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Authors: Graham Masterton

Charnel House

BOOK: Charnel House
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Charnel House

Graham Masterton

For Wiescka, Roland, and Daniel,

with love,

and for the Ford Motor Company

of Dearborn, Michigan,

with thanks.

The rising sun finds me

The opening in the East sees me

That can only mean

Coyote finds me

With his bloodstained mouth!

Here comes mad Coyote

He wears a necklace of eyeballs

His mouth is red, his hands are red

Mad Coyote

Sings a crazy song

And suddenly the West Wind blows!

—Navaho song

Author's Note

The demon that you are about to meet in these pages was (and is) an authentic Indian demon. The legends you will hear about are just as they were told in the lodges of the great medicine men in days gone by.

It is possible, of course, to discount the supernatural powers of Indian life as superstition. But during the course of writing about this particular malevolent manifestation, I suffered a run of personal bad luck that surpassed coincidence and became a daily nightmare. Just some of the things that befell me and my family were the death of my stepfather, a 70mph road accident in which my new Mustang hit a concrete wall, yet another road accident involving my wife, and countless losses of personal items like checkbooks and keepsakes. Even stranger than these events, there were many times when I found that the book was writing itself, and would stray away from the original story into completely unrelated sidetracks. It was as if the book was trying to stop itself from being written.

But here it is, finally completed, and I hope you find in it some understanding of the things that haunted America's distant past, as well as some food for present and future thought.

That is, if you dare. For this demon is an unforgiving demon, and can never die.

Graham Masterton

Los Angeles, 1978


The old man came into my office and closed the door. He was wearing a creased linen jacket and a green bowtie, and in his liver-spotted hands he held a Panama hat that had turned brown as a London broil from years of California sun. One side of his face was still prickly with white stubble, so I guessed he couldn't shave too well.

He said, almost apologetically, “It's my house. It's breathing.”

I smiled and said, “Sit down.”

He sat on the edge of the chrome-and-plastic chair, and licked his lips. He had one of those soft, concerned old faces that make you wish you had a grandfather as nice as that. He was the kind of old guy it would've been satisfying to play chess with, idling away some fall afternoon on a balcony overlooking the beach.

“You don't have to believe me if you don't want to, young feller. But I called before, and I said the same thing,” he insisted.

I turned over the appointment list on my desk.

“Sure. You telephoned last week, right?”

“And the week before.”

“And you told the girl your house was—”

I paused and looked at him, and he looked back at me. He didn't finish my sentence for me, and I guess that was because he wanted to hear me say it, too. I gave him a tight, bureaucratic smile.

He said, in his gentle, crumbly voice, “I moved into the house from my sister's old apartment up on the hill. I sold some stock, and bought it for cash. It was going pretty cheap, and I've always wanted to live around Mission Street. But now, well …”

He dropped his eyes, and fiddled with the brim of his hat.

I picked up my ballpen. “Could you tell me your name please?”

“Seymour Wallis. I'm a retired engineer. Bridges, mainly.”

“And your address?”

“Fifteen-fifty-one Pilarcitos.”

“Okay. And your problem is noise?”

He looked up again. His eyes were the color of faded cornflowers pressed between the leaves of a book.

“Not noise,” he said softly. “Breathing.”

I sat back in my black simulated-leather revolving armchair, and tapped my ballpen against my teeth. I was pretty used to cranky complaints in the sanitation department. We had a woman who came in regular, saying that dozens of alligators that kids had flushed down the toilets in the 1960s had made their way to the sewers beneath her apartment on Howard and Fourth and were trying to make their way back up the S-bend to eat her. Then there was the young pothead who believed that his water heater was giving off dangerous rays.

But, cranks or not, I was paid to be nice to them and to listen patiently to whatever they had to say, and try to reassure them that San Francisco was not harboring alligators swarms or hidden lumps of green Kryptonite.

“Isn't it possible you made a mistake?” I said. “Maybe it's your own breathing you can hear.”

The old man shrugged a little, as if to say that was possible, yes, but not really likely.

“Maybe you have a downdraft in your chimney,” I suggested. “Sometimes the air comes down an old stack and finds its way through cracks in the bricks where the fireplaces are blocked up.”

He shook his head.

“Well,” I asked him, “if it's not your own breathing, and it's not a draft in your chimney, could you tell me what
think it may be?”

He coughed and took out a clean but frayed handkerchief to dab his mouth.

“I think it's breathing,” he said. “I think there's some kind of animal trapped in the walls.”

“Do you hear scratching? Feet pattering? That kind of thing?”

He shook his head again.

“Just breathing?”

He nodded.

I waited to hear if he had anything else to say, but he obviously didn't. I stood up and walked across to my window, which overlooked the apartment block next door. On warm days, you'd occasionally see off-duty air hostesses sunning themselves on the roof-garden, in bikinis that made me consider that flying United had to be the best way. But all that was on show today was an aged Mexican gardener, repotting geraniums.

“If you
have an animal trapped between your walls, it could only survive for so long without food and water. And if it wasn't trapped, you'd hear it running around,” I said.

Seymour Wallis, engineer, stared at his hat. I was beginning to realize that he wasn't a crank, in fact, he was rather a plain, practical man, and that coming down here to the sanitation department with stories of disembodied breathing must have taken quite a lot of careful consideration. He didn't want to look a fool. But then, who does?

He said, quietly but firmly, “It sounds like an animal breathing. I know it's hard to credit, but I've heard it for three months now, almost the whole time I've lived there, and it's quite unmistakable.”

I turned back from the window. “Are there any odors? Any unpleasant deposits? I mean, you're not finding animal excrement in your cupboard or anything like that?”

, that's all. Like a German shepherd on a hot day. Pant, pant, pant, all night long, and sometimes in the daytime as well.”

I returned to my desk and sat myself back in my chair. Seymour Wallis looked at me expectantly, as if I could pull some kind of magical solution out of my bottom left drawer; but the truth was that I was authorized to exterminate rats, cockroaches, termites, wasps, lice, fleas, and bedbugs, but so far my authority didn't extend to breathing.

“Mr. Wallis,” I said, as kindly as I could, “are you sure you've come to the right department?”

He coughed. “Do you have any

As a matter of fact, I was beginning to wonder if a psychistrist might be a good idea, but it's kind of hard to tell a nice old gentleman straight out that he might be going cuckoo. In any case, supposing there

I looked across at the contemporary red-and-green print on the opposite side of the room. There was a time, before our offices were redecorated, when all I had on the wall was a tatty poster warning against handling food with unwashed hands, but these days the sanitation department was far more tasteful. There had even been talk about calling us “environmental maintenance executives.”

“If there's no dirt, and there are no visible signs of what's causing the breathing, then I don't quite see why you're worried. It's probably just some unusual phenomenon caused by the way your house is built,” I told him.

Seymour Wallis listened to this with a look on his face that meant,
you're a bureaucrat, you have to say all these reassuring things, but I don't believe a word of it
. When I'd finished, he sat back in the plastic chair and nodded for a while in reflective silence.

“If there's anything else you need,” I said. “If you want your roaches wiped out or your rats rounded up … well, you're very welcome.”

He gave me a hard, unimpressed glance.

“I'll tell you the truth,” he said hoarsely. “The truth is that I'm frightened. There's something about that breathing that scares the pants off me. I've only come here because I didn't know where else to turn. My doctor says my hearing is fine. My plumber says my drainpipes are A-Okay. My builder says my house is sound and my psychiatrist says there are no imminent signs of senility. All that reassurance, and I can still hear it and I'm still frightened.”

“Mr. Wallis,” I told him, “there's nothing I can do. Breathing just isn't my bag.”

“You could come listen.”

“To breathing?”

“Well, you don't have to.”

I spread my hands sympathetically. “It's not that I don't
to. It's just that I have more pressing matters of city sanitation to deal with. We have a backed-up sewer on Folsom, and the folks around there are naturally more interested in their own breathing than anyone else's. I'm sorry, Mr. Wallis, there's nothing I can do to help you.”

BOOK: Charnel House
10.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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