The November Special Guest Story is by Ramsey Campbell
Please feel free to visit Ramsey at: http://www.ramseycampbell.com/
HEARING IS BELIEVING
Suddenly he wasn't on the bus home after a frustrating day at work but in Greece, in a taverna by the sea. The sky was a block of solid blue; over the plucking of bouzoukis he heard people smashing their empty glasses. Now sunset was turning the sea into lava, and someone like Anthony Quinn was dancing, arms outstretched, at the edge of the taverna, where waves lapped the stones.
Wells emerged from the daydream several streets nearer home. If he couldn't recall having passed through them, that was hardly surprising; beyond the streaming windows of the bus all the streets looked half-erased by rain, smudges and blotches of dull colour. Around him people coughed and spluttered with February chills. No wonder he preferred to anticipate his trip to Greece, the Greece of a film in which a tycoon married an American president's widow.
He ran home as though he were trying to butt the rain aside. The pavements were quivering mirrors of slate. At the top of the hill, rain scrambled over the ruin of the factory. Last week he'd seen the hundred-foot chimney standing for an instant on an explosion of dust before buckling, keeling over, taking with it two hundred jobs.
His house sounded hollow. Except for his bedroom and the living-room, most of it was uncarpeted. Bare scruffy plaster overlooked the stairs, littered the boards of the spare room. That was the way his father had left the house, which was still preferable to Wells' old flat—more of an investment, for one thing. Soon Wells must get on with decorating.
But not tonight: he'd already done enough work for one day, if not for several. When he'd eaten dinner the living-room fire was blazing; flames snatched at the fur of soot on the back of the chimney. Most of his furniture was crowded into the room, including the Yamaha stereo system, the most expensive item in the house.
He sat with a large Scotch while something by Delius wandered, gentle and vague as the firelight. The coughs of the audience were so far back in the stereo arc that they seemed embedded in the wall. At the end of the music, the applause made the room sound huge and deep. He could almost see the flock of hands fly up clapping.
A soprano began singing German, which Wells neither understood nor found evocative. He imagined the conductor's black and white plumage, his gestures at the singer as part of an elaborate mating ritual. Eventually Wells got up and fiddled with the dial. Here was a police call, here was a burst of Chinese, here was a message from a ship out on the Irish Sea. And here was someone whispering beside him, so close that he started back, and the rain came pouring in through the roof.
The voice had a background of rain, that was all. There were two voices, speaking just loudly enough to be heard over the downpour. He couldn't understand what they were saying; even the sound of the language was unfamiliar—not Eastern European, not an Oriental language. Yet he was so impressed by the vividness of the stereo that he sat down to listen.
The two men were in a street, for he could hear the gurgle of roadside drains. It must be dark, for the men were picking their way very hesitantly. Sometimes they slipped—rubble clinked underfoot—and he didn't need to understand the language to know they were cursing.
For a while he listened to the street sounds: the shrill incessant hiss of rain on stone, rain splashing jerkily from broken gutters, dripping on fragments of windows in the houses which loomed close on both sides. It was better than sitting before the fire and listening to a storm outside—or at least it would have been, except that he wished he knew why the man were afraid.
It unnerved him. Had they fled into this area to hide? Surely they would be more conspicuous amid the derelict streets, unless everywhere was like this. Or were they searching for something of which they were afraid? They had lowered their voices; they were certainly afraid that something would hear them, even through the clamour of the rain. Wells found himself listening uneasily for some hint that it was near, listening so intently that at first he didn't realise that the men had fallen silent and were listening too.
For a while he could hear only the babble of rain and drains and rubble. The other sound was so similar that at first he couldn't be sure it was there. But yes, there was another sound: in the distance a great deal of rubble was shifting. If something was pushing it out of the way, that something was unhurried and very large. Surely the sound that accompanied it must be a quirk of the storm—surely it couldn't be breathing.
The men had heard it now. He could tell from their voices that they knew what it was—but why was he so much on edge because he couldn't understand? They dodged to the left, gasping as they stumbled over rubble. Now they were struggling with a door that scraped reluctantly back and forth in a heap of fallen masonry. At last rusty hinges gave way, and the door fell.
What use was it to take refuge here, when they'd made so much noise? Perhaps they were hoping to hide as they fled desperately from room to room. Now that they were in the house they sounded closer to him; everything did—the splat, splat of rain on linoleum in one large room, the dull plump of a drip on carpet in another. There must be very little left of the roof.
Now the men were running upstairs, their feet squelching on the stair carpet. They ran the length of a room that sounded enormous; he heard them splashing heedlessly through puddles. Now they were cowering in the corner to his left, where the light of his fire couldn't reach. He would have switched on the overhead light, except that would have been absurd.
In any case, there was no time. Something had hurled the front door aside and squeezed through the doorway into the house. It started upstairs at once, its sides wallowing against the staircase walls; three or four stairs creaked simultaneously. The breathing of the men began to shudder.
When it reached the top of the stairs it halted. Was it peering into the room? Wells could hear its breathing clearly now, thick and slow and composed of more than one sound, as if it came from several mouths. In the corner beyond the firelight the men were straining not to breathe.
A moment later they were screaming. Though nothing had squeezed through the doorway, Wells heard them dragged onto the landing. Their screams went downstairs as the creaking did, and out of the house. Had their captor's arms been able to reach the length of the room?
Wells sat listening reluctantly for something else to happen. Rain shrilled monotonously outside the house, dripped quicker and quicker on linoleum, sodden carpets, bare boards. That was all, but it went on and on, seemingly for half an hour. How much longer, for God's sake? As long as he was fool enough to leave it on, perhaps. He switched off the stereo and went to bed, only to lie there imagining unlit streets where some of the dim heaps weren't rubble. He couldn't switch off the rain outside his house.
Next morning he was glad to reach the office, where he could revive his imagination with the Greek travel poster above his desk, and joke with his colleagues until it was time to let the queue in out of the drizzle. Many of the waiting faces were depressingly familiar. Those who meant to plead more social security out of him were far easier to cope with than the growing number of young people who were sure he could find them a job. He hadn't grown used to seeing hope die in their eyes.
One of them was reading "the novel that proves there is life after death." Perhaps she'd grown so hopeless that she would believe anything that seemed to offer hope. He'd heard his colleagues seriously wondering whether God had been an astronaut, he'd seen them gasping at books "more hideously frightening than The Exorcist because everything actually happened." It seemed that any nonsense could find believers these days.
The bus home was full of tobacco smoke, another stale solution. The faces of the riders looked dispirited, apathetic, tired of working to keep up with inflation and taxes. A Jewish shop daubed with a swastika sailed by; the bus was plastered with National Front slogans, no doubt by the same people responsible for the swastika. If that could seem acceptable to some people, what solutions could be found in a worse world?
As soon as he reached home he switched on the tuner. Music would make the house sound more welcoming. He'd left the dial turned to the station he had listened to last night, and the speakers greeted him with a rush of static. He had begun to alter the tuning when he realized what was wrong. The sound wasn't static but rain.
There was no mistaking it once he heard its sounds on the floorboards and linoleum; he could even hear plaster falling in the derelict house. Who on earth could be broadcasting this? He didn't care if he never found out who or why. He had to turn the knob some way before he lost the station.
That night he listened to records, since static kept seeping into the broadcasts he wanted to hear. Did the music sound thinner than it used to sound at the flat? A dripping tap made the house seem emptier. Perhaps the acoustics would improve once he improved the house. When he went upstairs to bed, remembering the months he'd lived here after his mother had died, during which he'd given up trying to persuade his father to let him redecorate—"Leave that, I like it as it is"—the dripping tap, whichever it had been, had stopped.
In the morning he felt robbed of sleep. Either a dream or the unnatural cold had kept waking him. Perhaps there was a draught that he would have to trace; he wasn't yet familiar with the house. Still, there were places where his life would seem luxurious.
One of his colleagues was reading a novel about an African state where all the workers were zombies. "That's what we need here," he grumbled. "No more strikes, no more unemployment, no more inflation."
"I hope you're joking," Wells said.
"Not at all. It sounds like paradise compared to this country. If someone took charge now I wouldn't care who it was."
Suddenly Wells remembered his dream: he had been here at his desk and everyone around him had been speaking in English, yet he couldn't understand a word. He felt uncomfortable, vulnerable, and at lunchtime he went strolling to avoid more of that sort of thing. It didn't matter where he went—anywhere but here. Before long he saw the sky above the Mediterranean, two shades of piercing blue divided by the razor of the horizon. When he returned to the grey streets he found he was late for work; he couldn't recall having wandered so far.
After dinner he found a broadcast of Greek music. A large Scotch and the firelight helped him drift. Soon the lapping of flames, and their warmth, seemed very like Greek sun and sea—though as he began to doze, losing fragments of the music, the wavering of shadows on the walls made them look to be streaming. Perhaps that was why he dreamed he was sitting in a rainstorm. But when he woke, the rain was in the room.
Of course it was just the sound, coming from the speakers. Had the broadcast slipped awry, into static? He thought he could hear water splashing into puddles on linoleum, yet the dial on the waveband was inches away from the broadcast of two nights ago. He had to turn the knob still further before the noise faded.
He slapped the tuner's switch irritably, then stumped upstairs to bed. At least he might get a good night's sleep, if he didn't lie there brooding about the stereo. He'd paid enough for it; the shop could damn well make it right. Tonight his bedroom seemed even colder, and damp. Still, the whisky kept him warm and drowned his thoughts. Soon he was asleep.
When he woke, the first thing he heard was the shifting of rubble. Something must be up the hill, in the ruined factory—a pack of dogs, perhaps, though it sounded larger. Or were the sounds downstairs, in his house? Certainly the sound of rain was.
He hadn't unplugged the stereo. His drowsy swipe must not have switched it off properly. Impatient to deal with it before he woke fully and couldn't get back to sleep, he swung his legs over the side of the bed. As soon as his bare feet touched the floor he cried out, recoiling.
He writhed on the bed, trying to twist the agony out of his foot. He had cramp, that was all; the floor hadn't really felt like drowned linoleum. When he peered at it, the carpet looked exactly as it should.
He stormed downstairs. The dark, or his inability to wake, made the empty rooms look impossibly large. The plaster above the staircase looked not only bare but glistening. Ignoring all this, he strode into the living-room.
The stereo dial was lit. The room was crowded with sound, a chorus of rain in a derelict house. In the distance there was another sound, a chanting of voices that sounded worshipful, terrified, desperate for mercy. That dismayed him more than anything else he'd heard. He pulled the plug from the wall socket and made himself go straight back to bed, where he lay sleepless for a long time. Somewhere in the house a tap was dripping.
Lack of sleep kept him on edge at work. He could hardly face the youngest of his clients. Though she had failed at interview after interview, she was almost superstitiously convinced that she would find a job.
Why can't I have one of the strikers' jobs?" she demanded, and he couldn't answer her. He sent her to another interview, and wished her luck. He couldn't rob her of her faith, which must be all that kept her going.
He was glad he'd reached the weekend. When he arrived home, having visited Greece on the way, he made a leisurely dinner, then sat by the fire and listened to records. Somehow he didn't want to use the radio.
He couldn't relax. Of course it was only the play of firelight and shadow, but the room seemed to tremble on the edge of total darkness. As he drank more whisky in search of calm, he felt that the music was straining to reach him, drifting away. In the quieter passages he was distracted by the irregular dripping of a tap, he couldn't tell which. When he felt he might be able to sleep, he trudged upstairs. Tomorrow he would go walking in the country, or take the tuner back to the shop, or both.
But on Saturday it was raining. Perhaps that was just as well; he'd dreamed he was walking in the country, only to realise that the walk was a daydream that had lured him somewhere different and far worse. He lay in bed watching the sunlight, which was rediscovering the pattern of the ancient wallpaper. Then he flung himself out of bed, for the rain he could hear was not outside the house.
Though the stereo wasn't plugged in, the sounds filled the speakers: a gust of wind splattered rain across sagging wallpaper, waterlogged plaster collapsed, a prolonged juicy noise. He dismantled the stereo, which fell silent as soon as he unplugged the speakers, and then he stormed out to find a taxi.
At last he found one, speeding down the terraced slope as if it wasn't worth stopping. It took him back to his house, where the driver stared into space while Wells manhandled the stereo into the taxi. By the time Wells reached the shop he was ready to lose his temper, especially when the engineer returned a few minutes later and told him that nothing was wrong.
Wells roamed the shop rather desperately, tuning stereos in an attempt to find the rain. The engineer took pity on him, or determined to get rid of him. "It may be a freak reception. You may only be able to pick it up in the area where you live."
At once Wells felt much better. He'd heard of odder things, of broadcasts that possessed people's hearing aids, telephones, even refrigerators. To the engineer's disgust, he left the stereo to be overhauled; then he went strolling in the hills, where spring was just beginning. The moist grass was flecked with rainbows, the sun seemed almost as bright as Greece.
That night he was surprised how alone he felt without the stereo. It must be its absence which made the house seem still emptier. At least he could relax with a book, if only he could locate the dripping tap. Perhaps it was in the bathroom, where the light-bulb—years old, no doubt—had failed. The bathroom walls glistened in the dark.
Soon he went to bed, for he was shivering. No doubt the cold and the damp would get worse until he attended to them. In bed his introverted warmth lulled him. A slide show of Greek landscapes played in his head. Starts of sleep interrupted the slides.
When uninterrupted sleep came it was darker, so that he couldn't see his way on the street along which he was creeping. At least the rain had stopped, and there was silence except for the muffled drumming of his heart. When his feet slipped on rubble, the shrill clatter sounded vindictively loud. His panic had made him forget what he mustn't do. There was a car a few yards ahead of him, a vague hump in the darkness; if he crouched behind that he might be safe. But he lost his balance as he reached it, and tried to support himself against its blubbery side. No, it wasn't a car, for something like a head rose out of it at once, panting thickly. The shapes that came scrabbling out of the houses beyond the rubbly gardens on both sides must have been its hands.
He woke and tried to stop shivering. No point in opening his eyes; that would only hold him back from sleep. But why was it so cold in the room? Why were the bedclothes clinging to him like wallpaper? Perhaps his sense that something was wrong was another reason to shiver.
When at last he forced his eyes open he saw the night sky, hardly relieved by a handful of stars, above him where the roof should be.
He couldn't think, because that would paralyse him. He thrust his feet into shoes, which were already soaking. He dragged his sodden jacket and trousers on over his pyjamas, and then he fled. Now he could hear the rain, the lingering drops that splashed on linoleum, carpet, bare boards. On the stairs he almost fell headlong, for they were covered with fallen plaster. His sounds echoed in all the derelict rooms.
At last he reached the front door, which appeared still to be his, unlike the house. The street was dark; perhaps vandals had put out the lamp. He reeled out into the darkness, for he couldn't bear to stay in the house. He had still forgotten what he mustn't do; he slammed the front door behind him.
He heard the rubble falling. When he grabbed at the door, it was already blocked from within. It lurched when he threw himself against it, but that was all; even though it was off its hinges, it was immovable. He mustn't waste time in struggling with it, but what else could he do? At one end of the unknown street, amid a chorus of unhurried breathing, something was feeling for him along the broken facades.
Living in England, Ramsey Campbell is perhaps the world's most decorated author of horror, terror, suspense, dark fantasy, and supernatural fiction.
He has won four World Fantasy Awards, ten
Ramsey Campbell’s work is notable for both its focus and its breadth. His novels, short fiction, and even nonfiction always seem to address emotions. Characteristic themes weave throughout Campbell’s works: the uncertain nature of reality, the dangers of repressed fears and desires, and the reactions of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
Douglas E. Winter praises Campbell’s “stylish
S.T. Joshi, in which his book Ramsey Campbell and Modern Horror Fiction (2001) studies the writer, says: “Ramsey Campbell is worthy of study both because of the intrinsic merit of his work and because of the place he occupies in the historical progression of this literary mode.” Joshi went on to say: “Future generations will regard him as the leading horror writer of our generation, every bit the equal of Lovecraft or Blackwood.”
Ramsey Campbell is the prolific author of over thirty-five novels, over twenty books of short stories, two chapbooks, and two non-fiction books. He has edited fifteen anthologies, and has had one or more of his stories appear in 132 multiple-author collections.
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