The Mystery of Henry Orson

by James Leth

With respect to H.P. Lovecraft

I had not seen or heard from Henry Orson for seven years, but prior to those years we had been best of friends—classmates and even, for a time, roommates at Miskatonic University. Upon graduation from that august academy, my head full of arcane and esoteric knowledge, my heart dancing to the tune of infinite possibilities, I traveled far and wide. I sought the great wonders of the ancient world, the seats of dynastic European powers, the cobbled streets of villages once ruled by potentates and caliphs from palaces on high or castles walled against the restless tide of peasants struggling for survival.

In those unguided wanderings, I found traces of far more ancient rulers more terrible than modern Man remembers; for deep within the darkest alleyways of dusty settlements inhabited before the written words of Man, there still survive those few who worship dread Cthulhu and other beings older still, far too ghastly for any human tongue to name.

How ironic, then, that my restless footsteps should have brought me back to New England to visit my old friend on this, the day of Halloween.

Like many Western holidays, All Saints Eve was incorporated—some might say stolen—from ancient observances of heathen peoples conquered in the name of the Church. Many have heard of Samhain, the Celtic observance that became Halloween, but few know that far more ancient and disturbing celebrations have been held this night, many involving the sacrifice of terrified and tortured beasts—or even men and women. There are those who say that Cthulhu himself called out to the human world on this night, leading his pitiful followers through occult gates sanctified by blood, to enter the world of nightmares, never to be seen again by any living soul.

It was not those thoughts that caused me trepidation that day as I walked the dirt road up the hill from the train station. My only fear then was that I had made this long journey in vain, to discover that my friend no longer lived in this dusty old relic of a whaling port, where in centuries past, widows wept for the men who sailed beyond the steel gray horizon and never returned.

I wrote to Henry from Istanbul three months ago, and again from Venice four weeks later, receiving no reply to either missive. Assuming that the address I had for him was out of date, I wrote to Michael Corbett, a friend we had in common, asking if he knew the man’s address.

Having informed him of my itinerary, our mutual friend’s reply arrived at my hotel in Cairo three weeks later. Henry still lived in that old house he had inherited from his family, the letter said, but Michael had lost contact with him as well. Of most concern were rumors Michael had heard, to the effect that Henry had suffered a mental breakdown and withdrawn from the world, admitting no one who arrived at his doorstep. Although carefully unstated, I understood Michael’s advice that I should not make the trip to New England and should leave Henry to his self-imposed isolation.

If only I had heeded Michael’s words, for then I would never have to tell this dreadful tale, and I might yet sleep without listening for that awful sound that still today haunts my nightmares.

I shifted my heavy traveling pack in a vain attempt to ease my tired shoulders. As I neared the top of the hill, I saw the house rise from behind a thicket of old maple, ash, and birch, untended for years and now so overgrown and tangled that I wondered if the trees and house had fused inseparably together. I’d visited this house once before, during our school years, and enjoyed a delightful visit with Henry and his charming family, unknowing that a few short years later, both parents would be dead and his sister institutionalized, later to die in Arkham Asylum in the depths of madness and despair. I was not prepared, now, for the terrible state of disrepair and outright neglect that the quaint old house had fallen into, and I feared that Michael’s letter had told the truth of Henry’s state as well.

With some apprehension, I knocked on his door and stood waiting for a response, hearing only a disquieting silence from within and a faint susurration of the breeze through the dense, labyrinthine branches of the trees surrounding me. Some minutes passed with still no response. Perhaps I had been too timid in my attempt to rouse him, I thought. Henry had always been one to lose himself completely in whatever project he was engaged in, and many were the times that I had called out to him across the room and gone unheard. With growing resolve now, I pounded on the door, feeling the old oak rattle in the doorframe at my efforts. Silence still, for several seconds, but then I heard soft footsteps approaching from a distant room, growing louder as they approached the door. Contentment settled over me as I expected any second to see the face of my old friend, but as the footsteps came near, a gruff voice called out quite loudly, “Go Away!”

Stunned by this rude reception, I barely recognized my former roommate’s voice, but it was him, I knew. The footsteps retreated, and I hammered my fist on the door again.

“Leave me alone!” he shouted through the closed door, but I was not to be ignored.

“Henry, it’s David!” I shouted back. “David Winthrop, from school.”

The footsteps faltered, but the door remained closed. “Come on, man,” I shouted. “I’ve traveled several thousand miles in the last three months to visit you! Open the door, for old times’ sake if nothing else!”

There was a pause. A rattle of keys. The sound of a bolt sliding back. The door opened a mere inch, and a dark and suspicious eye peered at me through the crack. “David,” his raspy voice muttered, his confusion apparent. “David? From school?”

“Yes, David Winthrop. Dear God, man, do you not recognize your old friend and roommate? Let me in, won’t you? I’m no longer used to this New England chill. Let me sit by your fire and tell you of my travels. You always loved tales of other lands, Henry. I’ve stories for you that you won’t believe.”

The door opened an inch or two further, and despite myself, I stepped back as I saw the deep lines around Henry’s heavy lids, the tousled hair and weeks of unshaven beard about his face. “Stories,” he repeated, as if my words were only now reaching his awareness.

“Are you sick, Henry?” I asked, growing quite concerned at his dazed and bedraggled appearance. “Let me look at you. I can help.”

At this, he seemed to brighten, his expression taking on an almost manic countenance. “You’ll help me?” he pleaded.

“Of course, Henry. I’m your friend, am I not? I’ve come to help you.”

“Yes,” he said, opening the door and finally admitting me. “I could use your help.”

He backed away as I entered, and as he did so, I got my first clear view of him. The sight left me chilled. He wore a ragged dressing gown tied haphazardly over filthy gray work clothes rumpled about his body as though he’d left them on unchanged for a week or more, and my nose confirmed that suspicion. He’d long ago given up the razor and the barber, and his gaunt face and emaciated arms and neck made me wonder how long he’d been without food. His feet were bare and dirty, and he seemed oblivious to the hard cold stone floor he stood upon. He blinked in apparent pain at the unfamiliar light streaming in the open doorway, shielding his eyes until I closed the door behind me.

“Henry, what in God’s name has happened to you?” I asked, approaching to clasp his hand, which he pulled back as if I meant to assault him. “How long have you been sick? Have you seen the doctor?”

He appeared confused at these words. “Sick? No, I’m not sick. I’m very busy.” He turned and slowly walked down the hall, talking to me behind his back. “But you’ve come to help. It will be easier now. We’ll find it together.”

As he walked away, I shed my pack to the floor, eager to be rid of the heavy burden. I followed him to the back of the house, where he stopped before a closed door which I remembered led to his father’s study—his study now, I realized, as he was the last of his family still alive. “It’s in here,” he continued mysteriously. “I know it’s here, but I can’t find it.”

He drew a ring of keys from the pocket of his dressing gown and unlocked the door, holding it open after he entered, and I recoiled at the decrepit state of the room I’d admired years before. Where once had been an exquisite refuge for serious and refined contemplation, there was now a shambles of broken furniture; piles of books torn asunder as if from being thrown around the room; barren shelves, their contents dashed to the floor in broken heaps swept into corners. The grand etched-glass windows were bolted shut and roughly painted over, the curtains lying in tatters on the floor. The desk and chair alone still stood unbroken, the former buried under heaps of papers full of incomprehensible scribblings and obscure drawings.

He motioned me inside, closing and locking the door behind us, returning the keys to his pocket. I stepped carefully around the debris on the floor, shaking my head in dismay. “It’s no wonder you can’t find whatever it is you’re looking for,” I said. “It looks as though you’ve detonated a bomb in here.”

“A bomb?” he said, and I stared at him with concern, for he’d uttered those words as if I’d offered an excellent suggestion. “Yes, perhaps. A bomb might expose it.”

I followed his gaze to the far wall to the right of the entry—the only place in the room cleared of all debris, the wall itself scraped and gouged as if clawed by a great beast. I remembered the fine imported mahogany polished to a glassy finish, but that was another time, now long gone.

I turned to look at him, still leaning his back against the door as if staving off besieging intruders. There was a madness in his eyes that I could see clearly now. I hid my fear, smiled helpfully, and spoke gently to him. “What is it you’re looking for, old friend?”

“The door,” he said.

I couldn’t help myself, his words being so absurd; I laughed. “The door? You’re leaning against it, Henry.”

He shook his head angrily. “No, not this one. The other one. The one over there,” nodding his head toward the barren wall.

I looked again, thinking that somehow I’d missed something as obvious as a second door to the study, but the wall was definitely empty. “There’s no door on that side,” I said with a calm that I definitely didn’t feel. “There was never a door there when I was here before.”

He moved slowly to the wall and ran his palms over the marred and damaged wood. I winced, thinking his hands must be full of splinters, but if so he didn’t notice them. “It’s here,” he said. “It’s hiding now, but I know it’s here. I see it every night, but it hides when I’m awake.”

“You mean you see it when you’re asleep?” I asked. “In your dreams, then?”

He didn’t answer, lost in his examination of the damaged wall. “I can almost reach it,” he whispered, and I drew closer in order to make out his words. “It’s right before me. The handle is almost within my grasp …” He turned around to face me with such despair that I gasped aloud. “But it won’t open for me,” he continued. “I always wake right before my hand touches it.” Tears ran down his face at the unbearable disappointment consuming him. “And then it’s gone.” In a flash, his sorrow turned to rage. “Why can’t I find it when I’m awake? Why does it hide from me? You must help me get it open!” He jumped forward, so quickly that I had no time to dodge his grasp. With both hands holding fast to the lapels of my jacket, he drew me toward him, his face inches from my own. “You said you’d help me!”

“Of course, Henry,” I tried to placate him, gently pressing my palms against his chest. “Of course I’ll help you. But I’ve come a long way, old friend. I’m tired and hungry. Could we not have supper first? It will be easier on a full stomach, don’t you think?”

He let go of me and I stepped back, wondering for a few seconds if I should turn and run, then remembering that he had locked me in the room with him. His confusion seemed to have returned, and I pressed my momentary advantage. “You’ll need your strength to get the door open, Henry. Let’s eat a good meal and rest a bit before we try again.”

He nodded, to my great relief, seeing the sense of this. “Yes,” he muttered. “I think there’s some food in the kitchen.” He unlocked the door, and I quickly moved around him into the hall. As he stepped through, he locked the door again behind us.

“I remember where it is,” I called, hurrying back down the hall and opening the kitchen door, remembering a room full of clattering pots, laughter, and delicious smells, but that room had been transformed as much as the study. Rotting food lay in unwashed dishes piled in the sink and on the stove and counters. I could tell at once that there was nothing fresh within the room, but by rooting in the pantry I came upon some unopened cans of hearty stew. I’d survived on much less during my wanderings between civilized accommodations, and knew I could heat us up a decent repast. I cleared the worst of the mess away from the table and stove, found a suitable pot that I could scrub clean, and emptied the cans of stew into it while Henry stood in the kitchen doorway looking like a lost child.

As the pot heated, I cleaned some bowls, glasses, and silverware and set them out on the table. “Is your wine cellar still stocked, Henry?” I asked hopefully.

He looked at me with surprise, as if he’d forgotten that I was there, and shrugged his shoulders. “I suppose so,” he answered.

I found the stairs to the cellar and descended, turning on the bare overhead bulb at the foot of the stairs. The cellar was undamaged, I was glad to see, although it had not been replenished in years. Even so, I managed to find a couple of decent bottles of Cabernet, and I brought them up to the kitchen, where I found Henry still standing in the doorway. With some effort, I located a corkscrew and opened the wine, pouring generous glasses for us both.

“Come sit with me, Henry. Let’s see if this wine is as fine as I remember.” He shuffled to the table and sat across from me. I raised my glass. “To our old school days,” I offered, and he responded in kind, clinking his glass against mine. We drank, and I watched him, hoping to see the wine rejuvenate him, but he remained quiet and subdued. I rose to check the stew, found it acceptably hot, and served it.

We ate for a while in silence, and finally Henry began to show signs of his old self. Gradually, I drew him into conversation, mentioning my correspondence with our mutual friend, Michael, and reminiscing with him about our past adventures. The wine seemed to help him relax. Finished with the meal, I settled back, stretched, and yawned, hoping to induce him to do likewise. A good sound sleep was what he needed, I felt. Clearly, he’d been tormented by these insidious dreams about the mysterious door. But I was clumsy, and overconfident, when I tried to make him aware of how far he’d let things go. I reminded him of what a grand old house it had been, and what a shame to see it so neglected. Perhaps he could hire some workmen to restore the place, I suggested, and a cook and housekeeper to put the estate in proper running order. It was at this point that his restless fervor returned.

Henry stared at me as if I were the one losing sight of reality. “What are you talking about?” he said with irritation. “Bring people in to interfere with my work? When we’re so close to discovering the secret of the door? Are you mad?”

Bridling at this reversal of our situations, I spoke unwisely. “But Henry, you’ve seen for yourself there’s no secret door in the study. It was just a dream, old friend. Nothing more. Have some more wine, a nice dreamless sleep, and everything will be fine tomorrow.”

Instantly, he became enraged, sweeping his bowl and glass onto the floor with a resounding crash, pushing himself to his feet. He leaned across the table, his hands balled into fists, glaring at me. “So this is how you repay my hospitality?” An outrageous question, as it was I who had shown him the first trace of hospitality this house had seen for quite some time. “Deceiving me with false offers to help me in my work? You eat my food, drink my wine, and laugh at my greatest endeavors?”

“Henry, calm down,” I beseeched him. “I merely meant that we’ll be better prepared to understand this mystery after a good night’s rest.”

But Henry would have none of it. “I don’t need your help,” he declared bitterly. “I’ll find the door myself.” He marched out of the kitchen, heading back to the study, and I followed, trying again to calm him down. He unlocked the door to the study and I pushed myself in behind him, sure that he meant to lock me out and be done with me. Raging with anger, he crossed the room to the wall that so offended him, pounding his upraised fists against it repeatedly.

“By God, you’ll open for me this very night,” he screamed, and I stood transfixed with horror as he beat his fists bloody against the cursed wall. “Show yourself to me!”

Two large blots of blood were now smeared on the wall where his fists continued striking, and before long they became two parallel lines of crimson running down to the floor. A deep chill shook my body at the image before me, for it seemed as though he were drawing the outline of his damnable phantom door with his own blood. He turned to me with the look of a rabid beast, and I took several steps back. He stalked closer, and I retreated to the doorway, where he shoved me out into the hall and slammed the door in my face. I heard his key in the lock, and his final words to me: “Leave me, false friend, for I will see you no more!”

I stood in the hall, shaking, and though I tried several times to speak with him, he refused to acknowledge me. I finally gave up, returned to the kitchen, and finished the open bottle of wine. Brooding on how to help the wretch that had been my friend, I scarcely noticed when I opened the second bottle. Over the space of another hour, I finished that one as well.

Too tired and drunk to walk back down the hill now that night had fallen, I climbed the stairs to the room in which I’d slept those many years ago. It looked as though it had not been touched since my last visit, dust thick on every surface and a smell of mildew in the air. Exhausted and despondent, I lay down upon the bed and began to drowse.

I slept restlessly, dwelling primarily in that hypnopompic state wherein we are as likely to follow our dreams back into sleep as our dreams and nightmares are to follow us out into the light of the world. But I awoke completely, instantly, when I heard the sound—a sound I believe I hear still when I wake in terror from a nightmare. A sound no mortal man should ever have to hear. I was on my feet before I knew it, clawing in the dark for the lamp switch. Elsewhere in the house, a clock was chiming, and I knew without counting the chimes that it was the stroke of midnight. I dashed downstairs, expecting to see nothing but a vast wreckage, but all was still and quiet. Trembling and shivering, I approached the study door and tried the knob. Still locked. I hesitated, then tapped lightly on the door. There was no sound from within, so I knocked louder and put my ear to the door. It was quiet as a tomb.

I admit that I was frightened, but I managed to convince myself that the noise I’d heard was nothing but a dream of my own. Surely Henry had fallen asleep, the wine finally sedating him. If he had found some peace at last, I dared not wake him. Tomorrow, I thought, he will have found his senses again. With this comforting bit of self-delusion, I returned to my bed. I had no more dreams that night, but my sleep was far from peaceful.

In the morning, I found the study door still locked, and I knocked loudly, calling out to Henry to let me in. An hour went by as I tried repeatedly to get his attention, with no results. I began to fear that his distress had caused him to hurt himself, or worse. Perhaps I would find that the poor man hanged himself or slit his wrists to end his torment. With some degree of cowardice, I must confess, I decided not to break down the door. If he had killed himself, it would be better that the police find him locked in his study, lest I be suspected of foul play. I found the telephone in the hall and reported the situation.

When the police arrived, it took some persuasion to convince them to break down the door. They were understandably reluctant to believe the strange story I told of Henry’s erratic behavior, but finally we made our way inside. Henry had not killed himself, but the relief I felt was short-lived, for he was gone. The windows still were locked, and the paint that sealed them shut made clear that they had not been opened. The keys to the door were found on Henry’s desk, but there was no sign of Henry. Curiously, the bloody lines on the damaged wall had vanished overnight.

I followed the officers as they searched every room of the house, but neither Henry’s body nor any trace of him was ever found. As they walked from room to room, they opened every door and I stood  behind them, listening, but never did I hear that awful sound that had awakened me. The sound of ancient iron hinges squealing as if they had not been turned for centuries. The terrible grating of rusted metal, shrieking like lost souls, long dead but still enduring torment beyond imagination, followed by the thunderous sound of a heavy stone door slamming shut, shaking the very foundation of the earth.

© James Leth, 2016