I have a habit of embroidering on works of fiction by others. First it was the Herbert West Series — four novels spun off H.P. Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West, Reanimator.” Then, a few months ago, a kind of sequel to Robert W. Chambers’s “The Repairer of Reputations.” And now a return to HPL: several years ago I had a notion to write a novel based on “The Dreams in the Witch House.” I started wondering what sort of person Walter Gilman, the main character of that story, might have been. By the time I finished a first chapter, though, I realized there would be no novel. Unlike Herbert West and his narrator friend, Gilman has no opportunities for further choices, no dilemmas. Once he’s embarked on his course of study and living in the Witch House, stuff just happens to him. The only reason to keep reading is to see how he meets his demise. But I had a look at that first chapter recently, and thought it was a well-crafted cul-de-sac. So here it is.
WELCOME TO THE WITCH HOUSE
Arkham, Massachusetts, January 1925
The Ruminations of Walter Gilman.
He turned up four months after I moved into the Witch House – fat Frank Elwood, from my home town of Haverhill, Massachusetts. When I saw him in the front hall, talking to landlord Dombrowski, it was like a chunk of that practical, shoe-obsessed city had tracked me down to Arkham, intent on dragging me back.
As if I hadn’t had the devil of a time getting away from the place already. “Why do you have to go to Arkham?” My father must have asked me that a hundred times, alternating with “Why do you have to go to college? You can step into a good job right here and now, and when I die it will all be yours. You don’t need college.”
He was right, if all I wanted to do was spend the rest of my life among clanking, roaring machines and the louts who run them, cutting, stretching, shaping, stitching and glazing millions of receptacles for feet. Or if I was fascinated by the balance sheet and the ledger, the profit margin and the management of business.
But I am not. And unfortunately, my father managed to sire only one son. He will have to resign himself to a son-in-law as heir to his very own chunk of the Queen Slipper City of the World. Not everyone is content to fasten his nose to the grindstone and develop a fascination with grains of grit. The world is too wide and too strange for that.
The second thought that popped into my head when I saw Elwood looming over old Dombrowski was that my father had sent him to cajole or threaten me into quitting Miskatonic and going home. That was absurd, though. If he wanted to do that, he would do it himself, and even if he wanted to send an emissary, it wouldn’t be Frank Elwood.
He was the son of a former foreman in Gilman’s Excellent Boot and Shoe Company – former because he was dead, the result of an unfortunate encounter with one of the machines he was in charge of. His death was a considerable nuisance to my father, and even to me, because unrest among the workers and threats to form a union made Father decide it would be politic for the two of us to attend the funeral.
That was where I first saw Frank, glowering at me as I took a place in the pew across from the one he and his mother and sisters occupied. Maybe it was because we were close in age, but I felt him putting a mark on me, as though for future consideration. And now, here he was in Arkham, in the very place where I lived.
Some call it the Witch House, after one of the most famous denizens of witch-haunted Arkham – Keziah Mason, known to the initiate as Nahab. No one knows this (because I haven’t told anyone), but she was my reason for choosing to live in this house, otherwise shunned by Miskatonians, faculty and students alike.
It’s in the oldest part of the city, a huddle of sway-backed, gambrel-roofed structures that manage to stay standing after nearly three hundred years. I’m sure they were never meant to last that long by the honest Puritans who built them, nor to shelter some of the beings that have found homes within them over the years (and I don’t mean the ubiquitous rats). Unless one burns down or collapses from internal rot, they persist, growing ever more disreputable, like a group of drunks holding each other up as they lurch along.
I think the home folks finally gave up on me when I told them where I decided to live. “That horrible slum. Why, the people there aren’t respectable. They’re all foreigners and” – whispering – “Catholics.” They decided I was doomed. The odd few times I went back home to visit, they looked at me the way people look at condemned criminals or the terminally ill.
They would never have believed me if I had told them the simple truth – that Keziah Mason was part of my research, along with non-Euclidean calculus and quantum physics. In fact, I think that would have given my father grounds to ship me off to an asylum.
But what was Frank Elwood doing in the Witch House? That was the question.
He and Dombrowski looked up when they heard me close the door. “Oh, Mr. Geelman,” intoned the landlord, scooping at the air with his hand, as though it was elastic and he could pull me closer that way. “Here is another man from the college, Mr. All-wood, his name. This is Mr. Walter Geelman. He lives in the room at the top of the house and has to climb up many, many stairs. You only have to go up to second floor.” He beamed as though he’d said something profound.
Frank Elwood just stood there looking at me like he was trying to figure something out, chewing over his thoughts like a cow with a cud. There actually was something bovine about him; he was big and solid and slow, with a heavy face and a wide forehead and a lot of thick straight brown hair. His eyes peered out like windows under a thatched roof.
Finally his mouth opened and words came out. “Walter Gilman. I know you.”
I bowed in acknowledgement of this fact. “Perhaps, but I don’t believe we’ve actually met.”
This disconcerted him, as I intended. His face turned red and he looked at his feet (which were large like the rest of him and not particularly well-shod, surprising in a Haverhillian).
He raised his head and looked at me again. I could have sworn he was angry and trying not to show it. At me or at himself?
“We have now,” he said and turned to Dombrowski again, then back to me as though he couldn’t help himself.
“You live here?” he asked. “Here in this house?”
I smiled. “I do. Mr. Dombrowski was kind enough to rent me one of the rooms in the attic. A very special room. I have found it most satisfactory.”
I had nothing more to say to either of them and headed for the stairs. The first set was relatively wide and gracious, except that each step was bowed and hollowed from three centuries of use. I watched my feet move from one to the other and thought of all the hundreds and thousands of other feet that had preceded them – and whose they might have been. Keziah Mason’s for sure. They must have trodden these steps many times, even the narrow ones from the second floor to the third, all the way up to the top of the house.
My room was larger than you would expect, but with the low ceiling typical of its location. It had a single eastward-facing window that was bright in the morning and dimmed gradually after noonday. Night came earlier there than in other places.
The real attraction didn’t reveal itself to me until November, when, sick and feverish, I spent a couple of days in bed, dozing and staring at the ceiling, watching the watery sunlight traverse the room, lighting up now this wall, now that corner, a piece of the ceiling and the opposite wall, before fading away and leaving my abode in soft, dusty shadow.
I thought about what we had been discussing in Prof. Upham’s class before I’d been taken ill – the fourth dimension and possible freakish curvatures in space which may be used as points of contact with distant parts of the cosmos. I thought about Keziah Mason and what she had told Judge Hathorne at her trial in 1692, about lines and curves that led those who knew about them to spaces other than the known.
I fixed my eyes on the place where the north wall, slanting gently inward from its outer to its inner end, met the downward-slanting ceiling. The conjunction was an uneasy one, with peculiar angles. I thought of the equations I had pored over on many a long evening, and fancied I could see a sort of sliding or shifting of planes, as though a long-closed door was coming ever so slightly ajar. “There’s the gate,” I thought muzzily, “the portal. Right there.” Then I fell asleep again and dreamed strange dreams.
The next day I was well enough to go back to class, but found it hard to concentrate. I could hardly wait to get back to the Witch House and take a good look at the north wall from the outside. As I expected, it was perfectly straight and what was more, there had once been a window just where my room was. Judging by the carpentry, the window had been closed up a very long time ago, in the 18th century, if not earlier. I wondered what might be found in the narrow triangular space between the inner and outer walls, where no light had entered for more than two centuries.
Then I grew curious about the loft above my ceiling, in the very peak of the roof, and borrowed a ladder from Dombrowski so I could get a closer look. Peering through festoons of cobwebs from the other end of the attic, I could see heavy planks and pegs similar to those that sealed the window, covering an aperture that must have led to a cramped space with a slanting floor directly above my room. I tried to persuade Dombrowski to let me open it up, but he refused outright, saying that he had enough trouble keeping the rats under control. But he’s a superstitious old loon, like all these Poles, and I thought I saw a nervous twitch in his eye. There was nothing I could say to make him change his mind.
The next time I saw Elwood, he was trying to manhandle a couple of suitcases up the stairs.
“It would be easier if you took them one at a time,” I offered, earning myself a look like a clenched fist. I guessed he would have shaken one at me if his hands weren’t full. That nearly made me laugh.
“Here, let me take one of them,” I said and seized the handle. The thing weighed a lot more than I expected and nearly wrenched my arm off, but I didn’t think Elwood saw that. We progressed up to the second floor and down the hall to his room. After landing the case, I stood and looked around. His room was bigger than mine and had a fireplace, but all the walls and ceilings met at the expected ninety degrees.
I thought a bit of conversation was the right thing for the occasion. “So what is it you’re studying at Miskatonic?”
Elwood scowled and emitted a foggy grunt, as though this was the first time he’d spoken aloud all day. Clearing his throat, he tried again. “Medicine,” he said. “Eventually. I’m taking a bachelor of science degree first, of course.” A pause. “What about you?”
“Math and physics,” I said. “And witchcraft, of a sort. Welcome to the Witch House, Elwood.”
Then I turned and left.
The Account of Frank Elwood.
I never intended to live in such a shabby part of Arkham. I didn’t even think a college town would have a slum like that. Just about all the people who live there are poor, except Gilman, but I guess he has his own reasons for being there.
My first semester at Miskatonic I had a room close to the college, practically across the street, in fact. It was nice and clean and close to downtown as well. Right at the start I kicked up my heels a bit, seeing as I was away from home and didn’t have to be the “man of the house,” as my mother called me.
But after a few months I sat down and did some figuring and the results of this effort were not good. I was living beyond my means. My scholarship wasn’t enough to pay for everything and there was nothing to spare for me from my family. After counting up my remaining dollars I decided the only thing to do was to find cheaper living quarters.
I didn’t want to ask other students or my professors. No one likes to admit that he’s coming down in the world, not that I had a very long distance to slide before I hit the bottom. As luck would have it, I saw a notice in a cafeteria on Church Street – “Room for Rent.” It gave the address and the name John Dombrowski. I went over there right after classes the same day.
The house was brown and reminded me of an old person who used to be taller, with little windows squinting out like bleary eyes. I stood in the street for a while, wondering if I really wanted to live there. It looked like it had rats. I hate rats. The truth was, though, I didn’t have much choice.
Just then a fellow came out of the front door and grinned at me. “You looking for Dombrowski?” he asked, speaking with a thick Polish accent. “He’s in his office. You just go in.”
“I guess I will,” I replied and walked inside.
Dombrowski was one of those short, fat Poles who smell like garlic. You see them everywhere now. A bunch of them were in my Dad’s crew at the factory. He said they were good enough workers, once you pounded the right way to do things into their thick heads. I never figured one of them was going to be my landlord.
I asked about the room and he showed it to me. It was all right – on the second floor, not too small, with a bed, a wardrobe, a chair and a table. There was no bookcase, but what did I expect? There was a fireplace that looked like it hadn’t been used in a long time, but most important there didn’t seem to be any active rat holes, although I could see a couple of stopped-up ones.
“Are rats a problem here?” I asked.
“No rats!” Dombrowski said, so quickly I knew he had to be lying. “I use traps, I use poison. No more rats!” I wasn’t in a position to argue and Dombrowski, who knew his business, escorted me swiftly back to the front hall. He was telling me that for an extra twenty-five cents a day I could get a good breakfast, “cooked by Mrs. Dombrowski; you can’t find better anywhere,” when the door opened and someone came in. I looked up expecting to see another lodger, a stranger, but then I recognized him.
I had seen Walter Gilman around Haverhill when I was growing up there, but it wasn’t like we were pals. He was the big boss’s son and my Dad was just one of the workers. The last time I’d seen Walter was at my father’s funeral, sitting next to his old man. I wanted to go up and slug them both, but that would have troubled my mother and probably landed me in jail, so I didn’t.
It looked to me like Walter was trying to dress like he belonged to one of the wilder college sets. He wore a coat that looked like part of a costume, with a fringed scarf wrapped around his neck and a fedora in his hand. He was shorter than me and skinny, with almost-black hair that needed a trip to the barber and a little moustache that looked like he fussed over it in front of a mirror, willing it to grow in thicker.
He closed the door and stood on the mat looking at me like I was an exhibit in a museum. I could almost see the little wheels turning in his head: there’s that fellow whose father died in my dad’s factory. Too bad. I had to take an afternoon to go to the funeral. What a bore. What’s his name? Not important.
Then Dombrowski got back into his song and dance, introducing us as though we were at a party. I guess to him we were two of a kind, both college students. People from Miskatonic probably didn’t rent rooms from him often so he was delighted to have two of us at once. And I can’t blame the man for what he couldn’t possibly have known.
He couldn’t have known that James Gilman, Walter’s father, killed my Dad. All right, he didn’t stick a knife into him or poison him or shoot him dead, but he was just as responsible for his death as if he’d done it deliberately.
Thomas Elwood, my father, was foreman on the leather cutting machines at Gilman’s shoe factory. He’d worked his way up from the bottom and was proud of that. One day when he was clearing a fault in one of the machines, a belt pulled him into the blades and he was badly cut. He died a couple of hours later. If James Gilman hadn’t been too cheap to install modern equipment with safety switches, my father would be alive today, my mother and sisters would have a comfortable life and I wouldn’t have to live in a rat-infested slum.
But never mind – once I’ve earned my degrees and qualified as a doctor, things will change.
As for Walter Gilman, I decided to stay out of his way. It would be easier if we didn’t live in the same house, but it could be done.
Walking back to the college district, I started to wonder just what Gilman was doing in a place like Dombrowski’s. It wasn’t because he didn’t have enough money; the last time I looked, his old man was driving a Packard and the factory still didn’t have a union. Well, he could keep his secrets to himself. I was going to avoid him.
This resolution was tested the very next day, when I moved my things into my new room. I had two big old suitcases that had belonged to my grandfather. He’d arrived in America with all his belongings in them and had done well. My worldly goods fitted into them with room to spare, so I suppose I had a job of work to catch up to Grandpa. The case with my books made for a heavy load, but I wanted to get the move done as fast as I could, so lugged both suitcases at once and was damn glad when I finally hauled them and myself onto the porch of Dombrowski’s house.
I used the case with the books to hold the door open while I got the other one inside, then picked them both up and started to hump them up the stairs to the second floor. It was harder work than I thought, but I couldn’t go back and there was nowhere to put either case down. I was beginning to think I would have trouble with the corner at the top, when I heard a voice from below.
“You should have known better than to carry both of them at once.” For a second I thought that the labour of moving my possessions had rendered me light-headed, because I remembered my Dad saying things like, “Slow and steady wins the race, Frank,” and “Measure twice, cut once.” Much as I admired my father, I have to admit these sayings sometimes got on my nerves. But now I wished it really was him even while I knew it wasn’t.
I turned and saw Gilman standing at the bottom of the stairs with that stupid fedora in his hand, smirking under his moustache. Smirking at me. I was about to tell him to keep his advice to himself when he ran up the stairs, holding out the hand that didn’t have his hat in it. “Here, I’ll take one of those cases.”
I let him have the one with the books, hoping he’d drop it on his foot. It would serve him right, and besides, I couldn’t hang onto it any more. He had a hard time with it at first but he was right behind me when we reached the top. He followed me into my room and put the case down next to the one I had carried. Instead of leaving, he just stood there, looking around as though he was doing an inspection. I was about to ask him if he’d noticed rats in the house, but he spoke up first.
“So what is it you’re studying, anyway?” he asked.
“Medicine,” I said. Then, because I supposed I owed him something, “What about you?” trying to sound as though I cared.
“Mathematics and physics,” he replied, in that lah-de-dah way of his. Then he said something else, about witchcraft. “Welcome to the Witch House.” He didn’t wait for an answer but turned and left, flipping his fringed scarf over his shoulder.
Math and physics. Well, well. Sometimes I think the good Lord has a sense of humor. I was doing all right in my classes, except for math. One of the things that bothered me about moving farther from campus was that there wouldn’t be anyone handy to ask for help with math problems. But here was Walter Gilman, who was studying that very subject. Except I couldn’t stand to look at his face and remember how he sat there at my Dad’s funeral looking bored.
No – forget Gilman. I’d just have to work harder. I didn’t want any more help from him.
The idea that I might end up helping him never even entered my mind.
So now that you’ve read my take on Walter Gilman and Frank Elwood, go and read the real story.
I recall some of Lovecraft’s short stories were quite long. I think you could get maybe a novella out of Gilman and Elwood, especially if you riff on the quantum mechanics / witchcraft angle. I think the two viewpoints would work in a ‘superposition’ kind of way. (Simultaneous states of existence.)
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In HPLs story, Gilman keeps getting dragged into other worlds by the witch and her rat-like familiar via a chaotic transition state. Elwood is supposed to prevent this from happening, but keeps falling asleep. I’m not sure I could improve on the physics angle, but I really like presenting different points of view of a person/situation.
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This is indeed a well-crafted first chapter. You have an intriguing setting – an old house with a murky and possibly sinister history, interesting characters (landlord Dombrowski and the two POV characters, and tension between the two characters – tension that could easily develop into something ugly. Please, Audrey. Keep writing.
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Well, we’ll see. I’m not sure I could improve on Lovecraft’s treatment of the supernatural/mathematical angles. I have to admit I like working with different points of view and showing characters’ personalities. Thanks for the encouraging comments, though, John.
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