Dream Door

Dream Door

It took a good few minutes of staring at the blank wall for Ben to realised that he must have dreamed the door. This was a plain red brick wall, probably Victorian, mortar crumbling in places, but with no sign of any door, or even any previous opening, now blocked up, at any point along its length. Yet the image of an old weathered door, marked with traces of blue paint, but most flaked off down to the bare wood, now silvered with age — that image was vivid in his mind. He remembered an old iron latch with a twisted ring for a handle. It should have been about here in the wall, just where he stood — except that it was not, and apparently never had been.

It was not common for him to confuse dreams and memories, and his dreams were not usually so detailed and realistic. The discovery that the door did not exist knocked him off balance for the rest of the day, but by the next morning he had forgotten it all.

A week later, about two in the morning, he woke suddenly from a dream. A moment before he had been standing in front of that door again. He’d reached out and scraped off one of the few remaining flakes of blue paint with his thumbnail, then reached down for the latch handle and twisted it up to open the door.

The act of opening the door woke him, and he could still feel the cold iron of the twisted ring in his right hand. The sensation faded, but he could not get back to sleep.

In the morning he took a detour on his way to work, but the door still did not exist.

This time he accepted the non-existence of the door completely. He dismissed the whole thing as just a stupid dream and thought no more about it. In the following weeks he walked past the wall quite often without even looking at it.

He was with a group of friends walking to the pub on Friday night, talking and laughing. Ben half noticed that they were walking past the notorious wall on the other side of the road, but he paid it no attention. Chaz said something stupid and funny, and Ben turned to answer, but behind Chaz, across the road, he saw the door. It was there in the wall, real and solid. Ben stopped walking and stared at it.

‘What?’ said Chaz.

‘That door. Have you ever seen it before?’

‘What door?’

“That one.’ Ben pointed at the door, but it had gone. There was only a blank brick wall.

He had to suffer quite a bit of ridicule for five minutes, but the incident made him feel strange and he could not enjoy the drinking or the chat at all.

Leaving early, he walked back the same way, but on the wall side of the road. He dragged his fingertips along the brickwork, which was real enough. It was still fairly light and he thought he saw a familiar shape in the wall as he approached the halfway point.

There it was again. The door, looking as if it had always been there.

‘You bastard,’ he said, and stopped in front of it, daring it to disappear.

He reached out and scraped off a flake of blue paint with his thumbnail.

‘Am I dreaming?’ he wondered. ‘Was I dreaming earlier on? Does the door only exist in my dreams, or does it exist in reality and when I’m dreaming there is no door?’

That line of thought led nowhere he wanted to go. He reached out and took hold of the twisted iron handle, turned it, and the latch lifted.

‘I should wake up now,’ he thought.

He woke up. He was in the pub with his friends, his hand on a half-full pint of bitter. Everyone was laughing except him. Trying hard not to show how confused he was, he tried to join in the laughter, though he had no idea what was so funny.

‘Something wrong?’ asked Chaz.

‘No. No. Yes. I’m feeling a bit ill,’ said Ben. ‘I think I’ll have to go home.’

He thought of asking Chaz to come with him, but that seemed a bit weak. By the time he was walking the length of the wall, he regretted that decision.

Taking a deep breath he carried on walking, certain that there would be no door.

There was a door.

He really did try to walk past it, but he couldn’t. The only illumination now was a nearby street lamp. He reached out and flaked off a scrap of paint with his thumbnail. It might have been blue, it was hard to tell. He took hold of the cold iron ring and turned it, lifting the latch.

‘I should wake up now,’ he thought.

The Relic

The Relic

‘And this, my friend, is a real treasure.’

He handed me an oblong rosewood box inlaid with mother of pearl.

‘It’s a nice enough box,’ I said, not particularly wanting to be talked into overpaying for something I did not really desire. That has happened once too often and i honestly did try not to come in to Mosse’s Antiques and Vintage, not more than once a month, anyway.

‘Not the box,’ said Mosse with an impatient wave of the hand.

I opened the box and inside there lay a nice, but not rare, pearl-handled dip pen with a gold nib, old ink still crusted at its tip.

‘Erm, well, it’s a nice enough pen—‘

‘That, my friend, is the pen of Aesop Allen.’

My stomach gave a little twist, but he might as well have been trying to sell me a yeti tooth.

‘Oh yes?’ I said with as much scepticism as I could express. ‘No-one knows anything about Aesop Allen.’

‘Not true. The one thing known for sure is that he came from Shuckleigh.’

‘Well, that much, yes, but—‘

‘This pen has an impeccable provenance. I purchased it from a member of the Hollister family, and it is accompanied by a contemporary note.’

Mosse flipped open a velvet-covered flap in the lid of the box and an old piece of paper slid into his hand. I unfolded it and read what was written on it in black ink in a clear, but undoubtedly Victorian hand.

‘This pen was given to me by Aesop Allen as a token of our deep friendship. With this pen, Aesop Allen wrote Harrow Hall and other famous books. H. Hollister.’

‘Harrow Hall,’ I said, that terrifying work about primeval fear ripping apart the rational veneer of Victorian country life.

My fingers trembled as I refolded the paper and presumed to pick up the pen.

‘It looks quite ladylike,’ I said. ‘Some people say that Aesop Allen was a woman.’

‘Feminist piffle!’ snapped Mosse. ‘The muscularity of the prose completely rules that out.’

I did not judge it wise to pursue the point, and I forgot about it as I felt the pen vibrate with possibility in my hand.

‘H. Hollister was Hester Hollister, wife of the Rev. Mordechai Hollister of St Marys.’

‘Ah yes,’ I said. ‘I have heard of him, and the dates would be right, but can you be sure of the attribution?’

‘It is absolutely authentic. The family have shown me other documents which attest to that. Hester Hollister evidently knew Aesop Allen very well. Indeed, she may have been the only person who knew his true identity.’

Mosse knew me too well, I realised.

‘What are you asking for it?’

He named a sum that caused my vision to blur at the edges. Then he prised the pen from my fingers and returned it to the box with the note. Smiling, he placed it back in the locked cabinet.

‘It is a unique item directly associated with one of the greatest gothic novelists of the nineteenth century,’ he said. ‘I am afraid the price is non-negotiable.’

The pen that had written Harrow Hall. I went home and reached for my first edition of the book, a modest small octavo bound in green cloth, its exterior not hinting at the dreadful events recounted in its pages, unlike the editions of the 1890s with their vulgar illustrated boards. I did not open it. I have never opened it since the day I finished reading it. I do not need to.

The next day I got in touch with every Hollister still living in Shuckleigh, and they all confirmed the provenance of the pen.

I bought it, of course, as Mosse had known I would.

For months I investigated the life of Hester Hollister, but alas, there was little to be discovered. She was the wife of a clergyman who evidently discharged her duties and left no mark on the records of the town, other than her mere existence. The local records office and the museum held a number of local Victorian diaries, but though I spent a full month reading them I found only a few innocuous references to the lady, and no hints at all about her close friendships.

The pen itself I kept locked in my desk drawer and hardly dared to look at it. All the demons of Harrow Hall rose up in my mind when I thought of it. So pretty and slight a thing to be responsible for bringing such nightmares into the world.

If you have read the book itself, you will recognise that in writing this account I have fallen into using the language of the story. Decorous, formal and precise — but I am unable to conjure up such horrors as Allen did, when writing with a biro purchased from W.H. Smith.

I bought a bottle of real ink and a pad of good paper and sat down at my desk to try my hand at writing a ghost story. I had a little idea and thought that, if I got the atmosphere right, I might be able to make something of it.

Taking up Aesop Allen’s pen, I dipped it into the ink and sat a while, pen poised over the top sheet of paper, trying to compose my first sentence.

I came back to consciousness an hour later by the clock above my desk, my right hand stained with ink and four pages of closely-written text before me, the ink still wet in places.

I could not remember writing a single word of it, and worse, the writing was not my own. It was a story called ‘The Relic’, and the central character was myself. I read how I became obsessed with a haunted pen, trying to wring unearned talent from beyond the grave, until the dead turned on me. I was found murdered, and the instrument of my death was the very pen I still held.

Hastily folding the hand-written sheets, I pushed them into the desk drawer along with the pen, and locked it.

No matter how hard I scrub my hand, I cannot get the ink stains out. Every night I dream the events of the story and see myself dead on the floor of my study, a pearl-handled pen stuck in my neck, the pool of blood growing around me blackened with ink.

I would burn the story and the pen, but first I would have to unlock the drawer and let it out, and I am too afraid to do that.

Out of the Ordinary

Out of the Ordinary

Lucy bent to smell the scent of a rose, but was startled when a fairy leapt out of the flower. Oh. No, not a fairy, but a bee. The bee hung in the air in front of Lucy’s face as if it were wondering if she was a flower. Then, the moment of mutual misidentification over, it flew away.

‘Why did I think it was a fairy?’ Lucy asked herself. ‘What’s the matter with me?’

There had been something wrong for a while now. Things seen out of the corner her eye, strange things — an unexpected small person, and emerald snake rearing up, a cat in the corner of the room — but when she turned to look there was either nothing there at all, or only shadows, a twist of leaves, branches fluttering. Even so, she was left with an odd feeling that there had really been a presence until she turned her full attention to it.

That evening she was reading a rather dull book. Her mind, and then her eyes, wandered away from the text. As she was thinking of something else, she saw at the edge of her vision a large black spider detach itself from the printed words and begin to walk over the white page. Resisting the urge to scream and throw the book across the room, she watched the progress of the spider without looking directly at it.

It moved up the page, walked along a line of text, then settled down on one particular word, seeming to melt into the ink. Lucy looked to see what the word was.

Spider.

She put the book down and walked away from it. In the kitchen she poured herself a glass of wine and contemplated the idea that she was suffering the onset of schizophrenia or some other psychosis. Not liking the idea at all, she preferred to think that she had noticed the word, spider, on the next page and her unruly imagination had conjured up the hallucination of an actual spider for her.

So it went on. Day after day, improbable creatures appeared in the edges of her vision. Lucy stopped trying to look at them directly, instead observing by pretending not to notice them as they danced or loomed or lurked.

Then, a real cat turned up at her door. It was fearful at first, but she began to feed it and eventually it decided to move in with her, when she named it Henry, for no good reason, and began to think of it as a person, he.

The phantom cat shape appeared in her vision on evening as she sat watching TV with Henry. He noticed it, too. He sat up, flattened his ears against his skull and hissed right at the corner where the shadow cat sat. It vanished.

It was both comforting and disconcerting that Henry saw it. Comforting because it meant that she was not suffering from the onset of mental illness: Disconcerting because it meant that she was seeing things that were actually there.

The next time she mistook a bee for a fairy she looked at it straight on and said, ‘I know what you are.’ But it turned out that she did not. The creature dropped its bee disguise and she saw a peculiar twig-limbed winged creature. It buzzed angrily, gave her a small, but eye-watering smack on the nose, and flew away.

Henry had followed the whole encounter, and as the creature flew past him he leapt, like the predator he was, and caught the creature in mid air. He came to earth with it crumpled under his paws and leaned down, teeth bared.

‘No,’ said Lucy, ‘No, no.’

She prized Henry’s paws off his quarry and scooped it up. It looked like a collection of tiny sticks with a pair of transparent wings and a small, angry face.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, and took it to the nearest tree where she laid it in the crook of a branch and watched until it recovered enough to fly away.

Lucy knew that if she kept on seeing these out of the ordinary beings, she would not be fit for normal society. People would notice, even if she never admitted a thing. So she refused to believe in their existence, even when Henry clearly saw them too. Gradually, with much practise, Lucy made them fade back into the usual world, to become shadows and nothing more. She was sad, but there really is no room for magical things in the everyday human world. Henry continued to chase shadows, but hardly ever caught them.

Dust and Shadows

Dust and Shadows

There was such a thing as too much peace and quiet. It was making him jumpy.

At first the move from London to the countryside was great. Life was slower, you could hear the birds singing, no constant traffic noise, it was like a holiday. After a while, though, the feeling fell away. This was everyday life now, and the birds were really loud, especially first thing in the morning when you were trying to sleep.

The house was Victorian and it made a lot of noise for something so solid-looking. It creaked in the sunshine and whistled whenever the wind blew. There were all kinds of thumps and ticking noises that Neil could not find the source of.

Laurie had a job in the town, Shuckleigh, and brought back stories of all kinds of spooky goings-on that the locals apparently took seriously. They laughed about it at first, but alone in the house all day working at the computer, Neil started to have weird feelings.

A floorboard would creak behind him and all the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. He felt he was being watched. Sheer paranoia, of course. It was a big house for just the two of them and he was alone in it for so many hours.

The house was set quite far back from the road, which led to a tiny village a mile further on, so there was little traffic. There was another house within sight, but Neil had no idea who lived there. Shuckleigh was two miles away. For someone used to living in London, this was the middle of nowhere. No other person in sight. Nothing but trees and fields, wildlife and cows.

And inside the house? Who knew?

Once Laurie came home from work the atmosphere brightened. the house didn’t make so many odd noises, or perhaps Neil didn’t hear them any more. The thought passed through his mind that the house liked Laurie, but was not so keen on him — but that was ridiculous. Houses have no feelings.

Neil learned to ignore the noises and the odd sensations, and learned to tolerate the aloneness, immersing himself in his daily work.

Laurie was happy, doing well in her new job, and she was invited to a weekend conference. When he kissed her goodbye on Friday night and watched her drive away in her car, he thought he felt the house grow stern and cold and dark around him.

It’s only my imagination, he thought. It isn’t the house that misses her, it’s me.

He ate a meal, going to some trouble to make a really good lasagne and a salad with everything in it, and opened a bottle of wine, but only drank one glass, because getting drunk alone was no fun.

Okay, so he poured another glass and settled down to watch a film, something stupid with plenty of fighting for no good reason. It was a loud film, so he was only vaguely aware of the storm that was rolling in, until the winds hit gale force and rain started to pelt against the window. He paused the film and made the rounds of the house to make sure that all the windows were secure and the doors locked and bolted, then he settled back down again.

Fifteen minutes later the flash of lightning and roll of thunder started. Neil turned up the sound on the TV and ignored the weather — but the power went out and he was suddenly in complete darkness except for occasional lightning flashes.

He fumbled for his phone and stood up. There was a flash and he thought he saw something in the corner of the room. Just shadows, he told himself, but he could not move for the sudden fear.

Another flash, and a brief glimpse of a figure standing there, looking at him. Just shadows, nothing but shadows.

Another flash and he saw, quite clearly, an old woman looking at him. He couldn’t breathe.

A third flash. The figure had grown, was now a man, angry-looking, dark and bulky. This is not real.

A bang and flash of lightning bolt striking very close by — in its light he saw a child, an arm’s length away, dark eyed, reaching for him.

He shrieked and ran — out of the room up the stairs and into the bedroom. He pulled a small chest of drawers in front of the door and got into bed, pulling the duvet up to his chin. By reflex he was still holding his phone and he tried to call Laurie, but there was no service.

His reasoning mind tried to take control by assuring him that the people he saw were just the effects of shadows and his imagination, but then it failed him by pointing out that if they were ghosts a closed and blocked door would do nothing to keep them out.

There was a recording of Laurie singing ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ on his phone and in self-defence, he played it as loud as it would go. It was not as good as having her there, but the house did seem to become less fearsome as long as it lasted. He played it over and over until he finally fell asleep.

In the morning he was still alive, but there was no power, and his phone was quite dead. Neil grabbed his toothbrush and a change of clothes, and drove into town. The Has Bean coffee shop let him charge up his phone while he ate a croissant and drank a large cappuccino, one benefit of the small town. On finding out from the power company that the house would not be reconnected before Sunday, he went to find a hotel room.

It was holiday season, and everywhere was fully booked, so he ended up as a last resort walking in to the Black Dog Inn. Only the barman was around.

‘Do you have a room free?’ Neil asked.

‘You’re in luck if you don’t mind paying for a double. We had a couple leave early.’

‘No, that’s fine,’ said Neil, relieved, looking forward to getting a shower and some more peaceful sleep.

‘I’ll get the key. It’s one of the haunted rooms so it’s only available for one night. They’re always popular, and usually booked out.’

‘No thanks,’ said Neil. ‘No thanks.’

He walked out, got in his car and drove to the next county where he found a Travelodge to spend the rest of the weekend ghost free, happily listening to other people banging doors and playing the TV too loud at all hours of the night.