The following is an excerpt from the horror story Emrys, written by Katherine Emily.
My first impression of Castle Emrys was of abundant sunshine and healthy verdure. The tree-lined road off which lay Colin Donaldson’s estate was dappled with the warm rays of the sun, peeking through the leaves of slender branches waving merrily a few feet above the heads of passersby. The house stood well back from the road, at the end of a sweeping gravel drive, lined with towering arbor vitae that grew in unpruned clumps so thick and high they choked off all light in the path between them. They were like two towering cliffs and the blue stone gravel a river winding far below.
I set my bags down upon the sidewalk and rummaged in my coat pocket for the cab driver’s fare. The tip I handed him was admittedly ungenerous. The man had deposited me on the curb outside the mansions’ grounds, steadfastly insisting all the while that the driveway was private property and off limits to him. The prospect of a long luggage-laden walk was enough to dampen considerably any feelings of liberality his pleasant conversation had instilled in me. As I bent down to pick up my suitcases, my eye was drawn to the the inscription scrawled in twisting, spidery wisps of iron across the archway of the mansion’s gate. Actus me invito factus non est meus actus, it read. The act done by me against my will is not my act.
At the time, I was struck only by the peculiarity of character that must define any man who would post so odd a message before the scrutinizing eyes of the masses that milled just outside his doorstep.
But, through the sense of numbness which prolonged terror instills in a person, I cannot help but chuckle in hindsight at the foreshadowing which this phrase provided. It was a warning and apology both, brazenly presented to the world in a manner so devoid of context it was utterly meaningless to any who might be saved by heeding it. It spoke too to the machinations of a mind that was clever enough to grasp the depths of its own depravity and both revel and repent in it.
I had gone a few paces up the drive when behind me I heard an ear-splitting screeching of tires. I whirled back around to the street just in time to catch the cab peeling around the corner and out of sight. Pedestrians stood in the road, as stunned as I, as other cars swerved out of the cab’s path. Perhaps it was the smoke generated by the cab’s tires or the sunless gloom in which I now stood, but it seemed to me the bright, cheeriness of the road had dimmed considerably.
I turned back towards the mansion and apprised what would, in a few moments, be my new abode. The imposing Gothic facade notwithstanding, it was an act of presumption to call the sprawling sandstone structure a castle. The house’s name was born of that attitude of excess typical of the nouveau riche titans of Gilded Age America, who sneered at those industries that had enriched them and attempted to affect an epochal patrimony they did not possess by purchasing coats of arms and giving to their mansions names that spoke of estates handed down from father to son since time immemorial.
It was, however, a good forgery. My eye was drawn immediately upwards: to the roof line, which contained as many peaks and valleys as a mountain range. The triangular planes of the eaves were punctuated regularly by small windows. As far as I could tell, they ringed the top of the house like so many bastions strategically circling a medieval fort, providing a panoramic view which allowed no approach to go unnoticed.
They must have served a similar purpose here, for I’d barely reached the top of the drive before the great oaken doors swung open and a tall, lanky man in an ill-fitting suit emerged to greet me. He made no effort to step off the slab of granite that served as the great house’s stoop, but merely stood there, blinking inquisitively at me as I lugged my cases the last few feet to the door.
“Your arrival is eagerly anticipated, Miss Richards. The master waits in the library to greet you.” he said in a voice that carried around its edges a curious burbling, as if spoken through water.
As I drew closer, I noticed a fine sheen of moisture clinging to the skin of the man, whom I took to be a butler. And it was little wonder, for there was a peculiar, cloying damp to the air. I felt my own skin go clammy as I stood, awaiting the butler’s invitation to enter the great house. There must have been some quality to the stone of the vestibule that turned it into a crucible, pulling the water out of the very stones, for they were slick and dank.
The butler did not speak again, but led me wordlessly through the cavernous hall into which the door emptied. In truth, the silence did not unsettle me, for I was too engrossed in taking in the spectacular manner in which the place was furnished. The great hall contained a collection of tapestries and portraits which would have been the envy of the most exclusive of arts museum. Fine silver and other baubles were displayed upon shelves carved into the recesses of the wood paneling.
“A veritable treasure trove!” I couldn’t help but exclaim in a breathless voice. The butler shot me a disapproving look from two narrow eyes.
There was an exactness to the exterior of the house that betrayed its provenance to be fraudulent. No architect could, with his limited wisdom and fallible judgment, erect so perfect a structure. It had to have been borrowed. But the eclectic treasures here displayed: they could be nothing but genuine. The historian in me was anxious to linger, to explore. But the butler made an impatient, little gurgle of harrumph.
He stood before what I mistook as a piece of paneling. But at his touch, a section of what appeared to be wall sprung in upon itself, the hinges of the trick door letting loose a mighty moan of protestation.
I’d no sooner stepped through the shaft of light that fell through the doorway then I heard the wail of the door swinging shut again. The room in which I found myself had the same unpleasant damp edge to the air as had the vestibule. But I found it much more sinister here, for one could not see the walls for the books that sat like tiles in shelves that lined the walls from floor to ceiling. There was an additional smell of rankness in the air: the earthy smell of paper dampened and crumbling under the relentless assault of mildew. And my blood ran cold to think of the damage this was doing to the volumes—some of them clearly hundreds of years old—on display here.
My disapprobation must have been writ plain upon my features—I have never gained the knack of masking my feelings—for a soft, lilting voice called out to me from the shadows.
“Something offends you, Miss Richards? Only name the thing and it shall be dispensed with forthwith!”
The man to whom the voice belonged stepped from the dark recesses of the room and I saw him to be as eccentric as the rest of his possessions. His figure was impossible to distinguish beneath the layers he wore to ward off the chill that moved about the room on the damp air. He was tall and, I suspect, filled out only by the bulk of the clothing in which he was swaddled. Yet his bearing was that of a man of old world breeding and he lent a touch of elegance to the cashmere scarf wrapped around his neck and the thick woolen coat he sported even indoors.
His skin had a pallor to it that was accentuated by the gloom of the room and the jet black of his hair. Yet, his anemic complexion did not make him look sickly. His features were aquiline and well-proportioned; they spoke to a certain temperance of manner and great capacity for self-regulation. Even his lips were pale. They were turned down into an expression of grave concern and his eyes shone with a genuine desire to please.
“I’m afraid you mistake me, Mister Donaldson.” I managed in reply, “I was only overcome by the size of your library.”
He smiled and bowed slightly, evidently taking my politic remark as a compliment.
“It meets your approval, then? Good. I had thought it a most excellent environment for the tutoring of your new pupil.”
“Yes, it should fit that purpose nicely.” I replied.
I turned away, ostensibly to examine the room in more detail, but really to hide my crestfallen expression from my employer. He was, I suspected, long enough accustomed to the environment that the damp had no effect upon him. but I found it, and the prospect of spending long hours confined with such foul air, eminently disagreeable.
“And my student? Your letter was scant on details. He is your son?”
“My ward. Victor is, alas, a very sick young man. Unwell enough to wander far from his bed most afternoons. But the sickness of the body must not be allowed to impede the mind. Don’t you agree?”
He turned his eyes full towards me as he addressed this last question. They were the most peculiar shade: equal measures of blue and green seemed to swirl around his pupil, as if it were the center of a maelstrom around which his viscous fluid whipped with centrifugal force.
“Yes, quite.” I murmured, somewhat perturbed by the force of the glance he cast in my direction.
I sensed relief in the sudden slackening of his body. I had not been aware of the energy which he was exerting in holding himself upright. But he seemed both relieved and exhausted. He murmured a quick excuse and turned to take a prodigious swig from a glass of water that sat upon a nearby end table. The drink seemed to revive him, as if the water itself went coursing through his veins, stimulating the blood and sending some color back to his cheeks.
“May I meet the boy?” I inquired, curious about whether my pupil shared any of his guardian’s peculiar habits.
“No, I’m afraid he is not well enough for visitors at the moment. Tomorrow morning, bright and early, I promise you, he shall await your instruction. In the meantime, I’ve no doubt you’d like to get situated. Perhaps explore a little? I have business to attend, but I await most eagerly the dinner bell, which will afford us the opportunity to get better acquainted.”
He bowed once more, with a gallantry that spoke to the customs of generations long since moldering in their graves and withdrew. Outside the door, the peculiar butler awaited me.
“If you’ll follow me, miss, I’ll show you to your room.”
He conducted me up the stairs and down a broad hallway that was lined with tables bearing priceless antiquities, as on the floor below. Here the malodorous stench of damp and rot was less pronounced and a little changed. The stench of decaying cellulose was replaced now by the stench of wet wood, a smell that, while not entirely pleasant, was at least more common to anyone who had weathered a New England winter.
As I stepped into the bedroom which the butler indicated was to be mine, I soon discovered why the wetness was so pervasive. My room faced the back of the house, which faced the open ocean. Much to my surprise, there was no back lawn to speak of whatsoever, only a mere strip of shoreline scrub. The building was perched upon the very ends of the land. I stepped out onto the balcony and looked down. The house seemed to have erupted from the sandstone cliffs upon which it was built, as if some volcanic act of fury had sent it rocketing upwards from a subterranean world.
I turned around to inquire something of the property’s history from the butler, but found myself alone. My suitcases had been deposited upon the bed. There was nothing for me to do but unpack them, which was the act of a few moments. I had only a few articles of clothing to hang and a few dozen volumes to arrange upon the table. The room itself was spacious and richly ornamented but held little to pique my interest. I stepped once again out to the balcony.
The view was, as far as views go, relatively unremarkable. An uninterrupted line of blue stretched on interminably. By gradated shades the pale plane of the sky became darker as it encroached upon the parallel line of the grayish ocean, until the two melded into one dark smear on the far away spot of the horizon. But the monotony of the scenery was hardly onerous; one was too swept away in contemplating the enormity of the expanse that lay before to be bored by its relative barrenness.
To my left side, another wing of the house jutted outward. I turned to examine more closely the ornate ornamentation that were everywhere affixed to the architecture, like the numerous accoutrements which a woman of wealth wore to broadcast her husband’s means, and immediately jumped backwards. A large gargoyle sat perched on a ledge just adjacent to my balcony. It sat back on its haunches, its mouth hanging open to reveal a great lolling tongue and wickedly pointed fangs. Folded across its back were two webbed wings. It sat before a clock, carved into the stone facade of the house, which appeared to mark the rise and falls of the die. Upon closer examination, I saw the roof line was patrolled by an army of these horrific sentinels, all sitting at attention, their wings bared. And at every corner upon the house, some similar nightmarish creature of fantasy jutted out from the stonework. My curiosity piqued, I determined to ask my host at dinner more of the significance behind this odd ornamentation.
But as the hours until dinner were numerous, I decided to undertake an exploration of the grounds. I had a sudden urge to go and stand upon the cliff’s edge, to look down at the roiling sea dashing itself upon the rocks below and feel the power of the wind as it came whipping off the water.
I spied no one in my sojourn back down the hall. Indeed, I heard no signs of life. If Victor were indeed as sick as his guardian claimed, this was perplexing: surely the boy required some kind of supervision. Or, at the very least, some companion for his lonely hours. Here were yet more questions for my employer.
Rolling lawns, punctuated by elegant stone terraces, unfurled from either side of the house. Yet there were no French doors or picture windows that allowed one to admire the geometric beauty from within. The rooms though which I wandered were all dark and shuttered, impregnated with the cloying film of moisture that practically shimmered in the air. It was only in the ballroom at the back of the house, clearly long disused, that I found a bank of French doors, which opened out onto a shallow patio, itself adjacent to a narrow strip of sandy soil and then the sea.
The drop was not so steep as I might have imagined—a quite navigable path sloped down to the stony beach below—but a vicious looking outcropping of rocks rose from the waters just offshore. The waves crashed down upon them with a cacophonous fury, sending a fine mist of silvery spindrift arcing gracefully through the air. It glistened as it caught the sloping rays of the late afternoon sun. I stood for a while watching it, until the vicious nip of the sea breeze had settled into my bones. I turned back towards the house, just as a particularly large wave came crashing down upon the shore. A tremendous boom with the volume and force of a cannon shot rang though the air. I felt the cold, briny drops of ocean water cascading down upon my neck and then some hard object colliding with my skull.
I must have blacked out, for the next thing I remember, Mr. Donaldson was standing over me. I had a vague impression of a black mass, a back-lit silhouette against the blazing backdrop of the sun. He was waving his arms and shouting.
“Back, back, you vicious creature! She is not meant for you!”
There was a raucous screech and then the black mass darted away.