From Supernatural Stories 19 - 1958
NIGHT OF THE GHOUL
BY BRON FANE
Copyright © R. Lionel Fanthorpe
Used with permission
“What fearsome horror lurked among the tombs and preyed upon the dead?”
A gibbous moon broke the dark isolation of sky that seemed to hang like an inverted black bowl above the little town of Wellbridge. Below it the earth was a panorama of smudgy grey shadows, and dark, vague outlines that stood out blacker than the rest.
Wellbridge was a quaint old market town that could trace its history back for over thirteen hundred years. The town had grown more during the last half-century than at any time during its history, and many of its older inhabitants looked with nostalgic regret at the lines of neat council houses which now covered the green lanes of their childhood. The market place was still cobbled at one end, and the gay stalls of the traders bedecked it every Tuesday and Friday.
Farmers from the neighbouring villages bought and sold cattle and sheep in the pens of its auction mart, and their thick tweeds were a welcome sight to the townspeople. Wellbridge boasted of no fewer than seventeen inns, the two largest of which dignified themselves by the name of hotels — neither of them, however, had been able to coax even a single star out of the A.A. Handbook! The main A10 trunk road ran straight through the main street, and an almost constant stream of cars, lorries and vans trundled through by day and night. This same main street was intersected about midway by another road, more residential in character, which curved round at both ends until it rejoined the Market Square.
To the south, by following this intersecting road, and then forking left, you could come to the industrial end of the town, where an iron foundry stood proudly along side a big, modern furniture factory. To the north lay the hospital, and paradoxically, the water works, gasworks, and electricity board switching station, all in a line.
The water-works, perched highest of the three on the top slopes of a chalky hill, looked down over the town like an eagle in an eyrie.
The gas-works, at the bottom of the hill, belched out foul fumes whenever the mood took it, and raised and lowered its gasholders rhythmically, like a man in a deep sleep, who breathes heavily.
The switching station was a flat, utilitarian building, in the centre of an intricate web of power supply lines. A high wire fence isolated it from the rest of humanity, and a notice on the grey steel gate proclaimed that there was danger within. It seemed to look symbolically up towards the water plant, as if acknowledging that here was the one public utility even more necessary than itself, and at the same time it contrived to overlook its smoky, ugly sister with an air of ill-concealed superiority.
The Wellbridge Church was a beautiful cruciform building, commenced in the fourteenth century and completed in the fifteenth. Its stained glass windows were medieval — and priceless accordingly. Its rugged square tower rose like a sentinel to guard the town and its people from danger. The ornamental stone font below the belfry was a piece of superlative Renaissance craftsmanship, and the delicately carved altar screen attracted connoisseurs of ecclesiastical art from miles around.
Wellbridge was duly proud of its church, not only because of the bricks and mortar of its structure, but because of the impetus which it gave to the communal life of the town. It was a focal point, a meeting place of many folk with wide diversities of gifts, but at the same time a common all-uniting purpose. The life of the Church was the strongly-beating heart of the town, the mainspring of its corporate existence. In its shadow lay the uneven rows of graves — some of which dated back to the seventeenth century. The church itself was a good and holy place — the graveyard surrounding it was not.
The atmosphere of holiness and peace which filled the church, ended with startling abruptness outside. Here, there was a vague feeling of uneasy restlessness, as if the long-forgotten dead were discontented with their silent lot. In many places ancient head-stones with indecipherable inscriptions leaned over at crazy, drunken angles. Dark, sinuous yew trees thrust their tenuous roots into the putrescence below ground. Iron cradles, overgrown with grass and briers, protected several of the early graves — a tribute to the days when body-snatching was considered a relevant danger. Marble angels, with expressions of cold, stony piety, hovered frigidly in odd corners of the burial ground and vied with the occasional needle-shaped monument that rose on some of the wealthier graves.
Canon Edwards walked slowly down the vicarage path and looked up at the moon. The day had been trying, he reflected rather sadly, and night had brought, not blessed rest or blissful slumbers, but the arduous task of preparing two sermons, and writing a minimum of five urgent letters.
Andrew sighed gently to himself and continued his slow, measured strolling towards the church. He had tried valiantly to complete the sermons, but the letters had, as it were, pumped his mind dry of creative thought, and he knew that he must let it rest and recuperate before trying to complete the morrow’s discourses.
Should he give them the social gospel again, he pondered? Amos, Hosea and Micah, perhaps, with selected readings from Isaiah in addition? Or would something more spiritual be better. Something deep and intimate that would pour soothing balm on to wounded souls and give new strength to the strong? The 14th chapter of John might be appropriate, he thought, or perhaps one of the Pauline epistles. He walked on undecided. Along the narrow paths between the graves, picking his way carefully between the headstones. The church clock began to strike midnight with a dull booming note, and the clergyman glanced up at the shadowy, dark outline of the tower.
“Midnight already,” he murmured. “Oh, dear, how fast time flies — ‘The moving finger writes . . .’ Alas, mine does not, but it should!” He smiled a little to himself, and began retracing his steps to the vicarage. Andrew was past middle life and his movements were not rapid. But behind him, among the tombs, lurked something whose movements were extremely rapid . . .
It was the faint sound of one of these movements which made Edwards pause and listen intently. Something like a heavy footfall sounded not far away in the darkness behind . . . followed by another . . . then another!
Andrews was not by any means a nervous individual, but it suddenly dawned on him that he was alone in a very old churchyard at midnight. It was neither the time nor the place in which one expected to hear sudden, heavy footsteps . . .
“Who’s there?” he called quietly, but with an edge to his voice that might have been fear. There was no answer at first — and then — he saw it! And cried out in sudden dismay and alarm. Crouching behind a drunken headstone was a dark, shadowy figure, like something out of a madman’s dream. The vicar’s eyes contracted with fear as he found himself staring into a pair of baleful, yellow orbs that had never had their origin in this world. Despite the darkness he could make out a ghastly hunched creature of prodigious size, with a tangled mass of hair hanging from its forehead, and limbs like tree trunks. It was about the size of a bullock, but in some dreadful way it bore a marked resemblance to a human figure.
Canon Edwards began backing away as fast as he could go, his face distorted in an expression of abject terror. His slithering feet missed the path, made contact with an iron cradle hoop, and he fell heavily to the ground. Dazed and shaken, he lay where he had fallen, peering anxiously into the darkness, and wondering whether his overtaxed mind had been playing tricks upon him.
The eyes were still there. Eyes that reflected the most savage depths of nether hell. Eyes that burned with an unholy, evil light — like sulphur candles at the black mass. Eyes that seemed to bore into his very soul.
Andrew felt as if he was in the grip of some terrible nightmare. He was powerless to move, and the eyes were coming nearer. Suddenly he found his voice again.
“Help!” he screamed in desperation. “Help! Save me!” It was fortunate for Canon Edwards that he had a powerful and penetrating voice!
“What the blazes was that?” asked Val Stearman and trod heavily on the brakes of his big new sports car. The glamorous raven-haired girl beside him sat listening intently
“Help!” screamed the vicar as the shadowy thing bore down upon him, eyes blazing, hideous jaws agape.
“Over that wall!” cried La Noire quickly, and leapt out of the car in a lithe, graceful bound. Val followed her out and dashed to the low stone wall surrounding the churchyard.
“It’s a cemetery!” he gasped as he vaulted lightly over and drew a powerful torch from the pocket of his mac. “Merciful heavens — look!” he exclaimed.
The strong white beam picked out a huge form moving rapidly among the tombs. A dark, twisted monstrosity, not entirely unlike a man, was darting away from the light. Val got the impression of a gorilla-like head, armed with huge fangs and eyes like twin pools of liquid fire. The body seemed to be covered in a tangled mat of thick, dark hair, and the limbs looked enormous.
La Noire clutched his arm tightly.
“Whatever was it?” he asked in a shaken voice. His wife’s lovely face had turned dreadfully pale in the torchlight.
“It was one of them,” she whispered, in a frightened voice. “One of the Dark Creatures that belong to the underworld.”
“Dark Creatures?” echoed Val. “What do you mean, exactly?” La Noire took a deep breath.
“It was a ghoul,” she answered in a voice that shook with emotion. “A ghoul that preys upon the dead.” Val looked shaken.
“But the cry for help —” he began. Ahead of them in the darkness someone moaned softly. The big journalist hurried forward, then stopped abruptly as he saw the inert form of the clergyman. Handing the torch to La Noire he stooped swiftly and examined him.
“He’s alive,” he answered, “but he seems to be suffering from shock. I think I’ll risk moving him.” As easily as if the twelve-stone priest had been a child, Val picked him up in his arms and began walking back to the car, with La Noire illuminating the path. As he was straddling the wall, Andrew Edwards opened dilated eyes and gazed at him uncomprehendingly.
“Who are you?” he croaked weakly.
“My name’s Val Stearman,” answered the journalist. “I was driving past when I heard you shout for help.” He set the vicar carefully on his feet and opened the car door for him. Edwards pulled the seat forward and slumped into the back.
“Did you see it?” he asked faintly.
“We certainly did,” shuddered La Noire.
“Oh, this is my wife,” explained Stearman. The clergy man extended his hand.
“My name’s Andrew Edwards. I’m the vicar of this parish and I feel that I owe you both a great deal.”
“Tell us what happened,” invited Stearman, as he helped his wife in and closed the nearside door.
“Well, I was just strolling through the churchyard when I heard a sound like heavy footsteps,” began the vicar.
“Isn’t it a little late for an evening constitutional?” interrupted the reporter, as he climbed back behind the wheel.
“Of course,” agreed Edwards. “You see, I had been very busy with some urgent correspondence and I needed a break before I could complete my sermons,” he explained.
“Can I drive you home as you tell me?” suggested the journalist.
“It would be most kind of you,” said the clergyman. “Are you quite sure I’m not putting you out?”
“Not at all,” smiled La Noire dazzlingly.
“Well, I would be very glad of some company,” admitted the vicar.
“I can understand that,” said Val. “So would I be in your circumstances. It gave me a pretty horrible scare and I’m used to living on the edge of a precipice.” La Noire squeezed his arm affectionately.
“What do you do, then?” enquired Edwards in some surprise.
“Oh, it’s not the job that’s dangerous,” smiled Stearman. “You see, some time back my wife and I fell foul of a black magic group — a pretty nasty coven of wizards, necromancers and witches — the lot!”
“Is this a joke?” gasped Andrew.
“It’s as true as life and death,” chimed in La Noire, musically. “But Val’s being modest again. The truth is, I was mixed up with them, and he rescued me.” She paused. “They’ve been after us ever since — off and on,” she added quietly.
“But who are they?” asked the clergyman.
“Two unsavoury characters named Jules and Van Haak, plus a rather unpleasant hunchback,” answered Val. “The doctor, that’s Jules, though heaven alone knows what he’s doctor of — unless it’s devilry! — is as thin as a rake, and he’s got a face like Boris Karloff, only worse. Van Haak is a fat, greasy, dirty-old-man type, whose main interest in black magic was the female angle. He calls himself a professor, but I should think the only thing he could profess is complete ignorance! He’s not so dangerous as Jules, but he’s quite capable of murder, all the same.”
The reporter paused for an instant. “As a matter of fact, they’ve made over twenty attempts on our lives in the last few months.” The vicar gave a startled gasp. “We traced them up to an old Scottish castle recently,” went on Stearman, “where they dropped a coping stone on my car — not this one,” he explained. “This one’s the replacement!”
“I can understand why you weren’t afraid of that — that monstrosity in the churchyard,” said the vicar admiringly.
“Oh, I wouldn’t say we weren’t afraid,” broke in La Noire. “I’ve heard a great deal about ghouls, but this was the first one I’ve ever seen. I don’t want to ever see another, either,” she concluded.
“Please carry on with your account of what happened, vicar,” said Val over his shoulder. “I’m afraid I very rudely interrupted you.”
“Not a bit of it,” said Edwards “Anyway,” he went on, “I heard those sounds like heavy footsteps, and then I saw a pair of great, hideous, yellow eyes staring at me from behind a headstone.”
“Yes. We saw the eyes, too,” said La Noire. “They were dreadful, really evil.”
“I tried to back away,” continued Andrew. “But unluckily I caught my foot on one of the iron hoops on an anti-body-snatching cradle, and I fell rather heavily. Next thing I knew, it was coming towards me, and I began screaming for help. I thought my last hour had come when I caught a glimpse of those teeth,” he hesitated. “I suppose I must have fainted then, because the next thing I remember I was in your arms being carried to safety. What did actually happen?”
“Well, we heard you shout, so I slammed on the anchors and we jumped over the wall. As soon as the light of my torch fell on the creature it turned and ran. Then we heard you moaning on the ground. I picked you up and the rest you know,” said Val.
“I see,” mused the clergyman. “It all seems like some terrible nightmare — oh, turn here, this is the vicarage gate.” They drove down slowly, the powerful headlights of the big sports making the shrubbery stand out like an enchanted fairy wood of green and silver.
“Won’t you come in?” invited the vicar as Val drew up outside the door.
“Well, perhaps just for a few moments,” said the big man. “What do you think, sweet?” He turned to La Noire. “After all, we are on holiday, our time’s our own.”
“Oh, then, you simply must come in,” insisted their new-found friend. “You seem to know a great deal about the supernatural and I want to ask you a good many questions about that — that thing in the churchyard.”
“O.K., then,” smiled La Noire. “Though we’re not such great experts as all that.” Andrew led the way into a comfortably furnished lounge, and ushered them into a seat. A cheerful log fire still burned brightly in the grate, for it was now late summer and the evenings were turning treacherously cold after sunset.
Mrs. Barton, who cooked, washed and generally assisted Mrs. Edwards with the domestic work of the vicarage, was staying extra late because the clergyman’s wife was in bed with flu. Mrs. Barton was an efficient, matronly woman, who could produce tea and sandwiches at the shortest possible notice, for she had had long experience of ecclesiastical catering. She produced them with her accustomed speed, and Val and his wife ate and drank as they talked.
“These ghouls,” began the canon. “What manner of beings are they?” He looked completely nonplussed. Stearman looked at La Noire.
“They are creatures of the Dark Realm,” she began slowly. “Low on the order of evil entities. They are like the living dead, the vampires, the werewolves, the leopard men, in so far as they are neither truly spirit nor truly mortal.”
“I think I begin to understand,” said Edwards. “I have read of those other creatures before.”
“The ghoul depends on sustenance upon the flesh of decaying corpses, just as the vampires drink blood, and the werewolves devour living men,” went on La Noire. The clergyman shuddered.
“The flesh of decaying corpses,” he echoed in incredulous horror. “How revolting! How obscene!”
“It’s also true,” La Noire assured him in a firm voice. “I have seen the evidence. I have heard it discussed many times. As years go, I am still young — but because of the things I have seen, I am as old as the rivers and the mountains,” she whispered in a strange, faraway voice.
Val looked at her curiously for a second. He knew that no man could ever hope to fully understand any woman — but La Noire! Here was Mystery with a capital M, and an eternal enigma beyond his comprehension. But he was happy, nonetheless, for he had resigned himself, soon after their wedding, to accepting her as she was, complete with mystery — for he loved her, mystery and all! As deeply and fervently as she loved him! So he let her unanswerable questions go unanswered . . .
“How are these monsters born?” asked Edwards suddenly. “Are they spawned in hell, or do they come to us from remote, uncivilised places where black magic is still strong?”
“Black magic is still strong in civilised lands,” murmured La Noire. “But as to the other question — how shall I answer you? Vampire begets vampire by the power of contamination. The victim is bitten and bled to death; after death, he or she becomes a vampire — so the deadly cycle repeats itself. So were the were-beasts; the death-bite of a were-wolf means that the victim is also contaminated. But a ghoul? Corpses cannot be affected by its loathsome attentions, so then, from whence do they come? I can only guess, like you, and say that they are spawned in the pit. How hideous their infernal metabolism is? How nauseating their dreadful way of life? It was truly said, by one of old, that the life of a ghoul is death.”
“Is there any weapon effective against them?” asked the clergyman thoughtfully. Val Stearman broke into the conversation.
“There are three main weapons against evil on this plane,” he said. “The first is holy water sprinkled by a priest; the second is silver and the third is light. You remember I told you that the ghoul fled from the light of my torch,” he added.
“Yes, I see,” murmured the clergyman. “Holy water I know about. It’s used in exorcism services — though to tell the truth, I’ve never done one. The other two are obvious, really, when you come to think about them. Silver has always traditionally been the holy metal and light is the obvious enemy of darkness.” He paused for an instant, deep in thought. “There’s scriptural evidence for that, too,” he went on. “In the beginning of things God said ‘Let there be light’ and there was light. And in John’s Gospel we read ‘The light shone in darkness and the darkness comprehended it not.’ Modern translations render that as ‘The light shone in darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it’.” He snapped his fingers suddenly. “I’ll preach on that tomorrow!” he exclaimed with a note of triumph in his voice. “I had been experiencing great difficulty in finding a text . . .”
Val was thinking hard and he caught La Noire’s arm suddenly. “These ghouls dearest,” he said quickly. “Where do they spend the hours of daylight? Vampires have to sleep in their coffins. Werewolves turn back into their human forms until the next full moon — but what do ghouls do?” La Noire looked puzzled for a moment, and then the card index of her memory came up with the right answer.
“They live in subterranean burrows, like bears that hibernate in dens,” she whispered. “It could be anywhere below ground. An old vault, a disused well, an empty tomb, perhaps even a tunnel that it has hollowed out for itself among the graves . . .” CRASH! Her words were interrupted by a sudden shot, and there was the sound of smashing glass as the bullet shattered a large mirror behind Val Stearman.
The big reporter threw La Noire and the vicar to the floor, then quickly snapped out the light. With a speed that was surprising for so big a man, he crossed to the window and drew his own deadly Browning — the gun with a difference. Val and La Noire had enemies who were impervious to lead — the big Browning was loaded with silver.
Outside in the darkness Stearman caught a fleeting glimpse of a hunched, twisted figure, silhouetted momentarily against the horizon. He needed no second glance — the Browning spoke out twice and there was a scream of pain from the garden.
“Got the devil at last!” said Val, with grim satisfaction. “That’ll teach them to leave us alone, darling.”
Outside, silence reigned and the only movement within was the rustling of the curtain as the chill night breeze swept through the shattered window. There was the sound of sudden footsteps on the gravel and the roar of a car starting. Val threw up the window and leapt out, but his enemies’ car was already gathering speed in the distance, and he knew that for that night he must content himself with the hunchback. He climbed back into the lounge and switched on the light once more.
“Both all right?” he asked anxiously.
“Just bruised and surprised,” answered his wife ruefully. “Who did you hit?”
“The hunchback,” gritted Val with satisfaction. “Smallest of the trio, but a good night’s work all the same.” He took the torch out of his mac pocket and the others followed him out into the garden. They came across the twisted body of the would-be murderer, half-hidden by a laurel bush behind which it had fallen. One glance was enough to show that the sinister hunchback was dead.
“It looks as if we’re going to be around for a few days,” sighed the journalist, as he eyed the gun that was still clutched in the dead man’s hand. “At least we have an unimpeachable witness to testify that he fired first.”
“Of course,” said the vicar rather faintly. “But all this has, been a terrible shock to me. I think we’d better call the police now.”
“Sure,” agreed Val, and they walked back to the house, to be met by a frightened Mrs. Edwards, demanding to know the meaning of the commotion that had aroused her.
* * *
The Wellbridge C.I.D. was slow but thorough, and while the fullest possible investigation was being made into the hunchback’s death, Val and La Noire were politely but firmly told to stay in town. Andrew Edwards invited them to stay at the vicarage till the matter was cleared up, adding, “I’d also like you to help me find the lair of this other foul fiend”
“What? The ghoul?” asked Val. The clergyman took a breath.
“I’ve given a great deal of thought to it,” he began. “I feel that no member of my parish, none of my flock, will be really safe until the fiend has been destroyed. I also realise that it would be rather difficult to convince the authorities of its existence. Besides, there’s the publicity to consider. I want worshippers in our church — not a rabble of ghoul-hunting sightseers.” He paused and gave a wry little smile. “Just imagine what the Sunday newspapers would make of it!”
Val grinned good naturedly. “I write a regular column for one, and I free lance for others,” he protested. “Some of them do a lot of good, really.” He exchanged glances with La Noire.
“That’s how we met,” explained his wife. “Val wrote a devastating article decrying all occultists as cranks and charlatans. I was a professional medium then; and I wrote, challenging him to come and see the facts.” Her voice became suddenly very tender. “Oddly enough it was I who saw the light, for that was the night Jules and Van Haak tried to sacrifice me, but Val prevented them.” She sighed. “It’s a long story, vicar; too long to tell now, in fact.”
“I’m sorry if I said anything derogatory about the Press,” apologised Edwards. “But you do see my point about the publicity, don’t you?” Val nodded.
“Of course,” he assured him. “And if I ever use the story, I promise that neither you nor Wellbridge will be recognisable.”
“Thank you,” answered the clergyman. “I knew you’d understand.” He looked from one to the other imploringly. “Will you help me?” he asked. “Can you help me? I shan’t be able to rest until this monster has been laid.”
“Of course we’ll help you,” said Val. “Won’t we, darling?” La Noire smiled.
“I won’t pretend I’m not a little afraid, but well help you,” she confirmed. Andrew Edwards looked as if a heavy burden had been lifted from his shoulders.
“I can only say that I shall be eternally grateful,” he said thankfully, suddenly he glanced at his watch and gave a little gasp of dismay. “You must excuse me — I shall be late for morning service.” He apologised rapidly and darted upstairs to change. Val and La Noire walked slowly out into the vicarage garden. The birds were singing gaily in the late summer sunshine, and a bright array of flowering shrubs added brightness and perfume to the morning air. Val strode across to the spot where the hunchback’s body had fallen.
“It’s hard to believe he’s really dead,” he murmured softly to La Noire. She nodded.
“I feel that the others are still nearby,” she said, with a trace of anxiety in her voice. “Oh, will they never give up?” Val looked grimly at the flattened grass below the bush where their enemy had fallen and died.
“I’ve an idea this will discourage them,” he said sternly. “I’m not callous or inhuman, but I can’t regret the death of that devil by one iota. I could quite cheerfully shoot the other two in cold blood, given the opportunity.”
La Noire looked up at him, gazed up into his eyes, and understood. They had threatened her. That was the crux of the matter — and Val could neither forgive nor forget.
A cold anger, like Captain Ahab’s hatred of Moby Dick, burned in his very soul, and its icy fire would not be extinguished until the big Browning he carried had crashed its silver shots into Van Haak and Jules, as well as into their minion who had died during the night.
“There may be worse things than ghouls lurking in Wellbridge,” he said with dark foreboding. “But they’ll find us ready for them.” They walked on into the churchyard and listened to the pealing bells that called the faithful to morning prayer. With a smile, Andrew Edwards hurried past them, gown flying out behind him.
“See you at lunch,” he called over his shoulder and disappeared into a side entrance of the stately old building. The congregation were beginning to drift in, in ones and twos, family groups mainly. Small town tradespeople in their Sunday suits and best summer frocks, wearing gay out-of-fashion hats ornamented with last year’s trimmings. Here was a factory worker, unrecognisably smart in a grey pinstripe and faultless white shirt. A little way behind walked the local ironmonger, a balding individual with heavy horn-rimmed glasses. Val and La Noire watched them until the bells ceased their call, and the door closed behind the last of them.
“You look thoughtful,” said Stearman. La Noire smiled, a trifle wistfully, he thought.
“I was thinking about people,” she mused in a faraway voice. “Hundreds of people, thousands — millions — uncountable hosts and multitudes — all different. Every one with his or her own thoughts and feelings. Every separate individual with their own thoughts — hopes — fears.”
She paused and looked round at the gravestones surrounding them. “In a hundred years time we shall be there.” She pointed to the green turf that covered the silent, half-forgotten dead. “It frightens me sometimes, Val,” she whispered. “I know there’s an afterlife, because I’ve contacted the souls of the departed so many times, but it still frightens me to think about crossing that dark threshold into the Unknown.” He put his strong right arm comfortingly around her.
“I know,” he murmured understandingly. “I know exactly how you feel, my dear one — I often feel the same myself. A few years ago I was pretty much an atheist, or at least an agnostic, and I often used to coldly deliberate on life and death. I used to try to imagine what it was like to be dead, to have no feelings, no thoughts, no sensations — no knowledge of my own existence. To be dead was to be nothing and to know nothing, an infinitely more terrible thing than being alive in hell. The sort of hell the fundamentalists dream about, anyway.” He grinned.
They strolled on a few paces and stood looking at one of the older headstones. “Sacred to the memory of Tobias Fletcher,” read La Noire, “born January 4th, 1804. Died January 4th, 1874.”
“The years of man are three score and ten,” quoted Val, “and his were, to the day — it’s rather odd, isn’t it?” He put his hand on the weathered stone. “It’s strange to think of him, living and dying almost fifty years before we were born,” he mused. “He never saw an aeroplane or even a motor car. No one had even thought of sputniks in his day — or thermo-nuclear warfare. Victoria sat on the throne, and the rich sat on the poor. There was no Trade Union to speak of; Kier Hardie was still a long way from Westminster and Britannia ruled the waves with great pomp and ceremony, building up a heritage of angry native populations who are now beginning to ask for independence.” He looked at the stone again. “Tobias Fletcher: I wonder whether he’d have changed his life for seventy years in this century?”
“Would you have changed yours for seventy in his?” asked his wife.
“Not unless you were there, too,” he answered. They walked on, remembering the grim purpose of their search but not wishing to appear too interested for fear of attracting undue public attention.
“What’s this?” asked La Noire as they paused by the entrance to an ancient family vault. Val followed the direction of her gaze and gave a little involuntary gasp. There in the soft soil by the entrance to the tomb was a footprint. A large, clearly-defined impression that had never been made by any human foot. As Val continued to study it he remembered bear tracks that he had seen in Alaska during one of his globe-trotting assignments in the past. This print was bigger than they had been, and not quite the same shape, but there were undeniable similarities. They looked at each other questioningly. The sun seemed to have gone behind a cloud and an unhealthy chill had descended on the cemetery.
“I rather fancy this is it,” gritted Val, “but we’ll have to wait till nightfall.”
* * *
As dusk fell over the town the church clock struck nine and three furtive figures stepped from the rectory.
“It’s years since that vault was opened,” said Andrew. “It originally belonged to the de Crecy family, but the last of them died out in the middle of the 18-hundreds.”
“Which seems to confirm our suspicions,” said the big journalist. “This ghoul would want a place where it wasn’t likely to be disturbed, and what could be better than the tomb of an extinct family?”
As they crossed the meadow separating the cemetery from the vicarage, two pairs of eyes watched their every movement. Evil, malicious eyes — the eyes of Dr. Jules and Van Haak. Val and his two companions reached the little lych-gate that led into the graveyard, and stepped inside. In the darkness behind them, two pairs of stealthy feet crept closer. The journalist and his party reached the tomb of the de Crecy’s. Van Haak and Jules reached the lych-gate. The darkness was falling fast now, and the atmosphere in the graveyard was uncanny.
“I feel a presence nearby,” whispered La Noire anxiously. Val looked at her questioningly.
“Is it the ghoul?” he asked softly.
“I don’t know,” she answered with a troubled frown, “but I can definitely sense something evil close at hand.”
Andrew Edwards produced a flask of holy water and a crucifix from beneath his robes, and, stood ready as Val took hold of the ancient door. It creaked eerily as the reporter forced it open, and La Noire’s torch illuminated a flight of dark stone steps descending into the very bowels of the earth.
“It’s deeper than I thought,” exclaimed the clergyman, as he peered down into the Stygian darkness beyond the beam of light.
“Come on,” said Val and drew his gun purposefully. La Noire clung tightly to his other arm and together the three of them descended the ancient steps. Unseen in the darkness above them, two stealthy figures crossed the graveyard, making their way rapidly towards the open door of the vault. Van Haak and Jules were about to execute their fiendish plan.
Edwards reached the bottom of the stairs and stood peering into the darkness ahead. La Noire’s torch revealed row upon row of stone shelves on which lay the leaden caskets of the long-dead de Crecys. She gave a little shudder as a large bat, disturbed by the light, fluttered past them and up the stairs towards the door of the vault. Ahead of them they heard another sound, like the stirring of a huge beast of prey awakening from sleep. Edwards turned deathly pale and began chant softly a prayer of exorcism, holding his crucifix aloft as he did so. Behind them a heavy door slammed and they heard bolts being forced into their rusted sockets.
“Damn!” swore Val forcefully. “Van Haak and Jules! They must have seen us go down.”
“We’re trapped!” screamed La Noire, “and look, here comes the ghoul!” Val’s hand tightened on the gun and Andrew quickly uncorked his flask of holy water.
The ghoul was a fearsome sight. It came at them in a half-crouching position. Its great jaws agape, its yellow eyes blazing like the fires of hell. It roared like thunder and its claws flexed and struck at the air as it prepared to attack. Stearman thrust La Noire quickly behind him and fired twice at the fiendish carrion. Canon Edwards threw the water over it in a silvery cascade of shining drops.
“Begone in the Name of the Most High!” he cried in a loud, clear voice, and the ghoul gave a dreadful animal scream as the precious fluid struck its foul body. It lurched for a second and then came on again unsteadily. Val fired once more and watched it stagger as the deadly white metal tore into it. But poison though the silver was, the ghoul was not so allergic to it as a vampire or werewolf would have been, and although mortally wounded, it continued to advance, roaring hideously the while.
One huge claw slashed across the journalist’s shoulder, and thrusting the muzzle of his gun close against the ferocious head, he emptied the magazine ruthlessly. Like a wind-torn oak, the huge creature crashed to the floor and began dissolving into dust before their very eyes. A few seconds more and only a heap of unrecognisable fragments remained of the fearsome ghoul of Wellbridge.
Hurriedly they ascended the stairs and Stearman thrust a new magazine into the gun. At the top of the ancient steps they hesitated.
“Ten to one, they’re waiting outside,” muttered the journalist, and La Noire nodded. There was a sudden hissing sound and the vicar sniffed the air with a puzzled frown.
“Gas!” he exclaimed in alarm. “They must have put a cylinder of gas out there, with a tube leading under the door.”
“The devil they have!” roared Val. There was no time to be lost. His powerful shoulder crashed against the door — once — twice — he began to feel faintly sick as the gas took its effect. Crash! The ancient woodwork of the door tore away from the bolts and they were out. Val sucked in great gulps of fresh air and kicked the cylinder away, still hissing venomously. A bullet whined savagely past his ear and he ducked instinctively.
“Keep down!” he warned, and loosed off with the Browning, but flying feet made the road well ahead of him, and once more he had to content himself with a final shot at the disappearing tail lights of the enemies’ car. This chapter was over. Jules and Van Haak were still at large, but Val had reduced their number by one, at any rate. He was not dissatisfied with the hunchback. It had definitely been his round . . .
They walked back to the rectory in thoughtful silence, wondering if, and where, Jules and Van Haak would strike again . . .
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