A Stranger at the Door, by Bradly Shelby

(Download the audio version of this story here: part onepart two — or click the play buttons below.  Read by Morgan Scorpion.  Story illustration by Steve Santiago.)

This is a story that caught my attention, by a promising young writer who shows great potential.  I’m throwing it into this issue as an “extra”.  I told Brad on the phone that he has talent and he really should write more.  After reading this story, I think you’ll agree. — Mike

April 2

A Stranger at the Door – illustration by Steve Santiago – click to enlarge

It has been four days now and it still has not moved away from in front of the door.

I came across this journal earlier today while I was going through all of the supplies, trying to figure out what I have to work with and what I might have to ration, and I thought that writing in it would be a good way to help pass the time until either help comes or I see a chance to run for it. After all, since there’s no electricity up here I don’t have a television or a radio to keep myself occupied, and even if I did, I doubt I could bring myself to turn them on. Even the idea of making more noise than I have to, of really making any noise at all, fills me with dread. It’s mostly due to the fact that I don’t want to attract its attention any more than I already have and give it further reason to continue sticking around…and, admittedly, somewhat because I worry about being unable to hear any possible changes outside.

This constant paranoia makes it a challenge even to try reading some of the books and magazines that we brought up here with us. I can’t really bring myself to concentrate on whatever it is that I am trying to read- I’m too distracted, too busy jumping out of my skin over every creak of timber or gust of wind to really focus. I read the words and then the door crowds them back out of my mind. The sounds that arise during the night make it impossible to do anything other than cower up here in the loft, staring unblinkingly down at the door and praying to God to just make this thing go away already, or for the sun to come up so at least it will quiet back down for the day. Sometimes I honestly don’t know which is worse- the tense silence during the days or listening to the door creak and moan as whatever the hell that thing is pushes on it all night long while endlessly, wordlessly screaming at me.

No, the nights are the worst, and I know it.

And so I have decided to start writing in this journal, so that I’ll at least have something to do with my time other than just sitting here and staring at the door all day…just waiting for something to happen, praying that nothing will.

The journal must be one of Katy’s- she’s always scribbling and writing in these things, especially when we come up to here to the cabin, but I’m certain she won’t mind my using it. Dear God, I hope she’s alright. I hope that she’s found help.

April 3

Still no changes last night. It started its screaming a few hours after sunset, pushing heavily on the door, seemingly trying to force its way inside. I honestly don’t know which is worse- the fact that the sound is so incredibly human in nature, or the fact that something about it simultaneous makes it glaringly inhuman and unnatural. There is something about it, some quality that seems familiar, and yet at the same time alien to me. That vague feeling of familiarity frightens me more than anything else. It makes me think of an article I read years ago about something called the uncanny valley- they said it described feelings of revulsion towards anything that closely imitated human life but was obviously far from it. I can’t think of a better term for the sounds this thing makes.

Each morning after the sun has come up and the thing has gone quiet for the day, I remove my barricades and inspect the door, and so far, it still seems to be holding up fairly well. The hinges and locks remain firm and unbent. Despite the creaking I have heard during the nighttime assaults, the wood doesn’t seem to be cracking or warping anywhere. I’ve braced it up as best I could with what I have, but I don’t really have much to work with: whatever furniture there is, a few assorted tools, a bit of rope.

I don’t know that wedging the couch up against the door is doing much good, but at least it’s something. No, I think that it has everything to do with the quality of the door itself- my father really put his heart into it years ago when he built this place, and he built everything in here to last, from the roof to that door. All that had meant before was that Katy and I would have a nice place up in the mountains for years to come where we could get away from the city for a while. A place where we could enjoy being in nature and the smell of fresh air and just…being together with each other. Now his craftsmanship seems to be the only thing standing between me and…I don’t even want to know. Thank God that he decided against putting any windows in the place when he built it, however strange that had seemed at the time. The fireplace still worries me, but I imagine that it must be too narrow for that thing to fit down. At least, I hope it is.

I spent this morning gathering up all of the empty buckets, jars, and tubs that I could find and filling them with water from the hand pump he built in the kitchen area. I don’t honestly even know why I did it- I really can’t see how it would reasonably be able to tamper with the well or affect the water supply, and yet all the same, it felt like the right thing to do. Besides, the last thing I need is to run out of water somehow, and a bit of precaution isn’t going to hurt anything. If nothing else, it gave me something to occupy my time with. There’s enough canned food stored up here to last me for quite some time, especially if I rationed it a bit, but I hope that there won’t be too much of a need to worry about that. I have to imagine that whatever it is out there is either going to get tired of trying to get at me or waiting on me to come out, or that help comes- but it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

It’s hard to believe that just five days ago Katy and I were driving up here, laughing like we were teenagers again, talking about when we wanted to go for a hike and when we wanted to do some fishing and how nice it was going to be to get out of the city for an entire month and just how much we needed it. To think, that was less than a week ago, and now it seems like a memory from another time, like seeing something from someone else’s life. Despite how much we had enjoyed the drive up here, I had known that something was wrong almost as soon as we got out of the car. At first I could not figure out what seemed to be bothering me, but as we were carrying things in from the car and unpacking, the wind changed. A strange odor, almost a sort of musk, had drifted in out of the forest on the breeze, and when I smelled it I had nearly dropped the box I was carrying. I saw the color drain from Katy’s face when she came back outside and smelled it as well. She asked me what it could be while covering her nose with her shirt, but I told her that I didn’t know. I had no answer for her, as it was nothing quite like I had ever smelled before- it wasn’t a particularly strong smell, or even all that putrid…but there had been something…wrong about it. Something invasive and unclean.

You see, my father had been bringing me up here on camping trips for as long as I could remember, and so I was no stranger to the smells of death and decay- I could still remember that once when I was young we had been hiking and had found a dead deer in the water, and that we hadn’t been able to get the smell entirely out of our clothes for days. But this was something entirely different. The instant I had smelled it, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck and my stomach had tightened into a knot. I had felt the overpowering urge to climb back into the car, start driving, and never, ever look back. The need to put as much distance as possible between myself and whatever was causing that smell. I had told Katy as much, and though it obviously bothered her as well, she had laughed and told me that it was only some dead thing out in the woods, that I was being silly and getting upset over nothing. Now, looking back at how pale her face had been and how nervous that laugh had sounded, I know that she hadn’t really believed that. God, why couldn’t she have just trusted me? Were you just too proud to admit that you felt the same feelings of terror that I had? Or maybe it had simply been because it had taken us so long to manage to finally set up an entire month off from work together. It had taken more than a couple of sacrifices on both our parts, but we had known that it was really going to be worth it. Maybe that’s why she refused to go, and maybe it’s how she finally convinced me to stay.

And so, instead, we had continued unloading the car, unpacking everything we would need, getting ready to settle in for the next month together. I had been unable to keep myself from glancing at the forest anytime we were outside, half expecting to see something, though I could not say what, out there in the shadows. I had known that Katy was right, that something had simply died nearby. And yet, no matter how many times I told myself that, I still could not quite make myself believe it. I don’t think Katy did, either, though she hid it better than I could. It seemed as though the longer we were around the smell, the more intense my discomfort became, and I felt the beginnings of a tension headache begin to steadily spread from the back of my head. By the end, I think the only thing that had really kept me here was the fact that I was going to propose to her while we were on this trip. I can’t even stand to look at the ring right now, and I know that I won’t be able to until I know that she’s safe, that she’s alright. Until I can know that, until I can hold her in my arms again, it has become nothing more than a symbol of how much I might have lost, and what a fool I was for letting us stay.

Katy, wherever you are, know that I love you.

April 4

Still no changes to report. Just another night of that damned thing trying to force in the door, screaming at me hour after hour, all through the night. Why does it scream like that? Is it hoping it can scare me out of my little hole, thinking it can frighten me into making some sort of run for it? Could it serve some purpose beyond my understanding? Perhaps it’s intelligent and just derives a sick pleasure from knowing that it’s tormenting me in here. I’m not about to try asking it. I have enough difficulty just bringing myself to get close enough to the door in order to check it for damage. Just knowing that it’s sitting there on the other side, waiting…it’s just too much for me to handle at this point. I know I should man up and move the rubber stopper away from the bottom of the door, that I should be trying to watch it and see if it either comes and goes or just…incessantly sits there, waiting, day in and day out. I know that I should, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I just can’t handle the idea of those eyes staring in here under the door. That would be even worse than the screaming, and that’s already almost more than I can bear. I saw them once, which was more than enough.

My headache had grown steadily worse as the day had gone on until it became almost unbearable, and I knew I would have to lie down for a while. Katy had suggested that it was most likely due to the change in altitude during the drive up here, that she knew it could sometimes cause headaches. Of course, I reminded her that this had never happened to me before, and that I had been coming up here for years now- she simply reminded me that I was getting old, that these things happen. Eventually I settled for taking some aspirin to help ease the pain in my head, climbing up into the loft, and lying down in bed while she finished unpacking things and setting up around the cabin. I had made her promise to wake me up if she needed anything, and to not go far from the cabin until after I had woken up. I didn’t even want her to go outside without me, but I knew she would have been upset by that. In the end, she told me I was being silly but promised nonetheless, and I fell asleep almost immediately after lying down.

When I awoke, the smell had become a stench overpowering enough to leave me gagging. I cannot properly describe it, even now, after having spent all these days with it. Have you ever been down into an old root cellar, or some damp, dark place in the earth? Perhaps a house that has recently flooded, or suffered from a long leaking roof- that damp, musty, clinging smell of mildew and mold? There was something of both of those to it. Added to that were traces of rot and putrefaction. There was also a cloying, almost sickly sweet quality to it that was somehow worse than the stink of decay. Something acidic, almost chemical as well. It was a dozen terrible smells all wrapped up into one repugnant, awful stench. Finally, I could hold it back no longer, and I leaned over the side of the bed and heaved onto the floor.

Once I had finished I called out to Katy, but received no response. I felt weak and bewildered as I tried to climb out of the bed, and I practically fell into my own vomit more than once. I called out to her again, more urgently now- still nothing. I began to cry for her, frantically. I made my way down the ladder to the floor of the cabin, and in my haste and current state, I nearly tripped and fell. I might have broken my neck, if I had fallen from that high, and part of me wishes I had. I wandered the cabin, coughing and choking from the smell, occasionally stopping to wretch and heave, until I realized that she was not in here with me. I turned to the door, stumbling towards it, feeling my panic grow with every passing second. I knew I had to find her. I had to find her and get her in the car and get us as far away from this place as possible no matter how silly it might have seemed. As I drew closer to the door, the smell became stronger, and I realized that whatever it was coming from must have also moved closer.

As I reached out for the door, I was overcome by a sense of dread. I suddenly knew I could no more bring myself to reach out and twist that knob than I could pluck the moon from the sky or sprout wings and fly away from this place. No, some part of me, some animal instinct residing quietly until now in the back of my brain knew I must not open that door, and held me back from doing so.

For reasons equally beyond my understanding, I instead dropped down and pulled away at the rubber stopper that we had installed upon the bottom of the door. You see, as the cabin had settled and subtly shifted over the years, a small gap had formed beneath the bottom of the door. It was no more than a couple of inches, but still enough to let in a draft or a bit of rain if the wind blew the right way, and so we had installed a bit of rubber along its bottom to properly seal it up. I pulled that away now, and despite how strong the smell was as it poured in through the new gap. I leaned down and looked outside.

Darkness. Or, at least, what I at first took to be darkness. All across the bottom of the door, all that I could see was pure, unbroken black. I was momentarily confused- it had been fairly early in the morning when we had arrived and I had laid down. Surely I hadn’t slept that long? I looked at my watch only to discover that it was barely past three in the afternoon, meaning I had only slept a couple hours.

I sat there in confusion for a moment, trying to piece it all together, and looked beneath the door once again. The longer I looked out, the more and more I came to realize that I was not looking into some lightless distance, but rather at an object lying before the door. From what I could tell, it seemed to be incredibly smooth and, though I could not be certain, the way that it caught the light from inside made it seem as though its surface might be of either a damp or slimy texture. The first thing to spring to mind was of some colossal black slug laid out before the doorway, and I nearly vomited.

As I lay there staring at it, I noticed that a spot on its surface was becoming gradually lighter than the rest. I fixed my eye upon it and watched, with mixed horror and curiosity, as a white object about the size of a quarter seemed to arise from within the substance to sit upon the surface. The only way in which I can describe it is to say that it looked somewhat like a peeled grape, except that it was entirely white. As I watched, more began to steadily surface, ranging in size from a dime to what I would estimate as closer to my fist, all of them looking like peeled albino grapes. I laid for some time, watching these things, trying to figure out what I was seeing, when it began to dawn on me. I slowly slid myself across the floor to the other side of the doorway…and they twitched, following me in my movement. They were eyes. I screamed, and launched myself back away from the door, moving as far away as possible. Eventually I fought down my revulsion to come close enough to push the rubber stopper back against the space beneath the door, unable to bear the idea of that thing watching me.

That night, the screaming began.

April 6

Nothing new to write, I’m afraid. It shrieks all night long, and squats there in front of the door during the day. Yesterday, in the afternoon, I finally managed to work up enough courage to move the piece of rubber to the side and look out through the gap. It was still there, but thank God, I managed to move the rubber back into place before it had time to conjure any of those damned eyes.

I’m beginning to worry that it’s not just going to lose interest and leave. So long as I am in here it’s going to go on sitting there, waiting. I’ve got to hope Katy got away, hope she’s made it down out of the mountains and is bringing someone, is bringing help. Unless she is…then I feel as if I might as well be stranded on the moon.

I’m running out of aspirin. I have been suffering from constant headaches since that first day, which make the waking hours almost intolerable. It’s at its worst at night, with that thing at the door screaming away hour after hour, my head pounding and feeling as though it’s about to split in two, my heart racing away in my chest. Sometimes it becomes too much to stand, and I pass out. Whenever I awaken from one of these faints, I feel a mixture of relief and terror. Relieved, of course, because I managed to escape at least a few hours of that thing’s harassment and the pain in my head, and terrified by the prospect of what could have happened if I had been in such a state when it finally managed to force the door open. At least if I’m awake, I might have a chance to escape, to get away. Or maybe it would be better if I was unconscious when it got in here. Maybe being awake is the last thing I should want.

I’m also beginning to suffer from nausea. I don’t know if it’s from the headaches, the smell, or just living in this state of constant tension, but it seems as though I can hardly keep anything down anymore. Even just looking at the cans of food is enough to make me ill. I know that I need to eat, that I have to keep up my strength until help arrives, but all I want to do is lie down in the darkness and try to sleep and escape from all of this. But that is becoming less and less of an escape due to the nightmares I’ve been having.

April 11

Katy is dead. I know that now.

I have begun to worry more and more about the door- it’s holding up fine for now, but how many more nights before it starts to let go? It’s fine now, yes, but about a week from now, or two? Because of this fact, I have been forcing myself to listen more closely at night- trying to listen for the sounds of wood beginning to crack, or the groan of nails slowly pushing loose, anything at all that might warn me about the door coming apart. By doing that, however, I’ve also found myself listening more closely to him…to it. The more I listen to it, the more a feeling of familiarity has been growing, and now I know I must have heard it somewhere.

But where? The only thing I can relate it to is perhaps when you hear the Wilhelmscream in a movie- you might not immediately know where you recognize it from, but you know you’ve heard it before.

I had been lying there in the bed, listening to the door for a few hours, when I looked up and noticed a small black spider crawling across one of the beams. I lied there, watching as it made its way across, enjoying the simple distraction from the noise going on outside and the pain in my head, until at last he climbed up into the shadows and out of my sight. Spiders of all sorts are hardly an uncommon sight up here in the cabin, and more than once I had thought it was strange that I hadn’t seen any around the cabin since all of this began. Normally I would have seen a dozen by now. And silly as it might sound, merely being able to see another living thing, even a little spider, came as something of a relief. I had never been bothered by the spiders we would find up here, even though Katy had always been terrified of them- more often than not, if she saw one, she would…she would scream.

The realization hit me like a brick, and suddenly I understood. It was her scream, and that… that… thing had been mimicking the sounds that it had heard her make this entire time.

I don’t even remember how I got down from the loft, especially without breaking my neck, but I suddenly found myself standing before the door, knocking and shoving the furniture out of the way, pounding at the wood with clenched fists. I screamed every curse and obscenity I could think of at the thing, yelled every threat I could imagine.

For a moment I had even considered finding something I might be able to use against it, maybe some oil and fire from the lamps. I would throw the bolts from the door and throw the burning oil at the thing in hopes that maybe it could be burned to death. It was an insane, stupid idea, and I didn’t care…I just wanted to find a way to hurt this thing, to make it suffer, even if it cost me my life.

As I stood at the door, my body shaking with rage and grief, clenching my bloodied fists, I realized the thing had grown silent. The only sound to be heard was my panting and the blood pounding in my ears. Had I actually startled the thing? Had it been confused by this sudden change to our nightly routine? Was it simply too intent on listening to me to bother continue making noises of its own?

The silence was broken by a small giggle. It was that small, innocent sort of laughter which is unique to small children, the one they seem to reserve for the discovery of something new and curious.

If you have ever spent much time around children, then you will know the sound I mean. And this…this damned THING squatting on the other side of the door made the same noise, and it was in its own way even more terrible and obscene than its caricature of Katy’s last moments.

When I understood what this must mean…that a child…oh God please no. It had been too much for my mind to bear, and I had reeled back from the door, collapsing onto the floor and blacking out. The only good to come from the whole ordeal was that my unconsciousness went unbothered by the nightmares that now seem to plague me whenever I attempt to sleep.

So I now know that I am on my own, that Katy is not going to bring help. She is gone, and I am alone up here. Utterly alone with it. My only hope is to last long enough for people to realize something must have happened, long enough for them to send people to check on us. I have enough supplies to last that long, especially with how little I have been able to bring myself to eat lately. All that matters now is that the door continues to hold.

Katy, I will always love you.

April 15

It is making me ill, somehow. I don’t know how, but it is.

I have no appetite to speak of, and when I do try to eat, it seems as though I can barely keep anything down but a bit of water. Even more troubling, however, is the fact that even though I haven’t eaten anything solid in the past two days I don’t seem to be losing any weight. How is that possible? How can a man not eat for days and somehow not lose any weight? Honestly, I doubt I would like any of the answers I might find, and so I try to avoid thinking about it.

My migraines are constant and agonizing, especially since I ran out of aspirin days ago and have nothing else to help ease the pain. Anything but the dimmest light is unbearable to me now, and when it screams during the night, it is torture. I sit here while it shrieks and howls and sputters, pulling at my hair and grinding my teeth, thrashing around in the bed, feeling as though someone is driving white hot needles into my brain. The fact that I now know whose scream it really is only intensifies my suffering.

Sometimes, now, when I cough I have begun to notice small black specks, like dried blood- yet another thing which I prefer not to think about. My skin has begun to itch incessantly, and I’m beginning to develop a rash on several different parts of my body, somewhat similar to the one I got from poison ivy when I was a boy. My days have become a parade of misery, and sometimes I have to wonder if it’s really worth it to keep going.

When I try to escape this hell by falling asleep, all I seen to find is a different one. My sleep is filled with nightmares, each seemingly worse than the last, to the point that even the pain in my head is at times preferable to sleep. Last night I dreamt Katy was standing on a barren, black plane that stretched off as far as the eye could see, her arms outstretched, beckoning me closer. As I approached, I could…see things moving beneath the skin of her face and arms. Like worms, writhing and twisting away.

I tried to turn from her, to run, but discovered I could not- my body kept walking towards this thing that looked like my Katy but wasn’t, and I could not even force a scream from my throat. At one point, as I drew near, her eyes turned black and seemed to melt, oozing slowly down her cheeks. When I was nearly within arm’s reach, her mouth began to slowly open, stretching impossibly wide, and inside was…it was full of those writhing things. She began to lean towards, and thankfully, I woke up. Some of them are like that. Others are stranger still, more surreal- bizarre landscapes populated by freakish creatures, things I almost doubt you could imagine, things which I don’t even begin to know how to describe. I usually awaken from these dreams in a cold sweat, my heart racing and my head pounding, feeling the need to vomit even though I know there is nothing in my stomach to vomit up. The worst of them are when I am in one of these bizarre places, looking at some of these things…and I can tell they are somehow looking back at me. Those are the worst, and they seem to haunt me even when I am awake.

All I can do is hope that help arrives before things get any worse, that I can last until someone comes up here to check on us. I don’t want to die up here on this mountain, alone with that thing.

I don’t want to die.

April 19

It called to me last night, pleading with me to open the door, to come out and join her.

Dear God, it called out to me in her voice.

April 26

There is no God, but there are many gods.

There is no heaven, but there are endless hells.

I have heard the flutes in the darkness.

I have heard the thousand whispered names.

April 29

This will be my last entry.

I now realize that, even if help did come, even if they somehow managed to get me out of here, it would now be too late for me. You see, more and more lately I’ve been scratching at my rashes, unable to stop myself. As I scratched and dug at them last night I accidentally tore open one of the larger blisters, and when I moved away the torn skin, I saw that inside of it there was an eye, like the ones on that thing outside. A tiny, white grape…staring up at me from my own skin. I cut it out, but I know it doesn’t matter at this point. I know that for whatever reason, it’s turning me into something else, trying to make me into something inhuman. I am not going to let it.

I’ve used the rope I found to tie myself a noose and I’ve hung it from the rafters up in the loft. It should be more than strong enough to hold me, or at least for as long as I should need it to. With any luck, it will be long enough to break my neck when I jump. I think I deserve that much. I am going to die, and I am going to die as a man, as a human being. It has taken so much away from me, so very much, but I will not let it have this.

If you find this journal, if you are reading this, then get out. Leave now, before it knows you are here, before it traps you like it did me. I can only hope that my jump from here will be into oblivion, that there is nothing waiting for me on the other side.

Katy, I love you.

A lifelong passion for strange fiction and the works of Lovecraft has led Brad Shelby to write one of his first stories, and the first to be published. Having grown up in small town Oklahoma, he has always been drawn to the themes found in Lovecraft’s work such as the isolation found in the countryside and the notion that some small towns and country homes are not what they might seem to be, and this shows prominently in his work. While this is his first published piece, he plans to continue writing and exploring the worlds of strange fiction, and it will hopefully not be his last.

Story illustration by Steve Santiago.

If you enjoyed this story, let Brad know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.

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9 responses to “A Stranger at the Door, by Bradly Shelby

  1. Listened to this story on the audio version first, Kudos to Morgan -Julie Scorpion for breathing a paranoia psychotic break-down into Maelstrom. I listened to the story twice and then read and re-read the story trying to. make some sense out of it, trying to find hidden symbolism, but I think the story has to be taken at its word.
    Like Tim commented, the closest comparison is Bloch’s Notebook Found…. and leave it at that. I hope you continue to write.


  2. Great job, Brad, keep the writing flowing, when you get what is called “writer’s block”, simply find a blank page and start doodling or turn to an unfinished story and re read it from beginning, editting, adding and perhaps finishing. Just keep in the writing spirit, my friend! ~Mark Allen McLemore.


  3. Very well done. Put me in mind of “I Am Legend.” Just with… Things… Rather than vampires.


  4. I thought I had heard all the horror stories, but the change usually happens after the ring goes on the finger. Great Lovecraftian tale! I look forward to reading more of your work in the future.


  5. Brad, that was a nice riff on the old “Cabin in the Woods” story, recalling Robert Bloch’s “Notebook Found in a Deserted House” and “Evil Dead.” And I have to say that I have not read of shoggoth-ism as a contagious disease, but there are tons of Lovecraft-inspired works that I haven’t read. So, as Mr. Davis recommends, keep writing, man. Heck, just to get a Robert Bloch comparison would inspire me eternally. Very good story.


  6. I…am not going to be able to sleep at night. This story is genuinely masterful, Lovecraftian to the bone. This is real art. Thank you, thank you, thank you for bringing this to me. It will surely bring me lovely nightmares.


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