated and queer days when belief in witches and the Virgin Birth existed hand in hand: an interbred, rather degenerate religious village controlled by a half-mad preacher whose twin gospels were the Bible and de Gourdge’s sinister Demon Dwellings; a community in which rites of exorcism were held regularly; a community of incest and the insanity and physical defects which so often accompany that sin. I suspect [and believe Robert Boone must have also] that one of Boon’s bastard offspring must have left [or have been spirited away from] Jerusalem’s Lot to seek his fortune to the south – and thus founded our present lineage. I do know by my own family reckoning, that our clan supposedly originated in that part of Massachusetts which has so lately become this Sovereign State of Maine. My great-grandfather Kenneth Boone, became a rich man as a result of the then-flourishing fur trade. It was his money, increased by time and wise investment, which built this ancestral home long after his death in 1763. His sons, Philip and Robert, built Chapelwaite. Blood calls to blood, Mrs Cloris said. Could it be that Kenneth was born of James Boon, fled the madness of his father and his father’s town, only to have his sons, all-unknowing, build the Boone home not two miles from the Boon beginnings? If tis true, does it not seem that some huge and invisible Hand has guided us?
According to Robert’s diary, James Boon was ancient in 1789 – and he must have been. Granting him an age of twenty-five in the year of the town’s founding, he would have been one hundred and four, a prodigious age. The following is quoted direct from Robert Boone’s diary:
4 August 1789
Today for the first time I met this Man with whom my Brother has been so unhealthily taken; I must admit this Boon controls a strange Magnetism which upset me Greatly. He is a veritable Ancient, white-bearded, and dresses in a black Cassock which struck me as somehow obscene. More disturbing yet was the Fact that he was surrounded by Women, as a Sultan would be surrounded by his Harem; and P. assures me he is active yet, although at least an Octogenarian
The Village itself I had visited only once before, and will not visit again; its Streets are silent and filled with the Fear the old Man inspires from his Pulpit: I fear also that Like has mated with Like, as so many of the Faces are similar. It seemed that each way I turned I beheld the old Man’s Visage. . . all are so wan; they seem Lack-Lustre, as if sucked dry of all Vitality, I beheld Eyeless and Noseless Children, Women who wept and gibbered and pointed at the Sky for no Reason, and garbled talk from the Scriptures with talk of Demons P wished me to stay for Services, but the thought of that sinister Ancient in the Pulpit before an Audience of this Town’s interbred Populace repulsed me and I made an Excuse .
The entries preceding and following this tell of Philip’s growing fascination with James Boon. On 1 September 1789, Philip was baptized into Boon’s church. His brother says: ‘I am aghast with Amaze and Horror – my Brother has changed before my very Eyes – he even seems to grow to resemble the wretched Man.’
First mention of the book occurs on 23 July. Robert’s diary records it only briefly: ‘P. returned from the smaller Village tonight with, I thought, a rather wild Visage. Would not speak until Bedtime, when he said that Boon had enquired after a Book titled Mysteries of the Worm. To please P.I promised to write Johns & Goodfellow a letter of enquiry; P. almost fawningly Grateful.’
On 12 August, this notation: ‘Rec’d two Letters in the Post today. . . one from Johns & Goodfellow in Boston.
They have Note of the Tome in which P. has expressed an Interest. Only five Copies extant in this Country. The Letter is rather cool; odd indeed. Have known Henry Goodfellow for Years.’
P. insanely excited by Goodfellow’s letter; refuses to say why. He would only say that Boon is exceedingly anxious to obtain a Copy. Cannot think why, since by the Title it seems only a harmless gardening Treatise .
Am worried for Philip; he grows stranger to me Daily. I wish now we had not returned to Chapelwaite. The Summer is hot, oppressive, and filled with Omens .
There are only two further mentions of the infamous book in Robert’s diary [he seems not to have realized the true importance of it, even at the end]. From the entry of 4 September:
I have petitioned Goodfellow to act as his Agent in the matter of the Purchase; although my better Judgement cries against It. What use to demur? Has he not his own Money, should I refuse? And in return I have extracted a Promise from Philip to recant this noisome Baptism.
yet he is so Hectic; nearly Feverish; I do not trust him. I am hopelessly at Sea in this Matter .
Finally, 16 September:
The Book arrived today, with a note from Goodfellow saying he wishes no more of my Trade. . . P. was excited to an unnatural Degree; all but snatched the Book from my Hands. It is writ in bastard Latin and a Runic Script of which I can read Nothing. The Thing seemed almost warm to the Touch, and to vibrate in my Hands as if it contained a huge Power. . .I reminded P. of his Promise to Recant and he only laughed in an ugly, crazed Fashion and waved that Book in my Face, crying over and over again: ‘We have it! We have it! The Worm! The Secret of the Worm!’
He is now fled, I suppose to his mad Benefactor, and I have not seen him more this Day
Of the book there is no more, but I have made certain deductions which seem at least probable. First, that this book was, as Mrs Cloris has said, the subject of the falling-out between Robert and Philip; second, that it is a repository of unholy incantation, possibly of Druidic origin [many of the Druidic blood-rituals were preserved in print by the Roman conquerors of Britain in the name of scholarship, and many of these infernal cook-books are among the world’s forbidden literature]; third, that Boon and Philip intended to use the book for their own ends. Perhaps, in some twisted way, they intended good, but I do not believe it. I believe they had long before bound themselves over to whatever faceless powers exist beyond the rim of the Universe; powers which may exist beyond the very fabric of Time. The last entries of Robert Boone’s diary lend a dim glow of approbation to these speculations, and I allow them to speak for themselves:
26 October 1789 A terrific Babble in Preacher’s Corners today; Frawley, the Blacksmith, seized my Arm and demanded to know ‘What your Brother and that mad Antichrist are into up there.’ Goody Randall claims there have been Signs in the Sky of great impending Disaster. A Cow has been born with two Heads.
As for Myself, I know not what impends; perhaps ’tis my Brother’s Insanity. His Hair has gone Grey almost Overnight, his Eyes are great bloodshot Circles from which the pleasing light of Sanity seems to have departed. He grins and whispers, and, for some Reason of his Own, has begun to haunt our Cellar when not in Jerusalem’s Lot.
The Whippoorwills congregate about the House and upon the Grass; their combined Calling from the Mist blends with the Sea into an unearthly Shriek that precludes all thought of Sleep.
27 October 1789
Followed P. this Evening when he departed for Jerusalem’s Lot, keeping a safe Distance to avoid Discovery. The cursed Whippoorwills flock through the Woods, filling all with a deathly, psycho-pompotic Chant. I dared not cross the Bridge; the Town all dark except for the Church, which was litten with a ghastly red Glare that seemed to transform the high, peak’d Windows into the Eyes of the Inferno. Voices rose and fell in a Devil’s Litany, sometimes laughing, sometimes sobbing. The very Ground seem’d to swell and groan beneath me, as if it bore an awful Weight, and I fled, amaz’d and full of Terror, the hellish, screaming Cries of the Whippoorwills dinning in my ears as I ran through those shadow-riven Woods.
All tends to the Climax, yet unforeseen. I dare not sleep for the Dreams that come, yet not remain awake for what lunatic Terrors may come. The night is full of awful Sounds and I fear -And yet I feel the urge to go again, to watch, to see. It seems that Philip himself calls me, and the Old Man. The Birds
cursed cursed cursed
Here the diary of Robert Boone ends.
Yet you must notice, Bones, near the conclusion, that he claims Philip himself seemed to call him. My final conclusion is formed by these lines, by the talk of Mrs Cloris and the others, but most of all by those terrifying figures in the cellar, dead yet alive. Our line is yet an unfortunate one, Bones. There is a curse over us which refuses to be buried; it lives a hideous shadow-life in this house and that town. And the culmination of the cycle is drawing close again. I am the last of the Boone blood. I fear that something knows this, and that I am at the nexus of an evil endeavour beyond all sane understanding. The anniversary is All Saints’ Eve, one week from today.
How shall I proceed? If only you were here to counsel me, to help me! If only you were here!
I must know all; I must return to the shunned town. May God support me!
(From the pocket journal of Calvin McCann)
25 October 1850
Mr Boone has slept nearly all this day. His face is pallid and much thinner. I fear recurrence of his fever is inevitable.
While refreshing his water carafe I caught sight of two unmailed letters to Mr Granson in Florida. He plans to return to Jerusalem’s Lot; ’twill be the killing of him if I allow it. Dare I steal away to Preacher’s Corners and hire a buggy? I must, and yet what if he wakes? If I should return and find him gone?
The noises have begun in our walls again. Thank God he still sleeps! My mind shudders from the import of this.
I brought him his dinner on a tray. He plans on rising later, and despite his evasions, I know what he plans; yet I go to Preacher’s Corners. Several of the sleeping-powders prescribed to him during his late illness remained with my things; he drank one with his tea, all-unknowing. He sleeps again.
To leave him with the Things that shamble behind our walls terrifies me; to let him continue even one more day within these walls terrifies me even more greatly. I have locked him in.
God grant he should still be there, safe and sleeping, when I return with the buggy!
Stoned me! Stoned me like a wild and rabid dog! Monsters and fiends! These, that call themselves men! We are prisoners here -The birds, the whippoorwills, have begun to gather.
26 October 1850
It is nearly dusk, and I have just wakened, having slept nearly the last twenty-four hours away. Although Cal has said nothing, I suspect he put a sleeping-powder in my tea, having gleaned my intentions. He is a good and faithful friend, intending only the best, and I shall say nothing.
Yet my mind is set. Tomorrow is the day. I am calm, resolved, but also seem to feel the subtle onset of the fever again. If it is so, it must be tomorrow. Perhaps tonight would be better still; yet not even the fires of Hell itself could induce me to set foot in that village by shadowlight.
Should I write no more, may God bless and keep you, Bones.
Posiscriptum – The birds have set up their cry, and the horrible shuffling sounds have begun again. Cal does not think I hear, but I do.
(From the pocket journal of Calvin McCann)
27 October 1850
He is impersuadable. Very well. I go with him.
4 November 1850
Weak, yet lucid. I am not sure of the date, yet my almanac assures me by tide and sunset that it must be correct. I sit at my desk, where I sat when I first wrote you from Chapelwaite, and look out over the dark sea from which the last of the light is rapidly fading. I shall never see more. This night is my night; I leave it for whatever shadows be.
How it heaves itself at the rocks, this sea! It throws clouds of sea-foam at the darkling sky in banners, making the floor beneath me tremble. In the window-glass I see my reflection, pallid as any vampire’s. I have been without nourishment since the twenty-seventh of October, and should have been without water, had not Calvin left the carafe beside my bed on that day.
0, Cal! He is no more, Bones. He is gone in my place, in the place of this wretch with his pipestem arms and skull face who I see reflected back in the darkened glass. And yet he may be the more fortunate; for no dreams haunt him as they have haunted me these last days – twisted shapes that lurk in the nightmare corridors of delirium. Even now my hands tremble; I have splotched the page with ink.
Calvin confronted me on that morning just as I was about to slip away – and I thinking I had been so crafty. I had told him that I had decided we must leave, and asked him if he would go to Tandrell some ten miles distant, and hire a trap where we were less notorious. He agreed to make the hike and I watched him leave by the sea-road. When he was out of sight I quickly made myself ready, donning both coat and muffler [for the weather had turned frosty; the first touch of coming winter was on that morning’s cutting breeze. I wished briefly for a gun, then laughed at myself for the wish. What avails guns in such a matter?
I let myself out by the pantry-way, pausing for a last look at sea and sky; for the smell of the fresh air against the
putrescence I knew I should smell soon enough; for the sight of a foraging gull wheeling below the clouds.
I turned – and there stood Calvin McCann.
‘You shall not go alone,’ said he; and his face was as grim as ever I have seen it.
‘But, Calvin -‘ I began.
‘No, not a word! We go together and do what we must, or I return you bodily to the house. You are not well. You shall not go alone.’
It is impossible to describe the conflicting emotions that swept over me; confusion, pique, gratefulness – yet the greatest of them was love.
We made our way silently past the summer house and the sun-dial, down the weed-covered verge and into the woods. All was dead still – not a bird sang nor a wood-cricket chirruped. The world seemed cupped in a silent pall. There was only the ever-present smell of salt, and from far away, the faint tang of woodsmoke. The woods were a blazoned riot of colour, but, to my eye, scarlet seemed to predominate all.
Soon the scent of salt passed, and another, more sinister odour took its place; that rottenness which I have mentioned. When we came to the leaning bridge which spanned the Royal, I expected Cal to ask me again to defer, but he did not. He paused, looked at that grim spire which seemed to mock the blue sky above it, and then looked at me. We went on.
We proceeded with quick yet dread footsteps to James Boon’s church. The door still hung ajar from our latter exit, and the darkness within seemed to leer at us. As we mounted the steps, brass seemed to fill my heart; my hand trembled as it touched the door-handle and pulled it. The smell within was greater, more noxious than ever.
We stepped into the shadowy anteroom and, with no pause, into the main chamber.
It was a shambles.
Something vast had been at work in there, and a mighty destruction had taken place. Pews were overturned and heaped like jackstraws. The wicked cross lay against the east wall, and a jagged hole in the plaster above it testified to the force with which it had been hurled. The oil-lamps had been ripped from their high fixtures, and the reek of whale-oil mingled with the terrible stink which pervaded the town. And down the centre aisle, like a ghastly bridal path, was a trail of black ichor mingled with sinister tendrils of blood. Our eyes followed it to the pulpit – the only untouched thing in view. Atop it, staring at us from across that blasphemous Book with glazed eyes, was the butchered body of a lamb.
‘God,’ Calvin whispered.
We approached, keeping clear of the slime on the floor. The room echoed back our footsteps and seemed to transmute them into the sound of gigantic laughter.
We mounted the narthex together. The lamb had not been torn or eaten; it appeared, rather to have been squeezed until its blood-vessels had forcibly ruptured. Blood lay in thick and noisome puddles on the lectern itself, and about the base of it . . . yet on the book it was transparent, and the crabbed runes could be read through it as through coloured glass!
‘Must we touch it?’ Cal asked, unfaltering.
‘Yes. I must have it.’
‘What will you do?’
‘What should have been done sixty years ago. I am going to destroy it.’
We rolled the lamb’s corpse away from the book; it struck the floor with a hideous, lolling thud. The bloodstained pages now seemed alive with a scarlet glow of their own.
My ears began to ring and hum; a low chant seemed to emanate from the walls themselves. From the twisted look on Cal’s face I knew he heard the same. The floor beneath us trembled, as if the familiar which haunted this church came now unto us, to protect its own. The fabric of sane space and time seemed to twist and crack; the church seemed filled with spectres and litten with the hell-glow of eternal cold fire. It seemed that I saw James Boon, hideous and misshapen, cavorting around the supine body of a woman, and my Grand-uncle Philip behind him, an acolyte in a black, hooded cassock, who held a knife and a bowl.
‘Deum vobiscum magna vermis -,
The words shuddered and writhed on the page before me, soaked in the blood of sacrifice, prize of a creature that shambles beyond the stars -A blind, interbred congregation swaying in mindless, demonic praise; deformed faces filled with hungering, nameless anticipation -And the Latin was replaced by an older tongue, ancient when Egypt was young and the Pyramids unbuilt, ancient when this Earth still hung in an unformed, boiling firmament of empty gas:
‘Gyyagin vardar Yogsoggoth! Verminis! Gyyagin! Gyyagin! Gyyagin!’
The pulpit began to rend and split, pushing upwards -Calvin screamed and lifted an arm to shield his face. The narthex trembled with a huge, tenebrous motion like a ship wracked in a gale. I snatched up the book and held it away from me; it seemed filled with the heat of the sun and I felt that I should be cindered, blinded.
‘Run!’ Calvin screamed. ‘Run!’
But I stood frozen and the alien presence filled me like an ancient vessel that had waited for years – for generations!
‘Gyyagin vardar!’ I screamed. ‘Servant of Yogsoggoth,
the Nameless One! The Worm from beyond Space! Star-
Eater! Blinder of Time! Verminis! Now comes the Hour of
Filling, the Time of Rending! Verminis! Alyah! Alyah!
Calvin pushed me and I tottered, the church whirling before me, and fell to the floor. My head crashed against the edge of an upturned pew, and red fire filled my head -yet seemed to clear it.
I groped for the sulphur matches I had brought.
Subterranean thunder filled the place. Plaster fell. The rusted bell in the steeple pealed a choked devil’s carillon in symJ)athetic vibration.
My match flared. I touched it to the book just as the pulpit exploded upwards in a rending explosion of wood. A huge black maw was discovered beneath; Cal tottered on the edge his hands held out, his face distended in a wordless scream that I shall hear for ever.
And then there was a huge surge of grey, vibrating flesh. The smell became a nightmare tide. It was a huge outpouring of a viscid, pustulant jelly, a huge and awful form that seemed to sky-rocket from the very bowels of the ground. And yet, with a sudden horrible comprehension which no man can have known, I perceived that it was but one ring, one segment, of a monster worm that had existed eyeless for years in the chambered darkness beneath that abominated church!
The book flared alight in my hands, and the Thing seemed to scream soundlessly above me. Calvin was struck glancingly and flung the length of the church like a doll with a broken neck.
It subsided – the thing subsided, leaving only a huge and shattered hole surrounded with black slime, and a great screaming, mewling sound that seemed to fade through colossal distances and was gone.
I looked down. The book was ashes.
I began to laugh, then to howl like a struck beast.
All sanity left me and I sat on the floor with blood streaming from my temple, screaming and gibbering into those unhallowed shadows while Calvin sprawled in the far corner, staring at me with glazing, horror-struck eyes.
I have no idea how long I existed in that state. It is beyond all telling. But when I came again to my faculties, shadows had drawn long paths around me and I sat in twilight. Movement had caught my eye, movement from the shattered hole in the narthex floor.
A hand groped its way over the riven floorboards.
My mad laughter choked in my throat. All hysteria melted into numb bloodlessness.
With terrible, vengeful slowness, a wracked figure pulled itself up from darkness, and a half-skull peered at me. Beetles crawled over the fleshless forehead. A rotted cassock clung to the askew hollows of mouldered collarbones. Only the eyes lived – red, insane pits that glared at me with more than lunacy; they glared with the empty life of the pathless wastes beyond the edges of the Universe.
It came to take me down to darkness.
That was when I fled screeching, leaving the body of my lifelong friend unheeded in that place of dread. I ran until the air seemed to burst like magma in my lungs and brain. I ran until I had gained this possessed and tainted house again, and my room, where I collapsed and have lain like a dead man until today. I ran because even in my crazed state, and even in the shattered ruin of that dead-yet-animated shape, I had seen the family resemblance. Yet not of Philip or of Robert, whose likenesses hang in an upstairs gallery. That rotted visage belonged to James Boon, Keeper of the Worm!
He still lives somewhere in the twisted, lightless wanderings beneath Jerusalem’s Lot and Chapelwaite – and It still lives. The burning of the book thwarted It, but there are other copies.
Yet I am the gateway, and I am the last of the Boone blood. For the good of all humanity I must die . . . and break the chain for ever.
I go to the sea now, Bones. My journey, like my story, is at an end. May God rest you and grant you all peace.
The odd series of papers above was eventually received by Mr Everett Granson, to whom they had been addressed. It is assumed that a recurrence of the unfortunate brain fever which struck him originally following the death of his wife in 1848 caused Charles Boone to lose his sanity and murder his companion and longtime friend, Mr Calvin McCann.
The entries in Mr McCann’s pocket journal are a fascinating exercise in forgery, undoubtedly perpetrated by Charles Boone in an effort to reinforce his own paranoid delusions.
In at least two particulars, however, Charles Boone is proved wrong. First, when the town of Jerusalem’s Lot was ‘rediscovered’ (I use the term historically, of course),the floor of the narthex, although rotted, showed no sign of the explosion or huge damage. Although the ancient pews were overturned and several windows shattered, this can be assumed to be the work of vandals from neighbouring towns over the years. Among the older residents of Preacher’s Corners and Tandrell there is still some idle rumour about Jerusalem’s Lot (perhaps, in his day, it was this kind of harmless folk legend which started Charles Boone’s mind on its fatal course), but this seems hardly relevant.
Second, Charles Boone was not the last of his line. His grandfather, Robert Boone, sired at least two bastards. One died in infancy. The second took the Boone name and located in the town of Central Falls, Rhode Island. I am the final descendant of this offshoot of the Boone line; Charles Boone’s second cousin, removed by three generations. These papers have been in my committal for ten years. I offer them for publication on the occasion of my residence in the Boone ancestral home, Chapelwaite, in the hope that the reader will find sympathy in his heart for Charles Boone’s poor, misguided soul. So far as I can tell, he was correct about only one thing: this place badly needs the services of an exterminator.
There are some huge rats in the walls, by the sound.
Signed, James Robert Boone 2 October 1971.
If you own an electronic book reader, do yourself a favor and avoid titles by Stephen King. He’s a technical wordsmith, probably the result of “good” schooling, but generally lacks what it takes to create an interesting story. Ur, published exclusively for and seeming to serve as an elaborate plug for Amazon’s Kindle, is a perfect example of that. The premise; a college English teacher buys a Kindle that offers nonexistence books from popular authors in alternative universes; has potential, but the tale Stephen King dents the fourth wall to crowbar it around is silly and illogical, especially when The Paradox Police arrive near the end.
my rating = 2 of 5
There are worse situations a person can be in, but being trapped in a broken-down Pinto for several hours with a rabid Saint Bernard trying to kill you every time you try to escape is pretty bad. Having an annoying crying kid with you is even worse. That’s the situation Fonna Trenton finds herself in one hot day. And if she doesn’t get her son, who’s dehydrated and apparently asthmatic, to safety soon enough, he will die. The movie should be mostly that, but it’s not. The car doesn’t break down, thus the suspense doesn’t really begin, until pass the half-way point. Everything before comes across as a prelude; one that involves Donna’s irrelevant marriage troubles and goes on for too long.
my rating = 3 of 5
The set-up is interesting enough. A paranormal investigator named Mike Enslin recieves an anonymous postcard in the mail about a particular room in New York City’s Dolphin Hotel. All the card says is “Don’t Enter 1408”. So, of course, he goes to the city and books an overnight reservation.
There’s a satisfyingly spooky scene featuring the hotel manager. He warns the man that the room is “evil”, begs him not to stay and talks as if he knows he’s in a Stephen King story. But the plot falls apart from there, to the floor of horrid randomness, and keeps getting worse until checkout.
my rating = 1 of 5
The title is only half true. The four stories of this Stephen King collection are indeed dark in nature; the set is bookended by tales of bloody spousal murder; but there are stars. It’s just that the stars are normal people. They’re people who kill and harm other people, yes, but the author does his best to justify their actions by providing a method to their madness. Are his justifications successful? No, not usually. There’s only one story in which I think the protagonist is justified, and that’s the rape victim who seeks revenge on her Big Driver attacker. But their sides of the story are told. And that’s the point.
It’s unfortunate for us readers that those stories aren’t presented in a more interesting manner. The underlying concepts of all four spark real suspense in the build-up; even the ridiculous Fair Extension; but the way Stephen King drones on and on in meticulous descriptions and backstory is more than enough to kill it. He’s an excellent writer when it comes to using words to tell a story, yes; possibly one of the best; but these stories lack anything interesting beyond that. There’s nothing clever or witty about them. No artistic depth. They’re just told. And that might’ve been okay if the process weren’t so redundant.
The best parts of Big Driver and 1922; the rape and murder that should be their ending peaks; come closer to the beginning. After that, the plots just ramble along in boring epilogue. A Good Marriage gets the structure right, but the peak is unrealistic given everything before it. The normal caring protagonist, like the one in Big Driver, suddenly becomes as vicious as the man she’s up against. But, in this case, it’s not a matter of retaliation, so her motive doesn’t make much sense. Not that it matters. By that point, you’re just happy it’s almost over.
my rating = 1 of 5
The title makes a lot of sense in the beginning as a man named David, stranded at a Wyoming train station with a small group of derailed passengers, searches for his missing fiancée. That’s also when the story is at its best, as he wanders off into the darkness to look for her, despite the danger of being eaten alive by wolves or other creatures lurking in the night. From there, a major revelation is revealed, to both the reader and the character, and the plot starts to get silly as it goes from mystery to folklore. By the end, the title seems incomplete. The story is, after all, about a romantic bond between a woman and a man.
my rating = 2 of 5
The title is apparently the first letter of a man’s name; a psychiatric patient who suffers from an extreme case of OCD. He fixates himself with counting, touching and ordering things; mundane objects like shoes and plates; in an effort to avoid odd numbers, which are a terrible thing, and thus maintain the order of the world. His mind didn’t always work that way, of course, and it’s how he got that way that gives the story its eerie undertone.
I like the fact that it’s written not as a traditional narrative but as a series of case notes, news articles, personal letters and e-mails, from the perspective of four characters who ultimately have a lot in common. What I don’t like is that most of those manuscripts ramble on, with meticulous detail, in true Stephen King fashion. In the end, it’s a novella that, though psychologically interesting, could’ve been much better if it were more concise.
my rating = 3 of 5
Naked high school girls showering after a sweaty game of volleyball grabs your attention in the first few minutes. “Creepy” Carrie is far from being the sexiest among them, but she is cute in her own unobtrusive way. The fact that she’s constantly mistreated by almost everyone around her, including her manic “Mama”, makes you root for her even more. It’s when she’s invited to the prom by Tommy Ross; one of the cutest coolest boys in the school; which she reluntantly accepts, that things start to go really bad for her.
It’s a sad story, but never to the point of maudlinism, even when Carrie’s constant sadness forces her to tears. That’s because she possesses a power that more than makes up for her social inadequacies. She can move and physically affect things with her mind, like close windows and break mirrors, if she concentrates hard enough. It’s what known as telekinesis; a phenomenon she herself doesn’t fully understand. All she knows is that it tends to happen, rather inadvertently, when people make her mad.
The final fifteen minutes or so before the ending credits, especially the view-violating epilogue that makes up the final three, are unnecessary. From both a narrative and an artistic point of view, the movie should end just after the prom; the obvious climax in the world of a high school student who cares about fitting in with the popular crowd. But the excess isn’t enough to ruin what remains an endearing story about a very special girl.
my rating = 4 of 5
Instead of going out for a bottle of Orange Driver to celebrate with, she pays off the MasterCard, which has been maxed like forever. Then calls Hertz and asks a question. Then calls her friend Jasmine, who lives in North Berwick, and tells her about the Pick-4. Jasmine screams and says, “Girl, you’re rich!”
If only. Brenda explains how she paid off the credit card so she can rent a Chevy Express if she wants to. It’s a van that seats nine, that’s what the Hertz girl told her. “We could get all the kids in there and drive up to Mars Hill. See your folks and mine. Show off the grandchildren. Squeeze ’em for a little more dough. What do you think?”
Jasmine is dubious. The glorified shack her folks call home doesn’t have room, and she wouldn’t want to stay with them even if it did. She hates those two. With good reason, Brenda knows; her own father broke Jasmine in at fifteen. Her mother knew what was going on and did nothing. When Jasmine went to her in tears, her ma said, “You got nothing to worry about, he’s had his nuts cut.”
Jas married Mitch Robicheau to get away from them, and now, three men, four kids, and eight years later, she’s on her own. And on welfare, although she gets sixteen hours a week at the Roll Around, handing out skates and making change for the video arcade, where the machines take only special tokens. They let her bring her two youngest. Delight sleeps in the office and Truth, her three-year-old, wanders around in the arcade hitching at his diapers. He doesn’t get into too much trouble, although last year he got head lice and the two women had to shave all his hair off. How he howled.
“There’s six hundred left over after I paid off the credit balance,” Brenda says. “Well, four hundred if you count the rental, only I don’t, because I can put that on MasterCard. We could stay at the Red Roof, watch Home Box. It’s free. We can get takeout from downstreet and the kids can swim in the pool. What do you say?”
From behind her comes yelling. Brenda raises her voice and screams, “Freddy, you stop teasing your sister and give that back!” Then, oh goody, their squabbling wakes up the baby. Either that or Freedom has messed in her diapers and awakened herself. Freedom always messes in her diapers. To Brenda it seems like Free is making poop her life’s work. Takes after her father that way.
“I suppose …” Jasmine says, drawing suppose out to four syllables. Maybe five.
“Come on, girl! Road trip! Get with the program! We take the bus down to the Jetport and rent the van. Three hundred miles, we can be there in four hours. The girl says they can watch DVDs. The Little Mermaid and all that good stuff.”
“Maybe I could get some of that government money from my ma before it’s all gone,” Jasmine says thoughtfully. Her brother Tommy died the year before, in Afghanistan. IED. Her ma and dad got eighty thousand out of it. Her ma has promised her some, although not when the old man is in hearing distance of the phone. Of course it may be gone already. Probably is. She knows Mr. Romance bought a Yamaha rice rocket, although what he wants with a thing like that at his age, Jasmine has no idea. And she knows things like government money are mostly a mirage. This is something they both know. Every time you see bright stuff, somebody turns on the rain machine. The bright stuff is never colorfast.
“Come on,” Brenda says. She has fallen in love with the idea of loading up the van with kids and her best (her only) friend from high school, who ended up living just one town over. Both of them on their own, seven kids between them, too many lousy men in the rearview, but sometimes they still have a little fun.
She hears a thunk sound. Freddy starts to scream. Glory has whopped him in the eye with an action figure.
“Glory you stop that or I’ll tear you a new one!” Brenda screams.
“He won’t give back my Powerpuff!” Glory shrieks, and she starts to cry. Now they’re all crying—Freddy, Glory, and Freedom—and for a moment grayness creeps over Brenda’s vision. She’s seen a lot of that grayness lately. Here they are in a three-room third-floor apartment, no guy in the picture (Tim, the latest in her life, took off six months ago), living pretty much on noodles and Pepsi and that cheap ice cream they sell at Walmart, no air-conditioning, no cable TV, she had a job at the Quik-Flash store but the company went busted and now the store’s an On the Run and the manager hired some Taco Paco to do her job because Taco Paco can work twelve or fourteen hours a day. Taco Paco wears a do-rag on his head and a nasty little mustache on his upper lip and he’s never been pregnant. Taco Paco’s job is to get girls pregnant. They fall for that little mustache and then boom, the line in the little drugstore testing gadget turns blue and here comes another one, just like the other one.
Brenda has personal experience; she tells people she knows who Freddy’s father is, but she really doesn’t, she had a few drunk nights when they all looked good, and really, come on, how is she supposed to look for a job anyway? She’s got these kids. What’s she supposed to do, leave Freddy to mind Glory and take Freedom to the goddamn job interviews? Sure, that’ll work. And what is there, besides drive-up-window girl at Mickey D’s or the Booger King? Portland has a couple of strip clubs, but wide loads like her don’t get that kind of work, and everyone else is broke.
She reminds herself she hit the lottery. She reminds herself they could be in a couple of air-conditioned rooms tonight at the Red Roof—three, even! Why not? Things are turning around!
“Brennie?” Her friend sounds more doubtful than ever. “Are you still there?”
“Yeah,” she says. “Come on, girl, I’m approved. The Hertz chick says the van is red.” She lowers her voice and adds: “Your lucky color.”
“Did you pay off the credit card online? How’d you do that?” Jasmine knows what happened to Brenda’s laptop. Freddy and Glory got fighting last month and knocked Brenda’s laptop off the bed. It fell on the floor and broke.
“I used the one at the library.” She says it the way she grew up in Mars Hill saying it: liberry. “I had to wait awhile to get on, but it’s worth it. It’s free. So what do you say?”
“Maybe we could get a bottle of Allen’s,” her friend says. Jasmine loves that Allen’s Coffee Brandy, when she can get it. In truth, Jasmine loves anything when she can get it.
“Apple-solutely,” Brenda says. “And a bottle of Driver for me. But I won’t drink while I’m behind the wheel, Jas. You can, but I’ll wait. I have to keep my license. It’s about all I got left.”
“Can you really get any money out of your folks, do you think?”
Brenda tells herself that once they see the kids—assuming the kids can be bribed (or intimidated) into good behavior—she can. “But not a word about the lottery,” she says.
“No way,” Jasmine says. “I was born at night but it wasn’t last night.”
They yuk at this one, an oldie but a goodie.
“So what do you think?”
“I’ll have to take Eddie and Rosellen out of school …”
“BFD,” Brenda says. “So what do you think, girl?”
After a long pause on the other end, Jasmine says, “Road trip!”
“Road trip!” Brenda hollers back.
Then they are chanting it while the three kids bawl in Brenda’s Sanford apartment and at least one (maybe two) is bawling in Jasmine’s North Berwick apartment. These are the fat women nobody wants to see when they’re on the streets, the ones no guy wants to pick up in the bars unless the hour is late and the mood is drunk and there’s nobody better in sight. What men think when they’re drunk—Brenda and Jasmine both know this—is that thunder thighs are better than no thighs at all. They went to high school together in Mars Hill and now they’re downstate and they help each other when they can. They are the fat women nobody wants to see, they have a litter of children between them, and they are chanting Road trip, road trip like a couple of cheerleading fools. On a September morning, already hot at eight-thirty, this is the way things happen. It’s never been any different.
Phil Henreid is seventy-eight now, and Pauline Enslin is seventy-five. They’re both skinny. They both wear spectacles. Their hair, white and thin, blows in the breeze. They’ve paused at a rest area on I-95 near Fairfield, which is about twenty miles north of Augusta. The rest-area building is barnboard, and the adjacent bathrooms are brick. They’re good-looking bathrooms. Modest bathrooms. There’s no odor. Phil, who lives in Maine and knows this rest area well, would never have proposed a picnic here in the summertime. When the traffic on the interstate swells with out-of-state vacationers, the Turnpike Authority brings in a line of plastic Port-O-Sans, and this pleasant grassy area stinks like hell on New Year’s Eve. But now the Port-O-Sans are in storage somewhere, and the rest area is nice.
Pauline puts a checked cloth on the initial-scarred picnic table standing in the shade of an old oak, and anchors it with a wicker picnic basket against a slight warm breeze. From the basket she takes sandwiches, potato salad, melon wedges, and two slices of coconut-custard pie. She also has a large glass bottle of red tea. Ice cubes clink cheerfully inside.
“If we were in Paris, we’d have wine,” Phil says.
“In Paris, we never had another sixty miles to drive on the turnpike,” she replies. “That tea is cold and it’s fresh. You’ll have to make do.”
“I wasn’t carping,” he says, and lays an arthritis-swollen hand over hers (which is also swollen, although marginally less so). “This is a feast, my dear.”
They smile into each other’s used faces. Although Phil has been married three times (and has scattered five children behind him like confetti) and Pauline has been married twice (no children, but lovers of both sexes in the dozens), they still have quite a lot between them. Much more than a spark. Phil is both surprised and not surprised. At his age—late, but not quite yet last call—you take what you can and are happy to get it. They are on their way to a poetry festival at the University of Maine’s Orono campus, and while the compensation for their joint appearance isn’t huge, it’s perfectly adequate. Since he has an expense account, Phil has splurged and rented a Cadillac from Hertz at the Portland Jetport, where he met her plane. Pauline jeered at this, said she always knew he was a plastic hippie, but she does it gently. He wasn’t a hippie, but he was a genuine whatever-he-was, and she knows it. As he knows that her osteoporotic bones have enjoyed the ride.
Now, a picnic. Tonight they’ll have a catered meal, but the food will be a lukewarm, sauce-covered mess o’ mystery supplied by the cafeteria in one of the college commons. “Beige food” is what Pauline calls it. Visiting-poet food is always beige, and in any case it won’t be served until eight o’clock. With some cheap yellowish-white wine seemingly created to saw at the guts of semi-retired alcohol abusers such as themselves. This meal is nicer, and iced tea is fine. Phil even indulges the fantasy of leading her by the hand to the high grass behind the bathrooms once they have finished eating, like in that old Van Morrison song, and—
Ah, but no. Elderly poets whose sex drives are now permanently stuck in first gear should not chance such a potentially ludicrous site of assignation. Especially poets of long, rich, and varied experience, who now know that each time is apt to be largely unsatisfactory, and each time may well be the last time. Besides, Phil thinks, I have already had two heart attacks. Who knows what’s up with her?
Pauline thinks, Not after sandwiches and potato salad, not to mention custard pie. But perhaps tonight. It is not out of the question. She smiles at him and takes the last item from the hamper. It is a New York Times, bought at the same Augusta convenience store where she got the rest of the picnic things, checked cloth and iced-tea bottle included. As in the old days, they flip for the Arts section. In the old days, Phil—who won the National Book Award for Burning Elephants in 1970—always called tails and won far more times than the odds said he should. Today he calls heads … and wins again.
“Why, you snot!” she cries, and hands it over.
They eat. They read the divided paper. At one point she looks at him over a forkful of potato salad and says, “I still love you, you old fraud.”
Phil smiles. The wind blows the gone-to-seed dandelion puff of his hair. His scalp shines gauzily through. He’s not the young man who once came roistering out of Brooklyn, broad-shouldered as a longshoreman (and just as foulmouthed), but Pauline can still see the shadow of that man, who was so full of anger, despair, and hilarity.
“Why, I love you, too, Paulie,” he says.
“We’re a couple of old crocks,” she says, and bursts into laughter. Once she had sex with a king and a movie star at pretty much the same time on a balcony while “Maggie May” played on the gramophone, Rod Stewart singing in French. Now the woman The New York Times once called America’s greatest living female poet lives in a walk-up in Queens. “Doing poetry readings in tank towns for dishonorable honorariums and eating alfresco in rest areas.”
“We’re not old,” he says, “we’re young, ma bébé.”
“What in the world are you talking about?”
“Look at this,” he says, and holds out the first page of the Arts section. She takes it and sees a photograph. It’s a dried-up string of a man wearing a straw hat and a smile.
As she looks at that old, seamed face beneath the rakishly tilted straw hat, Pauline feels the sudden sting of tears. “The body weakens but the words never do,” she says. “That’s lovely.”
“Have you ever read him?” Phil asks.
“Marjorie Morningstar, in my youth. It’s an annoying hymn to virginity, but I was swept away in spite of myself. Have you?”
“I tried Youngblood Hawke, but couldn’t finish it. Still … he’s in there pitching. And he’s old enough to be our father.” He folds the paper and puts it into the picnic basket. Below them, light traffic on the turnpike runs beneath a high September sky full of fair-weather clouds. “Before we get back on the road, do you want to do swapsies? Like in the old days?”
She thinks about it, then nods. Many years have passed since she listened to someone else read one of her poems, and the experience is always a little dismaying—like having an out-of-body experience—but why not? They have the rest area to themselves. “In honor of Herman Wouk, who’s still in there pitching. My work folder’s in the front pocket of my carrybag.”
“You trust me to go through your things?”
She gives him her old slanted smile, then stretches into the sun with her eyes closed. Relishing the heat. Soon the days will turn cold, but now there is heat. “You can go through my things all you want, Philip.” She opens one eye in a reverse wink that is amusingly seductive. “Explore to your heart’s content.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” he says, and goes back to the Cadillac he has rented for them.
Poets in a Cadillac, she thinks. The very definition of absurdity. For a moment she watches the cars rush by. Then she picks up the Arts section and looks again at the narrow, smiling face of the old scribbler. Still alive. Perhaps at this very moment looking up at the high blue September sky, with his notebook open on a patio table and a glass of Perrier (or wine, if his stomach will still stand it) near to hand.
If there is a God, Paulie Enslin thinks, she can occasionally be very generous.
She waits for Phil to come back with her work folder and one of the steno pads he favors for composition. They will play swapsies. Tonight they may play other games. Once again she tells herself, It is not out of the question.
Everything is digital. There’s a satellite radio with a GPS screen above it. When she backs up, the GPS turns into a TV monitor, so you can see what’s behind you. Everything on the dashboard shines, that new-car smell fills the interior, and why not, with only seven hundred and fifty miles on the odometer? She has never in her life been behind the wheel of a motor vehicle with such low mileage. You can push buttons on the control-stalk to show you your average speed, how many miles per gallon you’re getting, and how many gallons you’ve got left. The engine makes hardly any noise at all. The seats up front are twin buckets, upholstered in bone-white material that looks like leather. The shocks are like butter.
In back is a pop-down TV screen with a DVD player. The Little Mermaid won’t work because Truth, Jasmine’s three-year-old, spread peanut butter all over the disc at some point, but they are content with Shrek, even though all of them have seen it like a billion times. The thrill is watching it while they’re on the road! Driving! Freedom is asleep in her car seat between Freddy and Glory; Delight, Jasmine’s six-month-old, is asleep in Jasmine’s lap, but the other five cram together in the two back seats, watching, entranced. Their mouths are hanging open. Jasmine’s Eddie is picking his nose, and Eddie’s older sister, Rosellen, has got drool on her sharp little chin, but at least they are quiet and not beating away at each other for once. They are hypnotized.
Brenda should be happy, she knows she should. The kids are quiet, the road stretches ahead of her like an airport runway, she’s behind the wheel of a brand-new van, and the traffic is light, especially once they leave Portland behind. The digital speedometer reads 70, and this baby hasn’t even broken a sweat. Nonetheless, that grayness has begun to creep over her again. The van isn’t hers, after all. She’ll have to give it back. A foolish expense, really, because what’s at the far end of this trip, up in Mars Hill? Food brought in from the Round-Up Restaurant, where she used to work when she was in high school and still had a figure. Hamburgers and fries covered with plastic wrap. The kids splashing in the pool before and maybe after. At least one of them will get hurt and bawl. Maybe more. And Glory will complain that the water is too cold, even if it isn’t. Glory always complains. She will complain her whole life. Brenda hates that whining and likes to tell Glory it’s her father coming out … but the truth is, the kid gets it from both sides. Poor kid. All of them, really. All poor kids, headed into poor lives.
She looks to her right, hoping Jas will say something funny and cheer her up, and is dismayed to see that Jasmine is crying. Silent tears well up in her eyes and shine on her cheeks. In her lap, baby Delight sleeps on, sucking one of her fingers. It’s her comfort-finger, and all blistered down the inside. Once, Jas slapped her good and hard when she saw Dee sticking it in her mouth, but what good is slapping a kid that’s only six months old? Might as well slap a door. But sometimes you do it. Sometimes you can’t help it. Sometimes you don’t want to help it. Brenda has done it herself.
“What’s wrong, girl?” Brenda asks.
“Nothing. Never mind me, just watch your driving.”
Behind them, Donkey says something funny to Shrek, and some of the kids laugh. Not Glory, though; she’s nodding off.
“Come on, Jas. Tell me. I’m your friend.”
“Nothing, I said.” Jas leans over the sleeping infant. Delight’s baby seat is on the floor. Resting in it on a pile of diapers is the bottle of Allen’s they stopped for in South Portland, before hitting the turnpike. Jas has only had a couple of sips, but this time she takes two good long swallows before putting the cap back on. The tears are still running down her cheeks. “Nothing. Everything. Comes to the same either way you say it, that’s what I think.”
“Is it Tommy? Is it your bro?”
Jas laughs angrily. “They’ll never give me a cent of that money, who’m I kidding? Ma’ll blame it on Dad because that’s easier for her, but she feels the same. It’ll mostly be gone, anyway. What about you? Will your folks really give you something?”
“Sure, I think so.” Well. Yeah. Probably. Like forty dollars. A bag and a half’s worth of groceries. Two bags if she uses the coupons in Uncle Henry’s Swap or Sell It Guide. Just the thought of flipping through that raggy little cheap magazine—the poor people’s Bible—and getting the ink on her fingers causes the grayness around her to thicken. The afternoon is beautiful, more like summer than September, but a world where you have to depend on Uncle Henry’s is a gray world. Brenda thinks, How did we end up with all these kids? Wasn’t I letting Mike Higgins cop a feel of me out behind the metal shop just yesterday?
“Bully for you,” Jasmine says, and snorks back tears. “My folks, they’ll have three new gasoline toys in the dooryard and then plead poverty. And do you know what my dad’ll say about the kids? ‘Don’t let ’em touch anything,’ that’s what he’ll say.”
“Maybe he’ll be different,” Brenda says. “Better.”
“He’s never different and he’s never better,” Jasmine says, “and he never will be.”
In the backseat, Rosellen is drifting off. She tries to put her head on her brother Eddie’s shoulder and he punches her in the arm. She rubs it and begins to snivel, but pretty soon she’s watching Shrek again. The drool is still on her chin. Brenda thinks it makes her look like an idiot, which she pretty close to is.
“I don’t know what to say,” Brenda says. “We’ll have some fun, anyway. Red Roof, girl! Swimming pool!”
“Yeah, and some guy knocking on the wall at one in the morning, telling me to shut my kid up. Like, you know, I want Dee awake in the middle of the night because all those stinkin’ teeth are coming in at once.”
She takes another slug from the coffee-brandy bottle, then holds it out to Brenda. Brenda knows better than to take it, to risk her license … but no cops are in sight and if she did lose her ticket, how much would she really be out? The car was Tim’s, he took it when he left, and it was a half-dead beater anyway, a Bondo-and-chicken-wire special. No great loss there. Besides, there’s that grayness. She takes the bottle and tips it. Just a little sip, but the brandy’s warm and nice, a shaft of dark sunlight, so she takes another one.
“They’re closing the Roll Around at the end of the month,” Jasmine says, taking the bottle back.
“Jassy yes.” She stares straight ahead at the unrolling road. “Jack finally went broke. The writing’s been on the wall since last year. So there goes that ninety a week.” She drinks. In her lap, Delight stirs, then goes back to sleep with her comfort-finger plugged in her gob. Where, Brenda thinks, some boy like Mike Higgins will want to put his dick not all that many years from now. And she’ll probably let him. I did. Jas did too. It’s just how things go.
Behind them Princess Fiona is now saying something funny, but none of the kids laugh. They’re getting glassy, even the older kids. Eddie and Freddy, names like a TV-sitcom joke.
“The world is gray,” Brenda says. She didn’t know she was going to say those words until she hears them come out of her mouth.
Jasmine looks at her, surprised. “That’s right,” she says. “Now you’re getting with the program.”
Brenda says, “Pass me that bottle.”
Jasmine does. Brenda drinks some more, then hands it back. “Okay, enough of that.”
Jasmine gives her her old sideways grin, the one Brenda remembers from study hall on Friday afternoons. It looks strange, below her wet cheeks and bloodshot eyes. “You sure?”
Brenda doesn’t reply, but she pushes the accelerator a little deeper with her foot. Now the digital speedometer reads 80.
All at once she feels shy, afraid to hear her words coming out of Phil’s mouth, sure they will sound booming yet false, like dry thunder. But she has forgotten the difference between his public voice—declamatory and a little corny, like the voice of a movie attorney in a summing-up-to-the-jury scene—and the one he uses when he’s with just a friend or two (and hasn’t had anything to drink). It is a softer, kinder voice, and she is pleased to hear her poem coming out of his mouth. No, more than pleased. She is grateful. He makes it sound far better than it is.
[i]Shadows print the road
with black lipstick kisses.
Decaying snow in farmhouse fields
shines like cast-off bridal dresses.
The rising mist turns to gold dust.
The clouds boil apart and a phantom disc
seems to race behind them.
It bursts through!
For five seconds it could be summer
and I seventeen with flowers
in the lap of my dress.[/i]
He puts the sheet down. She looks at him, smiling a little, but anxious. He nods his head. “It’s fine, dear,” he says. “Fine enough. Now you.”
She opens the steno pad, finds what appears to be the last poem, and pages through four or five scribbled drafts. She knows how he works, and she goes on until she comes to a version not in mostly illegible cursive but in small neat printing. She shows it to him. Phil nods, then turns to look at the turnpike. All of this is very nice, but they will have to go soon. They don’t want to be late.
He sees a bright-red van coming. It’s going fast.
Yes, she thinks, that’s just about right. Thanksgiving for fools.
Freddy will go for a soldier and fight in foreign lands, the way Jasmine’s brother Tommy did. Jasmine’s boys, Eddie and Truth, will do the same. They’ll own muscle cars when and if they come home, and if gas is still available twenty years from now. And the girls? They’ll go with boys. They’ll give up their virginity while game shows play on TV. They’ll have babies and fry meat in skillets and put on weight, same as she and Jasmine did. They’ll smoke a little dope and eat a lot of ice cream—the cheap stuff from Walmart. Maybe not Rosellen, though. Something is wrong with Rosellen. She’ll need to go to the special-ed classes. She’ll still have drool on her sharp little chin when she’s in the eighth grade, same as now. The seven kids will beget seventeen, and the seventeen will beget seventy, and the seventy will beget two hundred. She can see a ragged fool’s parade marching into the future, some wearing jeans that show the ass of their underwear, some wearing heavy-metal T-shirts, some wearing gravy-spotted waitress uniforms, some wearing stretch pants from Kmart that have little MADE IN PARAGUAY tags sewn into the seams of the roomy seats. She can see the mountain of Fisher-Price toys they will own and that will later be sold at yard sales (which was where most were bought in the first place). They will buy the products they see on TV and go in debt to the credit-card companies, as she did … and will again, because the Pick-4 was a fluke and she knows it. Worse than a fluke, really: a tease. Life is basically a rusty hubcap lying in a ditch at the side of the road, and life goes on. She will never again feel like she’s sitting in the cockpit of a jet fighter. This is as good as it gets. Her ship will not come in. There are no boats for nobody, and no camera is filming her life. This is reality, not a reality show.
Shrek is over and all the kids are asleep, even Eddie. Rosellen’s head is once more on Eddie’s shoulder. She’s snoring like an old woman. She has red marks on her arms, because sometimes she can’t stop scratching herself.
Jasmine screws the cap on the bottle of Allen’s and drops it back into the baby seat in the footwell. In a low voice she says, “When I was five, I believed in unicorns.”
“So did I,” Brenda says. She looks at Jasmine. “I wonder how fast this thing goes.”
Jasmine looks at the road ahead. They flash past a blue sign that says REST AREA 1 MI. She sees no traffic northbound; both lanes are entirely theirs. “Let’s find out,” Jasmine says.
The numbers on the speedometer rise from 80 to 85. Then 87. There’s still some room left between the accelerator pedal and the floor. All the kids are sleeping.
Here is the rest area, coming up fast. Brenda sees only one car in the parking lot. It looks like a fancy one, a Lincoln or maybe a Cadillac. I could have rented one of those, she thinks. I had enough money but too many kids. Couldn’t fit them all in. Story of her life, really.
She looks away from the road. She looks at her old friend from high school, who ended up living just one town away. Jasmine is looking back at her. The van, now doing almost a hundred miles an hour, begins to drift.
Jasmine gives a small nod and then lifts Dee, cradling the baby against her big breasts. Dee’s still got her comfort-finger in her mouth.
Brenda nods back. Then she pushes down harder with her foot, trying to find the van’s carpeted floor. It’s there, and she lays the accelerator pedal softly against it.
He reaches out and grabs her shoulder with his bony hand, startling her. She looks up from his poem and sees him staring at the turnpike. His mouth is open and behind his glasses his eyes appear to be bulging out almost far enough to touch the lenses. She follows his gaze in time to see a red van slide smoothly from the travel lane into the breakdown lane and from the breakdown lane across the rest-area entrance ramp. It doesn’t turn in. It’s going far too fast to turn in. It crosses, doing at least ninety miles an hour, and plows onto the slope just below them, where it hits a tree. She hears a loud, toneless bang and the sound of breaking glass. The windshield disintegrates; glass pebbles sparkle for a moment in the sun and she thinks—blasphemously—beautiful.
The tree shears the van into two ragged pieces. Something—Phil Henreid can’t bear to believe it’s a child—is flung high into the air and comes down in the grass. Then the van’s gas tank begins to burn, and Pauline screams.
He gets to his feet and runs down the slope, vaulting over the shakepole fence like the young man he once was. These days his failing heart is seldom far from his mind, but as he runs down to the burning pieces of the van, he never even thinks of it.
Cloud-shadows roll across the field, then across the woods beyond. Wildflowers nod their heads.
He stops twenty yards from the gasoline funeral pyre, the heat baking his face. He sees what he knew he would see—no survivors—but he never imagined so many non-survivors. He sees blood on the grass. He sees a shatter of taillight glass like a patch of strawberries. He sees a severed arm caught in a bush. In the flames he sees a melting baby seat. He sees shoes.
Pauline comes up beside him. She’s gasping for breath. The only thing wilder than her hair are her eyes.
“Don’t look,” he says.
“What’s that smell? Phil, what’s that smell?”
“Burning gas and rubber,” he says, although that’s probably not the smell she’s talking about. “Don’t look. Go back and—do you have your cell phone?”
“Yes, of course I have it—”
“Go back and call 911. Don’t look at this. You don’t want to see this.”
He doesn’t want to see it either, but cannot look away. How many? He can see the bodies of at least three children and one adult—probably a woman, but he can’t be sure. Yet so many shoes … and all the clothes … he can see a DVD package …
“What if I can’t get through?” she asks.
He points to the smoke. Then to the three or four cars that are already pulling over. “Getting through won’t matter,” he says, “but try.”
She starts to go, then turns back. She’s crying. “Phil … how many?”
“I don’t know. A lot. Go on, Paulie. Some of them might still be alive.”
“You know better,” she says through her sobs. “Damn thing was going too fast.”
She begins trudging back up the hill. Halfway to the rest-area parking lot (more cars are pulling in now), a terrible idea crosses her mind and she looks back, sure she will see her old friend and lover lying in the grass himself, perhaps clutching his chest, perhaps unconscious. But he’s on his feet, cautiously circling the blazing left half of the van. As she watches, he takes off his natty sport jacket with the patches on the elbows. He kneels and covers something with it. Either a person or a part of a person. Then he goes on.
Climbing the hill, she thinks that all their efforts to make beauty out of words is an illusion. Or a joke played on children who have selfishly refused to grow up. Yes, probably that. Children like that, she thinks, deserve to be pranked.
As she reaches the parking lot, still gasping for breath, she sees the Times Arts section flipping lazily through the grass on the breath of a light breeze and thinks, Never mind. Herman Wouk is still alive and writing a book about God’s language. Herman Wouk believes that the body weakens, but the words never do. So that’s all right, isn’t it?
A man and a woman rush up. The woman raises her own cell phone and takes a picture with it. Pauline Enslin observes this without much surprise. She supposes the woman will show it to friends later. Then they will have drinks and a meal and talk about the grace of God. God’s grace looks intact every time it’s not you.
“What happened?” the man shouts into her face.
Down below them a skinny old poet is happening. He’s now naked to the waist. He has taken off his shirt to cover one of the other bodies. His ribs are a stack outlined against white skin. He kneels and spreads the shirt. He raises his arms into the sky, then lowers them and wraps them around his head.
Pauline is also a poet, and as such feels capable of answering the man in the language God speaks.
“What the fuck does it look like?” she says.