Read At Fear's Altar Online

Authors: Richard Gavin

Tags: #Fiction, #Horror, #Short Stories (Single Author)

At Fear's Altar

AT FEAR’S ALTAR

 

HIPPOCAMPUS PRESS LIBRARY OF FICTION
Edith Miniter,
Dead Houses and Other Works
(2008)
Jonathan Thomas,
Midnight Call and Other Stories
(2008)
Ramsey Campbell,
Inconsequential Tales
(2008)
Joseph Pulver,
Blood Will Have Its Season
(2009)
Michael Aronovitz,
Seven Deadly Pleasures
(2009)
Donald R. Burleson,
Wait for the Thunder
(2010)
Jonathan Thomas,
Tempting Providence and Other Stories
(2010)
W. H. Pugmire,
Uncommon Places: A Collection of Exquisites
(2012)
Peter Cannon,
Forever Azathoth: Parodies and Pastiches
(2012)
At Fear’s Altar
Richard Gavin
Hippocampus Press
———————
New York
 
Copyright © 2012 by Richard Gavin
Published by Hippocampus Press
P.O. Box 641, New York, NY 10156.
All rights reserved.
No part of this work may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
Cover art and frontispiece © 2012 by Harry O. Morris.
Cover design by Barbara Briggs Silbert.
Hippocampus Press logo designed by Anastasia Damianakos.
First Digital Edition, 2013
Kindle edition: 978-1-61498-075-9
EPUB Edition: 978-1-61498-076-6
This book is dedicated to Clive Barker,
and to the memory of Algernon Blackwood
Contents
Prologue:
A Gate of Nerves
A
s if to spite the eatery’s fluorescent-on-chrome brightness, Ken and I took to discussing horrors, both real and imaginary. My lifelong devotion to Gothic literature gave me an advantage when discussing classic shudder tales, but Ken had me trumped when it came to real horror. His roots reached back to rural Japan where his and his family’s concept of hardship utterly eclipsed whatever small discomforts I had known, growing up as I did in the comfort-lush suburbs of Ontario.
The only approximation I had to offer was my girlhood encounter with what I believed to be a ghost. (Real or imagined, I still cannot classify the occurrence.) Ken welcomed my confession with a passion that bordered on lust.
My account of it was delivered in a disjointed, awkward fashion; a symptom of my embarrassment over the whole thing. I suppose I was hoping for, perhaps even
expecting
, a helping of empathy. But Ken was stoic. He reached across the table and snatched one of the tofu cubes from the salty black puddle on my plate. He chewed it savagely, and I wondered if he was pretending that this morsel was somehow my childhood fear made solid.
Evidently my trauma was quite succulent.
Some silent time passed before Ken finally slapped the table with enough force to turn the heads of the café’s other patrons.
“I know just what you need! There’s a gathering this Friday night. It will do you a world of good.”
I rolled my eyes. “Please. Being sardined inside some frat house or the campus pub, inhaling everyone else’s beer breath and pheromones? Thanks but no. I’d rather have a root canal. Besides, I’m exhausted from mid-terms. I don’t think I could even fake being the merry girl for the night.”
“It’s not that kind of party. It’s very low-key. And very exclusive.”
“Won’t I stand out then?”
Ken shook his head. “You’d be my guest.” He surprised me by reaching across the table and giving my hand a reassuring squeeze. His touch shot sparks down my spine. I tried not to let my emotions get the better of me, keenly aware as I was of Ken’s reputation on campus as being something of a rake. “Trust me on this, Cara. Think of the weekend as a retreat. Imagine how great it will feel to skip town on Friday morning and go to the country for a couple of days; no classes, nobody knocking on your door, no phone calls.”
“Okay.” I could feel my cheeks rouging. “I admit that does sound pretty good.”
I shirked my Friday morning Japanese Religion tutorial in order to meet Ken in front of the library at seven-thirty.
“Have I over-packed?” I asked when I noticed that Ken was loading my bags into an otherwise empty trunk.
“It’s fine,” he assured me, “just fine.”
His hatchback was small and its cab smelled of strange flowers or perfume, but I was glad to be riding in it once I saw the campus shrinking in the rearview mirror.
We chatted enthusiastically for the first part of the trip. Ken told me about his being born in Osaka and how he family relocated to Canada with his grandmother and his parents when he was three.
When our drive passed the three-hour mark I posed the question so often asked by children to their keepers: “Are we nearly there?”
“We’re closer than we were three hours ago,” Ken said, grinning.
“So what kind of gathering is this? Should I pick up some wine or something along the way to bring with me?”
“That’s not necessary.”
“Who all is going to be there?”
“My family. And to get back to your first question; we still have a fair ways to go.”
———
“I’m curious,” Ken uttered, breaking my trance of listening to the hum of the tires as they moved us over country roads. “That experience you told me about the other day .   .   . had you ever had anything like that happen before?”
“No. No, just that one time.”
“And nothing since you moved out to go to school?”
I bit my lip.
“Cara? Did something else happen after you moved?”
“Yes. Two days ago.”
I heard Ken’s breath pushing out in a sharp, almost bestial sigh. “What happened?”
“I sensed the thing again.”
“Where?
Where?”
“In my dorm hall. While I was in the shower. It was bunched up in the top corner of the stall.”
“And it was the same thing you saw when you were thirteen?”
“Twelve,” I corrected him, “and yes, it was nearly the same.”
“What was different about it?”
“It seemed .   .   . I don’t know, more anxious than before. And .   .   .”
“And?”
“It was a lot bigger than I remembered it being.”
We reached our destination in the late afternoon; a pale, time-bullied fishing village, all but depleted of its residents. Dwellings merely peppered the landscape; cottages primarily, all brittle-looking and hollow as autumn husks. A finger-like pier pointed across grey waters. All was antiquated, corroding, half-silted out of this world and into another.
“There’s a general store just around the bend,” Ken informed me. “We can pick up some provisions there.”
We bought clipfish, a bottle of white wine, bread, sugar, and tea; then Ken drove us further into the hamlet.
He parked before a droopy bungalow that looked as though it would topple if I looked at it the wrong way. The pagoda-style roof was bowed and bristled with ivy and freckly weeds. The glass front was cracked and partially boarded. There were no other vehicles in sight.
“I thought you said this was a party.”
“It is.”
“So where is everybody?”
“Don’t worry. Why don’t I cook us some dinner? Come on.”
The air from the estuary was pungent with marine decay. It was also damp and musty, a wet fur smell.
The encroaching evening cast steel-blue light across the bungalow’s door of gouged wood.
The instant Ken exposed the interior I knew I did not want to enter. The staleness of long-trapped air and the abundance of cobweb strands that billowed out of the open doorframe like curtain fringe, like stray hairs—it was eerie. I could sense the thickened atmosphere that only places in a state of neglect exude; the kind that tweaks our reptile brains, tells us that although this site may be void of occupants, it is still somehow teeming with presence.
“No,” I whispered as Ken gently ushered me inside. “I don’t want to go .   .   .”
The stuffiness affected me even more once Ken closed the front door. The living room smelled of carpet mould and old wood. The perimeter was hazy from the gloom, as though all the furnishings were beneath water. There were suggestions of a sofa and low chairs, a long glass table, some shelves. What few sticks of furniture there were sat shrouded beneath drop sheets.
A shaft of light suddenly cleaved the darkness. Startled, I turned to see Ken holding a flashlight.
I followed the panning light like a logy fish chasing a lure.
The cobwebs hung thick throughout the house, piling in corners like cocoons, reaching down from the ceiling beams in sloppy meshes, grey flowers left upended to wither and dry.
Ken’s flashlight also revealed another strange feature to the room.
“What’s with all the candles?” I asked.
They sat upon the fireplace mantle and along the perimeter of the long glass table. Dozens of them .   .   . or rather the leavings of candles long burnt. I could only guess their number by the various blackened wicks, which was the only distinguishing feature in the great blobs of whitish wax. It was as if the living room were an arctic plateau; snow-shaded floes and bergs resting everywhere, softening the edges with a waxy, glacier-like padding.
“They’re for the party,” Ken said at last.
“But they’ve all been used.”
“Not all of them.”
He slipped past me. The floorboards bemoaned having to brace his weight as he crossed the living room on his way to a closed door at the far end.
Not savouring the idea of standing alone in such an atmosphere, I followed gingerly behind Ken, joining him at the now-parted doorway.
Ken switched off the torch, but there was light inside the bedroom still. The claustrophobic chamber was illuminated by a lone tallow candle. It guttered and hissed upon the bedside table.
“My God, Ken! Is your family trying to burn down the entire beach strip?”
“It’s fine.”
“No, it isn’t! These bungalows are all made of wood,
old
wood. They’d go up like tinderboxes if a fire broke out! All it would take is for any of these cobwebs to catch and that would be it!”
Ken must have sensed that I was going to puff out the flame, because he blocked my way, edging me through the doorway with a forcefulness that scared me.
“Don’t,” he said. “Not yet anyway. It’s fine, I promise you. That candle’s been burning for a long time. It will go out when things are right, not before.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“Because it’s been burning there since I was a child.”
I didn’t say anything for a while, and when I finally did it was a request to be taken home, or to the nearest bus station.
“Cara, you’ve studied my culture, you’re interested in it, yes?”
I folded my arms.
“Do you know of the
Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai
?”
“No,” I confessed. “What is that, the accumulation, or the collection of—”
“Roughly translated, it means
A Gathering of One-Hundred Supernatural Tales
.”
“So?”
Ken sat down on the arm of one of the covered chairs. “My grandmother carried the practice of the
Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai
with her when she and my mother left Osaka to settle in this country. It’s a kind of ancient parlour game over there. A group of people would get together and light one hundred candles. They would then, in turn, each tell a
kaidan
, a supernatural story. After each little tale was finished, the teller would blow out one of the candles. It’s believed that these
kaidan
serve as invocations, and that the fear of the participants would coalesce to create a living entity. The darker the chamber became, the stronger this entity’s presence would become. Finally, after the one hundredth tale was told, the last candle would be extinguished, and the entity would reveal itself.”
“That’s quite a story.” My flippant reply was in contradiction to the fact that I could feel the air being squeezed slowly from my lungs, that I was sweating, that I was suddenly sick at the thought of even glancing over my shoulder to where the candle still sputtered and cast off its deathless glimmer.
“No, it’s actually absurd,” Ken returned. “It’s a silly party game for grown children to play while they get drunk. But”—he raised a finger as if to warn me—“my grandmother
believed
in it, truly believed in the game’s potential. So, when I was about four years old, she hosted the game for some of the villagers here. There has always been a concentration of Japanese residents here, so many of them were already familiar with the
Kaidankai
tradition. But grandmother altered the rules. She insisted that only
true
scary tales be told.
“Now, every one of those games would have a player or two who insisted that their story was true, that the ghost with long hair was seen by a friend of a friend in some far-off village years before, but my grandmother had .   .   . skills. She developed a way of testing whether the tales those old fishermen and their wives told were true or not.”
“Which was?”
Ken smiled with a pride I’d never seen him exhibit before. “If the story was a myth, my grandmother arranged it so that the candle would simply refuse to go out. Only true supernatural encounters would allow the candlelight to die.”
I swallowed and said “What?” but really didn’t want to say anything at all.
“If anyone did tell a fiction,” Ken continued, “and tried to pass it off as truth, the entity who gave my grandmother her power would stalk that person, would reveal to them something so horrible they would go mad, or die on the spot. Some that didn’t drop immediately eventually committed suicide. All those who died had their candles burn out, right here in this little house. Whatever they’d been shown as punishment was true enough, and
terrible
enough, to snuff out their light.”
“You’re seriously trying to tell me that the candle in the bedroom has been burning for
years
?”
“Yes. Finding just the right stories got more and more difficult. The candles just kept burning. Grandmother, then my mother, and now me. My family has forever been hunting for the right story, the one to open the gate at last. Over the decades we would only venture up here to partake in the ritual.”
He stepped forward.
“I think you may have the final tale, Cara. I might be the first person to finally see the entity my grandmother first summoned when I was a boy.”
Ken guided me, with a pressure that was at once tender and tyrannical, toward the lone candle, still spitting in its shallow pool of decades-old wax, trying to die and yet unable.
He pressed down on my shoulders until I was kneeling before the flickering light. I had push the cobwebs away from my face, wondering if they were growing longer or whether it was merely my fearful state. My eyes kept darting to the front door, my brain reeled as I plotted my escape route. Ken would have the car, of course. No doubt he would chase after me. I would have to hide, maybe try to make my way to the general store. My cellphone was in my purse in the living room. If I could snatch it on my way out I could call for help.
In order to placate my captor, I told my story, but quickly. I spoke of the house in the cul-de-sac where I lived with my family until I was ten. Of the raps I would hear on my headboard at night .   .   . and then the drawings that began showing up in my dresser every night .   .   .

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