…where even the Eccles cakes are abstemious – as hollow and unsatisfying as a doctrinal dispute at synod…
…where even the Eccles cakes are abstemious – as hollow and unsatisfying as a doctrinal dispute at synod…
In Haddon Hall, the seat of the Duke of Rutland, which dates back to Tudor times and beyond, there is a recurring porcine motif. I took these pictures intending to write about the ancient Peak District custom of once a year dressing up your prize pig as Shakespeare – a practice outlawed by an unamused Queen Victoria following an outbreak of Hamlet jokes during her visit to nearby Bakewell.
Then the light caught this chap just right and instead I planned to write about the Duke of Rutland’s unholy cross-breeding of William Hope Hodgson’s swine-things with China Miéville’s skulltopus.
But after #piggate #Hameron #swine/11 , there is nothing left to do but post the pictures and wonder quite how long that sort of thing has been happening, how widespread it is and how high it goes.
I should have been prepared for it. The bus journey to the start of our walk had given us plenty of warning. Weaving through the steep-sided Matlock Bath, we could make out big new houses being constructed on the surrounding hilltops so that rich folks could look out onto the Peak District and down on the strange old resort village.
To be honest, it is easy to look down on Matlock Bath – thanks to a comment by Byron, it was once known as ‘little Switzerland’ and was later dubbed ‘the Venice of the North’, when in reality it is more like the Paignton of the North on a rainy out-of-season weekday when most everything is shut – but at least I feel no urge to transmute my metaphorical disdain into architectural form. (Technically, this is the moral high ground, but it is not very high at all. Or particularly moral.)
It was only when we got onto the open moorland that it became clear how far this gentrification had advanced. Everywhere you look, noble dignified proletarian grasses and ferns and gorse are being swept away by a tide of purple sprouting broccoli, advancing inexorably like the Martian red weed.
Our long looping walk brought us onto the Chatsworth estate, home to the Dukes of Devonshire. In the 18th century, the 4th Duke reoriented the house and decided he wanted a clear prospect – to provide a startling first view of the house for approaching visitors, and to give himself a nice view of the grounds. In order to achieve this, he demolished the village of Edensor, where estate workers and others lived, and relocated them to a newly built village hidden from his view.
There are several striking things about his new Edensor. First, it is dominated by the Estate’s massive church – just to remind the residents who exactly is in charge. Just because they are out of his sight now, they have not escaped his power.
Second, no two buildings are alike. The Duke is said to have gone through a book of architectural pictures and picked out the ones he liked. The buildings are all rather sturdy and may well have been a significant improvement in some respects for the workers who moved into them.
I really wanted to hate the place, but it is so fucking picturesque that at first it is quite difficult.
But the picturesqueness is part of the reason to be really angry at this obscene display of wealth. Fucking furious at the arrogance of the man.
It is not just the social cleansing – people seeing their homes demolished and being forcibly relocated just so someone could have a pretty view – but also that, having removed these workers from his prospect, the Duke then turned them into some kind of entertainment spectacle for his family and household and guests on their way to the Estate church. And no way did he not at other times just take his chums along to marvel at the absurd village he built and the amusing people who lived there. To him, they were no more people than the plants and trees in his garden.
I guess I should calm down. After all, my sole remaining career goal is to retire and be hired by one of these hereditary parasites as an ornamental hermit. And at least the struggle goes on, as the good people of nearby Bakewell demonstrate with their proletarian commitment to not ‘fusion’ but ‘portmanteau’ cuisine.
I should never have…
I have his dreams, I see the ancient temple beneath the rocks, I see where the face is
it is no longer there
Peering out of the windows at what my watch assures me must be noon – even in this thick caul of fog there is some light out there, though it is diffused, lacks direction, is too ambient even to cast a shadow – there is nothing but a luminous watery haze. Something moves out there. Not the black dog nor the white hare, their duty of prolepsis is long over and they have fled. What moves out there is vast and inhuman.
Sometimes I think I am the bottom of an alien ocean and above me a leviathan courses through the deeps, pursuing elephantine prey with a stately grace born of its immensity. Sometimes I feel its shadow fall on this narrow house. Terror turns to hope. How can something as miniscule as a human life even be noticed by a being so colossal?
I know this is just idle fancy.
The thing outside is terrene, mineral. Asperous. It moved so slowly for millennia that it appeared to be without life. Perhaps its liveliness was twisted out of sight in another dimension. But now it walks the Earth again.
It is coming for me. I know that, though not how I know that. I can only surmise that hidden in the words of the codex by some ancient steganography were words, curled up like a virus, waiting to be woken, words that infiltrated my mind, replicating and replacing neurons, wiring themselves into me. And that by some strange conjunction of influences, I was drawn here. And they leapt again, from me to the even older text Charteris unearthed, and activated something within it.
I see I have become quite mad.
What we think of as madness is really knowledge, perhaps even a kind of truth. I see the world differently now, and it is twisting me, making me other. Who knows what I will have become by the time my rescuers arrive?
But I am not so delusional as to expect rescue any more, or respite.
The thing out there is quartering the ground. It is drawing close.
It will not be long until it finds me.
It’s in the trees! It’s coming!
It is now ten days since we last ate. Even the honey with which I rendered the bitter tea palatable has run out. I suspect Charteris of stealing tiny amounts each day, and whenever I am now forced to drink such amaroidal stuff I must quell a rage that swells in my chest and throat. I fear it is not part of me but that thing within me that was summoned here, and that as I grow weaker it grows stronger.
Trapped in this Cimmerian gloom, I struggle to recall what daylight looks like. All there is is lethargy and a sense of inevitable withering.
The thin and desperate cries of Dyson and MacReady have fallen silent now.
Something is moving around out there.
Charteris shambled fitfully around the cottage, regressing into the very likeness of a villager, his hands becoming awkward appendages, capable only of clenching and clutching. Occasional moments of lucidity interrupted his constant mumbling occasionally, but it was clear his sentience was fading. He slept a lot, but restlessly. He tossed and turned as if animated by some idiot cosmic puppeteer, his strings badly tangled. He would, with persistent dull regularity, awake screaming in terror. When I tried to quiet him, he muttered over and over that ‘It is gone, it is gone’. After several days of such obscure maunderings, I realised that he had been dreaming about the crypt, about the stone face in the wall. He has infected my imagination. Even now, when I try to recall that strange grotto, I can visualise it perfectly, but the face is no longer there.
The odd thing about going so long without food is that I am too exhausted to do anything, yet too exhausted to sleep. My face is the colour of bruises. There is a rash spreading on my left arm. I found a patch of that fungus there and scrubbed at it too hard with a toothbrush. Cleansing my flesh, I broke the skin and gave it a way inside me. I scratch at it without realising until blood coats my arm.
Each day I press on slowly with my work on the printout of the writing on the tablets. My head is too blurry. The script remains elusive, dancing just outside the reach of my stumbling intellect. It taunts me.
I would not have done it.
It was not me that did it. It was that thing that he brought here inside me.
Several days ago, Charteris started wandering up to me at random moments and shaking me violently, interrupting my concentration. He kept claiming I was in a trance, incanting the ancient words on the sheets before me. He would not understand that it was impossible for me to do so, that there was no way for me to pronounce a language that had not been uttered on this world in millennia.
He will never understand now.
But as I sit here, alone at last, I cannot help but wonder whether he was speaking some kind of truth. My mind has not always been as focused as I claimed. With my disrupted sleep, it is no wonder I sometimes drift off a little while poring over these archaic texts. Perhaps in a state of hypnagogic liminality my consciousness slips, and whatever it is inside me that was summoned here gains egress from the realm in which it has been confined and some tendril of its dreadful being possesses me.
That would explain it.
That would explain how Charteris came to be lying at my feet, his head not merely bludgeoned but crushed – caved in, as if by the exertion of some monstrous pressure on skull.
It would explain how his blood came to be mingled with mine on my hands and arms.
At least I need no longer go hungry.
Mankind’s greatest folly is, it seems, to hope.
The fog has neither lifted nor even retreated.
Charteris and MacReady have twice now tried to reach the farm. Both times they returned empty-handed and clearly shaken.
Dyson can barely even bring himself to look in the direction of the orchard, yet as another day dawns without the prospect of food, it is he who suggested trying to make our way through the fog to the village.
At first I resisted taking part their expedition but, as they equipped themselves to leave, the prospect of being abandoned here filled me with a dire foreboding. They had the decency not to comment on the haste with which I join their preparations. We roped ourselves together as best we could with belts and ties, with Charteris in the lead position. He handed each of us a heavy duty flashlight. ‘We need to preserve the batteries,’ he said, ‘just in case, so let’s see how far we can get with just my torch.’
The fog was like a shroud. I could feel it tightening around us, almost. I could barely make out Charteris ahead of me, or Dyson behind me. MacReady brought up the rear, invisible to me.
Charteris set a careful pace, occasionally straying from one side of the lane to the other, and pressed doggedly on.
Time descended upon us like a cerement.
I have no idea how long we had been walking when Charteris abruptly halted. We clumsily concertinaed together. A car angled across the road blocked our way, its front doors wide open. It took a few moments for us to recognise it as the one in which Dr Raymond had driven off in search of a phone signal.
‘Why are both doors open?’ MacReady asked. ‘Did he have a passenger?’
The answer was not long in coming.
We snaked cautiously around the obstruction. The irriguous grass at the edge of the road was slippery underfoot; waterlogged nettles and stubby branches reached out of the hedgerow to sting and graze.
The fog blunted Charteris’s torch-beam, diffusing and curtailing its reach, but even in its feeble glow we could see the bodies lying in the road. Sprake, who the doctor must have found shortly after leaving us, his pasty body now almost blue, his skin mottled with the strange fungus that contaminated everything in this damned valley, and Raymond himself, as naked as his erstwhile charge, his jaundiced flesh bruised and bleeding. The broken corpses were arranged, as if by some seedy maniacal godling, in a sordid tableau of joyless copulation.
Nausea and unreason swept through me, unhinging me briefly.
Sickened as the others were, they were all for pressing on towards the village, but nothing could compel me to take another step in that direction. MacReady bristled and, when I would not bow to his threats of violence, he urged Charteris and Dyson to just leave me there in the road. ‘Let him keep the cadavers company,’ he snarled.
Eventually, Charteris agreed to return with me to the cottage while MacReady and Dyson continued on in search of help or haven.
That was four days ago.
The fog remains impenetrable, the transitions between day and night almost indiscernible in the gloom. Sometimes I imagine our timepieces running down, and I am filled with trepidation at the thought of being trapped here with no certain way to measure the passage of time.
‘They will return,’ Charteris says several times each day. ‘They will bring food. We will be rescued.’
Such pathetic hopefulness makes him seem small. He is shrinking in significance.
I have not told him that sometimes, through the fog, I hear Dyson and Macready calling out. Begging for us to help them find their way back to this paltry shelter.
They are lost.
Their voices are the voices of the damned, and with each hour that passes they grow weaker.
Sprake has returned!
I fear what it portends.
Lower Wirklesworth is one of those villages that nowadays must share its vicar with three or four others in his parish. When he gave Charteris access to the church, it was on the understanding that we would not intrude on the days when services – which rotate between the villages – were being held there. Today is such a day. There is a wedding, I gather, though it is difficult to imagine any of his shambling parishioners seeking a religious blessing upon their unseemly propagation.
Finding it hard to concentrate on my work while the others began to stir, I happened to glance out of the window, and there, in the mist that shrouded the orchard this morning, I saw him. Sprake.
Naked, apart from a cape he seemed to have fashioned by reversing one of those hospital gowns that do not fasten up the back, he eagerly stroked at his tumescent manhood.
I rose, stunned, and the others followed my gaze.
Sprake spilled his seed onto the bark of a stunted apple tree, and danced away out of sight.
‘Bacchus and Priapus,’ Charteris laboriously quipped, ‘we should not be surprised to find him playing Pan, now should we?’
The other morning, when Charteris had sent us to our tasks, found a shovel and a supply of bin bags, collected and disposed of the animal debris ringing the cottage, even found a hose somewhere to wash away the blood and feathers and fragments of bone, I found myself for the first time ever beginning to admire him. He did it quietly, fastidiously, without any fuss, neither commenting on it nor expecting our gratitude. But today, as he mocked Sprake and seemed disinclined to aid him, any hint of approbation and esteem I might have felt died.
‘He’s out there, in this weather with no clothes,’ I said. ‘He’ll die of exposure if we don’t do something.’
Charteris stared at me, puzzled, as if seeing something for the first time, then ordered us to quarter the orchard for any trace of the poor bewildered man.
After a fruitless hour, we regrouped at the cottage. The mist was turning to fog, and we had still not breakfasted. Shortly after Dyson left for the farm to collect our supplies, a car pulled up. It was Dr Raymond, as sallow as ever. He had come to tell us of Sprake’s escape, and to see if he had returned here. ‘I didn’t inform the police yet, as I thought it might be resolved without any fuss,’ he explained. ‘You keep searching, I’ll drive out of the valley and call the rescue services once I can get some reception on this damn phone.’
Ten minutes later Dyson’s cries for help reached us through the thick and sodden air, ringing like a gong. The fog had become so thick he could not find his way back. Charteris and I went to make tea, while MacReady stood outside, calling at regular intervals to guide Dyson back.
He stumbled into the kitchen, empty-handed and clearly shaken.
‘I can’t find the farm,’ he explained.
I am the only one who never goes to there – I dread finding myself alone with any of the locals, whose unfocused physiognomies and hobbling brute forms I confess disturb me deeply – but I understand the path to it is straight and unbroken, with no junctures or offshoots that might mislead one, and Dyson has a level-head and steady nerve. I cannot make sense of his perturbation. He says he did not stray from the path, that it seemed to shift beneath him, like some inhuman sentience drawing him into its bosky tentacular embrace, sprouting ligneous ungulae to catch in his hair and clothes.
The farm, he insists, is no longer there.
The fog is growing heavier, killing the light. I can no longer see the trees, though I sense them drawing closer – the spawn, perhaps, that Sprake returned to grubbily fertilise?
It is some time since I have had the opportunity to write. There has been so much to do, and the days have blurred into one another. My mind has been pre-occupied not only with that strange subterranean drumming – an incessant thrum that now seems to accompany me everywhere – and that monstrous visage, but also with the task which Charteris has set me. In order to pursue it, I have set aside, albeit temporarily and with much anguish, my translation of the codex.
You see, around the walls of that chamber are arranged twelve tablets, spaced equidistantly. The writing carved in each of them is in a language predating the text recorded in the codex, but clearly (I think) an ancestor to it. If MacReady and Dyson are correct, it dates from before the well-known proto-Elamite script and the controversial Dispilio Tablet, and even before the Vinča and Jiahu symbols that only a canting professional courtesy dares call ‘writing systems’.
My unease disappeared as I pored over the antediluvian writing, clumsily attempting to transcribe it while holding a torch. ‘We already have complete 3-D scans of them,’ Charteris said. I put my pen and pad away and just spend time taking in this wondrous find.
Each day I return to the chamber for a while to read the actual characters, but most of my time is now spent with a print-out of the scans, familiarising myself with this most ancient of tongues, beginning the laborious process of comparison, hypothesis and deduction, all of it tentative, most of it destined to being discarded. Charteris, not seeming to grasp that this is a life’s work, urges me on to premature and incautious attempts at rendering the script in English.
For all that my days now possess a common pattern, I continue to be disturbed and agitated. The scratching within the walls now follows me throughout the house. The squirrel continues to feed whatever it is in her nest. That dark shape lurks on in the orchard, and at the edge of my vision that white creature flits away before I can take it in. I realise I do not know the difference between stoats and ferrets and weasels and mink – could it be one of them? According to local miners’ superstition, a white hare is an ill-omened creature, presaging catastrophe. They say something similar about seeing a large black dog. I try not to think about it.
The rain is incessant now. It hangs in the air like a shroud.
Each morning as I focus on the ancient text, I become lost in concentration. MacReady and Dyson have both essayed repetitions of Charteris’s prank. On consecutive days, one or other of them stood over over me with a concerned expression on his face as if he had just woken me from an unearthly possession and dire incantations. Charteris brushed them away, making it clear I will not be chaffed in this way, but he too looks at me oddly.
This morning they are unable to continue such foolishness. When they come down from their beds, they find me pacing the kitchen floor in deep distress.
I had arisen early, as is my wont, and thrown back the curtains in my room. The squirrel was squatting there, just outside my window, as if waiting for me. I swear she looked directly at me, her rheumy eyes glaring coldly, as she raised her paws to her mouth and began to eat. Whatever she held was still alive, wiggling, screeching in pain as she gnawed at it. Once it ceased to move, she discarded it, and darted back to her nest. Just as I began to make out the form of her prey, she returned and repeated the performance. She did this six times. I watched in horror as she killed, partially consumed her young and scattered their corpses indifferently around her.
Sweetened tea was unable to quell the sickness mounting within me.
As I told the others about it, MacReady put on his coat and boots and set out to the farm for the day’s supplies. Within moments he returned, more pallid and shaken I suspect than even I had been this morning. ‘You have to come and see this. All of you.’
Outside, surrounding the cottage in a nearly perfect circle there is a ring of dead animals and birds, torn out of shape, ragged and distended, shattered; many are beyond even the most rudimentary of identifications.
We do not even try to formulate explanations.
We are stranded on an island in a blood-thirsty sea, our high-water mark limning the outline of some indiscriminate biological pogrom. The air reeks of a desperate foreshadowing.
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.
It seems I am destined to sleep poorly and rise early in this narrow house. The apprehension that it was something other than I that had been summoned here filled me with dread, leaving me enervated but too anxious to sleep; and towards dawn that infernal scratching started in the walls again, and to my horror seemed now also rise from beneath the floorboards.
Making the best of a bad situation I elected to work on the translation while drinking honeyed tea. Outside the kitchen there was no sign of the squirrel, yet as I stared out into the orchard waiting for the kettle to boil I swear I saw something moving – a large black dog? – among the stunted trees. Although they are as evenly spaced as one would expect, their low twisted branches suggest a profound disorder, an impenetrable tangle. I was unsure if it was a barrier protecting us from that glimpsed dark shape, or an enclosure from which one day we might find ourselves in urgent need of escape.
I set such thoughts aside and forced myself to make steady progress with the codex, aided by a growing certainty that the original translation was a cunning sleight-of-hand. Why my predecessor felt the need to produce such an elaborate layering of misdirections – a series of Chinese boxes that neatly switched into a finger-trap for the mind – was beyond me. I would need to spend some time working through his cyphered journals in order to proffer a plausible explanation in the scholarly apparatus that would accompany my new translation. The prospect of this additional labour was frustrating, but the solid steady work it represented also appealed to my equable temperament and the tendency towards careful and deliberate effort that lingered on in me, one of the final vestiges of my Protestant upbringing, along with my thrift and general abstemiousness – values rarely valued any more.
I came to with a start to find Charteris gently shaking my shoulder. I must have nodded briefly over my papers, but for some reason Charteris took it as an opportunity to essay a quite feeble prank. Putting on a worried face, he implied that he had found me in a trance-like state, tracing a line of characters in the codex and pronouncing aloud those ancient, inhuman words from a language which has not been heard on this world in millennia. I scoffed at his lamentable joke and made clear that I found it to be in poor taste and that I considered such mockery to be unacceptable. He relented with an apology whose sincerity I could not judge.
MacReady and Dyson left soon after breakfast, and Charteris assured me that today he would finally begin to explain why he had invited me to join them in this awful place. First, however, he had to attend to Sprake, who was leaving us to lodge under the care of a physician who ran a kind of sanitorium some miles away. ‘A good chap, very well qualified to take on a case like this,’ Charteris explained. ‘In addition to his regular practice, he has devoted himself to transcendental medicine.’
Still annoyed with him, I was unwilling to reveal my ignorance as to what that curious phrase might mean.
I was completing my ablutions when Dr Raymond arrived, a middle-aged man, gaunt and thin, of a pale yellow complexion. I chose to wait until Sprake had been bundled into his car and whisked away before returning to the kitchen.
Charteris was all business. Since yesterday’s weather prevented me from visiting the site of Upper Wirklesworth, that is where we would begin. We walked briskly, skirting the lower village and climbing quickly to the older village overlooking the valley. It had once been the more prosperous of the two, with none of the meanness or inhibiting closeness of its younger sibling below, but now it was in ruins. There was not a roof or window or door to be found among the tumble-down walls, and what few traces of wood remained were blackened tokens of some forgotten conflagration. Apparently, the place had been requisitioned during the First World War by a secretive military unit involved in scientific work of some sort. Covert weapons development, I assumed, and wondered whether experimentation with chemical or biological weapons had contributed to the weird wrongness of the valley people, but Charteris was going on at some length about occultists, numeromancers and other such nonsense.
Breaking away from his absurdities, I took a look inside one of the ruins – a large house with thick walls – and reeled back nauseated by what lay within. The walls were covered with a pale squamous growth, fleshy, fungal and clogged with the corpses of mice and rats and birds which it seemed to be in the process of digesting. The floor was a carpeted with feathers and small, bleached bones. A cloying smell, sweet with corruption, choked the air. A thin bile rose and clogged my throat. Black flies rose up in clouds at my interruption. I spat repeatedly to rid my mouth of the taste.
Out of the corner of my eye, as I turned to face Charteris, who was making apologetic noises for not warning me, a long white furred creature darted through the grassy bank and into the nettles on the far side of the road. It moved so quickly I could not make out what it was.
Charteris rested a gentle hand on my shoulder and offered me his water bottle.
More than a little ashamed by my reaction, I forced my voice to adopt the measured tone of a professional academic. ‘What is that stuff?’ I asked. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it.’
‘Neither, if Dyson is to be trusted, has anyone else.’