From Supernatural Stories 33 - 1960
BY BRON FANE
Copyright © R. Lionel Fanthorpe
Used with permission
“He seemed to recognise the shadowy faces of the audience . . . and then he remembered — they were dead!”
Val Stearman was suddenly aware that something was horribly, terribly wrong, though for the life of him he couldn’t think what it was. It was a vague, indefinite sensation, yet it struck terror to the roots of his hair, and sent icy trickles up and down his muscular back. Of course, the theatre was dark, and he knew, that deep within his own subconscious mind was that primordial fear of the dark, which is inherent in even the bravest mortal man. He turned and whispered quietly to La Noire, his mysterious, dark-haired wife, who sat beside him, engrossed in the play. Usually it was she who was the more hypersensitive of the two, particularly in matters bordering on the occult. But now, as she shook her head, and her long, black, rippling hair gleamed and cascaded in the dim lights of the theatre, Val realised that this experience of uncanny weirdness was his alone. Something was decidedly odd — he couldn’t put his finger on it, and because the fear was nameless it was all the more deadly. All the more dangerous. All the more horrible!
He tried to put his attention back on the play, but it refused to go back, so he tried another tack, he started thinking about the theatre as an abstract thing.
He started thinking about theatrical tradition and theatrical history. He thought of the golden age of Greek drama, and remembered that close to the Acropolis which had been the citadel of Athens, stood the ruins of the theatre of Dionysus. The theatre in which the greatest of the old Greek plays had been presented. In the earliest period of Greek drama, he recalled the theatre had been nothing more nor less than an open space in which the altar of Dionysus — who had been the patron god of the theatre — had been set up while the chorus revolved round it, and a solitary actor, standing upon a wagon would make his addresses to it. The first theatre had been constructed of stone, five hundred years before Christ had lived and moved and had His Being in Palestine — half a millennia before the Christian era, the Ancient Greeks, thirty thousand of them in that one great open-air theatre, had heard the words of the first real actor as he recited the lines of the first great playwright. The ancient Greek dramas flashed through Val Stearman’s mind. Filling his consciousness, and trying to force out the strange, unhappy feeling of foreboding that filled him now. To comfort himself, and get rid of this odd feeling he slid his hand up across his chest and his fingers lightly caressed the butt of the heavy .45, without which he never traveled.
He closed his eyes and both theatre and play slid away from him. He seemed to find himself in the ancient Greek theatre. Its seats were built on the side of a hill. All the spectators on that rising slope, had a clear, unobstructed view of the circle where, in the very beginning of it all, Dionysus had been worshipped with choric dances. So vivid was Stearman’s imagination, that at the back of the orchestra he could see a platform half a score feet high, a platform which, with the passage of time, had been modified into a recognisable stage. The rear of the stage was covered with the decorated fronts of stage buildings. These had been the historical equivalent of a back-drop, and contained the actors’ dressing-rooms. Language, he thought, is a strange, historical link, for the Greek had used words which — slightly amended — were still used today, and had lasted throughout the centuries. His mind flashed back to the present, and he snapped out of his mood of reverie. Was this, he wondered, in some purely mechanical way, the reason for his feeling of uneasiness. This fact of the almost unbroken line of tradition? The thing with a history extending over three thousand years was as powerful and as sinister as the great Pyramid, and the Sphinx. Institutions could harbour the macabre, in the same way that buildings could do so. The older a ruin, the more likely that it should be the environment of the supernatural. And if an old building was capable of harbouring within its decaying bricks and mortar, within its crumbling piles of ancient hewn stone, some faint ethereal essence of lives long past, then surely, a living institution like the theatre, could also harbour traces of the long distant past. Orchestra, he thought, was the Greek word which meant, a dancing place, and the word still used today for that part of the theatre immediately in front of the stage. The word “scenery”, too, came from the Greek language. “Skene” had meant a booth, and was used to indicate the buildings on the stage which did duty as scenery in the old days of the theatre. The proscenium, which indicates in modern usage the part of the stage in front of the curtain, had also come from an ancient Greek word — that word was “proskenion”, which had also indicated the stage front. The Greek theatres had, of course, been roofless, and performances could only be given by daylight. For despite their great prowess and activity in other fields of endeavour, the Greeks had never really mastered the secret of the success of artificial lighting, any more than the Romans had. Changes of scenery, of course, had been very rare in those early Greek days. And only the most elementary types of stage machinery had been familiar to the grandfathers of the theatre. There had been a kind of primordial thunder machine, and a crane, from which dangled actors who represented gods! In order to increase the audibility of the performers’ voices in such an enormous auditorium, the players wore masks which increased the carrying power of their voices and also depicted appropriate facial expressions.
Tragic actors traditionally wore a very thick-soled boot, known as a “buskin”, which increased their height.
Val Stearman’s mind flashed from Greece to Rome — it was quite a logical progression. Drama at Rome had begun as early as 240 B.C., but it was not until 200 years later that the first stone theatres were built. These Roman auditoriums were copies of the Greek buildings; they had various modifications, most of which were improvements. Supporting arches enabled them to build sloping theatres, instead of using hillsides, as the Greeks had done. The orchestra was no longer used by the dancers and prominent citizens were allowed to sit there. The stage was lowered and made bigger. Chariot races, gladiatorial fights, combats with wild animals, and similar spectacles, including the martyrdom of vast numbers of Christians took place in the Circus Maximus in the Coliseum, and many other theatres throughout the Roman Empire. Dramatic art grew corrupt and debased. The Circus had grown more brutal. The power of the Christian Church had been thrown against them, and finally, as a reaction against the sadism, the lewdness and the corruption, of the voluptuous performance, all theatrical works were forbidden. During the Middle Ages the great arenas and amphitheatres had been filled with shops and dwelling houses. He realised that during the Middle Ages, there had been no theatres in the proper sense of the word. In those days the chief form of drama had consisted of Miracle Plays, the so-called “mysteries”, with religious themes, in which very substantial-looking angels, dressed in coarse white linen gowns, and with wings, whose artificiality was appalling, had preached trite platitudes to red-bedaubed demons, and moaning “lost souls” suitably attired in sackcloth and ashes! These Miracle Plays and Mysteries first took place inside the churches themselves. Then, when they came to attract more spectators, they took place on the grassy mounds in the churchyards, or in temporary “booths”. Step by step the religious drama was replaced by secular works, although for a very long period plays were performed only by strolling players, who did their work in barns, tents, and courtyards of inns.
It was not until very late in the 16th century that permanent theatres came into vogue. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, 1564-1616, theatres were built in imitations of inn courtyards. They were octagonal buildings in the main. A raised stage was built across one of the sides, and it extended right out into the body of the house. The more favoured spectators sat actually on the stage itself. Others, equally well favoured, sat in three-story, covered balconies, that extended all the way round the building — even behind the stage! Odd as that seems by modern standards. The “groundlings” — which was Shakespearean for the people in the “pit”, stood during the performance, and were quite unprotected from the weather. When a play was being performed, flags were flown above the building, as a sign that a play was “in situ”.
The dressing-rooms and a curtained recess were at the back of the stage. The latter was used for scenes like the play within the play, in Hamlet, and Desdemona’s bedchamber in Othello. Again, as in the days of the ancient classical Greek works, performances were always given by day, so there was no lighting to bother about. Scenery was extremely simple, and there were no curtains.
During the days of Elizabeth and James I, public theatres were not patronised by the ladies. This was the case through-out the whole of the period 1558-1625. If the court wished to see a performance, the company was commanded to appear at the Palace, the beginning of Royal Command performances as we know them today.
The form of entertainment which was preferred by the upper classes and aristocracy of early time was the Masque. Very similar to a modern Pageant. Painted scenery was used, and the production became very elaborate and was actually the forerunner of the Opera. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, this elaboration became even more emphasised. Italian scenic effects in the operatic tradition became increasingly resplendent. In the 19th century, the Scala at Milan, and St. Carlo, Naples, were built on a fantastically grand scale. France, Germany, England and America, followed the Continental examples. Step by step, generation by generation scenery and stage apparatus were enormously improved, until Val Stearman, casting his mind around the contemporary scene, found himself thinking of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, with its six-section stage that could be raised or lowered by electric power.
He thought of the maze of pulleys, wires, cables overhead that controlled both lighting and scenery. He thought of theatres with revolving stages, which enabled one portion to be used while the remainder was being set. Throughout the latter half of the previous century, he realised that the trend had been towards increasingly spectacular performances, settings and costumes had become more and more ornate. By the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, things began to simplify again. Gordon Craig, of Britain; Max Reinhardt, Germany, and Constantine Stanislavski, Russia, all influenced later producers like Michael St. Dennis and Tyrone Guthrie, towards the contemporary trends. Oddly enough the theatrical wheel seemed to have gone full cycle, reflected Stearman. In the States and in Britain the open-air theatre has been becoming increasingly popular once more.
Just as the theatre had begun with open air performances in ancient Greece, so we were now reverting to this type of performance.
He thought of the celebrated open-air theatre which was established by Sidney Caroll, in 1933, and of the Shakespeare performances regularly given in Regent’s Park. The Hollywood Bowl of California, with its natural sixty-acre amphitheatre and its capacity to hold thirty thousand in its audience.
With a sudden jerk, Val Stearman’s mind snapped back to the play.
It was an odd sort of piece. He wondered now, as he sat there, bored almost beyond endurance, why the devil he had bothered to come in the first place.
It was one of those weird, misleading plays, with a title that sounds quite promising. It had actually turned out to be as heavy and melodramatic as Ibson, but without the great depths which one would have expected from that brilliant Scandinavian. The characterisation was Dickensian in many ways, not heavy Dickensian, but light, fantastic, rather superfluous — like a cheap imitation of the genuine article.
Stearman began to fidget in his seat as he again felt that awful sensation that something was wrong . . .
He tried to analyse the feeling but without success. It had to be imagination. What could be wrong? His mind went over the events of the last few hours. They had seen the advertisement for the show, and come to the box office, purchased tickets and walked in. The theatre, as far as he was aware, had not been opened long. Its name was not familiar, and now as he tried rather urgently to recall it, he found that he couldn’t. That fact along struck him as being singularly peculiar. In normal circumstances it wouldn’t have mattered a great deal, he reflected, but at this precise moment it had suddenly become vitally important that he should remember the name of the theatre.
He leant across to La Noire and whispered again.
“What’s the name of this place, honey?”
“Hush!” she whispered. “I’m enjoying the play!”
“I’m not,” persisted Val. “What’s the name of this theatre? Please try and think. It’s important!”
“Are you serious?” She took her eyes off the stage and regarded him.
“Very serious! I think something’s wrong with this place. Something weird, something odd. I couldn’t tell you what, but there’s something about this theatre that just doesn’t click. There’s something that’s unearthly; something not entirely of this world. I wish I could define it! I’ve been sitting for the last ten or twenty minutes, trying, but I can’t make this place make sense. It doesn’t make sense! Why did we come here in the first place?”
“You wanted to come,” she whispered back. “Everybody will be looking at us in a minute, for goodness’ sake be quiet! I hate causing a scene in public!”
“Oh, all right!” he said grudgingly.
He felt annoyed and disgruntled. What was it about this blasted place? He only wished he knew!
The very indefinable quality of the wrongness made it all the more aggravating. The devil you know is never half so bad as the devil you don’t know . . .
It was fear of the unknown that was perhaps the greatest fear of all.
He began looking around in the dim half-light of the ancient auditorium. It didn’t tell him very much. The inside of the theatre was sombre and mellow. It seemed to have aged and matured for an almost unfathomable period. Yet he knew at the same time it had not been opened very long. It wasn’t a genuinely old building. It wasn’t one of the famous West End theatres. It wasn’t one of the great traditional music halls — it was a place of which he had never heard. Until he had seen that play advertised and felt the uncanny compulsion to come and witness this performance. Why should he have felt that compulsion? What was there about that advert that should have lured him, as certainly and remorselessly as a snake hypnotises its prey? As a hawk drops from a great height upon the unsuspecting victim? It was beyond his ken.
One of those strange, inexplicable enigmas . . .
The strange, icy feeling of cold gripped him all the more intently — gripped him as it grips the sitter at a séance when there is something psychic in the room, when the presence from another world makes itself felt. He shivered and shuddered in his seat. The very seat at his back suddenly felt cold. Hard. Unfriendly. There was no warmth in the upholstery. It was like sitting on a marble seat. Sitting on a cold slab. It was like trying to relax on a tombstone. Stearman almost felt that he was sitting in a deserted graveyard, at midnight, in a remote part of the country. He didn’t like the feel of that seat, not one little bit! He didn’t like the atmosphere of the theatre. Didn’t like the play. Didn’t like the uncanny feeling of wrongness. Didn’t like anything, or any part of it. He wanted to get out. He felt a sudden pressure on his mind, on his heart, on his soul.
A kind of psychological claustrophobia. He was being shut in, pressed down, crushed almost out of existence. The lights in the theatre seemed to go lower. Whether it was imagination, or purely a trick effect to enhance the stage and its characters, he was by no means sure, he was only aware that there was a perceptible change in the degree of luminosity and the intensity of the light. He touched La Noire’s arm.
“I want to get out of here,” he whispered urgently. “Please come! I’ve had enough, the place is giving me the creeps! Darling, we must get out!”
“Oh, all right, then, if you really want to,” said La Noire.
There was between them a bond of affinity, so that when that note of urgency crept into Stearman’s voice, La Noire never hesitated in acceding to his requests. Val put his hand down towards the floor, groping between the seats for his hat and walking stick. The stick, which was ridiculously superfluous to so athletic a man, yet, inside which lay a long, thin, gleaming, silver blade. A stick with which he had on many occasions in the past fought out a grim life-or-death battle with evil. As he paused, groping for his accoutrements there was a sudden diminuendo of dramatic activity upon the stage and the curtain swished down.
“I’m glad it’s the interval,” said Val. “Nobody will notice us go then.” Lights began to go up. They were weird, green lights, and whatever planning had gone into their design had certainly succeeded, perhaps beyond the wildest dreams of its designer, the light seemed to have no source at all. It was perfectly concealed!
It just seemed to emanate from nowhere. It rolled across the theatre like an unpleasant, greenish yellow fog — it was a horrible light. A dreadful, grim light. A light that was like the luminescence traditionally emanating from Dante’s “Inferno”. It was a light from hell.
“I don’t like this at all,” said Val. “Can’t you sense something, La Noire? You usually sense these things before I do.”
“I do as a rule,” she said. “But I don’t know, I seemed to get interested in that play and never noticed it, darling. You’re quite right!” Their eyes met. “I don’t know why, but psychic adventures seem to follow us! As if, because we have done all we could do, to destroy supernatural evil wherever we’ve found it, a great black directing force behind all kinds of psychic manifestation, particularly the evil ones, is trying to lure us out. As if the dark powers are still bent upon destroying us! As if they’re out for revenge, for what we have done to their various minions?’
“I know,” agreed Val. “There was that ghoul we destroyed and that vampire, and those Things in the tomb that night. But why do things happen to us? Why do these peculiar and uncanny, unworldly adventures always strike us? Time after time we’ve begun a perfectly normal, rational evening out, away from the psychic, away from the bizarre — the only time I ever went looking for supernatural troubles, I met you.”
La Noire smiled, in spite of the cold and the fear that was now gripping them both.
“Was I as much trouble as all that?”
“I never believed in anything that I couldn’t see or touch until that night, and you jolly well know it,” said Val.
La Noire became serious.
“Did you ever want to go back and be as you were?”
“Not even for the tiniest fraction of a second! Talk sense, honey! If recapturing that kind of life meant that I should never have met you, then I wouldn’t have it back for a king’s ransom! On the other hand, if I could still have you and the ordinary, prosaic kind of existence I used to understand before all this psychic business began enveloping us, and chasing us, then I think I would. I don’t like being a liaison officer between one world and the next! I don’t like being the bridge across which the denizens of another world travel back and forth, to and from, ours.”
“I feel the same,” said La Noire. “But I wouldn’t change, either, if it meant changing you! Yet, I wish we could live a more normal life. I feel that it’s my fault, that I dragged you into this. Remember in the old days, Dr. Jules and that awful Professor Von Haak, and the hunchback who used to be their servant . . . ?”
“Yes, those were the days!” commented Val. “By thunder! Life hung by a thread sometimes, then, didn’t it? Remember when they dropped that great coping stone on to our car?”
“Yes, I certainly do,” she answered. “Those are things one never forgets.”
“The past is past,” said Val. “No matter how dangerous it was, no matter how deeply it imprinted itself upon our memories. Von Haak is dead, Jules is dead, the hunchback is dead. We have to live for the future — to live in the present. The present is the thing that matters — the future matters even more! We have to go on, there is no turning back, there is no turning sideways, even. There isn’t even any time to look back. Life is all progress, from beginning to end, we go on! When we get to what we think is the end, we’ve only just got to a new beginning!”
The sudden feeling of wrongness assailed him with increased potency.
La Noire seized his arm . . .
“I know what’s wrong! I know what it is!” her voice had dropped to a sepulchral whisper.
“Well?” Val’s reply was an interrogative monosyllable, There was a long, intense silence. An electrical quietness. So profound that it seemed to scream out of its own stillness.
“Well?” repeated Val, “What is it, darling?”
“Look at these people,” said La Noire. “None of them are moving! They’re just sitting as still as statues, staring at the stage. Staring at the curtain. It’s not natural. People don’t do that in the interval. They don’t sit for hours staring at a curtain. I know they don’t, they turn round and talk to each other. They get up and go to the bar for a drink. I’ve never seen an interval in a theatre like this before . . .”
* * *
The green-yellow light continued to oscillate from one side of the theatre to the other. The grotesque faces moulded in the plastic of the ceiling high above their heads seemed to glower down, with grim, ferocious sadism . . .
They were shown up in a weird, bizarre caricature. Impersonations of gargoyles, and yet, there is usually some redeeming feature in a gargoyle that tempers the fear which so ugly a caricature might naturally bring. There are many degrees of ugliness, a gargoyle could almost be described as pleasantly ugly by comparison with the contours of moulding revealed by that yellowish-green light!
Val was looking round at the audience. He squeezed La Noire’s hand and heaved a sigh of relief. “You know, it’s terribly stupid of us, darling. I’ve just realised there’s two or three people over there we know!”
La Noire, too, sighed with relief.
“I don’t know why this place got on my nerves! It’s not even a horror play that they’re presenting in it, in the accepted sense of the word —” she broke off. “Val —?”
He looked at her intently. “Yes?”
“Val, those people you said you know, point them out to me.”
“All right! They’re just over there. Look! There’s old George Henwell, and Carstairs, and Waterson —” He, too, suddenly faltered. “Waterson — Oh, no!”
“And Carstairs!” whispered La Noire, in incredulous disbelief. “Don’t you remember Val, Carstairs and the others — about five years ago, that plane —?”
“Yes, I do remember,” he said violently. He could feel his nerves tingling with fear. The greenish-yellow light had taken on a far more sinister character.
The whole theatre seemed to be glistening with flagrant, soul-destroying evil, now. There was something here that was completely beyond mortal ken. Something at which the mind of man was forced to stop. Something which had no bearing upon the sane, rational, everyday life.
The men that Val Stearman had just seen sitting in this theatre had died in a ‘plane crash five years before . . .
“I’ve got to settle this,” said Val, and gritted his teeth. “La Noire, if we leave this place now, even supposing, it or they, or whatever power there is emanating from that yellow-green light, will permit us to leave — if I left now I should never be able to face my own self again. I can’t live with a coward. There comes a time in every man’s life when he has to do what he has to do. Think of some of those Western films, where the gunman brings out that well worn cliché, or the sheriff straps on his forty-fives and says ‘I know this guy is faster than me, but if I don’t go out there and face him I’ll never be able to face myself again’. You do a thing because it is your duty. You do it because, more important than your life is your self-respect! Vices and virtues very often get tangled up, in this crazy, corrupt society in which we live. Sometimes we almost become so corrupt, so sophisticated, so hardened, that twists and caprices of life make our philosophy so slick, and glib and clever, that we’re almost proud of vice and ashamed of virtue. Yet, deep down at the bottom of us, we know that these things just aren’t so. Even though a man may say, ‘I was too sensible to fight, I ran away!’ He’s not really proud of that, it’s only a defence mechanism. I’ve yet to meet the man who could quietly say ‘I ran from the foe and left my companions to fight to the last man’. Oh no!”
He set his great square jaw firmly, resolutely.
“Everything in me wants to run. I want to grab you by the hand and get-the-hell-outa-here, like I’ve never wanted to do it in my life before. I want to make with the feet, till there’s a hundred miles between us and this horrible theatre!” He was having difficulty in speaking because of the emotion that gripped him. “But I can’t. The last thing in the world that I want to do is to face this crisis that has been forced upon me. The last thing I want to do is to walk up there and speak to Carstairs or Waterson, but if I don’t I shall reproach myself for not doing so, for the rest of my life. You don’t want to live with a coward, do you, darling? Not really you don’t! Neither do I! If I don’t go up there before these lights fade, I shall never know who or what they were!”
“Look at their faces,” whispered La Noire intensely, her voice throbbed with emotion. “Just look at the faces, Val. They’re not like flesh and blood, they’re masks! I don’t believe those things that you can see up there are the spirits of the men you knew, they’re some weird, diabolical facsimile. Something that’s been moulded from our own minds. Look, look here and there — aren’t they all familiar? I seem to know every face in this theatre, and every face is a dead face! The whole place is full of the dead. We’re the only living people in this audience, Val . . .”
They stood there, for they knew not how long, in that weird yellow-green light, in the deadly silence of the terrible Playhouse, looking at face after face of the dead.
Sometimes they would look at the same spot, and see a different face! There were times when Val remembered people whom La Noire had never met, people he had known many years before, people who had died before he even became a reporter on the Globe, before he ever went to that séance, at which he had rescued La Noire from the Black Magic society and the coven of witches and wizards of which she had been an unwilling member.
La Noire, too, saw people Val had never met, whose names were quite unfamiliar to him, it was a singularly horrible, awe-inspiring experience. The inside of that theatre was like a graveyard that had suddenly given up its dead. Like a legend of Hallowe’en, a legend of those who rose from their graves to attend their annual service, in their dreadful wraith-like forms.
Val took a deep breath. “I’m going to do it,” he said through clenched teeth.
This was his moment of truth! He had come to a decision. Realising how incongruous it seemed, he reached his hand inside his jacket and heaved the .45 from its holster. This .45 was unlike any other gun in the world. It was loaded with specially made silver bullets. Silver, the holy metal. Silver, the symbol of light and purity, the focal point, the physical, outward appearance of an inward and spiritual truth. Silver is a sacramental metal. Light, clean, pure, precious, combining all these qualities in its symbolism, it is sacramental. It somehow represented the power of God, the power of light, the power of justice and the power of truth. Stearman’s finger was crooked around the trigger. The other hand gripped his cane walking stick, which, with a press of a button, would release his devastatingly sharp sword, which had flashed many times in the past in the cause of right. A sword which could never be drawn save in the cause of light. A sword which had been fashioned by the devout hands of a Renaissance craftsman. A sword which had been wrought by the finest craft of the silver smith, with the consecrating prayers of the highest ecclesiastical authorities of its day and generation.
La Noise was close behind him as he walked up the gangway.
How long it took them to cover the few steps on the musty, threadbare carpet, Val Stearman never knew. It seemed to his overwrought nerves that the whole of eternity came and went. While he took half-a-dozen paces, it seemed as though the years had turned into seconds, or centuries, as he made that slow journey up, up and ever up towards the seats where sat the grinning, motionless effigies, whose faces had long since passed away from the world of sunlight and noise. Val reached the end of the row. No one took any notice of him. They sat as motionless as a painted audience in a painted theatre. He had difficulty in bringing his voice under control. Twice he opened his lips, but no sound came out. The finger on the trigger crooked even more tightly. The atmosphere was electrical, tense with expectation.
“Hello, Carstairs,” said Val, quietly, at last, when his vocal cords finally responded to the urging of his will. “Nice to see you again.”
All around, the ancient fabric of the theatre seemed suddenly filled with a thousand malevolent eyes. In a matter of seconds, it had become a vibrant hive of pulsating evil. It was like being inside a colossal beehive — a beehive whose angry denizens were gathering like storm clouds of destruction. There was no answer from the thing with a face like that of Stearman’s old friend Carstairs.
“I said ‘It’s nice to see you again’,” said Val through clenched teeth. La Noire was gripping his arm tightly.
“They’re closing in around us, Val,” she said. “Stronger than I’ve ever felt them before! They’re almost physical power to the pressure of the evil in this place! It’s a trap! I know it’s a trap, specially designed to bring us here! This theatre seems to be the very gate of hell.” She moistened her lips in apprehension. Val could feel her heart beating as she pressed closely to him, in the sinister, ethereal light of that dreadful place.
The threadbare carpet beneath his feet seemed to be a living thing. He felt as if he was walking on a snake. The abominable thing with the face of Carstairs, looked back at him, unblinking. It raised a hand in a casual gesture — a very slow, casual gesture. It might have been the beginning of a wave. It might have been the beginning of the movement of a hand that was coming up to scratch some minor, unseen irritation. It might have been directed to move hair that was out of place. The thing rested the hand against its face for a matter of seconds, and suddenly the gesture wasn’t natural any more . . .
Stearman wanted to scream. The scream, like a living thing, curled itself up in his throat, and because he was a man, he wouldn’t scream. He wouldn’t scream physically, that was. Only his mind screamed. Only his soul gave vent to a soundless, inaudible cry. He felt as though the whole of his consciousness was splitting open, at the sight that met his gaze. That hand against the face had made a furtive, twitching movement — and the whole face had come away! It crumpled and folded and melted like a thin skein of rubber. It dissolved as smoke clouds dissolve. It had vanished as though it had never been, and beneath the face was something so foul and horrible, that Stearman closed his eyes with a nauseated shudder, and pulled the trigger of the enormous revolver twice in quick succession. That sight he knew, would live with him for the remainder of his mortal life, and if any vestige of memory was carried into eternity, then it would live with him as long as there was a consciousness anywhere in the spiritual or physical universe which called itself Val Stearman.
No one in his right mind would have called the thing beneath the mask of Carstairs a face! And there was yet a certain basic characteristic of physiognomy that might have been classified as appertaining to a countenance. It was a ghastly face. A hideous face! Neither animal nor human, neither fish, flesh nor fowl. It was not the kind of face that belonged to the kingdom of fins or scales, or fur or feathers, or of skin. That face could only have been spawned in hell! It was so utterly revolting and repulsive, that even as the gun exploded Stearman clutched at the back of the seat for support, and was violently sick. La Noire had sunk unconscious in his arms. He was not surprised.
The dreadful atmosphere in the theatre was growing worse.
Far, far worse.
The play was over, in more senses than one. The mirage had evaporated! The pretence had terminated. The game was at an end. The spider had drawn the flies into the web and now there was no further need for blandishments.
With a sickening feeling, that was nearer to despair than anything else, Stearman realised that the whole thing had been nothing more nor less than an elaborate trap. And that he and La Noire were the prey for whom the trap was intended. How it had been worked he had no idea. The Stearmans knew more of the fantastic workings of supernatural laws than most other mortals, they would have been the first to admit that even with all their extra occult knowledge, they were only on the veriest fringe of the boundless world of spirit. Val knew, deep down within himself, right from the moment he and La Noire had crossed the path of the Black Magic society, had crossed swords with Jules and Van Haak and the hunchback, that life would be a grim and unmitigated struggle. They had learnt too much; they had flown the flag too valiantly; they had proclaimed their standards too strongly — if such a thing was really possible. They had thrown down the gauntlet to evil. Not as disembodied sociological potential, but to evil as a personified thing. To evil at its grim worst.
They had not challenged something which could be explained away as a racial subconsciousness, they had not challenged something which had its roots purely and simply in the mind. They had not defied the mere primitive instincts of man. There was something deeper, and far more deadly and sinister at the back of human evil, than these things. Something had gone by a vast majority of names — over the span of time and space that constituted a human history. They had challenged Baal and Beelzebub. They had challenged the devil, and the prince of the devils. This was Ahriman; this was Lucifer; this was the Dark Fiend itself, from the basis of the nethermost pit! It had stirred itself because of their constant proddings and jabbings. And now, sinister, dark forces had decided to strike back!
In a far more devastating way than ever before! Val realised that if ever his faith had been put to the test, if ever his confidence in the power of right over wrong had been in the balance, then it was in the balance now.
He drew a long, deep breath, trying to steady his nerves. The atmosphere in the theatre almost overwhelmed him by its foulness. It was a dreadful atmosphere.
It smelt of dry rot and desert dust; of graveyards and mandrakes plucked by the full moon . . . it smelled of corruption and vilifaction and horrible, eldritch decay.
It smelled as no theatre has the right to smell. It smelt of peeling wallpaper; the odour of foetid marshes floated through the unclean air . . .
The thing — which had reared itself — after the mask of Carstairs had gone, was writhing from the mortal wound it had received. Val was only too well aware that there were different power levels in the evil world, just as there were in the world of light and goodness. He knew, only too well, and instinctively that the human plane was situated somewhere mid-way between the two. That our own, crazy, almost unintelligible mixture of life divided between good and bad; divided between Adolf Hitler and Albert Schweitzer, was almost a reflection of the different aspects of one individual human personality.
There were men who could rise to sublime heights of greatness and goodness. And men, in the other respect, who could, under the strain and stress of adverse conditions, sink to primitive and bestial depths. There were men, like the legendary Charles Peace, who could commit robbery with violence by night, and sit in the sun by their cottage gates, playing the violin to amuse the children, by day.
There were all sorts and conditions of men, in all sorts of conditions. And now, above that, he thought of the angelic creation. Each in its own sphere, each with its own part to play. Seraphim and cherubim, the orders of angels, the great beings of light, the archangels in the holy presence of the Supreme Fountain of all that is good, and all that is powerful! Below man, the same thing applied, there were the lesser demons, lesser evils; mischievous ghosts and spirits to mislead; poltergeists and banshees; and then the foul, semi-physical things, the werewolves and other were-beasts. The zombies, physical bodies possessed by demons of one kind or another. Incubi and succubi. More powerful still, the familiar spirits like the black magicians, and then the vampires, the living dead! Vampires that dealt in blood, and others more sinister and deadly that lived on the invisible and vital forces of a human being. That lived upon souls, rather than upon mere red and white corpuscles. Above the vampires, more sinister and terrible demons. The nameless, black, elemental shapes. Things that had left their imprint upon the human mind for centuries . . .
Things that, by the flashing of their passing, the wildness of their terror, had given themselves names in the folk-lore of a thousand nations. Thor, the thunderer of Norse mythology; Pluto, King of the underworld, and worst of all, the foul Master of Darkness, the Great Fiend himself, directing and guiding the affairs of its minions . . .
Val realised in that second, that the man who destroys a vampire is a marked man in the kingdom of evil. That a man whose gun puts an end to the life of a werewolf, or a zombie, or a ghoul, cannot perform these deeds, and then sink back into a kind of blessed anonymity . . .
The other-world atmosphere of the theatre seemed to be crystallising as a foul and vapourous fog crystallites into drops of foul-smelling moisture; as poison gas in the laboratory experiment condenses into crystals of poison essence; into crystals of strongly concentrated danger, so — in a psychic sense — the parallel was taking place. The air in the place seemed to be drawing closer to itself, and from out of the floor, the walls, the ceiling, and the threadbare carpet beneath them, evil, obscene vapours were closing in towards a central point, towards a focus — a focus where Val Stearman stood in brain-shattering desperation, supporting the unconscious form of La Noire.
The hideous, repulsive, faceless thing had dissolved in a crumbling dust before him, yet he had by no means disposed of the dangers that were besetting him. To destroy one of the creatures was a mere flea-bite; an infinitesimal drop in the ocean. He was surrounded now — not by the outworkings, or symptoms of evil — he was face to face with the horror in all its deadly fullness. It seemed that he had gone too far. He had at first been ignored, as a pricking pin is ignored; as a nail in a boot is ignored . . . but now, he had stepped over the line once too often. The whole great weight of darkness; blackness; malevolent evil, had concentrated itself upon him. It seemed that everything bad was bent upon the annihilation of Val and La Noire Stearman.
He had never felt so desperately alone — so desperately afraid, in his life. His strong hand was shaking on the butt of the heavy gun . . . he knew not whither to turn. There was nothing really tangible at which he could fire. With all his previous forays there had been something at which he could shoot! There had been a physical embodiment. But here, there was nothing! Just this dreadful, psychic atmosphere. Silver, with all its efficiency on the lower planes of combat with evil, was of very limited use here, on the higher planes. It was like trying to cure a man with a fractured skull, by dabbing it with a bottle of iodine! The silver bullet would do no harm, but it would not do a great deal of good.
It would go so short a distance towards effecting a cure, as to be comparatively insignificant. Stearman was finding that breathing was becoming increasingly difficult. The crystallising effect in the atmosphere all around him had become even more pronounced, and yet, he was not quite aware of the exact location of the semi-defined process. He knew, with apprehension and terror, with a heart full of dread, that something was about to appear. Something was going to materialise. Something weird! Bizarre! Horrible. Something which would make all his previous experiences seem insignificant beside it. The whole theatre was swaying backwards and forwards and spinning round him at the same time. He lost all sense of direction, he couldn’t orientate himself to anything.
He just seemed to be a small speck, sinking down, down, down through what had previously been solid floor. In that terrible moment he remembered a weird account that he had read of a haunting on the Norfolk Broads — an account which was oddly parallel to his own experience of this moment. Apparently, in 1609 — or some year close to it, at the beginning of the 17th century — two friends had been swimming in Wroxham Broad. The water around them had suddenly evaporated — disappeared in a flash! One second it was water, the next second it wasn’t. They found themselves standing on dry land in the centre of the lake . . .
Around them were not reeds and fish and mud, as one might reasonably have expected, but a gigantic Roman amphitheatre in all its glory. Perfect in reproduction of psychic experience of that Imperial establishment, even as they stood perplexed and bewildered by this long-dead magnificence that was appearing around them, they heard the blaring of trumpets, and the Emperor in all his finery, with a huge cortege, including gigantic gladiators, chained lions, prancing white stallions, and vast legions of infantry all passed before the astonished eyes of the bathers. Then, almost as suddenly as it had come, it was gone again. The Roman theatre faded — vanished — they found themselves swimming through water once more. They struck out with all possible haste for the bank!
A hundred years later the same thing happened. In the 18th century a party of ladies and gentlemen were picnicking by the side of the Broad, and were astonished by a strange old man who came up to them and spoke of the Emperor Carausius, saying that although in a sense he was dead, in another sense he still lived, and even as he spoke, the Broad, which a second before had been a great shimmering sheet of water, was suddenly transmuted, and there, before their astonished eyes, was the same Roman amphitheatre. It happened again — over a dozen times — during the centuries, till the present day.
And very reliable witnesses have seen the phenomena of a Roman amphitheatre where once a Broad stood. Then time closed its shutter, and the dream was lost. The Roman amphitheatre was gone . . .
There is no historical evidence to support the claim of the psychics who had seen this peculiar transmigration. And yet — how could so many reliable men of good standing, character and repute, including clergy, justices of the peace, knights of the shire, how could they have any possible motive for falsifying the evidence of this peculiar phenomena?
Even as he sunk — the mystery of it rippled through Stearman’s mind, like water rippling over the surface of a lake — or a Broad . . .
Then the feeling of intense cold which had been gripping him, changed like a flash of lightning and became a feeling of intense heat.
There was not only heat in the atmosphere. There was the pungent odour of sulphur, of brimstone . . . above the smell of the putrescence which had been in the theatre, there was now a stinging, acrid smell, sharp, pungent, offensive, that literally assailed the nostrils. His belaboured breathing was racked by choking gasps. He wondered how much more of this any body or soul could endure. . . . He still clasped La Noire tightly, and then he felt a sudden acceleration in the sinking feeling . . . then it was arrested — not so violently as a fall would have jarred him — but in a way that a man lying on a bed might feel, if that bed was lifted and lowered a matter of a few feet. The kind of feeling one gets when a rotor-machine at a funfair starts or stops.
Stearman was aware that a force was acting upon him.
He was coughing and spluttering violently in the acrid foulness. Now the terror had drained from him completely. He had been through a series of experiences so grim, and horrific, that layer by layer the veneers of personality had been stripped away from his mind. At rock bottom — the point he had now reached — there was no room for fear, at the ultimate base of his personality, Val Stearman was a fighting machine. Had he not been, he knew that fright, pure unadulterated fright without any assistance from any outside cause, would already have destroyed him.
He could still see nothing at which to shoot, but he fired, nevertheless. The shot crashed and roared and reverberated, echoed and re-echoed in the confines of some space which he didn’t even begin to try and understand. He was on the verge of insanity, and he knew it. The greatest of men would have been! He looked back on the events which had brought him to this pitch. A perfectly ordinary quiet evening out at the theatre, then the feeling of wrongness; from the feeling of wrongness to the realistic — the sickening realisation — that it was no theatre at all, but a ghastly trap. The knowledge that the still silent faces in that audience all around him were the faces of the dead. Then those mask-like faces had slid away to reveal something indescribably horrible! Then even that had worsened, the very sensation of evil in the building had condensed and crystallised into something worse! Into the presence of the evil one itself! He had an idea in that second where he had fallen — he seemed to be in the very interior, he seemed to have been gorged by the deep, central pit of hell; he was either within a being, or within the confines of the dwelling of a being! A being so black and terrible that mortal thought patterns could not even begin to understand nor to comprehend . . .
He was in the presence of something that was as bad as God was good.
In the presence of something that was as black as heaven was light; in the presence of something that was as ugly as heaven was beautiful; in the presence of that something that lived only to destroy, as surely as the forces of good lived only to create, to sustain, to sympathise . . .
He seemed to be in the maw of some foul, evil entity, so big and so black that beside it, vampire, werewolf, familiar spirit, hobgoblin, and Beast of the Night, or anything else, was as a Sunday School picnic!
He was on the inside! He was firing out — through this thing. Those deadly, fatal, silver bullets were ripping through it, not completely ineffectually, but having such a tiny percentage of their normal effect that he began to despair utterly of the outcome of this dreadful encounter.
“What can I do? What can I do?” he heard his own voice screaming the words, and hardly recognised the voice as his own. “Merciful heaven what — how — where?”
He was using words that hardly made sense. Wild, primitive rhythms began pulsating savagely through his brain. Only one thought was now uppermost in his mind. He hung on to it as a drowning man clutches a straw . . . it was the desire to destroy! He had to destroy this thing that was surrounding him. He had to fight his way through it. He had to tear his way through it as a man tears his way through jungle undergrowth. But he had nothing with which to tear. Nothing but his bare hands and a now empty gun. It was almost as though the evil vortex of force that was enmeshing him sensed that the gun was empty — it seemed to close in. . . . He felt as Salome felt in Oscar Wilde’s play that “she was being crushed to death by the shielding of the guards”.
It was all over him — suffocating him — trying to impregnate the very pores of his skin, forcing its way into his ears, his mouth, his nostrils, everywhere, seeping into his lungs — burning the very tissues of his body. Yet there was nothing physical about any of it! He knew that these feelings were purely hallucinatory, at least, as far as anything physical was appended to them. It was his very soul, his mind, the Essence of Val Stearman that was being attacked. Not the flesh and blood in which that spirit lived. This was a danger far greater than any danger to the body. This was a danger to the very soul. He felt as though he was unarmed and helpless, trapped in the path of some soul-devouring fiend . . .
Some beast that hungered for the spirit of a man. As a Bengal tiger thirsts for flesh and blood . . .
Allegorically he could see enormous, cavernous jaws opening and closing avariciously, just a few feet above his head. Jaws that were as big as the entrance to the Mersey tunnel. Jaws through which an elephant could have walked with the greatest of ease. Jaws which looked as if they could devour a planet. And what had he to fight against those jaws with? Nothing! Nothing! No gun, no sword, no holy water, no Bible!
And then — he realised that his terror had been so great that he had omitted the one vital weapon — the most vital weapon in his armoury — the armoury of any human being!
“Fool! Fool! Fool!” he told himself.
He only hoped that it wasn’t too late. He fell to his knees in an attitude of supplication. Where he was he didn’t know — but he did know that no matter how far it was from the Throne of God, it was not too far for his prayers to be heard. As though the evil creature, in whose presence he knelt, was aware of his intentions, it seemed to redouble its efforts. Crushing the words back down his throat — assailing his brain with so violent an onslaught of psychic spiritual pressures and disturbances, that he was scarcely capable of coherent thought. Scarcely capable of making words come from his mind. Or from his lips, with continuity of any kind.
Again and again he tried to phrase words, to make them into clauses, into sentences, but they would not build . . . they just jumbled around in his head; as a mad kaleidoscopic jumble. He made one last supreme effort. He knew if that failed he had thrown everything into it, and both he and La Noire were doomed. He knew in this ghastly battle that the moment had come, here, in this nethermost pit of hell, in which he had been dragged, he had to find the strength of mind to pray. His lips began to move slowly, but no words came out. He tried again, and yet again, in this final tussle. Then he managed two coherent words — making a prayer — ‘Our Father’ . . .”
There was a roar as of a thousand cataracts, a roar as of every waterfall in the earth, cascading from a height of a thousand miles, into the heart of the deepest ocean. There was a roar as if every thunder cloud in the sky had met in a great holocaust of destruction. There was a crashing reverberation, as though the whole earth were one gigantic nuclear pile, and had reached nuclear mass. And exploded!
There was a blasting, tearing sensation, as though the earth were one enormous volcano and had collapsed upon itself in a gigantic colorescing flood of stars and sparks.
And in that soul-shaking, mind-devouring, cataclysmic upheaval of force, power and energy, Val Stearman realised that the first edge of the wedge had been thrust into this foul creature that held him. He knew that as far as he himself was concerned — insignificant, puny human being that he was — he was like a mouse trying to attack the base of a cliff. He could never have any hope of destroying the cliff — his only hope was to build a tunnel large enough through which to escape. He had no illusions on the score, that he, by any means at his disposal, could destroy a thing, a creature, a personified Negation — which was probably as immortal and indestructible in its way, as the power of Life was — and yet, although he might not destroy it, he knew that it towered above him, in unbelievable vastness and time-defying qualities, the essence of goodness could dwarf it with the majestic and magnificent power. Stearman realised that it only loomed large to him now because of the perspective. If he could have stood at an equal distance from the power of evil, and from the power of good, then he would have seen that both these powers were as relative in size as they were to him.
He thought of the analogy of the sun and the moon and the earth. To an observer on earth, the sun and moon appear roughly the same size — the moon is quite insignificant, the sun is fantastically big. The moon is close. The sun is far distant. Therefore to the observer on earth the moon seems almost as large as the sun . . .
To a man enmeshed in the toils of evil, evil seems unutterably large, devastatingly huge, terrifyingly powerful.
The power of good seems only just equal, or perhaps in moments of despair, the power of good seems inferior to the power of evil.
Stearman realised now, that this was only due to moments of despair. That the relationship between good and evil and men, could be likened to a spider — the power of evil — chasing a tiny fly — a human being. Suddenly a human foot descends upon the spider! Crushing it into oblivion, that foot represented the power of goodness.
Stearman waited until the first reverberating shock had passed. Then he managed to form a few more continuous, coherent words:
“Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name.”
The vibrating roaring continued . . .
“Thy Kingdom come . . .”
Stearman set his teeth, “‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
He added a line of his own:
“. . . And may it also be done in hell beneath . . .”
The vibration became a high-pitched, screaming whine, and he was aware that something very big was departing at fantastic speed. Just for a second he thought he saw something else. . . . Just a fleeting suspicion of a sight . . . nothing definite, nothing solid.
It might have been no more than a trick of his own mind, his imagination.
It might have been the reaction of an overwrought brain. It might have been the shock of relief, and he knew that deliverance from something a thousand times worse than death was at hand . . .
He thought long and hard about what it was that he had seen. He was still not quite sure. It had looked — as far as anything can look, in the fraction of time that lasts for less than a split second, rather like a picture of a medieval angel. And yet far more perfect and far more glorious. It had looked as though it was the most beautiful and majestic, awe-inspiring sight in the whole of the world. Almost the whole of the universe.
It had been one of the great Beings of Light, he felt sure. But whether anything so great, so good and so beautiful could be personified, he had no real knowledge . . . It had seemed as tall as the highest star, as broad as the widest horizon. As deep and as powerful as the most majestic ocean.
Its eyes had beamed with a light and strength that were as far above human understanding as the abomination of evil was below it. It had looked like the glorified body of a man adorned with superb and vast wings. It had looked like a Greek god, a thing of power and grace and strength. . . . In its hand it held an enormous, gleaming sword, brighter than the flare of magnesium. Stearman shook himself to clear his head and bent tenderly, over La Noire. Whatever it was that had come and gone — for all he knew it was either an angel or an archangel — it had pursued the evil power that had been besetting him. It had driven the spider away from the fly. I had driven the beast away from its quarry. It had driven the eagle away from the wren. Stearman knew then, that in one sense at least, no matter what traps and dangers might lie ahead, he was going to be relatively safe . . .
For no matter how great the power of evil, the power of good was greater.
No matter what depths of trickery the evil beings descended to, the power of Light would always come to the rescue . . . He found himself standing on a pavement, a wet, rainy pavement. Across the pavement, the neon lights of a coffee bar winked and flashed, a juke-box blared, and down the street a hoarse voice was crying the evening paper.
A taxi passed, and then a bus.
Behind him was a notice board, that surmounted rough wooden palings. He turned and surveyed it.
A strange prickling sensation was at the base of his spine. La Noire, still leaning heavily on his arm, opened her eyes and gave a little convulsive shudder.
“Val — what happened? Where are we? The theatre —?
“Look,” whispered Stearman, and pointed up at the board
“Site of the Phoenix Theatre that was demolished in 1947 after extensive enemy bomb damage”.
“Good heavens,” she breathed. “Why ever didn’t I remember when I saw that advertisement.” Val shook his head.
“I don’t suppose any other paper but ours carried it, either. It was something that got into our minds. The whole thing was subjective rather than objective. It was an entire mental experience. An hallucination that we shared.”
La Noire shook her head. “Ugh!” She shut her eyes as though trying to shut out some dreadful vision. “Val, Val! It was horrible!”
“And yet, at the same time, it has taught me a great deal! Taught me something that I ought to have known! Ought never to have questioned! That I ought never to have doubted even in my most unguarded moments! We could have checked the thing before it got as far as it did, if only I had remembered . . .”
She looked at him enquiringly.
“The three-word motto that I ought to have branded on my brain in gold letters, that I ought to have written across my heart . . .”
“Might is right!” said Stearman, “and only a fool would forget it!”
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