This is a piece that is largely inspired by my love and fascination with horror stories, specifically featuring the supernatural. I was heavily influenced by my readings of Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, and found their dark, twisting narratives into unutterable and cosmic terror exactly the sort of stuff I was looking for. I have since moved away from that genre somewhat, though ghost stories are still a favourite, and I keep a copy of Alfred Hitchcock’s Stories for Late at Night on my nightstand.
So this is really the last type of story like this that I’ve written. It’s far too wordy and pompous for me to really consider it one of my best pieces at this late date, but I did get it published in the University of Colorado’s Honor’s Journal in 2010.
The Last Door
~ Pearson Sharp
It was not long ago that I called my home Number 111 of E. Priory Street, Exeter, Massachusetts. It was a squalid little hole, yet my income bade me suffer the extremities of wintry cold and summer heat, and the peculiar folk who answered for my neighbours. I was a writer then, and I suppose I might fancy myself as such now, though my publishers give me dreadful accounts of what few books I have written. Nevertheless, my humble beginnings recommended me take residence in the cheerless quarters of that gothic bastion, its steeped windows gazing balefully out across the Ardolyn River.
My lodgings were quaint, rustic even, with remnants of Victorian furniture staunchly rooted to the antiquated oaken floors. My one suitcase was quickly emptied into the voluminous chest of drawers across from my four poster bed, and I occupied the remainder of the afternoon in quiet rumination as I explored the maze of dilapidated streets and alleyways which surrounded my new lodgings. Crumbling brick edifices and ancient stone archways lead to leaning black corridors which probably hadn’t seen the sun for generations. The buildings, long neglected of repairs or rudimentary structural care, leaned forlornly together at their tops, and brought to my mind the strong semblance of Shambles Street in my far away home of York.
I saw little of my neighbours that day, or on any of the following days. It was by its nature a reclusive community, shunning by some inveterate instinct the surreptitious eye of the civilised world. This suited my taste very well, for I was in no eager frame of mind to be thrust into a garrulous band of well-wishers when my heart still ached for the green fields of my home I had left far behind. Furthermore, I found that solitude encouraged many of my finer pieces of work, and the thoughtfulness it provoked was lost to the boisterous calamity of most outsiders.
One night, several weeks after I had moved in and as I was becoming familiar with my new quarters, a sound brought me from my reverie as I sat dozing before my large stone hearth. The November air seemed master over the poorly insulated building, and I found that a blazing fire was necessary at all times to maintain any sort of feeling in my toes. As I lay procrastinating one of my many unfinished works, I faintly discerned a rapping noise, as of someone knocking upon a door. It continued for perhaps half a minute, then fell silent. This struck me as odd, for during the entire length of my stay thus far I had heard no indication that I indeed shared habitation with anyone else at all. In fact, many of the residents—from what vague reconnaissance I could gather—enjoyed their solitude as much as I and visitors were an unwelcome intrusion. Nevertheless, it was not my business, and aside from the oddity of the event, I returned to my peaceful slumbering.
This was repeated some nights later, and again I was stirred to curiosity about the nature of this intruder. I am certain the other guests felt similarly, though like myself, none were so inclined to investigate and risk the possibility of detestable interaction with some foreigner.
My writing progressed by degrees—fuelled by my new surroundings and the outré atmosphere that abounded in this forgotten hospice. I produced short stories and novelettes for various newspapers and magazines, and though I made no fortune, my rent was secure and I never really wanted for a meal.
I remember that December was a particularly lonely month, and I saw few of the other residents. Creaking stairs and floorboards in the hallway during the dark hours of the night were the only indications that there was other life in this gothic sanctuary. One night, some days before the Yule fires and Christmas festivities, I lay in repose upon my bed, staring up at the mouldering curtains that festooned the four posters. The clock upon the mantle marked the hour as a quarter to midnight, and the candle by my dresser was beginning to gutter when the rapping noise down the hallway sounded loudly. It sent a shock through me, bracketing the previous silence with a harsh report. I sat up and moved to the edge of my bed, listening. The knocking continued, for many long moments before all grew quiet. I heard no door open, however, and no retreating footsteps down the narrow wooden stairwell.
I continued to listen intently, moving to my door to hear more acutely whatever might take place without my room. In a moment, the knocking was repeated, and with more fervour than before. I was started back from my listening post, and upon a sudden and bold instinct, quietly unbolted my door and peered into the gloom down the hallway in the direction of the intruder.
The hallway was perhaps thirty paces in length, with four rooms in total: two upon the wall, and one at either end, with the stairwell comprising the majority of the opposite wall. I was the second door from the room where I had heard the knocking, my room opening to the stairwell, and the corner room perpendicular to mine.
I stared intensely through the darkness towards the far end of the hall, though I could make nothing out. A slight crease of light poured out of my own doorway and made me uncomfortably aware of my conspicuousness in that utter blackness of the corridor. The knocking had stopped when I had opened my door, and so with a pounding heart I closed it once more, bolting it firmly. My mind was racing, and though I did not hear the knocking repeated that night, I must admit that I slept very little.
The morning greeted me with a glimmering light about my casement, the snow gathering in silent increments in the streets below and upon the frozen river beyond. Although my rations of food were dwindling and my weekly trip to the market overdue, I could not coerce myself into a venture through the piercing cold of that New England storm. I spent the day retiring by the fire, reading a few dusty volumes the previous occupant had carelessly left behind in an old bookshelf. The day passed pleasantly enough, and had nearly finished one book by the time the worn clock upon the mantle struck nine.
A slight wind had picked up, and its chorused voice sang mournfully about the battered stones pediments of the building. Knowing I would not leave that day, I had not bothered to change from my night clothes, wearing only a thick blanket on top of me as I reclined reading. I shivered from the draughts of chill air creeping from beneath the window sill, and scarce had I pulled the covers snugly about me when I was started by a tremendous noise. The knocking sounded louder than ever before, and made me uncomfortably aware of my neck hair standing on end.
I sat motionless for some time, listening to the rapping sound as it resounded through the hall and my room. I thought that surely someone must answer this rude summons, whether it be the desired tenant or a fellow occupant upon this floor whose ire was finally raised. Yet no response was made, and the knocking continued, growing ever fiercer until I was certain I could hear the cracking of the wood.
With a stoicism that I find difficult to account for at this distant time of recollection, I mustered courage from some terrible, unknown reserve and lifted my candle from its perch by my nightstand. With exceeding care, I undid the latch upon my door and stepped into the gloom. The knocking suddenly ceased, and shielding my eyes I held the candle forward, expecting to see some unseemly ruffian glaring back at me through the shadows. However, the hallway was vacant. There was no sound or sign of movement as I searched meekly through the stygian shadows that surrounded me. A hollow feeling of terror slowly rose within me as my confusion and uncertainty regained my conscience from their brief lapse into bravado.
I stood pondering in fear and vacillating between proceeding towards the door and retreating to the haven of my own room. Although I loathed the idea of returning cravenly to my room, I fairly jumped in fright as the knocking abruptly resumed from that last door in the hall! I stared in disbelief as a clear, distinct pounding emanated from the heavy, wooden frame; indeed, the door was visibly disturbed by minute degrees. My curiosity overcoming the dread I felt inside, I crept slowly forward, bending slightly as though prepared to spring away at the slightest sign of danger.
As I drew nearer, I understood suddenly why this phantom intruder had eluded my gaze: the knocking was coming from inside the room. This struck in me an equal sense of foreboding, for what ill cause should drive a man to beat upon his own door? I stood listening for a moment, and then called out, inquiring who was there.
At this the knocking ceased entirely, and a dread stillness enveloped the little hallway. My pulse thudded dully in my ears as I listened for some reply. A shrill gust of wind tore around the stairwell and slowly died. In those moments the darkness seemed to grow more intense, the iciness of winter numbing me as it ebbed from all its unseen fissures.
I was about to call again when of a sudden the knocking resumed, but with a violent, animal ferocity. It was as if whatever had been knocking had thrown itself against the door and was now clamouring with all its might at the oaken panels, and I turned and fled in terror back to my room, frantically fumbling with the latch and dropping the candle in the process.
I stumbled back across my room and fell into the far corner, managing somehow to grab a poker from the fireplace as I passed it. The knocking had stopped sometime during my panicked flight, and the only sound which remained was the warbling song of the wind. I listened long as its desultory notes slowly carried away the long hours of the night.
The morning held no solace for me, and despite the increasing scarcity of my food, I declined to leave my apartment to enter the hallway, such was the impression the previous night had made upon my psyche. I admit to being no stalwart champion of heroism; I was not tall, nor was I particularly strong of build. I was by no means a weak man, nor was I in most cases timid; but I placed far greater stock in my skills of philosophy than I did my prowess as a warrior. And so I let the day pass as quietly as I could manage, throwing nervous glances towards my bolted door at each sound that pierced the frigid silence of my room.
The evening shadows began to creep and crawl across the river towards the opposite bank. They climbed with sickly intent along the ancient facades of the steeped Georgian houses, and as I watched their lingering black fingers, a dread began to work its way insidiously into my heart. Each vagrant noise which chimed through the boreal air was as the icy claws of some savage creature upon my mind. I stoked the fire fervently in the hopes that its licking flames would drown any undue clamouring from out the hall.
And indeed, the evening was spent in a peaceful enough manner, the fire roaring voraciously at the sustenance I threw at it. In time I found myself lulled into a sort of languid slumber, starting at the snarling wind from time to time but never fully rising to consciousness. The night ebbed away in this fashion, and the following day I found I had courage enough to escape my confines and procure food from the local market; though, as I left my apartment, I dared not look down the gloomy hallway towards that last door.
Days and weeks passed without a recurrence of that awful night, and as we are occasioned to, I began to forget the specificities of my encounter at that demon threshold. My mind excused the event as an overzealous fear of the dark, of perhaps a disagreement between my supper and my stomach that night, and soon I had nearly forgotten the event; yet whenever I chanced to leave or return, I was still unaccountably unsettled by the door at the end of the hall.
It was mid February before I took any notice of the door again, and this time for different reasons entirely. My attention was drawn to it one evening as I was returning from a stroll by the river, and as I unlocked my door and removed my scarf, a faint smell drew my gaze down the hallway. It was quite mild, and smelled slightly of mildew. I thought little enough of it, and entered my room without much pause. Over the course of the next few days the smell grew markedly more distinct, amplifying in volumes what I had only faintly discerned before.
As a week went by, and then two, the smell became overpowering, funnelling down the stairwell so that I was greeted with it immediately upon my entrance to the building. It became pervasive, so that even in my room with a fire blazing, I was unable to escape that invidious odour.
A butcher had worked near my home in York, in the Shambles as it happened, and I recall the smell of reeking flesh clearly as I passed by his shop each day. The smell was indeed unavoidable, and my olfactory memory was awakened keenly by this invasive scent from behind that closed door at the end of the hall. I made a few trips to the landlord to obtain a resolution to this dilemma, but he was an old man, and seemed either not to hear my remonstrations, or more probably did not care.
As February became March and even March drew on with no supplication of my distress, the repulsive odour turned villainous—its necrophagous tendrils suggesting things my overwrought imagination was all too keen to indulge. The knocking had been terrifying, that was certain, but memory had whittled its edge to a stubble, and was nothing compared to this monstrosity. I could no longer think upon any other subject; to attempt to write was a hopeless affair, and sleeping became a laborious and nightmarish exercise.
As I lay turning and tossing one night in mid March, deprived as I was by what had now become weeks of restless hours and no sleep, I resolved myself to end this debacle. My limbs were imbued with that nervous energy that often precipitates unusual undertakings in the small hours of the night, such as mad writing or long, ambling walks in rapt concentration.
Lifting my candle from my nightstand as before, I noted the time of twelve thirty upon the antediluvian clock above the mantle. Stepping into the shadows of the hallway once more, I strode more confidently in the direction of the wretched door. However my firm pace was checked by incredible waves of an odour that can only be describe as otherworldly. I had reached the penultimate door to that foul chasm, and already felt as though further steps would plunge me into unconsciousness, such was the stench.
I stood drawing pained breaths through my nightshirt for some time, contemplating the soundness of my previous resolve. The oaken door was no more than ten feet in front of me, but each step increased exponentially the putrescent odour which poured fourth from that abominable vault. Phantasmagoric images whirled in my mind, encouraged by some lurid spectres that flitted about the corners of my tormented imagination—vile personifications of the acrid smell I now faced.
Almost without thought I stepped slowly forward, fumbling through the vacuous folds of charnel air before me. The chiaroscuro of candlelight and shadows played upon my mind, and blasphemous horrors drew their foetid fingers across my eyes. All prior intent of remedying this appalling situation had fled from me. I was now propelled by a pure sense of hideous curiosity, terrified and amazed at once by what might be responsible for this mephitic effluence.
Upon reaching the door I was nearly overcome; the stench was now a physical manifestation of evil, throwing itself impiously against my sanity. As I reached out to knock, a loathsomeness crept up my spine and through me and I nearly recoiled. Upon the knock of my frigid knuckles against that ancient wood, my mind reeled in a stupor of nausea and oppressive terror. In that knocking, so reminiscent of the despised knocking I had known months before, a wave of fear consumed my senses. All notion of rational thought or reality was banished in those moments that I stood stricken before that gaping black door.
As I stood paralysed before the door—the handle—the final gear in the lever between this world and the next, began slowly to turn! Rattling once as I had pounded upon the door, the handle thence began to draw downwards, its slow descent in those ghastly moments like the falling of a guillotine towards my naked neck. The putrid, abhorrent smell coalesced in my fraying mind with the terror of the stygian maw before me. The crevice in the frame widened, and I stared for a moment into a yawning gulf of darkness. My defences collapsed into ruin. Panicked beyond all reconciliation, I fled down the nighted stairwell and into the fathomless night, forsaking all of my possessions in my careless escape.
I spent the night in a public house under the sympathetic care of the landlord’s wife, who tended to me in my delirious fever. When I had regained my reason enough the next morning, I sent for my things to be delivered there, and upon the next steamer bound forEngland I booked passage. I have returned thence to my prior residence inYork, near the lowly Shambles and humble alleyways of my youth.
To rebuke me for my absolute fright of that unwholesome evening is unfair, for the circumstances cannot possibly be understood by anyone who was not there. As a writer, I may command a power of words to place my readers under a certain awareness of events and places, but it is beyond my power by many leagues to aptly describe to anyone what transpired in that dark little hallway that night.
And indeed, I have no knowledge of what became of that wretched place. I knew none of my fellow tenants, nor even the landlord by any significant measure, and so its story has passed into the Grimoire decadence of my most grotesque remembrances, and I pray it shall stay there forever. Yet the effects of that night have never wholly subsided into memory. My friends know that any errand they have which passes by the butchers shops in the Shambles must be undertaken without my company. The rotting stench which pervades those tiny byways and shop windows is far too reminiscent of a place I have long tried to forget. And I perhaps need not mention that when acquaintances come to call, they have learned to ring the bell rather than knock.