is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness.
Wretched is he who looks back upon lone hours in vast and dismal chambers
with brown hangings and maddening rows of antique books, or upon awed watches
in twilight groves of grotesque, gigantic, and vine-encumbered trees that
silently wave twisted branches far aloft. Such a lot the gods gave
to me - to me, the dazed, the disappointed; the barren, the broken.
And yet I am strangely content and cling desperately to those sere memories,
when my mind momentarily threatens to reach beyond to the other.
I know not where I was born, save
that the castle was infinitely old and infinitely horrible, full of dark
passages and having high ceilings where the eye could find only cobwebs
and shadows. The stones in the crumbling corridors seemed always
hideously damp, and there was an accursed smell everywhere, as of the piled-up
corpses of dead generations. It was never light, so that I
used sometimes to light candles
and gaze steadily at them for relief, nor was there any sun outdoors, since
the terrible trees grew high above the topmost accessible tower.
There was one black tower which reached above the trees into the unknown
outer sky, but that was partly ruined and could not be ascended save by
a well-nigh impossible climb up the sheer wall, stone by stone.
I must have lived years in this
place, but I cannot measure the time. Beings must have cared for
my needs, yet I cannot recall any person except myself, or anything alive
but the noiseless rats and bats and spiders. I think that whoever
nursed me must have been shockingly aged, since my first conception of
a living person was that of somebody mockingly like myself, yet distorted,
shrivelled, and decaying like the
castle. To me there was nothing grotesque in the bones and skeletons
that strewed some of the stone crypts deep down among the foundations.
I fantastically associated these things with everyday events, and thought
them more natural than the coloured pictures of living beings which I found
in many of the mouldy books. From such books I
learned all that I know.
No teacher urged or guided me, and I do not recall hearing any human voice
in all those years - not even my own; for although I had read of speech,
I had never thought to try to speak aloud. My aspect was a matter
equally unthought of, for there were no mirrors in the castle, and I merely
regarded myself by instinct as akin to the youthful figures I saw
drawn and painted in the books.
I felt conscious of youth because I remembered so little.
Outside, across the putrid moat
and under the dark mute trees, I would often lie and dream for hours about
what I read in the books; and would longingly picture myself amidst gay
crowds in the sunny world beyond the endless forests. Once I tried
to escape from the forest, but as I went farther from the castle the shade
grew denser and the air more filled with brooding fear; so
that I ran frantically back lest
I lose my way in a labyrinth of nighted silence.
So through endless twilights I dreamed
and waited, though I knew not what I waited for. Then in the shadowy
solitude my longing for light grew so frantic that I could rest no more,
and I lifted entreating hands to the single black ruined tower that reached
above the forest into the unknown outer sky. And at last I resolved
to scale that tower, fall though I might; since it were
better to glimpse the sky and perish,
than to live without ever beholding day.
In the dank twilight I climbed the
worn and aged stone stairs till I reached the level where they ceased,
and thereafter clung perilously to small footholds leading upward.
Ghastly and terrible was that dead, stairless cylinder of rock; black,
ruined, and deserted, and sinister with startled bats whose wings made
no noise. But more ghastly and terrible still was the slowness of
progress; for climb as I might,
the darkness overhead grew no thinner, and a new chill as of haunted and
venerable mould assailed me. I shivered as I wondered why I did not
reach the light, and would have looked down had I dared. I fancied
that night had come suddenly upon me, and vainly groped with one free hand
for a window embrasure, that I might peer out and above, and
try to judge the height I had once
All at once, after an infinity of
awesome, sightless, crawling up that concave and desperate precipice, I
felt my head touch a solid thing, and I knew I must have gained the roof,
or at least some kind of floor. In the darkness I raised my free
hand and tested the barrier, finding it stone and immovable. Then
came a deadly circuit of the tower, clinging to whatever holds the slimy
could give; till finally my testing
hand found the barrier yielding, and I turned upward again, pushing the
slab or door with my head as I used both hands in my fearful ascent.
There was no light revealed above, and as my hands went higher I knew that
my climb was for the nonce ended; since the slab was the trapdoor of an
aperture leading to a level stone surface of greater
circumference than the lower tower,
no doubt the floor of some lofty and capacious observation chamber.
I crawled through carefully, and tried to prevent the heavy slab from falling
back into place, but failed in the latter attempt. As I lay exhausted
on the stone floor I heard the eerie echoes of its fall, hoped when necessary
to pry it up again.
Believing I was now at prodigious
height, far above the accursed branches of the wood, I dragged myself up
from the floor and fumbled about for windows, that I might look for the
first time upon the sky, and the moon and stars of which I had read.
But on every hand I was disappointed; since all that I found were vast
shelves of marble, bearing odious oblong boxes of disturbing
size. More and more I reflected,
and wondered what hoary secrets might abide in this high apartment so many
aeons cut off from the castle below. Then unexpectedly my hands came
upon a doorway, where hung a portal of stone, rough with strange chiselling.
Trying it, I found it locked; but with a supreme burst of strength I overcame
all obstacles and dragged it open inward.
As I did so there came to me the
purest ecstasy I have ever known; for shining tranquilly through an ornate
grating of iron, and down a short stone passageway of steps that ascended
from the newly found doorway, was the radiant full moon, which I had never
before seen save in dreams and in vague visions I dared not call memories.
Fancying now that I had attained
the very pinnacle of the castle, I commenced to rush up the few steps beyond
the door; but the sudden veiling of the moon by a cloud caused me to stumble,
and I felt my way more slowly in the dark. It was still very dark
when I reached the grating - which I tried carefully and found unlocked,
but which I did not open for fear of falling from the
amazing height to which I had climbed.
Then the moon came out.
Most demoniacal of all shocks is
that of the abysmally unexpected and grotesquely unbelievable. Nothing
I had before undergone could compare in terror with what I now saw; with
the bizarre marvels that sight implied. The sight itself was as simple
as it was stupefying, for it was merely this: instead of a dizzying prospect
of treetops seen from a lofty eminence, there stretched
around me on the level through
the grating nothing less than the solid ground, decked and diversified
by marble slabs and columns, and overshadowed by an ancient stone church,
whose ruined spire gleamed spectrally in the moonlight.
Half unconscious, I opened the grating
and staggered out upon the white gravel path that stretched away in two
directions. My mind, stunned and chaotic as it was, still held the
frantic craving for light; and not even the fantastic wonder which had
happened could stay my course. I neither knew nor cared whether my
experience was insanity, dreaming, or magic; but was
determined to gaze on brilliance
and gaiety at any cost. I knew not who I was or what I was, or what
my surroundings might be; though as I continued to stumble along I became
conscious of a kind of fearsome latent memory that made my progress not
wholly fortuitous. I passed under an arch out of that region of slabs
and columns, and wandered through the open country;
sometimes following the visible
road, but sometimes leaving it curiously to tread across meadows where
only occasional ruins bespoke the ancient presence of a forgotten road.
Once I swam across a swift river where crumbling, mossy masonry told of
a bridge long vanished.
Over two hours must have passed
before I reached what seemed to be my goal, a venerable ivied castle in
a thickly wooded park, maddeningly familiar, yet full of perplexing strangeness
to me. I saw that the moat was filled in, and that some of the well-known
towers were demolished, whilst new wings existed to confuse the beholder.
But what I observed with chief interest and
delight were the open windows -
gorgeously ablaze with light and sending forth sound of the gayest revelry.
Advancing to one of these I looked in and saw an oddly dressed company
indeed; making merry, and speaking brightly to one another. I had
never, seemingly, heard human speech before and could guess only vaguely
what was said. Some of the faces seemed to hold
expressions that brought up incredibly
remote recollections, others were utterly alien.
I now stepped through the low window
into the brilliantly lighted room, stepping as I did so from my single
bright moment of hope to my blackest convulsion of despair and realization.
The nightmare was quick to come, for as I entered, there occurred immediately
one of the most terrifying demonstrations I had ever conceived. Scarcely
had I crossed the sill when there descended
upon the whole company a sudden
and unheralded fear of hideous intensity, distorting every face and evoking
the most horrible screams from nearly every throat. Flight was universal,
and in the clamour and panic several fell in a swoon and were dragged away
by their madly fleeing companions. Many covered their eyes with their
hands, and plunged blindly and awkwardly in their
race to escape, overturning furniture
and stumbling against the walls before they managed to reach one of the
The cries were shocking; and as
I stood in the brilliant apartment alone and dazed, listening to their
vanishing echoes, I trembled at the thought of what might be lurking near
me unseen. At a casual inspection the room seemed deserted, but when
I moved towards one of the alcoves I thought I detected a presence there
- a hint of motion beyond the golden-arched doorway leading
to another and somewhat similar
room. As I approached the arch I began to perceive the presence more
clearly; and then, with the first and last sound I ever uttered - a ghastly
ululation that revolted me almost as poignantly as its noxious cause -
I beheld in full, frightful vividness the inconceivable, indescribable,
and unmentionable monstrosity which had by its simple appearance
changed a merry company to a herd
of delirious fugitives.
I cannot even hint what it was like,
for it was a compound of all that is unclean, uncanny, unwelcome, abnormal,
and detestable. It was the ghoulish shade of decay, antiquity, and
dissolution; the putrid, dripping eidolon of unwholesome revelation, the
awful baring of that which the merciful earth should always hide.
God knows it was not of this world - or no longer of this world -
yet to my horror I saw in its eaten-away
and bone-revealing outlines a leering, abhorrent travesty on the human
shape; and in its mouldy, disintegrating apparel an unspeakable quality
that chilled me even more.
I was almost paralysed, but not
too much so to make a feeble effort towards flight; a backward stumble
which failed to break the spell in which the nameless, voiceless monster
held me. My eyes bewitched by the glassy orbs which stared loathsomely
into them, refused to close; though they were mercifully blurred, and showed
the terrible object but indistinctly after the first shock.
I tried to raise my hand to shut
out the sight, yet so stunned were my nerves that my arm could not fully
obey my will. The attempt, however, was enough to disturb my balance;
so that I had to stagger forward several steps to avoid falling.
As I did so I became suddenly and agonizingly aware of the nearness of
the carrion thing, whose hideous hollow breathing I half fancied I
could hear. Nearly mad, I
found myself yet able to throw out a hand to ward off the foetid apparition
which pressed so close; when in one cataclysmic second of cosmic nightmarishness
and hellish accident my fingers touched the rotting outstretched paw of
the monster beneath the golden arch.
I did not shriek, but all the fiendish
ghouls that ride the nightwind shrieked for me as in that same second there
crashed down upon my mind a single fleeting avalanche of soul-annihilating
memory. I knew in that second all that had been; I remembered beyond
the frightful castle and the trees, and recognized the altered edifice
in which I now stood; I recognized, most terrible of all,
the unholy abomination that stood
leering before me as I withdrew my sullied fingers from its own.
But in the cosmos there is balm
as well as bitterness, and that balm is nepenthe. In the supreme
horror of that second I forgot what had horrified me, and the burst of
black memory vanished in a chaos of echoing images. In a dream I
fled from that haunted and accursed pile, and ran swiftly and silently
in the moonlight. When I returned to the churchyard place of marble
down the steps I found the stone
trap-door immovable; but I was not sorry, for I had hated the antique castle
and the trees. Now I ride with the mocking and friendly ghouls on
the night-wind, and play by day amongst the catacombs of Nephren-Ka in
the sealed and unknown valley of Hadoth by the Nile. I know that
light is not for me, save that of the moon over the rock tombs of
Neb, nor any gaiety save the unnamed
feasts of Nitokris beneath the Great Pyramid; yet in my new wildness and
freedom I almost welcome the bitterness of alienage.
For although nepenthe has calmed
me, I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and
among those who are still men. This I have known ever since I stretched
out my fingers to the abomination within that great gilded frame; stretched
out my fingers and touched a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass.