The Inward Seer
A great cone turned slightly awry, twisted out of true, is the form used for the roofs of most oast-houses in the orchard-lands of England, in Herefordshire, the Vale of Evesham and especially Kent. I never found out why these hop-kiln buildings were shaped that way — a broad, round stone body and a tall, tapering timber head — something to do with the secrets of the preparation of that most important ingredient of the island's ale, I suppose. But they always drew my gaze whenever they came into view in some quiet village or cluster of farm buildings, just as windmills and lighthouses and watchtowers did — because they are high and aspire to the sky, because they open up our breadth of vision. So I always wanted to live in one of these and when I got the chance to rent The Old Oast House, Blackmoor End, in West Kent, for a long sabbatical, I knew it was precisely right for me.
My old colleague Biddulph affected to mis-hear me and made the obvious pun: "You're going to stay in a ghost-house, you say? Rather you than me, old man. I prefer a different kind of spirit. If you keep a dram of Laphroiag in, I might pop and see you though. Have another?" For a literary man, and one who delighted in studying the most elaborate and intertwining of prose works, he could be offputtingly bluff: but I knew his badinage to be his outer defence against the world, to prevent too easy access to what was, indeed, a poetic soul.
Two tall slanting windows had been put into the roof of the Old Oast House, and this top floor housed a bedroom which therefore had fine views across the weald, across acres of meadowland, gentle hills, thickets of dark woodland, gates and a scattering of white-walled farms and cottages. I put my desk in this room too, so that whenever I looked up from my commentary on the eschatology of Ezekiel, I could shift quickly from flame and darkness and abominations to the placid green champaign stretching far, far away, soothing to the gaze.
The oast-house had once stood upon the far corner of a country estate which had belonged to a long lineage of squires and parsons, but which had died out when the last of the line fell in the Great War. A succession of tenants of varying duration had lived in the hall and the lodge-house and the outbuildings like mine, but now it was all broken-up in its ownership and the memory of the family long gone. Only a very old gardener I chanced upon as he sat in the churchyard, attentively breathing in the sunlight, could say very much about them, and these were the dim yet glorified memories of the ancient: they had been a great race, he said, who numbered soldiers and scholars and explorers amongst their proud line, but he could not call to mind any very precise examples, despite my urging. "Strong and brave and very wise in their ways," he said of the men; "beautiful and always kind and laughing" were the ladies — he nodding the while as if to confirm his own story.
I had been in The Old Oast House perhaps a week when the dreams came. I had been for a walk in the lane that lead from my refuge in the direction of another fallen, forlorn old estate, whose manor was now in craggy ruins, and I thought I should like a closer look at it. But it was dusk, later than I had supposed, and I saw I would not make my destination before darkness unless I could find a short cut across the fields. After a while, I espied a gap in the hedgerow and a faded footpath leading from this into woodland and, as I thought I could see, out from this towards the ruin. Yet I never got so far. For, when I passed through the gap in the hedge, I suddenly felt a chill pass over me, and a dizzying blackness seize hold of my brow and momentarily blot my eyes. I wavered on my feet. I have had attacks like these when I have been poring over lower bookshelves and risen too quickly: yet never in open country on a gentle summer's evening. I clutched at the prickly hedge for support and stepped back onto the road; and it passed. But I thought it better not to go on. Even as I made my way back to the Oast House, I perceived that this wave of fever had not quite left me, for I kept on thinking I heard a pattering behind me, as of some large, loping animal; yet when I looked around me, there was nothing to see.
And it was it after this that the first dreams began. Dreams I must call them, but they were more like waking visions. For I would find myself at my desk staring out into the darkness over the land, both to the east and the west, with only the rarest light shining here and there: and there would encroach upon me the conviction that all the fair greenery and quiet paths of the day had been usurped; with the descent of night had come titanic Forms and Shapes in the blackness, great colossi of weighted gloom, beings as dark and hard as basalt but capable of a remorseless, silent movement. I could not see these things; and yet I knew they were there. And I knew, too, that my tall, conical house was a sanctuary and a refuge against them, which must not fall or fail; yet it was frail and could not hold for long. Stare as I might through the long slanted windows, craning to catch some glimpse, some echo of the tranquil country of the daylight, I could never make out any sign that was clear enough in its outline to offer me this reassurance; instead I would only intensify the inner impression of the Shapes. And so this dream, or vision, would tread pitilessly on through long, long hours: I in my tower, staring out, with that keen dread sense telling me of the vast presences outside, and of their slow, deliberate ranging toward my house. Then, at some weary cusp, with the weakest inkling of light, an arid fitful sleep would come, and morning would find me either slumped over my desk or awkwardly-limbed on my bed, where I had falteringly found my way.
It may be imagined what toll this took upon me, and it was only the occasional respite from this sequence, when by some benediction I would avoid the visions of the night, and sleep more usually, which kept me in a sustainable haleness. It was after two such nights of freedom that I recovered my wits sufficiently and made my resolve: if it were some turmoil of the mind that was the cause of these dreams, perhaps caused by too great an absorption in the grim old passages of the prophets, then I could perhaps clear it by refraining from my studies.
So I went out by day and walked in the country thereabouts and felt drawn to explore the wild, neglected parklands of the two lost estates, the one upon which my oast house sat like some curious round bastion at the gate, and the other with its melancholy crumbling hall, and though I enjoyed the freshness of the day and the pleasing greenery, I also felt, often overpoweringly, a certain wistfulness pass over me, an inner lament for these places that had gone: and I felt oddly drawn to them.
Yet at night the dreams did not abate, but rather began to shift themselves somewhat, in that I began to feel I could make out differences and characteristics in the Shapes that loomed. So I made a more deliberate attempt to understand what the dreams might mean. I remembered a certain technique that Biddulph had told me about, which he had picked up from his reading of old, forgotten phantasies, and I composed myself each night to stare upon a chosen white space on the wall, intently and with calmed breathing, holding my thoughts only upon this, until it was as if that part of the wall quivered and dissolved and let in, as it were, a seeping of a vision: and as this vision began to thread like filaments of a strange incense into my consciousness, so I would release my control and allow myself to succumb gradually to sleep. It was under these conditions that my dreams began to take more shape and sequence, and I could piece together some hints of a vast history.
In one of the first of these dreams, I found myself still in a high room like the one I slept in, with windows that looked out upon darkness, and an awareness of Shapes that waited in that darkness. But here I could also see at intervals spasms of red-hot glowing, which came and went like the blinking of vast fiery eyes, or as if some great furnace doors had been heaved open and slammed shut again. Less frequently, too, I thought I could make out giant dark figures limned against these glowing cells. I knew that it was my task to take note of these red openings, to record their pattern and whatever particular I might think I saw. And so for several nights it went on.
Then there came a night when my dream lurched into drama, into that detailed activity, as real as our own lives, which sometimes lingers in extraordinary detail in our minds when we awake, so that we feel as if we have lived another life in the space of the sleep we have had.
I was again in my high room, watching for the red glowing, when I became aware of footsteps on the stair that led to my observation chamber, but I paid no attention to these, as if I was expecting them. The arched door opened and a young man glided in, greeted me silently and came to sit beside me, staring at me from languid-lidded eyes, his high cheekbones, petulant lips and delicate, fair eyebrows all conveying to me an impression of great and ancient breeding.
He looked at me curiously. "You are not quite here again," he said, and passed his opened fingers close to my gaze, making a sign.
It was if this simple act released within me a stream of knowledge, of understanding, and I sighed and shook myself slightly. I attribute all that I can now remember to that gesture, though I do not know why.
He that had joined me then paused, gathering his thoughts.
"The Redoubt is in great peril," he said, softly, without any hint of urgency.
"Yes. It has always been so," I replied.
"You speak of what is without. I speak of what is within."
"You know what they think of me. A flaneur and a fool, tolerated in the Tower of Observation only because of my occasional glimmerings of insight. This is how I would wish it, for it allows me to pass amongst them idly and, as it would seem, without purpose. Thus do I watch, as you — and a few others in the Unknown Outposts — understand. For I have known, and always known, that we must watch within as hard and as keenly as we watch without."
I was silent. Zalyeski, I said to myself, sees and understand far more than is common among men. He has his secret counsels, and I am proud to be a part of them. He alone has knowledge of all the remaining, tunnel-webbed, Outposts, which are concealed from the vision of those in the Redoubt and, as we hoped, from the vast enemies beyond, because they are carved into the very rock. He alone selects those who serve in the Outposts, according to his own whim or inner understanding. While those in the Redoubt supposed him to spend many hours supine upon a couch, lost in reverie, and conceded him this ennui only for the sudden insights with which he would emerge, yet in fact he was often upon a tour of the hidden Outposts, gleaning that very intelligence that they thought came to him in visions.
"I must ask you to undertake a terrible task for me," he said, in his gentle undertone, as if he had merely asked me to do some commonplace thing. I nodded, and waited.
"Do you remember when the youths, unheeding of the peril, went out into the lands beyond the Redoubt, into the fastnesses of the East, and only one returned, and he close to death? All that bright brigade had been taken and slaughtered, he said, and he tried hard to utter the hideousness of what he had seen, and we could not understand; but one thing we did hear, and this that they had all perished, terribly."
I stared at my companion while my heart bounded like a hound on the scent.
"Yet," he continued, "I have seen one of those that went."
"Seen them? Where? Can we rescue him?"
"No, we cannot. He was in the Redoubt. His features were twisted awry so that to all but the most piercing eye I doubt if he would be discerned. Yet it was he, I am certain: or something of him. I know because I see, and see inward while all others look only out."
I felt a tingling unease sweep over me. All our defences for the Redoubt, that last fortress home of humanity, faced outward: the shining globe, the circling forcefield of light, the vast grey pyramid itself, all were constructed to hold back the Forces and the Creatures that beseiged us. Yet if something ab-human had also found its way within, masquerading in our form, what chance could we stand?
"And so, I must ask you to do this thing for me."
"Go toward the gaping rednesses, stealthily as you can, watching all the while for anything more than you have seen so far from this Outpost: and go on, ever closer, until you find out what the giants make in their fiery kilns. Then return and tell me — and only me."
When the youths went towards the East, they went with bright display, stalking bravely, like so many before. They were tired of the life inside the Redoubt, felt pent by its secureness, and resolved that they would explore beyond and find new things, even though they knew how few had ever returned from such exploits.
But when I went, I went alone and unarmed, and concealed myself first in the dark garb that all who served in the Outposts had, which covered every limb and veiled the head. Cumbering it might be, but it meant I could dissolve into the constant dimness, a mere shard of the dark, that I could at will become like unto an outcrop of rock or a star-shadow. My dream or vision is not complete. I cannot remember exactly how I slipped forth, though I believe that it was by a tunnel that opened in a concealed pit far from my Outpost. But I know that it was in this secret fashion I made my way quietly and haltingly toward the place where the awful redness bursts out, glows, and closes again.
I crept from bush to bush, from shadow to shade. After two days I came to the arid lands, all greyness and dust and ash. Once, straining my sight in the constant dimness, I took a wrong step and found myself on the lip of a gulping crater which gave forth a coarse fiery breath from its depths, and I flung myself back desperately from that rim, before I was scorched by its heat. And as I edged carefully away, it came to me that here must be the hidden source of the furnaces I saw, and so that I must be within the same region as where they wrought. So I went on more cautiously still and saw signs of more and more flame-springs, with their crackling tongues of sombre blue and livid green; and belch-holes exuding black fumes, and pits of hissing cinders where swirling tendrils of smoke curled constantly like ethereal serpents; and near all of these I held my breath as long as I could and breathed shallowly when I had to, for fear of the miasma that emanated from them. Yet these I knew something of, for they were recorded in uncertain terms in the books of the libraries in the Redoubt, from the observations made in the Tower and from the very rare descriptions brought back from those who had been before and had returned.
There was nothing, however, that prepared me for the thing that sprang upon me on a time when I felt I was drawing very near to the place of the furnaces, so bright and huge were they when they flickered open their great orange mouths, so palpable the heat that pulsed from them. It came from a den of darkness, a cavern of even greater gloom than the rest of the wasteland in which I roamed. I had seen it from afar off, a dense open maw of a kind of active blackness that I would have avoided if I could: but the only other way meant a tortuous route up a sheer cliff, and I was keen to get on with my mission. As I hesitantly approached, my heart drumming as if it would announce me, I could not help but peer towards the gaping void. And I watched it very narrowly as I sidled slowly upon the ledge at its lip, and it seemed to me as if inside was not simply a greater absence of light but a moving darkness. And then a single white orb of light, liquid and glistening, flickered out of the gloom and within moments after, a huge lunging scaly limb flailed toward me. I flung myself to the ground as a vast whistling gale caused by the flicking of the limb rushed above me; then I crawled on all fours as fast as I could toward the cliff-face that would take me, hazardously enough, above the cave's great lintel. Again a writhing arm lunged out as I clung closely and piteously to the precipice, the very rush of air itself nearly dislodging me.
Then my ears were assailed by a dull roar and I turned my fearful eyes back from the curtain of black rock where I scrabbled, and saw at once why I had not been scooped into the cave: for on the opposite defile there was a giant blackened thing, upright and limbed as we are but grosser in the form and two to three times our size, which was trying to elude the reach of the limbs. And as I watched, it made some movement of a device it held and a great tongue of flame burst toward the cavern, and I felt its outer heat hit me: and then I understood that I was a mere insect upon a far vaster battleground, and that if I could maintain my insignificance I might find means of escape while these giants raged against each other. And in this way, inching my desperate way up the cliff, flattening myself whenever the force from a torrent of fire or the thresh of a monstrous limb threatened to peel me from my precarious perch, I at length found a way beyond and stumbled away as quickly as I might. A high and hideous screeching, a shrill and shrieking clamour that reverberated all around me soon after suggested that the Cave-Octopus, for so I named it, had seized hold at last of its prey, and I ran stumblingly on with even greater terror.
Some days more I spent in ever-intensifying heat which seemed as if it would wither my very skin and sear my eye-sockets, all the while watching for the spurts of sickly flame or billows of black gas that would leap up on all sides. The meagre supplies I had brought with me were more than half gone and I knew I would have a hard time of the return journey, if I survived to make it: but the very blinding brilliance of the red openings told me now how close I was. Several times I saw the giant things far off and made myself small in a crevice or hollow, glad that my veiled form would be one with the blackness around.
At last, at long last, I crept to the edge of a vast crater, and looked down from a fold in the vitreous rock, and knew I had found the lair of those giant things that would at times be seen against the glare of their kilns.
Then, when I saw what lay before me, I grew sick unto the very marrow of my soul. Laid out in long lines were the cadavers of some of those youths that had gone forth so bravely from the Redoubt. But I had seen death before: and it alone would give me no plunging revulsion such as I now knew. For these were no proper human corpses. Around each of the youths a group of the giants was engaged in some task: manipulating intricate things made of shining metal, and coil, and seemingly reshaping the flesh of their subjects. The skin and bone of the corpses seemed to move and grow: and a terrible heat radiated from them, so that they might have been made of a white maggot-flesh that was at the same time molten and flowing. Yet they were alive: I saw the nearest move its half-shaped hand, and a thin wail emerged from it. The nearest giant moved to restrain it, and in its controlled, sober, movement I read a terrible intelligence, a calm purpose that frightened me more than the horrors of my journey.
And I knew with a fevered lurch of understanding that what Zalyeski had divined was the very truth; that here were things being made, in all the semblance of men, but subtly changed from their original shape, all ready to be put amongst us. And I doubted not that the artifice of the giant things was greater still, and must in some way enable them to make these quasi-humans do what they wanted even from a great distance. It was no skill that we possessed: but might not they be greater than us in things other than stature?
So intent was I and so held by the horrid fascination of what I saw, that all my alertness was not with me and it was only when I felt in my prostrate body a rhythm of movement that I was awakened to the onset of a group of the giant things, clambering up the crater on my blind side. Whether they had seen me or were after some other hideous task, I did not stop to find out, but fled away all heedless.
This again led to my own peril. For my hasty pace and constant looking-around to see if I were pursued led me to stumble all unawares into a great streak of slime, which made me retch and retch, and in which I could not find my feet, but slithered helplessly: and as I cast about for some purchase to take hold of, I saw in the distance the cause of this trail: a thing sinuous and glistening like a slug, but far vaster, as great as a hill, and though still caught in its vile path, I was glad that it was going away from me. At length I saw that my struggles were useless and my only course, fetid and dangerous though it was, was to slink myself along the slime it had left, heaving with my toes and elbows, little by little, gaining a few feet for every time I slipped back, until the dank and unctuous route passed close to a protruding pillar and I was able to claw out at it and pull myself away.
All the while I was mortally afraid unless the slug should turn upon itself and, noticing my trapped form, make its unhurried way to examine me and make me the victim of its vileness. For days afterwards I knew the stench of its exudings upon my robes and the clamminess never left my flesh.
Tiresome it would be to retell all the turmoils and hardship of my return, except that as I warily neared the lair of the cave-octopus, I saw outstretched a charred arm that suggested the giant thing had caused it mortal or grievous harm before it was caught by a maimed limb and thrust toward its dreadful fate: and so I was able to make my way untroubled, except in the remembering of the whistling flailings and of the screams that I had heard throughout my entire body.
And so, after many days, and after I had rested awhile in my Outpost, and made my way through the hidden tunnels that led to the Redoubt, I met again my clandestine mentor and gave him my report.
Zalyeski closed his eyes and a shudder coursed through his delicate body. "Then truly we are vanquished," he said.
I tried to protest. "But what of the Word?" I asked. This was a watchword that some among us were able to pass by thought, and which only humans knew .
He gave a bitter smile. "Who started the Word? How do we know it did not first come as part of their craft? Some artificial manipulation of our minds?" He sighed. "I shall use all my guile, all my stealth, all my ruthlessness, to oppose them," he said, with a haughty determination. "Yet I will tell you this: the Redoubt will fall from within, in civil strife and fratricide, long, long before it would have succumbed to the outer things." He gazed bitterly, as if garnering to himself a far-flung vision. "I see their every move. I follow its patient logic. They will place their mannequins just so. The highest officials, our closest comrades — which of these shall we be able to trust? Why, even our very lovers — how shall we know whether they, too, might not be one of theirs? Fond, ardent, laughing, loyal, yet all the while a living treason. And some, too, they will keep to the very end, when we think perhaps that we have gained some foothold, some secret niche for a new start, and even then, they will still strike."
I had never heard him speak so before. And as I went away, numb with the weariness of his words, chilled by the ultimate fatalism he had uttered, a dreadful thought crept upon me, which I knew I should never be able to dismiss again.
What if he, too, were one of theirs, in the great elaboration of their game, the first sower of the seeds of discord and defeat?
And how had I escaped unassailed from the place of the furnaces? At his behest, as part of their plan?
How could I ever know, now?
All these things I told to Biddulph, when (as he had said) he came to stay with me: and after he had tried with jokes to coax me out of my tale, and saw at length that this would not avail, he listened ever more thoughtfully and said I must put them all down on paper. And I saw him reading in a great thick book, and comparing it with what I had written, and looking more thoughtful still. Then he tried to persuade me to come away, back to the college, to call off my sabbatical early. But I said that I thought that the old Oast House was a sentinel of some kind and I must not desert it until I had seen the ending of all the things I had dreamt, and he grew solemn and said he would stay with me too.
And so by day we roam the forgotten estates in their sweet peacefulness, and I feel again that strange yearning for something lost; and by night I resume my duties in the Outpost, while my friend ponders over what I have told, and frowningly consults over and over that book, which is called The Night Land.
© 2002 by Mark Valentine.
The image is by Otway M. Cantarell. It was published in 1921 and is in the public domain.