The Saturday Night Special: “Ancient Lights” by Algernon Blackwood (1912)

From Southwater, where he left the train, the road led due west. That he knew; for the rest he trusted to luck, being one of those born walkers who dislike asking the way. He had that instinct, and as a rule it served him well. “A mile or so due west along the sandy road till you come to a stile on the right; then across the fields. You’ll see the red house straight before you.” He glanced at the post-card’s instructions once again, and once again he tried to decipher the scratched-out sentence—without success. It had been so elaborately inked over that no word was legible. Inked-out sentences in a letter were always enticing. He wondered what it was that had to be so very carefully obliterated.

The afternoon was boisterous, with a tearing, shouting wind that blew from the sea, across the Sussex weald. Massive clouds with

Algernon Blackwood 1869-1951

Algernon Blackwood
1869-1951

rounded, piled-up edges, cannoned across gaping spaces of blue sky. Far away the line of Downs swept the horizon, like an arriving wave. Chanc­tonbury Ring rode their crest—a scudding ship, hull down before the wind. He took his hat off and walked rapidly, breathing great draughts of air with delight and exhilaration. The road was deserted; no horsemen, bicycles, or motors; not even a tradesman’s cart; no single walker. But anyhow he would never have asked the way. Keeping a sharp eye for the stile, he pounded along, while the wind tossed the cloak against his face, and made waves across the blue puddles in the yellow road. The trees showed their under leaves of white. The bracken and the high new grass bent all one way. Great life was in the day, high spirits and dancing every­where. And for a Croydon surveyor’s clerk just out of an office this was like a holiday at the sea.

It was a day for high adventure, and his heart rose up to meet the mood of Nature. His umbrella with the silver ring ought to have been a sword, and his brown shoes should have been top-boots with spurs upon the heels. Where hid the enchanted Castle and the princess with the hair of sunny gold? His horse…

The stile came suddenly into view and nipped adventure in the bud. Everyday clothes took him prisoner again. He was a surveyor’s clerk, middle-aged, earning three pounds a week, coming from Croydon to see about a client’s proposed alterations in a wood—something to ensure a better view from the dining-room window. Across the fields, perhaps a mile away, he saw the red house gleaming in the sunshine; and resting on the stile a moment to get his breath he noticed a copse of oak and hornbeam on the right. “Aha,” he told himself “so that must be the wood he wants to cut down to improve the view? I’ll ’ave a look at it.” There were boards up, of course, but there was an inviting little path as well. “I’m not a trespasser,” he said; “it’s part of my business, this is.” He scrambled awkwardly over the gate and entered the copse. A little round would bring him to the field again.

But the moment he passed among the trees the wind ceased shouting and a stillness dropped upon the world. So dense was the growth that the sunshine only came through in isolated patches. The air was close. He mopped his forehead and put his green felt hat on, but a low branch knocked it off again at once, and as he stooped an elastic twig swung back and stung his face. There were flowers along both edges of the little path; glades opened on either side; ferns curved about in damper corners, and the smell of earth and foliage was rich and sweet. It was cooler here. What an enchanting little wood, he thought, turning down a small green glade where the sunshine flickered like silver wings. How it danced and fluttered and moved about! He put a dark blue flower in his buttonhole. Again his hat, caught by an oak branch as he rose, was knocked from his head, falling across his eyes. And this time he did not put it on again. Swinging his umbrella, he walked on with uncovered head, whistling rather loudly as he went. But the thickness of the trees hardly encouraged whistling, and something of his gaiety and high spirits seemed to leave him. He suddenly found himself treading circumspectly and with caution. The stillness in the wood was so peculiar.

There was a rustle among the ferns and leaves and something shot across the path ten yards ahead, stopped abruptly an instant with head cocked sideways to stare, then dived again beneath the underbrush with the speed of a shadow. He started like a frightened child, laughing the next second that a mere pheasant could have made him jump. In the distance he heard wheels upon the road, and wondered why the sound was pleasant. “Good old butcher’s cart,” he said to himself—then realised that he was going in the wrong direction and had somehow got turned round. For the road should be behind him, not in front.

And he hurriedly took another narrow glade that lost itself in greenness to the right. “That’s my direction, of course,” he said; “the trees has mixed me up a bit, it seems”—then found himself abruptly by the gate he had first climbed over. He had merely made a circle. Surprise became almost discomfiture then. And a man, dressed like a gamekeeper in browny green, leaned against the gate, hitting his legs with a switch. “I’m making for Mr. Lumley’s farm,” explained the walker. “This is his wood, I believe—” then stopped dead, because it was no man at all, but merely an effect of light and shade and foliage. He stepped back to reconstruct the singular illusion, but the wind shook the branches roughly here on the edge of the wood and the foliage refused to recon­struct the figure. The leaves all rustled strangely. And just then the sun went behind a cloud, making the whole wood look otherwise. Yet how the mind could be thus doubly deceived was indeed remarkable, for it almost seemed to him the man had answered, spoken—or was this the shuffling noise the branches made ?—and had pointed with his switch to the notice-board upon the nearest tree. The words rang on in his head, but of course he had imagined them: “No, it’s not his wood. It’s ours.” And some village wit, moreover, had changed the lettering on the weather-beaten board, for it read quite plainly, “Trespassers will be persecuted.”

And while the astonished clerk read the words and chuckled, he said to himself, thinking what a tale he’d have to tell his wife and children later—“The blooming wood has tried to chuck me out. But I’ll go in again. Why, it’s only a matter of a square acre at most. I’m bound to reach the fields on the other side if I keep straight on.” He remembered his position in the office. He had a certain dignity to maintain.

The cloud passed from below the sun, and light splashed suddenly in all manner of unlikely places. The man went straight on. He felt a touch of puzzling con­fusion somewhere; this way the copse had of shifting from sunshine into shadow doubtless troubled sight a little. To his relief at last, a new glade opened through the trees and disclosed the fields with a glimpse of the red house in the distance at the far end. But a little wicket gate that stood across the path had first to be climbed, and as he scrambled heavily over—for it would not open—he got the astonishing feeling that it slid off sideways beneath his weight, and towards the wood. Like the moving staircases at Harrod’s and Earl’s Court, it began to glide off with him. It was quite horrible. He made a violent effort to get down before it carried him into the trees, but his feet became entangled with the bars and umbrella, so that he fell heavily upon the farther side, arms spread across the grass and nettles, boots clutched between the first and second bars. He lay there a moment like a man crucified upside down, and while he struggled to get disentangled—feet, bars, and umbrella formed a regular net—he saw the little man in browny green go past him with extreme rapidity through the wood. The man was laughing. He passed across the glade some fifty yards away, and he was not alone this time. A companion like himself went with him. The clerk, now upon his feet again, watched them disappear into the gloom of green beyond. “They’re tramps, not gamekeepers,” he said to himself, half mortified, half angry. But his heart was thumping dreadfully, and he dared not utter all his thought.

He examined the wicket gate, convinced it was a trick gate somehow—then went hurriedly on again, disturbed beyond belief to see that the glade no longer opened into fields, but curved away to the right. What in the world had happened to him? His sight was so utterly at fault. Again the sun flamed out abruptly and lit the floor of the wood with pools of silver, and at the same moment a violent gust of wind passed shouting overhead. Drops fell clattering everywhere upon the leaves, making a sharp pattering as of many footsteps. The whole copse shuddered and went moving.

“Rain, by George,” thought the clerk, and feeling for his umbrella, discovered he had lost it. He turned back to the gate and found it lying on the farther side. To his amazement he saw the fields at the far end of the glade, the red house, too, ashine in the sunset. He laughed then, for, of course, in his struggle with the gate, he had somehow got turned round—had fallen back instead of forwards. Climbing over, this time quite easily, he retraced his steps. The silver band, he saw, had been torn from the umbrella. No doubt his foot, a nail, or something had caught in it and ripped it off. The clerk began to run; he felt extraordinarily dismayed.

But, while he ran, the entire wood ran with him, round him, to and fro, trees shifting like living things, leaves folding and unfolding, trunks darting backwards and forwards, and branches disclosing enormous empty spaces, then closing up again before he could look into them. There were footsteps everywhere, and laughing, crying voices, and crowds of figures gathering just behind his back till the glade, he knew, was thick with moving life. The wind in his ears, of course, produced the voices and the laughter, while sun and clouds, plunging the copse alternately in shadow and bright dazzling light, created the figures. But he did not like it, and went as fast as ever his sturdy legs could take him. He was frightened now. This was no story for his wife and children. He ran like the wind. But his feet made no sound upon the soft mossy turf.

Then, to his horror, he saw that the glade grew narrow, nettles and weeds stood thick across it, it dwindled down into a tiny path, and twenty yards ahead it stopped finally and melted off among the trees. What the trick gate had failed to achieve, this twisting glade accomplished easily—carried him in bodily among the dense and crowding trees.

There was only one thing to do—turn sharply and dash back again, run headlong into the life that followed at his back, followed so closely too that now it almost touched him, pushing him in. And with reckless courage this was what he did. It seemed a fearful thing to do. He turned with a sort of violent spring, head down and shoulders forward, hands stretched before his face. He made the plunge; like a hunted creature he charged full tilt the other way, meeting the wind now in his face.

Good Lord! The glade behind him had closed up as well; there was no longer any path at all. Turning round and round, like an animal at bay, he searched for an opening, a way of escape, searched frantically, breath­lessly, terrified now in his bones. But foliage surrounded him, branches blocked the way; the trees stood close and still, unshaken by a breath of wind; and the sun dipped that moment behind a great black cloud. The entire wood turned dark and silent. It watched him.

Perhaps it was this final touch of sudden blackness that made him act so foolishly, as though he had really lost his head. At any rate, without pausing to think, he dashed headlong in among the trees again. There was a sensation of being stiflingly surrounded and entangled, and that he must break out at all costs—out and away into the open of the blessed fields and air. He did this ill-considered thing, and apparently charged straight into an oak that deliber­ately moved into his path to stop him. He saw it shift across a good full yard, and being a measuring man, accustomed to theodolite and chain, he ought to know. He fell, saw stars, and felt a thousand tiny fingers tugging and pulling at his hands and neck and ankles. The stinging nettles, no doubt, were responsible for this. He thought of it later. At the moment it felt diabolically calculated.

But another remarkable illusion was not so easily explained. For all in a moment, it seemed, the entire wood went sliding past him with a thick deep rustling of leaves and laughter, myriad footsteps, and tiny little active, energetic shapes; two men in browny green gave him a mighty hoist—and he opened his eyes to find himself lying in the meadow beside the stile where first his incredible adventure had begun. The wood stood in its usual place and stared down upon him in the sunlight. There was the red house in the distance as before. Above him grinned the weather-beaten notice-board: “Tres­passers will be prosecuted.”

Dishevelled in mind and body, and a good deal shaken in his official soul, the clerk walked slowly across the fields. But on the way he glanced once more at the post­card of instructions, and saw with dull amazement that the inked-out sentence was quite legible after all beneath the scratches made across it: “There is a short cut through the wood—the wood I want cut down—if you care to take it.” Only “care” was so badly written, it looked more like another word; the “c” was uncommonly like “d.”

“That’s the copse that spoils my view of the Downs, you see,” his client explained to him later, pointing across the fields, and referring to the ordnance map beside him. “I want it cut down and a path made so and so.” His finger indicated direction on the map. “The Fairy Wood—it’s still called, and it’s far older than this house. Come now, if you’re ready, Mr. Thomas, we might go out and have a look at it. . .”

 

Reviews Needed

I am seeking people to review my works and who post their reviews to markets in the US, Australia, New Zealand, or Canada. I offer my Kindle e-books for free periodically according to Amazon policy.  You can find my works on my Amazon author’s page.  Let me know which you would like to review and I will let you know when it available for free or set up a date that you can have it for fee. I am most interested in having reviewed either my short horror (A Tale of Hell and Other Works of Horror), my collected poetry (Nocturne: Poems of Love, Distance, and the Night, a callous and disinterested lover), my short fiction on relationships (The Scent and Other Stories), or my action-adventure novelette (Click).  The other two works are contained in A Tale of Hell and Other Works of Horror.

Update, November 30, 2019: Progress on New Story Collection “Slattery’s Classic Tales of Horror”

Illustration by Viergacht via Pixabay

Illustration by Viergacht

If you have followed my website, you know that I usually post a short horror story from the nineteenth or early twentieth century on Saturday nights. I call it “The Saturday Night Special”. I have accumulated somewhere around 36+ stories, all of which are in the public domain. I have decided to collect these into a volume and publish them on Kindle. I have not decided what the title will be. It’s probably going to be Slattery’s Classic Tales of Horror or something similar. Until last night, I had only two stories and no front or back matter or even a basic framework. Last night, while watching Netflix with the family, I started going back into my posts and putting them in the new collection, arranging them in chronological order. I wrote a draft title in Algerian font and a preface (Times New Roman like the rest of the text). I picked a quotation from Shakespeare for the quotation page :”What’s past is prologue.” I now have fourteen stories and poems from the likes of Edgar Allan Poe (naturally), Algernon Blackwood, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Louisa May Alcott (yes, the author of Little Women did write at least one ghost story), M.R. James, Wilkie Collins, and several others. If a story has some notes that I published with the story originally, I am including them. I will probably include a photo or drawing of the author with each story, as I did originally.

Having the stories arranged chronologically will be good so that the reader can see the progression of horror over the decades. You will be able to see how writing styles developed on a nationwide level as well as the development of the English language and the American dialect.

I have no completion date set, but if I can continue as I did last night (and taking into the account that I have to work a day job), I may be finished in a month or two.

Phil Slattery’s Sci-Fi Novelette “Alien Embrace” is Available on Amazon Kindle and in Print

Logan Rickover, owner of a hardware store in a small town in Kentucky, has lucid dreams of life as an astronaut that intrude upon his life at any moment. Which of his lives is real? The quiet paradise of Danville or the terrifying jungle world of Stheno D?

This novelette is a terrific read for those who have only a quick break to take a breather and escape to another reality.  In this sci-fi thriller, I endeavor to blur the boundaries between alien-induced hallucinations, the brutal reality of the present, and memories of an idyllic past.

Ron Baker calls it “Nightmare Planet”, gives it five stars, and comments: “This short has exactly what I like in science fiction: planet exploration and bizarre otherworldly aliens, in this case insectoid. The horrendous purpose the aliens have for the hapless astronauts who make planetfall to find the numerous previous missing exploration teams is grisly. I love the mystery of the planet and the authors device of alternating from the aliens bizarre perspective then switching to the astronauts point of view.”

Don’t forget to leave a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or other social media.

Check back frequently for updates.

“Diabolical: Three Tales of Vengeance and the Sorcerer Jack Thurston” is Free Today to Celebrate the Festival of Hecate Trivia

Today, Diabolical is free today in celebration of the festival of Hecate Trivia.

Wikipedia says of Hecate:

Hecate or Hekate (/ˈhɛkət/Ancient GreekἙκάτηHekátē) is a goddess in ancient Greek religion and mythology, most often shown holding a pair of torches or a key and in later periods depicted in triple form. She is variously associated with crossroads, entrance-ways, light, magicwitchcraft, knowledge of herbs and poisonous plants, ghosts, necromancy, and sorcery. She appears in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and in Hesiod‘s Theogony, where she is promoted strongly as a great goddess. The place of origin of her following is uncertain, but it is thought that she had popular followings in Thrace.

Hecate was one of the main deities worshipped in Athenian households as a protective goddess and one who bestowed prosperity and daily blessings on the family. In the post-Christian writings of the Chaldean Oracles (2nd–3rd century CE) she was regarded with (some) rulership over earth, sea, and sky, as well as a more universal role as Saviour (Soteira), Mother of Angels and the Cosmic World Soul. Regarding the nature of her cult, it has been remarked, “she is more at home on the fringes than in the centre of Greek polytheism. Intrinsically ambivalent and polymorphous, she straddles conventional boundaries and eludes definition.”

Go to amazon.com/author/philslattery or Goodreads or any other social media to leave a review.

Jack Thurston is a retired professor of medieval literature and history. He is also a widower and father and a retired sorcerer who has returned to the black arts to exact revenge for the death of his wife, daughter, and brother. He has an intriguing position in the universe at a focal point of life, the afterlife, logic and reason, anger and hatred, the ancient and the modern worlds, grief and his attempts to escape grief through self-destruction. Though he wants to have the peace he once found with his wife, Agatha, he is pulled in many directions by circumstance and by his powerful negative emotions.

Reader Edward Z says about these three tales:

“Three of the stories feature a sorcerer named Jack Thurston, who is a really well done evil sort of character and the best of the bunch in my opinion. The author methodically goes through his rather complicated and gross preparations for the spells and it adds a bit more weight to them then usually found in these kinds of stories.”

Reader Tabs says about this collection of three tales:

“I very much enjoyed this short read. It was interesting and allowed for me to develop great imagery. Will recommend to friends.”

This collection of three short tales is perfect for those who have only a few short breaks to escape into the hidden world of horror, black magic, sorcery, and anger-fueled revenge.

I am a fan of the old school horror practiced by such authors as H.P. Lovecraft, Poe, Edward Lucas White, and Arthur Machen.  I endeavor to make a story as terrifying and suspenseful for the reader as possible without resorting to gratuitous blood and gore for a simple shock or quick feeling of disgust.

You can find this and other works at my Amazon author’s page:  www.amazon.com/author/philslattery.

Currently, Jack has a Twitter account (@jthurston666), where he has attracted a small following.

Information on more social media accounts and other characters (as they are developed) can be found at: philslattery.wordpress.com.

Show your appreciation for these stories by leaving a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or other social media.

If you enjoy horror, check out my collection of horror short stories A Tale of Hell and Other Works of Horror: Stories of wizards, werewolves, serial killers, alien worlds, and the damned, which includes these stories.