Trick or treat, eh?
When we were kids my brother (with me abetting) would sometimes put on plays for Halloween (or build spaceships on the lawn!) And so I feel I should try and do something “festive” in that vein – like post a Halloween story. So presented here is a story from my “Masques Chronicles” – “The Masques Chronicles” being my collection of prose stories imagining a decades-spanning Canadian superhero universe (the different tales playing around with the different eras, themes, and sub-genres of a superhero universe). This story occupies the spooky/Halloween niche of the collection. It’s about a 1950s psychiatrist-turned-occult investigator, Conrad Idris (dubbed “Dr. Id” by the press), investigating a house plagued by apocalyptic apparitions; mixing Old School archetypes (paranormal investigator spending the night in a spooky haunted house) with some (hopefully) novel twists. My Masques project was riffing on superheroes, but the 1950s was when horror comics and plain clothes occult detectives (like Dr. 13, Dr. Droom/Druid, Challengers of the Unknown, etc.) enjoyed success. Hence this story about: Dr. Id – The Ghost-Detective! It’s a mash up of 1950s tropes blending haunted houses, psychoanalysis, the Cold War, comic book stylings (written in a deliberately purply 2nd person, kinda like old supernatural comics!) and with a Canadian spin. “Dare You Enter…the Armageddon House?”
(And, obviously: if you enjoy it, consider checking out the entire Masques Chronicles, vol. 1 and 2, or any of my books — many free with Kindle Unlimited :)).
“DARE YOU SPEND A NIGHT IN…THE ARMAGEDDON HOUSE?”
by D.K. Latta
(from Chilling Mystic Comics #80, Oct.,1957)
IT’S MERE DAYS from All Hallows’ Eve this October evening as you pull up the collar of your coat against the brittle wind. Through the black iron fence you peer up at the old house that rises forlornly upon the hill. Beyond it can be glimpsed a new suburban development; rows upon rows of shoe box houses soon to become homes for the burgeoning middle class, but currently dark and empty. The Victorian-era house stands incongruously before these domiciles of tomorrow like a guarding scarecrow.
The gate creaks mournfully as you step onto a path strewn with orange and red autumn leaves. The mansion looms ahead, its windows like eyes glazed over with glaucoma.
Now that you are here do you regret agreeing to this? Or are you pausing on the stone path simply to remember how it began…?
Your name is Conrad Idris, a doctor of psychiatry, which makes you a priest, after a fashion, of the new religion in this year of our Lord, 1957. A philosophical interregnum, if you will, where the superstition of yesteryear meets the rationality of tomorrow. And you are one of those who choose to walk that blurry demarcation.
Who was it who claimed psychotherapy was the new confessional? Can you remember?
Your practice is in the town of Martyr’s Wood, Ontario, on the middle floor of a three story building, with a lawyer’s office above and a curio shop on the ground floor. You are an American by birth — a Negro, a coloured, a black. You were the first in your family to graduate from University — and the first to ever fall in love with a white woman.
The relationship had not been easy. Strangers on the street would give you dirty looks. You had to unlist your phone number to discourage death threats. Many in your own family refused to even attend the wedding.
You can’t recall which of you suggested emigrating to Canada, the birthplace of your wife. But it was hoped that the colder climes would prove warmer. Oh, you weren’t naive enough to believe a border suddenly altered thousands of years of the tribalism that so cruelly retarded humanity’s nobler potential. A man of reason and logic like yourself knew that was too much to expect. But there was that cliché of Canadian politeness you hoped would mute the more egregious discriminations.
And it was not your commingling of two races alone that provided an impetus for your relocation, was it? Anti-communist hysteria was warping America, ironically, into the very thing it so desperately feared. It was a hysteria that has found — marginally — less traction in this vast land of Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent. The country even has an openly socialist government in Saskatchewan, in the form of the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation under Tommy Douglas.
You have experienced prejudice here, there is no denying that. But on balance you did not regret the move, did you? Except for the fact that it all came to nothing on a dark, rain swept road one year ago.
It was because of all that (not that he was aware of it) that Roger Corbin came to your practice. For in addition to being a psychiatrist you had begun to cultivate another reputation: that of a man who investigated — the unusual.
“The house,” Corbin said with little preamble, seated before your desk, “is haunted.”
You did not react to that proclamation from the wiry white man with the limp, did you? You are too much the professional for that. Instead you tented your fingers before you, the arcane signet ring — a wedding gift from your wife — glinting in the light filtering through the blinds. Calmly, in your deep baritone, you said, “We are all haunted, in our way, Mr. Corbin. By things we’ve done, or wished we had done…”
“I’m not talking about that, eh? — I’m talking about really haunted. Bumps in the night and all that.” He leaned forward, the cushion beneath him sighing in a way that was slightly inappropriate. “And I hear you can help, eh? The papers call you Doctor Id, the Ghost-Detective.”
You grimaced, never having liked that appellation. “I have taken an interest in reports of the paranormal,” you conceded. “Primarily as a debunker. I have rarely found there isn’t a rational explanation for even the seeming most inexplicable of phenomenon.” If Corbin noticed your use of the caveat “rarely” he did not show it. Perhaps he did not want to know.
“Sure, sure,” Corbin told you, waving his hand as though shooing a fly. “I know you’ve helped the cops once or twice. And there was something about a lake monster that turned out to be smugglers. Frankly — I don’t care. Goons or ghosts or a gas leak, I just need it solved, eh?” Corbin looked at you plaintively. “Look, Doc, I spent eighteen months in and out of hospital after getting shot up in Korea — hell, I’ve spent almost half as long recovering from that damn war as we spent fighting it, eh? But my Gladys, well, she stuck with me, bless her. And when I finally got on my feet we sunk our savings in that old place. A boarding house, maybe the first of many — leastways that was the plan. But now we can’t get anyone to even stay in it, and we’re in danger of falling behind on the mortgage.”
An old fashioned haunted house did not sound like the most taxing of assignments, did it? So why did you accept so quickly, Doctor Id? Was it something sentimental? Was it Corbin’s reference to his loving wife that stirred your empathy for the little man?
Did it remind you of your own beloved wife? The one who had died upon a dark, rain swept night?
The front door of the old house swings soundlessly inward on well-maintained hinges. No spine-shivering creaking like out of some B-movie. Does that disappoint you? Rationalist or not, even you can admit to enjoying a bit of theatricality now and again if you want. You may enjoy losing yourself in Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations or settling back to a literary adaptation on the radio — but you’ve also been known to partake of a creature feature at the local bijoux, too, haven’t you?
The moon behind you spreads your shadow across the hardwood floor, stabbing into the house. You grimace, imagining how Sigmund Freud would interpret that imagery, and quickly you flip on the lights. You’ve never been a strict Freudian, after all.
Some of the bulbs on the chandelier have burned out, lending the fixture the aspect of a crone leering at you with missing teeth. There are moth-eaten green drapes drooping by the windows in the main hall. You are aware of the creaking elicited by the wind rattling through the old house.
It is an eerie domicile, there’s no disputing that. But surely that alone cannot account for the weird apparitions reported by its guests, or justify the house’s current absence of any paying boarders?
You drop your overnight bag at your feet and slowly close the door.
But are you shutting out the darkness and the cool wind? Or are you shutting in whatever secrets the old house hoards so miserly?
And shutting yourself in with them?
How badly do you want to know?
Do you remember what you told Roger Corbin, Doctor Id? About how we are all haunted by what we’ve done and haven’t done? Did you think to include yourself in that particular bit of psychiatric insight? Or were you arrogant enough to think you were somehow exempt from your own advice?
Is that why you’re writhing in this bed in the middle of the night: because you are haunted by the past? Or will you blame the house’s creepy ambience and its ill-coloured curtains?
Surely nightmares are things you bring with you, like luggage — not things you find in new rooms, like cheap towels?
You’ve had this dream before — haven’t you? The rain drenched night, the road dark as pitch. Why is it do you think that wet roads absorb light so thoroughly? Perhaps if you had studied physics in university as opposed to psychiatry you would be able to answer that. Not that understanding the principles involved would have altered the outcome of that night, one year gone. Knowing the principles of light refraction would hardly have stopped that deer from bounding out into the road, would it? Understanding how water and macadam combine to form a tar-black void would in no way have stopped your beloved wife from screaming for you to turn, to avoid hitting the animal.
And graduating as a physicist would not have prevented your Ford sedan from crashing into that tree that probably pre-dated Confederation — would it?
But knowing that the events of that night occurred as they did because there was no other way for them to unfold doesn’t affect how your heart feels about them, does it? And that’s something a psychiatrist understands, but a physicist might not.
And yet being a psychiatrist doesn’t really help you to explain what occurred next, does it? As you lay sprawled in the front seat of your car, a warm wetness dribbling down your face. Do you remember being dazed and idly thinking some regulator needs to make seat belts obligatory and not just an optional feature like a radio?
Then you stared with mounting horror as you realized the limp form strewn across the dashboard was no longer your beautiful wife, no longer anything but cooling flesh. Consciousness began slipping mercifully away. But before it did your eyes slipped across the glass of the rear view mirror — and you saw your wife staring back at you from the mirror with a sadness in her eyes but a sympathetic smile on her lips.
The next thing you recall was waking up in a hospital. There was a pain in your broken ribs — and an agonizing question in your mind.
What was it you had seen that night? The rational part of your educated mind insisted an illusion like that would surely occur later. Once your brain had a chance to process the tragedy it would possibly seek succour in some comforting fantasy. But not at the very moment it was happening.
Yet what other explanation was there? That your wife’s soul had somehow escaped her body? That it existed on another plane, peering at you from out of mirrors — once called looking glass? Surely that was more preposterous.
Occam’s Razor, after all, says the most likely explanation is the truth.
Ah, but there was one other factor to calculate in, wasn’t there? For the colour of your skins was not the only thing that made your marriage one that crossed boundaries and cultures, was it?
You are a man of science — and your wife had once told you she came from a long line of witches.
Wasn’t it this mystery, this soul weighing question as to what you truly saw that night, that was the real reason you investigated stories of the paranormal — because you hoped one day to understand?
Is that why you find yourself waking with a start from terrible memories in a seeming endless parade of weird houses and chilling locales?
Or is it something else that awoke you tonight?
You sit up in bed, panting, sweat gleaming off your dark skin, feeling the bed dip at the base of your spine because the mattress is too thin and too old. Bitterly you wonder if that’s the explanation for Corbin’s vacating tenants: it’s just not that nice a place.
You don’t really believe that, do you? Not when you can hear strange sounds thrumming through the walls.
You throw aside your blankets and drop your bare feet to the cold floor, dressed only in beige pyjamas bottoms. There is a dawn-red glow radiating through the drawn curtains. Yet the clock on the bed table says it’s only midnight — the Witching Hour. You rise and nudge aside the curtain.
Are you still dreaming? Isn’t that the question a rationalist like you must first ask?
After all, Occam’s ever so sharp and shiny Razor must surely question the plausibility of a trio of hovering army helicopters starkly etched against the backdrop of those uninhabited suburban bungalows, soldiers rappelling down lines like so many four-limbed spiders. The sky is a boiling blood red like you’ve never seen before.
Can you feel your heart pounding in your chest like it wants to run away and is prepared to do so even if the rest of your body mulishly stays where it is?
Then you see the soldiers more clearly. And it’s not the hammer and sickle insignias that shocks you the most, is it? With all the modern paranoia about the Russian bear you could almost rationalize it. No — the shocking thing is their bone-white visages.
The Russian soldiers have the faces of human skulls!
A jangling sound snaps across your back like a spasm, causing you to drop the curtain back into place. You spin, heart pounding.
It’s the phone in the hall.
You curse in your mind, realizing it will betray that the house is inhabited — betray you to the skeleton Russians.
And suddenly that makes it seem all so absurd, doesn’t it?
You look about and realize the bedroom is no longer suffused with a reddish aura. You no longer hear the thrumming of chopper blades. Haltingly, you tug aside the curtain and look out upon a dark and empty yard.
“Hello,” you gasp hoarsely into the receiver, having stumbled out into the hall where the phone is affixed to the wall.
“Conrad, that you?” comes a familiar voice as you stare about you wildly. “Oh — Jeez! I wasn’t looking at the time. Did I wake you?”
“Marlene?” you croak thickly, only slowly identifying the voice through the crackingly line. Marlene Abramstein, a local reporter, and one of your closest friends in this country. “No — no, it’s okay. I just had a curious…experience. A dream. What’s up?”
“Can you hear me well enough?” comes the voice, the hiss and the crackle on the line rising and subsiding as though the wind outside has loosened the lines somewhere. What if the line breaks? You tell yourself you’re not scared to spend a night in an old spooky house even if there’s no line to the outside world.
Still, even you have to concede that there’s a comfort to be found in a familiar voice, as if you’re not fully alone in the house.
Even though you are.
Marlene has pressed on. “I’ve been digging around into the archives as you asked — haven’t found anything too mysterious about that old house. No histories of hauntings or curses or anything. At least nothing that made the old papers. I guess if there were you could diagnose it as — what — mass hysteria? People hear the house is haunted and so they psyche themselves up into believing it?”
You allow yourself a small smile, despite the way your heart is still thumping from your own recent little experience with such hysteria. “In layman’s terms — close enough. So if there’s no folklore associated with this place, what about more material matters?”
“Well that’s a mite more interesting. The place was put on the market last year and bought up-”
“By the Corbins.”
“No — this is before them. That’s where it gets slightly interesting. It was bought up by some sort of consortium. They had it for about a year, never really seemed to do anything with it. Then they missed a mortgage payment, the bank foreclosed faster n’ you can say Jack Robinson, and offered it up again. That’s when the Corbins came along.”
You purse your lips — it’s a tic you try to avoid when dealing with patients. “Any way of learning if these previous owners had similar problems as the Corbins? Is that why they bailed?”
Marlene chuckles, her laugh breaking in and out on the line. “Not until tomorrow — and maybe not even then. As I say, it was some sort of consortium, and the trail seems to fade after they missed that last payment. Probably investors pulled out and it ceased to exist.”
You thank Marlene and hang up. Then you stand in the hall in your bare feet and pyjamas bottoms hearing the attic rafters creak in the wind. Without a voice on the phone, it’s easier to remember how alone you are.
But you’re not afraid, are you? Everything has a rational explanation.
Most things, anyway.
That’s why, two minutes later, you’re standing out in the back yard, shoes pulled over your sockless feet, a coat thrown over your pyjamas. But a quick scan of the grounds with a flashlight confirms what you knew had to be true — that there is nothing out here. No indication the area was the site of swooping helicopters or corpse-like soldiers. Yet you can’t find any tell-tale signs of deliberate fraud, can you? No power cables or screens that could have been used for projections. And then, just to be thorough, you spend the next fifteen minutes walking the house, from the main floor to the drafty, unfinished attic, without uncovering anything suggestive.
What did you expect to find? The first Mrs. Rochester perhaps?
Still, Roger Corbin’s seeming run-of-the-mill haunted house is proving to be a little less run-of-the-mill after all. Ghosts and bumps in the night are one thing; red skies and skeleton armies — quite something else.
Another person might have found it impossible to sleep; but not you, Doctor Id. Is that because being unable to sleep would be an admission that you’re genuinely afraid? And an admission of fear would be tantamount to confessing you’re afraid you’ll be unable to explain the house’s sinister eccentricities? Which, in itself, could be diagnosed as a fear of failure: inutilophobia. Or is it simpler than that? Are you actually afraid of being afraid? Phobophobia, if you will.
Or can you sleep simply because you are, in the end, tired?
When you awaken again you instantly glance at your clock to see that it is a quarter past one AM — barely an hour since you closed your eyes.
This time you aren’t sure what awoke you, are you? There is no thrumming sound that you had, belatedly, realized was associated with helicopter blades. No red glow through the curtains. You have an insistent headache — but not enough of one to drag you from Little Nemo’s slumberland.
Is it disconcerting not knowing? To realize it was the instinctive part of your brain that must have kicked you awake — the fight or flight impulse? And as a man of science you’d prefer it be the rational part of your brain that always dictates your actions.
Slipping from your bed, you creep to the bedroom door and softly ease it open. Why softly? Do you accept the possibility that you aren’t, after all, alone in the old house?
Or are you afraid that you still are?
Are these the sort of thoughts that tumble through your head like a hamster on a wheel as you creep through the dark hall to the top of the stairs? Do even you know which you fear more — the known or the unknown?
It doesn’t matter now, because you stiffen as you see a moving shadow below where there should be no shadows.
“Who’s there?” you shout, attempting bravado.
Whoever — or whatever — it is, doesn’t seem to respond, does it? It neither steps more clearly into the moonlight creeping through a lower window, nor does it scurry away. What does your rational mind make of that behaviour?
Then another shadow moves and you realize there is more than one down there.
More than one — of what?
“Heeelllppp meeee,” hisses a soft, almost sibilant voice, almost as though coming from the bottom of a well.
“Heeeelllp meee,” comes another.
Well, Doctor Id — why don’t you help? You swore the Hippocratic Oath did you not? Is it that you aren’t convinced the shadows are any more substantial than the soldiers had been? Or is it that there is no passion, no desperation to the moaned entreaties? Instead the voices are hollow, and soulless — the words seeming as if uttered by rote.
Now the shadows are shuffling toward the foot of the stairs. They stumble, they stagger, arms outstretched as though to feel their way.
After all, if the mountain won’t go to Mohammed – Mohammed will come looking for the mountain.
Is it reasonable to say you are afraid now as you back away? Or is there still a logical explanation, do you think? Strangely, the moving shadows below bring to mind reports you read about the aftermath of the explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki a decade ago, and how first responders found blinded people stumbling aimlessly through the debris.
Is it because of that association that you react as quickly as you do when the hall is suddenly flooded with an unearthly light? Do you intuitively infer what it is even before you can fully put a name to it? Does the rational part of your brain owe a Thank You note and flowers to the instinctive part that sends you leaping back into your bedroom, slamming the door behind you even as the hall outside is enveloped in a blinding light?
As you collapse upon the floor, hyperventilating, is it possible that they have finally done it? Destroyed the world? Isn’t that what everyone has been fearing for the last few years? Isn’t that the sword that has been hung over mankind’s head by the Americans and the Russians who in their hubris have decided they get to decide if the rest of the world lives or dies?
But then that rational part of your brain kicks in again, doesn’t it? That part that makes you more than an animal motivated solely by primal impulses. Those stumbling figures below had appeared before the atomic blast just now. And this house wouldn’t be standing if a nuclear bomb had gone off a few miles away.
Haltingly, you climb back to your feet and gingerly reach for the door knob, ready to pull back if it’s too hot — but that’s silly, isn’t it? You know none of that was real.
Boldly, you close your fist around the knob. It’s cool. But you knew that. At least, that’s what you’ll tell yourself.
You open the door and peer out into a hall that is unscorched. You listen but there are no sounds from below.
It was another hallucination.
But if it was that and nothing more, then is there a rational explanation for why the back of your left hand is hot and peeling, as though subjected to extreme sun burn? The hand that had pulled the door closed as you sought to leap from the phantom nuclear explosion?
Well, Doc — is there?
Is it maybe time to pack your bag and leave? Have the events in this old house finally tested your ability to explain the unexplainable?
Or is the fact that you are struggling for a rationalization just making you more determined to stick it out? No matter the physical danger?
Do you have anything in your overnight bag for sun burns?
Five minutes later you are crawling about the floor in the bedroom. Your left arm is wrapped in gauge and you’ve taken a few painkillers for the headache chewing away at the back of your thoughts. Hopefully they’ll be able to head it off before it blossoms into a migraine.
What are you looking for, Doc? Mouse holes?
Whatever you were hoping for — wires to a projector, a tube from which hallucinogenic gas might be pumped — you sit back on your heels, thwarted. There is no evidence of such chicanery.
Watch it, Doctor Id — you almost jumped out of your skin there, provided such a thing was possible. A smart, educated man like yourself shouldn’t be so easily spooked by Alexander Graham Bell’s little toy.
You scramble into the hall, grabbing up the receiver. “Hello?”
“Conrad?” It’s Marlene again. “Boy — glad…still awake.” The line crackles and hisses worse than before and instinctively you glance toward the window at the end of the hall — the same window from which the phantom nuclear explosion had come. You can see leaves darting past the glass like agitated fish in a fish tank. “Found…more. Turned out a city registrar…late night poker game. I…tracked him down. He…consortium had links to an orphanage. But-”
But — what? Such a simple word can alter the import of a sentence, or undercut an entire train of thought. “But” is the fulcrum that can move ideas. But…it doesn’t matter, does it? The line has gone dead.
You stand there in the hall for a moment, not even being reassured with a static hiss.
As you cradle the receiver you hear a creak behind you. Not one of the by-now familiar sounds of the house rattling in the wind. This is a footstep on the staircase. Slowly you turn, the intellectually curious part of your mind intrigued because the previous two occurrences had transpired immediately upon waking, as if exploiting your drowsiness.
Are the images becoming more pronounced, more invasive?
A man stops at the top of the stairs on seeing you. He is dressed rather commonly in a grey suit over a white shirt and dark grey tie, a fedora upon his head. He is burly, with a jowly face that makes you think of John Diefenbaker if he worked out a bit. He stares at you and you back at him. He seems unsettled by your nonchalance, doesn’t he? But to be fair he’s a less disturbing apparition than you’ve become accustomed to this night.
He reaches inside his jacket and his hand comes out glinting with the metal of a pistol. The figure’s threatening nature is entirely consistent with the others illusions, isn’t it?
“Hokay, you holdink there.” Russian. Another consistency in the waking dreams.
You won’t allow yourself to become panicked as you had before. You are a man of logic after all. “Who are you?” you ask, though you aren’t really sure if these phantoms can interact with you. “Are you a ghost?”
The Russian frowns. “What game is you playink? I ask the questions.” He jerks his gun significantly.
You shrug and turn back to your room, suspecting that allowing yourself to be engaged by the dreams is a distraction, keeping you from figuring out what is going on here. Clearly there is a pattern: Russians. Death. Nuclear War. These are certainly not ghosts in the traditional sense. The mythology around ghosts is that they are echoes of things that were — not things that might be. Yet neither can you really credit this as some sort of foresight. Nuclear War is all too possible — but zombie soldiers seem less credible.
“Stop!” The Russian seems both angry and mystified, doesn’t he? Like he can’t understand your insouciance. Perhaps he is used to a gun being the way he maintains his position in the minds of others. Is it his identity, do you think? Phallic, in a way — not that you want to go all Freudian. If you ignore his gun, does he have nothing left to maintain his ego? He strides impatiently forward upon his bow legs, half striding, half charging toward you.
But an image can’t hurt you, can it? Then you unconsciously touch the bandage on your sun-burned arm and realize there is something at work here you have yet to understand.
Then the Russian raises his pistol and brings it down upon your head. The blow feels like it sends fissures zigzagging down your skull. And as your knees buckle, you sink into black, icy water…
It has been said that a failed hypothesis is just as helpful to the advancement of knowledge as a successful one. At least that’s what you tell yourself as you struggle awake, head throbbing even more fiercely than before. You are curled in the corner of your bedroom, your hands bound behind you.
Through the pain and grogginess you feel something else, don’t you? Would that be embarrassment at your erroneous hypothesis?
Clearly the Russian was no dream.
Squinting as much from pain as to avoid betraying that you are awake, you watch as he empties your suitcase onto your unmade bed, scattering your personal affects with indifference and annoyance. Then he looks up, scowling, and catches your stare. He throws your socks aside and steps around the bed, dragging his pistol from out of his waist belt. “You awake — that is good. We talk. You tell me who you are. You American, yes?”
You almost say you were, but decide not to confuse things. “Canadian.” If only to assert some control over a situation over which you so demonstrably have none, you decide to cheekily name the Russian Leo — simply because you had been re-reading Tolstoy the other night.
Leo wobbles his head back and forth like a seesaw. “American. Canadian. Who cares — no difference.”
You almost disagree, but decide this is not the time for a discussion of cultural nuances. As he settles himself on the edge of the bed, behind your back you finger the signet ring your wife gave you. According to her it once belonged to a medieval Alchemist. More practically, it features a small needle-like blade that can be protruded from it. It clicks into place and you begin sawing at your bindings.
“My name is Doctor Conrad Idris — sometimes Doctor Id. I am a guest in this house,” you say this both to cover over any tell-tale tremor he might notice in your shoulders, and because you hope that if you talk, it will encourage him to talk. In a way, it is a kind of word association — only normally such a technique does not involve guns and the possibility of violent death.
The Russian glares at you dully. “You coloured man — you have very bad down in U.S. of A., yes? Water cannons and dogs — bark! bark!,” he suddenly says, jerking forward, chuckling as you jump. Then he relaxes and leans back. “Just because you want no sit at back of buses. In Soviet Union, all are equal. No one sit back or front. Is much better.”
You grimace, realizing he maybe is trying to appeal to you philosophically. Apparently his Kremlin overseers never explained to him that enticement works better when those one seeks to recruit are not tied up on a floor after being clubbed into unconsciousness.
Fingering his gun in a way that does make it seem almost a fetish, he abruptly says: “Tell me about Project: Morphobias.”
For a moment you almost wonder if it’s his accent, because the word seems so nonsensical. “I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about.”
He scowls. “Do not think me stupid. We know about Morphobias. We have somethink very much same in my country. Now you take me to where you run it, American — yes?”
“I’m not American,” you say. Not anymore, right? Your mind is whirling, trying to make sense of all this. Whatever the Russian wants, clearly his country didn’t have it — or else he wouldn’t be here, pointing a gun at you. But presumably they are working in the same field.
If only you knew what field that was, eh? And why he thought you knew anything about it. Suddenly it occurs to you that he may not have come here looking for you, personally. Rather — he had come here and finding you, assumed you knew more than you did.
Suddenly the Russian drops to his knees before you, brandishing his gun. Clearly he is done walking softly and it is time for the big stick
Isn’t it lucky you’re also done sawing through your bindings then? As he comes at you, presuming you still helpless, your arm swings around and delivers an open-handed chop to his neck. He gags and immediately you are throwing yourself at him. You keep in shape with regular karate lessons. The key to a sharp mind is to maintain a healthy body — isn’t that right?
Still, being a gifted amateur isn’t quite the same as being a professionally trained Soviet spy. So even as you tackle him to the ground you scramble over him, to get out the door and into the hall. You might have a chance at escaping. Maybe. He’s cursing in Russian, trying to grab at you, but you get to your feet and are almost to the door when your headache flares up again, bile pulsing into the back of your throat.
And has it occurred to you that, despite being clubbed on the head, the headaches had started earlier? In fact, they always seem to presage a hallucination.
The pain is the worst so far. It hits so hard you stumble and twist, hitting the wall with your back, missing the doorway entirely. Leo is on his feet, his fedora mangled on his head. His eyes blaze with fury as he raises his gun.
Suddenly your eyes go wide as you see through the window a mushroom cloud upon the horizon. You start to scream, to warn him — even though he comes at you with murder in his eyes you still try to warn him.
Then your eyes are caught by another figure.
Haltingly you turn to look at the mirror over the room’s sole dresser. Is this part of the illusion? A woman stands there — her reflection at any rate, even though there is no one else in the room but you and Leo. And seeing her pale skin, her raven hair and her sweetly sad smile, you feel as though you’ve been punched in the chest, don’t you? “Agatha?” you whisper.
Then the room is erased in a blinding fire of Atomic glory. The colours are bleached from the walls, then the finer details of the wall paper smear, then it is all swept away until nothing but whiteness surrounds you. Even she has vanished again.
“Agatha!” you scream.
Then the light begins to dull, to fade, until the natural darkness of the room reasserts itself.
You stare at your hands, at your chest — but you are unhurt. You look about the room, but it bears no marks, no singeing. Then you look at the mirror — and see only your face staring back at you.
Heart aching you turn to face Leo — and you let out a startled cry.
The Russian agent is lying doubled over in the middle of the floor, his cheap grey suit just as crumpled as it had been, but otherwise unmarked. But the man himself, and every bit of exposed flesh that you can see, has been burned to a crisp.
How do you rationalize that?
You’re dressed — enough with this running about in pyjamas, eh? You aren’t going to be getting any more sleep tonight anyway. Or is that too cheap a joke, given the circumstances?
You think you have some idea as to what is going on, don’t you? Is that why you’ve left poor old Leo’s corpse up in the room while you’ve tramped down to the main floor?
But can you rationalize anything that has happened here tonight? Weird dreams and hallucinations — well, that’s not too hard to explain, is it? As Ebeneezer Scrooge remarked, senses are remarkably easy to disrupt. Except two people shouldn’t share the same hallucination. And illusions shouldn’t burn the back of your hand. But maybe a sunlamp was used as part of a con — that could almost make sense.
But then there’s poor old Leo (isn’t it funny how you can almost regard him with pity now that he’s dead and no longer trying to hurt you?) How do you explain a man being burned to a crisp four paces from you? If the Atomic blast — whether real or imaginary — fried him it should have fried you. And if it didn’t fry you, shouldn’t he still be walking around singing the praises of the Worker’s Paradise?
And how do you explain his suit was unscorched?
But you think you can, don’t you? Because as much as you are a man of science, you are also open to the unusual. Occam’s Razor may state that the simplest answer is usually the truth, but even William of Ockham would doubtless allow that it was only “usually” the case.
You find it at last, don’t you? What you were looking for. Because one thing you realized that was missing in the old house when you checked it over earlier was a basement. Or rather, it was missing any door leading to a basement. But eventually you found it, a false panel in the back of a laundry cupboard. Easy to miss if you weren’t sure it had to be somewhere, eh?
Slowly, almost fearfully, you slide the panel aside and reveal a set of steps leading down. You brace the door open, take a deep breath, and then start down the stairs, feeling like Theseus entering the labyrinth.
Dismounting from the last step you are in a dark tunnel, a rectangle of soft light at one end. As you approach you realize the diffused glow is caused by a plastic sheet drawn over an aperture leading out of the tunnel. You hesitate, your palms sweaty. Then you brush it aside and step through.
Is this what you expected? Were you at least close?
Or is it worse?
It looks like a hospital ward, with beds lining each side of the room. There is the low susurrus hum of machines and the soft, soulless glow of fluorescent bulbs over each bed. A couple of nurses move about the beds. One glances at you, frowning, but clearly uncertain of what to do about your presence. Perhaps she assumes you are allowed to be here. Or perhaps dealing with intruders is simply above her pay grade.
So you press on boldly and stop at the foot of one of the beds. The patient is a child — a boy of 10 or 12 maybe. They are all children. All asleep. Wires are taped to their heads that weave and twist about and disappear into a computer at the head of each bed. You grab the medical chart at the foot of the bed and start flipping through it, assessing pulse and blood pressure rates, blood levels. And, of course, whatever noxious concoction is being used to keep the children in their perpetual slumber.
You move to the boy’s head and, leaning over, whisper something into his ear.
“The Intrepid Doctor Id.”
Unwilling to betray your nervousness, you take a moment to lay the medical chart on the child’s bed, shielding your hand so you can turn a dial on the machine at the head of the bed to its maximum setting. Then you casually turn to face a tall blonde man with a buzz cut. He’s broad shouldered and handsome and wearing a suit that cost at least three times what Leo’s had cost.
“That’s what the papers call you, isn’t it? Doctor Id — The Ghost-Detective?”
At his side is a portly man with thinning hair, dressed in the lab coat of a doctor. Seeing him in that garb, and seeing how this place is such a betrayal of the sacred calling of the healer, you want to throw up. “Would you like to tell me what is going on here?” you ask levelly.
“I’d be more interested in hearing your take,” says the man in the suit. “The fact that you found your way here means you must have some ideas.”
You hesitate, then gesture around you at the sleeping children. “Dream projection — am I right? The apparitions are neither ghosts, nor hallucinations. Rather, they are the nightmares of these children projected directly into unsuspecting minds.” That had been your mistake; you had searched the house for something clumsy like gas jets or projectors. Not something invisible like radio waves. “The process induces headaches but the apparitions themselves have no physical substance. They can’t impact upon the corporeal world — except psychosomatically. Furniture and clothing can’t be damaged, for instance, but human flesh can, because the mind believes.”
Instinctively you touch your burned arm.
The man in the lab coat steps forward, clearly excited to expound upon his achievements. “You know of such theories?” His accent is German, which you realize is not unusual. Many German scientists were gobbled up by the victors after World War II — the Americans call it Operation: Paperclip. The greater their value, the fewer questions asked about their Nazi ties. Considering the extraordinary breakthroughs here — you suspect no questions were asked about his past at all.
“Psychosomatic ailments? Of course. But nothing to this degree. A man died up there — spontaneously combusted because he believed he was caught in a nuclear blast.”
The scientist blanches. “What?” He looks to the bigger man. “Is this true Anderson? We suspected it was possible to take the process to such a degree — but eventually. I did not agree to proceeding to that level yet. Test our project upon tenants in the boarding house, yes. That is why we built our facility here, and then allowed the house to go back on the market — a free and constant source of unsuspecting test subjects that would never be traced to us, since they did not themselves know they were participating in our studies.” He turns back to you as if seeing in you, a fellow scientist, a sympathetic ear. “The potential is incalculable — particularly as it applies to your field. When properly calibrated and refined, my Morphobias process could be used to uncover and treat any number of deep seated neuroses. A psychiatrist could literally experience his patient’s nightmares.”
You can’t entirely hide your disgust, can you? But you save your most withering stare for the man called Anderson. “This is about more than unethical medical experiments — isn’t it? Who are you? American CIA?” A logical inference given Leo was clearly KGB.
“It’s a new kind of war, Doctor Id,” explains Anderson. “A Cold War. Where the battles take place not on battlefields, but in living rooms. What you see here is the most ambitious off-shoot of the CIA’s MKUltra program. You won’t have heard of it but we have people all over working for us, conducting experiments with behaviour modification, mind control — even here in Canada. But the professor’s project puts them all to shame.”
“This is about psychological warfare? Do you intend to flood the streets of Moscow with nightmarish illusions? Assassinate Khrushchev by turning his own mind against him?”
“That certainly has possibilities,” Anderson agrees. But he says it so nonchalantly you shudder, realizing that is, at best, only an afterthought.
What then is the ultimate goal? Why has Anderson and his masters financed and facilitated the professor’s experiments? There is one idea that occurs to you as you recall the suburban development being erected nearby. But in its way, it is almost more horrible. “You — you don’t intend to use this on the Russians, do you? This is for the west, for allies like Canada. For the American people themselves. For God’s sake — why, man?”
“As I said: the Cold War is being fought in living rooms. It’s a war of will. The side that eventually triumphs will be the side that is most afraid. Fear is the great motivator. You’re a psychiatrist, you know that. We have an opportunity here to play upon and exacerbate every nightmare and neuroses in the land. We can subject whole suburbs to disturbing and unsettling dreams. Or we can target individuals. If some newspaper editor starts to get a bit too soft on the Commies, we can blast him with the Morphobias process for a few nights and turn him into a raving paranoid churning out editorials about the danger of the Reds nuking the Midwest. We could get Edward R. Murrow ranting like Joe McCarthy.” Anderson gestures at the sleeping children. “That’s why we chose children. Aside from being able to get them through the orphanage — no one cares about kids who are wards of the state — they have the most vivid imaginations. And they’re the first generation in history to grow up in the shadow of the bomb — they’re seething with anxieties.”
“And where do I fit in? You obviously know who I am.”
Anderson shrugged. “We’re still refining the process. We didn’t intend the experience to be so unsettling it would actually drive people away. We need to figure out a scale of intensity. When I learned the Corbins had recruited you, though, I thought it would make a great test of the more extreme levels. A man of your intellect and reputation would make an exemplary test subject. In fact,” he says, his eyes glinting like ice, “I’m curious how you survived when you say that other fellow was incinerated.”
Tightly, you say: “I just thought wet thoughts.”
Smiling coldly, Anderson pulls a gun. “Come, Doctor. No games. I’m trying to save the free world.”
You feel your heart thump, wondering if this is the end — has Doctor Id finally detected his last ghost? Or can you play for time? “I take it there’s some sort of insulation against the projections? It must be risky transmitting such potent hallucinations literally just above your heads.”
“Yes,” agrees the professor. “We lined the ceiling with polarized rubber that prevents the transmissions from seeping down here-”
“Shut up,” says Anderson, smart enough to recognize he’s missing something. “What’s your point, Doctor Id?”
“Wouldn’t it be a problem if, for instance, someone left a door open upstairs?”
Did you time it so perfectly — are you really that clever? Or is it just a lucky coincidence that as you finish speaking the air is shattered by the clang of a dropped metal tray and one of the nurses screams. Anderson and the professor turn to see shuffling, radioactive zombies come scraping through the plastic curtain that hides the hall that leads to the stairs that rise to the door that you left propped open. You had already deduced much of what you would find here, hadn’t you? That is why you had whispered into that sleeping boy’s ear that radioactive zombies might attack this facility.
As a psychiatrist you understand the potential of subliminal messages and hypnotic suggestions.
“Not here!” screams the professor. “Stop!”
Anderson starts firing at the creatures, his bullets passing harmlessly through them because they do not exist — except in the mind. Shrieking the nurses break and run, heading for a door at the far side of the room. The professor is frozen with horror, screaming. Then his scream sputters to a gagging silence as radiation-burned hands he can feel but not touch close about his throat.
Anderson whirls on you. “You survived — how?” he shouts, pleading.
Even if you had time to explain, Anderson wouldn’t be able to process the information and adopt the principle in time. Is that why you say nothing? Or is it because, Hippocratic Oath or not, you think Anderson deserves his fate?
Seeing no help from you, he turns and starts firing again — still failing to grasp that his bullets are useless. The zombies pour over him and, screaming, he is buried beneath a phantasm of undead avengers.
You’re not out of the woods, are you? Feigning calm you move slowly toward one wall, the zombies staggering toward you. You have set your eye on what looks to be an emergency switch, an orange lever clamped to a big cable running vertically up the wall.
One of the creatures swipes at you — but unlike with Anderson and the professor, it simply passes through you. Emboldened, you grasp the lever and pull down.
The room goes black, then red emergency lights blink on; the subtle hum of machines cease. And all the phantoms vanish instantly — or at least retreat back to the unconscious dreams of the sleeping children.
It’s only then that you let yourself sigh in relief.
Wiping sweat from your eyes you look at the rows of sleeping children, and at the two dead men upon the floor — killed by their own minds. It is funny how the irrational can still overwhelm the rational, isn’t it? They knew better than anyone that the phantoms were not real. Yet faced with the overwhelming horror of them, they still instinctively believed in their power to kill.
As might you have — save you lived through it once.
Leo was killed and you weren’t because you were distracted. An image of your beloved wife had appeared to you and, for just a moment, that idea became your whole world. The blast that killed Leo held no reality for you. And that had shown you the way. The phantoms could only hurt you if you let them; if you had nothing greater to believe in.
Anderson had said fear was humanity’s great motivator. But perhaps love would be its salvation.
Because you are a doctor as well as a ghost-breaker you verify the children are in no immediate danger. Then before you head off to summon the authorities, you realize you should take a few minutes to disable (or otherwise smash) the machines used to drag forth their subconscious nightmares. With the professor dead, and his devices wrecked, hopefully you can prevent this nightmare from being recreated.
As you perform this task do you take a moment to think about what occurred? About the apparition of your beloved Agatha conveniently appearing to you in time to save you from being consumed by your own mind? Perhaps not now, not yet. But later, when you have time to reflect.
You have become a hunter of the bizarre, a debunker of the supernatural, because you are plagued by questions about your dead wife.
Perhaps someday your quest will provide answers. And you will finally hear my voice again…my love.
This story appears — with many others — in the Masques Chronicles, vol. 1. As mentioned, “The Masques Chronicles” is a superhero/comic book-themed collection in prose. So a story like this is a mix of intents: spooky and eerie, at times, but also a bit deliberately cheesy and hokey — starting out a supernatural ghost story…but ending up a mad scientist/sci-fi tale. While also using the plot as an allegory about Cold War paranoia. The 2nd person narration was meant to evoke a style of old comic book horror stories (the chief time I’ve come across the use of 2nd person!) — but it also provided the opportunity for a twist at the end 🙂