Author and Scriptwriter

'Among the most important writers of contemporary British horror.' -Ramsey Campbell

Thursday, 24 December 2015

A Ghost Story For Christmas: The Psalm

As it's Christmas, here's a free story. (I'll be publishing occasional free stories here from time to time, because why not?) This one first appeared in Estronomicon in October 2011.
If you're looking for more seasonal spookiness, you can download three chilling tales from Kempforth in Let's Drink To The Dead here. (Thanks to everyone who bought it yesterday!)
If I don't see you before, have a wonderful Christmas and a Happy 2016.


Grant kept walking as the air grew damp and cold.  There didn’t seem much point turning back, with Sheila gone.  The house was bigger, colder, in her absence; the spaces she’d left in the drawers and wardrobe, where dresses, underwear, tights and shoes had been, gaped like wounds.  It’d’ve been easy to close them, sweep the stacks of socks, boxer shorts, hanger’d shirts and trousers, to fill the gaps.  But he didn’t.  It’d be a final concession that her departure was permanent, one he knew he couldn’t sustain if he made it now. 
The moor stretched ahead, behind, on either side; from his left came the distant swishing of cars, back and forth along the motorway.  He veered right, under the humming wires of a pylon; he wanted civilisation left far behind.
The damp air burned his lungs like petrol fumes.  His cagoule flapped around him; his boots, sturdy and sensible, squelched in the mud.  Moist wind stung his face.
It should just have been another Sunday.  They’d go hiking, like they always did.  Except he’d gone to B&Q yesterday and come home to find Sheila gone.  He’d been buying shelving, to put up at her suggestion (it was gathering dust or damp in the garage now).  That hurt most of all; she’d planned it, been waiting, suggested the shelving just to get him out of the house.  When had she packed? 
Not that it mattered.  Sheila, you bitch.  Sheila, my love.
He’d driven out across Lancashire, to the moors and avoided the paths they normally took.  Sheila’d never been adventurous.  He’d never thought of himself as such, either; curious, perhaps.  That was what was drawing him out across the moor.
But it was November, and gone three; soon it’d be dark.  Grant knew he should turn back while the path was easy to find; that it was easy to get lost.  But he pressed on.
When he’d walked the anger, the bitterness and the grief out of his system- at least for now- and focussed again on the world around him, he realised the air was the dull leaden grey of dusk.  He looked at his watch; twenty to four.  Turn back.
           Which way?  He turned.  Double back, he presumed, but there were no landmarks.  He couldn’t even hear the traffic.  A pylon, then- the powerlines would cross the motorway or human habitation at some point.  He didn’t want to die, lost and alone of hypothermia.  They’d say it was suicide- he wouldn’t give in so easily.
He looked around.  But he couldn’t see the pylon anywhere.  There must be one, though; that faint humming sound he could hear, what else could it be?
Grant turned and started walking.  His breath billowed whitely out ahead of him.  But it wasn’t the only white; to his dismay, he saw long white fingers of mist extending down either side of him.  Looking back, he made out the white mass of it cresting the rise a hundred yards to his rear, seeping down.
Don’t panic.  Do not panic.  If you panic, out here in this, you will die.
He started walking, faster, back the way he’d come.  But was it the way he’d come?  The ground was slippery and uneven.  Could he have negotiated this, without being aware of it, on autopilot?  It didn’t seem possible.
Uncertainty made him falter; he stopped, turned around, trying to get his bearings in the shrinking landscape.  He listened, through the blanketing mist, trying to hear something- the pylon’s hum, distant traffic, anything-
He took a half-step back, and something slid under him, he was never sure what.  With a yelp he pitched backwards, arms flailing, body curling inward so as not to hit his head.  He landed on his side; the earth knocked breath from his body and a protrusion of rock clipped his hipbone.  His cry was only faint because he was winded; the pain was shocking and excruciating, almost numbing in its intensity.
Grant slid and rolled, arms and legs scrabbling for balance, trying to slow the descent.  He’d no idea where the slope ended up, couldn’t see from this angle; for all he knew he’d drop straight into some deep gully carpeted in bare stone.
Luckily, it didn’t.  He landed in mud and soggy grass at the bottom of the slope, but slid further.  A sort of ditch led from the foot of the slope; he slid clumsily down, rolled and came at last to rest on flat ground.  He managed to stand, chest burning, hip throbbing.
Which way?  Which way?
He couldn’t tell; the mist was everywhere, wrapping him tight, mummifying him in damp air.  Oh fuck.  Oh fuck.
           Mist distorts sound as well.  The faint humming of the pylon- his one lifeline to the world- seemed to come from all around.
Must not panic.
Grant tried to gauge which way the ground sloped.  If he could reach higher ground, he’d have a chance of seeing something.  The motorway, or even a farmhouse.  Surely he could beg shelter and warmth there?
One thing was certain; he couldn’t stay put.  He guessed at the direction of the incline and started walking; sure enough, the ground steepened, and as if in encouragement, the humming grew louder.  No sign of the pylon through the mist.
Only, was it a pylon?  He couldn’t be sure now.  Pylons hummed alright, but you usually had to be quite close to hear them, certainly within sight.  He looked up; beyond the mist, the sky was a dirty, dishwater grey, sullen and gravid, uncrossed by wires.
So what could he hear?  It was louder now, a little clearer even through the mists.  It grew clearer still as he gained height, and as it did- was it just his imagination that the mists were thinning?- he made out its shape.  It rose and fell- for a few seconds it was thinner, quieter, then for the same measure of time it swelled, louder.  It was the only way to describe it.  It sounded strangely familiar, but from where?
The mists were definitely thinning.  Through the whiteout, the brow of a hill disclosed itself.  The path was much steeper now, but Grant forced himself onwards, towards the clear spot.
The hum rose and fell, rose and fell. Something skittered and rustled below him, but when he looked back the mists were inscrutable.  Probably just an animal of some kind; even so, he turned and walked faster.
At times it seemed that the path, ever steeper, would never reach the top, but he kept going.  All he had to measure his progress with was the hum; it got louder and clearer as he went, and in doing so it heartened him, pushing him further on.
At last he reached the top.  The landscape was pale and spectral; hills were hulking shadows in white veils of mist, the sky blackening, the light stealing quickly away now.  But through the mist some of the closer hills seemed to be getting clearer.  He prayed to the- long forgotten and discarded- God of his childhood the mist might be receding.
His lungs burned; his legs shook.  Sweat trickled down his back: God, I am unfit.  Or just old, perhaps.  Getting there, anyway.  His hip throbbed dully with what would surely be a spectacular bruise, soon enough.
The mist was like a- retreating?- sea, lapping around the peak he was on.  He looked out across it, trying to hear the traffic, make out a pylon, even, but he couldn’t. Christ, how far did I walk?  All he could hear was the humming sound.  It was clearer than ever, now, from where he stood.  The humming wasn’t an unbroken note, he realised.  It sounded- like words?
That was where he’d heard it.  A television programme, on one of the Outer Hebrides.  The religion was Calvinist; allowing no music except the human voice.  A precentor sang the psalm’s first line; the congregation sang it back.  This sounded the same.  The melody seemed flat, atonal, but perhaps that was the range and mist.  A lone voice, then a chorus echoing it.  A long way from the Hebrides, but still.  A congregation; people.  He could find them, shelter there.
He looked around again, and from the slopes below, he saw a shape in the mist.  Thin; thinner than he’d seen anyone look outside footage of concentration camps, but human nonetheless.
Grant shouted, arms waving; the figure stopped, eerily still, then turned, slowly, and although he couldn’t see its face, he knew it was staring up at him.
As a long, cold moment gathered and broke, Grant realised calling its attention to him had been a mistake.
And as it began striding purposefully up the hill towards him, other shapes like it stole out of the mists.
Grant turned.  He could run back down the other side of the hill- but he was facing an impenetrable wall of white vapour, and something dark was moving in it.  Something long and thin, reaching out.
Grant recoiled from it, almost fell- back down towards the other figures.  Far from retreating as he’d hoped, the mist was rising, but he was almost glad of that; it kept the half dozen scarecrows making their slow but unrelenting ascent mercifully indistinct.  With their long, spindly limbs they resembled spiders.  As did the shape he’d recoiled from, which was moving out of the mist, advancing towards him along the hillbrow.
He turned and ran.  The mist was rising.  At any moment something could step out of it, in front of him.  Grant clenched his fists and ignored the pain in his hip- oh, for a good stout walking stick to lash out with, but he’d refused one out of pride.  Which goeth before a fall.
On the slopes to either side there were shapes in the mist.  He refused to look behind him, at what might be coming.  He didn’t want to see how close it was, or worse, what it looked like.  He didn’t know where his conviction that there would be far less flesh on its bones than there ever ought to be on a thing that moved came from, but while he badly wanted to be proved wrong, he didn’t want to risk the alternative.
The brow of the hill was thinning.  Running along a razor blade.  Shocks of vegetation erupted in sprouts on either side, getting thicker and thicker.  And higher.  Thorn bushes- blackthorn, was it?  Through the hoarse rasping of his breath, and the thumping of his heart, he heard the psalm grow louder.
It drove into him from the side; he whirled to face it.  To his right, a narrow winding path was flanked by high thorn bushes that rose so high each side of it they threatened to meet in a long-extended arch or cloister.  The mist was a thin veil in the falling dark; the sound welled in it like blood in a wound.  Down there, somewhere, Grant saw a gleam of light.
There was a rustling sound back along the ridge.  Grant ran down the path, stumbling a couple of times, but his own momentum carrying him on.  He almost overbalanced, and had to catch at the bushes- pain ripped through his hand and he yelped again.  The psalm didn’t falter, though; it drew him on.
Grant stumbled onwards.  The light gleamed through mist at the foot of the path, where the tunnel of blackthorn opened out.  It didn’t matter; between the light and the psalm, he had his beacon now.
Past the bushes, there were trees; three or four yews, branches already bare, rose like outspread, skeletal hands.  Pines rose up behind a small stone chapel; from a post outside it, an old-fashioned oil lamp swung.  It was a small building, looked almost as if built from drystone, with a low triangular roof and a small steeple or bell-tower, little more than a shapeless lump at one end.  The psalm drifted from its doorway.
The door itself was warped and almost spongy to the touch, blotched with moss and even a small cluster of fungus.  Rust flaked from the iron ring serving it for a handle.  Grant pushed it wide, and the psalm ceased.
The doorway opened out into a small, mean space.  In the thick dusk and the glimmers of light stealing in through the glassless windows, Grant saw pews, each side of the aisle, little more than benches.  At the far end was a raised dais with a bare table for an altar, no cross silhouetted against the broken window.  Threadbare carpet underfoot.
The silence hurt; like the mist thickening outside the windows, cloaking the dimming light, it had physical presence and force.
The psalm had led him here; how or why, he didn’t know.  But here was shelter, here was the chance of rest and getting warm, if-
Outside the light died, the lantern extinguished, and there were rustling and scraping sounds, like twigs and something almost as naked dragging over stones.  Grant turned towards the door, and then he heard the psalm again.
It came from the altar, this time so loud it pushed against his back like hands, and he physically stumbled.  When he turned, seven figures were standing on the dais, before the altar-bench.
At first he thought they must be nothing more than shadows and mist; he could see the altar-bench through them, the last dying light in the sky beyond.  But then they were solid and there was no disputing them.  They wore robes frayed and tattered at the sleeves and hems, worn and patched with mildew, and cowls that were deep cups of shadow, drowning their faces, for which Grant was thankful.
The tallest figure, in the centre, sang, although Grant couldn’t make out the words or even the language.  Its voice was the wind moaning in the hollow stone throat of a cave.  The second it finished, the others echoed its song with their own.
The sleeves of their robes all met and overlapped and hid their hands from view, but that mercy was short-lived as the central figure- the precentor, Grant thought- stepped from the dais into the aisle, and the others followed.  The figure to the left of it extended a pyx, the box that’d held the Host at Mass when Grant was a child, and the long scraping twigs of its free hand caught the lid and pulled it back to show Grant emptiness.  The one to the right proffered a dulled pewter chalice. 
The precentor reached under its robes.  The blood and the body, Grant thought as it drew something out, something long, gleaming and sharp; the blood and the body. 
In a moment he might see what was inside their cowls; that, as much as anything else, made him turn back towards the door.  But it was already swinging open.  The precentor sang another line, and the response this time was loudest of all, as the congregation filed in.

(c) copyright Simon Bestwick 2011

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