Ramsey Campbell lives in Liverpool, England, with his wife and family and is perhaps the world's most decorated author of horror, terror, suspense, dark fantasy, and supernatural fiction. He has won multiple World Fantasy Awards, British Fantasy Awards, Bram Stoker Awards, was given the Horror Writers' Association's Lifetime Achievement Award, and has been named a Grand Master of Horror. Publishers Weekly called Campbell "a horror writer's horror writer," adding, "His control of mood and atmosphere is unsurpassed." Douglas Winter, the noted scholar and critic, says Campbell has written "some of the most original and compelling fiction of our time, [works that dare] the precipice of reason, the human dilemma of knowing and not knowing, believing and disbelieving." The following is a good reason why he's earned such praise.
You couldn't say that the house crouched. Yet as we came off the roundabout on whose edge the house stood, and stooped beneath the trees which hung glistening over the garden, I had an impression of stealth. It couldn't be related to anything; not the summer glare nor the white house within the garden. But silence settled on us, and the circling cars hushed. And although the sunlight glittered on the last raindrops dripping from the leaves, a waiting shadow touched us and the quiet in the garden seemed poised to leap.
I had to struggle with the key in the unfamiliar lock; my wife Hazel laughed, annoying me a little. I'd wanted to throw the door wide and carry her in, enjoying my triumph; God knows I'd gone through enough to buy the house. But at least I enjoyed her delight once I managed to open the door.
We'd seen the house before, of course, when we were furnishing the rooms, but now we both felt a shock of unfamiliarity. The white telephone amazed us; so did the stairs, a construction of treads like the tail of a kite which was the major addition we owed to the previous tenants. Hazel's was the reaction I could have predicted; she rushed through the downstairs rooms and then clattered upstairs, eager to own the rest of the house. As I watched her run up the open stairs I felt a dull surge of desire. But when I made my own tour of the pale green living-room, the white kitchen cold as a hospital, the bathroom with its abstract blocks of colour and its pink pedestal, I felt imprisoned. The air smelt slightly dank, like fur. Of course Hazel had been wearing her sheepskin coat, but it seemed odd that the entire ground floor should smell of wet fur, a smell that trailed with me like a cloak. I began to open windows. Perhaps, since we'd lived on a third floor for years, I simply needed time to adjust to entering a house whose windows weren't open.
I found Hazel within a maze of double-jointed lights and drawing-board and cartons of books, in the room we'd decided to use as an attic. The smell was stronger here.
'Come down and I'll make some tea,' she said.
'Just let me tidy up a little.'
'You've done enough for a while, love.'
'You mean selling myself?' I said, thinking of my ideas and my art which I'd battered against the advertising agency where I worked until they had been battered half out of shape.
'No, I mean selling your talent,' Hazel said, then with an edge of doubt: 'You do like our house, don't you?'
'Of course I do. That's why I worked to buy it,' I said and stopped, peering down at the windowsill. We had liked the rough wood of that sill, and had left it unpainted. But now, trying to peer closer without appearing to do so, I saw that the sill looked chewed. Or clawed. The former owners must have had a cat or a dog. That was the explanation, yet I was disturbed to think that they had locked it in here, for nothing else could have driven it to such a frenzy that it would have left its claw-marks on the sill and even in the putty around the window-pane.
'I'm sure you'll sleep now that we're here,' Hazel said, and I started. 'What are you looking so worried about?' she said.
I was thinking how, when I'd stripped the attic to paint it, I had noticed claw-marks tearing through the wallpaper without realising until now what they were, but I didn't want to upset her; besides, I wished she wouldn't probe me so often, even though it was out of love, she did so. 'I'm wondering where the stereo is,' I said.
'It must be on its way,' she said. 'They'll take care of it. They can see how expensive it is.'
'Yes, well,' I told her, faintly annoyed that I should feel bound to explain this point again, 'it's the most sensitive. You have to pay for sensitivity.'
'I know you do,' she said smiling, and I realised she'd found another meaning, a personal meaning which she wanted to share with me. Sometimes her insistence on puns infuriated me; often it made me love her more. I coaxed my gaze away from the patch on the wall where the paper had been clawed. 'I wouldn't mind dinner,' I said.
The stereo arrived after dinner, halfway through my third cup of coffee. The workmen were clearly annoyed that I should supervise them, as if I were showing them how to do their job. But it was only a job to them; to me it was perfection in jeopardy. When they'd left I played Ein Heldenleben at full volume, caring nothing for the neighbours, since they were beyond the garden. Hazel listened quietly, more in order not to disturb me rather than out of a genuine response to the music. Somehow I felt trapped; the Strauss surged against Hazel's tranquil uncommunicative face, against the padded silence of the room, and never broke. I crossed to the windows and flung them high, and the feeling streamed out into the dark garden, where its remnants clung to the trees.
That night I could neither make love nor sleep. Outside the bedroom window cars whirred lingeringly by, like a sound by Stockhausen passing across speakers. My wife slept buried in the pillow, frowning, her thumb in her mouth. The tip of my cigarette glowed and reddened the landing; it opened in the gloss of the doors like a crimson eye, watching from the attic and from the other bedroom whose purpose was beginning to seem increasingly futile. I had meant to go downstairs, but down there or in my ears lay a faint ominous hiss, quite unlike the threshing of the leaves above the garden. I listened for a few minutes, then I scraped my cigarette on the ashtray by the bed and pulled the covers up.
Hazel woke me at noon. I gathered she'd awoken only recently herself. I unstuck myself from sleep and followed her downstairs. I must have looked disgruntled, judging by Hazel's glances at me. When we reached the living room she said: 'Darling, listen.'
I heard only the words, which were the formula she used when she wasn't sure that I would agree. Of course her tone implied another meaning, but I wasn't awake enough to notice. 'What is it?' I demanded.
That was the second half of the formula. I often spent an hour before sleep juggling ideas and an hour after breakfast waking up; nothing angers me more than to be called upon to make a decision before I'm awake. 'Look,' I said, 'for Christ's sake, now that you've dragged me out of bed - '
Then I saw that she had been gazing at the stereo. From its speakers came a sound like the hiss from a hostile audience.
'You see, it moves back and forth,' Hazel said. 'The stereo must have been on all night. Will it have gone wrong?'
'I take it you've left it on to make sure it will?' I couldn't tell her that I wasn't shouting at her but at something else, because I didn't dare admit it to myself. But as I pulled out Ein Heldenleben and almost ripped it with the stylus I felt the movement of the hiss, felt it loom like a lurking predator, an actual dark physical presence, as it crept from one speaker to another. Then the Strauss rushed richly out. It sounded perfect, but aside from that it meant nothing. I took it off, scowled at Hazel and stumped back to bed.
I was running upstairs, and the stairs tilted steeply like a ladder. Suddenly sliding gates clanged shut at both ends of the staircase, and something groped hugely through the wall and felt around the trap for me. I awoke struggling. The blanket lay heavy and fluid upon my body like a cat, and my skin prickled with what felt like the memory of claws. I threw off the blanket and sat up.
For a moment I was lost; I stared at the blue walls, the grey wall, the impossible silence. I struggled to my feet and listened. It was five o'clock, and there should have been more sound; Hazel should have been audible; the silence seemed charged, alert, on tiptoe. I made my way downstairs, padding carefully. I didn't know what I might find.
Hazel was sitting in a living-room, a book in her hand. I couldn't tell whether she'd been crying; her face looked scrubbed as it would have if she had wept, but I was confused by the thought that this might be the impression she had contrived for me. More disturbingly I felt that something had happened to change the silence while I had been asleep.
She came to the end of a chapter and inserted a bookmark. 'I like to sleep too, you know,' she said.
'No doubt,' I said, and that was that. Through dinner we didn't speak, we hardly looked at each other. It was less that each of us was waiting for the other to speak than as if the silence itself was poised to pounce on the first to succumb.
Several times I was almost frightened enough to speak, so that at least my fears might be defined; but each time I determined that it was up to Hazel to begin.
I don't know what music I played after dinner; I recall only visualising fists of sound crudely battling the blankets of silence. I looked at Hazel, who was trying to read against the barrage of noise which for the moment had lost all meaning. I felt grief for what I might be beginning to destroy. 'I'm sorry,' I said. 'Maybe I'm starting to crack up.'
Sometimes Hazel would dodge around the bedroom and I, having pinned her to the bed, would rape her; we seemed to need this more and more often. But tonight we waltzed gently over each other, exploring delicately, until I was too deep in her to need ornamentations. 'You're a deep one,' I said.
'What, love?' she gasped, laughing.
But I could never offer her puns more than once, and now less than ever, for my body had stiffened and chilled. Perhaps, despite her reassurances, I was cracking up. I knew that at that moment I was being watched. I peered down into Hazel's eyes and tried to gaze through them, and as I felt her nails move on my back I remembered the sensations of claws at the end of my dream.
The next day, Monday, I came home tired by a lunch which one of our clients had bought me; my constant smile had felt more like a death-grin, and certainly had expressed as little emotion. Returning to the agency I'd walked through shafts of envy which had penetrated even my six whiskies. Our house should have offered peace, but all I felt as I opened the front door was the taut snap of tension. I felt awaited, and not only by Hazel.
In the early evening cars passed with a muffled undulating hum, but soon faded. I remembered that back at our flat we could always hear the plop of a tap like a dropper or the echoing cries of children in the baths across the road. Here in the house the silence seemed worse than ever, threatening to drown us, and our speech was waterlogged. Yet it wasn't the silence I found most disturbing. Over dinner and afterwards, as we sat reading, I glimpsed an odd expression several times on Hazel's face. It wasn't fear, exactly; I should have described it as closer to doubt. What upset me most was that each time she caught me watching her, she quickly smiled.
I couldn't stop thinking that something had happened while I had been at work. 'How was our house today?' I asked.
'It was fine,' she said. 'Oh, while I was out shopping…'
But I wouldn't let her escape. 'Do you like our house, then?' I asked.
'What do you think?'
I was certain now that she was hiding something from me, but I didn't know how to find out. She could elude my questions by any number of wiles, by weeping if necessary. Frowning, I desisted and put Britten's Curlew River on the stereo. Of all Britten's work I love the church parables more than any; their sureness and astringency can make me forget my crumpled colleagues at the agency and their clumsy machinations. I thought Curlew River might help me define my thoughts. But I didn't get as far as the second side, with its angelic resolution. Peter Pears' eerie vocal glissandi in the part of a madwoman chilled me like the howls of a sad cat; the church which the stereo recreated seemed longer and more hollow, like a tunnel gaping invisibly before me in the air. And the calm silences with which Britten punctuates his parables seemed no longer calm. They seemed to pounce closer and to grow as they approached. Determined to respond to the music, I closed my eyes. At once I felt a dark stealthy shape leap at me between the music. My eyes started open, and I glanced at Hazel for some kind of support. The room was empty.
And it was dark. On the wall opposite me the wallpaper hung clawed into strips. It was not the living-room. Perhaps I cried out, for I heard Hazel call, 'Don't worry, you're all right,' and something else inaudible. I saw that the wallpaper was after all not clawed, that it was merely shadows that had made it seem so. Then Hazel came in with a tray.
'What did you say?' I demanded.
'Nothing,' she said. 'I crept out to make some coffee.'
'Just now, I mean. When you called out.'
'I haven't said a word for ten minutes,' she said.
After Hazel had gone to bed I stayed downstairs for an hour of last cigarettes and fragments of slogans. The month looked slack at the agency, but I couldn't stop thinking, and I preferred not to think about the house. Eventually, of course, the house overtook my thoughts. All right, I argued in mute fury, if I were moved by Britten's melodious angels then I might as well admit to a lurking belief in the supernatural. So the house was haunted by the presence of a dog or, as I sensed intuitively, a cat: so what? It didn't worry me, and Hazel hadn't even noticed. But if my grudging belief was the latest fashion in enlightenment, the retreat from scepticism, it didn't seem to be helping me. Spectral cats could have nothing to do with my hearing Hazel's voice when she hadn't spoken. I felt that my mind was beginning to fray.
A paroxysm of dry coughs persuaded me to stub out my cigarette. I threw the scribbled scraps of paper into the fireplace and came out into the hall. As I turned out the light in the living-room, a shadow leapt from the hall to the landing with a single bound.
Of course I wasn't sure, and I tried to be less so. I crept upstairs, feeling my heels hang over the open treads of the staircase. For a moment my nightmare returned, and I was heaving myself up a tilted ladder which grew steeper as the gaps between the treads widened. Halfway up I could hear myself panting with exhaustion, perhaps from lack of sleep. On tiptoe, I opened the bedroom door. I had drawn it back only inches when a fluid shadow rippled through the crack into the room.
I threw the door open, and Hazel jumped. I was certain she had, although it might have been the bedroom light jarring her blanketed shape into focus. As I undressed I watched her, and after a minute or two she shifted a little. Now I was convinced that she hadn't been asleep when I entered, and was still only pretending. I didn't try to make sure, but it took me some time to turn out the light and slip into bed. For minutes I stood staring at Hazel's obscure body, wondering where the shadow had gone.
I awoke feeling lightened. The room gave out its colours brilliantly; beyond the window waves of leaves sprang up glowing in the sun. It was only as sleep began to peel back a little that I wondered whether Hazel's absence had lightened me.
Once downstairs I didn't go to her. Instead I walked dully into the dark living-room and slumped on the settee. I began to wonder whether I was afraid of Hazel. Certainly I couldn't talk to her about last night. My eyes began to close, and the living-room darkened further. Shadows striped the wall again; in a moment the wallpaper might peel. Or a claw might tear through… The door gushed light and Hazel came in, carrying plates of breakfast. She smiled when I leapt to my feet, but I wasn't greeting her. The living-room was bright, as it had been since I entered. I had realised whom I might see. After all, the house was his responsibility.
'How do you feel?' I said, staring into my coffee then glancing up at her.
'All right, love. Don't start worrying about me. I should try and have a rest today if I were you.'
I didn't know whether the shadow was speaking; in any case, I resented the implication that I looked incapable. 'I'm going to take a couple of hours off this morning,' I said. 'If you want to come… I mean, if you want to get away from the house for a while…'
'Silly,' she said. 'You'd be upset if dinner wasn't ready.'
My suspicions were confirmed. I couldn't believe that she wouldn't take the chance to escape the house unless it had infected her somehow. I was glad that I hadn't told her where I was going. I managed to kiss her, forgetting to notice whether the feel of her had changed, and hurried round the corner to the car. Muffled thunder hung in the air. For a moment I regretted leaving Hazel alone, but I was afraid to return to the house. Besides, perhaps she was past rescuing. I drove blindly around the roundabout, not looking at the house, and was at the estate agent's within half an hour.
I had forgotten that the office wouldn't be open. I had a cup of coffee and a few cigarettes in a café across the road, and by the time the estate agent had arrived I had perfected my smile and my story. A faint astringent scent clung to him, and he pulled at his silver moustache more often than when first I'd met him. I convinced him that I had merely been passing, but still he drew his rings nervously from his fingers and paced behind his desk. At last I fastened on the shrill garrulous couple who had been leaving as I entered, and guided the conversation to them.
'Yes, abominable,' he agreed. 'I suppose I dislike people, I decided to live with cats a long time ago. People and dogs can be led, where cats can't. You'd never train a cat to salivate at your whim.'
'Were there cats in our house?' I said.
'Have you been dreaming?' he demanded.
'Just a feeling.'
'You're right off course,' he said. 'To me, you know, the most frightful act is to kill or maim a cat. Don't offer me Auschwitz. People aren't beautiful. Auschwitz was unforgivable, but there's nothing worse than a man who destroys beauty.'
'What happened?' I said, trying to be casual.
'I shan't go into detail,' he said. 'Briefly, your predecessors were obsessed with pests. One mouse and they were convinced the house was overrun. There are none there now, of course. People and cats have one thing in common: they can lose themselves in their own internal drives to the exclusion of morality, or reality for that matter.'
'Go on,' I said.
'Well, these people left five cats in the house without food while they went away on holiday - starve a cat to kill a mouse, you see - as stupid and vile as that. Somehow the attic door was closed and trapped the cats. When our friends returned they opened the front door and one cat ran out, never to be seen again. The others were in pieces in the attic. Cannibalism.'
'And no doubt,' I said, 'if someone exceptionally sensitive were to take the house - '
'Yourself, you mean?'
'Yes, perhaps so,' I said defensively. 'Or for that matter, if one left some piece of sensitive electrical equipment running - '
'I don't pretend to know,' he said, but there was despair around his eyes. 'Ghosts of cats? I'll tell you this. People underrate the intelligence of cats simply because they refuse to be taught tricks. I think the ghosts of cats would play with their victims for a while, as revenge. Sometimes I wonder what I'm doing in this job,' he said. 'You can see I don't care.'
When I left I drove slowly through the city, thinking. The lunchtime crowds eddied about me; eventually the thickening sky above the roofs was split by lightning, and gray rain leapt from the pavements, washing away the crowds. I drove on as the rain smashed at the windscreen. 'Playing with their victims' - there was something to which that was the key. If I were to believe in ghosts, however absurd it seemed beneath the tic of traffic lights, I might as well accept the idea of possession. Was the house playing us as hunter and victim? But I couldn't altogether believe that one's personality could be ousted; I could imagine a framework within which this might sound logical, but I wasn't sure that I felt it ought to be real. Yet I noticed that here, caged in by hopes of rain, I still felt more free than recently: free of the house's influence.
Suddenly I wanted to be with Hazel. If I had to I would drag her out, whatever was within her, however dangerous she might be. I could telephone my agency when I arrived at the house. I turned my car and it coursed through the pools of the city.
Along the carriageways out of the city the trees looked bedraggled and broken. Occasionally I passed torn cars, steaming where they'd skidded in mud. I was hardly surprised, when I reached the house, to see that the telephone wire had snapped and was sagging between the roof and the trees in the garden. As I drove past the roundabout it occurred to me that if Hazel were a victim she was trapped now. She would have to admit that she was as vulnerable as me. No longer would I have to suffer the entire burden of disquiet.
I think it was not until I got out of the car that I perceived what I had been thinking. I felt a chill of horror at myself. I loved her hands on my back, yet for a while I had turned them into claws. All along Hazel had been frightened but had tried to hide her fear from me. That was the doubt I'd seen in her eyes. At once I knew that what had blinded me, what had sought to destroy her. The rain dwindled and the sun blazed out; a rainbow lifted above the carriageway. I rushed through the garden, lashed by wet leaves, and dragged open the door to the house.
The house was dark - darker than it should have been now that the sun had returned. It was dim with stealth and silence. There was no sound of Hazel. I hurried through the ground floor, stumbled upstairs and searched the bedrooms, but the house seemed empty. I gazed down from the landing and saw that the front door was still open. I was ready to run out and wait for Hazel outside, yet I couldn't rid myself of the impression that the staircase was far longer and steeper than I remembered. Trying to control my fears I started down. I was halfway down when a shadow crept across the carpet in the living room.
For a moment I thought it was Hazel's. But not only did its shape relate to something else entirely - it was far too large. I stood on the edge of the stairs. If I ran now, whatever it was moving in the dim room might misjudge its leap. I wavered, fell down two stairs and jumped clumsily to the hall. At that moment the telephone rang.
In my terror I could see it only as an ally. I backed up the stairs, reached down and caught up the receiver. I muttered incoherently, then I heard Hazel's voice.
'I've got out,' she said. 'I hoped I might catch you before you came home. Is the door open?'
'Yes,' I said. 'Listen, love - don't come back in. I'm sorry. I didn't understand what was going on. I blamed you.'
If the door's open you can make it,' she said. 'Just run as fast as you can' - and then I remembered that the telephone wire was down, remembered the voice that had called to me from the other room.
As I dropped the receiver the air came alive with hissing. It was the sound that the stereo had trapped, but worse now, overpowering. I launched myself from the stairs and came down in the middle of the hall. One more leap and I would be outside. But before I regained my balance I had seen that the front door was closed.
I might have wasted my strength in trying to wrench it open. But although I didn't understand the rules of what was happening, I felt that if the house was trying to convince me that Hazel was safe that meant she was still inside somewhere. Behind me the hall spat. I clutched at the front door. I told myself that I was only using it for support, and turned.
It took me some time to determine where I was. In the dimness the hall seemed green, and a good deal smaller. I might have been in the living-room. But I wasn't, for I could see the stairs; the walls weren't closing like a trap; the shadows hadn't massed into a poised shape, ready to sink its claws into my back. My mind began to scream and scrabble at itself, and I concentrated on the stairs. Eventually, after some hours, the hall imperceptibly altered and seemed stretched to dim infinity. The stairs were miles away. It wasn't worth making for them. There was an acre of open space to be crossed, and I knew I had no chance.
I cried out for Hazel, and from somewhere above she answered my cry.
That cry I knew wasn't faked. It was scarcely coherent, pulled out of shape by terror; it was scarcely Hazel, and in some way I knew that guaranteed its truth. I ran to the stairs, counting my footsteps. Two, and I was on the stairs. I had control of the situation for a moment. I should have kept going blindly; I shouldn't have looked around. But I couldn't help glancing into the living-room.
The doorway was dark, and in the darkness a face appeared, flashed and was gone, like the momentary luminous spectres in a ghost train. I glimpsed an enormous black head, glowing green eyes, a red mouth bared with white teeth. Then I tore my gaze away and looked up to the landing, and I saw that the stairs had become a towering ladder, a succession of great treads separated by yawning gaps which I could never cross. The air hissed behind me, and I could go neither up nor down.
Then Hazel cried out again. There was only one way to conquer myself, and my mind was so numbed that I managed it. I shut my eyes tight and crawled upwards, grasping each higher stair and dragging myself painfully over space. Beneath me I felt the stairs tremble. I wondered whether they would throw me off, until I realised that something was climbing up behind me. I tightened every muscle of my face to keep my brain from bursting out, and heaved myself upward. I felt a purring breath on my neck, and then I was on the landing.
I stumbled to my feet and opened my eyes. Unless the house was able to blot Hazel from my gaze, she could only be in the one room I hadn't searched, the attic. As I ran across the landing, a huge face flashed at the top of the stairs. Its eyes gleamed with bottomless hatred, and for a second it seemed to fill with teeth. Then I had reached the attic and slammed the door.
I slumped. The attic was so crowded with lamps and cartons that nobody could have hidden there. The objects massed, suffocated and strung together by cords of dust; I didn't see how I could even make my way between them. I might be trapped in the maze and cut off from Hazel, if indeed she were in the room. I knocked one of the looming cartons to the floor in an attempt to clear the view, and on the thud of the carton I heard breath hiss in muffled terror.
At once the room rearranged itself, and I saw Hazel. She was crouched in a corner, her knees drawn up to her chin, her arms pressed tight over her face. She was sobbing. I moved gently towards her, loving her, bullying the fear from my mind. My feet tangled in wire. I looked down and saw the cord for the lamps. I knew where the socket was; I plugged in the lamps and let them blind the door. Then I went to Hazel.
'Come on, love,' I said. 'Come on, Hazel. We're going now. Come on, love.'
Her arms drew back from her face. She looked up at me; then she shrank into the corner and her eyes gaped in horror. I fell back. But her lips moved. She was trying to speak to me. She wasn't frightened of me. I looked behind me, towards the door.
The door had opened, and the doorway was half-filled by an enormous face. Its mouth yawned wide and a tongue sprang dripping across its teeth. I grabbed the lamps and shone them into its eyes, but they didn't blink. Its face began to bulge in through the doorway, and behind it others leapt across the landing to hover grinning above the first. With a surge of pure energy and terror I hurled the lamps at the faces.
What happened I don't know. I never heard the lamps strike the floor. But the surge of energy carried me across the room to heave the window open. I ran to Hazel and pulled her to her feet, although she shrank sobbing into the corner. I threw her across my shoulder and staggered with her to the window. I glanced back into the room, where faces with gleaming eyes capered in the air and flew at us in a single toothed mass. Then I jumped.
I think the house must have overlooked that. Mice might fall from a window, but they aren't supposed to jump. So I spent time in hospital with a broken leg, while Hazel was furious enough by the end of the week to visit the estate agent's. Once she had made him admit that he wouldn't spend a night in the house, the rest was easy. 'I have no time for horror,' he told her. My leg soon improved. Not so Hazel's insomnia; and yet when we lie awake together talking through the uneasy hours, I think there are times when we're grateful. Somehow we could never talk that way before.
(C) Ramsey Campbell
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.