This story is taken from Tales from The Shadow Booth, a new journal of weird and eerie fiction edited by Dan Coxon and published as a mass market paperback. Drawing its inspiration from the likes of Thomas Ligotti and Robert Aickman, The Shadow Booth explores that dark, murky territory between mainstream horror and literary fiction. The journal is crowdfunding on Kickstarter until 25 October. If you like what you read, please show your support by pledging here.
This is how he pisses now. Slumped back against the cistern, letting it drain from him. It is four in the morning.
The bathroom is part of a cramped extension, added to the Victorian house during the 1960s. He looks out of the small window at the tops of the neighbouring houses with their own cramped bathroom extensions and their own small windows. His is the last terrace at the end of the street, buried in a labyrinth of other, indistinguishable streets.
Four in the morning and silent.
He flushes the toilet and returns to bed.
The wall against which the side of his bed is positioned is intersected by the chimney-breast, leaving a small empty gap by the head of the bed. Tonight is his third night in this house. His tenure here, he is sure, is temporary. He has not put anything on the walls – no photographs, no artwork – and he lies there for a while staring at the bare white chimney-breast, and then into the dark space beside his head. He thinks about his life.
Something catches his eye: there is a something glinting just above him, a trace of light thrown against the wall.
He props himself up on his elbows, suddenly alert.
In the corner, where he had thought there to be a smooth span of wall there is in fact, he now sees, a door, small, with a handle of brass, its wood painted the same shade of white as the surrounding wall.
After a moment, he pulls himself into a sitting position against his pillow, half hunching towards the door, his fingers tight around the bed’s headrest, glaring. It seems unthinkable that there could be a door in the corner of this room which had gone unnoticed until now.
Sweat prickles at his brow.
And yet here it is.
‘No, I think I’d notice a whole fucking door, thanks!’ he says.
But old buildings do sometimes have doors high in their walls, don’t they? They tend to be warehouses, their doors for the loading in of hay, he remembers learning. A small terrace house with an outer door on its second floor is something he hasn’t heard of before.
This slab of painted wood must be the only thing separating him from the street outside. Three full nights and he hadn’t realised? Is that possible?
Strange, he thinks, that there is no draught. He pictures himself opening the door, looking down at the dark street below from his bed. The thought makes him suddenly giddy and his palm slicks across the headrest; with a flare of panic he topples towards the door. Finding he doesn’t want to put a hand to it to break his fall, doesn’t want to touch it at all, he tries instead to turn his back on it and he collapses awkwardly into the gap between the door and the bed, his head arcing under the bed and connecting heavily with the floorboards.
A blackness pounds out from behind his eyes.
He is awake seconds later, still upside-down, his legs growing numb on the bed, a pain throbbing in the centre of his head like a heartbeat. He rights himself and struggles back onto the bed. Over him looms a stretch of wall, plain and doorless and suddenly familiar. He is alone. He is alone and there is no door.
‘I know I’ve said this before, but you should really just try to think of it as a fresh start.’ There is a long silence as Trevor lifts his mug towards his lips but, instead of taking a sip of the coffee, he simply stares.
Trevor has a talent for eye-contact. He never looks away or loses his focus or even seems to blink.
‘I know, I know – that sounds trite. But it is true,’ he says. ‘You’re a free bloke now, Dad. Try to think of yourself that way.’ The mug reaches Trevor’s mouth and, finally, he breaks his gaze to take a sip.
‘Yeah, you’re right, Trev. Definitely.’
Trevor watches him fiddle with a patch of the sofa which is coming loose from the pattern-work on the fabric. He stops himself.
‘You’re right,’ he tells him again. ‘Yep.’
Trevor has created a niche for himself as a modern man’s psychoanalyst, providing what he terms ‘psychological content’ for football magazines, phone-in radio shows and, every now and then, television programmes. Although not yet forty he looks older, his lips pale and wrinkled from a professional lifetime of sympathetic pursing, his eyes and forehead puckered from years of studied brow-work, his hair dyed an unconvincing black gloss.
He watches Trevor drain the last of his coffee, give a satisfied ‘Ah!’ and place the mug on the table, making sure to use a coaster. He smiles. His career has made him a success in life – he owns property, owns this house, kicked out the previous tenants so his father could move here – but has yet to master a convincing smile.
‘And how have you been sleeping?’ Trevor says, leaning back to touch a hand to the window, lifting the net curtain to peer outside, his back turned to the room.
‘Good, yeah. Fine.’
‘No bad dreams? No night-anxieties? Nothing like that?’ Trevor turns, his gaze drill-like.
‘Good. And how are you finding the house?’
‘Good, yeah.’ He finds he’s plucking at the unmoored patch of stitching again. ‘I get lost. I mean, I find it a bit hard to find my way back sometimes. Y’know, when I go out.’ He falls silent, annoyed.
‘Yes, I can imagine.’ Trevor’s face crumples into a mess of empathy.
Weeks later he is upstairs, in the tiny back bedroom. In here he has stacked his boxes of unsorted items. He intended to sort through them, to separate what he wants to throw away and what he wants to keep but found he couldn’t, not yet.
Instead he is doing DIY. At the top of the wall a corner has grown damp. Standing on his boxes, he tries to fix it using an old pot of paint he has found under the stairs. He could not find a brush and is instead smearing the paint on using a torn strip of cardboard. It is causing a mess. He stops, remembering he has seen a paintbrush somewhere in the house. It was with some pens and keys in a chipped, stained mug when he first moved in. Perhaps in the kitchen.
He hangs the paint-pot on the handle of the door behind him and goes down the stairs.
The mug is not where he thinks he remembers seeing it. He may have moved it. He checks a cupboard in which he finds two of bags of flour which have become caked with damp. Behind them is a cereal box which has grown sodden. And beyond that a mould stain of dark green coats a corner.
He empties the cupboard, grabs a cloth and starts to clean it up. He will finish the painting some other time, he thinks, but he will have to remember to put the lid back on the pot of paint he’s left hanging there so it won’t dry out.
The cloth stops in his hand. He rewinds through what he can remember: before crouching here he was stood by the sink, before that he was jogging down the stairs, before that he was stepping down from the stack of boxes and before that he was hanging the pot from the door-handle.
He sees it in his mind quite clearly: a door – small, white – again fixed into the wall beyond which lies the street, mostly obscured by stacked boxes, but some of it, including the handle, visible. The handle had been there and, unthinkingly, he had used it.
He hurdles up the staircase, springs into the room.
The pot lies on its side close to the wall. The paint has formed a thick puddle and there are flecks across the boxes and the skirting board where it has spattered when it was dropped and hit to the floor.
The wall itself is bare of course, save for some small scuffs and the marks of lived-in activity you’d expect of any wall. And yet he runs a searching hand over it.
He sits on the boxes. For a long time he watches the glossy paint soak slowly into the carpet, the creeping white robing the crimson fibres until their colour is lost.
A few days later Trevor takes him to Beaumarchais, buys him wine and a pizza. In near silence they eat, gazing about at the other diners and occasionally talking about their choices of meal.
‘Did you know the tenants who lived in this house before me?’ he eventually says.
Trevor chews, looks at him for a few seconds then says, ‘Just a man. On his own, or so he said. I think he had a woman living with him.’
‘What makes you think that?’
‘I’m not sure. I got a vibe.’
‘Did he mind when you terminated his contract?’
‘I don’t know. I never heard from him.’
‘He just left?’
‘I suppose. I stopped by a week after sending him the letter and he was just gone. There was a big pile of unopened post with my letter amongst them and a fridge full of gone-off food. The Mary Celeste.’
‘He left all his stuff behind?’
‘Looked that way, yeah.’
‘What did you do with it all?’
Again, Trevor is silent, watching him, his eyes narrowed. ‘Why do you think you’re interested in the things people leave behind, Dad?’
‘I don’t know, Trevor,’ he says. He knocks back his wine and pours himself a fresh glass. ‘Why don’t you tell me?’
Silly, this time.
Silly. That’s how it feels.
The door has appeared in much the same way as it had the first time. The wine from earlier made him thirsty and he returned from the kitchen with a glass of water to find the door once again, this time on the other side of the chimney-breast by the foot of his bed, behind his laundry basket. He does not drop his water or stumble or lose his breath. He stands looking at it, awake now, tense but not afraid, not really.
He just feels silly.
Shouldn’t it vanish now? Its presence has been noted, its performance is over. What is he expected to do? Go back to bed, leaving it by his side? Pretend it isn’t there?
He sighs, takes a step forwards and touches the door. It feels warm. He moves his hand across its surface, then lifts the laundry basket out of the way. He puts an ear to the door. Nothing to hear, just his own breath and heartbeat. Through the cracks he again feels no breeze and sees no light from the streetlamps outside. He thinks about pulling the carpet back so he can get his head low enough to peer under it.
He notices that his free hand has moved around the door-handle. Immediately, he lets go, then gently touches it again. What does one do with a closed door other than open it?
The handle turns with a quiet easy click and the door opens outward. He holds it ajar, with the latch touching against the wood of its frame, feeling a whisper of the escaping warmth across his face. It is impossible that it is this warm outside and he thinks for a moment that perhaps there is some problem with the house’s boiler, that it is pumping steam from a pipe built into the wall.
He pushes the door open and stands, waiting for his eyesight to adjust to the darkness in front of him. The heat washes out at him.
Rather than the dark street outside, he can make out a room. There is a floor in front of him. It looks as though someone has taken out the boards, leaving only the supporting beams, creating a crisscrossing frame, a wooden grid holding cubes of darkness in place. He steps out, landing a foot on an X where the lengths of wood intersect, then his other foot on another. Carefully, slowly, with his arms out at his sides both for balance and for protection, he begins to move into the room.
As he does so it comes further into focus. It is small, about the size of his own bedroom, bare beyond being unoccupied, its walls seemingly stripped of all fixtures, leaving only plaster grown purplish and mottled with blemishes. There are no windows, nor any other doors. He turns to look at the doorway he came through, his bedroom a dully lit rectangle of furniture.
It occurs to him that the ceiling of the room is much higher than his own and, looking up, he sees that there is in fact no ceiling, not really. The walls at either side of him arch inwards, meeting at the centre, like the hull of an upside-down boat or the ceiling of a church. Protruding downwards at regular intervals where the walls meet are three evenly-spaced lengths of dark wood. They look like upturned bollards, descending low enough for him to stretch up and touch. He does not want to touch them. Despite their evidently being sculpted their appearance seems somehow organic, somehow alive, each curving inward slightly toward their middles, only to bulge out again at their low hanging tips like carved teardrops.
And hot. It is hot. How can it be so hot?
Slowly, he reaches the far wall and then feels something poke against his hip. Through a pulpy patch of rotting wall lolls a crooked length of what looks like a root, tapered and gnarled, which has somehow emerged through the brickwork and plaster. He watches a drop of liquid collect at its tip, oily, powdery-looking. It swells then drips, a couple of droplets splashing against his bare toe. He jerks away with a small yelp, losing his footing.
He turns as he falls, his knee jamming at an uncomfortable angle into one of the dark squares beneath him.
He awakes, sprawled against the staircase, face down, his hand gripping the glass of water against the top step just above his head, miraculously unspilled.
‘A door?’ says Trevor. He has a china cat in one hand and a sheaf of old bank statements in the other.
‘Yes, a door,’ he says, keeping his eyes on the contents of the box they are sorting through, a turbulence of paperwork, souvenirs and photographs. ‘Just a door. A white one, like the ones in this house.’
‘What, and it just appears in walls all over the house? One minute nothing, the next… a door?’ Trevor adds the wad of bank statements to a stack he’s making and continues digging in the box, his eyes fixed on his father. ‘And what next? In these dreams, I mean. Do you go through to door? What happens?’
‘No,’ he says. ‘I never go through the door. Nothing happens. I just look at it.’
Trevor’s eye-contact burns. He tries to return his son’s gaze naturally, but gives up and looks back down. He is holding a glasses case, the glasses it once held long lost.
‘And is there any noise from beyond the door? Footsteps? Voices? Or anything else? A draught or heat? Anything at all?’
Trevor is doing well. Increasingly, when he visits he’s dressed in one of the suits he wears for his daytime chat-show. But today, with no prior engagements, he has arrived in his casual clothes – a pair of jeans with zip-pockets down each leg, and a bright pink polo shirt with some illegible writing printed across the front.
‘Nope. I don’t hear anything. It’s just a door.’ He adds, ‘I’ve not had the dream for a while though.’
‘Right,’ Trevor says, his gentle glare searchlighting.
‘It’s just that it stayed with me.’
‘So. What do they mean? Doors. Must symbolise something, right? Opportunities. Or new openings.’
A small side-on smile appears on Trevor’s mouth. ‘It tends to be a bit more complicated than that, Dad. It depends on your consciousness, on what you perceive doors as being.’
‘I think I perceive doors as being doors,’ he says.
There is silence whilst they sort through more junk.
‘Bad dreams come to us all,’ says Trevor. ‘Frankly, I’m surprised to hear you’ve only just started having them, after everything you’ve had to go through.’
He sighs, finds he’s gripping a handful of old birthday cards.
‘But that’s all they are,’ Trevor says. ‘Bad dreams. You shouldn’t let them–’
‘I said they were dreams,’ he says and tears the cards in half, throws them into the pile of things to be thrown away. ‘I never said they were bad.’
Later, he lies on the bed, staring. He has still not hung anything on any of the walls. People – Trevor – dislike blank spaces, thinking they indicate a lack of interest in one’s own tastes or personality. He is not bothered. If he does have a taste, he suspects, it is for blank walls themselves.
He had married young and during the initial months after they moved into their first house, when they had few things, he had enjoyed their times spent together in bed. Their intimacy would segue into sleep and he would turn to face a bare wall much like this one, its white uninterrupted save for a light-switch and small radiator. And he would imagine, as he slipped into unconsciousness, that the two of them were aboard some strange vehicle which was fuelled by their togetherness but with which he as the man was tasked with navigating: he was looking out into their undecided future, the pilot of their solid bed, cutting a path for them through a painted white sea of nothing.
Of course. Of course.
He emerges from sleep alert.
Of course, the door has appeared. Once again it is alongside his bed, taking up the same empty alcove it had the first time he’d seen it. He reaches out and touches the woodwork. Warm, familiar. Who built this door? Who painted it? Who fixed the handle in place?
He opens it and steps out of bed into the room. It is warmer in here than he’d remembered and the smell of moisture in the air seems thicker, concentrated, saltier, almost meaty.
Again, he places his feet at the centres of the knots of wood which make up the floor. The rest of the room remains dark, an expanse of formlessness, his eyes not quite acclimatised.
He senses an oddness at his feet, in the patterned beams beneath him, an irregularity in their joins. Carefully, he stoops and sees that where one length of wood intersects with another there is in fact no join, no separating crack. It is as though this whole frame is all carved from a single enormous piece of wood.
Or, equally impossible, that it has been grown this way.
He stands, surveys the square holes within view.
The rest of the room is clearer now. He makes his way towards the far wall, the protruding growth pale like a wand. It seems further away than last time, as though the room has grown. He looks up and sees that the ceiling reaches up even higher than it had previously, or so it seems. The furthest recesses, receding into corners of total darkness, look to be at least fifty feet away.
The craggy root, pointing out of the wall in front of him, drips its liquid. He kneels to inspect it. It is, he presumes, part of a tree which has somehow become embedded in the wall and grown slimed-over with age. He runs a finger across it.
It twitches in response, only very slightly, but visible nonetheless – a shifting, a bucking.
He reels backward, an arm out to support himself. His hand disappears through one of the holes in the floor’s grid-work, connecting with the top of the ceiling plaster beneath. He flinches it back out instantly.
It did not feel like ceiling plaster.
He wonders for a moment if there is some kind of explanation for what he is seeing, what he is experiencing, a precise, scientific explanation. His thoughts are invaded by a sudden recklessness, a willed carelessness which repulses him even as he acts on it and lurches at the root, clamping his mouth firmly around it. It flickers and thumps like a second tongue against his own. He feels the fluid – chalky, oily – leaking from it eagerly. It silts down his throat. All around him – the cavernous ceiling high above, the gridded floor and the patchwork plaster skin beneath the floor beams – crackles in response, acnes and blisters.
He is panting heavily.
Trevor has fallen facing away from him and is now on all fours but, he can see, is blinking and gasping.
He intends to say something but instead finds himself barking wordlessly. Trevor flinches, then lifts a hand to his face and, when he brings it away, there is blood.
Seeing it – seeing that – melts the anger out of him.
‘Oh, Trevor,’ he says. ‘I’m so sorry.’
Trevor turns to look at him – his eyes are wide and a raised welt is already reddening on the side of the face he punched – and then begins to crawl away from him in the direction of the kitchen.
He can see that the child’s drawing he had been holding, the picture they had been arguing about – a drawing of a robin made by Trevor when he was a boy – has become torn and badly crumpled in his hand. He finds he can remember the substance of their argument – a disagreement over whether to throw it away or not, a thoughtless comment Trevor had made – but the emotions which had caused him to lunge out of his seat and strike his son hard across the face twice in quick succession have not only left him, they have left no trace.
‘Trevor,’ he says again.
Trevor has stood up, is now leaning against the counter-top, still gasping, his bewilderment now absorbed into his outrage.
‘I think I want… you out of… the house,’ Trevor says, quietly, haltingly, then louder, ‘I want you out of this house!’ His eyes dart and his mouth hangs open as though to say something further. Then he stamps past him, towards the front door.
‘I didn’t… Trevor… no, son… Trevor, no, no…’ he finds himself bumbling after him, appealing with his hands, an old man.
The door slams shut.
The air is tropical. A balm of mist sheens his face, his neck and arms.
The room has grown. The ceiling is no longer visible. The curved beams descend from high darkness. The walls too – even the pallid leaking root – are indiscernible. As he moves forwards he finds himself quickly marooned in the darkness, the dim light from his bedroom closed off in the murk. The only way he is able to tell he is facing any wall at all is by the floor-beams beneath him, the squares they form being aligned with the room’s layout.
He makes his way towards his left, hunched over, pressing his palms against the beams. They are damp, as though their wood is leaking its sap.
All around he can hear dripping. He imagines when he reaches the wall rivulets of liquid will pour over his hands. His lungs heave, struggling with the humidity.
He looks down to make sure he is still heading in a direction which is aligned with the holes beneath him and discovers he can no longer quite see beyond his shins. Around him moisture is building, billowing, pouring around him, so thick it simply hangs suspended midair.
On and on, he keeps going.
Still no walls in sight. He decides he will attempt to jog. He forces his legs through the syrupy air, ignoring its resistance. It cushions his feet as they land and he is soon no longer able to feel the beams against his soles, his sense of touch grown fuzzy. He looks down and sees that the entire lower half of his body is now no longer visible.
Still running, his legs aching as they cycle in slow-motion, he switches direction. The moisture in the air and the darkness compact.
Running and running. He finds his feet are now only glancing the floor-beams: he is paddling through the gloom, figuratively then literally: the interval between each step stretches until, after pitching himself into the air, he stills his legs and simply sails, directionless.
He can no longer tell in which direction he’s facing, nor if he is still upright; nor now if he is horizontal or now upside down. He calls out – calls his son’s name – but the word is stopped and smokes lazily in the surrounding fug. His body and all sensation are leaking out into the room, he realises, the room pouring into him.
He enacts the physical memory of pulling what would be his knees up to where his chest should be and then of wrapping his now non-existent arms around them. The called-upon thoughts quickly cause his mind to loosen. Thoughts are unspooling from him, mingling into the soupy exterior. Unwatched, he discovers that what he’d call his consciousness has floated free, is now drifting into a high corner of the room, a bumbling bead shrinking as it moves, until it is almost nothing, then nothing.
No, he thinks, wait. Just wait. Hang about. Just wait a second. But the word second tails away, dissipates and is gone.
Richard V. Hirst is a writer from Manchester. His latest book is The Night Visitors, co-written with Jenn Ashworth. His work has been published in the Big Issue, Time Out and the Guardian amongst others.