Once my repulsion at that vile mycelium was more fully under control and I felt better composed, we walked back down towards the lower village through a thin drizzle.
The ground was uneven. It had once been a continuation of the single road that ran into Lower Wirklesworth, connecting it to the higher village, but it had been torn up some time in the middle of the last century – a desperate effort, it seemed, to disconnect Upper Wirklesworth from the world.
Charteris told me what little he had been able to find out about that secret military unit. During the Second World War some of the original team had returned to the still-deserted village, embedded within an advanced radar group, or the semblance of one, but something went wrong just a few weeks after their arrival. According to various sources, mysterious lights in the sky were seen by witnesses as much as thirty miles away, but stories of these sightings were suppressed before they could make the national press and local papers recanted, dismissing the phenomena as nothing more than Luftwaffe bombers wandering off course and the staunch response of quickly scrambled Hurricanes.
That same night, an infernal white fire burned through Upper Wirklesworth, killing everyone stationed there. The army turned up within hours and sealed the place off, apparently never venturing inside, content merely to maintain a cordon – or too scared to do more than that. They held that perimeter until long after most chaps had been demobbed, and then as they left tore the road up behind them
‘There is more,’ Charteris said. ‘The ground beneath us is riddled with tunnels. Old lead mines, secret passages carved – I kid you not – between public houses by the miners themselves. A lot of drinking, it seems, happened underground, outside of regular hours, and especially on the Sabbath. And there are said to be tunnels far older than that. The usual legends of knockers, of lone miners found dead in side passages, the bruises on their neck evidence not of asphyxiation but of strangulation by trolls. All that sort of thing. And there is one tunnel that runs directly from beneath the altar in the church above us to the crypt in the church down there. There is a story of two brothers who lost their lives deliberately collapsing it so as to prevent some ancient evil. Back in the 1850s, the antiquary Thomas Bateman – the tumuli archaelogist, the Barrow Knight – entered it as one end and found it blocked by a rockfall, and then did the same at the other end. He intended to clear it, but died in 1861 before he could make a start, which is probably just as well, what with his tendency to destroy sites as he uncovered them. There is no record of such an excavation taking place, or indeed of them being sealed off. But when Sprake and I opened up the tunnel and ventured into it, the route was clear from one end to the other. The walls are scorched like those in the village above, almost smooth, apart from streaks of Galena, and thick matted ropes of the protoplasmic filaments – the hyphae – of that mycological abomination.’
I confess, I knew not what to make of this seemingly random concatenation of information, superstition, supposition and legend. Charteris was fastidious about not drawing connections or making fanciful claims. It was as if he wanted to present me with evidence as impartially as he could, and yet the very fact that he seemed to give the same weight to all these incommensurable modalities of data could not help but imply he that he believed them all equally – and that they we all linked together in some bigger picture. I decided to keep my own counsel. I feared he was losing his mind.
Next, he took me to the church, or, rather, beneath it, into the crypt, where MacReady and Dyson were taking a break from their scientific, perhaps pseudoscientific, labours.
Charteris showed me where he and Sprake had exposed the bricked up entrance to the tunnel that, so he claimed, led to the church at the top of the hill. I did not feel it warranted further exploration by me at that point. In truth, I was still feeling somewhat uneasy.
It was not the only entrance they had found hidden in the crypt. A second one led to steps that curved down to another, far more ancient crypt. Even in the poor light of the torches we carried, it was obviously a pre-Christian excavation. Deep inside me I felt, with a certainty my scientific mind struggled to reject, that it was crafted many millennia before that saviour in whose ways my parents tried to instruct me had walked among his human creations.
Charteris told me to keep my beam aimed at the floor. I felt sure it was a ploy to help him stage some theatrical monstration, but I complied. After maybe a dozen yards, he stopped and signalled me to do the same
‘Where we are standing now,’ he said, pointing at a chalk mark etched on the rock by our feet, ‘is the very centre of the cavern, of this ancient temple.’
Before I could object to his claim as to the nature of the site, which was as yet I felt unwarranted, he took me by the wrist and pulled my hand down to the floor. ‘Feel that.’
From some incalculable distance, deep within the Earth, came a distinct vibration and then, at regular intervals, a pulse, a throb, both natural and profoundly wrong, like the heartbeat of some vast and alien machine or slumbering god.
My mind reeled.
‘One last thing,’ Charteris said. ‘I first came here because of a dream. It haunted me. I saw… I thought at first I was being summoned, but I found myself with no will to resist. I was compelled here…by that!’
He swung up his torch to the wall ahead of us. In the stone was carved – though something told me that it was not carved – a gargantuan abhuman face.
It was not the bobbing torchlight that made it seem alive.