The HOST: a Thomas Carnacki Story — 9 December 2019

by Barry Graham

The email was from Carnacki, and was sent to me and the three others normally invited to his gatherings. It was an invitation to a Halloween party, but, Carnacki emphasised, it would not be the usual sort of Halloween party – no dressing up, no party games. Instead, Carnacki would cook dinner for us, and then he would tell us a story.

I wrote back and said I would be there.

When I arrived at Carnacki’s flat at 184 Woodlands Road in Glasgow’s West End, Hodgson, Reekie and Welsh were already there. They sat around the dining table in Carnacki’s kitchen, while that gentleman himself stood at the stove-top, stirring a wonderful-smelling pot of soup. In one hand he held the wooden spoon, and in the other a large glass of Laphroaig, of which our friends at the table also had glasses.

“Good to see you, Graham,” he said as I entered and took my place at the table. “Help yourself to a snort of Laphroaig. Dinner will be ready in just a few minutes.”

Indeed it was, and, as always, it was delicious. It was not a complicated dish; the soup was of fresh seasonal vegetables and a few herbs, and the bread was fresh from the oven. The simple flavours were so pleasant, however, that I temporarily forgot Carnacki’s dislike of talking about his sojourns before it was time to tell his story, and I remarked, “You haven’t had a gathering like this in a while.”

“No,” was all he said, and he turned his attention to the bread he was breaking into pieces and adding to his bowl of soup. Quickly changing the subject, I remarked that I had been reading an article in The Economist about how people in Glasgow had a shorter lifespan than elsewhere, which the journalist was unable to explain other than by saying that “It is as if a malign vapour rises from the Clyde at night and settles in the lungs of sleeping Glaswegians.”

“I’d say that’s about right,” said Carnacki, with a smile of appreciation for my implied apology for my faux pas. “But, as you shall hear shortly, such malign vapours are by no means confined to Glasgow.” We all knew better than to ask him to say more at that time, but I think our friends were all as intrigued as I.

When our repast had been taken, we took our glasses in hand and retired to the living room, where a couch and comfortable chairs surrounded a table that served as a throne for two additional bottles of our friend’s favourite libation. He poured everyone a generous measure, not excluding himself, then lit candles, turned off the electric light, and settled into his favourite chair. For perhaps a minute, we sipped our drinks in convivial silence, and then Carnacki began to speak.

“As Graham correctly observed, it has been a while since I invited you fellows for dinner, though of course I’ve seen all of you individually hither and yon. Although I’ve been on a few jaunts since our last such gathering, none provided me with a story to tell you... Not, that is, until my most recent trip, which was not very far from this city.

“As you know, such excursions have been the vocation of the men in my family starting with my great-great-grandfather, whose experiences have been terrifying people for more than a hundred years now. I do not think I am being immodest in saying that a few of my own discoveries—which, like his, have been given the vulgar label ‘ghost-finding’—have been comparable in their extraordinariness. However, for some time now I have been encountering so many dull hoaxes that I was even beginning to doubt the veracity of the stories I’ve told you—stories you know to be true in every word, but that were seeming less and less believable even to me.

“I resorted, to my shame, to phoning the Scottish Tourist Board, and asking for a list of purportedly-haunted houses and castles. They sent me a brochure. I called again and explained that I wanted to know about the places that no one would in good conscience include in a brochure. They passed me around a few people, and then at last someone told me they had heard bad things about Drimdarroch Castle.

“It sounds like some desolate place in the Highlands, but when I went online and did a search, I discovered that it is, in fact, in Dumfriesshire, not a long train-ride from Glasgow Central Station. At first, I thought I had made a mistake in my search, because there was little about the castle online, and nothing about its being haunted. But, since everything in the world is supposedly online, its lack of an Internet presence piqued my interest, and I decided to find out who the present owner was.

“This turned out to be a man called Monroe, who lives in the city of Dumfries itself. When I contacted him by phone and asked him about his property, he made no bones about it. ‘I wouldn’t set foot in that place at night,’ he told me. I asked him why not, and he became wary, wanting to know the reason for my interest. I told him that I would like to spend a night there, alone. There was a long silence—I thought perhaps he had hung up the phone—and then he surprised me by flatly saying, ‘All right. It’s up to you.’ “At that moment, I somehow knew that this haunting was not just another hoax, of the kind I had exhausted myself with this past while. In those cases, the owners of the properties had done their utmost to convince me to stay there, so they could play their tricks and convince me. Monroe’s casual insistence that he would never go there after dark, and his indifference as to whether I did, made me realise that this was something different. You can understand?

“On a Saturday morning, I took a train from Glasgow to Dumfries. I was carrying a large bag that contained the electric pentacle and other essentials you know I take with me on such jaunts. Monroe met me in a pub there at lunchtime, and told me what little he knew of his property.

“The castle was mostly a ruin. The reason he bought it is that it came with a nearby mansion-house, which he’s restoring with the intention of turning it into a hotel. There are really only two sections of the castle that are completely intact: the banqueting hall, and a small chamber adjacent to the hall. There is, of course, no electric light, though Monroe plans to install it some day. “He gave me a key to the castle, too big to fit in a pocket, and some notes he had made about the place. Of his reasons for refusing to go there after dark he would say nothing.

“I thanked him, paid for his beer, took my leave and caught a bus to the village of Drimdarroch, about half an hour from Dumfries. I asked the driver for directions to the castle, but he told me he wasn’t sure, and that I should ask people at the village pub, The Cross Keys.

“I went to the pub, and a most pleasant place it was. I was reluctant at first to ask directions to the castle, because I didn’t want to give the local lads the idea of playing a prank on me. If you knew how many yokels I’ve had show up by my bedside draped in white sheets and making howling noises, you would understand.

“The pub has wireless, and I had brought my laptop with me, so I got online and tried to find directions from the pub to the castle... but I found nothing. You can understand how intriguing this was. Intriguing, and something else, something that made my neck tingle.

“I struck up a conversation with some fellows playing pool, and asked them how to get to the castle. They knew, and they told me, and they thought it a funny thing that I wanted to go there. I had half-expected that they might react like peasants hearing the name of Castle Dracula, crossing themselves and urging me not to go there, but not a bit of it. They just gave me directions, and invited me to join them back at the pub, an invitation I gladly accepted.

“It only took about twenty minutes to walk from the pub to the castle, carrying my rather heavy bag. Just outside the village, you reach an unmarked driveway, walk up it for a while, and find the mansion house on your left and the castle on your right. The castle looks just like any one of the numberless other such ruins to be found throughout Scotland.

“I found the door, which was at the bottom of a turret, let myself in and climbed a crumbling winding staircase to the banqueting hall. There was a big fireplace, almost big enough for a man of my six feet to stand upright in, and in two glass cases there were mummified cats, which Monroe had exhumed from the walls, where they had been bricked up alive. Back when the castle was built, it was believed that if you bricked up live cats during the construction of a castle, their spirits would stay there and protect it. As you know, I’m rather fond of cats, and none of the ones I know would thank you for suffocating them to death, but no doubt these were different times.

“There was a long table and a chair, which looked as though they could have been there for centuries, but in fact had been put there by Monroe. So also had the candles in the holders that aligned all four walls, and that sat in a large candelabra on the table. “At one end of the room was an archway, without a door, that led to the side-chamber. There was no other entry to it, so I decided that was where I would sleep. I set up my sleeping bag, flashlight, and water-bottle, and around them I constructed the electric pentacle.

“As you know, my grandfathers believed that you had to construct the pentacle around yourself for it to protect you, but I have found that they were mistaken. As long as you don’t turn on the electricity until you are within the barrier, you are safe. If I were wrong about this, I would have paid the price for my error years ago. The important thing is to have a battery that will last through the night, which is why I use a new battery every time.

“When I had finished setting up the pentacle, it was about five in the afternoon, still daylight. The side-chamber had no windows, but the banqueting hall had high, narrow, rectangular, glassless windows though which slivers of sunlight entered. It was light enough for me to sit at the table and read Monroe’s notes.

“The castle was supposedly haunted by a young woman who burned herself to death in the fireplace four hundred years ago. Less than fifty years ago, a woman from the village, exploring the castle, stayed after dark and jumped to her death from the top of a turret. This was all the information the notes contained.

“When I had finished reading, I stood up, got my camera, and took some photographs of the banqueting hall. Then I set up my camera on a tripod at the entrance to the side-chamber, facing into the hall. I adjusted its settings as I needed them—of which more later—and then I left, locked the door, and walked back to the village and the pub. It was a pleasant walk, and when I got to the pub the men I had met earlier were still there, and had been joined by quite a few more.

“I played pool with them, and then talked politics, with particular regard to Scottish independence. By early evening, some went home for dinner, and just as many did not. We ate some fine pub grub, and continued to drink and talk. I went easy on the beverages, which was just as well, as I received a few tempting invitations to abandon my silly idea of sleeping rough at the castle and instead stay the night with one of my new friends. One of them was a young lady with whom I’m still in touch, and had I had a few more pints I might have accepted her offer.

“As it was, I took my leave at about ten in the evening. Still thinking that someone might find it amusing to play a prank on me, I remarked, casually and falsely, that one reason I wasn’t afraid was that I had a gun with me, and planned to shoot anyone or anything that disturbed my sleep.

“I will make no claim to complete sobriety as i walked back to the castle, but, as Burns had it, ‘I wasnae fou, I’d just had plenty.’

“I will tell you, entering a place like Drimdarroch Castle in the dark of night is very different than doing so in the afternoon. I followed the beam of my flashlight up the driveway, which was easy enough, but when I reached the wooden door of the turret, I was missing the camaraderie of the pub—and when I entered, and made my way up the winding staircase, I was in something of a brown study. You can understand?

“It was chillier within the castle walls than outside. I went into the side-chamber, and turned on my camera, which, as I have said, stood in the doorway. It was attuned to the state of the light, or darkness, so that if there was any change in the light—such as that caused by a person entering the banqueting hall—it would automatically begin to take pictures. “I removed my shoes, and, otherwise fully-clothed, got into my sleeping bag. I turned on the electric pentacle, and, comforted by its blue light and by the beer I had drunk throughout the evening, I soon fell asleep.

“I am not sure how long I had been asleep when I was awakened by the sound of the camera taking pictures. I sat up, and when I realised what had awakened me, I felt no fear. Knowing that the camera was activated by changes in the light, I felt sure that the cause was either a bat or a bird entering the hall through one of the windows, or perhaps the arrival of one of the villagers to have some fun with me. I even thought it might the the young lady I had met in the pub, and I did not strongly object to that idea. “So unconcerned was I that I did not get out of my sleeping bag. When the camera went on taking pictures, and I realised I must investigate or turn it off, I stood up in my sleeping bag, holding it around me for warmth, and hopped like a kangaroo until I reached the camera. I stood behind it and peered into the darkness of the banqueting hall, but I could not for the life of me see anything that might have triggered it.

“Then the candles that aligned the walls were lit, all at once, like electric lights being turned on. So were the candles in the candelabra on the long table.

“Now, as I tell you this story, this room we are sitting in is lit only by candlelight, by which I can see you and you can see me. But the candles in that hall gave off no light. I could see the flames, but they gave off no light beyond their own shape.” Carnacki held up a finger. “Like this. You see my finger, but of course it gives off no light. The flames were like that.

“Then there was a face. Only a face, though if a man sat at the chair at the end of the table, it was where his face would have been. But it was not the face of a man, though I suppose it was closer to that of a man than of anything else I have ever seen. It was lit, like the candles, but, like the candles, its light did not shine.

“It smiled at me.

“It smiled at me, then raised a hand, a hand made of solid, unshining light, and beckoned to me in invitation.

“I closed my eyes, though tears squeezed and poured from under my eyelids, and I shook my head.

“Then the sound of the camera stopped. It was no longer taking photographs. I opened my eyes. The candles had all gone out. I realised that I had let the sleeping bag fall away from my body. I turned around to go back to the electric pentacle, and it did not even occur to me that by leaving it I had broken the protective barrier...

“Until I saw that thing, that face, inside the pentacle. It smiled, showing teeth that were not quite teeth, and again raised a beckoning hand in invitation. And when I did not move, it beckoned again, and then it came towards me, and as it crossed the barrier the pentacle went dark but its face did not.

“There is something that I have been preparing for twenty years to do, never believing that I would ever have to do it, but practising, practising saying it, though never out loud. And now I said it aloud, said the Unknown Last Line of the Saamaa Ritual, which, according to the Sigsand MS., is only to be spoken in the time of gravest peril, with no certainty that it will save your life, only your soul.

“As you know, I am not a man who is easy to frighten. But, for no reason I can tell you, I knew without a doubt that this was the time I must say these most dangerous of words, and I did, I said them, and then I started to say them again, but I do not know if I did...

“The next I knew, I was on the winding staircase, falling or flying, bouncing off the circular walls, reaching the bottom, exploding out the door, running, shoeless, running, and not stopping until I reached the village, where I walked the streets, loving every streetlight, until dawn.

“When the sun was fully risen, I walked back up that path, back to the castle, my feet like raw steaks, and I entered, and went to the banqueting hall.

“I checked every candle. They were ordinary candles, made of wax.

“I disassembled the electric pentacle, and packed it, along with my camera, and I walked back to the road, and waited for the bus, which took me to Dumfries. From there, I called Monroe, got his voice mail, and told him his key was in the door of the castle. I have not heard from him since.

“As I sat on the train back to Glasgow, full of laughing, chattering people who have never been to the worlds I have, people who did not know that my shoes were full of blood, I was tempted to look at the images on my camera, but I resisted that temptation. When I got home I went to bed and slept through the day, because I knew I would not be able to sleep that night for fear that I might wake and find that thing sitting by my bed, smiling and beckoning to me.

“I awoke in the early evening, ate dinner and partook of some Laphroaig, and then uploaded the contents of my camera to my laptop. In a good ghost story, the photographs would show nothing, but in actuality they showed exactly what I had seen. Interestingly, there are no pictures of the thing entering the hall, approaching the chair, sitting down, and then getting up and leaving, which there should be as the camera responds to changes in the light. You can understand?”

Carnacki said no more for a minutes, and neither did the rest of us. He refreshed our glasses, then said, “Would you like to see the pictures?”

No one answered. Carnacki opened his laptop, and said, “Here they are. Look if you want to. If you don’t want to, I’ll understand.”

After varying degrees of hesitation, we all got up and gathered around him and looked at the screen.

He clicked through picture after picture. It was as he had said. There was a face, hands, candle flames, but nothing else, and the flames radiated no light.

As we started back to our chairs, Carnacki said, “Wait. Do you remember I told you I took photographs of the banqueting hall in the afternoon? Well, I have those too. Look.”

The photographs showed the hall, the table, the chair, and the folder of notes Carnacki had been reading at the table. Behind the chair was the fireplace, and in the fireplace stood a woman in a gown, hands covering her face. There were no flames in the picture, but we all remembered that a young woman had burned to death in that fireplace.

“You didn’t see her at the time?” asked Welsh.

“No,” Carnacki said.

We all returned to our chairs.

“Any questions?” Carnacki asked.

No one answered.

“I think the legend of the haunting is wrong,” Carnacki said. “Monroe seemed to think it was haunted by the girl in the fireplace. I don’t think so. I think she burned herself to death under the influence of what I saw. I think the same is true of the woman who jumped to her death. And, had I not uttered the forbidden words I did, I think I would have joined them. I think whatever I saw was there before the castle was built, and will be there after the castle is gone. It is the place. It hosts everyone and everything that has the misfortune to be there. I know this with the certainty of my own death, and with as much mystery.”

None of us had anything to say. We finished our drinks, then Carnacki stood up. “Out you go!” he said, as he always did at such times, and we put on our coats and walked together down the stairs, into the icy dark, and along Woodlands Road, eventually separating and going to our homes.

#BarryGrahm #ShortStory #Carnacki #Glasgow #Fiction #DockyardPress

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