I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed but forests can have rather a strange habit of creeping up on you unawares. I mean, one minute you’re wandering along what appears to be no more than a moderately tree-lined path, minding your own business, then the next thing you know you find yourself completely surrounded, branches and foliage assailing you from all directions. When Michael and I had set off on our current trek in search of civilisation, having been deposited by the inter-dimensional travel drive in the midst of who-knew-where, getting lost in a forest had not been part of the plan. Yet now, as I glanced around to see nothing in view but an ever-thickening tangle of trunks and branches, I had to conclude that lost in a forest was undoubtedly where we were.
Following sharply on from this realisation came another dawning insight which is that, on the whole, there is something in the appearance of the average tree that is unaccountably evil. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it – something perhaps in the tangle of roots or the crooked twist of a branch – but there was no getting away from the fact that each tree appeared to have adopted a look that oozed pure malevolence. And that was merely the impression gained from viewing them one at a time. Viewed as a group the impression was only magnified. In fact, taken as a whole it was impossible not to come to the inescapable conclusion that the whole forest had clearly massed together for some unspeakably pernicious purpose. These, at least, were the unwelcome thoughts that pressed insistently upon my mind as we tramped wearily through the never-ending forest.
And then I heard the shriek.
It was a long, low plaintive wail that stopped both Michael and I dead in our tracks. “What the hell was that shriek?” I asked when the haunting cry had finally died away.
A momentary flash of fear shaded Michael’s face before he brushed it away. “That wasn’t a shriek,” he replied dismissively. “It was probably just the wind in the trees.”
“That definitely sounded like a shriek to me,” I insisted. “It sounded like the shriek of banshee. What’s more, a banshee that’s just got its knackers caught in its zipper.”
“I’m not sure banshees have knackers,” suggested Michael smoothly. “Or zippers.”
“Well, whatever it was, I think we should turn back,” I said.
Michael looked casually around. “In order to do that,” he pointed out, “we’d have to know which way was back.”
I had to concede he had a point there. In the disorienting swirl of the forest it was very difficult to maintain any sense of direction. We could quite conceivably have been stumbling around in circles for the last couple of hours.
“And, let’s face it,” Michael added, “we haven’t even the faintest idea where it was we started from.”
Another valid point. This was undoubtedly the drawback to travelling via a rudder-less inter-dimensional travel drive. Unless we could find someone to ask directions of we might be just about anywhere within the landscape of the imagination. And, being just about anywhere within the landscape of the imagination, it was difficult to know just where we might find someone capable of giving directions.
“So what do you suggest?” I finally asked with a sigh.
Michael peered around thoughtfully. “Well, that seems something like a path over there,” he suggested, pointing out a narrow gap in the foliage. “And, if nothing else, it’ll take us in the opposite direction of whatever made that shriek.”
“Ah, so you’re admitting now that it was a shriek?” I challenged.
But Michael chose not to get drawn into yet another pointless squabble and instead set off wordlessly along the path indicated. With a resigned shrug I followed, and for the next hour or two we pressed on in morose silence. Before long a heavy shower of rain commenced to add to our misery, drumming heavily upon the leaves and branches all around us. But even that didn’t drown out the occasional mournful shriek that continued to echo through the branches after us. Every time we heard it we stopped and looked fearfully around but we never caught sight of any creature that might be responsible for the sound. So there seemed nothing for it but to press on, ignoring the cries as best we could.
What was impossible to ignore though was the gathering twilight. Each time I glanced up through the dense canopy of branches the sky seemed to have edged another notch down the colour chart from dull grey to pitch black. If there was one thing that appealed less than being lost in the midst of a banshee-filled forest, it was the prospect of being lost in the midst of a banshee-filled forest in the dark.
So you can imagine our relief when we finally spotted a dim light glowing through the trees up ahead. Stumbling eagerly towards it, we soon found ourselves on the edge of a small clearing in the forest, in the centre of which stood a house. It was a large, crumbling old mansion with heavy gables at either end and a thick curtain of ivy sweeping down one side. The light that drew us forward was a dull glow in one of the upstairs windows, the rest of the house remained wreathed in shadows.
“Well, thank God for that!” exclaimed Michael, eagerly setting forth from the shadow of the tree line towards the house.
I instinctively laid a hand on his arm to hold him back. “Whoa there just a minute,” I cautioned. “Let’s consider this for a moment before we go charging in.”
“What’s to consider?” asked Michael, puzzled. “It’s a house. There may be people there who can offer advice and shelter. Who knows – maybe even food and drink. It’s just what we need.”
“It’s Gothic,” I retorted.
“Have you never read any Gothic literature? The Castle of Otranto? The Mysteries of Udolpho? The, er, Perils of Somewhere Else-o? Good things do not happen to people who go into Gothic houses.”
“Nonsense,” responded Michael.
“Especially Gothic houses built in the middle of creepy forests.”
“It’s just a house.”
“I bet you ten to one it comes complete with an ancestral curse and a vengeful ghost in the attic.”
“So you’d rather stay out here in the forest, would you?” challenged Michael. “In the cold and the rain, with the shrieking banshees?”
“Look, we’ll just knock on the door and ask for directions,” suggested Michael reasonably. “You never know, there might be a nice shiny modern hotel just around the corner.”
“And if there isn’t?”
Michael considered for a moment. “Well, if it comes to a choice between shrieking banshees in the forest and vengeful ghosts in the Gothic house, I choose the ghosts,” he announced decisively. “At least they operate in the dry.” And with that he marched off across the open ground to the house. With a heavy sigh, I reluctantly tramped after him.
I could still feel the rain running in rivulets down the back of my neck as we stood beneath the stone portico before the front door of the house. Michael lifted the heavy brass knocker in the centre of the door and it fell back with a dull clang. There was a moment of silence before I became aware of the sound of slow, steady footsteps approaching from within. Another anxious pause followed before the door opened with an agonised creak.
“Oh, er, hello,” stuttered Michael. “We seem to have got a little, er, lost and wondered if you might help with some, ahem, directions.”
I couldn’t really blame Michael for being a trifle disconcerted by the silent figure lurking in the shadow of the door for he was a strange looking man indeed. A thick crop of black hair sat rather unnaturally atop a face so pale as to be almost luminescent and the whole head sat rather unnaturally atop a long angular set of limbs confined within a plain black suit.
This mournful apparition considered Michael’s request carefully for a few seconds before wordlessly stepping aside and beckoning us forth into the house.
Michael hesitated and glanced uncertainly at me. I returned his gaze with an expression which I hoped might, whilst doing nothing to unnerve our sinister host, convey to Michael the single thought running through my brain, namely ‘Run for your life!’
Unfortunately it appeared that something was lost in translation for, after staring at me with an increasingly furrowed brow for several seconds, Michael eventually shrugged and stepped forward through the doorway. With a due sense of foreboding, I followed.
The front door opened onto a broad hallway with a black and white tiled floor. The enormous chandelier hanging from the ceiling somehow contrived to throw only a shallow pool of light upon the room, leaving the edges shrouded in darkness. The heavy front door swung shut behind us with a resounding thud and immediately I became aware of a rhythmic creaking sound progressing ominously in our direction. Peering intently into the gloom I was just about able to make out a wide, dark staircase at the back of the hall and, making her way slowly down it, the tall thin figure of a woman.
As she stepped toward the dusty light of the chandelier her features became a little clearer. She was of middle age, with a gaunt face and wavy dark hair pinned back in an outmoded style. She paused and regarded us intently for a moment before breaking into a singularly cheerless smile. “Good afternoon,” she announced solemnly. “Welcome to Dowerly Manor, my name is Letitia Grim. May I be of assistance?”
“Letitia Grim?” I repeated incredulously, taken aback by the unexpected marriage of name and personal appearance.
“That is correct,” replied Ms Grim primly.
Michael threw me a look of exasperation before addressing our hostess. “It’s nice to meet you. I’m Michael, this is Natasha. I’m afraid we seem to have lost our way in the forest and were hoping you might be able to direct us to the nearest town.”
Ms Grim folded her hands together. “The nearest town is ten miles from here,” she said solemnly. “Through dense terrain.”
“Oh.” Even Michael could not help but look somewhat deflated by this news.
“At this late hour I would suggest you spend the night here and Boris can show you the path in the morning.” Letitia Grim nodded in the direction of the silent man in black. “It would not be wise for you to continue your journey tonight – the forest can be quite treacherous in the dark.”
There was something about the emphasis she placed on the word ‘treacherous’ that made me shiver. “We, er, wouldn’t want to put you out,” I protested weakly.
“Oh, it’s no trouble,” replied Ms Grim. “We so seldom receive visitors that I assure you it would be our pleasure. Would it not Boris?” Boris merely blinked expressionlessly in reply.
“Besides,” added Ms Grim. “I fear there is a storm in the offing.”
As if on cue the wind howled violently around the house, rattling even the sturdy front door upon its hinges. I looked uncertainly at Michael and he looked back at me. It wasn’t much of a choice. If the baleful invitation from the aptly named Ms Grim held little appeal, neither did the prospect of stumbling around a dark and stormy forest all night.
Ultimately, I could only concur with Michael’s earlier pronouncement – whatever horrors the night may hold I preferred to face them in the dry. “Thank-you,” I said to Ms Grim, dredging up the nearest thing I could find to a grateful smile. “We’d be delighted to stay.”
As soon as the question of our overnight residence was settled Ms Grim promptly insisted that we sit down to dinner with her, an act that at least momentarily inclined me to view her in a slightly more favourable light. The dining room at Dowerly Manor was a long, draughty room at the rear of the house. We sat – Letitia Grim, Michael and I – at one end of an immense dining table that stretched away into shadow. A vast, dusty fireplace loomed up behind us, devoid of any hint of a fire, and all around us the wood-panelled walls were dotted with Grim family portraits, each of them apparently vying to live up to the family name. The storm was now in full force – the rain lashed at the dark windows and the wind seemed to creep in through a hundred nooks and crannies, setting the flames of the candles on the table off in a wild dance.
The food, as served up by the doleful Boris, was uniformly awful – thin, watery soup followed by stringy cutlets and all washed down with something described by Ms Grim as cordial but which tasted like slightly rancid rainwater. Any goodwill engendered by the offer of dinner in the first place was entirely dissipated by the time I sat and picked my way through the slimy, tasteless gloop that passed for dessert.
Unfortunately Ms Grim’s social skills scarcely outweighed her servant’s culinary ones and, after a brief, tentative foray into the world of dinner-table conversation, she soon flagged. What with the mournful presence of Boris hovering permanently in the background, it was enough to tax even Michael’s normally unflappable bonhomie.
“It must be quite interesting living in the middle of a forest like this,” he tried after yet another interminable pause. “I imagine you get some interesting wildlife round about.”
Ms Grim merely nodded sharply.
“We heard some rather strange cries on our way here,” I probed. “Really quite unnerving, I have to confess.”
Ms Grim took a delicate sip of her cordial. “The forest harbours many secrets,” she pronounced enigmatically and promptly fell silent once more.
And so conversation floundered again as Boris swooped in to remove the dessert dishes. As it appeared that coffee and biscuits were not in the Grim dining repertoire I was more than happy to agree when Letitia Grim suggested, tired as we must be from our long journey, that we might like to be shown to our rooms. She exited the dining room with a sharp goodnight, leaving the doleful Boris to escort us silently up the stairs. Halfway along a corridor on the first floor he pointed out two rooms directly opposite one another that were designated for our use.
I peered cautiously into them one at a time. They each followed the exact same layout, being dark and dusty with a solitary small window high up on the left wall. The furniture in both consisted of a wide four poster bed, a wardrobe and a chest of drawers. Each room had an old-fashioned wood burning stove tucked away in one corner, making them feel rather muggy and close in contrast to the remainder of the draughty house. Boris showed us where we could find a cold, stark bathroom at the end of the corridor and then retreated wordlessly down the stairs.
“There’s something very strange about that bloke,” I muttered in a low voice to Michael as soon as Boris had disappeared from view. “Something not quite human, if you ask me.”
“What do you mean – not quite human?”
“Let’s just say I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to find his favourite tipple was a pint of fresh blood,” I replied knowingly.
“A vampire? That’s ridiculous,” exclaimed Michael. “You’re just tired – you’ll see things differently in the morning.”
“That’s if I make it to the morning,” I retorted gloomily.
“Now you’re just being melodramatic.”
“Well I don’t intend to take any chances tonight, that’s for sure.” Having glanced cautiously up and down the hall to ensure no-one was lurking in the shadows, I carefully unveiled the short blunt poker I had sneakily extracted from the fireplace downstairs and cleverly concealed up my sleeve when nobody was looking.
“These people have offered you shelter for the night – you can’t go stealing their things!” protested Michael.
“It’s not stealing if I don’t actually take it out of the house,” I countered. “I’m just borrowing it for the night. For protection.”
Michael shook his head in exasperation. “I give up,” he announced. “If you want to spend all night waving pokers at imaginary monsters then that’s your look out. I’m going to get some sleep. Goodnight.” And with a final disbelieving harrumph he turned and disappeared off into the nearest bedroom, leaving me standing alone in the empty corridor.
I hovered uncertainly for a minute or two, nervously checking up and down the hall for signs of any bloodsuckers lurking in the shadows, before reluctantly retreating into my own room.
With poker in hand I tentatively checked in the wardrobe (empty but for a few coat-hangers and a pungent smell of mothballs), the chest of drawers (even emptier) and beneath the bed (revealing nothing but a suffocating cloud of dust). The wind continued to lash the rain against the tiny window but the room itself seemed, most surprisingly, to be immune from draughts. A warm fug from the stove in the corner settled over the whole room, enveloping all with a drowsy atmosphere.
I sat down cautiously on the edge of the bed. Whilst I remained indefinably suspicious of the whole place I suddenly found myself oppressed by a crushing bout of tiredness that made remaining alert all night an unfeasible prospect. Still holding onto my poker, I wearily shifted a little further back up the bed and reluctantly laid down my head. The mattress was lumpy and the pillow was hard but it had been an uncomfortably long day and so, with the gentle hiss of the stove competing with the noise of the wind and rain outside, I gently drifted off to sleep.
I woke with a slight headache and the sensation that I had been asleep for at least a month. I lay still for a moment, savouring that status of semi-consciousness that sometimes comes just before you’re quite ready to open your eyes. Then, slowly, one or two notions began to gradually permeate my somnambulant brain. The first was that I could no longer hear either the hiss of the stove or the battering of the wind and rain against the window. Secondly, I noticed that the musty air of the bedroom seemed to have cleared significantly overnight. And finally it occurred to me that my pillow felt a good deal softer and my mattress considerably less lumpy than they had when I fell asleep. Somewhat puzzled, I sat up and opened my eyes.
Immediately I was dazzled by the broad swathes of sunlight that poured in from the wide window before my bed. Which was more than a little strange as the previous night the only window in the room had been small and to my right. What was more, every other element of furniture in the room seemed to have either moved or mutated or both. In my somewhat sleepy state it took a few moments to bring some sort of order to the confusing swirl of thoughts that were instantly prompted in my half-woken brain. But eventually two stark and rather bewildering facts struck me as being most significant. The first was that I was now clearly no longer in the room in Dowerly Manor in which I had fallen asleep. And the second, even more puzzling fact, was the realisation that instead I somehow found myself sitting in my own bedroom in my flat back in Bristol.
To be continued…