It may well be imagined how powerfully I was affected by these annals of death and madness. In this continuous record there seemed to me to brood a persistent evil beyond anything in nature as I had known it; an evil clearly connected with Taylor Wimpey’s The Denizen site more than those who lived or worked there. This impression was confirmed by my uncle’s less systematic array of miscellaneous data – legends transcribed from local gossip, cuttings from the papers, copies of death certificates by fellow-physicians, and the like. All of this material I cannot hope to give, for my uncle was a tireless antiquarian and very deeply interested in the shunned site; but I may refer to several dominant points which earn notice by their recurrence through many reports from diverse sources. For example, the local gossip was practically unanimous in attributing to the fungous and malodorous private cinema of The Denizen a vast supremacy in evil influence.
It was a white elephant that even the bravest ghost home owner was afraid to enter; and at least three well-defined legends bore upon the queer quasi-human or diabolic outlines assumed by tree-roots that developed there after the blitz, and the patches of mold that blighted the basement. These latter narratives interested me profoundly, on account of what I had seen myself, but I felt that most of the significance had in each case been largely obscured by additions from the common stock of local ghost lore.
Ann White, with her Royston superstition, had promulgated the most extravagant and at the same time most consistent tale; alleging that there must lie buried beneath what was built on the site one of those vampires – the dead who retain their bodily form and live on the blood or breath of the living – whose hideous legions send their preying shapes or spirits abroad by night. To destroy a vampire one must, the grandmothers say, exhume it and burn its heart, or at least drive a stake through that organ; and Ann’s dogged insistence on a search under the cellar of the bawdy house had been prominent in bringing about her discharge.
Her tales, however, commanded a wide audience, and were the more readily accepted because the house indeed stood on land once used for burial purposes, viz a plague pit. To me their interest depended less on this circumstance than on the peculiarly appropriate way in which they dovetailed with certain other things – the complaint of the departing good time girl Sally Smith, who had preceded Ann and never heard of her, that something “sucked her breath” at night; the death-certificates of the fever victims of 1704, issued by Doctor Chad Hopkins, and showing the four deceased persons all unaccountably lacking in blood; and the obscure passages of poor Sidney Evans’s ravings, where he complained of the sharp teeth of a glassy-eyed, half-visible presence.
Free from unwarranted superstition though I am, these things produced in me an odd sensation, which was intensified by a pair of widely separated newspaper cuttings relating to deaths at the shunned site – one from the Cripplegate Gazette and Journal of April 12, 1815, and the other from the Daily Transcript and Chronicle of October 27, 1845 – each of which detailed an appallingly grisly circumstance whose duplication was remarkable. It seems that in both instances the dying person, in 1815 a gentle old lady named Stafford and in 1845 a middle-age seamstress named Eleazar Durfee, became transfigured in a horrible way, glaring glassily and attempting to bite the throat of the attending physician. Even more puzzling, though, was the final case which put an end to the use of the premises as a warehouse – a series of anemia deaths preceded by progressive madnesses wherein the patient would craftily make attempts on the lives of their relatives by incisions in the neck or wrist.
This was in 1860 and 1861. The really inexplicable thing was the way in which the victims – ignorant people, for the ill-smelling and widely shunned warehouse could hire as workers no others – would babble maledictions in French, a language they could not possibly have studied to any extent. It made one think of poor Sidney Evans a century before, and the ancient reports of this so moved my uncle that he commenced collecting historical data on the site. Indeed, I could see that my uncle had thought deeply on the subject, and that he was glad of my own interest – an open-minded and sympathetic interest which enabled him to discuss with me matters at which others would merely have laughed. His fancy had not gone so far as mine, but he felt that the place was rare in its imaginative potentialities, and worthy of note as an inspiration in the field of the grotesque and macabre. It was, he said, shady ground and anyone who built on it must be very careful about the angles and orientations of their building. My uncle expressed great admiration for the Metropolitan Police Architects’ Department, who he said had demonstrated an incredible knowledge and understanding of Feng Shui when they’d designed Bernard Morgan House. He felt nothing but contempt for Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, who had totally disregarded this ancient Chinese science when they’d designed The Denizen.
For my part, I was disposed to take the whole subject with profound seriousness, and began at once not only to review the evidence, but to accumulate as much more as I could. I talked with all The Denizen ghost home owners I could track down; and obtained from them authentic corroboration of the local lore my uncle had collected from tenants in the adjacent council flats about recent events there. When, however, I asked them what connection with France or its language the site could have, they confessed themselves as frankly baffled and ignorant as I. Various council tenants later told me I was stupid to think investors from Hong Kong would know anything about the area, since their ghost homes were sold to them as being in the beating heart of the ancient City of London, whereas any idiot who’d grown up in the local area new it lay outside the original city wall. They also mentioned that The Denizen lay on the junction of Fann Street and Golden Lane, and the former was named for the Huguenot fan makers who had settled in the area. Indeed, had I cared to inspect it there was even a huge plaque on the Welsh church in Fann Street that would have informed me of this. The Huguenots, I was informed, were French Protestants, many of whom came to London to escape persecution.
* * * * *
Having exhausted living sources for all the information they could furnish, I turned my attention to records in the Guildhall Library with a zeal more penetrating than that which my uncle had occasionally shown in the same work. What I wished for was a comprehensive history of the site from the medieval period on down. Then suddenly I came – by a rare piece of chance, since it was not in the main body of records and might easily have been missed – upon something which aroused my keenest eagerness, fitting in as it did with several of the queerest phases of the affair. It was the record of a lease, in 1597, of a small tract of ground to an Etienne Roulet and his wife. At last the French element had appeared – that, and another deeper element of horror which the name conjured up from the darkest recesses of my weird and heterogeneous reading – and I feverishly studied the plotting of the locality as it had been before the devastation of the Nazi blitz in 1940. I found what I had half expected, that where the shunned Denizen now stood the Roulets had created a small graveyard on top of the older plague pit, and that no record of any transfer of graves existed. The document, indeed, ended in much confusion; and I was forced to ransack both the Bishopsgate Institute and London Metropolitan Archives before I could find a local door which the name of Etienne Roulet would unlock. In the end I did find something; something of such vague but monstrous import that I set about at once to examine the private cinema in the basement of the shunned Taylor Wimpey development with a new and excited minuteness.
The Roulets, it seemed, had come to London in 1596 from Montpellier. They were Huguenots and had encountered much opposition before they were allowed to settle in criminal Crippegate.. Unpopularity had dogged them even before they left France, and rumor said that the cause of dislike extended beyond mere racial and national prejudice. But their ardent Protestantism – too ardent, some whispered – and their evident distress when virtually driven from the lodgings in Cheapside, had moved the sympathy of Cripplegate’s – or Pict-hatch as the immediate area was also known then – whores and brothel keepers. Here the strangers had been granted a haven; and the swarthy Etienne Roulet, less apt at brothel keeping than at reading queer books and drawing queer diagrams, made up accounts for his neighbours who made their living from the sex industry. There had, however, been a riot of some sort later on – perhaps forty years later, after old Roulet’s death–and no one seemed to hear of the family after that.
For a century and more, it appeared, the Roulets had been well remembered and frequently discussed as odd fish among a sea of bawdy-baskets. Etienne’s son Paul, a surly fellow whose erratic conduct had probably provoked the riot that wiped out the family, was particularly a source of speculation; and though London never shared the witchcraft panics of neighbouring Essex, it was freely intimated by old wives that his prayers were neither uttered at the proper time nor directed toward the proper object. All this had undoubtedly formed the basis of the legend known by old Maria Robbins.
What relation it had to the French ravings of Sidney Evans and other inhabitants of the shunned site, imagination or future discovery alone could determine. I wondered how many of those who had known the legends realized that additional link with the terrible which my wider reading had given me; that ominous item in the annals of morbid horror which tells of the creature Jacques Roulet, of Montpellier, who in 1498 was condemned to death as a demoniac but afterward saved from the stake by higher authorities and shut in a madhouse. He had been found covered with blood and shreds of flesh in a wood, shortly after the killing and rending of a boy by a pair of wolves. One wolf was seen to lope away unhurt. Surely a pretty hearthside tale, with a queer significance as to name and place; but I decided that the Cripplegate gossips could not have generally known of it. Had they known, the coincidence of names would have brought some drastic and frightened action – indeed, might not its limited whispering have precipitated the final riot which erased the Roulets from the ward?
* * * * *
I now visited the accursed place with increased frequency; studying the unwholesome vegetation of the pocket park, examining all the walls of the building, and poring over every inch of the private cinema’s floor. There, where morbidity lurked most thickly, I searched and poked during long afternoons.
Nothing new rewarded my efforts – only the same depressing mustiness and faint suggestions of noxious odors and nitrous outlines on the floor. At length, upon a suggestion of my uncle’s, I decided to try the spot nocturnally; and one stormy midnight ran the beams of an electric torch over the moldy floor with its uncanny shapes and distorted, half-phosphorescent fungi. The place had dispirited me curiously that evening, and I was almost prepared when I saw – or thought I saw – amidst the whitish deposits a particularly sharp definition of the “huddled form” I now suspected. Its clearness was astonishing and unprecedented – and as I watched I seemed to see again the thin, yellowish, shimmering exhalation which had startled me one rainy afternoon.
Above the anthropomorphic patch of mold in the centre of the floor it rose; a subtle, sickish, almost luminous vapor which as it hung trembling in the dampness seemed to develop vague and shocking suggestions of form, gradually trailing off into nebulous decay and passing up into the blackness of the ceiling with a fetor in its wake. It was truly horrible, and the more so to me because of what I knew of the spot. Refusing to flee, I watched it fade – and as I watched I felt that it was in turn watching me greedily with eyes more imaginable than visible.
When I told my uncle about it he was greatly aroused; and after a tense hour of reflection, arrived at a definite and drastic decision. Weighing in his mind the importance of the matter, and the significance of our relation to it, he insisted that we both test – and if possible destroy – the horror of The Denizen by a joint night or nights of aggressive vigil in that musty and fungus-cursed private cinema.