The Darkhouse, pt 1

This is the start of a short series which will take the form of letters sent from our protagonist to their sister. This is a horror story, so if such things aren’t to your taste then I’d recommend giving it a wide berth! It’s a slow burn (if you can forgive the pun), that will have a gory conclusion. 

While I do want to capture the general tone of mid-Victorian gothic, I’ve not gone balls to the wall with phrasing and words otherwise it would be too off putting for non-native English speakers. 

I also want to apologise in advance to any Yorkshire readers out there. The dialogue I’d written was a lot more ‘accurate’ (I think?) but my test reader said it would be too awkward for non-Northern UK types to read. I had to take that under advisement, so we’ve ended up with a bastardised version that does no justice to the accent but should – I hope – still be approachable to everyone.

I won’t give up on my glottal t’s, though. You can prise them from my cold, dead hands.

Enjoy!


2nd June, 184__

Dearest Philippa

As promised, I began writing this as soon as I was able to do so on my safe arrival. 

I hope you received the letter I sent prior to leaving the mainland. The owner of the inn assured me that he would have it sent on my behalf, and I tipped him well for it. I was exhausted after the long journey across the Pennines and fear my handwriting may have been illegible. Hopefully my instructions to him were not!

I have no doubt you will be upset with me, however, as the postal service from my new home will be less than brisk! This means I will be unable to keep up regular correspondence with you as we had planned upon my leaving the estate. Nonetheless, I will write often and – when circumstances will permit – I will send you my letters in bulk. Do pass them onto mother when you can, and – if father will accept them – give him my regards. I very much hope that by the time you receive this letter he will have calmed down and realised how unhelpful his actions over the last few months have been. 

But! Onto my new life!

It was a clear morning when I set off from the village. Surely comprising of no more than 50 people, it takes its namesake from its location. It sits snugly at the head of Whitcliffe Cove, a sheltered little inlet in East Riding. Tucked away on the fractious North East coast, it is remarkable idyllic how this bright, windless little spot is. It is a quaint place, aromatic with a busy fishing trade that supplies the residents and both Muston Wold and Sawsby further inland. 

The cove is surrounded by unremarkable white cliffs topped by verdant, rolling hills. In and of themselves, they not compare to the dramatic heights of Bempton or St Bee’s. Even with distance, the rather fearsome tang of ammonia from the scores and scores of nesting seabirds that call the cove home assaulted my nose. Throughout the night, I had heard them calling to one another across the waters, their challenging cries a call to adventure if ever I heard one! 

I was met on the seafront at 10 o’clock by a man that I can only liken to a barnacle. He was heavily swaddled – even with the promise of a bright day ahead – and deeply hunched. His clothes were flecked and creased with crusted salt, as too was the hand he thrust towards me as I made my introduction.

He brusquely directed me to a rowing boat laden with sacks. I secured my trunk among them as he pulled in the mooring line and pushed us off the gravel shore. Once adrift, and with him aboard, we began the next leg of my journey with me at the oars. Time spent on the lakes with Uncle was time well spent, it seems!

I drew the row boat a good quarter mile from shore before my gruff chaperone instructed me to follow the cliff line out towards the North Sea.

With my back to the open water and only his eyes suggesting direction, my view of the village became smaller with every stroke. From a distance, it was possible to truly appreciate quite how picturesque the little settlement is! I could already feel inspiration taking hold. 

Occasionally he would grunt and gesture with a flick of his hand in one direction or another. I trusted his judgement, although the tone with which it was imparted became ever more irritating as I felt my muscles strain under his direction and my shirt become wet with spray and sweat.

After some minutes of hard rowing, I came to a stop. He said nothing, just grinned, finding delight in my discomfort as I unfixed the topmost buttons of my shirt and wiped my forehead with a handkerchief. 

Briefly we drifted, the little boat rocked by the waves and their rebound from the cliffs to my right. We were a good 200ft away from them and as the town had shrunk, they had grown. Starting from nothing, they now loomed over us. Though we were still in sunlight, the breeze coming in across the bay was cooler, a fact I was certainly grateful for. 

I took the sweat from my brow, steadfastly avoiding his gaze.

“So,” I said only half in jest when I felt sufficiently composed. “When will it be your turn?”

His grin widened. “When I tek boat back.”

“I suppose that makes sense,” I replied, feeling somewhat foolish and all the more irritable for it. “Is this a trip you make often?”

“Coupla times a month. First time in a while I’ve had someone t’ row for me.” 

I peered over his shoulder at the cargo crowding the trunk that contained the seed of my new life. Through the coarse weave and irregular bulges I could just about discern the shapes of various foodstuffs. A large barrel sat at the stern. There was a distinctly earthy aroma coming from the pile, not quite overwhelmed by the sea and stink of bird droppings.

“Supplies?” I asked, hoping to rouse something resembling a conversation from the man. It would, I hoped, give me a little more time to catch my breath.

“Aye.”

“How much further is it?”

“Bit more around t’ cliff. A good mile or so. Bit less from Whitcliffe as t’ crow flies.”

I looked back at the village feeling more than a little despondent. What slow progress we were making! Resolving myself, I took to the oars once more. 

It is quite different rowing on an expanse of open water such as this. One must constantly contend with not just the wind, but with the weight of vast currents unseen. By the time we approached the cove’s wide mouth, not only was I fighting to keep a steady pace, but I was contending with a diversity of small, reflected waves lapping from little islets. These islets played host to seals that languidly watched our passing and served as rest points for the gulls that crowded overhead.

Indeed, I felt as though I had rowed twice as hard and twice as far as little Grasmere by the time my guide grunted and nodded. In the time we had journeyed together, I understood that this was somehow significant.

I held the oars so the current could not steal them from me, but did so loosely enough that my burning palms could feel the breeze. Satisfied that I would not leave us adrift, I twisted myself to look. There, not two-hundred yards beyond the end of the Point, was Whitcliffe Lighthouse.

In stark contrast to the white cliffs I had become accustomed to, the rock on which the lighthouse rose was grey-brown. Its angles were harsh when compared to the soft and malleable chalk landscape. No specks of green indicated the presence of vegetation. Not even the fauna that had been otherwise ubiquitous seemed interested in such a well-appointed spot, apparently finding it as distasteful as I. 

It was, plainly speaking, profoundly ugly.

But the lighthouse! The lighthouse that sat upon such an unpleasant foundation gleamed as though its horrid roots were there to exaggerate its beauty! As one might display rare jewellery upon a dull canvas to ensure the full extent of its colour and craftsmanship might be appreciated, so too did this grim isle present its gem.

Whitcliffe Lighthouse seemed pristine, crowned with a glittering cap of glass that shone brightly in the early afternoon sun. Squat and wide, it nonetheless stood half as tall as the cliffs at its highest point, some hundred-foot above the sea.

It might well have been sculpted from alabaster for all it shone.

The sight of such a place stripped the memory of any pain from my weary body and I was reinvigorated. With a childish grin on my face, I took up the oars again and I rowed as though I were a hardened mariner! 

The remaining distance passed quickly, or so it felt. The isle grew ever larger in a jagged hump – the steepness of its ascent gave no indication of approach. As I sensed the distance waning, I paused every so often, glancing back to ensure that we would not collide. 

My guide remained as impassive as ever, gesturing only once when I looked to him in hope of direction. Finally he indicated that I should row around the shore until our port side was to the open sea, then motioned for me to stop. I pulled the oars aboard and we drifted until a second, empty boat of comparable size became visible. 

Without warning, he took hold of the mooring rope then dropped into the water. He surfaced in seconds and paddled away, our sturdy little bark following him with a series of sharp tugs. 

Nearing the isle, he hoisted himself up and proceeded to scale the rocks. He stopped only once he reached an overhang. There, he reached under and fed the rope through a rusted ring bolted into the stone. It was to this ring that the second boat was also tied.

“Throw us up them supplies, if yer still able,” he called, openly laughing.

My muscles were fatigued but I was still fuelled by a sense of wonder, tempered further by annoyance at his mocking nature. I stood carefully and proceeded to pass up the sacks and boxes with as much vigour as I could. I finally passed him the small trunk that contained the trappings of my new life.

He caught everything ably, stacking it behind himself before squatting and offering his hand.

I considered not taking it, instead assessing the likelihood of my scaling without assistance. Determining that my arms were too weakened by the activity of the morning to make such an attempt, I grudgingly took his offer. 

He pulled me up without so much as a sound and dropped me unceremoniously on the wet stone. 

I thought of you then and how you would have laughed and laughed to have seen me so flustered and disarrayed. I resented his attitude and how at odds it was with the beauty around me. It was quite the blemish! I’m sure you would have found it quite hilarious, but I was in no good humour by that point. 

Together we gathered up our cargo. I coped under the weight of my trunk while he loaded his arms with as much as he could manage. Together we picked our way up the rise of craggy rock towards the lighthouse door. The stone we hopped across was layered slick with slime and pools. Aptly enough, barnacles were the only friends to this isle, clustered as they were around its base and becoming more sparse the higher we went.

Although good sense forced me to watch my footing, I stole numerous glances up towards our destination. I couldn’t help myself. It might well have been the Lighthouse of Alexandria for all the wonder I felt.

It’s stone was not so brilliantly gleaming as I had thought, but whitewashed and clean enough for it. It showed little signs of erosion above the door that was now coming into view. Preserving this beacon of defiance in the midst of a wild and untameable force must truly be a monumental task!

The rock on which it stands places it beyond the reach of the sea’s assertions, I concluded.

I also came to realise that Whitcliffe Lighthouse is not cylindrical but in fact angular. It is a significant column of eight sides with small windows dotting each face of the cardinal points. From the position of the windows, I assumed that there must be perhaps three or four stories concealed within. It is – of course – widest at its base, tapering up to a broad glassy crown. A couple of gantries ring the top. A figure could be seen up there circling the lamp before they stopped to observe our approach. I considered lifting a hand in greeting, but doing so would have required me to put down my trunk. I was not sure I could lift it again if I did so.

After some minutes or so of very careful footwork, my guide and I eventually reached the lighthouse’s door. He pushed it open with his shoulder and entered. There was a moment of surprise at this before I realised that there would be little need to lock so isolated a door. Who on Earth would think to come here and make mischief?

He called out as he disappeared and I held fast. I could not be so improper as to step across the threshold without invitation.

Not standing on ceremony, my companion dropped his load to the floor. 

Soon after, I heard footsteps descending. 

A few abrupt words were exchanged (both the thickness of dialect and the thickness of the barrier between us contributing to my lack of understanding), before my guide reemerged, only to push past me and leave towards our boat. I looked after him in confusion before a figure appearing at the door caught my attention.

My guide had been followed by a short, stout fellow whose very being reminded me of the stunted cliffs we had passed just moments before. He stood upon the stoop with his hands on his hips, openly regarding me. His face was worn, wrinkles cut deep with weather, and wild eyebrows almost completely obscured his pale blue eyes. They were complemented by tufts of peppered hair that poked out from beneath a well-worn cap.

I extended my hand.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m-”

“Sprat,” said the man before I could give my name. He took my hand, enveloping it with thick, hard fingers that felt so worn it was remarkable they could bend.

“I’m sorry?”

“Yer new ‘ere, so yer name’s Sprat. When ye’ve bin here long enough and it’s yer time to tek someone up, then ye’ll be fry and ye can call yesel’ whatever ye please.”

I blinked, taken aback. He dropped my hand. His demeanour was not quite as surly as that of the man who had brought me here, but I was nonetheless disarmed.

He stepped to one side as another figure emerged behind him. I confess that I flinched, anticipating another unmannerly confrontation.

This new person was a tall, wide man who was compelled to duck beneath the lintel. He was handsome I would say, with unruly blonde hair, stubbled jaw, and a wide endearing smile. There was something distinctly Scandanavian about his aspect. He took my still extended hand with amiable curiosity and gave it a firm pump.

“Thomas,” he said, his voice loud.

“Sprat. I have been told,” I replied.

He threw back his head and laughed, a noise that filled the space and did much to dispel the discomfort I felt. I immediately liked him a great deal.

“This is Thomas. Was Sprat until y’arrived,” the first man said as he tilted his capped head towards the man who had already introduced himself. “And I’m t’Skipper.”

“Not for much longer,” said Thomas. I noted his lacking an accent as dense as those I had met beforehand. Although I have little doubt I will develop an ear for the subtleties of the local tongue, I was not quite prepared to do so at that time. Much meaning can be inferred from context, but it was nonetheless exhausting. This was further cause for me to feel drawn to the man.

I should interrupt this telling, darling sister, to tell you of the accent in this county. It is not dissimilar to that of the deeper valleys of Lancashire, but is nonetheless strange and will take some getting used to. This is particularly true of the less educated. Their manner is to cut off the final consonant of any word, shirk any ‘h’s in their entirety, merge discrete syllables into one another into a rolling tumble of sounds, and flattening vowels into most peculiar shapes. 

For your entertainment, I have endeavoured to capture some trace of this in my writing, though not enough for it to be unreadable! I do hope you can understand it! If not, please do ask Peter to sound out the sentences for you. As and when you should find yourself able to visit me, I suspect this would be a most excellent way for you to familiarise yourself!

I shall continue – 

They chuckled and I joined, more out of embarrassment than understanding.

“That’ll be ye next time Bill comes about, eh?” said the Skipper to Thomas.

“Bill is the man who brought me here?” I asked.

“Aye. ‘e’s a mean auld bugger, but ‘e’s a reliable sort,” said Thomas. 

As if on cue, the guide – Bill as I had learned – reappeared behind me hefting more of his cargo. The Skipper and Thomas stepped to one side and waved me in. 

The room beyond the door was small and dark and packed with heaps of damp rope, barrels, and water-logged crates eaten through with salt. The walls curved out from around the open entrance to meet the base of a stone staircase that wound up in a clockwise spiral, following the walls. It circled up and over me, disappearing into the shadow of the ceiling. 

The only meaningful light in the room came from the open door. The windows on this storey at least were too worn by the elements to let in much more than a foggy approximation of daylight.

I had barely shuffled inside when a couple of large sacks were dropped to the floor. 

Skipper whistled appreciably.

“What’ve ye brought this time, Bill? Ye’ve a fairish load o’ stuff.”

“The usual and more for thissin.” Bill jerked a thumb in my direction. “Maggie told me I ought to bring across some books. She wants t’auld ones back first.”

“I’ll fetch ‘em,” said Thomas, vanishing up the steps.

I looked to the Skipper only to find him studying me again. While his body seemed as dulled by the elements as the cliffs I had rowed past, his eyes glittered as brightly as any sharp sea bird’s in the gloom. I shifted under his openly appraising stare.

“I would like to thank you for this opportunity,” I said, keen to break the silence. “I really did not think that I would be considered, much less extended an offer.”

The Skipper grunted. 

“I will not let you down.”

“God ‘ave mercy if ye do.”

The air soured. To my great relief, Thomas returned expediently, clutching a lean stack of books. He passed them to Bill. They looked comedically out of place in his grasp.

“Reet, I’ll be a’gate. ‘Owt goin’ back?”

“Ye’ll ‘ave a ‘eavy enough load in a fortnight. We’ll save yer strength,” Thomas said with a grin.

The Skipper snorted as he handed over a thin wad of papers. Bill tucked both them and the books into the deep, crusty folds of his clothing. Without further delay, he held up his hand in farewell, pulling the door behind him. The room became darker for lack of daylight, but brighter with the absence of that repulsive presence.

I looked around, holding my numbed arms to myself. I was very aware that I was being assessed by this council of two.

Evidently satisfied, the Skipper sniffed loudly and pulled out a pipe. “So,” he announced, lighting it. “Best get comfortable.”

He gave a single nod to Thomas in passing, then ascended the stairs. 

Thomas clapped a large hand down on my shoulder. “So my new friend! I’ll tek ye up t’ bunkroom so ye can see what’s what. There in’t much to see, but ye’ll be seeing a lot of it.”

I nodded eagerly.

“This thy’n?” he asked, stooping down to lift my trunk before I could reply. He hefted it up as though it weighed nothing. He took after the Skipper, glancing back at me to indicate that I should follow. I did so.

“This is t’ auld storeroom,” he explained as we ascended from the entrance space. “It’s not good for much due t’ flooding during spring tides and stormy weather. We only leave stuff down here that’s too heavy t’ shift or nowt much use after being sat t’ soak. Some soft bugger thought it’d be high enough from t’ water to stay dry.” He tutted and shook his head.

We passed up and onto a miniscule landing space. There was a door that Thomas pushed open. He revealed another room that looked much like the one below only less musty and better lit. The items here were dry and appeared well-used rather than those left to moulder below. Thomas explained that this was where they kept more significant items – primarily oil stores, wicks and the like. 

The next storey comprised of another small landing and door, behind which lay a small kitchen. To the left was a deep stone sink and worktops. To the right there were cupboards built into the stone which I was informed were larders. In the centre of the floor was a table with three chairs.

Thomas continued and I followed

The steps opened onto a new floor. Other than the still-ascending staircase that spun up and through the room, this floor was open with two squat bunks on either side. 

It was a bright, clean space. Sunlight streamed in through four windows. They were thrown open allowing fresh air to pass through unhindered. It smelled as though the sea itself lapped upon the wooden floor. I drew a deep breath in appreciation.

Thomas dropped my trunk beside the bunk to the right.

“This’ll be thy’n,” he said patting the lower bed. “Ye’ll be living out o’ that trunk for now.”

I immediately quailed. “We share a sleeping space?”

“Ye’ll get used to it soon enough,” he said. “There’s not room enough t’ stand on ceremony around ‘ere.”

I took a turn of the small sleeping arrangements, taking note of the sparse furnishings and lack of personal affects. It was quite impossible to tell who made use of which bed. Opposite the doorway were a couple of dressers, a desk and shelves containing some narrow books and a well worn Testament. There was nothing that caught my attention. Something resembling a space for prayer and contemplation was nestled between the lonely items of furniture.

“What is on the upper floors?” I asked. We had stopped for long enough that the ache in my legs had returned. It bloomed from an anxious quake to a burn. 

“It goes all t’ way up to t’ lantern.” He considered me, evidently reading my lack of enthusiasm for either the prospect of more climbing, or the more immediate lack of privacy. I could feel my cheeks flush. 

His expression softened. “There’ll be time for that later. Goan – get ye’self settled in. Skipper’ll ‘ave you up and workin’ in no time.”

He left me alone, for which I was deeply grateful.

I slept then and did not wake until after the sun had set.

I don’t know if I had suffered a nightmare, but on waking I felt distinctly uneasy. The room was dark and cold and it took me a few moments of panic before I remembered where I was. 

The sea sounded frightfully loud even being as calm and agreeable as it was. My muscles ached, my throat was dry, my tongue was coated with salt. I missed you and home more terribly then than I ever had before.

Someone – Thomas I suspect – had kindly pulled a cover over me. That small act of charity did much to allay my fears. I sat there for a spell, waiting for my senses to adjust as I clutched the hem of the blanket.

Eventually, I was able to pick out the sound of shifting bodies, low mutters and the rising scent of pipe smoke. The only source of light came from the very stars outside and a bright full moon that reflected silver off the thick stone window settings.

I gathered my blanket around my shoulders and staggered gingerly towards the staircase. With one hand tracing the wall, I descended to the kitchen, wincing with every movement. The voices had grown louder as each step passed and the smells more notable. A sliver of warming light from beneath the dividing door compelled me forward.

“Ah, there y’are!” greeted Thomas as I pushed it open.

He and the Skipper were sat at the small table with cards splayed out in front of them. Thomas had rocked back on his chair with two legs on the floor and an arm slung over the backrest. The Skipper sat firmly rooted with his elbows on the table.

“What are you playing?” I asked.

“Whist,” the Skipper answered. 

Thomas kicked out the chair opposite him and gestured. “Tek a seat. Ought to warn ye t’ stakes are ‘igh. We play for cookin’ duties.”

His words took a moment to parse in my half-waking state. Take a seat, he’d offered. The stakes are high – we wager for cooking duties.

I sat down. “In which case I recommend allowing me to win!”

Thomas laughed and even the Skipper snorted. I felt more at ease.

“Ye can’t cook?” There was a tone of surprise there I didn’t appreciate but was too tired to challenge.

I shook my head. “Not unless I strongly dislike my company.” I stopped short of explaining that angelic Sarah had cooked for our family for as long as I’d formed memories and that her patience for my efforts to help in any matters of a culinary nature were met with little more than tolerance. I felt that the tale of my well-intentioned efforts to make rabbit pie were best kept for another time.

“Ye’ll learn quick enough. T’ Skipper’s taught me well. I’m buggered if I’m gonna do more than I ‘ave to.”

“There’s stew on’t top if ye want,” the Skipper said.

I glanced back towards the stove where a simple lidded pot sat, My stomach knotted unexpectedly at the thought. “Thank you, no. I will be fine.” I hesitated, gauging my company. “I feel a little unwell,” I admitted, directing the comment more to Thomas than the Skipper.

“Ye’ll be reet,” said the Skipper. “Bill worked ye ‘ard.”

“Yes?” I asked, buoyed his unexpected concern.

“Aye. Ye wun’t know it, but there’re some fierce currents by t’ rocks. Ye’ll ’ave bin fightin’ against ’em all t’ way ‘ere. I watched t’ two o’ ye come across from Whitcliffe. Usually ‘e cuts a further out into t’ bay. Think ‘e wanted to mek ye sweat.”

I frowned. Bill had taken me a deliberately difficult route. That came as little surprise in hindsight. I was less than impressed, inwardly damning him further for his impudence.

“Bill’s an odd sort,” said Thomas by way of explanation. “‘e dun’t like folk much.”

“Then why does he not work here?”

They both laughed. “Can ye imagine Bill workin ‘ere, stuck living wi’ another in ‘is pockets and stew pot?”

“‘e’d go mad.”

The Skipper gathered up the cards on the table, shuffled them deftly, then dealt. I found cards flicked in my direction along with the clear expectation that I should join. Despite not sharing the mood, I felt it would be rude to decline the invitation. I played several hands before my mind began to dim with exhaustion. I put in a good effort and won where it mattered, but my heart was not quite in it. I suspect they may have been gentler to me than I deserved. Part of the easing in process, perhaps.

I excused myself soon after and said I was going to sleep. The Skipper was quick to warn me that I best had as I had an early start in the morning. 

And so that brings us to now, dear Pip. I am sat in this little bunk room where I have made a rudimentary desk of my trunk. I have closed the windows and write by the light of a plain little lamp. I feel calmer now – the room itself has approached something resembling homely. I suspect that waking in such a strange place after such a taxing few days has been cruel to me. 

You mustn’t worry, though! It is quite natural for one to feel discomfited when they find themselves in unfamiliar surroundings, much less those as unusual as mine! You will find the same when mother and father send you to school. It will pass quickly enough, I’m sure of it.

I have little doubt that after a hard day of honest work tomorrow I will sleep soundly and well. I will very much appreciate the opportunity to learn more about this little island and its workings. And, when I am more confident in my responsibilities, I will unpack my trunk and annexe a portion of this functional little room to act as my studio. Or, perhaps if I can set up some sort of light source in the ‘auld store’, I could claim the space as my own?

Yours with love,

J


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