My cousin Tom Wong and I studied medicine together. He was of a sedate but frank and cheerful nature, very exact in his observance of truth, and not by any means like myself – of an excitable or nervous temperament.
My Uncle Wong – Tom’s father – because we were attending university in London, purchased a ghost flat in Taylor Wimpey’s The Denizen development in Golden Lane. We were able to use it for student digs because my uncle resided in Shanghai and so bought it as an investment. Our furniture was very scant – our whole equipage remarkably modest and primitive. I had one bedroom, Tom the second, and we shared the rest of the apartment.
The Denizen as a brand spanking new luxury development was a very odd one. We soon learned it had been build over a plague pit and opposite the site of the old City of London Mortuary. Despite our apartment’s recent construction, a mysterious and very depressing saddened air enveloped it. The strange atmosphere seemed to rise up from under the floor of the games room and private cinema in the basement. An effort had been made to decorate the building as if it was luxurious but somehow this failed to have the desired effect and added to the gloom. A local woman of about fifty came in to clean and occasionally cook for us. She had bleached hair and blue eyes. Tom offered her extra money to have sex with him but she said she wouldn’t be doing cleaning if she wanted to sell her body in that way.
My bedroom was not gloomy but Tom’s with its windows overshadowed by a neighbouring building and barely letting in any light, had a specially sinister and suggestive character. The whole room was, I can’t tell how, repulsive to me. There was, I suppose, in its proportions and features, a latent discord–a certain mysterious and indescribable relation, which jarred indistinctly upon some secret sense of the fitting and the safe, and raised indefinable suspicions and apprehensions of the imagination. Nothing could have induced me to sleep in it.
I had never pretended to conceal from poor Tom my superstitious weakness and he most unaffectedly ridiculed my tremors. The sceptic was however destined to receive a lesson, as you shall hear.
We had not been very long in occupation of my uncle’s flat, when I began to complain of uneasy nights and disturbed sleep. I was usually a sound sleeper and by no means prone to nightmares. Now, however, instead of enjoying my customary repose, every night I supped on horrors. After a preliminary course of disagreeable and frightful dreams, my troubles took a definite form, and the same vision, without an appreciable variation in a single detail, visited me at least every other night.
Now this nightmare or infernal illusion of which I was the miserable sport, took the following form. I saw, or thought I saw, with the most abominable distinctness, although at the time in profound darkness, every article of furniture and accidental arrangement of the room in which I lay. This was incidental to ordinary nightmare. While in this clairvoyant condition, which seemed but the lighting up of the theatre in which was to be exhibited the monotonous tableau of horror, which made my nights insupportable. My attention invariably became fixed upon the windows opposite the foot of my bed and, uniformly with the same effect, a sense of dreadful anticipation always took slow but sure possession of me. I became somehow conscious of a sort of horrid but undefined preparation going forward in some unknown quarter, and by some unknown agency, for my torment. After an interval, which always seemed to me of the same length, a picture suddenly flew up to the window, where it remained fixed, as if by an electrical attraction, and my discipline of horror then commenced.
The picture thus mysteriously glued to the window-panes, was the portrait of an old man, in a crimson flowered silk dressing-gown, the folds of which I could now describe, with a countenance embodying a strange mixture of intellect, sensuality, and power, but withal sinister and full of malignant omen. He was snub nosed, his eyes large, grey, and prominent, and lighted up with a more than mortal cruelty and coldness. These features were surmounted by a crimson velvet cap, the hair that peeped from under which was white with age, while the eyebrows retained their original blackness. Well I remember every line, hue, and shadow of that stony countenance, and well I may! The gaze of this hellish visage was fixed upon me, and mine returned it with the inexplicable fascination of nightmare, for what seemed like hours of agony. At last the cock he crew, away then flew the fiend who had enslaved me through the awful watches of the night; and, harassed and nervous, I rose to the duties of the day.
I had – I can’t say exactly why, but it may have been from the exquisite anguish and profound impressions of unearthly horror, with which this strange phantasmagoria was associated – an insurmountable antipathy to describing the exact nature of my nightly troubles to my friend and comrade. I told him that I was haunted by abominable dreams and true to the imputed materialism of medicine, we put our heads together to dispel my horrors, not by exorcism, but by a tonic.
I will do this tonic justice, and frankly admit that the accursed portrait began to intermit its visits under its influence. What of that? Was this singular apparition – as full of character as of terror – therefore the creature of my fancy, or the invention of my poor stomach? Was it in short subjective and not the palpable aggression and intrusion of an external agent? That by no means follows. The evil spirit who enthralled my senses in the shape of that portrait, may have been just as near me, just as energetic, just as malignant, though I saw him not. The healthy tone of the system and its unimpaired energy may guard us against influences which would otherwise render life itself unbearable. The hypnotist will fail with nine out of ten subjects – so may the evil spirit. Special conditions of the corporeal system are indispensable to the production of certain spiritual phenomena. The operation succeeds sometimes – sometimes fails – that is all.
I found afterwards that my would-be sceptical companion had his troubles too. But of these I knew nothing yet. One night I was sleeping soundly when I was roused by a step outside my room, followed by the loud clang of what turned out to be a large pot, flung with all his force by poor Tom Wong across our living room and rattling with a rebound against the wall and floor; and almost concurrently with this, Tom burst open my door, and bounced into my room backwards, in a state of extraordinary agitation.
I had jumped out of bed and clutched him by the arm before I had any distinct idea of my own whereabouts. There we were – both naked – standing before the open door, staring into the living room window, through which the sickly light of a clouded moon was gleaming.
“What’s the matter Tom?” I demanded shaking him with nervous impatience.
He took a long breath before he answered me, and then it was not very coherently.
“It’s nothing, nothing at all! Where’s the pot Richard?”
“If what just made all that noise was a pot,” I said, “it’s on the floor. But what’s the matter?”
“The matter? It must have been a dream.” He said. “I thought there was a man in my room, so I jumped up and grabbed the pot I keep under the bed for when I’m so drunk I might throw up.”
“Why don’t you go back to bed?”
“I’d rather not. Can I sleep with you in your bed Dick? I feel nervous. I’m in a shocking state.”
I agreed to Tom sleeping with me although I didn’t much fancy him and thought that as a cousin perhaps he was to close a relative to be having sex with. We cuddled up tight but didn’t get it on. Everybody knows how contagious fear is. We’d heard all the stories about The Denizen being built over a plague pit and there being vampires buried beneath the basement cinema.
“I don’t know anything about your dream,” I said. “But we both know this luxury ghost home apartment block disagrees with us. Let’s look for somewhere else to live.”
“Do you think if we lived at a different address it would be easier to get girls to come home with us? All those I’ve asked over here say The Denizen has bad feng shui and turn me down!”
“Girls? Is all you ever think about? Haven’t you heard the motto, girl tomorrow boy today?”
“I’m not bisexual but I think moving out of The Denizen is a good idea!”
“Well what about blow jobs? Could you even tell the sex of who was giving you one if you didn’t know?”
“I could if they had a beard.”
“I don’t have a beard.”
“But you have got a cock! Let’s drop this subject. I’ve been thinking that it’s a long time since I saw my father, and I seem to have better luck with girls in Shanghai than London. Maybe you could find us a new place to live in while I take a trip home.”
I fancied that this desire, obviously the result of the vision that had so profoundly scared him, would probably vanish next morning with the damps and shadows of night. But I was mistaken. Tom caught a plane home the next day.
It isn’t easy to secure lodgings in London and a week elapsed before our future was secured. In the meantime I had adventures which absurd as they appear in retrospect, at the time whetted my appetite for a new address.
The night after the departure of my comrade, I was sitting by my bedroom radiator, the door locked, and the ingredients of a tumbler of hot whisky-punch upon the crazy spider-table. As the best mode of keeping the evil spirits at bay, I had adopted the practice recommended by the wisdom of my ancestors and “kept my spirits up by pouring spirits down.” I had thrown aside my volume of anatomy, and was treating myself by way of a tonic, preparatory to my punch and bed, to half-a-dozen pages of the Xiagu Danxin by Liang Yusheng, when I heard a step in the corridor of the floor our flat was situated upon. There was a slow, heavy tread, characterised by the emphasis and deliberation of age, approaching my door. What made the sound more singular, it was plain that the feet which produced it were perfectly bare, making the noise something between a pound and a flop.
When the step reached my flat’s entrance it seemed to stop. I expected at any moment to hear my door open spontaneously and give admission to the original of my detested portrait. I was relieved when the steps renewed and headed down the stairs towards the basement cinema, from whence I heard no more.
Now by the time the sound had ceased, I was wound up to a very unpleasant pitch of excitement. I listened but there was not a stir. I screwed up my courage to a decisive experiment – opened my door and in a stentorian voice bawled down the corridor: “Who’s there?” There was no answer but the ringing of my own voice through the empty luxury development complex, no renewal of the movement. Nothing in short to give my unpleasant sensations a definite direction. There is something most disagreeably disenchanting in the sound of one’s own voice under such circumstances, exerted in solitude, and in vain. It redoubled my sense of isolation, and my misgivings increased on perceiving that the door, which I certainly thought I had left open, was closed behind me. In vague alarm, lest my retreat should be cut off, I got again into my room as quickly as I could, where I remained in a state of imaginary blockade and very uncomfortable indeed, till morning.
Next night brought no return of my barefooted fellow Denizen dweller; but the night following, being in my bed, and in the dark – somewhere about the same hour as before, I distinctly heard the old fellow proceeding along my floor’s corridor.
This time I’d had my punch and my morale was consequently excellent. I jumped out of bed clutching a samurai sword I kept as a decoration on the wall and in a moment was in the corridor. The sound had ceased by this time – the dark and chill were discouraging. Guess my horror when I saw a black monster of odd dimensions standing with its back to the wall facing me with a pair of great greenish eyes shining dimly out. This apparition, after one or two shiftings of shape, as if in the act of incipient transformation, began to advance upon me in its original form. From an instinct of terror rather than of courage, I hurled my sword with all my force at its head. To the music of a horrid crash I ran into my room and double-locked the door. A minute later I heard the horrid bare feet walk down the stairs towards the basement cinema till the sound ceased as on the former occasion.
If the apparition of the night before was a delusion, I could not convince myself of this. The whole affair was abominable. I was out of spirits and dreaded the approach of darkness. It came, ushered ominously in with a thunder-storm and dull torrents of depressing rain. Earlier than usual the streets grew silent and by midnight nothing but the comfortless pattering of the rain was to be heard.
I made myself as snug as I could. I kept the lights on. I forswore bed and held myself in readiness for a sally, sword in hand; for. I was resolved to see the being, if visible at all, who troubled the nightly stillness of my luxury apartment block. I was fidgetty and nervous and tried in vain to interest myself in my books. I walked up and down my room listening ever and anon for the dreaded noise. I sat down and stared at the square label on the solemn and reserved-looking black bottle, until “FLANAGAN & CO’S BEST OLD MALT WHISKY” grew into a sort of subdued accompaniment to all the fantastic and horrible speculations which chased one another through my brain.
Silence meanwhile grew more silent and darkness darker. I listened in vain for the rumble of a vehicle or the dull clamour of a distant row. There was nothing but the sound of a rising wind, which had succeeded the thunder-storm. In the middle of the great city of London I began to feel myself alone with nature, and heaven knows what else beside. My courage was ebbing. Punch which makes beasts of so many, made a man of me again – just in time to hear with tolerable nerve and firmness the lumpy, flabby, naked feet out in the corridor.
I took a sword. The steps continued. I confess I hesitated for some seconds at the door before I took heart of grace and opened it. When I peeped out the corridor was perfectly empty. There was no monster standing on the staircase and as the detested sound ceased, I was reassured enough to venture to the stairs. Horror of horrors! Within a stair or two beneath the spot where I stood the unearthly tread smote the floor. My eye caught something in motion. It was about the size of a giant’s foot — it was grey, heavy and flapped with a dead weight from one step to another. As I am alive, it was the most monstrous grey rat I ever beheld or imagined.
I went well-nigh out of my wits for when I saw this rat for it fixed upon me a perfectly human expression of malice. As it shuffled about and looked up into my face almost from between my feet, I recognised the infernal gaze and the accursed countenance of my old friend in the window, transfused into the visage of the bloated vermin before me.
I bounced into my room again with a feeling of loathing and horror I cannot describe, and locked and bolted my door as if a lion had been at the other side. I felt in my soul that the rat I had just seen was an evil being in masquerade and rambling through The Denizen upon some infernal night lark.
Moving to Liverpool Road in Islington I slept well. When Tom returned he insisted I meet him at the haunted Denizen, for I had neglected to convey his things to our new abode.