Under a Half Moon

The doors to the bedrooms, the kitchen, and the stairs have old-fashioned sneck latches with a horizontal grasp and a thumb button on one side and a simple exposed bar on the other. There’s no back plate, which means it’s a Suffolk latch rather than a Norfolk latch, a fact I find gratifying given I’m in that county. It also means they were probably fitted before the 1820s. Anyway, it’s not the sort of fitting you expect to find on interior doors these days; perhaps you’d come across one on a shed, but then only in rural parts where tool thefts, or vandalism, haven’t forced upgrades.

It becomes an oddly satisfying procedure, settling the latch bar into the catch. You need to be precise; it won’t just slam and lock. You have to think about it, to be aware of yourself in the world.

The first couple of times I went into the kitchen, I shut the door and it swung open behind me as I walked away, giving the impression that someone had followed me into the room. This simple thing, I realized, had the power to send me into a downward spiral of unhealthy thinking, which is not a good thing: too much self-absorption, bad for the spirits. Clicking the latch home feels good and connects me; thinking about the physical can stop that gnawing sadness and the insidious accumulation of fears and anxieties. It is, I guess, a variety of mindfulness, if you’re that way inclined.

There are other things that I found unsettling when I first arrived: the way the mismatched kitchen chairs shrieked on the quarry tiles (or pamments, as they’re called in these parts) when I stood up; the way the wind whistled and hummed around, and through, the clapperboard; and, on a night like this, the smash and roar of a ferocious November sea on the shingle beach. Dwelling on it could make me maudlin and fretful, so I think carefully about the house.

It is what I suppose a New Englander would call a salt-box house, one of the vernacular styles of Connecticut and Massachusetts, but I’m certain the type originated on the east coast of England: in Kent, or more probably here in East Anglia. After a couple of days trapped in the house and ruminating about architectural history, it’s not lost on me that I made this connection because I’ve just returned from visiting that region. In fact, I’m here recuperating from the car crash on the road between Salem and Marblehead in Massachusetts. I wasn’t badly hurt, but it quickly became apparent that it had affected me psychologically, which was not surprising given the circumstances of the accident.

For a start, Mel—Amelia, always, she said, to her family—remains in a coma, as far as I know. I’m not able to find out. I have no contact; her parents will not allow it. They blame me, I think, and in a sense they’re right to: I was driving, after all. They’re sure I’d been drinking, but the fact is, I was in shock and I tried to tell the police—the first on the scene, at least—what had actually happened, about the thing in the road. It quickly became apparent that they thought I was intoxicated, or a lunatic, or an idiot, or perhaps all three, so I changed my story, said that, on reflection, it was probably a deer, which satisfied the cops but didn’t help my credibility with her family.

So now, Mel languishes who knows where. I managed to get hold of a friend of a friend, but there seems to be an embargo. The friend of the friend was, at first, only too willing to help in any way she could, and informed me that she thought Mel was still unconscious but stable. The second time I called her, she was curt and unaccommodating. It was as though she’d been warned off talking to me.

I take my cup of tea and sandwich to the living room closing the kitchen door behind me very carefully. I have the curtains open on the wide front windows and only a standard lamp with a forty-watt bulb to light the big room. It’s enough to read by. Across the road, beyond the railings, all is black. Rain shatters against the panes every thirty seconds or so. I’ll return to my book after taking this uninspiring meal—all I can be bothered to prepare—and staring at the weather. I bought myself a copy of the Penguin Classics M.R. James stories, volume one, in Aldeburgh when I arrived and I’ve been systematically consuming them. He used to holiday in these parts. Some of the tales are inspired by the landscape hereabouts.

This thought brings me back to New England, which has itself provided the setting for numerous uncanny tales. I’d travelled there for a holiday, and, ostensibly, to visit some of those literary sites, though this was really a thin excuse to see Mel. I first met her in London when she spent a postgrad year at Birkbeck dabbling in art history. Madness and modernity was her thing: the link between mental illness and creativity. We hit it off pretty well and became, almost, romantically involved.

I say “almost” because she wasn’t quite like the other students. Though undoubtedly pretty, and radiating a kind of staid sensuality, she was rather more repressed—if that’s the right word—than I’d have expected. Being used to a culture of casual intimate liaisons, shall we say, it came as a shock when she rebuffed my clumsy advances one evening in her student accommodation.

“But I love you,” I’d said.

“Ah-ah, let’s have none of that,” she replied. “It’s just the drink talking anyway.”

What confused matters further was that she still seemed quite keen on me and acted in every other respect as though we were an item. She came, apparently, from a religious family who didn’t believe in hanky-panky, or even much touching, before marriage. We met daily and carried on like girlfriend and boyfriend, and after she returned to the States, we kept up a significant and rather intense correspondence.

After uni, I managed to get freelance design work, while she took her first teaching job at Salem State University—or Miskatonic as I’d dubbed it in my mind, though she quickly put me straight on that point when I said it in a letter—and being now my own boss it meant that I could engineer a long visit, a three week tour of the Massachusetts coast to see her. It being March, I knew she’d be at work, and with off-peak rates applicable, it would be affordable. I hired a car and planned to flit up and down the seaboard, calling in for visits at every opportunity.

If I imagined that my appearance, after eight months separation, would magic her into bed, however, I was very much mistaken. She lodged in Marblehead with a Mrs. Threlfall, widowed and a family friend, who forbade gentleman visitors after ten p.m., with which archaic ordinance she seemed in accord. I called there and Mrs. Threlfall—a congregant, I gathered, at one the more austere Marblehead chapels—hovered. She was not inhospitable. In fact, she was rather overly attentive, and offered me drinks—nothing, however, as overstimulating as coffee—and biscuits. Her house, though immaculate in every other respect, smelt of old lady and stale tuna cat food. She kept her eye, which was rather too large and dull to be counted beady, on me at all times.

The second time Mel and I met up, I decided to take the good widow out of the equation and arranged a rendezvous at an old trailer diner by the college. Mel looked a bit down when I met her outside. I asked her if she was okay.

“Yeah, I’m good,” she said, none too convincingly. We entered the neat little tunnel of blue vinyl, pink formica, and chrome. There was only one other table occupied, by a student trawling the social media sites on a laptop. Mel turned the other way and headed for the table furthest from him. It was, also, the one with the least crockery on it. She sat with her back to the entrance. She didn’t look as pleased to see me as she had the other day. I expected we’d fall into conversation about my latest expedition—I’d been up the coast to Newburyport, and had lots to tell her—but she seemed distracted and didn’t respond to my news with much enthusiasm.

The wait staff was as reluctant to serve us as they were to clear the tables, and so we were left to our own devices for at least ten minutes. Before the youth arrived to take an order, I asked what was wrong, fearing the worst, of course. Joyfully, it actually turned out to be not about me. She was, however, deeply concerned about something that had happened to her. I breathed a sigh of relief—if only inwardly—and reached through the mess of plates and cups to take her hand.

”What is it?” I said, with all the earnestness I could muster.

“I saw something strange in the estuary last night,” she said.

“What sort of strange?” I asked.

“Well, the way I cycle home—it’s along the Marblehead Rail-Trail—and last night, as I rode along, I was looking out over into the bay… There’s an island, and I could swear I saw people moving about on it.”

“Does anyone live there?”

“Not that I’m aware of. You can only get to it by boat. I’ve noticed shapes out there before, on the rocks, but assumed they were harbor seals. In the dusk you can’t really see, but last night…”

At this point, the waiter finally deigned to take our order, and with a little cajoling was persuaded to clear the table. While he was clattering pots, I noticed another diner arrive. The newcomer sported a black felt hat and red scarf; he looked like a pared down, provincial Aristide Bruant from the Toulouse Lautrec posters. He also affected a goatee, which might have looked sinister, but with the rest of the ensemble seemed only camp. He settled into the seats next to us so that he was back to back with Mel. The waiter, having removed the previous diners’ detritus and brought coffee, left us in peace and Mel resumed.

“I was making my way home yesterday evening at dusk; it was a cold, clear night here, and where the trail opens onto the Lead Mills beach I could see right across the bay to the island.” She leant forward and imparted this in a theatrical whisper. “On the rocks around its shore there was a light. I’d never seen anything like it before.”

“Do people go out to it? Maybe there were fishermen.”

“It wasn’t that sort of light, not a flashlight or a torch, more a sort of glow, a sickly, greenish glow. I don’t know why but it gave me the creeps.”

“How big’s the island? Was it all lit up?” I said. “I can’t picture it.”

“I’ll show you. Walk down there with me. I mean, it may be nothing. I’d like a second opinion. I’m starting to get so I don’t want to go that way. Come and have a look.”

I agreed immediately. The idea of walking my best gal down a quiet lane appealed. Little fantasies that were compounds of fifties Hollywood family movies and erotica already filled my thoughts. Our food arrived and she continued to fill me in on the details of the shapes on the island edge. She conceded that this wasn’t the first time she’d seen them, these things that were not seals and not people. They moved, she said, in a way that suggested both, or that they might be quadrupedal. She made further attempts at describing the unnatural green luminescence, which she was fairly certain was connected with the shapes, but couldn’t clearly express the quality that made it quite so troubling.

As we rose to leave, Mel recognized the black-hatted bohemian, who’d spent the whole time behind us nursing a cup of coffee and, I suspected, earwigging our conversation.

“Oh, Lionel, I didn’t see you there,” she said. “Lionel, Richard; Richard, Lionel.”

He’d seen it was Amelia but hadn’t wanted to disturb us, which was gracious of him. We didn’t say much to him beyond the necessary pleasantries and quickly departed, but, as we walked along the trail, he gave us something to talk about. He was a senior member of the faculty and, apparently, hailed from the same town as her folks, though she didn’t know him personally. She said she didn’t exactly mind him but found him a little superior; he’d taken a brief interest when he found out who she was, but was no friendlier for all that. She’d not have expected to see him, though, in a diner mostly frequented by students.

We walked along, Mel pushing her bicycle and filling me in on Lionel, and when that subject was exhausted, she finally asked about my travels. I relaxed. To all intents and purposes, we were now just a couple enjoying each other’s company.

Before I noticed, we were at the main road, Lafayette Street, I think, and she was pointing out the island where she’d seen the mysterious things, creatures, entities, whatever they were. In the gloaming, it wasn’t easy to make out the tree-clad islet. The half moon illuminated the water, but it was just a shadowy mass that blended into the far shore of the bay.

After crossing the road, we passed under bare trees and stood at the edge of the beach. From here, I thought I could make out the faint glow where the rocks met the sea, but this might have been the power of suggestion. I stepped down the beach a way, squinting, and trying my damnedest to see into those shadows. Something may have moved, but it was so far away it was impossible to say, and I was so wrapped up, concentrating on the far view, that when Mel gave a sharp cry, I nearly jumped out of my skin.

“What’s that?” she shouted. I looked round to find she was pointing, not at the island, but at the strand we stood on. In the dark, at the far end of the beach, where it gave way to woods, something was moving. A bulky shape squirmed in the shallows. It might have been a seal wriggling onto land, but there was that faint luminescence about it. I back-pedaled up the sand to Mel, and as I ran, it became still. We stood watching in silence for a moment, then it moved again. This time it seemed to be raising itself up on four limbs. In the moon-glazed water two heads with huge yellow eyes broke surface.

“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” I said.

“Right,” she said, and tried to turn her bike round.

“Leave that,” I said, and grabbed her arm. “Come on. Run.”

The bicycle dropped with a clatter, and I managed one backward glance. The seal shape had legs now, and looked liked huge, fat dog but with uneven limbs. I didn’t look again. We ran like fury back the way we’d come, soon hitting the built up edges of Salem, but not slowing until the track broke out by the university buildings.

I stopped, hands on my knees, gasping for breath, and hawked up phlegm.

“What in God’s name was that?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Some sort of animal. We’d better call the cops.”

“Let’s go home first,” she said. “I’d like to get indoors.”

We agreed that the bicycle could be picked up later and that I’d drive her back to Mrs. Threlfall’s place from where we could telephone the emergency services and report a wild animal loose. Stepping out from the college’s grounds, I noticed ahead, walking along the trail in the same direction we’d gone originally, a dark figure with a wide-brimmed hat. Lionel must have seen I was looking at him because he about-turned rapidly. I said nothing to Mel; there were more pressing matters to attend.

The quickest way from the college to Mel’s lodging was via Lafayette Street, the road we’d just crossed. It runs along the shore, and, as we passed the bay, both of us craned to check out the island again.

“I can’t see anything,” Mel said.

“Let’s get past,” I said, and accelerated hard. As we rounded the bend beyond the crossing, though, something lurched into the road. I swerved and instinctively jumped for the clutch and brake. The car being an auto, however, I hit the accelerator and brake instead and the car slewed and rolled. Time seemed to slow as I fought fruitlessly with the steering. There was a scrape of metal on the tarmac, a thump, then another, and we landed upside down, the passenger side crushed on a concrete bridge stanchion. That’s how we were when the police arrived. That’s why Mel is in hospital.

The thing in the road was close to indescribable. In the flash of the headlights before I lost control, it looked the size of a small pony, but had the longer back limbs than front, and jerked eccentrically in its movement. Its skin was mottled in greens and browns, some patches appearing to fluoresce in the headlamps. The slack fleshy jaw and black and golden eye seemed to betray an almost human startlement; but this may have been merely post factum, not to mention post-concussion, anthropomorphizing on my part.

I decide to go to bed. It was good of Greig to lend me his holiday cottage for a couple of weeks. It’s given me time to settle myself and to think carefully. London was too much, too busy to be still in. I’ve been preoccupied with memories of the crash and it’s made worse, of course, by the fact that I have no news of Mel’s condition. Out here on the coast, I’ve had the opportunity to assess matters.

I have an inkling that even in more propitious circumstances I wouldn’t have passed muster with Ma ‘n’ Pa Marsh, who I have never met or seen; I sense that they had in mind a very particular sort of suitor for their daughter, and I’m not it. I realize I’ll have to find a way to get news without them knowing. I am also starting to wonder how much of that night’s events I’ve varnished with a layer of supplemental and unnecessary ghoulishness.

I put the landing light on before going back to turn out the standard lamp. The rain is still thrashing at the windows.

Upstairs, I have both of the other bedroom doors firmly closed. It’s odd how disturbing the sight of a 1950s dressing table and a perspex vanity case can be, or an unused bed with wool blankets and a chenille bedspread, so I keep them shut. I use the toilet and clean my teeth with the bathroom door wide open, then in the one room I occupy up here, I settle the latch carefully into place and throw the bolts at top and bottom. I decide to give M.R. James a rest, slip the book onto the nightstand, flick off the lamp, and bury my head under the covers.

The next day, the storm has abated, and the sun is attempting to break through. I rustle up some breakfast in the kitchen and eat it in the living room. I leave the joining door open. The sea is still rough, but it’s a beautiful morning. I watch gulls wheeling in the air and fighting with the gusts of wind. A trip up the coast is in order.

I check the map and decide to visit Dunwich. In part, I’m interested by its history, but I’m also amused by the idea of its homonymic fictional counterpart. As I drive out, I amuse myself by wondering if it will have its own “horror” and if that will be anything like the baroque extravagance that is the invisible beast of that story. It’s a long time since I read it—I’d have been in my early teens, I suppose—but the overwrought imagery has stayed somewhere in the storehouse at the back of my consciousness and can be summoned with relative ease.

The real Dunwich is impressive in its own way. There’s a little museum that shows the extent of the land erosion that dragged the old port, including three churches and a monastery, into the North Sea. It wasn’t, as I’d imagined, all in one great cataclysm, though the “Grote Mandrenke,” which itself sounds like a supernatural entity, inundated a large part of the already abandoned town in middle of the 14th century. The Grote Mandrenke—Great Drowning of Men—was a huge storm that saw off some 25,000 souls across northern Europe, apparently. Horrors, it seems, come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.

This idea’s reinforced by a conversation I overhear as I sit in the Flora Tearooms, the village fish and chip shop. It’s another trip into the 1950s, the dining experience. The exterior of the building is clapperboard, while inside, with its painted tongue and groove walls and ultra-functional furniture, it’s like a staff canteen from an old corporate publicity brochure. I’m the only customer who could strictly be called a tourist, but there are three others, all clad in outdoor workwear or waterproofs. One is a local waterman, the others serious leisure fishermen.

“Oi sin it,” says the boatman. “He were just walking up the beach, on his way back, oi expeck. It were too rough to catch ought, oi’d think. Oi weren’t paying him much attention, but oi looked up just as it crashed down on him. Grut big wave, come down on him like a cat’s paw. Freakish, it were. Come out o’ nowhere. Oi run down to help, but he were gorn: vanished, completely.”

“Waders?” said one of the fishermen.

The consensus was that the waders would have scratched any slim chance the unfortunate had of survival. They would have filled instantly and dragged him down. Not, they opined, that there was much hope for him in that sea anyway. Horrors in kaleidoscopic variety.

However much I may have embroidered the incident in Massachusetts, the fact remains that Mel, who is very dear to me—though still I hold to her prohibition on using the word love—is in a coma; or may still be in a coma; or may have recovered, and I can’t find out. This is horror enough.

Holding this thought, I’m toying with my chips when the proverbial light bulb pings on: Lionel. There can’t be that many Lionels on the staff at Salem State. If I can find him and call direct, he must know. I’ll get my laptop and head to Aldeburgh. There must be somewhere in the town that has a WiFi connection. At the cottage, I can’t even get mobile reception. I bolt my chips, head back there, stuff the computer in a rucksack, and am so heartened by this new avenue of investigation that I decide to walk the rest of the way.

The sky is now blue, the wind fresh and still biting, but the world as a whole has taken on a different complexion. I call in at the bookshop and buy the second Penguin volume of James’ stories by way of a premature celebration. In the WiFi café I quickly find the college’s website and search Lionel. One of the top results leads me to a brief and recently added notice. The college is sad to report the unfortunate and unexpected death of faculty member Dr. Lionel T. Greely; condolences to family etcetera.

A quick trawl of the local newspaper site elicits further details. “Salem academic dies in boat accident.” The police chief was reported as saying that though the accident occurred in perfectly calm August conditions, the boat being moored in the bay, the circumstances of the death were not considered suspicious. No suicide note had been found and no other parties were sought in connection with the incident. Drugs or alcohol were not involved. The unfortunate Dr. Greely was thought to have slipped and caught his head as he fell from his own vessel. There was a lesion on the side of his head and blood on the gunwale, but the autopsy suggested that the cause of death was drowning. He must have slipped on the edge of the deck and been unconscious when he entered the water.

This sets my mood back somewhat. I go to the Cross Keys, settle by the wood-burning stove, and consider developments over a couple of pints. The pub’s warmth and a little human contact temporarily holds off the sense of despair that’s swimming into vision, but I can feel it coming. I try to fathom ways in which I might obtain news of Amelia’s condition. The fact that I think of her by that name is a shock and seems to indicate that I’ve lost her completely, that her family have her now, but these considerations are rapidly subsumed by another nauseating vision.

The overwhelming image that now fills my mind, though with no evidential basis, is of a man standing on the deck of his yacht. He’s adjusting a sail, or coiling a rope; he nears the boat’s edge and a huge slimy limb bursts from the water; a hand-like extremity, taloned and webbed, clasps his leg and yanks him from the vessel, drags him into the fathomless black sea.

On the beach, the wind cuts through my coat. I set off up the shingle in the dark. There’s enough moonlight to find my way, but occasionally cloud cover blows over and I stumble in an unexpected hollow. The sea hisses on the pebbles, and then just beyond the great metal scallop of the Britten memorial, I become aware that something is moving down at the waters edge. I speed up.

Walking on the shingle is like wading in treacle; it makes my legs feel heavy and my rucksack keeps slipping off my shoulder, the weight of the laptop unbalancing me momentarily. I keep moving, but look around periodically and am sure there are objects, large masses, figures with an eccentric gait and the faintest glow about them. I head for the bungalows on the edge of the shore. They’re all shut up for the winter, but it’s easier walking there, and it’s the sign of human habitation, and whatever the things moving on the beach behind me are, human is not part of it. I can hear their irregular crunching on the pebbles, a sort of loping gait, which quickens as I break into a trot.

I race up the soft sandy track between two of the little houses and turn onto the hard track that runs to the village. There are lights ahead, but out here in the dark I stumble twice. Leaving the shingle, I can no longer hear the pursuing things steps. I risk a glance behind as I enter the car park and fail to see the calf-high fence. I trip on it and sprawl on the tarmac, landing heavily on a knee and scraping the side of my face. I’m almost tearful with panic as I scramble to my feet. The things are hiding in the shadows of the bungalow fences and the dunes by the path, but relentlessly they come.

My footsteps echo as I race through the empty village street. At the cottage I struggle to jam the Yale key home. I don’t even look now; I know they are closing in, the lolloping obscenities. I slam the door shut. The frosted glass pane rattles with the impact. I start to move an armchair to barricade the door, but catch site of the silhouette of a repulsive, wide-mouthed head through the garden fence. The great green eye flashes in the streetlight and I bound for the stair, carefully pulling the stair door closed behind me. I hope, though it’s a slim hope, that they haven’t seen me enter the house, and I try to be as quiet as possible. Near hysteria, however, causes me to stumble.

I reach the bedroom, and bolt that door, crouch in the dark and listen. There are scrapings and unidentifiable creaks, though I can hardly tell what of, the blood is pounding so loud in my ears. Then I hear the distinctive sound of the sneck latch, a slobbery thump in the stairwell. Amelia Marsh is dead, I understand, in a dreadful epiphany, and I will be held to account.

* * *

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Tim Turnbull lives in rural Scotland. His first collection of short stories was published by Postbox Press in February. He’s recently had stories accepted by Gutter and Dark Lane Anthology and also completed a novel as part of a PhD. His poetry is published by Donut Press. A former lumberjack, he works mostly in adult literacy especially in prisons.

Image Credit: Jonathan Tweed