Tim Lebbon lives in South Wales with his wife and two children. His books include Dusk, Berserk, Hellboy: Unnatural Selection, Face, The Nature of Balance, Changing of Faces, Exorcising Angels (with Simon Clark), Dead Man’s Hand, Pieces of Hate, Fears Unnamed, White and Other Tales of Ruin andDesolation. Future publications include Dawn from Bantam Spectra, two novels in collaboration with an American writer, and more books with Cemetery Dance, Night Shade Books and Necessary Evil Press, among others. He has won two British Fantasy Awards, a Bram Stoker Award, a Shocker and a Tombstone Award, and has been a finalist for International Horror Guild and World Fantasy Awards. Several of his novels and novellas are currently under option in the USA and the UK. Find out more about Tim at his websites: www.timlebbon.net and www.noreela.com
I knew Nathan would believe me when I told him that there were ghosts down there. What I didn’t know was just how keen he'd be to meet them.
Max had told us about the place. He was a wheezing old git but sometimes he came up trumps. Between passing out from drinking cheap cider, smoking fags made from scavenged butts and scratching his crotch, Max spent his time telling us kids stories of the Old Town. He called it that because the whole place had now been built up, factories razed and new estates constructed to cover the bruises left on the land. This time, Max's story had contained a whiff of truth which we'd wanted to follow up.
An old manor house, he'd said, out in Tempton Woods. He reckoned its owners had once owned the woods as their private estate, but as the family died out and the manor fell to ruin the wilds grew in to possess it. Angry at their years of subservience, he said. Whatever that meant. He'd farted and closed his eyes, and the bottle he'd been drinking from tipped to mix cider with the puddle of piss around his legs. Disgusting old sod, but as I said he sometimes came up trumps.
‘Old Max was right!’ Nathan gushed. ‘But it isn’t really haunted, is it?’ His eyes held the excited glint of a scared kid who doesn't quite know how scared he should be.
I nodded. ‘Sure. Ghosts of the woods come here now that the place isn’t lived in any more. They spend their nights here because it’s so dark. Not touched by moonlight, or anything.’
The manor was no longer there. Its roof and walls had long since fallen and been subsumed beneath trees and plants, leaving nothing but a rubble-strewn mound to indicate where grandness had once stood. But there was a hole, like the open mouth of a sleeping giant, sheer sides leading down into what appeared to be a basement. Though this was one deep bugger. If I shone my torch down there I could not see a floor, only the jet-black of a deeper hole. Deeper than my light could travel. How far does light travel, I thought, before it stops? Why doesn’t it go on forever? Maybe it just gets eaten.
Nathan glanced over at me to make sure I wasn't kidding. I was, but he couldn’t see that. ‘All down there?’
I nodded. ‘That's why it's so dark. The ghosts eat the light.’
‘I never heard that one.’
‘Well what the hell else do you think they'd eat, it'd just fall out of their stomachs!’
Nathan was quiet for a while as he mulled this over; I could see his jaw tensing and stretching as his brain worked. That's what I'd always loved about Nathan, he was so transparent. And dull. Susceptible. I liked to tell him stories.
What I didn’t like was what he did next.
‘Come on then!’ he shouted, and fell to his knees. Before I could grab at him he'd shimmied backwards until his feet were hanging over the edge of the hole.
‘The ghosts-’ I shouted.
‘I want to meet them! Maybe …’ He did not finish but I knew what he was thinking. He'd always been intrigued by the unseen. Maybe I'll be able to talk to them.
He went over the edge. I heard him scampering down the walls of the hole, so confident because he expected to strike the floor within a few seconds. More shuffling, and a gasp. Then silence for a couple of seconds … a seemingly endless couple of seconds … before the dull thud of his body impacting far below.
I stepped back and held my breath. For a crazy minute none of this had happened, and I looked around to see where I was. The woods were watching. Roots hunched out of the ground like the ridged backs of petrified swine. Trees stood high and proud, older than me, my house, my parents, swaying contentedly in the breeze as time hurried by around them.
Then Nathan cried out, a faint plaintive plea for help.
My life would never be the same again.
‘Help me ...’
‘What? What can I do?’ I giggled. The sound scared me but it also felt good, as being scared from a distance so often does. ‘Any ghosts, Nath?’
Silence, like a held breath. Perhaps he was looking around, trying to see into the dark in case there was anything darker.
‘Nath? You alright?’
‘Get me out of here!’
Even from the depths his scream made me tremble, a disembodied cocktail of terror and rage. I giggled again and this time it felt even better. My imagination leapt several hours into the future: questions; panic; concern; arms holding me; people crying because I was there, crying also because Nathan was not.
‘It's dark, I can’t see, my leg hurts, I can’t even see the sky, the hole bends, it's wet and there's something … there's something moving.’ I heard a sob and a sniff. ‘You can have all my Willard Price books if you get me out. All of them!’ The promise came from the dark like a whisper from a forgotten genie.
I pondered his offer. All his Willard Price books. I'd never read any of them -- my parents thought reading was for pansies, and Nathan never lent his books out -- but I knew how much he adored those volumes, how much he took care to keep them in the right order, spines facing out, never bending the covers back too far. He'd read them all at least three times.
I tried to imagine the books on a shelf in my empty room. I'd have to build the shelf myself, of course. I doubted my dad would do it for me. He did very little for me by then.
I also considered what else Nathan would offer if he were down there just a few hours more. His signed Han Solo baseball cap (signed by the actor who played him, of course, not Solo himself)? His pirated copy of Resident Evil IV? His …. surely not, but maybe his signed Oasis album? Maybe.
I turned and walked away through the woods. Nathan's cries were soon drowned by nature coming to life around me, as if it had held its breath pending my decision. I smiled as a rook took flight and cawed its way across the sky. For want of anything better to do I decided to follow it, and soon I was running along a faint path between the trees, straining my neck with the effort of trying to keep tabs on the bird.
I lost it almost straight away. But as I exited the woods and slumped down in a field, I pretended the bird was still watching me, awaiting my next decision.
I only went home for a drink. I don’t think Nathan even crossed my mind all the way there. It was a ten minute walk buzzing with plans of where to put the Willard Price books, how to build the shelf, whether to bother asking Dad if he'd help me. There was also a niggling doubt, too, a fear that once the books were in my possession they would be taken away again just as quickly. Taken by my parents and given to poor dead Danny.
Mum and Dad were out when I arrived home, so I went straight up to my bedroom and slumped on the unmade bed. There was nothing there for me. The wallpaper was a ghastly splash of motorbikes on one wall, steam trains on another, the remaining two woodchipped and painted a bright yellow. I'd wanted blue, but Dad had yellow paint left over from doing Danny's room. What was good enough for Danny, he said, was good enough for me. He didn’t mean it. He had no intention of hurting me, making me feel inadequate, unloved, transparent. He just said what came naturally, because he was too wrapped up in the past to let the present concern him too much.
My ceiling was a cracked maze of crumbling Artex, years old now and providing home to creepies and crawlies in its myriad splits. The carpet was threadbare, the bed functional … and that was all. Nothing else. No furnishings; no cupboards or shelves; no Airfix models hanging from the ceiling with bubbled glue congealed around the cockpits; no comics splayed across the floor, open at a dozen different worlds.
Nothing. Zilch. Squat.
It was all in Danny's room.
It was an act of worship more than anything else. I see that now, but when I was a kid all I could understand was that my parents stripped my room to furnish my dead brother's. I'd loved Danny, yeah, and I mourned him, but I grew to hate him in a short space of time. Or rather, I grew to hate his memory. Because it was his memory that was stealing my parents away from me.
I lay on the bed for ten minutes that day, considering where the books would look best. Then I thought I got up to go and help Nathan from his hole.
Waking two hours later still on the bed, I realised that I'd only dreamed doing it.
I ran through Tempton woods. For a horrible few minutes I could not find the ruined manor, but then it loomed out of the shadows like a hibernating beast smothered with sneaky shrubs.
I stood at the edge of the hole. And I heard nothing.
‘Nathan!’ There was no echo. The hole was a deep wound in the woodland floor, fringed by inquisitive shrubs. The sun found its way into the first few feet and lit up the sides, old brickwork pocked by frost and time, mortar powdered and bleeding down the walls like black tears. Further in the darkness was impenetrable. No light from above, and certainly none from below. No sound either, no hint that down there, somewhere, my friend may be injured or ….
‘Nathan! Nath! You there?’
It was as if the hole spoke to me. Nathan’s voice was lower, grittier, maybe because he was thirsty. That’s what I thought at the time.
‘There’s something down here with me,’ he said. He was trying to whisper but the old brick basement was an echo chamber. ‘Something alive, but … It touches me. It reaches out of the dark and touches me.’
‘Nath, it may be one of the ghosts.’ At the time I wasn’t quite sure why I said it. It was cruel and unkind and Nathan was a friend of mine, but perhaps those Price books just didn’t hold the allure any more. Perhaps the Han Solo cap was calling to me, causing vibrations in the Force: Own me, own me.
‘It’s not,’ he said, whimpering. ‘You have to get me out. It says it’s the king of the dark. It says it’ll stud its crown with my eyeballs and make a ladder from my bones and escape.’ His voice hitched, a fog-horn gasp in the basement’s throat. ‘It says it only likes dead flesh. It’ll wait until … until ...’
‘Nath, ghosts don’t eat people,’ I said. ‘I told you, they only eat light.’ I sat down and looked around at the trees, those close in young and still shimmering with their ground-taking victory, those further away older, probably already here when the manor was in its prime. I tried to recall the late-night horror films I’d watched with Danny when he was still alive, the ones Mum and Dad thought weren’t too bad for us because they were so old. How do you tell your parents that blood in black and white is somehow more frightening?
‘No, not ghosts,’ I said. ‘What you’ve got there is a zombie.’
‘I can hear it, its coming, its’-’
‘Well, maybe a ghostly zombie. If there is such a thing.’ I twirled some grass stalks around my fingers and wondered just what was down there with Nathan. A cat or a fox or a rabbit, I guessed. Not a zombie. Surely not a ghost. Surely not.
‘It’s coming, get me out, you can have all my comic books, all of them, just get me out!’
‘And the Willard Price books?’
He screamed. It was as if the ground itself were crying out in fear. Birds took flight in agitated abundance, other things scurried around the foot of the trees. I stood quickly and backed away from the hole, expecting Nathan’s bloodied hands to appear at any minute, his eyes wide and full of rage. Or maybe there would be something else there … something with Nathan’s blood running down its chin … something using splintered bones to haul itself up out of the earth …
The screaming ceased. Then his voice again, throatier than before, clotted with fear. ‘Get me out. Get me out. Get me out.’
Nathan had a full set of 2000 ADs, from issue one onwards. His father had given him the early few hundred and Nathan had collected the rest, going to comic conventions and fairs, spending hard-saved pocket money. I’d never been too keen … but I thought how cool they’d look scattered on my floor and arranged across my unmade bed. It would bring my empty room to life.
Nathan had everything. I’d once had something until Danny had died.
How much more would Nathan give me to save him?
I turned and walked away. He must have screamed for hours, because I was sure I still heard him when I arrived home.
‘Have you seen Nathan?’
I shook my head.
‘His mother was asking after him. You went out with him this morning, didn’t you?’
I nodded. ‘He went off this afternoon. Said he was going home.’
My Mum glanced at me, then back at the ceiling. ‘You sure?’
I nodded. ‘Course.’
She glanced down again and smiled a paltry smile. She could never look me in the eye for more than a few seconds at a time. When I was younger and Danny was still alive, she’d always said we had the same striking eyes.
I went upstairs and found that Mum had made my bed. The room looked even emptier now, maybe because I’d been imagining it scattered with comics, the walls lined with books. I sat on my bed for a few seconds, looking around, wondering just what I was going to do. Darkness nudged at the window. I thought of the king of the dark down there with Nathan, sitting patiently waiting for him to die so he could eat his dead flesh and use his bones for a ladder. I tried to clothe the idea of the king with flesh and bones himself, but I could conjure nothing in my mind’s eye. I decided Nathan read too much.
Closing my eyes brought Danny. I remembered all the good times but they were soured, not by his death so much as what had occurred since then. If he were still alive I’d have games to play, models to make, things to do. As it was I had my bed and the darkness behind my eyelids.
I started to hum a song. Whatever I was going to do about Nathan, it would have to wait until tomorrow.
Later I turned out the light and sat staring out towards Tempton Woods. I concentrated on the shadows spilling from between the trees, trying to see Nathan’s screams and taste his fear. Musing upon what such a recipe would drive him to offer me in the morning.
I heard my mother and father go to bed. They followed their nightly ritual of opening Danny's door and going into his room, breathing in deeply as if memories could invoke lost aromas, whispering to each other but, in reality, talking to Danny. They must have run their hands over Danny's old toys, and my new ones turned old by their removal and placing in a dead brother's room.
At the time it all seemed natural to me. I felt something I could not understand -- now I realise it was a youthful form of distaste -- but their ritual was also my own. I would gaze at the empty walls of my room as my parents creaked floorboards next door, whispered goodnight to Danny and then went to bed. I used to hear them moving in the night, but that had not happened since Danny had died.
I did not go to sleep for a long time. There was a three-quarter moon, by which I tried to make out where I could put the Price books and the comics Nathan had promised me. I realised quite quickly that they would do little to fill my empty room. Rather, their presence would do more to draw attention to the vacuum my life had become.
Perhaps Nathan would need another day or two to decide.
The next morning was a Sunday. The day of rest. My mum and dad had been sitting up all night with Nathan’s parents, trying to soothe them, trying to reassure them, but only making matters worse. The police had spread out through the town to look for him. I said I was going to help them search, and nobody tried to stop me.
Walking into the woods I thought something had changed. It was as if someone had taken something away but I could not work out what; I only knew that it had gone. If Nathan was out of the hole I'd have known by now, but as I neared I knew he was still there. He was screaming. And the woods were silent -- that's what was missing. The woods were totally silent. No birds calling, no bushes rustling …
The police had obviously not yet come this far.
‘He – elp me. He – elp me.’ They were gasps more than screams, exhortations pushed past a throat swollen by crying or dried out from thirst. They drifted from the open mouth of the hole like puffs of darkness seeking impossible escape. He screamed between his cries for help, a high, ululating call invoking memories of old Hammer films, virgins fleeing black-clad monsters, camp mummies stumbling blindly at their prey.
I sat at the edge of the hole and listened. His voice was quieter than it had been the day before, as if he were moving away down some subterranean tunnel. Or being moved.
The surrounding trees swung to their own rhythm, undergrowth hiding all manner of unknowns on the forest floor. If I stared up through the canopy at the blue sky I could have been anywhere, not just here in the woods, listening to my friend screaming for help that may never come.
‘Nathan,’ I said.
The screaming stopped. He must have heard me, must have sensed my presence from down in the pit. ‘Get me out!’ he hissed.
‘There’s something here. It touched me. It … touched me, you know? I can see it even though it’s dark. It wants out. It touched me, and it wants out. It’s the king. It’ll use my eyes to stud its crown, my fingers to pick its teeth. It’ll use me, climb my bones, build a ladder from my bones.’
‘Nath, don’t be so dramatic,’ I said, honestly believing he was going way over the top. Sure, I’d left him for a day, but it wasn’t as if he was out in the open where he could get wet, where things could find him. And really, I never believed there was anything down there with him. ‘Don’t believe everything I tell you about ghosts and zombies. It’s probably a vampire!’
I giggled and frowned at the same time. Perhaps even then I wondered just what the hell I was doing.
‘My leg’s broken. I can’t move. I’m thirsty. I want my … I want my mum.’ He began to cry then, useless tears shed in the dark where no one could see them. ‘And it is a zombie.’
He cried for a long while, sobs and sighs rising out of the ground and taking flight into the trees. Perhaps, I thought, they sat there watching me, the product of his anger and fear marking and remembering me. I whistled softly. Dampness from the ground soaked through the butt of my jeans. I wondered how wet Nathan was.
‘It wet down there?’
Nathan did not answer. The tears continued, but his voice had been stolen by the dark.
I stood and edged closer to the hole, and for a few minutes I was going to rescue him. I tried to spot protruding bricks and other handholds to see if I could make it down into the basement myself, or whether I could guide Nathan up. But then I remembered he’d broken his leg. I remembered my empty room, his books, his comics, mine, and I wondered once again what more he could possibly offer me.
‘Nathan, you know your Han Solo cap? And your Playstation?’
‘What are you on about? Why’s it so dark? It’s sitting beside me, it’s breathing on me, I can smell its breath. It’s waiting … it’s waiting for me to die.’
‘Your stuff, Nath? You’ll give it to me? You’ll give it all to me?’
‘Just help me! I don’t want to stay down - No! Don’t touch me! Don’t, no, no …’
There was no more.
I left Tempton Woods again, strolling through the pine-scented shadows, listening to the sounds of the forest increasing around me as I moved further away from the hole in the ground. I thought at the time it was because Nathan could no longer be heard screaming.
Now, I think maybe it was something different. Maybe there was something down there with him, and the woods could sense it, and around the hole they were silent. They did not want to attract attention to themselves.
When I arrived home my parents were waiting on the doorstep.
The most complicated part was explaining what I’d been doing that morning. I kept it simple. I said I’d gone to look for Nathan in the park, but when I couldn’t find him I went for a walk on my own. Along the canal, I said. That lie became my unintentional saviour because I was not allowed by the canal, and my parents’ anger changed tack slightly until they were berating me for wandering off on my own. There might be someone out there, they said. Someone nasty.
I was quizzed by other people, of course, when Nathan didn’t show. The police (they went gentle – I was a traumatised friend and they had no reason to ride slipshod all over me); his mum and dad (who reminded me so much of my own parents when Danny had died that for a time, I felt like a child shared between four); friends at school. My reactions were always as expected and no suspicion was aroused.
I never went back to Tempton Woods. I was afraid I’d lead them to him, and consequently to the truth of my crime. Nathan faded in my memory probably at the same time his life was fading from him, down there in the dark.
Nathan’s parents did not handle their bereavement like Mum and Dad. His room was stripped and decorated within months, and they handed me many of his things: his collection of books; his comics; his Han Solo cap. They also gave me his signed Oasis album. They said he’d have wanted it that way.
After searching the countryside and the town, the police went into Tempton woods, scoured the old manor estate, sent their dogs in to sniff out what they were now expecting to be a corpse.
They never found Nathan.
I went back to the town quite recently on a business trip, but I only stayed for a couple of hours. Max, the filthy old tramp, was still alive, still there, still swimming in piss. I don’t think he recognised me, but when I posed a tentative question about Tempton Woods he told me of the haunted manor that lay ruined there.
‘Haunted by what?’ I asked.
‘Take your pick,’ he said. ‘Ghosts, memories, guilt. Whatever takes your fancy.’
I live in a small flat on my own in London. One room is jam packed full of belongings, from books to toys to clothes, packed floor to ceiling so that there is barely space for me to crawl in and sit in the armchair squeezed into the centre. The other room – my bedroom – is minimalist to the extreme. All except for a row of books on the wall, a hat on my bed and a splash of comics across the floor. I still have nothing.
I think about the woods. I remember Nathan’s screams. I wonder if a thing ever did come out of that hole, hauling itself up on a ladder made of bones, its ambiguous shape impossible in the sunlight.
And I wonder where that thing is now.
(C) Tim Lebbon
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.