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WATCHERS AT THE PORTAL, Part One

Short story By: Philip Roberts
Horror



A Lovecraftean Science-horror story set in the Australian outback.


Submitted:Feb 14, 2011    Reads: 32    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   


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PART ONE:

Although I had already driven round the base of the mount twice without locating any sign of a mansion, or house of any kind, my natural stubbornness told me that there just had to be a house there. So, ignoring the urge to turn tail and drive 320 kilometres straight back to Melbourne, I started driving slowly around the base of the mountain for a third time.

This time I did see something. But not the missing split-level mansion that my Uncle Lindsay Stafford's executor Thomas J. Holland had assured me that I would find at the base of Mount Peterson -- also known as Haunted Mountain, for reasons that I would soon discover. What I saw was merely a hint of white among the tall, native Australian grass growing beneath and upon the mount.

Climbing from my Mitsubishi Magna I walked across to examine the white streak, expecting it to be nothing more than a chocolate bar wrapper. Instead, it turned out to be the remains of an address post. "William C. Stafford" I could just make out upon the worm-riddled wood that crumbled to dust in my hands.

'So much for the split-level mansion, complete with gables, gambrels, and great bay windows!' I thought, remembering the description which the Fitzroy legal firm had given me over the telephone. 'There obviously was some kind of structure here once, but God knows how many years, or even decades ago it collapsed into mounds of termite fodder!'

With a frustrated sigh I turned to start back toward my car...Only to see it twenty metres or more up the side of the mountain, slowly reversing up the mount.

"My God, I must have left the stupid thing in gear!" I said starting after the Mitsubishi. Although even as I spoke I realised that it couldn't possibly explain the car rolling uphill!

Never much of an athlete (having always finished last at school sports meets, to the consternation of my father who had once almost qualified for a place on the Australian Olympic track-and-field team and had hoped his son might actually make the Olympic team. Some hope!) I set off up the mountain without any real expectation of being able to catch the car. To my great surprise though, I found that I could easily lope up the side of the mountain, without even raising a sweat. 'If only dad could see me now!' I thought as I sprinted up the mount like a true Olympic athlete.

I had almost caught up with the car and was actually reaching for the door handle, a quarter of the way up the mount, when my left foot snagged on something in the tall grass and I went sprawling to the ground.

Cursing as I pulled myself to my feet again, to my surprise I saw that I had fallen over a long, white weatherboard. 'Well, I've found part of a house at any rate!' I thought as I started off after the Mitsubishi again.

A few hundred metres further on I saw a hint of white. But this time I was astute enough to jump over the white weatherboard concealed in the long native grass.

As I continued up the mountainside, still loping along without any sign of fatigue, every few hundred metres I saw one or two long weatherboards hidden in the tall grass.

I had almost caught the car again at the top of the mount, when to my shock I saw a tall, rambling white weatherboard house, three-storeys high, complete with seemingly a myriad gables, gambrels and square bay windows as described by my Uncle Lindsay's executors and thought, 'The mansion! It has to be the bloody mansion that was supposed to be at the base of the mountain! Some lawyer you are Thomas J. Stafford Esquire!'

In stopping to ponder the sudden discovery of the missing mansion, I had, however, allowed my car to race out of my grasp again. 'Oh well, that's the end of that!' I thought as the Mitsubishi topped the peak of mountain and started down the other side.

After one last look at the weatherboard mansion, I set off again expecting to find my car racing down the other side of the mount -- if it wasn't already smashed to pieces at the bottom of the mountain. To my astonishment though, when I topped the peak of the mount, I found my car at last stopped, just beyond the crest of the mountain.

Although it had already come to a complete stop, taking no chances I leapt inside the car and pulled on the handbrake. Then I set off back to the other side of the mount to have a closer look at the mansion. It was a three-storey, weatherboard house with loose planks hanging half away from the sides, and gaps where planks had previously fallen away down the years. 'Well, that explains the loose boards all the way down the side of the mount!' I thought. Although I knew it didn't explain how the boards had got themselves spread all the way down the side of the mountain. 'Gravity works in mysterious ways!' I joked, recalling how effortlessly I had raced up the mount, unaware just how prophetic the thought would turn out to be.

Going across to the small front porch, I saw a rocking chair across which was draped a blanket and a fawn cardigan. Both of which were spotlessly clean, free of the decrepitude that seemed to wrack the house itself -- showing that the house had obviously been in use fairly recently.

Walking across to the door I saw an ornate brass nameplate saying "The Gables", confirming that it was the house for which I searched. Shaking my head in amazement I said, "At the bottom of the mountain! I'm going to have to sack that incompetent lawyer!" while trying the key that I had been given in the lock.

The key turned easily, I swung the door open and stepped inside the house....

And was immediately overwhelmed with dizziness. My head swam for a moment as though I were about to faint -- possibly I even did for a second or two. When my head cleared I found myself walking through the doorway on my hands, my feet pointed straight up into the air like a circus acrobat!

When I tried to lower my feet to the ground, they were "pinched" tightly at the ankles as though a giant talon was holding them -- the points of the claws digging lightly into my flesh. However, when I struggled round enough to look up, there was nothing visible holding me.

I had walked three or four metres on my hands into the great entrance hall and was still peering up, searching for some sign of my invisible captor, when my ankles were suddenly released and I went tumbling to the hardwood floor with a resounding crash.

After a stunned moment I climbed to my feet and brushed myself off, then set out timidly to explore the mansion:

The first floor was laden with tables and chairs, cabinets and other furniture, all shrouded in form concealing dust covers, making them look like squatting ghosts. In places the dust had piled up many centimetres, like a thick carpet that disintegrated upon contact with my feet. The second floor was little better. In one room I located a great ancient, floor-to-ceiling length bookcase and lifted out a large leather-bound volume. Only to see the pages plop out as fine dust at my feet, leaving me holding the empty shell of the cover.

The third floor was in noticeably better condition, with no obvious signs of dust and no covers over the furniture. I realised that the old man must have lived m the third floor, more-or-less abandoning the first two. 'As you would expect with one old man living alone in a house this size for decades,' I thought. Although I wondered why he had not chosen to live on the ground floor and left the upper two deserted. 'Same result, but at least he would have saved himself walking two flights of stairs every time he entered or left the house!'

There were two bedrooms maintained in liveable condition, however, in one room I located a two-shelf bookcase containing what I first took to be a complete set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. But upon closer examination I realised that it was a hard-bound forty-odd volume personal diary, which my uncle, Lindsay Stafford, had kept for eighty-five years, from before World War One to his death a week ago in August 1999.

After turning on the light so I could read in the gloomy room, I gathered a stack of the diaries around me, sat on Uncle Lindsay's bed and began to peruse the large, leather-bound volumes.

Volume one contained details of my uncle's early life at the Gables, as a teenager. Early in volume two he was married to a local beauty, Gwendolen Bowers. But by the end of that volume (June 1920) Gwendolen had died, a victim of the flu epidemic that killed twenty million people world wide that year.

The third volume covered nearly fifteen years of my uncle's life, as Lindsay Stafford sank deeper and deeper into his grief over the death of Gwendolen. For that decade and a half he did nothing more than count off the days of his life. Until March 1935, when he suddenly reported, "Something is wrong...with the very fabric of time and space itself. Each day it seems as though it is becoming a little easier to walk up the once almost unscalable mountain...And a little more difficult to walk down. Almost... as though gravity has somehow started to reverse itself on the mountainside!

"At first I thought it was an illusion of my tired old mind. Then I noticed that the house was starting to slip. Only to be expected in an old house like this, of course...Built in 1836 it's almost a century old. But as crazy as it may sound, the house is not slipping down the hill...but up!"

'Poor old bloke!' I thought. 'Obviously crazy from grief over the death of his wife!' But then I flicked forward a few pages in the diary and was shocked to see a grainy old black-and-white photograph of what was unmistakably the Gables standing at the base of Mount Peterson! Exactly as my uncle's executor had assured me.

'It must be another house!' I thought logically. 'An earlier house that predates the Gables!' And as I flicked through the next few pages of the diary I felt that I had found the answer, since there was no noticeable change in the position of the mansion to the mount in the photos. But then, after three or four pages, there was a slight change. Instead of being at the very base of the mountain, the house had slipped up a few metres, hardly enough to notice at first. As I pored through page after page, hundred after hundred photos, I realised the mistake my uncle had initially made: in taking so many photos (a dozen or more a day it seemed for the first few months at least), he had hidden the movement in the early photos. Being so close together meant any noticeable shift only occurred every couple of dozen photographs.

Over the next few volumes of the diary there was little else but hundreds of black-and-white photos showing the mansion ever-so-slowly sliding up the mount -- with just a line or two of commentary by the old man every day or two:

"There can be no doubt," wrote Uncle Lindsay at one point, "that the Gables is definitely slipping up the side of Mount Peterson in defiance of all the known laws of science! I know that no one will ever believe me without suitable proof, so I have carefully maintained this photographic evidence that should silence even the sternest of critics."

It certainly silenced me. Undoubtedly today any halfway decent photographer could easily enough forge a series of photos of a mansion slipping gradually uphill. But these were undeniably grainy, decades-old black-and-white originals. And as time passed and my uncle had become astute enough to take the photos further and further apart (at first daily, then weekly, then monthly, then finally three or four times a year) the movement of the mountain became increasingly obvious.

As I examined the photos of the house (at first a tenth of the way up the mount, then a fifth, a quarter, a third, a half, two-thirds) I remembered the loose weatherboards I had seen (and fallen over) earlier in the long grass while chasing my car. 'So that explains it!' I thought. As the house grew older boards started to fall off and Uncle Lindsay was too poor to repair it. So he left the boards lying in the tall grass beside the house, until the house moved on leaving them behind! But wouldn't the weatherboards themselves have moved up the mount after the house? Unless they were too light? Maybe an object has to be a certain weight and size before it can be drawn up the side of the mountain?'

For decades there was almost nothing in volume after volume of the diaries, except photographs of the up-sliding mansion and one-, or two-line comments by my uncle. Right up until August 1968, when he suddenly experienced the invisible force grabbing him by the ankles and forcing him to walk on his hands through the doorway for a few metres whenever entering the mansion.

"At first I thought I was going crazy," wrote the old man, "so I invited a few people from nearby Glen Hartwell for a visit. Each of them in turn ended up walking through the doorway on their hands, confirming that it was more than a mental aberration of mine. Their initial reaction was to shriek from terror, then to make light of the experience, laughing and joking at the "great fun", and even in the case of Gregory Singleton going outside to enter again to experience it a second time. But although they all laughed heartily, no one else was prepared to try it a second time, and even Greg wasn't game to try it a third time. They stayed for an hour or so, laughing and joking, promising to return soon for another go at it. But, of course, none of them ever did come back!"

As the years progressed it seemed as though virtually no one visited my uncle at all. He certainly made no mention of visitors. Until December 1973, when a few days before Christmas he reported the arrival of Morton Matthews and leLande Strange:

"Matthews," he wrote, "looks like the archetypal black sorcerer with short, jet black hair, high widows' peak and an exaggerated goatee. Strange on the other hand is refreshingly ordinary in appearance, looking more like a school teacher: tall, thin, with horn-rimmed glasses, and crew-cut ginger hair. Both men seemed puzzled to find the Gables on top of Mount Peterson --" 'So it got to the top by December 1973!' I thought. At first I wondered why in more than twenty-five years since then it hadn't slipped back down the other side of the mount. Until remembering my Mitsubishi that had crossed the crest of the mount earlier, then abruptly stopped. "And both men claim to be nature-lovers exploring the flora and fauna upon the mount. Yet neither man seemed capable of distinguishing between the commonest plants and neither had noticed that there was no animal, or bird life of any kind on the mountain...."

'No animals or birds!' I thought, wondering whether the old man had cracked-up after all. 'There must be at least small arboreal animals on a mountain this size surely?'

Going back to the diaries, I read: "As I have mentioned elsewhere in these diaries, the quantity of animal life has gradually been fading out (if that is the correct expression) on the mountain since the early 1960s. As though small life forms were somehow unable to cope with the strange new laws of physics that seem to now govern the mount. By 1968 the insects had all vanished, by the next year the last of the birds, and 1972 the last of the small animals. Leaving me the only living creature upon the mount. Or so I had thought. Now it seems Matthews and Strange will be wandering about the place plant-watching...."

I skipped forward a few pages and read: "Strange and Matthews have turned out to be odd botanists! They do most of their plant-watching at night. I've heard of bird watchers and zoologists stalking about at night, since there are plenty of species of nocturnal birds and animals, that can only be studied at night. But I have never heard of nocturnal plants! I must ask them about it the next time I see them...."

After that I began skipping through the diaries looking for passages specifically about Strange and Matthews. Finally I found one in September 1974: "Well they've turned up again, the amateur botanists. I haven't seen them for six months -- although I have heard them creeping around the mount at night on many occasions. Then this morning they turned up and made an offer to buy the Gables of all things! 'You're welcome to stay on the other side of the mount,' I offered, hoping to put them off. 'That's very kind of you,' said leLande Strange in his high, reedy voice, 'but you see the Gables is the focus...' He stopped suddenly, receiving a withering look from Matthews and obviously realised he had almost said too much. 'Er, ah, that is the focus of our attentions.' 'Your attentions?' I asked. 'Er, ah...' stammered Strange. 'Botany,' explained Morton Matthews without missing a beat. 'The Gables is ideally situated for our study of plant life upon the mountain.' 'I'm sorry,' I said, 'but this house has been in my family since it was built in 1836, one year before the town of Glen Hartwell was even founded.' When I refused to sell, they started to up the ante, offering me larger and larger amounts, then finally resorting to threats, warning me that 'odd things are going on upon the mount', as though I hadn't already known that for the last forty-odd years. Finally they left, vowing 'Not to be held responsible for anything that might happen to you!' I considered venturing into Glen Hartwell to report the threat to the local police chief, Lawrie Grimes, but then thought better of it."

Feeling famished I stopped reading and glanced at my wristwatch to find to my astonishment that it was after 9:00 p.m. Tentatively returning to my car (uncertain whether I would do handstands again walking out; relieved to find that I did not) I collected a hamper of food, only to find that my uncle had left the refrigerator well stocked when he had died a week earlier.

After fixing and devouring with relish a hastily thrown together meal of bacon and eggs, I settled down for an early night in my Uncle Lindsay's room....

Only to awaken a short time later to the sound of a loud electric crackling. At first I thought it was lightning outside my bedroom window. But as I looked up, to my astonishment, I saw a flashing streak of silver-white, like static electricity, but as thick as my index finger, three or four metres long, flashing only a dozen centimetres above my head, like an electric eel swimming through the air.

I watched the "static snake" for what seemed like ten minutes or more when I was startled by the sound of a loud crash upon the corrugated-iron roof, followed by the sound of something large scuttling about across the creaking roof.

'So much for there being no animal life on the mount!' I thought, assuming that it was some kind of possum that had leapt onto the roof from an overhanging tree.

It was only at that instant that I noticed the static snake had vanished.

* * *

The next morning I had hardly finished breakfast, when I heard a loud rapping on the front door. Going downstairs to investigate, I saw two men: one with a high widow's peak on his jet black hair, piercing brown eyes, and an exaggerated goatee, whom I recognised from my uncle's diary description as Morton Matthews; the other tall, lean, with short, reddish-brown hair, and horn-rimmed glasses, who I realised could only be leLande Strange.

"Peter Richmond," I introduced myself to the two men, who indeed announced themselves as Matthews and Strange.

"Won't you come inside?" I invited.

The two men hesitated for an instant, exchanging a wry look, then stepped forward. And both ended up walking through the doorway on their hands, their legs thrust up rigidly, pointing toward the ceiling.

"Oh gentlemen, I'm terribly sorry," I apologised, having temporarily forgotten the weird phenomenon connected with entering the mansion. "I should have warned you...."

"That's quite all right," assured Matthews after the two men had returned right side up -- considerably more gracefully than I had done, both managing to land on their feet again, rather than tumbling to a heap as I had, making me aware that they had both experienced the phenomenon more often than I had as they soon confirmed:

"We've both been inside the Gables many times in the past," said Strange, "when dealing with your uncle..." He stopped suddenly after receiving a sharp look from Matthews who I realised was obviously the spokesman of the two.

"We wanted to welcome you to Glen Hartwell," said Matthews, shaking my hand. Then without wasting words he quickly added, "And to ask if you would be willing to sell the Gables to us?"

"We're willing to pay almost any price you think reasonable: $200,000; $300,000; $350,000..." chipped in Strange again being silenced by a glare from Morton Matthews.

"I don't know whether you're aware of it, but we were negotiating with Lindsay Stafford for the sale of the Gables before his tragic demise," said Matthews.

"Tragic? Well, he was ninety-odd," said Strange, receiving a hard look from Matthews which shut him up.

Ignoring Strange, I said, "Yes I've read in my Uncle Lindsay's diaries about your attempts to purchase the Gables."

"Diaries?" asked Strange in a worried voice, receiving a withering glance from Matthews.

"According to my uncle's diaries you are both botanists?"

"Botanists...?" began leLande Strange.

"Only amateur botanists," corrected Morton Matthews. "Actually we are both retired nuclear physicists."

"I worked at Woomera Rocket Range from 1953 till 1973 when it was blown up by the English Government," said Strange.

Astonished, I said, "I wasn't aware that the rocket range had been blown up?"

"Well, you see they almost unleashed something that they couldn't control," replied Strange, making Matthews' eyes almost glow from rage.

"The English Government was secretly experimenting with nuclear power at Woomera, without the knowledge or permission of Canberra," explained Matthews a little too quickly. "When the incoming Whitlam government discovered what the English had been up to, they agreed to completely raze the installation to prevent it from snowballing into an international incident!"

I was astounded by this odd tale. I knew that the English had been involved in secret, illegal nuclear tests at Maralinga in South Australia, during which they had used Aborigines as live guinea pigs to test the effects of ultra-high radiation on human beings. But I had never heard of similar tests performed at Woomera. Looking across at Strange I could tell by his vacant expression that he was just as puzzled as I was. However, he quickly recovered his composure to say, "Yes, yes, that's right. Er, anyway we both retired after that and moved to Victoria...."

"To study botany," finished Matthews.

Although their story was plausible, there was one thing that troubled me, and I said, "If you don't mind me saying so, you both look much too young to have retired more than twenty-five years ago?"

"Thank you," replied Matthews, quickly flashing another glance at Strange. "We'll take that as a compliment. But I assure you that we are both much older than we look...." At which leLande Strange began to giggle childishly, until being silenced by a withering glance from Morton Matthews.

"Well, the truth is that with your uncle's forbearance we have been living on the other side of Mount Peterson since early 1974."

"And have been trying to buy the Gables since early 1974," said Strange before Matthews could stop him.

"Why would you spend twenty-five years trying to buy one house," I asked, "when you could have built any number of houses of your own in that time?"

"Yes that's true, but you see the Gables is the focal point..." said Strange. He wheezed to a stop as he received an elbow in the solar plexus from Matthews.

"The focal point?" I asked. I recalled that a similar term had been mentioned in my Uncle Lindsay's diaries.

"To the flora and fauna on the mount," explained Matthews after a moment's delay.

"That's odd," I said, "I would have thought that the lower regions of the mount would have more interesting plant life. And as far as I can ascertain there is a mysterious lack of animal life of any kind on the mountainside."

Strange and Matthews exchanged an odd look, then Matthews rather cryptically said, "Oh there is animal life...of a sort on the mountain all right."

I started to argue, then remembered the sound of the heavy animal scurrying across the rooftop the night before. Before I could stop myself I told the two men of my experience.

Strange and Matthews were almost delirious with delight when told of the occurrence. "A large animal!" cried Strange with childlike glee, making me almost expect him to clap his hands with pleasure. "Yes, I guess you could call it a large animal. A very large animal indeed!"

Obviously realising that his associate was getting out of hand, Morton Matthews clamped a hand on his shoulder and started to lead him away. As they stepped out onto the porch, Matthews looked back and called out, "Please consider our offer, Mr. Richmond. We're willing to pay any reasonable price for the Gables."

* * *

Later that day (although loath to step outside for fear of what would happen when I re-entered the mansion) I went for a short walk around the top of the mountain.

After a short time walking through the lush native grass, on a whim I decided to explore the other side of the mount, curious to see where Strange and Matthews claimed to have been camping for the last twenty-five years.

What I found, however, was not a camp site, but a blackened ruin: a black forest looking like a negative of a white Christmas scene. Black trees stood up like giant sticks of charcoal, amid black grass and a thick "snow" of black ashes half a metre thick covered almost a quarter of the circumference of the mountain, running from the top of the mount to more than halfway down.

At first I stepped tentatively through the black forest, half expecting the ashes to still be hot underfoot. But I soon realised that whatever holocaust had engulfed the mount had done so years, or even decades earlier. Yet I was puzzled that there was no trace of new green shoots among the black, only ash and charcoal. I scraped at the ground with the toe of one shoe and discovered to my dismay that even the dirt itself had been burnt crisp like badly burnt toast.

'But what kind of fire could even burn dirt?' I wondered. Then remembering Matthews and Strange's claim that they were both retired nuclear physicists, I thought, 'A nuclear blast perhaps! That would explain why only one section of the mount was scorched, whereas a bush fire would probably have ravaged the entire mountain!'

Although I realised that the idea was absurd (How could two men have detonated an atomic bomb?) nonetheless, afraid of contracting radiation sickness, I hurried back toward my own side of the mount as fast as my legs would carry me.

Seeing the great, rambling structure of the Gables, I started across toward it, when to my astonishment I saw a vast flock of pink-billed seagulls flying across the mountain. So there is bird life on the mount after all? I thought in awe, watching the birds which I realised were either heading toward the Yannan River near Glen Hartwell, or Lake Cooper at nearby Harpertown.

I watched the great curtain of whiteness seemingly blocking out the entire sky, for a few moments, then started off toward the Gables again.

I had hardly started walking again though, when I was belted across the back of the neck by what felt like a damp sponge with a large rock in the middle.

As I fell to the grass I heard a thump-thump-thump-thump-thump like giant hailstones falling all around me. After being hit a second time (on the back of my left leg) I curled up into the foetal position and covered my head with my arms to protect myself.

The "hail" thundered down around me deafening me as the thump-thump-thump took on almost an express train roar as it seemed to continue endlessly as though the heavens had decided to unleash all of Victoria's annual supply of hailstones on Mount Peterson in a single murderous outpouring. As I was struck a third, fourth, then fifth painful blow I had started to suspect I had made a mistake curling up on the ground to protect myself. If the hailstorm lasted long enough eventually I would receive a major injury. After three or four minutes and a dozen painful blows I was debating the wisdom of climbing to my feet and making a run for the Gables, which had been only a couple of hundred metres away when I had been felled. When suddenly the tumultuous din finally started to abate. After striking me one finally painful blow to the back, the hailstorm abruptly ended.

I lay on the grass for a moment longer before painfully climbing to my feet again, with great difficulty since the grass all around me was now slick and greasy, making it almost impossible to find a foothold. When at last I stood again I was horrified to see that I was covered from head to foot in blood!

But looking around the mount I saw immediately that most of it was not my own blood. For as far as the eye could see the grass was covered in literally thousands (if not tens of thousands) of bloody seagull carcases! The hailstorm that had stranded me out on the open was actually a "rain" of seagulls falling from the sky by the thousand!

"My God! What could have caused it?" I cried, horrified by the sight of the shattered seagulls. But then recalling Strange's cryptic remark that "The Gables is the focal point," I thought, 'My God, they really are nuclear physicists! Somehow they must have built and detonated a home-made atomic bomb on the mountainside and now the whole damn mount is radioactive!'

Despite my natural aversion to walking through the thick carpet of dead seagulls "which now covered much of my side of the mount, I hurried back to the mansion as quickly as possible, from time to time falling upon the blood-slickened carcases, thinking as I ran, 'No wonder there's no sign of bird or animal life upon the mount! The radiation kills it off as soon as it strays onto or over the lethal mountain!'

END OF PART ONE:





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