I believe that demons take advantage of the night to mislead the unwary -- although, you know, I don’t believe in them.
-- Edgar A. Poe
They're out again. Out of what I can only venture to guess. Listen! You can hear them scratching about in the cellar. No? They've stopped then. They must have stopped. They must have sensed that you were listening. They're always quiet if someone else is listening. They don't like for anyone to hear them, you see -- anyone except me, that is.
But let's not think of them ... for now. We've plenty of time before they reach the top of the stairs. They're still just waking up, or rising from the dead, or whatever it is they do. Oh, I know that all of this is new to you, but it's part of the daily routine for me. Perhaps I should say the nightly routine, as they never so much as stir during the day. And, since their appearance, I never stir from my room after dark.
I suppose it isn't much different from the way things were for our ancestors -- our ancient ancestors -- back in days when men lived in tribes and spent their nights huddled around a fire in the woods or on the plains. Imagine, if you will, a small ring of flickering light from a campfire enclosed by a boundless world of darkness. Your eyes cannot see into that darkness for more than a couple of feet. And beyond your sight, lurk all sorts of nocturnal predators ... wolves, bears, men from hostile tribes ... all of them ready to tear you to shreds the moment you step beyond the safety of the light.
No wonder the ancients worshipped it. Light, I mean. In daylight the world -- the natural world -- is a beautiful garden for man to enjoy. But after sundown, it becomes a hostile and frightening place where unseen forces lurk behind each shadow. The sun is our salvation from the night. Each dawn it restores our home, the earth, to us from out the nighttime's smothering blanket of chaos.
Sometimes I think about how it must have been for them, shivering in fear at all the half-seen creatures that pass by the fire. Have you ever imagined what the silhouette of a buck or a moose must look like against a starry sky? How many legends of minotaurs and satyrs had their genesis in this shadowy manner? I often ...
But listen to me, thoughtlessly waxing on a philosophic tangent, when I should be welcoming you to my humble abode. And I do have to say that I'm so very glad you're here. Oh, I'm grateful for your company of course; and not just because your presence may keep them in the basement ... yes, but, what I'm most grateful for is the chance to prove -- not just to you, but to myself -- that these things in fact exist. For now that you are here I must confess that often in the solitude of night, as I draw the bedsheets fast about my head, I swear I wonder if I still am sane.
You won't tell, will you? Even if my worst fears should prove true -- you must keep this strictly between us. Promise? Good, I knew I could depend on you. Your confidence, of course, has never been in ... There! there! do you hear them? The creaking, the banging, in the cellar ... as though they were prying up the floorboards or breaking through the paneling on the walls.
You don't? No, no ... they've stopped again. Miserable creatures! They're trying to torment me ... it's all a game to them. I tell you, if am not mad it's only by some miracle of grace. What's that you say? No, they never leave any signs ... no scratchings, no upturned floorboards, not even so much as one opened door. It's almost as though they have no substantiality. But that doesn't make any sense, does it? They must possess some degree of material being, else how could they produce those maddening sounds?
A sound can't just come from out of nowhere, can it? Something has to make it. Some thing ... some ...
A poltergeist? Yes, I've heard of them, of course. But they supposedly leave some evidence of their physical presence behind -- or, at least, their ability to affect material objects. You know -- the broken cups and dishes, pots and pans seen flying across the room, and all that. For three months now this has been going on -- every single night for three straight months! I can't remember the last time I slept for more than fifteen minutes at a stretch. Three months I tell you -- nearly one hundred nights -- and still no physical sign that they were ever here.
It's almost as though they ... you see, this is why I sometimes think I'm mad ... for it's almost as though they exist only inside my head. But tonight, I'll know for sure, will I not? For if you hear them too, then they must be real. And if you fail to hear them ... no, but you shall hear them. I know you will ... I know it ...
Indian burial ground? No, that's just it! It's the craziest thing, insofar as that there doesn’t appear to be any rational explanation for them ... for these things. No burial grounds, Indian or otherwise; no corpses in the basement or skeletons in the closet; no innocently paging through a copy of any Black Book or Necronomicon. I've even searched the town and county records, and so far as I can determine, no one has ever even died in this house. It's the damnedest thing -- I've lived here almost twenty years without even the slightest hint that anything strange ... There! Listen! You couldn't have missed that!
Thank heaven! No, no. It's not the house settling. Listen closely ... I know that it's an old house -- over a hundred years old if it's a day -- and that old houses often do that sort of thing ... but this is different. Surely you cannot doubt that I've heard creaking boards before? I'm forty-two years old, for chrissakes! Of course I've heard boards creaking -- many times, as a matter of fact. But I'm old enough -- and I daresay, wise enough -- to know a footstep from a creak.
And that's the thing you heard just now. Footsteps. It's their footsteps on the cellar stairs. They're toying with me again, that's all. They want you to think it's just the settling of the house. They want you to think that I'm insane. They want for me to doubt my sanity as well. But I will not give in to their little tricks. I will not! Even if they never let you hear them. Even if you leave here in the morning convinced that I am stark, staring ... Dear Lord, do not torment me so!
What's that? Blasphemy? Not I! No, no, my friend, I -- as should be quite natural for anyone trapped in my predicament -- I should never deign to tempt the Lord, my God. But surely you'll agree with me that all which transpires in this our life does so in accordance with His divine plan? Therefore, if ghosts or demons or God-knows-what are lurking in my cellar, they must be doing so at the Will -- perhaps even the bidding -- of the Maker. Yes, even the very demons -- and the Demon Lord himself, for that matter -- can only perform their evils with His blessing.
Why even the Bible tells us that He sanctioned the horrible events that befell his faithful subject, Job. Destroyed his home and family merely to put his faith to the test ...
No, stay my friend. I meant you no offense and promise not to speak of it again. I have no right to question the religion of my guest. Perhaps I am mistaken. Assuredly I am. It's hard to distinguish what is true anymore. Lack of sleep can do that to a man. And I am getting so precious little sleep ... and that, only by drinking myself into a near stupor.
Which reminds me -- and please accept my apologies for not offering sooner -- would you care to join me in a glass? It's anisette -- my favorite potent brew -- brimstone and treacle in a bottle, I always say. The sweetest way to purge the mind of ... thought. No? Oh well, I hope you'll pardon me while I indulge ... at this point I can truly state that it is for medicinal purposes. Delirium tremens? I hardly think so -- I've barely ever touched the stuff ... until they showed up, that is. Still, I suppose that would be preferable to the other explanation.
Ah! I feel better already. Nothing steadies the nerves so well as a glass of spirits.
No, I wouldn't call them spirits, either. Certainly not departed spirits. I doubt that they were ever remotely human. They are things. I realize it's the vaguest of words, but I can think of no other term that so adequately describes them. They are unknown -- not just to me, but to all mankind. They are something for which we have not yet found a name. They are ... things that thrive in the darkness of night ... night things. That's what they are ... night things.
They cannot be described. They cannot even be seen. At least I've never seen them. But, of course, I haven't exactly gone looking for them either. In fact, the moment I hear them scratching in the cellar, I come up here to my room and bolt the door.
Still, I don't mean to say that they're invisible or even to imply that they can't be seen. I'm sure that they can be seen -- if they wish for you to see them, that is. But even if one were to see them, what is it that he would see? And that's just it -- I have no more idea of what they'd look like than you do ... than anyone does.
It's funny, I feel as though we've known each other for years. I can't believe it's only been a couple of hours, can you? It's odd how fate sometimes transpires to link two disparate lives. Yes, yes, you're right, of course. We're all His vessels after all. Two ships that pass in the ... but that's not true ! We haven't passed, have we? We're more like two ships that have dropped anchor in the same harbor. But that's not right either. A harbor usually connotes safety, tranquility and rest -- and we shall find none of these here I assure you.
Sometimes I almost think that there's a plan behind it all, you know? Our lives, that is. It's almost as though everything that happens to us -- even random occurrences like our meeting one another in this manner -- happens for a reason, and according to a plan. Fatalism? Yes, I suppose I am something of a fatalist in that regard. Can't you just feel that something is going to happen tonight? Something big? Something ... earth-shattering?
And indeed it shall. It almost has to. For you are here to bear witness to either their existence or my lack of sanity. Are you sure that you won't join me in a drink? You really should trust to my experience in this, you know. Things will get pretty hairy around here in just a little while, and your nerves will need all the fortification they can get. Well, don't say I didn't warn you.
Of course we don't really know each other at all, do we? And yet, here we are each of us placing ourselves to a large extent solely in the trust -- or at the mercy -- of a complete stranger. Just think of the possibilities! No one knows you're here ... no one even suspects. Your car simply broke down a mile or two up the road, leaving you stranded. And you're a stranger here to boot! It would be so easy -- that is, if either of us were a killer -- to murder the other man in his sleep.
But let's not speak about such things. It is through our shared beliefs that we can place our trust in one another -- just as we both place our trust in ... There! You hear? The cellar door is creaking open. I know it is the cellar door because the hinges need so desperately to be oiled.
Ah, but you must hear it! It is not just the groanings of the floorboards -- it is the cellar door I tell you. My God, after twenty years you would think I could recognize my own cellar door when I hear it, wouldn't you? I'm sorry, I don't mean to lose my temper. It's just so frustrating that you have yet to hear them -- so godawful frustrating! Each time you fail to hear lends credence to my fears that I'm insane. You cannot begin to know what a terrible thing it is to doubt one's own sanity.
Can you imagine what it's like to go through each day wondering if the things you see are real? Why, for all I know, you might be nothing more than a figment of my imagination. Perhaps neither of us are real. Perhaps I'm lying in a padded cell in an insane asylum right now, dreaming this entire thing.
Oh, but you are real, aren't you? Please tell me that you're real -- that you're here -- that I'm not imagining you. Yes, yes, thank you. Thank heaven! I feel better now, I really do, and I know that tonight my sanity will be validated.
Here, let me pour you a glass. You're starting to pick up my edginess -- I can see it in your eyes -- and this stuff can do wonders for settling the nerves. You're sure? Oh well, you'll excuse me then, of course. Ah, my friend, you're missing out on a truly magical brew -- the sweet taste of licorice on the tongue, the warmth of liquid fire gently caressing the throat, and all the while the roof of the mouth remains so enjoyably numb.
Alcohol instantly distills our alien, individual identities down to their universal core of humanity. Hardly the devil's brew, I'm sure. Can something that brings out the sense of brotherhood in men be anything but holy? Why, even the Bible praises alcohol -- and is not wine the blood of the savior Himself?
They're closer now. You cannot tell -- they're being ever so quiet -- but I'm familiar with the creakings of each and every board in this old house. These creaks are from the kitchen floor. Soon they'll be in the hall, then on the stairs, then ... just outside our door. But they won't come in -- at least, they never have. And I've put a strong lock on the door to keep them out. But then again, I've no idea how strong these things really are. Perhaps they could smash the door off it's hinges with one push if they wanted to ...
You're getting frightened, aren't you? I can always detect the presence of fear. It has a distinct, almost palpable quality -- you can almost taste it in the air. Animals can sense it, after all. Why shouldn't people be able to sense it as well? And, of course, some people do. It's just something that has to be developed. Most of us go through our lives without really experiencing fear ... or witnessing it, up close, in others. But once you've been exposed to it enough times, you can recognize it almost instinctually.
You do hear them, don't you? It's okay, you don't have to admit to it, yet. Believe me, I understand. I refused to believe in their existence too ... at first. Here, look at you, you're trembling. I assure you there's very little to fear. They've never come into this room. Why, the most they've done was to scratch around at the door. But, of course, they don't leave any scratch marks -- as that would prove that they were really here.
Please, join me, I beg you. The alcohol will fortify your nerves. Yes! You hear them now! They're on the stairs. It won't be much longer -- another minute or two at most. Here, take it. Once they start clawing at the door you'll need all the help you can get. Yes, that's -- it down the hatch! There now, doesn't that feel better? I don't think I could have lasted this long without it. Then again, it's amazing how much we humans are able to withstand. Why, if anyone had told me I'd have spent three months without sleep and with these night things scratching at my door, I'd have never believed them. I'd have never believed that I could stand it. Shh! They’ve reached the landing.
You must be able to hear them now ... why, they're practically upon us. Please tell me that you hear them. What's that? Another drink? Of course, how thoughtless of me. Of course you need another drink with them so close. I can use another belt myself, as a matter of fact. Here you go ... one for you and one for me. Bottoms up!
Don't worry. We'll make it through the night. And I've got several other bottles in my liquor cabinet here, in case we run out. Why, things being what they are, we couldn't hope for a better fortress than the one we've got. What with that strong, oaken door ...
The key! Good Lord! I've forgotten to lock the door! Quick! Out of the way! The key! It's in the drawer behind your back! God help me, I can't find it! 'Our Father, which art in Heaven, hallowed be ...' Ah! here it is! Quick! Get away from the door! There, there, it's done -- and not a moment too soon. Please forgive me if I was abrupt just now -- but I'm sure you understand the urgency of the situation.
Can you imagine my forgetting to lock the door? I suppose I got so carried away with stories that I simply forgot all about it. It's been so long since I've had any company here, you see. A man can only stand to be by himself so long ... we're social creatures after all, or so they teach us in our classrooms. And I suppose that they're correct in that regard. I've never been particularly social, myself. I haven't been a recluse either, mind you, but I have a natural tendency to keep to myself, if you know what I mean. I've always prided myself on my ability to exist solely on my own.
But even so, I still have this overwhelming need for another person to verify that these ... these ... these things in fact exist. I still need another person to confirm that I am sane. For all my vaunted independence, I cannot trust myself to tell the time of day unless someone else is there to say 'Yes, that is so.'
So now you see why I simply cannot tell you how wonderful it is to know that you are experiencing this with me. I feel as though a gigantic weight has just been lifted from my chest. This may sound crazy, but knowing -- at last -- that my mind is still sound somehow makes the reality of those things more bearable. You would think it was the other way around -- that your confirmation of their existence would only serve to make them all the more terrifying, but that simply is not the case ...
I remember a recurring nightmare from my boyhood. Oh, I'd had plenty of nightmares as a child -- haven't we all? -- but none were half so terrible as this. I'd dream that my mother had gone insane and was clawing at the screen on the back door, trying to get into the house. She had this wild, glassy look in her eyes -- almost as if she didn't see me -- or didn't recognize me, and who can say which one of those is worse? I'd scream to her, that it was me, but she wouldn't hear me. She'd just keep scratching away at that back door screen until her fingertips were raw and bloody.
It still frightens me to think of it, even after all these years. There's nothing more frightening than losing one's mind. Monsters ... those things out in the hall ... we can fight, or run from, or lock ourselves up in our rooms. Whatever we do, we can take some measures to protect ourselves from them. But what can you do against yourself? Especially when you don't even know that something's wrong ...
They've reached the door. Any second now the scratching and clawing will begin. But please, before they start ... if you could do me this one little favor ... I know it must sound silly -- what with the evident horror on your face -- but ... if I could only hear you say it ... if you could just tell me that I'm not imagining it all ... that you really do hear them too ... you cannot imagine how desperately I long to hear those words.
What's wrong? Why don't you answer me? Good God, man! You're white as a sheet! What is it? Do you hear them scratching? Yes, yes I hear them! They've started clawing at the door. Oh, if only you could have offered those words to me. But then your pallor is testament enough. I'm sorry to have put you through all this, but you must admit I did give you fair warning. Yet come, relax -- I swear to you that this is the worst it ever gets. Here, let me pour us both another glass. It's strange, but your terror is making me brave. I'd even ... What's that sound?
No, don't get up. This bottle's finished, but I've plenty more on hand. It'll only be a moment. Please, sit down. You are my guest, after all, regardless of our bizarre situation. No, please, you needn't get up, I ... I say, what are you doing? There's nothing over there that can be of the slightest interest ...
What's that? No, don't! Good heavens, man! Put down that key! No! No! You mustn't! You cannot! In the name of all things holy, man, don't do it! Don't open that door!