This is the prologue from the horror novel I’m working on. It’s set about 100 years before the main events of the novel. Apologies for the poor formatting (as a result of copy-paste, some paragraphs are indented, and some aren’t). If you are so inclined, I’d love some feedback on this. I guess the #1 thing I want to know is: is this at all scary? Or at least, entertaining? Also, any corrections to historical inaccuracies would be much appreciated, as I did only cursory research on daily life in the early 20th century.
December 13, 1914, was the coldest and snowiest day the town of Milburn, Illinois had ever seen. It snowed continuously, and by the stroke of midnight, the picturesque little Victorian town was buried under several feet of fresh snowfall. Some of the drifts piled up all the way to the second-story windows, and the servants, ensconced in their beds, privately lamented the shoveling job they’d have the next morning.
The home of widower Hanlon Greystone, aged 71, was no exception. The drifts piled up to the tops of the windows outside his study, deepening his already palpable sense of isolation. It was just after midnight, and he was trapped inside his home. He had fired his manservant and maid, Fred and Marjorie Abbeline, two weeks prior, and he was too old and too arthritic to shovel himself out.
But it wasn’t the snow and its impending danger that kept Hanlon Greystone awake in the wee hours of this black December morning, nervously drinking scotch by the fire in one of the wing-backed leather armchairs in his study. Rather, it was the knowledge that something sinister had invaded his home and was biding its time, toying with him the way a cat toys with a mouse. The only question was, when would it pounce, and what would it do to him when it did?
It had all started five days ago. He had opened his eyes to a bright, clear December sky outside his bedroom window – the kind of bright, beautiful morning that seems to positively spew hope and good cheer.
As he lay on his side, staring out the window, he noticed something out of the corner of his eye – it was his wife, Irma, standing at the foot of his bed, already dressed, and, being the insufferable woman that she was, probably wanting to henpeck him about something or another. In his somnolent state, it took him several seconds to remember that Irma had died two years ago.
He jerked his head around to look at the foot of the bed, and an icy jet of water seemed to gush through his stomach: Irma wasn’t standing there, but her dress was. Her favorite dress, in fact – the navy blue one with the ruffled skirt. Quite literally standing straight up, for all the world as if an invisible Irma were standing right there at the foot of the bed, wearing it.
Dumbfounded, he’d simply stared at the thing for several long moments. Was it some sort of bizarre practical joke? Had the servants, angry at his dismissal of them, sneaked into the house in the middle of the night and arranged his dead wife’s dress there at the foot of his bed to scare him? It seemed absurd, and yet it was the only explanation he could come up with.
He got out of bed to investigate further. How in the world was the dress standing up so perfectly straight? If the servants had indeed done this, they must have used about a pound of starch on it. Had Fred and Marjorie been in his home during the night, rummaging through the attic for his wife’s old dresses, and then starching them? It seemed impossible. And when he reached out a tentative finger to touch the dress – to see if it really was as stiff and starched as it looked – it had crumpled to the floor the moment his finger made contact with the fabric.
It was a bizarre incident to be sure, and completely inexplicable, but after all was said and done, it was only a dress. He’d folded it up, placed it on the dresser, and moved on with his day.
Later that day, however, he’d gone back into the master bedroom to fetch something, and the dress had been standing at the foot of the bed again – except this time, it was facing the door instead of the bed. It was as if the dress were standing there in the room, waiting to greet him as he came in. The thought gave him a chill. He didn’t believe in ghosts – Irma was dead and gone, and that was that was all there was to it – but he did believe firmly in the inherent wickedness of man, and whomever was doing this had to be very wicked indeed, to toy with a pitiful old man in such a manner.
He’d folded the dress up again, but this time, instead of laying it on the dresser, he’d stashed it under the mattress. If this silent prankster wanted to play around with his wife’s dress, then let him look for it! Then he’d gone around searching every room of the house, in case the silent prankster was hiding somewhere. He found no one. He took special care searching the attic, since it was the place the dress had been taken from, but the room was empirically devoid of human life. In fact, it was clear that not only was there no person hiding in the attic, but no person had been up there in quite some time. His kerosene lantern showed only his own footprints in the dust.
More disturbing was the fact that the box containing Irma’s old dresses was situated at the bottom of a pile of heavy boxes. At his age, and with his rheumatism, he was unable to move the other boxes aside and check that Irma’s dresses were indeed still inhabiting the box in question, but there wouldn’t have been much point to that, anyway. The layer of dust coating the boxes was as undisturbed as the dust on the floor.
As he ate his cold, solitary supper that night, he pondered the situation. Was someone indeed playing a prank on him? If so, it had to be the Abbelines. Although he had made plenty of enemies in his career as a defense attorney – a devil’s advocate, as he’d been called many times – it had been six years since he’d retired. Surely no one would hold a grudge this long, and then execute their revenge in such a bizarre fashion. Only the Abbelines had a fresh motive. They had been absolutely livid at his accusation of theft. Ten years of impeccable service, Mrs. Abbeline had sniffed, thrown out the window over a misplaced teaspoon. (Misplaced, indeed, he grumbled to himself. Servants steal, and they especially love to steal the silver. Of course they had stolen it). Moreover, nobody but the Abbelines knew the ins and outs of his home. Specifically, no one but them would know where his wife’s old dresses were.
But if it had been the Abbelines, then how had they managed to remove his wife’s dresses from their box, without disturbing any of the dust? Try as he might, he could not find a rational explanation for that. And how had the dresses been standing up stiff and straight, but then crumpled to the floor at his touch? He could not find a rational explanation for that, either.
There was another possibility, of course – he was losing his mind. This frightened him far more than the idea of a deranged prankster. He was an old man, and he was alone in the world. If his mental faculties started to go, there would be no one around to protect him from the sort of vultures that preyed on feeble-minded, wealthy old men.
He shoved the idea back into a far corner of his mind. No, surely he was not losing his mind. Surely not. It was the Abbelines; it had to be. And now that he had verified that the house was now empty, and all the doors and windows were locked, he could reasonably consider the matter over and done with. The next time he went into town, he would be sure to alert the sheriff about the incident. Until then, he would simply keep his house locked up tight at all times.
Having thusly reassured himself, he washed his face, polished his teeth, got into his nightshirt and cap, and settled into bed.
He’d opened his eyes the next morning to find not sunlight on his face, but shadow. Confused, he rubbed his eyes, thinking he was not awake yet. As wakefulness began to spark in his brain, he realized what the problem was: his view of the window was blocked by a wide, dark figure.
It was another of Irma’s dresses – the black one that she had worn most days. It was standing by the side of his bed, right between himself and the window.
He jerked awake as roughly as if he’d received an electric shock. This was impossible – impossible! He’d locked up every single door and window in the whole house! How could this have happened?
When he sat upright and looked around, he received an even bigger shock: the black dress was not the only one situated around his bed. There were, in fact, no less than six dresses standing at attention all around his bed, like pallbearers gathered around a casket. As far as he could tell, every dress that Irma had owned was there.
His heart raced, pounding so hard he feared it would give out on him. Who on earth would do such a thing? Who on earth could have done such a thing?
The dresses seemed to glare down at him, accusatory and menacing. This was madness. Madness! Manic in his fury and confusion, he’d reached out and knocked each dress down, until he was surrounded by a fluffy pile of skirts, sleeves, and high collars. Then he’d leaped out of the bed, gathered up the dresses, stormed downstairs – still in his nightshirt and cap – and burned the dresses at the sitting room hearth. He smiled grimly to himself as he watched the flames eat greedily through the mass of skirts. If this unseen prankster wanted to continue tormenting him, then let him fish the ashes out of the grate.
He froze then, the smile dying slowly on his lips, as a crazy yet unavoidable thought hit him: the dresses were behind him. It was impossible – he was watching them burn at this very moment – yet somehow he knew, knew, that when he turned around, those 6 dresses would be standing there, all lined up behind the sofa, glaring at him with their emptiness. It was a certainty so emphatic he was willing to bet his soul on it.
He couldn’t move, just couldn’t, and yet he had to. He couldn’t stand in front of the hearth in his nightshirt from now until Judgement Day. Dread pulsed through his body, paralyzing his muscles and liquefying his insides into a quivering mass. Do it quickly, he thought. Just turn around, one smooth motion. Don’t even think about it. Don’t think. Just turn. Turn. Turn NOW.
He whirled around to face the sofa, and nearly vomited with relief. There was nothing there. Nothing at all. His legs turned to rubber and he collapsed onto the sofa, sighing and crying and laughing all at the same time. Idiot! he told himself. Of course there’s nothing there. Because there’s no such thing as ghosts. Someone is trying to get your goat, that’s all. The Abbelines, most certainly. They probably copied your house key at some time during the last 10 years, and have been holding on to it all this time.
He remained there, sprawled out on the sofa, for several minutes as he regained control of his body. You must get out of this house, he thought, as he watched the last embers of the fire die out. Take a ride into town for the day and clear your head. Forget about all this.
The train of thought continued as he washed, dressed, and groomed his beard and mustache. While in town, he must see the sheriff about all this, for these shenanigans simply could not continue. No one could be expected to live with such malicious trickery, and there was no reason to think the Abbelines would stop now. The dresses were gone, yes, but surely the Abbelines would find some new way to terrorize him.
He headed back downstairs, wondering if he should prepare a cold breakfast from the icebox, or dine in town. Probably dine in town, and pick up some things at the market, too. He would need to find some new servants very soon; he simply couldn’t continue eating cold meals and fry-ups for much longer, especially in this frigid weather. He –
Stopped short at the foot of the stairs, and a flummoxed expression began to steal over his face. Something was wrong with his sitting room. It was…different, somehow. He stood there for several long moments, eyes wandering over the various objects and surfaces in the room: the hearth to his left, the coffee table that sat before it, the davenport, the two standing lamps on either side of the davenport, the two wing-backed armchairs that sat perpendicular to the davenport, the end table, the red Oriental rug that lay beneath them all. Behind them, by the window, the card table and the shelves of games, and, at the far end of the room, the twin chiffoniers that sat on either side of the doorway to his study, and which held all of Irma’s antique China teapots and teacups. All looked exactly the same as they had before, and yet, something was different about them.
Brow furrowed, he studied each object again carefully, and as his eyes slid over the surface of the floor, he finally noticed something that was different: a long stripe of grey that ran along the entire front side of the davenport. He stepped over to the davenport and knelt to investigate.
Dust, he realized. It was dust. He reached out to touch it, then examined his finger. Yes, it was indeed dust. How peculiar, he thought.
He began to examine the rest of the floor more closely. His knees protested the extended kneeling they were being forced to endure, but he ignored them. He soon noticed another stripe of dust on the floor, along the edge of the carpet that faced the hearth. What on earth –
And then the realization slammed into him like a wrecking ball: the carpet had been moved. The stripe was part of that portion of the floor that had lain under the rug. And the davenport, too – it had been moved back slightly, exposing the thin layer of dust underneath.
Next he checked the armchairs: they too had been moved slightly away from the direction of the fireplace, leaving behind fainter – yet still visible – stripes of dust.
Knees groaning, he stood and went over to the chiffoniers. Again, there was a line of dust, about an inch thick, showing that they too had been moved ever so slightly to the right, away from the wall that held the fireplace. On a flash of intuition, he looked inside the chiffoniers and found that all of Irma’s teapots and teacups – all three dozen or so of them – had also been moved about an inch or two to the right, exposing the clean spots underneath the thin layer of dust. For a fleeting moment, he wondered why on earth he had not fired the servants earlier for their haphazard dusting.
Next he checked the mantle, and found the same thing: the gold carriage clock, the copper urn containing his father’s ashes, the vase of dried flowers, and, on either end, the twin statues of an aristocratic French gentleman and lady from the eighteenth century – all had been moved about an inch or two to the right.
As he stood there, pondering this turn of events, a seed of dreadful intuition took root in his brain. Slowly, almost dazedly, he crossed the sitting room again, and then took a right into the dining room.
It was the same in here. He knew it instantly: everything seemed just slightly off. And sure enough, it was: the carpet and the heavy mahogany table and chairs that sat upon it, the two hutches that stood perpendicular to each other in the far corner, the three candlestick tables that sat in the other corners, and even the vases of dried roses that sat upon them.
Feeling dazed and sick, he made his way around the rest of the house, and found that it was the same in every room. Everything that wasn’t nailed down had been moved an inch or two out of place. Exactly two inches, in fact: the stripes of dust had seemed so uniform in width that he’d actually gone and fetched a ruler to measure them. They were exactly two inches wide. Every last one of them, in every single room of the house.
He was sweating now, feverish. This wasn’t a prank. No prankster, no matter how clever, or how determined, could have done this. For one thing, many of the pieces of furniture were substantially heavy, especially the dining room table. It had taken four strong men to get it into the dining room all those years ago. Nobody could have lifted it, nor could they have lifted the two hutches, or the chiffonier, or the bookcases in his study. And if they had pushed or dragged them, he would have heard it.
More importantly, however, there simply hadn’t been time to do all of this. He had spent no more than twenty minutes washing and dressing in the master bedroom. An entire baseball team couldn’t have moved everything in that amount of time. And the furniture in the master bedroom had been moved, too, presumably while he was investigating the other rooms of the house (or was it happening while I was in there, and I didn’t even notice)? It was this thought that chilled him most of all.
No, this was not the work of a prankster. Something was toying with him, but whatever it was, it wasn’t human. There was no denying it, not anymore.
With a blank, dazed expression on his face, he fetched his hat and walking stick, bundled into his Ford Model-T. and drove into town. But instead of going to the sheriff’s office, he went to the library.
Books on spiritualism, as it turned out, were plentiful. There was so much information on the subject, in fact, that it was overwhelming. He wished he’d paid more attention all those times Irma had chattered on incessantly about it.
Too embarrassed to check the books out, he borrowed paper and pencil from the librarian to make notes for himself. But the more he read, the sillier he felt: séances, spirit boards…ectoplasm, for goodness’ sake! It all sounded so absurd that at one point he contemplated just getting up and walking out, and forgetting the whole thing. But then he remembered those empty dresses gathered around his bed like vultures, and every stick of furniture in his house mysteriously moved right under his nose. And so he read on.
From time to time, he stopped reading to wonder if Irma was haunting the house. If he did have a ghost in his house, didn’t it make sense for it to be Irma? Except, he couldn’t see Irma trying to scare him like this. She had been an annoying woman, that was for sure, but not a cold-hearted or vindictive one. She was more like an old cow that talked too much. Whatever was in his house felt baleful, conniving – not like Irma at all.
Five hours later, he closed the books, and left the library with a grim sense of purpose. Once home, he immediately went around the house and turned on all the lights. Gas bill be damned – there was no way he could be alone in this house at night in the dark. Then he got to work making a spirit board out of four sheets of glued-together legal paper. For the pointer, he used a glass eggcup. Thusly prepared, he sat down at one end of his mahogany dining table.
Several minutes passed as he gathered his nerves. Finally, he put his index and middle fingers on the pointer, and called out, in a low and tentative voice: “Are there any spirits here who wish to communicate?”
The pointer didn’t move. He felt his face flush with embarrassment. This was so stupid! What on earth was he doing?
And then the chair on the other end of the table slid back a foot or two, as if by someone who had been waiting for an invitation to sit down.
His heart began to pound, but he ignored it. “Who are you? What do you want?”
Again, the pointer didn’t move. But the chair did. It rattled around on all four of its legs like it was experiencing an earthquake. Then the chair to the left of it followed suit. Then the one to the right. One by one, each of the eight chairs around the table took turns rattling for several seconds apiece. The chair he was sitting in joined in last – he’d been expecting this, but it startled him nonetheless. Then, abruptly, it stopped, and there was silence again.
He decided to try one more time. He placed his fingers back on the eggcup and, in the most authoritative voice he could muster, bellowed, “WHAT DO YOU WANT WITH ME?”
There was a moment of silence, and then the eggcup was wrested violently from his hands. It hovered in the air for a few moments, then flew across the room and shattered against the far wall.
He pushed back his chair and rose from the table in disgust. He was seething. His hands shook with fury, and his face felt as hot as a furnace. Why wouldn’t it talk to him? Why wouldn’t it just tell him what it wanted? “WHY WON’T YOU JUST TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT!” he yelled. “IF YOU’RE GOING TO TORMENT ME LIKE THIS, THEN TELL ME WHY! WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS? WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?”
He glanced down just in time to see his makeshift spirit board slide slowly off the table and flutter to the floor like a large, injured bird. He gasped.
On that portion of the table that had been covered by his spirit board, a message had somehow been carved into the table right under his nose. Gouged into the table, actually — deep into the wood, in jagged capital letters, as if by a pair of scissors.
And so he had. It had been three days since his amateur séance, and the tension in the house was thick enough to slice up and serve for dinner. For the most part it was quiet – eerily quiet – but every so often, an object or piece of furniture in his vicinity would start moving around by itself. There seemed to be no pattern to it, no way to predict when it would happen, or which object would be next. Chairs rattled. Books fell from shelves. Knick-knacks flew across the room. On one memorable occasion, as he sat reading on the davenport, a candlestick and holder had walked by the coffee table in front of him. Quite literally walked by: the legs of the candlestick holder were actually moving, as fluidly and easily as the legs of a dog, or a cow, or any other four-legged animal.
He had thought about leaving. Many times, in fact. But where would he go? He hadn’t seen or spoken to his children in years, and anyway, they lived halfway across the country. He had no other family. His friends were all dead.
At one point he did decide to spend a few days at the inn in town. A few days’ peace was surely better than none at all. He’d packed a suitcase and gotten into his car, but before he could even put the key into the ignition, the whole vehicle began to rock and buck like a wild stallion. He did not get out of the car so much as fall out of it, and did not even bother to retrieve his suitcase before running back inside the house.
And now he was snowed in, with nothing but scotch to comfort him. But at least there was plenty of that. He sat in his study in front of the fire, in his favorite wing-backed armchair, his feet resting on a footstool, and tried to read. But he couldn’t concentrate. On the mantle was a snow globe that a client had given him one Christmas, long ago. The “snow” inside of it was swirling continuously, even though no one was shaking it. It had been doing this all night, and somehow it distracted him even more than all of the flying objects and rattling furniture – even more than the walking candlestick holder. It was as if the thing – the spirit – were mocking his predicament, relentlessly reminding him that he was snowed in, trapped in his home like an animal in a slaughter pen.
He soldiered valiantly on with his book, but could not stop himself from looking up at the mantle every few minutes or so, to see if the snow in the globe was still swirling around. Why did this bother him so much? And why was the spirit so interested in the snow globe? It had not given any other object this much attention. It would pick up an object, throw it, and then move on to the next. Or, if it was a piece of furniture, it would rattle it violently for several seconds, and then stop. Why would it keep picking up the snow globe?
Except, it wasn’t picking up the snow globe. It was only swirling the contents around. The globe itself remained perfectly still. How was that even possible? You had to pick up a snow globe to make the snow move; there was no other way to make the thing work. Unless –
A terrible thought began to creep over him. If the spirit wasn’t picking up the snow globe, but the snow kept moving anyhow, then the only possible explanation was that the spirit was making the snow move from the inside. And if it was moving the snow from inside, then perhaps it was inhabiting the object, the same way a soul inhabits a body.
He thought back on every object that had been moved or thrown around in the last few days – especially the candlestick holder. Was it possible that the spirit had never been manipulating these objects? Instead, had it been possessing them?
It made sense. That was why it never moved more than one object at a time! Because it didn’t move objects externally; it inhabited them and moved them from within. The candlestick holder that had walked by – the spirit hadn’t been manipulating the legs to move the thing across the floor. It had been inside the holder. It had been inside all the objects. The knick-knacks, the books, the car, the –
Chairs. The eight chairs that belonged to the dining room table. It had moved them one at a time…ending with his own chair, the one he’d been sitting in. His stomach churned with sudden revulsion. It had possessed the very chair he had sat in – meaning it had touched him, had essentially held him in its lap. It made him feel sick, violated, almost raped.
He gasped as a new and even more terrible thought occurred to him. If it had possessed his dining room chairs, then why not his other chairs? Why not the chair he was sitting in right now?
He leapt to his feet as fast as his old bones would allow, and turned to look down at the chair. It just sat there, still and silent and innocuous.
Just what on earth was he going to do now? How could he continue to live in this house, for any length of time? Any object he used could be possessed. Even, presumably, his bed. Where on earth was he supposed to sleep?
He had to get out of here. The moment morning dawned, he would shovel himself out. Rheumatism be damned – he would force himself to endure the pain. Then he would walk into town. It was three miles, quite a long trek for a man his age, but he’d make it. Somehow, he’d make it. Get into town, spend a few days at the inn making travel plans, and then get on a train. Maybe he’d head down south to Florida. The climate change would probably be good for him, anyway.
His train of thought was interrupted by a sort of clacking, scrabbling sound from outside his study door, somewhere in the vicinity of the sitting room. He moaned. What fresh hell was this?
The clacking, scrabbling sound drew closer. He looked up at the snow globe on the mantle. The snow was no longer moving. The spirit was inhabiting another object, no doubt whatever object was about to come through the study door and into his field of vision.
He stood rigid and frozen as the clacking and scrabbling became even louder and more pronounced. At last the object came into view in the doorframe: it was one of the two statues that sat on either end of the sitting room mantle, the eighteenth-century French man and woman. It was the man.
His ceramic arms and legs moved jerkily, like a puppet on strings. His face, formerly so genteel and benign, was now a twisted mask of maniacal malevolence. The eyebrows were thick, black and arched, like a vaudeville villain, and the eyes beneath gleamed with madness. The leering mouth was a wide, upside-down triangle, with garish red lips that made it look less like a mouth and more like a raw, gaping gash. In its tiny hand, it held a carving knife that was as tall as itself.
As it crossed the threshold into the study, he yelped and staggered backwards, straight into the footstool. He lost his footing and fell hard on his side, knocking his head against the floor.
He groaned, head swimming with pain and panic. He could hear the clacking, scrabbling footsteps draw closer. He groaned again as he rolled onto his stomach and began to push himself up onto his knees. He turned to look behind him. The thing was just a few feet away from his outstretched feet. Its eyes met his, and it let out a shrill, inhuman cackle.
He crawled over to the desk, using its heavy bulk to support himself as he pulled himself up into a kneeling position. Then he dragged his right foot forward, placed it on the floor, and pulled himself up into a standing position. He whirled around to see the thing holding the knife over its head. It slashed at his left shin, slicing easily through his trousers and into his flesh. He yelped with pain and fear, and leapt clumsily over the thing and onto the footstool, somehow managing to land without losing his balance.
He took a tentative, geriatric leap off the other side of the footstool and made for the study door. He could hear the thing laughing again, a revolting giggle that made his stomach turn. Somehow its laugh was even more terrifying than its maniacal visage.
Once in the sitting room, he looked frantically around for something to hit the thing with. It was, after all, still made of porcelain, and therefore should smash easily. He hoped.
His eyes found the fireplace, with its canister of pokers. He rushed over to the hearth, grabbed one, and turned just in time to see the thing taking its first few scrabbling, clacking steps back into the sitting room. He grasped the poker in both hands, legs apart, like a baseball player at the bat, and braced himself.
The thing paused in the doorway for a moment, as if sizing him up. For a few moments they simply stood there, staring at each other, and then it suddenly it lunged, knife poised high. At the same time, he raised his own weapon and held it aloft, waiting for just the right moment, when the thing would be close enough to hit, but not close enough to stab him.
It seemed to take forever for the thing to cross the sitting room floor, but when it finally got to him, he was ready. He swung the poker in a vicious downward arc, and had time to be surprised at his own strength before the poker connected with the evil little statue.
There was a resounding CRASH, and the statue exploded in a snowstorm of porcelain shards and dust. The knife clattered to the floor, inert and harmless.
(Unless it possesses the knife next).
He stood watching for many long moments, but the knife didn’t move. A deep, exhausted sigh escaped his lips, and he dropped the poker. His hands were shaking, and he leaned against the mantle to collect himself. The hard strip of stone pressed painfully against his bony upper back, but he ignored it. He needed a drink. Good God, did he need a drink.
Eyes closed, he took several deep breaths to calm his nerves. It didn’t do much, though. After all, the thing could apparently jump into any object, at any time. Nothing was safe, not in this house (and would it be any different anywhere else? he wondered. Or will it just follow me, possessing objects wherever I go)? Either way, he was snowed in, until the morning at the very least. Dismally, he wondered if his rheumatism would allow him to shovel himself out in the morning. When he’d thought about it before, his determination had granted him a certain giddy optimism, but now that was quickly waning. Who was he kidding? How in the name of everything holy was he going to shovel away snowdrifts that were taller than he was? Even if he managed that, the idea that he would be able to walk three miles into town was preposterous. The roads would be no better than his front drive. Even if the spirit deigned to allow his car to work, there would be no driving through the massive snowdrifts that would be lying in his path.
A tickling sensation at the cuffs of his left trouser leg took him out of his musing and back into reality. His heart leapt with terror, so sure was he that the evil little statue had somehow pieced itself back together and was now tugging at his trousers, letting him know that it was still here to kill him. He could see the shards of porcelain scattered around the sitting room, and the knife lying on the floor, plain as day, yet it somehow did not convince him. It was there, at his feet, he knew it, and when he whirled around to look, he was so certain that he would see the grinning little Frenchman standing at the hearth with the gleaming carving knife, that for one split moment, when he actually saw what it was, he felt a splash of relief. This did not last long.
It wasn’t the statue. It looked at first to him like a very long, curved log that had somehow fallen out of the fire. Except it looked…wet, somehow. The firelight glistened on its surface. And it wasn’t brown or black, the way a flaming log should be. Even in the dim light of the fire, he could see that it was a fevered, purplish red, like raw liver. Then it moved, languidly and lithely, circling around his feet, and he realized with a rush of terror what it really was: a tongue.
He leapt away from the fireplace with a shriek and began backing away. The tip of the thing curved up from the floor in an upside-down bell shape and wagged back and forth a few times, as if to say hello. He continued backing away from the fireplace, in the direction of his study, unable to take his eyes off it.
It was undeniably a tongue: huge, thick, and several feet long, stretching down from the chimney the way a dog’s tongue will hang out of its mouth when it’s hot outside. It descended from the chimney and curved straight through the fire – either the flames didn’t bother it too much, or else it felt no pain at all. Probably the latter, he thought.
Absently, his head shook back and forth, as his mind refused to acknowledge the reality of what he was seeing. No no no no no no no, his mind sang to him. Not real, no siree Bob, no. All the while he continued backing up towards the study, unaware that he was even doing so.
As he crossed the threshold into the study, his mind snapped back into action, and he reached over and slammed the door shut. He continued backing up across his study until his hips made contact with his desk. Then he stood there, staring at the door as blankly as he had stared at the tongue, still unable to quite believe what he had just seen. My whole house is alive, he thought feverishly. This cannot do, will not do, can’t have my house coming alive on me, nowhere to run, nowhere to hide –
The door began to rattle in its frame, sending fresh new waves of panic coursing through his body.
No – it wasn’t just the door. It was the doorknob as well. The doorknob was rattling, jiggling — turning. Because the tongue was trying to turn the doorknob, oh Jesus God, it’s going to turn the knob and come in here!
With a fierce warrior’s cry, he rushed at the door to hold it shut, not realizing, in his panic, that a smarter move would have been to push one of the armchairs in front of it. Arms stretched out in front of him, he ran blindly at the door, and very nearly made it before the door sprung open with such force that when it struck his forehead, he keeled over backwards like a tin soldier.
The back of his head hit the floor hard, combining with the blow to the front of his head to render him helpless. He did not black out, but descended into a sort of murky grey area between consciousness and unconsciousness. As if from a distance, he heard the tongue approach, slobbering and wriggling its way towards him, felt the long, powerful muscle wrap around his ankle, dampening his sock and trouser cuff with its slimy wetness.
He was entirely helpless as the tongue, now over twenty feet long, began to recoil back into the fireplace, reeling him in like a fish on a line. It all seemed to be happening at a distance, to someone else, and only when it was too late did it occur to him to try to grab onto some of the furniture. Would it even have mattered, he wondered, as his fingers brushed uselessly against the legs of the coffee table, the last possible object to grab onto. The thing was so strong, surely it could have dragged the furniture along with him, if it needed to.
Into the roaring fire he went, feet first, and the pain, while searing, also felt somehow distant, as if it were happening to someone else. It sucked him up into the chimney like a child slurping up a spaghetti noodle, and as his head was dragged through the flames and up the flue, and as his head scorched and the smell of burning hair filled his nostrils, he began to laugh, the shrill cackle of a man who has completely lost his grip on sanity. I’m being eaten by my own fireplace, he thought. Never thought this is how you’d leave the world, did you, Hanlon old boy? Eaten by your own fireplace! Eaten! Eaten! As he rose into the gullet of the chimney, his own mad cackle was the last thing he heard.