Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Getting My Arse Cooked

Back when I was a student in medical college, in the trauma section of one of the textbooks, there was a photograph of a child with its buttocks scalded raw.

According to the book, this wasn’t a particularly rare thing to see in a burn unit, and the usual explanation is that the child sat down in a bucket of hot water. According to the book, this is something that almost never happens in real life, so it should immediately arouse suspicions of child abuse.

Well, actually, it does happen in real life. It happened to me.

I was at that time very young – I must have been less than three and a half years old, because my grandfather was still alive. It’s not my earliest memory, but it’s one of the earliest.

It was a hot and sunny day, just short of noon. My dad had bought a goat’s head from the butcher’s and was dissecting it out in the yard, and I was a very interested spectator. Meanwhile, my grandfather was preparing for his bath.

In order to comprehend what happened next, one needs to understand the (now thankfully long extinct) process by which men of my grandfather’s generation bathed. They’d first strip down to a dhoti or lungi – a cloth like a sarong, worn around the waist – rub themselves over with mustard oil, and sun themselves for an hour or so. Then, they’d take a bucket of hot water and pour it over themselves, without the use of any soap. That was their idea of a bath.

Anyway, so there I was bending over the fascinating goat’s head dissection, when someone put something down just behind me that I saw only a shadow of, out of the corner of my eye. It looked to me like a low cylindrical stool of the kind we used to use back then, and without a second thought I plonked myself down on it.

It wasn’t a stool. It was a bucket of boiling water, all ready for my grandfather’s bath.

I remember a white hot flash of agony, and I think I remember screaming. The next thing I knew, it was late afternoon, and I was lying in bed, sedated, and looking out at the yard where the goat’s head still lay, half-dissected. My arse was cooked, but good.

That’s why that book doesn’t know what it’s talking about. 

The Horror Of It All: A Discussion on Horror Fiction

Statutory disclaimer: This is not meant as a tutorial on writing. Whereas I believe I am a competent writer, I do not believe writing can be taught; creative writing courses and tutorials, in my considered opinion, are useless at best and more often actually harmful to any genuine talent. I took one such course and quit after lesson three; it was the best thing I ever did as far as my writing is concerned.

So, this is not meant as a tutorial on how to write, nor am I making any statement which is not the product of my own thought processes and beliefs. All I am doing is discussing a particular genre of writing, and my own reflections on it. That’s all.

Those of you who have been reading me for some time are aware that a substantial part of my writing comprises what is normally called “horror fiction”.

But what is “horror” fiction?

This is one of those terms hard to define because what constitutes “horror” for one person may mean nothing to another. However, since we’re on the topic, let’s try and establish the parameters for discussion. As is usual in these cases, it’s possible to define what horror fiction is only by marking out what it isn’t. As Arthur C Clarke said in Clarke’s Second Law, the limits of the possible are only defined by pushing beyond them into the clearly impossible.

So, these are the limits I’ll set up for the purpose of this discussion; these are the red lines beyond which horror ceases to be horror.

The boundaries of the horror story:

A horror story doesn’t necessarily involve the “supernatural/paranormal”. In fact, I’d say ghosts, spooks, ESP, people who are capable of starting fires with one’s mind, and the like do not have a space in horror fiction and should occupy a separate genre of their own. I’ll go into the reasons in a minute.

A horror story isn’t necessarily conventionally “scary”. The kind of scares offered by a “haunted house” exhibit isn’t horror any more than a roller coaster ride is horrifying. These are thrills, knowingly indulged in for the pleasure they bring – the vicarious pleasure of being scared while one knows one is in no danger. And, like any other passing pleasure, once they’re over, they’re forgotten. In the course of this article I’ll be talking of what horror fiction should be able to achieve.

Zombies, werewolves, vampires and the like have no place in horror fiction. I’m not knocking creatures of the night; I’ve written on them myself, and will be discussing my own handling of them in the course of this article. They have a long and respectable history in fiction, even though they’ve become sadly diluted for the market in recent days (I shouldn’t really include zombies in that; my contempt for the George Romero type zombie genre is absolute). However, like the paranormal genre I’ve mentioned above, they are strictly imaginary entities, and the normal, sane reader will never forget the fact that they are imaginary entities. Ergo, any scare they provide can only be of the vicarious type, which I’ve just characterised as entertainment only, and therefore not part of horror fiction.

Just now I said that vicarious scares are entertainment only. By that I mean that horror fiction is entertainment too – after all, the purpose of fiction has been entertainment as well as education, right from the time when the first tribal storytellers began weaving their tales round prehistoric campfires. But if something’s going to be horrifying, as opposed to merely scare-for-thrills, it should stay with you after you finish reading it. It should make you think, and it should make you remember it afterwards.

That is what, then, my litmus test for a horror story is: that it stays in the mind.

What constitutes a good horror story:

Now that we’ve roughed out a definition of horror fiction, it’s time we discussed what makes a good horror story, because like any other genre, there are all kinds of horror tales out there, from the excellent to the execrable. Before I go into the particulars, it’s probably time to take a look at one of the greatest.

The best pure horror story I’ve ever come across is also the shortest, and goes like this:

You wake in the dark with the feeling that there’s something in the room with you. You reach out for the matches to reassure yourself, and quite simply and silently the box is placed in your hand.

It’s such a perfect gem because it’s got every one of the ingredients of true horror fiction.

First, and most important, it leaves it to the reader to use his or her imagination. The best scares of all are those the individual person’s imagination conjures up; description immediately leads to a loss of impact. Think about lying in bed in a dark room, watching the outlines of a strange shadow, wondering what it is; and compare that with a detailed description of some aged ghoul with straggling hair and spiky teeth. Which, to any person of imagination, is more frightening?

It is true, of course, that there are people who prefer not to use imagination; these are the people who prefer to have everything written out for them, step by excruciating step. You find them in great numbers on the zombie forums, for instance. But these people are not discerning horror readers, and we can dismiss them as not being germane to a discussion of this nature.

In the tiny story I’ve put up above, the real thrust lies in the uncertainty of the nature of the thing in the dark. It, evidently, can not only see in the darkness – it wants you to see it. Immediately, seeing it becomes a very bad idea; but can remaining in the dark, knowing it is in the room, be any better? Can the reader (you) make a choice?

And that leads to the second, almost as important marker of a good horror story: its capacity to disturb. The next time you wake in the night, will you remember the tale and hesitate, even if for just a moment, to turn on the light – just in case something is lurking there, something so horrible that it wants you to see it? If you do, if you hesitate even for a moment, if you feel a shiver travelling down your spine, then the author’s done his job. A good horror tale can’t be put aside after it’s read, and forgotten. It gets its hooks into you, and never completely lets you go.

Third, it doesn’t go into too many explanations or background. In this story you don’t have to know why you woke, or what woke you, or why you feel there’s something in the room, how it might have got in, or what it might be. Imagine if the author had said that a werewolf had been prowling the city in recent months, and a distant howl woke you, and you smelt a strange rank odour. Would the impact of the story be anything like as severe?

Remember this: you don’t need to know the circumstances in advance, or the build-up to the situation in too much detail, if it’s going to stay horror. If you have a serial killer in your story, and you begin expositing on how he became a serial killer, what made him the monster he is, you no longer have a monster; you end up having a sympathetic character, an anti-hero. That’s fine, actually – that’s a kind of story I personally delight in writing, where I try and put myself inside the heads of Nazi concentration camp guards or murderous African civil war generals. It’s fine, and I know of few better tests of one’s imaginative powers and writing skills, but it’s not horror fiction.

As an illustration, think about two of Thomas Harris’ books (the books, dammit, not the – gah! – films) featuring Dr Hannibal Lecter. In The Silence Of The Lambs, he’s a genuinely disturbing figure, a cannibalistic murderer of unfathomable intelligence who doesn’t need to be “dissected”, as he puts it; he is what he is, without apology to anyone. In its sequel Hannibal, all that mystique is thrown right out of the window along with the corpse of one of his victims. The book’s crammed with endless details of his past life and what made him what he was. With that came a level of vulnerability that the Lecter of Silence never would have had; and instead of fearing Lecter, we root for him all the way. Not a good idea at all, if you’re writing horror.

Fourth, there is no blood splashing around or excessive violence. Personally, I find excess violence a complete and absolute turn-off. Yes, there’s a time and place for gore and violence, but an endless repetition becomes merely numbing. Violence for the sake of violence is a marker of one of two things: a failure of imagination on the part of the author, who uses it as a filler; or else immaturity on the part of the target audience. As I've discussed here, I consider the George Romero-style zombie genre to be the most immature of all fiction aimed at an adult readership, and I find it no surprise that it’s filled with repetitive and excessive violence; both from the writers, who tend to stick to a very constrictive formula of guns and profanity, and from the readership, who demand nothing else.

Once again, as a comparison, we should take a look at the two Lecter books I mentioned. Silence has its share of violence, but it’s almost entirely off-screen, so to speak, and the book does not suffer for it. In Hannibal, the violence is crude (to the extent – spoiler alert! – of eating a live person’s brain and feeding it to him) and overt throughout. Long before the last chapter, the average reader’s thoroughly turned off, and more likely than not is skipping through the violent passages; and any book which turns off its readership fails miserably.

Fifthly, there’s no overwriting. This is something which irritates me no end, to be quite frank – the author who doesn’t know when to quit. One of the features of good writing – in any genre – is to know when to stop. That’s the primary reason for my deep disdain for Stephen King; his relentless, flamboyant overwriting. Have you read Christine? If you have, did you think it a good idea to bring in the car’s ghostly owner at the end, when the car was doing fine by itself at causing mayhem? This story says just as much as it needs to say, and then stops.

These are the five points of a good horror story illustrated by the little tale I mentioned, but I’ll now add a couple more. Admittedly, these are completely subjective; they work for me, but they may not work for you.

The first of these additional points involves what I find disturbing. As I said, the touchstone of horror is its capacity to disturb; and while I am not at all disturbed by orcs or goblins or undead monstrosities from beyond the grave, I am disturbed, and deeply so, by human beings. The reader who’s familiar with my kind of horror fiction will notice that in them, humans are the source of horror. If any goblins, zombies, vampires or trolls happen to feature in my tales, they are most likely protagonists, and the reader is encouraged to sympathise with them. As we all know, humans exist, and can be almost preternaturally dangerous, in ways hardly imaginable.

Have you ever heard of Armin Meiwes? You might know him better as the Rotenburg Cannibal, a man who advertised on the net for a victim willing to be eaten – and found one. Which is more frightening, a fictional flesh-eating creature, or a very non-fictional human who’s capable of the kind of things Meiwes did, and filmed himself doing?

The second of the things I find disturbing is mental illness used as a plot point in horror fiction. After all, our own minds are closer to us than anything else, and the one thing we can’t defend ourselves against. One can shut oneself in an armoured room and never go out. One can seal oneself inside a sterile bubble for life, assuming one has the finances available. But one can’t defend oneself against insanity, other peoples’...or one’s own.

This is why Poe, in his less baroque moments, was such a great writer. It’s all about psychological horror, and that’s the most disturbing kind of horror there is.

So, that’s what I aim for when I write – a story that will stick with you. I don’t really care if you thrilled to it or found it scary; but if you lay sleepless in the night thinking of the implications of what you read, then my job’s been done.

I’ll close this article with one of my own stories, an old one (I wrote it way back in 2006) but one in which, in retrospect, I find I tried to use all my own precepts of horror fiction. Here it is for you to enjoy, or not; just as you like:

The kitchen is almost dark. Only a ray of light sneaks in through the small ventilator, a blend of streetlamps and a waning moon.

The cockroach is almost black. No highlights gleam on its shell. It is large, and in the near-darkness the patch on its carapace shows a pale grey.

The cockroach scurries out from behind the door. It pauses, Poised on its six capable legs, its long antennae flicking around, tasting the air. Appearing to make up whatever passes for its mind, it darts purposefully towards the kitchen table. Skirting the table leg, it scuttles across the floor toward the small cabinet under the sink. Squeezing with some difficulty through the crack under the cabinet door, it hesitates again, then heads for the plastic garbage pail. The tiny scraps of yesterday’s refuse that cling to the outside of the pail make it easy for the insect to climb the sheer side. The lid of the pail is a little ajar, and the cockroach slips inside.

Running rapidly down the inside of the pail, the cockroach passes – and ignores – a polythene bread wrapper, some pungent onion peel, and a crumpled toothpaste tube. And then, at the bottom of the bucket, it seems to have found what it was seeking, for it squats over a little pool of a tarry substance that might have been dark red had there been light to see it by.  Small motions of the mandibles convey little portions of the substance to the creature’s mouth. After a little while, the cockroach moves again, tentatively, following more dribs and drabs of the tarry substance till at last they lead it to their source, the half-denuded skull the sitter  had thrown there after she had eaten the rest of the baby.

                                                              Copyright B Purkayastha 2012


Tuesday, 21 February 2012

House On The Hill

Note to reader: This story has a history. Way back when I was eight years old, my father (absolutely no raconteur) began telling me a horror story. It was about him and his friend Bimohit going on a hike and coming across a big house with a gate, through which a dog entered and came bolting out in panic terror. And that's where he was interrupted by something or other, and never picked up the story again.

Recently, I happened to think of that story, and decided to finish it. I don't think this is what my father intended, but then the interpretation is my own.



That night, after the last of the dishes had been cleared away and the rain had begun falling hard outside, the Storyteller finally began to talk.

He was an old man, one of those people who seem, somehow, always to have been old. He was fairly big, with a square face and a grizzled moustache, and if one thought about it one would have guessed that he must have been quite good-looking in his youth. But it was almost impossible to imagine that he had ever been young. Even the oldest of the others of our little gathering, who had known him the longest, said he had never looked any different than he did now.

Nobody knew for sure what he did for a living. He deflected all questions on that point with such casual ease that speculation ranged from him being a secret agent to a ganglord on the run, and from a porn film producer to an ex-dictator down on his luck. The truth was probably something so prosaic that it would have disappointed us bitterly had we known it, and he enjoyed the mask of mystery as much as we did.

What we did know about him, though, was that he was a master storyteller. More than anything it was these stories which gave him the aura of mystery that surrounded him like a visible aura. Not only were his tales entertaining in themselves, he had that rare and captivating gift of the true raconteur, of immersing his listeners in the story until they forgot that it was one. That is why we called him the Storyteller. He always insisted, though, that they weren’t stories – that they had all happened to him or to people whom he knew and could vouch for.

He came to our club only relatively infrequently, once or twice a month in the summers, and rarely if at all when the weather turned cold. He would sit in the corner, drinking a succession of cups of unsweetened black coffee, until dinnertime. And it was then that we had to look sharp, because unless we could provoke him into beginning a story by the time the meal was over, he’d go quietly away and we’d be left high and dry.

That night we’d almost despaired of his beginning a story. We had tried all the tricks, starting from carefully staged acrimonious arguments over the latest upsurge in international tensions, and when that had failed to evoke even an amused smile from him, had gone on to discuss in awed tones the narrative skills of a newly famous author of horror fiction, someone whose writing we’d been convinced he’d dislike. Even that had failed to provoke him into anything more than gazing meditatively into his awful coffee. Finally, with the food congealing on the plates before us, we’d fired our last shot, and begun telling stories ourselves, of things that we had allegedly seen. The effort was so pathetic that when my turn came around I didn’t even try.

It was probably because the rain began coming down hard just as we finished the meal that the Storyteller decided to stay back for a while. He always came to the club on foot – we had no idea where he lived, and whether he walked all the way here and back or took some kind of public transport, or perhaps had a car (or some more exotic vehicle) parked discreetly away in some alley nearby. But the rain was coming down in torrents and the thunder cracking overhead, and he probably had as much distaste as anyone else at the prospect of being caught out in that downpour.

“Bring me a brandy,” he said to the steward, “a brandy with hot water.” We let out a collective sigh of relief. A brandy was the cardinal sign that he’d begin a story; he’d nurse it till the end and then toss off what was left.

In reverent silence we watched as he rotated the glass between his palms, sniffed at the steam rising from it appreciatively, and sat back in his corner chair.       

“Nasty weather,” he said.

We agreed. “Very nasty.”

As though in agreement, a terrific clap of thunder made the windows rattle. The Storyteller cocked his head as if listening to the language of the storm.

“Mind you,” he said, “it isn’t the nastiest weather you could have. Not by a long chalk.”

“No,” I agreed. “There are typhoons and such, and...”

“I’m not talking about that,” he said sharply. “Nothing so – mundane – as that. It was of a different order altogether, up there inside the house on the hill.”

With a glance around to make sure our attention was completely fixated on him, he sipped at his brandy and began to talk.

*************************                      ****************************                        *******************************

You never knew Bimohit (the Storyteller said). We had been friends from the time we were boys, and though our lives had taken different paths after school, we never really lost touch with one another. Every few months we’d find occasion to meet and go out together. Sometimes, if we were only free for an evening, we’d watch a movie and go out for dinner. If we had a few days free, we might go out for a hike.

Those hikes were more friendly contests than anything. Bimohit was a great walker, long-legged as a greyhound and slim as a whippet. Even though I’d always enjoyed walking, I found it difficult to keep up with him. But it was a point of honour with me, being bigger and stronger, that I didn’t lag behind at the end of the day.

Those days I lived in a small town, far away from here. You’d recognise the name if I told you, but you wouldn’t recognise the place if you went there now. It’s not a small town any longer, and just about everything’s changed. Everything, I suppose, but that house – the house on the hill.

That town is surrounded by hills. They’re rough and new, bare rock with patches of fir and juniper, and tiny little hamlets strung out along mountain paths. Tourists used to come from far off to hike in those hills. They still do, as far as I know, and the hiking trails are heavily travelled. All of them – except one.

That time that I’m talking about, Bimohit had come up from the plains for a long weekend. I’d known he was coming, and made sure I was free. We had time; we were planning to stay out for three days, leaving us a fourth to rest before Bimohit had to leave and I get back to work.

Bimohit arrived in the late evening, and after a night’s rest was already raring to go before I’d even got out of bed. I rushed through my preparations, we had a hasty breakfast, and left just after seven in the morning, when the sun was beginning to peep over the tops of the jagged hills. We’d already hiked most of the major trails, and wanted to try some of the least travelled ones, which were new to me as well. The one I’d had my eye on was steep and stony, and virtually no one went that way; in other words, just what we wanted.

The heel of one of my hiking boots was flapping loose, and we stopped at a local cobbler’s to repair it. While the man bent over the last, stitching the boot, Bimohit and I discussed among ourselves the route we’d take. Then we saw the cobbler staring up at us.

“That is not a good way,” he said. “Not-good things happen up there.”

Not-good things? Bimohit and I glanced at each other, amused. “What do you mean?” I asked the cobbler. “Do robbers lie in wait for travellers, or something?”

“Not robbers, no.” The man was clearly wishing he hadn’t spoken. “Just not a good way. Nobody goes that way. Other trails much better, sir.”

“Well, thanks,” I said. “But we’ve decided on this route, and we’re quite experienced hikers, so we’ll be all right.”

He muttered something under his breath and handed my boot back. He’d fixed it quite expertly, and wanted a remarkably small amount of money. We were soon out of there and walking up the street to the point where the trail began.

“Did you hear what he was muttering at the end?” Bimohit asked suddenly.

I shook my head. “I was trying on the boot. What was he saying?”

“Didn’t make much sense, really. Something about avoiding the big house.”

That didn’t make any sense to me either, so we put it out of our minds and bent forward as the slope steepened and we began the long slog up the hill.


By midday we knew it was going to be a tough hike, one of the toughest we’d ever been on. The path was so steep that it felt as though we’d need mountaineering equipment, and in such a bad state that we could well believe it was hardly ever used. More than once the loose gravel and pebbles went sliding away under our feet and we only saved ourselves from falling with difficulty. We were too busy even to appreciate the scenery around us.

“It’s got to be easier when we get to the top of this hill,” I said, with more hope than expectation. “It has to flatten out sooner or later. We can take a break then. Besides,” I added, “it’s going to start pelting down soon.”

This was true. Although the forecast had been for clear skies, the day had clouded over as we had worked our way up the hill, and thick grey rolls of nimbus lay overhead now, dark with the shadow of rain. We normally didn’t mind inclement weather, but the path we were on would be twice as treacherous with water sluicing down it.

“We ought to find some kind of shelter,” I said.

“That’s just because you’re lazy,” Bimohit said, but it was obvious he was feeling the strain, too. He hadn’t even tried to leave me in his dust. “You’re scared of getting wet.”

I didn’t reply, because the path had steepened abruptly, and I needed all my breath. Besides, the first drops of rain started coming down, at first a few random globules of water that spattered on the rocks, but quickening rapidly, the sting of the drops like bullets. We couldn’t even stop on that slope to drag our rainwear out of the rucksacks.

Fortunately, the slope ended only a short distance above us, in a stand of trees, and we managed to scramble up to the top fast enough to avoid the onset of the downpour. And there, beneath the trees, we saw something surprising.

The path, which had long since degenerated into a stony mountain track, suddenly flattened out and broadened into a gravel road large enough for a car to travel. On one side of the road there was a small round summerhouse, with a conical roof on pillars over a waist-high wall. We had no time to waste, because with a crash of falling water the deluge came down, and we just had time to rush for the summer house before we were soaked to the skin.

There was a low and narrow bench around the wall inside the summerhouse, and Bimohit and I squeezed ourselves on to it. It was a very narrow bench, though, so narrow as to be acutely uncomfortable. Also, the roof leaked just about everywhere, and rain blew in through the open upper portion of the summerhouse sides between the pillars, so we weren’t much less uncomfortable than we’d have been outside. Bimohit, saying his calves were hurting him, tried to knead them and nearly fell off on the rubbish-strewn floor.

“This is pretty awful,” I said, rummaging inside my rucksack for my raincoat. “Looks like it’s going to go on for a while, too.”

“Look,” Bimohit said, and touched my shoulder. “Look there.”

Straightening, I turned in the direction he was pointing, across and a short way down the gravel road. At first I didn’t understand what he meant, and then I saw a small white and black dog trotting along, head down and fur sodden.

“Wonder whom he belongs to,” Bimohit said. “Odd to find a dog way up here on the hill.”

“There must be people somewhere,” I told him. “This isn’t much of a road, but it’s in better shape than the track.” We watched the dog as it glanced briefly over its shoulder at us and then trotted on, until it suddenly turned to the side of the road and vanished.

“He went in there,” Bimohit said, “through the gates.” For the first time, I noticed the metal railings of a pair of tall gates between the trees. The space around them was fairly overgrown, so it was not surprising that I hadn’t seen them before. Beyond them, squinting through the foliage and the rain, I could make out the roof of what must have been a substantial mansion.

“That will be better shelter than this,” I said.

“Yeah,” Bimohit said. “I guess.” He didn’t seem particularly enthusiastic, but shouldered his bag and followed me out, head bent against the rain.

The path beyond the gates was overgrown, as though nobody used it any longer, and had not for a long time. The gates themselves were higher than we could reach, the railings surmounted by barbed spikes, their two halves secured by a latch and hook. I was examining this to see if it could be turned when there was a rush through the rain and the dog we’d seen earlier hurled itself at the gate, wriggled frantically through the gap between two railings, and raced off down the road, its tail tucked firmly between its legs. I caught a glimpse of its face as it passed me, and seldom have I seen such a mask of terror.

“Something scared him,” Bimohit observed, “so badly that he couldn’t even yelp.”

I remembered that he loved dogs, but I had other things to worry about just then. “Hold this side of the gate steady,” I instructed, and worked the latch off the hook with some difficulty. With a hard push, I managed to open the gate enough for us to squeeze through.

“What if the owner objects?” Bimohit asked.

“Doesn’t look like there is an owner in residence,” I answered. “If there is, we just tell him that we’re looking for shelter from the storm.”

“I don’t know...” Bimohit’s behaviour was so unlike his usual manner that I glanced at him sharply. He looked deeply unhappy, as if there was something on his mind.

“What’s troubling you?” I asked.

“It’s probably nothing,” he replied. “I was just remembering that cobbler of yours who told us to keep away from the big house.” He pointed at the mansion which had just come into view along the path. “I suppose this is the big house.”

It hulked above us, two stories high, dark brown walls surmounted by a dark green roof. The windows were covered by shutters, and the entire house had a closed-in, forbidding look. It had evidently once been surrounded by gardens, but they were just expanses of vegetation now.

“It’s big and ugly enough,” I said, “but I don’t fancy going back out in this rain, do you? Besides, do you really want to make your decisions based on what a cobbler said?”

“I suppose you’re right,” he admitted. “But there was the dog. He was terrified of something.”

“Have we seen anything to be frightened of?” I asked. “We need a place to rest and put up for the night, and I can’t think of anywhere else we might find.”

“The dog must have come from somewhere,” he said.

I shrugged. “Where? Do you really want to go wandering around in this looking for shelter when we have this place all ready?”

“Yeah, all right.” He was still hanging back reluctantly, so I went up to the front door to see if we could get in that way.

I soon found that wouldn’t be happening. The front door was shut with a huge iron lock, and though it was thick with rust it yielded not at all to my efforts. With a hacksaw or a hammer I could have forced it, I suppose, but we hadn’t brought anything of the sort with us. But I was reluctant to give up at this point, not only because I didn’t want to go back into the rain but because I felt that to do so somehow would validate the cobbler’s warning. “Let’s go round the side,” I said. “Maybe we’ll find a window open.”

It wasn’t really that big a house, and we’d soon made almost a complete circuit of it. All along the ground floor, the windows were shuttered and there was no apparent way we could enter. There was a back door, but it was firmly shut from the inside. On the off chance that there was a caretaker within, I hammered on it with my fist and then a stone, but nothing happened.

“There’s no way in,” Bimohit said, with unmistakable relief. “Let’s get going.”

“No, look,” I said, pointing. We’d come round the back and were walking along the wall on the far side. The shutters on one of the windows hung loose on one side, leaving an opening full of darkness.

I’ll confess that at that moment I had the strongest impulse to leave the house alone and go back to the summerhouse with Bimohit to wait out the rain. But there was the question of shelter for the night, and there was also the simple and compelling factor of pride. I don’t think Bimohit would have brought it up, but it would have hurt my own self-image if I’d stepped back at that point. Well, one lives and learns.

So I pushed at the shutter and it gave way suddenly and swung free with a crash against the wall, and the way inside lay open.

After that not even Bimohit made any difficulty about entering. Technically, of course, we were committing a crime, we didn’t think about that. First I pushed my rucksack in through the window, and then clambered up and into the room. Bimohit handed me his pack, and I helped pull him inside. He was rather shorter than me, and might have found it difficult otherwise.

Only after we were both inside did I look around the room. There wasn’t really much to see; it was small, unfurnished, and the floor was wet with water, some of which had blown in through the window and the rest dripped off our raincoats. On the far wall a door stood open.

“You got a torch?” I asked. Somehow, I hadn’t thought to bring one, probably as a result of the hurry in which I’d packed that morning. “We’ll probably need a torch.”

“Yes, I have one here.” He fished a small blue torch out of his bag, which threw a wavering pencil of light. “Sorry, but that’s all I have.”

“Can’t be helped,” I said. “It’s better than nothing.” We followed the torch beam through the far door and into a corridor, which ended in stairs leading up. With the slightest hesitation, for I hadn’t quite shaken off the curious feeling that had come on me at the sight of that open window, I started up the stairs, Bimohot following behind me. He was holding the torch, and its light wavered between my legs and threw strange shadows on the stairs. I felt like asking him to give it to me, but it was my blunder in not bringing my much larger and better flashlight, so I didn’t say anything.

I’d expected the stairs to end in another corridor, but instead it terminated in a landing with a single door, on the right. When I tried it, with a very slight squeak, it swung open.

It was a surprisingly large room, because the torch didn’t light up the far wall, but then it threw a weak little beam anyway. There was no furniture, and the floor was bare and made of something that looked faintly glossy, like black glass. Apart from a highlight here and there, it swallowed the torch beam completely.

“Must be some kind of marble,” I hazarded, poking at it with the toe of my boot. It wasn’t as smooth as it looked – it wasn’t slippery and it felt like a concrete floor to my foot. But I also realised another strange thing. “There’s no dust on this,” I added.

“What?” Bimohit’s voice sounded curiously muffled, though he was just behind me. “What did you say?”

“I said, it’s strange that there’s no dust.” I glanced over my shoulder at him, and there was another odd thing, something so odd that I was at a loss to explain it. “Bimohit,” I said, “just turn your torch back the way we came.”

I had to repeat it before he understood, and turned the beam of the torch back. As I’d thought, we couldn’t see the door through which we’d come, or even the wall, though we certainly hadn’t walked so far into the room that they were beyond even the torch’s feeble glow. I frowned, wondering whether to try and retrace our footsteps. But there didn’t seem a point to it; going back would only put us back on the landing.

We continued across the black glassy floor, the torch striking little rainbow-hued highlights from it, until I began to wonder just how large the room was. Surely it couldn’t still be going on? Were we walking round and round in circles in the middle of the floor, disoriented in the darkness? I said something of the sort to Bimohit, but he didn’t reply.

Suddenly, I began to feel that there was something in the room with us, in the darkness overhead. I could almost see it in my mind’s eye, hanging from the ceiling somewhere above us, like a gigantic bat, watching us through a picture made of sound. I could almost hear the rustling of its gigantic leathery wings, as it shook itself and prepared to drop on us in a swoop. For a moment, I almost froze in panic.

But that panic lasted just a moment, because Bimohit’s torch just then illuminated a wall. The sight of that wall served to drive the fear out of my mind as if it had never been. I almost laughed aloud at the thought that I’d been so spooked by a mere fancy. I must have made some sound, because Bimohit asked me what I was sniggering about. That was when I also realised that I could hear him clearly again. The curious muffling effect had vanished.

Following the wall, we soon came to a door. It looked to me like the door through which we had entered the room, open as we’d left it. But there was a faint light coming through it, as of daylight filtered through clouds and filthy glass, so it couldn’t have been that door; and in any case I had no desire to cross that glassy black floor again. So, with scarcely a backward glance past Bimohit into the darkness, I stepped through the door.

For an endless moment, I was sure I was falling.

There was no floor beneath me. I stood on a rocky shelf, barely twenty or thirty centimetres wide, over a drop that seemed to go on forever. Far below, a grey plain stretched into the hazy distance, under a dim sky weeping a dim leprous light. On that plain, things moved, humped shapes as dusty grey and indistinct as the dust in which they crawled. Even from our considerable elevation, I could see their blunt faces, which stared up at us without eyes, and their gaping toothless mouths, hungrily sucking; and I knew that they were enormous, larger than any creature I’d ever heard of, and that they were hungry, and waiting – waiting for us to fall.

At my shoulder, Bimohit cried out suddenly, with such fear in his voice that he nearly startled me into a fatal tumble. As I frantically windmilled my arms, trying to regain my balance, Bimohit grabbed me by the shirt and dragged me back. If not for that, I’d have taken a long, long dive down to that dusty grey plain, where the eyeless giants were waiting with their toothless, devouring mouths.

Bimohit’s pull on my shirt was so strong that we both fell backwards through the door we’d come through, into darkness. I hit my head on something, and was momentarily stunned. When I regained full control over my senses, Bimohit was kneeling over me, rubbing my hands and babbling hysterically.

“Did you see them, my God,” he was saying. “Did you see those things?”

“Of course,” I said, rubbing my head. “And you nearly made me fall down among them shouting out like that. Even though they didn’t have teeth...”

“What are you talking about?” he asked. “They were all around us, flying through the air, and their mouths were all teeth. They – one was just about to take your head off...”

I looked at him. In the light of the torch, once again the only illumination we had, his face glistened with sweat. “Tell me,” I said carefully, “just what it was that you saw.”

From what he told me, it was clear that we’d seen quite different things. From his account I got the idea of an eroded rocky desert, under a glaring white sky, in which things writhed and flew – things hard to see, with many wings and twisting bodies like snakes, their heads spiked with huge hooked teeth. One of these creatures had dropped on me, mouth open, when Bimohit had dragged me back. He’d not seen the abyssal plain and the grey things at all.

We stared at each other after I told him what I’d seen. I don’t know what he was thinking, and my own thoughts were hardly coherent at that point. Almost mechanically, I took the torch from him and shone it around us. I wasn’t even surprised to find we were crouched in a tiny cell, with walls of stone blocks crawling with moisture. The door we’d gone through and then fallen backwards through was just a solid wall; on another wall was a low opening like an arch, just about high enough to pass through hunched over.

Still holding the torch, I bent low and shone it through the aperture, turning it around. I saw a dirt floor, stretching as far as the weak little beam could reach, little glinting particles of quartz or mica shining in the light. I could not see a wall of any kind.

There was nothing, in any case, that we could do except crawl through that low opening into the space beyond, so that was what we did. The dirt was soft and wielding, not easy to walk through, and my feet sank in it up to the eyelets of my boots. Bimohit had not asked for his torch back, and I didn’t offer it to him. In fact, I believe that at that moment if he’d tried to take it from me I’d have fought him for it.

Little by little I realised that our surroundings weren’t quite dark; there was a faint reddish glow from somewhere which grew slowly stronger as we waded on through the dust. It was as if a vast red fire was burning over the horizon.

By then I no longer had any fear. The things I’d been through were so strange that fear didn’t even enter into it any longer. I’d gone numb.

Not so Bimohit. He stuck close to me as we walked through the dust, and I could feel him shivering. Maybe – if I’d taken time to introspect – I’d have felt sorry for him. After all, he hadn’t wanted to come in here. It was I who’d got us in. And there didn’t seem much prospect of us ever getting out.

By that point, too, I’d lost all idea of how much time had passed. We could have had been inside that house an hour, or a day. I hadn’t felt hungry or thirsty, but with all that was going on, hunger and thirst had become as redundant as fear. I was just trudging through the dust watching that red flickering glow in the sky. Once in a while I flicked on the torch, but there was nothing to see, so I turned it off to preserve what was left of the battery power. Once I focused the light back along the way we’d come, but there was nothing there either – not even our tracks in the dirt were visible.

After a while I realised that the dirt around us wasn’t bare any longer. There were things growing in it, hard to see in the red glow, but shaped like plantains, and about as high as a tall man. They crowded on all sides, so that Bimohit and I had to wend our way between them. The leaves were stiff, and when I touched one I felt the prick of tiny spines.

“Watch out for the plants,” I warned Bimohit.

“They’re growing taller,” he said. “Did you notice? It’s going to be a regular forest soon.”

This was true. The plants were much larger now, their leaves meeting overhead, leaving us more space since we didn’t have to keep dodging the leaves. Also, though the glow in the sky was much brighter, the leaves threw dark shadows over everything, so we were walking through a dark maroon gloom.

There was a sudden rustling in the air behind us and above the trees, and as I turned my head there was a blinding pink flash and a noise as though the sky was splitting in half. A moment later, with a patter like rain, liquid fire began to fall from the sky.

It came down in globules like red-hot molten metal, slashing through the leaves and igniting them as they fell. The fire ran in rivulets through the dirt, streaking past our boots, and the air itself seemed on fire.

I ran, I don’t know in which direction. I must have tried to scream, but opening my mouth seared my throat. My eyes seemed to shrink back in their sockets – I clenched them shut and still the flames were so bright that I could still see shadowy images, burning plants, falling fire, and Bimohit, like a melting  wax figure with fire pouring all over him.

Bent forward, trying to protect my head and shoulders with my upraised arms, I ran, until the fire above and beneath and all around me grew so hot and bright that I could no longer keep my senses, and, stumbling, I fell.

I don’t know how long I was unconscious. When I regained my senses I was lying on a thin mattress, staring up at a whitewashed ceiling. Daylight poured in through an open window – real daylight; I could see clouds floating in a blue sky. I sat up and looked around. The room was small, with a floor of wooden planks, and except for my mattress, unfurnished. The walls were whitewashed plaster, with a painting hanging opposite the window.

It seemed quite a pleasant room, amazingly normal, and I wondered how I had got there and where I was. My backpack was next to the mattress, but there was no sign of Bimohit, or of the blue torch, which I’d been clutching during my panic-stricken rush through the rain of fire. I got up and walked over to the window; looking through it, I saw only the tangled garden at the side of the house. It was the window through which we had entered.

I pulled on my bag and turned to look for the door, meaning to search for Bimohit – but there was no door. The room’s walls were solid except for the window, and there was nothing but the painting.

For some reason it was a while before I took a close look at the painting. It seemed very old, badly stained, the paint peeling off the canvas in little tags, and the glass was thick with dirt. At first sight it looked like a painting of a garden seen through trees, with a large house behind it. When I took a closer look, almost pressing my eyes against the glass, I saw there was someone at one of the windows of the house. I squinted and rubbed at the glass, trying to make out the features.

Ten seconds later I was outside the window, scrambling on hands and knees through the tangled grass and weeds. Nor did I stop running until I was out of the gate, and even then I kept going until I could no more, until I was staggering and finally passed out by the roadside.

******************************               ********************************            *******************************

The Storyteller paused, and took another sip of brandy.

“What more is there to say? I was found by the road by a shepherd, one of the hill tribesmen from those parts. He helped me down to the town, where I lay ill for many days, and was delirious for much of the time.

“Even now I can see that figure in the painting – standing at the window, looking out. Even through the dirt and grime, despite the fading paint, I could make out the features. They were mine.

“But that was not the thing that sent me away in howling terror. It was the figure’s eyes – the eyes that should have been mine. They stared out of the painted face, and inside them was...nothing.

“Can you imagine nothing? Complete and utter blankness? You can’t. The mind can’t handle it. I can see it, even now, as though I was standing there in front of that painting; but I can’t describe it. It can’t be put into words.

“In the end I tried to go back. I had to find out what had happened – to see what was there in that house. But I couldn’t.”

“You couldn’t?” someone asked. “Was it because you were so ill?”

The Storyteller glanced at him. “It wasn’t that. I went up there, all the way. I found the house. But I literally couldn’t enter; the gate was latched again, as before, but I couldn’t force the latch open. I couldn’t climb the wall either. I don’t know if it was my mind rebelling against the idea of my entering that hell-house again. More likely than not it was.”

“What happened to your friend?” I asked. “To Bimohit?”

The Storyteller shook his head and sipped at his brandy. “I never saw Bimohit again. I have no idea what happened to him; perhaps he is still inside that house somewhere. Perhaps he died in the rain of fire. But he certainly didn’t make it out with me.”

I frowned. “But surely you had his address? You could have checked and...”

“Do you really think that hadn’t occurred to me?” The Storyteller smiled bitterly. “I looked for him everywhere. I went to his address in the city, and visited the company where he worked. I even went to our old hometown and tried to track down his family. But...”

“Yes?” I prompted when he paused for so long that it seemed he had decided not to go on.

“It was as though Bimohit had never existed.” The Storyteller looked round at us. “Nobody had ever heard of him. The flat where he’d lived, where I’d visited him more than once, was tenanted by someone else, who said she’d been living there for over two years. The company had never heard of him. His parents back in the hometown existed, all right – but they had only had one child, not two, and that child was not Bimohit.

“There are other weird things. I could find none of his things in my house after I’d got back from the hospital where the shepherd had put me. It was as if he’d never visited me. Nor could I find that blue torch of his anywhere, even though I was sure I’d had a death grip on it during the rain of fire.

“I checked through my old photographs. I’d had several with Bimohit, from back in our childhood and from some of our hiking trips. The photos existed, all right – but in all of them, I was now alone.”

There was a long silence. We all seemed reluctant to break it, and yet there was a question to be asked. In the end I asked it.

“Did you hear any other reports from people who’d been to the haunted house?”

“Haunted house?” The Storyteller frowned up from his brandy. “What haunted house? Who ever heard of a haunted house?”

“But surely – the house was haunted, wasn’t it?”

“Of course not – there are no such things as ghosts.” The Storyteller looked disappointed. “I thought you understood the two implications.

“I don’t know who built that house,” he went on, “or when. I didn’t try to find out. Nor do I know whether the, uh, circumstances in the house were present from the beginning or appeared later. I rather think it’s the latter – that some modification, some realignment, pushed things just a little bit over the edge, and all of a sudden, what was once a normal house turned into...that.

“I think that house is a gateway,” he said. “A gateway between worlds, if you want to put it that way, or between alternate realities. I think it primarily affects minds, though, not bodies – or else I could never have got out of there without being burned to a cinder.”

Rising from his seat, he tipped the last drops of his brandy down his throat. “The rain’s stopped,” he observed. “I’ll be getting along, then. Good night, gentlemen.”

“Wait!” I said. “You said two implications. Which was the second?”

The Storyteller paused in the act of pulling on his coat. “Think about it,” he said. “The world I lived in before I entered that house had Bimohit in it. He never drew breath in the world I live in now, the one we all live in. It follows, therefore, that it is not the same world.

“I keep thinking,” he said softly, “that somewhere, Bimohit lives on, in a world where I never existed; and that means that there are worlds in which you gentlemen never were, either; or where none of the things you hold dear ever existed. And all it might take for you to get there would be a trip through that accursed house.

“Or,” he added, “if I am right and a random chance triggered the changes that made the house what it was, what’s to say that it can’t happen again, somewhere else? What’s to say that, for instance, that because someone parked a car at a particular angle in the street outside, this door here isn’t right now a portal to an alternate reality?"

He smiled round at our stricken faces. “Thank you for a pleasant evening gentlemen,” he said, and went out into the night.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012  

Monday, 20 February 2012

The Door

By the time that second year of their marriage had ended, the love she had once felt for him had long since died and been replaced by indifference. She knew it, and was glad only that it had not yet deepened to despairing hatred.

She could see clearly that he scarcely noticed her existence anymore. She could hardly remember when he’d last spoken to her. He had his work, and he had whatever he did in the room at the back of the house, where the light burned late into the night. He kept that room always locked. When he went in or came out, he’d open it only just enough to get through it, and lock it at once afterwards. He kept that key – and none other – on a cord round his neck.

“It’s my space,” he had said once, in the early days, when she had asked. “You have Myspace. I have my space. That’s the way these things go.” And he had smiled at her and ruffled her hair, and afterwards made love to her with energy and passion. But he had not told her what lay behind the locked door, and never, not once in these two years, had she ever got a chance to lay her hands on the key.

Now winter lay heavy on the land, and inside the house she felt isolated and oppressed. She no longer had a job, of course, after the company had shut down; there simply weren’t any to go around in this small town so far from anywhere. The town was dying, the people had begun to say, because the company had been the town. But it hadn’t died, at least not yet; and now she felt savage satisfaction at the thought of its death.

One day when she had gone out to the store and found the shelves mostly bare, she had returned to the house with one can of fish and a loaf of bread and nothing else besides; she knew it wouldn’t matter to him because he seemed to be able to survive without food. He hardly ever seemed to eat anything any more. It was not that he didn’t give her money.  There just wasn’t anything to buy. Mostly she had begun concocting meals, often surprisingly good ones, with what little she had. But lately it had got hard to accept any more.

And on that day some kind of internal barrier had broken. Everything she had grown to learn to tolerate had suddenly got too much to bear. She had stood in the centre of the dreary living room, and looked around at the tatty red carpet and the yellowed curtains, and she had said aloud to herself, “I can’t take this any longer. I’ve to get away.”

But she had no money, no job, no prospects, and the economy had crashed so hard that there was no chance of her landing work paying enough to survive on. Besides, she strongly suspected that she had lost the habit of working. She looked at herself in the mirror: stringy hair, loosening figure, a double chin on its way. “You’re a wreck,” she said.

That day she went and stood outside the locked door for a long time. All of a sudden she had begun to hate that door with a complete and terrible intensity; it seemed to symbolise everything that imprisoned her and cut her off from the world. She felt that if only she could smash that door, she would be all right. She knew at the same time that in reality it would make not the slightest difference – but the hatred of it was stronger than the logic that informed her that the door wasn’t to blame for anything.

It was a thick, old door, of thick old unadorned wood, and the hinges were on the other side, so she couldn’t even unscrew them to get inside. She had no idea what lay on the other side except that – going by the dimensions of the house – there should be a fair-sized room. There were no windows in the outside wall, which was on the first floor; she had checked for one, long ago. Above it was only the steeply sloping roof.

After that day she began actively seeking a chance to enter that room. It became a focus of her entire life; she would rise in the middle of the night and wander the corridors until she would stand before it, mesmerised by the sliver of yellow light that gleamed round the edges. She would reach out for the handle and then pull her hand back at the last instant, afraid more that she would find it open than the certain knowledge that even now, in the middle of the night, it would be locked.

So one day she came right out and asked him again. “There’s nothing there,” he had said, his eyebrows twitching as they always did when he began to get angry. The next step would be his nostrils flaring. “It’s just my private stuff.” She didn’t ask anything more.

She began to fantasise about breaking the door down. By now the door had ceased to be a symbol in her mind and become an actual living, breathing, malignant entity, an enemy. She waited till he had gone to work and then came and stood outside it, touching it all over, probing with her fingers for weakness. She grew to know every grain of her side of the door, every knot, every bump. She almost began to crave the touch of that door. Gradually, she began to almost love the door. She would strip and rub herself over it, somehow obscurely feeling that her naked body might find some secret in it that her hands could not.

Little by little she shed weight, her cheekbones sticking out, her double chin long vanished. Her only thought on waking was of how to open that door; at night she still thought of it. It was the only focus of her life.

Finally, one day, she found a long and thick screwdriver with a green plastic handle. She hid it in her clothes, almost as though it were contraband. She kept it under her clothes while cooking herself a meagre dinner, and she still had it when she went to bed.

That night she had a strange dream. In her dream she was in bed, and she got up and walked naked through the first-floor corridor to the other side of the house where the locked door was, the journey she had made a thousand times over the last few months. She touched the wall with one hand, and the other held the screwdriver, ready to pick away at the wood to – she did not know what. It didn’t matter, because when she arrived at the door, for the first time ever, she found it not only unlocked but slightly ajar.

In her dream, she saw her pale hand, floating as if distinct from her body, reach out and open the door, and she saw him rising from a little table with a few open books and a burning lamp on it and turning, his face twisting with fury, and she thrust the screwdriver forward to defend herself and the screwdriver punched through his throat.

She didn’t remember very much of the dream after that. She had a vague memory of wrapping his body in an old carpet and lugging it down to the car, of pulling on a shapeless dressing gown and driving the car out of the town till she was far into the woods, and there, in the dream, she dug a hole in the ground and rolled him into it and shovelled the earth back. She then drove back to the house and cleaned up. It was a very strange dream.

The next day he was missing, and the day after that, when he was still missing, she called the police. They searched the house, and the room behind the door, and found nothing except a few shelves of books and a several diaries full of notes for a novel. “It was just a private study,” she heard one policeman say to the other as they left. She herself stood, wondering what had happened to him, wondering why she was so worried.

By then, she did not remember the dream at all.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012