Sunday, 29 July 2012

Part III
The Patient

The following morning, after a breakfast of limp toast, surprisingly tasty jam and weak, watery, unsatisfying coffee, I decided to take the Professor's advice, and pay a visit to Jack Woolley up at The Lodge. It was a pleasant enough drive, the sun peering out from behind the benign and fluffy cloud formations that drifted across the bucolic sky. On this morning, Borsetshire was a delightful place, and it was the easiest of things to dismiss from my mind the shapeless, formless terrors that had haunted my sleep, or indeed the vague sense of unease that had so far rested on my shoulders since my arrival in Ambridge. Surely these things were all in the mind, for what horror could possibly withstand the glory of an all-too-rare English summer's day?

Writing this from my cell in the Clinic, I am amused almost to laughter by the remembrance of my sunny disposition on that fateful morning, for I have discovered that the world is a cruel and unknowable place, filled with horrors and terrors the like of which none could imagine, and only a cursed few such as myself will ever encounter. And Borsetshire, despite its cheerful demeanour that morning, is no exception- indeed, it may be that it is one of the most egregious examples of the universe's heartless and fickle nature, that it may fool us with its surface beauty, while deep beneath lies the reality- a cold, harsh place, in which humanity, all blissfully imagining its superiority among species, is in fact among the lowest of the low, a mere trifle for the eldritch and monstrous beings which rule all.

But to return to my tale, though it is with a sense of growing dread that I approach this part of it, I was greeted at reception by a very personable young orderly, who told me Mr Woolley was uncommonly lucid today, but that for a man in his condition it was impossible to say for how long this would last. I would be allowed to speak to him in private, but the orderly would wait outside in case he became confused or flustered. They assured me his confusion had never led to him becomign violent, but that he would often need ministration and comfort on those occasions where he became unaware of where he was. I thanked her, and then let her lead me to his room, aware that I was being watched with interest by a shabbily-dressed elderly fellow who appeared to have been leaving, but had chosen to loiter when he had heard Mr Woolley's name mentioned.

Mr Woolley was in reasonably good spirits, given his circumstances. I introduced myself, and told him I was an old and distant friend of the family's, who had heard of his predicament and decided the gentlemanly thing to do would be to pay him a visit. He greeted me warmly, and for the next five minutes or so we discussed village life, with much bluffing and hedging on my part, until he himself was the first to mention Lower Loxley. At this point my questioning began in earnest- or it would have, had not the simple question "were you and Nigel good friends?" been sufficient to unleash a torrent of information. His face darkened, he beckoned me closer, and in a hushed voice began to tell me of his "meetings" with the late Mr Pargeter.

As he spoke, however, his grasp on reality seemed to slip away with every word. I ascertained that the dead man had visited him here on many occasions, and that before that they had maintained a correspondence over several years. Mr Pargeter, he said, had been fond of visits to Borchester Library, where he had taken a particular interest in certain old texts. So far, this chimed with what the Professor had said, but afforded me very little in the way of new information. He had, he assured me, tried to warn Mr Pargeter away from his studies, and at this a look of unbearable sadness crossed his old, but still dignified, face, and I felt a terrible wave of melancholy myself at the cruelties that can be committed upon good men by the vicissitudes of fate and mental degeneration.

"Why, Mr Woolley?" I pressed him. "Why did you try to stop him reading about these things?"

He paused for a long moment, during which I became concerned that he may be drifting away on tides of forgetfulness once more, and then responded in a voice so calm, so clear, it almost sounded rehearsed.

"They're coming back, you know. The Elder Gods. The Great Old Ones. They're all coming back. All of them. It'll all be over soon, Peggy. All over soon."

And then his face clouded over once more, and I knew I'd lost him. "Peggy?" he cried in confusion. I rose and went to the door, but the orderly, efficient and diligent, was already entering to calm him down. I bade him goodbye, and returned to reception to await the orderly and get signed out.

"I'm sorry about that, Mr Shanks, he gets terribly confused sometimes". I assured her it was no trouble at all, and that it had been a most pleasant meeting.

"Other than his wife", I asked, "does he get many visitors?"

"He used to get regular visits from that farmer chappy- David, is it? But he seems to have stopped coming now".

I asked for a look at the visitors' register- David Archer's last visit had been December 29th. Two days before he had witnessed the death of Mr Woolley's only other regular visitor apart from his wife. Nigel had died, and the visits had stopped. Coincidence? I suspected probably so, but I had promised Mrs Pargeter a full investigation, and I was looking forward to putting her mind at rest, quelling her suspicions, granting her some closure and putting off my own financial woes, for the time being at least.

I was returning to my car when the man I had seen earlier rushed up to me, a worried smile twisting his thin mouth.

"Could I have a word? It's about Mr Woolley."

I smiled back. "I was really only here to ask Mr Woolley about-"

He interrupted me, his manner friendly but his voice that of a predatory undertaker. "About Nigel? Or about them?"


"Them. The Elder Gods. The Great Old Ones. The evil that lurks behind everything".

"Mr Woolley's delusions, you mean?" I was edging away.

He chuckled. "Ah, I see your confusion. I'm not a patient here. I visit my wife. My name's Ted". He held out his hand. Wondering exactly what I was getting myself into here, I shook it.


"Pleased to meet you, Mr Armitage." I didn't bother to correct him. "I knew someone would come asking questions about Nigel. Which is why I've spent the last few months getting the answers from Jack". He beckoned me towards a little visitors' cafe at the front of the building. Intrigued, I followed. I bought him, and myself, a coffee, and bade him tell me everything he knew.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Part II
The Scholar

I arrived in Ambridge late on the Tuesday evening, under a gibbous moon, accompanied by the preternaturally loud sounds of sheep in a nearby field, unsettled by some as yet invisible disturbance. It seemed ominous, as if presaging unspecified disaster, and despite my natural cynicism, I am forced to admit that, if truth be told, it filled me with a sense of nameless dread. The weather was satisfactory for the time of year, as I am told is so often the case in this seemingly sleepy village, and I pulled into the car park of the local public house with mixed feelings. This should, I reminded myself, be a fairly simple case; all I had to do was check out some leads, and reassure the grieving Mrs Pargeter that there had been nothing untoward about the death of her husband, and that the only conspiracy involved in the accident was that between wind and gravity. I foresaw resistance to this, but I was confident that confronted with the evidence, or rather the lack of same, she would finally find closure and would eventually stop tormenting herself with her weird imaginings.

Bearing a garishly-painted sign featuring the animal which gave it its name, The Bull was a fairly traditional Old English pub, seemingly having managed to avoid the despicable trend for gentrification which has befallen so many of our public houses in recent years. Although the food on offer was hearty and varied, there was nothing of the "gastropub" about it. A shabby dart board, a beer-stained pool table- these were the limits of its entertainments, although a garishly-painted sign pointing up the stairs indicated the possibility of the occasional musical event. In short, it was a real pub, selling real beer. I arranged reasonably-priced accomodation with the landlady, a rather anxious-looking woman, though attractive for her age, and with a flighty air which, I rather suspected, hid a capacity for ruthlessness. She showed me to my room, which was well-enough appointed, and there I unpacked my case before returning to the saloon bar for a well-deserved drink.

Being a local village pub, it was not long before the presence of an outsider began to attract attention, and I soon found myself enjoying a pint of the local cider with two older men, a father and son who lived nearby. The son introduced himself as Eddie, and tried to sell me a wheelbarrow; an offer which I politely refused, having neither the need nor the desire for such an item. The father, on the other hand, old Joe Grundy- he provided far more in the way of useful conversation. After buying both he and his son a drink, I settled back to hear his tales of village life, on which subject he was very loquacious indeed. It seemed this village was indeed a hotbed of mystery and passion; although it also seemed to me that for a man such as Joe, living in a somnolent village such as this, the twin arts of mythologising and exaggeration would prove invaluable in his self-appointed role as village elder. I realised it would be of little use to try to question him directly, and instead contented myself with sitting back and letting his tales of rural intrigue was over me until he mentioned Lower Loxley Hall.

This was my entry point. "Wasn't there some sort of accident there? I'm sure I recognise the name from the Borsetshire Post."

His face darkened. "Ooh yer, poor Nigel. Tragedy, that was. Mind you", and at this he leaned in closer, "there's them as say there was more to it than we was told, you know".
His son interjected.

"Dad, Mr Shanks here don't want to hear about all that nonsense." And then, apologetically, to me: "'E always gets a bit weird when 'e's 'ad a few. Don't mind 'im." And so the conversation returned to its previous state, all infidelity and prize-winning marrows.

Eventually Eddie got up to use the facilities, and I pressed Joe once more on what his words had meant. "Oh, I probably shouldn't say anything, really... just that poor Nigel had been gettin' interested in some very queer stuff. 'E'd been spending a lot of time in Borsetshire, at the library, so they say. But I wouldn't know much about that. Never really been much of a library sort of man meself. Sayin' that, though, 'ere comes one now!" He gestured towards an elderly, distinguished-looking gentleman, who was just being poured a drink. "Professor!" he called. "Come and 'ave a word with this fella. Wants to know about libraries".

I tried to correct his misconception, but it was too late. After a brief handshake, this "Professor" (who inteoduced himself as "Jim") sat at the table with us, and began holding forth on the wide variety of old books kept in a special room at Borsetshire Library. Being, as he told me, a staunch Atheist, he was quick to pooh-pooh them as folklore, but apparently they were a fascinating store of the bizarre. Books like the Necronomicon of the Mad Arab Alhazred, Ludwig Prinn's De Wermis Mysteriis, or the Unausprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt.

It soon transpired that I was to learn little of any use here, but the combination of the local cider and the scholar's learned tales provided a welcome distraction. After all, I surmised, I couldn't be expected to be on duty twenty-four hours a day. Mrs Pargeter would surely forgive me setting aside a couple of hours to unwind after the journey before beginning my investigation proper in the morning.
When the landlady rang the bell for "time", Jim was in mid-sentence.

"For Kadath in the Cold Wastes hath known them, and what man knows-"

"Time to go home, Jim, stop boring the poor man with all your book-larnin'" called a voice from behind the bar. Reluctantly the scholar retrieved his coat, and he and the two Grundys made for the door, Joe slowly bringing up the lead. When he was sure the other two were out of earshot, he turned to me and said in a low voice:

"Talk to Jack Wooley, up at The Lodge. 'Im and Nigel were 'avin'... meetin's".

At last, something of some use to show for the evening! In improved cheer, I bade goodnight to the landlady, and went to my room.

My sleep was at first fitful, my dreams haunted by terrible things that moved in the trees, and tentacles reaching up from the Am to dwarf the buildings of the village... but eventually I gave myself up fully to the arms of Morpheus, and the night passed uneventfully.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Part I
From The Journal Of Armitage Shanks

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."
    H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu

"A catchy tune followed by fifteen minutes of ambient noises and sighing".
    Sandi Toksvig, The News Quiz

There are, without a doubt, things both within and without this world of which man was never meant to know. Since that fateful night, I have seen little else when I close my eyes for fitful and disturbed sleep, even with the medications and ministrations lavished upon me by the staff here at the Borchester Clinic, formerly (and more accurately, to my fragmented mind) known as The Borchester Clinic For The Insane. It was here I was brought after being found on the banks of the River Am, naked as the day I was born, and clutching that unearthly and damned carving to my chest. It took two nurses to remove it from me, so I'm told, and its whereabouts now are unknown to me; a shame, because I feel its presence would at least offer me some comfort through my tormented nights. I was raving, they say; harsh glossolalia from lost tongues, references to the dread Necronomicon and something that was "bigger than a squirrel". For my own part, I remember nothing after the events I am about to relate. And for this, at least, I thank all that's holy, though I am beginning to doubt the existence of anything that could reasonably be described as such.

It was in the summer of 2011 that I was first contacted by one Elizabeth Pargeter, a resident of the village of Ambridge, nestled deep in the Borsetshire countryside. I was a private investigator, operating out of a tiny rented office above a dive bar in one of the seedier, and of course cheaper, districts of Borchester. Despite what you may read in novels or see in films, the life of a private investigator was, to me, far from glamorous. Most of my work, on those increasingly rare occasions when I actually had word, revolved around messy divorce cases, or fraudulent insurance claims. Many is the time I've crouched in a hedge trying to photograph an allegedly injured man engaged in manual labour, or a quick game of swingball with his family.

She had called ahead; this was fortunate, as I had been about to embark on my first whiskey of the day, and the advance warning gave me a chance to moderate my behaviour such that, by the time she arrived at my office some three hours later, I had just poured my third. When business was this slow, it was not unknown for me to have finished work for the day by this time of the afternoon, and to be half-heartedly browsing the job section of the local newspaper, having some half-formed thought about a well-deserved change in career.

She looked around my office with what I couldn't help suspecting was something of an air of judgment, but gladly took the chair I offered, though refused the whiskey, opting instead for a glass of water. She was very well-spoken, having that kind of received pronunciation accent one would expect to hear on one of those interminable BBC radio dramas, able to switch from concern to condescension and then to petulance in a mere few syllables; transitions which occurred frequently during her, albeit relatively brief, testimonial.

She was a widow; her husband of some fifteen years, Nigel Pargetter, the public school-educated scion of the wealthy Pargetter family, from whom he had inherited Lower Loxley Hall, had fallen from its roof and plunged several stories to his death on New Year's Day, a scant few months previously. The official report had been that he had slipped while removing a banner from the roof in a high wind under the influence of alcohol, and at first, Mrs Pargeter told me, she had believed this account. The only other soul present at the time had been her brother, David Archer, who ran the nearby Brookfield Farm. Mrs Pargeter suspected, she told me, that her brother knew more about the accident than he was admitting to.

"Far be it from me, Mrs Archer, to turn down paid work, but in this case isn't it the most likely explanation that an intoxicated man in a high wind on a slippery roof just, well, fell?" Of course, I had no intention of turning down the job, especially in such a parlous financial climate, but I thought such a question might bring her out of herself, and her reaction may give away something she would rather keep hidden, but which may eventually prove germane to the investigation.

She reacted badly to the question, saying I was just like all the others, and she became quite distraught, weeping and repeatedly asking why nobody believed her. Her voice in this state was becoming, I must (to my shame) confess, rather grating, and it was more to bring this caterwauling to a conclusion than out of genuine sympathy that I passed her a tissue and repeated the offer of a whiskey. This time she accepted, and after gulping it down (completely neglecting its quality and vintage, as the wine-swigging rural middle classes round here are so wont to do, despite all their pretensions to sophistication) she began to open up on the subject of her brother David.

I learned, from my gentle, probing questions, that he had a history of violence towards animals- above and beyond, obviously, that which is all part and parcel of a farmer's daily lot. He had, some years ago, been prosecuted for killing a badger, which he insisted had been necessary to protect his cattle from TB. To my eternal regret, I initially discounted this piece of evidence, distracted as I was by the seemingly more relevant discovery that he had been present at the death of one Jethro Larkin, killed by a falling branch while the pair were cutting down a tree many years previously. This time, too, he was found to have had no responsibility, and it was recorded as a tragic accident. He had eventually taken Jethro's replacement, a sturdy though fretful young woman named Ruth, for his wife, and it was with her that he now ran Brookfield Farm.

Immediately following the accident, she told me, he had been utterly distraught about the death of Mr Pargetter, the two of them having been very close friends. He had initially provided welcome support for his newly-widowed sister, indeed, at times she had suspected their increasing closeness may be pushing the bounds of propriety, even for a region such as Borsetshire. However, he had eventually confided in her that it had been his idea for the late Mr Pargetter to be up on the roof in such bad conditions, and since that confession they had barely spoken. In the time following this, hurt and bereavement had clearly given way to mistrust, and, combined with the earlier death of Mr Larkin, not to mention the incident with the badger, dark seeds of misgiving had bloomed into the flowers of suspicion. In short, she had nigh-on convinced herself that her brother was fully responsible for the death of her husband; indeed, in her darker imaginings, that it may have even been premeditated murder.

I remained skeptical, but agreed to take on the case, with the usual disclaimers ensuring that even if she were, as I suspected she would be, proved wrong in her fraternal imaginings, I would still be renumerated handsomely. At least, I told myself, even if I could prove that her brother was in no way responsible for the tragedy, it could help provide her with some much-needed closure, and perhaps go some way towards mending those shattered family ties.

I bid her farewell, setting a date the following week on which I would commence my investigation in Ambridge itself, settled my affairs in Borchester, and spent a few days relaxing, safe in the knowledge that my financial situation had at last turned a corner, and from now on things would look a little less bleak, for the foreseeable future at least.

Had I known then what I know now, I would have laughed at such ignorant complacency; in fact, I would have turned down the case, thrown Mrs Archer from my office, and have lived the rest of my life never thinking about, let alone visiting, that accursed village of Ambridge.

Would that I had.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Ambridge Arcane- an introduction

A traveller in the West Midlands region of the United Kingdom may, on straying from the well-worn routes of commerce, society and decency, find himself in the rural English heartland of Borsetshire, whose scenic, rustic and peaceful nature is said by many in the know to be merely a surface, as thin ice may conceal treacherous depths. In the public houses and bars of the region some will speak, usually in hushed tones and only ever after several measures of the local cider, of the darkness that squats like some vast, squamous obscenity on the countryside, casting its horrid tentacles into every area of rural life.

Taking the northern road out of Felpersham, our traveller may then head west, following the swift-flowing River Perch towards Borchester, whose library is rumoured to hold many and varied ancient tomes which contain nefarious secrets which, these old men may say, crossing themselves and looking up from their flagons, man was never meant to comprehend. With the anguished spires of Borchester to his north, he may choose to cross the inexplicably sluggish Am, long rumoured to produce crayfish of enormous size and horrendous appearance, through the benighted settlement of Lakey Green, above which looms the forbidding presence of Lakey Hill. These old men may, casting their eyes about their dim surroundings for fear of being overheard, tell of signal fires high on the Hill, of strange gatherings on the Solstices, the Equinoxes, Yule, Walpurgisnacht and other such haunted dates on the calendar; of eerie chanting, and strange lights in the sky; of weather corresponding to no climatic patterns recorded in the rest of the country. (Indeed, meteorologists have long wondered about the microclimate in Borsetshire; while all around it the rest of the country is alternately bathed and scorched by chaos and unpredictability, the local climate seems to cling, like a stray dog feigning adoration for the sake of a few scraps of food, to whatever may pass for "average" trends for the time of year).

In the shadow of Lakey Hill lies Lower Loxley, briefly notorious when its ancient Hall was the scene of a mysterious death, and which is rumoured to hide secrets of a disturbing and arcane nature. Our traveller may shudder and hurry on, through Penny Hassett, and finally north to witch-haunted Ambridge, lying dead but dreaming in the Borsetshire sward. Events in Ambridge have long been famed in the local area for their polarised nature; while, our nervous drinkers may say, it may seem for the most part to be quiet and uneventful, underneath its veneer lies a blasphemous cacophony of madness, violence and eldritch horror.

The country's state broadcaster has for many decades now been chronicling the events there, but for most outside Borsetshire these are assumed to be naught but fanciful fictions. In fact, Borsetshire itself appears on few maps, almost as if cartographers have conspired to keep its presence, and its reality, a secret from the outside world. Or perhaps to protect the unwary traveller from the hideous threats to his sanity which are said to lurk within.