This is the first chapter (and a remnant of the second) of a horror story I'd started, based superficially on the Fighting Fantasy game book The House of Hell.
As with a lot of my stories, it's in the land of semi-oblivion, waiting for me to get back to it.
The first thing Martin Steed noticed about Ingram Manor was that he couldn’t see it. From the roadside, there seemed nothing more than a large wrought iron gate with a somewhat broad path leading into the woods. The only indication that a residence lie yonder was the name “Ingram” worked into the lintel above the gate.
Martin got out of his car and walked up to the gate. There was an intercom attached to one of the gate posts and he pressed a button. A camera whirred above him. Martin smiled cheesily at it.
A male voice sounded over the intercom. ‘Ingram residence. Who are you and what is your business?’
‘I’m Martin Steed, nephew of Lord Ingram. He may be expecting me.’
The gates slowly opened, pushing inward along rusty grooves with a heart-arresting screech. Martin screwed up his face and got back in his car. It was a solid two minute drive through the woods before the driveway emerged into an open area before the Manor. He was staggered. He had imagined his uncle living in a grand country estate, but had not been prepared for the size of the building before him. It was roughly rectangular and nothing less than immense! In places, it was four stories tall and stretched down one side for two or more football pitch lengths. All along the sides that Martin could see, large trees, conifers and evergreen broadleaves hugged tightly, obscuring all the windows. In fact, despite the manor house’s immensity, it looked closed in. Sealed and self-contained.
Martin knew the house had been added to, refurbished and refashioned over the nine hundred years it had been in existence. What he was seeing now was the product of a major redesign finished in the late Victorian age. One concession to modernity was the Grecian-appearing portico that had been constructed out from the entrance.
A man dressed in butler’s livery gestured to Martin to drive under the portico, which he dutifully did.
Martin got out of the car and shivered for no apparent reason, despite the warmth of the day. The man came up to him and rapped softly on the car’s trunk. ‘Sir, I am Cester, footman to Ingram Manor. Do you have luggage?’
Cester’s face was that variety which wasn’t familiar with smiling. As Martin saw, he was dressed very much in a style that seemed more in keeping with customs a century prior: waistcoat, gloves, cravat, pocket-watch and so forth. In fact, he resembled a player out of a period drama or re-enactment.
Martin opened the trunk. ‘Only these two bags.’
‘I will take them to your room. Tarquin will meet you at the door and present you to Lord Ingram.’ Bowing formally, Cester took the bags and went inside, Martin following uncertainly.
Standing just to the side of the large entrance doors was another man in servant’s attire, no less rigid and formal than Cester had been. In truth, they seemed twins, with only the lack of whiskers on Cester’s face providing any real difference. ‘Mr Steed, be welcome to the Manor. I am Tarquin, lead butler. My lord is expecting you.’ He stood aside and indicated for Martin to go in.
For his part, Martin was expecting something grand, such as a huge foyer with vast chandeliers and sweeping, curved staircases rising to lofty upper floors. There was no such thing. Instead, there was a moderately-sized chamber, possibly the size of a middle-class house’s lounge room, with polished wooden floors, a low ceiling and a profusion of doors and archways leading elsewhere. Everything was illuminated by soft lamps set in each corner.
A tall man dressed in cricket creams met him just inside and Martin knew at once that was his uncle, the Lord Ingram, Robert Challenor. Although he had never met the man, his resemblance to Martin’s mother was too strong, which was of course fitting, as he was the older brother.
Ingram put out a companionable hand for Martin to shake. ‘Hello there,’ he said richly. ‘I am Robert Challenor, and I bid you welcome to Ingram Manor, my rambling old country estate.’ Smiling, he glanced about him. ‘Aha! I can tell you thought this would be the foyer to a palace. Most of my visitors think this. Rather, they’re greeted with what could be a pub’s common room. If this house was a book, Martin, it’d be a palimpsest. Meaning, it has been demolished and rebuilt several times in its existence. A palimpsest is a book that has been erased and written over often repeatedly. A good analogy for the Manor. It had very humble beginnings, hence the paucity of this foyer. Anyhow, I’ll let Tarquin show you to your room, and then you can join me for a drink in Sebular.’
Tarquin bowed. ‘This way, sir.’
The servant preceded Martin through a door to the left. The first thing Martin noticed as they moved through the Manor, was the “un-squareness” of it. Corridors and hallways ran off at odd angles, or go up and down small inclines for no obvious reason. There didn’t appear to be a straight line anywhere. He also doubted, after a few minutes, that he’d find his way back to the entrance without assistance.
The Manor was strangely patchwork. Corridors of stone would give way to walls of wooden panelling or wainscoting only to return to stone and mortar a few yards on. No two doors seemed alike either. There were ordinary rectangular doors like one would find in a suburban house, then there’d be heavy oak doors ancient in age, or smaller doors designed from a time when folk were shorter. There was everything in between.
Due to the angular nature of the halls, Martin could only marvel at what strange shapes the rooms would have to be. One thing was for sure, the Manor was huge and could probably house a small army. Strangely, Martin didn’t meet another person on his way to his room.
Tarquin brought him to a door at the end of a short, arched hallway. He fitted a key and threw the door open. The room beyond was square and perfectly normal, which surprised Martin. It was also quite small, barely being four yards to a side. The queen size bed within occupied nearly all the available space, and there was room only for a small bedside table and lamp.
A small window overlooked what Martin took to be a central courtyard. Glancing about, he got the idea the house was closed in on three sides, though with the trees and shrubs, it was hard to tell. It had also begun to rain, which hid matters even more. One thing he did notice was he seemed to be on the second floor of the house. Peering directly out in front of him, the view was of heavy stone, interspersed here and there with windows of all shapes and sizes. In the courtyard below through the gloom, he spied what seemed to be a number of ragged scarecrows lying on a long wooden bench or table, something he pointed out to Tarquin.
‘They are scarecrows, sir. In from the fields for repair.’
‘I can’t believe how big this place is,’ Martin remarked, wanting to make small talk.
Tarquin said nothing but unpacked Martin’s clothes into a walk-in wardrobe at the foot of the bed.
Martin rubbed his hands. ‘Well, my uncle wanted to have a drink with me.’
Tarquin stepped out of the room and opened a door at the opposite end of the corridor. ‘This is your washroom, here at your convenience. Do you wish to refresh before I take you to his Lordship’s study?’
‘No, I’m ready.’
Tarquin closed the door as Martin left, then led him a separate way to which they had come, to a long and high corridor, with a ceiling arched in the style of a Gothic cathedral. Martin felt a strange sense of unease as they traversed the corridor, much like a trespasser might feel crossing a dark field in the middle of the night. Martin suppressed an urge to be far away and clamped down on an inchoate panic. He told himself silently he was being ridiculous
Soon after, they left the corridor and entered another, much plainer one. The distress faded and Martin could breathe again. After a couple of turns, Tarquin brought them before a sturdy door. Above the jamb was a brass plaque, with the word “Sebular” inscribed in it. Tarquin knocked quietly on the door, though the sound still echoed in the empty halls behind.
Lord Ingram opened the door. ‘How strange of you to bring Martin here this way, Tarquin. Most perverse of you.’
‘It is the most direct route from his room, sir.’
‘Of course it is. Come in, Martin.’
Lord Ingram closed the door as Martin entered. Martin’s eyes were assaulted by a riot of colour and dazzle. The room was cluttered with objets d’art, plants, books, curios, musical instruments, paintings and the like. He stood for a while, taking it all in.
‘You like my collection, Martin? I personally find Sebular to be the most invigorating of my three studies. I never tire of reading and or being at ease in here. Will you take whiskey or brandy?’
‘Umm, coffee if you have it.’
‘You’re in luck. Bledsoe has just made a pot of it.’ He went to a counter and poured Martin a coffee from an urn.
Martin ventured a question. ‘I have to ask: is this place haunted?’
The question didn’t seem to surprise Lord Ingram. ‘Considering its age and history, one would expect there to be the occasional, lingering spirit. To answer your question directly, I’ve heard it told there are several here. My staff may be more forthcoming as they see more of the Manor daily than what I do. Why do you ask? Was there a specific reason?’
‘That corridor beyond gave me the creeps. The one just out there. The dark and high one.’
Lord Ingram nodded thoughtfully. ‘I must give you a synopsis.’ He met Martin’s gaze evenly. ‘The Manor is old. As I’ve said, it’s been remade and rebuilt over the centuries. Added to here and there, which could explain some of the haphazard nature of the design. I’ve personally altered nothing of it in my time. I have absolutely no inclination to do so. Ingram Manor is sufficiently large and confusing as it is, and some things are better left undisturbed.’
Martin picked up on that. ‘What things?’
‘Much of the construction,’ Lord Ingram replied smoothly. ‘If I start toying with it, I’m positive I’ll bring down half the Manor in rubble. I have no yearning to change anything.’
There was evasiveness in his uncle’s words but Martin knew this wasn’t his place to question that. He was a guest after all. ‘I still can’t get over how big it is.’
‘It is. Even I don’t know every room and nook here. Tarquin and Bledsoe do, of course. After all, those two run Ingram Manor. I just reign here.’ Lord Ingram laughed shortly. ‘They’re quite indispensable.’
‘Is there another way to my room?’
‘Did the hallway have that profound an effect on you?
Martin shrugged, feeling like a scolded schoolboy. ‘I’m afraid so. It’s weird, I must admit, but it was as if I didn’t belong there. Like the corridor was trying to impress upon me I am an unwanted stranger.’
Lord Ingram’s only response was to light a cigarette.
Martin chose another subject. ‘You mentioned three studies. Do they have names too?’
‘They do. The one on the floor above is Altine, the one below is Stygoron. I couldn’t tell you about the etymology of all three. There’s no record of the derivation of the names in the archives. My oldest son says they are the most ridiculous things he’s ever heard. At times I’m inclined to agree but I won’t change them. I will not change a thing.’
‘I wouldn’t ask you to change anything.’
‘Yes, of course,’ Lord Ingram said quickly. He inhaled on the cigarette, narrowing his eyes. ‘You aren’t my only visitor Martin. There are several resident at the moment. There’s a cousin of mine and his daughter, an artist, a well-known cabaret singer and one singular individual who claims he is a psychic and in constant contact with the spirit world.’
‘Do you believe he is?’
Lord Ingram snorted. ‘Of everyone present here in Ingram Manor, Godolphin Bingham would be the last personality to have such contact. He is a charlatan nonpareil but he entertains the vagaries of my daughters so I tolerate his presence. Bingham is a rather extravagant fellow. He dresses himself in the fashion of an Indian Vedic guru and has more beads and baubles around his neck than a washed up septuagenarian actress. All part of his charlatanry you understand.’
Lord Ingram swirled his drink around, his eyes twinkling. ‘For I must state Martin, if Bingham was in contact with the spirit world, he’d either have run screaming or been rendered insane.’
‘You said you were not sure of any ghosts,’ Martin said.
‘Of hauntings here, you mean. No, I’m not certain of them. But ghosts are not the only spirits and of all of them, they are possibly the most inconsequential and meaningless.’
Martin was a little amazed at how the conversation was moving. ‘Few people would agree with you.’
‘I’m most likely acquainted with those few.’
‘Robert, what is going on here?’
Lord Ingram regarded Martin with arched eyebrows. ‘Here? In Ingram Manor?’
‘Yes. I know something is askew here. I don’t normally get intimidated walking down a corridor.’
Lord Ingram took a deep intake of his cigarette. ‘Quite a few things are going on, as such Martin. None of which I can satisfactorily explain to you. To be perfectly honest, it’s none of your business, as discourteous as that may be. The Manor is old and has many memories of earlier days. Being large with relatively few people dwelling here, many of the rooms are empty and forgotten, fallen to dust. Places that haven’t seen sunlight in centuries or at all. When you go to your room tonight, it’d be wise to remain there and not saunter off. As you can imagine, it’s not difficult to lose one’s way here. Even I do it on occasion, and I’m the damned lord of the manor.’
Martin finished the coffee and replaced the cup. ‘That was excellent. May I have an answer to why I felt the way I did in the corridor? Am I being warned off or something?’
‘Possibly,’ Lord Ingram answered bluntly. ‘You are a stranger. Logically, I’ve never felt any queasiness out there. You aren’t the first to feel such disquiet. Casaubon, a visiting Frenchman, felt the same sensation you did. It’s a tangible thing to one not, let us say, a more permanent resident here.’
‘Should I leave then?’
‘Do you really want to?’ Lord Ingram smiled. ‘I imagine you don’t. I’m sure your curiosity has been piqued sufficiently where’d you desire to remain and learn more.’
‘I can’t deny that.’
‘There you go then. Well, dinner is at six. Tarquin will come for you when the time in nigh. Then you will meet my family and my other guests.’ Lord Ingram rose and pulled on a bell-cord in one corner of the room. ‘Tarquin will take you back to your room. I must say something else at this juncture, Martin. You aren’t strictly a stranger here. You are my sister’s son and therefore Challenor blood runs in your veins, no matter what the estrangement between our family lines. You will learn that doors will open for you and tales will be recounted that a stranger would not experience. Consider these possibilities like a sword: very much double-edged. I have requested of you not to go wandering. The option to do so lies with you but the consequences must be paid. I will speak to you more at dinner time.’
Tarquin appeared at another door and stood waiting for Martin. The route back to his room was far more circuitous this time and he felt no untoward sensations. At his room door, he turned to face Tarquin. ‘Lord Ingram was a little secretive of what goes on around here.’
‘As is his right, sir.’
‘Well yes, but may I ask what is the big secret here?’
‘There aren’t any secrets here, sir.’
‘Not for you anyway,’ Martin mused. He tried something else. ‘Should I be frightened of anything going on?’
‘I can’t imagine what you think is going on, sir. This is a respectable country estate.’
Martin knew he was getting nowhere. He also knew he’d asked the wrong questions, and the butler was assuredly the wrong person to ask. If any person was to keep the house’s confidences, it would be this manservant.
‘May I ask Tarquin, why you took me to Robert down that corridor?’
‘It was the most direct route.’ Tarquin stood easy, obviously prepared for anything Martin threw his way.
‘No other reason? Like getting me to experience whatever spook or entity was in that corridor? Robert did call you perverse. ‘Martin watched Tarquin and got the impression the man was the least perverse individual in the house. So when the manservant spoke, his answer took Martin back.
‘I thought it best, sir, that you understand Ingram Manor is old and has memories.’
‘Robert said the same thing.’
‘As will we all, sir.’
‘Are there any ghosts here?’
‘Three, sir,’ Tarquin answered calmly, as if Martin had just asked a question about gardening. ‘Like all their ilk, they are weak and ineffectual.’
‘Consider what a haunting is, sir. It is an endlessly repeated scene, eternally bound to flit between point A and B for no reason at all. A broken record. What meaning is there in turning lights off and on incessantly? It’s all quite pathetic.’
‘I can say I’ve never thought of it that way,’ Martin said. ‘It’s like Sisyphus rolling his rock uphill.’
‘Not a bad analogy, sir,’ Tarquin said approvingly. ‘Sisyphus was condemned to act that way and ghosts are the same.’
‘So ghosts are condemned spirits?’
‘I’m led to believe that, sir.’
Martin rubbed his hands, enlivened at getting the butler to share his thoughts. ‘So where in the house are these haunting events?’
‘There’s one in the lower music room, one more out in the saddler’s workshop and the last unfortunate haunts the old dungeon.’
‘My word, you have a dungeon here?’
‘Yes sir, it’s beneath the north wing.’
‘I take it that it’s unoccupied?’
Tarquin smiled his polite smile. ‘By the living, sir.’
‘Do you know the histories of the hauntings?’
Tarquin rubbed his jaw. ‘I know the one in the music room was a suicide. I’m not certain of the other two as they never appear for me.’
‘Maybe they will for me.’
‘It’s quite possible.’
‘Now I wonder why Robert has never seen them. Or for that matter, the psychic fellow who is here.’
‘Mr Bingham, sir?’ A spasm of amusement passed across Tarquin’s normally serene face. ‘Dinner is at six. Wash, rest, do as you will. I will come for you then.’
Despite some decided curiosity, Martin chose to stay in his room until Tarquin arrived at his door a few minutes before six. As before, the butler took him along a bending and turning route, to a part of the manor Martin had not been to before. The hall they had come down ended at a large set of double doors, which Tarquin grandly threw open. Beyond was the dining room, with a large circular table as the centrepiece.
A large gathering of people were already seated and several of them turned to watch Martin come in. Lord Ingram was at the opposite side of the table and stood when he saw Martin. ‘Ah, and here he is. May I introduce my nephew, Martin Steed, who has come to stay with us for a while. There’s a chair there for you, Martin.’