A Massing of the Shades, by Richard Gavin

Gavin2 72dpiArt by Nick Gucker: http://www.nickthehat.com/ – click to enlarge

Over dessert the gaunt man offered to draw Craig a map to the Tower. His tone of utter indifference was no doubt premeditated, and he added to this lackadaisical charade by focusing his attention on his dish of pomegranate sorbet. The man spooned up three gory-red mouthfuls without affording Craig or me so much as an upward glance.

We were sitting in the White Mount Cafe, a dwarfish eatery made to feel smaller still by the glass-walled view of Mount Selta. Craig and I had spent the better part of that summer hitchhiking up and down the west coast. One could do that in those days because the dangers of riding with a variety of strangers were either slim or simply unknown. I suspect it is the latter because, if my recent experiences are any indication, the world is a minefield, one that we traverse at our peril.

The pair of us had decided that Washington would be a nice state to tramp around for August. But my interests were far less exotic than Craig’s. I wished to sightsee, whereas he prodded each new driver who’d been kind enough to pick us up (we must have resembled drowned rats by that time) for the most arcane information. He was forever hunting for eerie rumours about whatever town we happened to be drifting through. He was like a pig unearthing truffles. No matter how deeply he had to bore, or how filthy the treasure, Craig never failed to fish out a treat. After we reached the west coast it didn’t take long for him to learn of Sesqua Valley, and once he did the haunting details dragged Craig – and me, by consequence – to the region as swiftly as a hooked fish being reeled in.

“Oh, Sesqua Valley, sure I know it,” the thin man had told us during what was to be Craig’s and my last drive together. “If you know about the valley, then you must know the legend of the Man in the Tower.” We did not. But the name of the legend alone practically had Craig coming out in a rash. “There’s a restaurant just a few miles up the road. Why don’t you boys buy me a meal and we’ll call it even for the gas? I’ll tell you about the legend over dinner. Believe me, it’s not the kind of story you want to hear when you’re travelling a cold grey stretch of highway like this one.”

So we had settled into a booth by the window through which the pale climes of Mount Selta studied us like we do insects. We bought our driver supper (he ate a surprising amount for such a thin man, though his monochrome black attire likely made him appear even slighter) and he told us the story of the Man in the Tower.

Ostensibly, like most towns in America, Sesqua Valley had at least one Old Family, one whose roots twisted all the way back to the Nootka Convention and this state’s nativity. In this case it was the Williams family, who had resided in Sesqua Valley for as long as anyone could remember. Whether it was their extensive bloodline or some other quirk I cannot say, but the Williams family had a reputation for being more fey than earthly; none more so than Simon Gregory Williams, the notorious Man in the Tower.

According to legend (or simply to the puckish imagination of our driver), Simon Gregory Williams always walked with each of his feet in different realms. He was driven by strange, dark forces, and thus lived a solitary life instead of cavorting with the locals. His time was his own and he filled it with creative and esoteric pursuits. By the time he’d reached manhood, Williams’ collection of arcane books was so great that he resorted to constructing a fortified tower to store his library. As to why he had chosen to build this tower at the base of Mount Selta, the theories were legion: everything from leylines running beneath the soil to his own obsession with Sacred Geometry. Whatever the reason, a cylindrical tower was erected, and behind its bolted door of iron Simon Gregory Williams spent the lion’s share of his remaining years, studying, chanting queer words, attempting to call things back from afar.

Though he never hosted a single guest in his tower, it was said that Williams was never alone out there.

“So what happened to him?” Craig had asked. He was caught; hook, line, and sinker.

When our driver said that Williams had simply disappeared without a trace I think I might have groaned. The clichés didn’t seem to bother Craig. He watched with breathless delight as the man extracted a silver pen from the inside pocket of his blazer and used it to sketch a crosshatched topography of Mount Selta and the cold black river that flowed near its base…and the tower that stood amongst the sycamores and the evergreens.

And with that our driver dabbed the corners of his mouth with a napkin, nodded, and wished us luck on our quest.

I hate to think that I had become as susceptible to uncanny influence as Craig, but as I watched the man exit the restaurant and make his way to his sedan, it did seem as though he was merging with the evening shadows, which were stretching long and lean across the parking lot.

The Pacific Northwest is beautiful, particularly in summer, which is why I tend to doubt the reality of the deep autumn chill that hung heavily over the valley during our hike into the woods and along the river. Based on that memory alone, I would say that the region was nothing short of ominous, even hostile.

Steam rose from the coldly churning river. Craig charged onward, the crude map clutched in one fist, a flashlight in the other. I spent the majority of the journey calling out my doubts about the authenticity of the map, and my worries over the potential dangers we were putting ourselves in by traipsing into the alien woods in the dead of night.

My protests were in vain. Craig would not yield until he had drunk in the Williams site with his own eyes.

And when our path finally intersected with the tower, or rather its remnants, Craig toppled just as our destination must have, perhaps on a night as Gothic as this one.

It must have been an impressive, imposing monument at one time. Assuming of course that one can judge a thing solely by examining its bones, for that was all that was left of Simon Gregory Williams’ sanctuary. Whoever or whatever had destroyed the tower must have done so with great force, for Craig and I had begun to stagger over the chunks of cinderblock for a good half-mile before we finally came to the clearing. We both stood, our ankles aching from the sudden jerks and twists they had endured. The two of us looked upon the twisted shape by the moon’s grey light. It seemed to spiral up from the fallow soil like a stalk of redbrick and iron.

As to the numberless books that were said to line every inch of the tower, naught remained. Even the few scraps of paper that did tumble along the bank like crippled birds were only newspapers.

Given the difference in our reactions, I wondered if Craig and I were looking upon the same site. My response was minimal, save perhaps for a feeling of general frustration over having chased a dragon through the cold, wet forests by Mount Selta only to discover a ruin whose stature was so tenuous a mere push might have caused it to topple. Craig must have seen something far different, for the sight of the eroded half-cylinder drove him to tears.

Naturally I was pained by seeing him so distraught, but because I was unable to wrap my head around its source, eventually Craig’s sorrow began to annoy, and eventually infuriate, me.

“It’s obvious that guy was pulling some kind of prank on us,” I called out, trying to lure Craig away from his compulsive act of overturning bricks and rubble.

“They have to be here!” was his shouted response.

“What has to be here?”

“The books! Simon’s books!”

Exasperated, cold, and plagued by boots sodden with river water, I began to shout. “Give it up, Craig! Don’t you see? There were no books. There probably wasn’t even a Simon Gregory Williams! Tell me, exactly how much of your life do you intend to waste on all this ghosts-and-goblins tripe?”

Craig was mum, but the withering over-the-shoulder glare he gave me spoke volumes. He looked away and resumed his search.

I stood for a few tense moments, listening to the lapping of the river and the frantic chinking of discarded rubble, before literally throwing up my hands.

“You can stay here and play if you want to. I’m hiking to the road and hitching a ride back to town.”

I don’t believe Craig ignored me so much as he was totally ignorant of me. I watched him scurrying about like an animal rummaging for sustenance in the moonlit woods. It was an almost atavistic scene. It frightened me, so I felt relief when I turned my back on it and began to walk.

My threat about heading back into town was an idle one. I hadn’t money enough to rent a motel room, and besides, I could never have left Craig out there alone. For all I knew that stranger could have lured us to the tower in order to mug or even murder us. It was unlikely because the place looked so abandoned, but still, it was not impossible. But I truly was well and tired of his foolish pursuits. I couldn’t help but feel hurt by the fanatical dedication he afforded them, because I wanted so badly to be the centre of his world. I loved him and I wished he would finally realize that these scraps of urban legend could never give him what I could.

So I resolved to teach him a lesson: a small one, but a lesson nonetheless.

I hiked about a half-mile downriver and then settled down onto the bank to wait. Craig would venture back this way, hopefully sooner rather than later, at which time we could reconcile.

Only he never came.

I cannot say how much time I spent squatting and shivering and watching the mist rising from the river like escaping wraiths. The moon didn’t seem to move and all I could think was that thismust have been what the poets were referring to when they spoke of Night Eternal.

Finally, my discomfort and fear impelled me to rise and return to the remnants of the tower, where I hoped I’d find Craig still rummaging about.

When I couldn’t detect the sound of flung rubble, my fear thickened. I rounded the slight bend in the river to the small clearing where I expected to see the ruin.

But the ruin was no more. In its stead was a great column of darkness. Its blackness was so complete that it not only blotted out the moonlight, but seemed to digest it. It also cut a slice out of Mount Selta.

There was a musty stench that filled my nostrils and mouth and lingered unpleasantly there. Months later, while working on a sketch of that very column, I was reminded of what the smell was: the scent of ink. But this ink was old and potent. Given the intensity of the fragrance, there must have been an ocean of it.

Staggering over one of Craig’s bits of tossed stone, I inadvertently gained a different perspective of the column.

It was spinning. The vast tower-like thing was churning, with what I could not say, for it was to my naked eye little more than an upright abyss of varying textures.

I didn’t recognize the emerging hand as Craig’s, not immediately. At first the shock of those bone-pale fingers pushing outward like well-fed worms from a bed of rich soil caused me to shriek. And when the fingers became a hand, an arm, I came to see that the man I loved was somehow entangled in that dizzying cage of lampblack.

I might have shouted something, I cannot recall. What I do remember is seeing that the rushing column was formed of…living things.

They were black and bat-winged. I thought I saw a head here and there, but can’t be certain because the creatures had no faces at all.

Yet somehow they retained the power of speech, for I began to detect a faint, hissing babble. It was a sound I’d been listening to for hours, but had dismissed as forest sounds: the wind-bullied trees, the seaward-creeping river. But it was a chorus, a litany of countless inhuman voices.

A head suddenly jutted from the fluttering shadows. It was long and gaunt. For a heartbeat, I wondered if it somehow belonged to the strange man with whom we had dined earlier.

While this featureless black egg examined me, I stared into the cavity in that massing of the shades.

I saw Craig.

He was floating like a marionette on hidden wires. Something shimmering and black, like a tiny oil slick, masked his eyes. I saw it leaking down toward his grinning mouth. Craig extended his tongue to taste it.

I turned and I ran, my hands pressed against my head, trying to block out the awful whispering. Though, truth be told, I couldn’t tell which sounds were born of nature and which were the inorganic hissings of those creatures of aged ink.

At last I reached the railing that distinguished the ravine from the highway. A transport truck picked me up and drove me all the way to Seattle.

Craig was never found. And I never returned to Sesqua Valley. My lover had no one in the world besides me, so his disappearance would have only been commented on by our mutual friends on the opposite side of the country.

I remain in the Pacific Northwest. On clear days, which are rare in this part of the country, I can see Mount Selta. But there is never any sign of that whirling column.

More than once I tried to move on, but I found I cannot venture too far from Craig. At night I dream of him calling to me in that awful hiss-whisper voice. Perhaps it isn’t Craig at all that keeps me here, but Simon Gregory Williams, or the living books that taught him. Perhaps I’m held here by Sesqua Valley itself.

Of late, I’ve taken up all the annoying habits I used to chide Craig for engaging in. I research all manner of curious happenings in Sesqua Valley. The legends of Simon Gregory Williams persevere. Some nights I’m tempted to grant Craig the same form of immortality, but I’m afraid that doing so will bring him and his companions winging to me, to carry me off and teach me a lesson I cannot bear to learn.

-Dedicated to W.H. Pugmire-

Richard Gavin bio photoRichard Gavin has been praised as a master of numinous horror fiction in the tradition of Machen, Blackwood, and Lovecraft. He has authored four collections, including The Darkly Splendid Realm and At Fear’s Altar, as well as numerous essays of the macabre and the esoteric. Richard lives in Ontario, Canada. Visit him online at www.richardgavin.net

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Story illustration by Nick Gucker.

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12 responses to “A Massing of the Shades, by Richard Gavin

  1. I love the notion of that spinning column of shadows being composed of the ink from the tower’s missing books.

  2. A little Poe, a little HPL. A little something else. Interesting. Something in here reminds me of Nietzsche:

    “While this featureless black egg examined me, I stared into
    the cavity in that massing of the shades.”

    “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he
    thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into
    an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
    Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146

    I think I want to re-read the statement of Randolph Carter again. I like that you’re making me think about an HPL Character in a different way. Cool.

  3. Such a beautiful idea – this spinning tower crafted from the ink of ancient books. Absolutely belongs to Sesqua Valley.

  4. Thank you very much for all your kind words. I was extremely pleased to take part in this tribute to Wilum and am really happy with how “A Massing of the Shades” turned out.

    I’ve just finished listening to the podcast version of this issue and the readings are absolutely stellar.

    All best,
    Richard

  5. I enjoyed this very-very much. One of the best pieces of the Lovecraft-tradition I have read. Splendid! Five stars!

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