Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Companion

When Stone reached the fairground, having been misdirected twice, he thought it looked more like a gigantic amusement arcade. A couple of paper cups tumbled and rattled on the shore beneath the promenade, and the cold insinuating October wind scooped the Mersey across the slabs of red rock that formed the beach, across the broken bottles and abandoned tyres. Beneath the stubby white mock turrets of the long fairground façade, shops displayed souvenirs and fish and chips. Among them, in the fairground entrances, scraps of paper whirled.

Stone almost walked away. This wasn’t his best holiday. One fairground in Wales had been closed, and this one certainly wasn’t what he’d expected. The guidebook had made it sound like a genuine fairground, sideshows you must stride among not looking in case their barkers lured you in, the sudden shock of waterfalls cascading down what looked like painted cardboard, the shots and bells and wooden concussions of target galleries, the girls’ shrieks overhead, the slippery armour and juicy crunch of toffee-apples, the illuminations springing alight against a darkening sky. But at least, he thought, he had chosen his time well. If he went in now he might have the fairground almost to himself.

As he reached an entrance, he saw his mother eating fish and chips from a paper tray. What nonsense! She would never have eaten standing up in public—“like a horse,” as she’d used to say. But he watched as she hurried out of the shop, face averted from him and the wind. Of course, it had been the way she ate, with little snatching motions of her fork and mouth. He pushed the incident to the side of his mind in the hope that it would fall away, and hurried through the entrance, into the clamour of colour and noise.

The high roof with its bare iron girders reminded him at once of a railway station, but the place was noisier still. The uproar—the echoing sirens and jets and dangerous groaning of metal—was trapped, and was deafening. It was so overwhelming that he had to remind himself he could see, even if he couldn’t hear.

But there wasn’t much to see. The machines looked faded and dusty. Cars like huge armchairs were lurching and spinning helplessly along a switchback, a canvas canopy was closing over an endless parade of seats, a great disc tasselled with seats was lifting towards the roof, dangling a lone couple over its gears. With so few people in sight it seemed almost that the machines, frustrated by inaction, were operating themselves. For a moment Stone had the impression of being shut in a dusty room where the toys, as in childhood tales, had come to life.

He shrugged vaguely and turned to leave. Perhaps he could drive to the fairground at Southport, though it was a good few miles across the Mersey. His holiday was dwindling rapidly. He wondered how they were managing at the tax office in his absence. Slower than usual, no doubt.

Then he saw the merry-go-round. It was like a toy forgotten by another child and left here, or handed down the generations. Beneath its ornate scrolled canopy the horses rode on poles towards their reflections in a ring of mirrors. The horses were white wood or wood painted white, their bodies dappled with purple, red and green, and some of their sketched faces too. On the hub, above a notice MADE IN AMSTERDAM, an organ piped to itself. Around it, Stone saw carved fish, mermen, zephyrs, a head and shoulders smoking a pipe in a frame, a landscape of hills and lake and unfurling perched hawk. “Oh yes,” Stone said.

As he clambered onto the platform he felt a hint of embarrassment, but nobody seemed to be watching. “Can you pay me?” said the head in the frame. “My boy’s gone for a minute.”

The man’s hair was the colour of the smoke from his pipe. His lips puckered on the stem and smiled. “It’s a good merry-go-round,” Stone said.

“You know about them, do you?”

“Well, a little.” The man looked disappointed, and Stone hurried on. “I know a lot of fairgrounds. They’re my holiday, you see, every year. Each year I cover a different area. I may write a book.” The idea had occasionally tempted him—but he hadn’t taken notes, and he still had ten years to retirement, for which the book had suggested itself as an activity.

“You go alone every year?”

“It has its merits. Less expensive, for one thing. Helps me save. Before I retire I mean to see Disneyland and Vienna.” He thought of the Big Wheel, Harry Lime, the earth falling away beneath. “I’ll get on,” he said.

He patted the unyielding shoulders of the horse, and remembered a childhood friend who’d had a rocking-horse in his bedroom. Stone had ridden it a few times, more and more wildly when it was nearly time to go home; his friend’s bedroom was brighter than his, and as he clung to the wooden shoulders he was clutching the friendly room too. Funny thinking of that now, he thought. Because I haven’t been on a merry-go-round for years, I suppose.

The merry-go-round stirred; the horse lifted him, let him sink. As they moved forward, slowly gathering momentum, Stone saw a crowd surging through one of the entrances and spreading through the funfair. He grimaced: it had been his fairground for a little while, they needn’t have arrived just as he was enjoying his merry-go-round.

The crowd swung away. A jangle of pinball machines sailed by. Amid the Dodgems a giant with a barrel body was spinning, flapping its limp arms, a red electric cigar thrust in its blank grin and throbbing in time with its slow thick laughter. A tinny voice read Bingo numbers, buzzing indistinctly. Perhaps it was because he hadn’t eaten for a while, saving himself for the toffee-apples, but he was growing dizzy—it felt like the whirling blurred shot of the fair in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, a fair he hadn’t liked because it was too grim. Give him Strangers on a Train, Some Came Running, The Third Man, even the fairground murder in Horrors of the Black Museum. He shook his head to try to control his pouring thoughts.

But the fair was spinning faster. The Ghost Train’s station raced by, howling and screaming. People strolling past the merry-go-round looked jerky as drawings in a thaumatrope. Here came the Ghost Train once more, and Stone glimpsed the queue beneath the beckoning green corpse. They were staring at him. No, he realised next time round, they were staring at the merry-go-round. He was just something that kept appearing as they watched. At the end of the queue, staring and poking around inside his nostrils, stood Stone’s father.

Stone gripped the horse’s neck as he began to fall. The man was already wandering away towards the Dodgems. Why was his mind so traitorous today? It wouldn’t be so bad if the comparisons it made weren’t so repulsive. Why, he’d never met a man or woman to compare with his parents. Admired people, yes, but not in the same way. Not since the two polished boxes had been lowered into holes and hidden. Noise and colour spun about him and inside him. Why wasn’t he allowing himself to think about his parents’ death? He knew why he was blocking, and that should be his salvation: at the age of ten he’d suffered death and hell every night.

He clung to the wood in the whirlpool and remembered. His father had denied him a nightlight and his mother had nodded, saying “Yes, I think it’s time.” He’d lain in bed, terrified to move in case he betrayed his presence to the darkness, mouthing “Please God don’t let it” over and over. He lay so that he could see the faint grey vertical line of the window between the curtains in the far distance, but even that light seemed to be receding. He knew that death and hell would be like this. Sometimes, as he began to blur with sleep and the room grew larger and the shapes dark against the darkness awoke, he couldn’t tell that he hadn’t already died.

He sat back as the horse slowed and he began to slip forward across its neck. What then? Eventually he’d seen through the self-perpetuating trap of religious guilt, of hell, of not daring to believe in it because then it would get you. For a while he’d been vaguely uneasy in dark places, but not sufficiently so to track down the feeling and conquer it. After a while it had dissipated, along with his parents’ overt disapproval of his atheism. Yes, he thought as his memories and the merry-go-round slowed, I was happiest then, lying in bed hearing and feeling them and the house around me. Then, when he was thirty, a telephone call had summoned him to the hole in the road, to the sight of the car like a dead black beetle protruding from the hole. There had been a moment of sheer vertiginous terror, and then it was over. His parents had gone into darkness. That was enough. It was the one almost religious observance he imposed on himself: think no more.

And there was no reason to do so now. He staggered away from the merry-go-round, towards the pinball arcade that occupied most of one side of the funfair. He remembered how, when he lay mouthing soundless pleas in bed, he would sometimes stop and think of what he’d read about dreams: that they might last for hours but in reality occupied only a split second. Was the same true of thoughts? And prayers, when you had nothing but darkness by which to tell the time? Besides defending him, his prayers were counting off the moments before dawn. Perhaps he had used up only a minute, only a second of darkness. Death and hell—what strange ideas I used to have, he thought. Especially for a ten-year-old. I wonder where they went. Away with short trousers and pimples and everything else I grew out of, of course.

Three boys of about twelve were crowded around a pinball machine. As they moved apart momentarily he saw that they were trying to start it with a coin on a piece of wire. He took a stride towards them and opened his mouth—but suppose they turned on him? If they set about him, pulled him down and kicked him, his shouts would never be heard for the uproar.

There was no sign of an attendant. Stone hurried back to the merry-go-round, where several little girls were mounting horses. “Those boys are up to no good,” he complained to the man in the frame.

“You! Yes, you! I’ve seen you before. Don’t let me see you again,” the man shouted. They dispersed, swaggering.

“Things didn’t use to be like this,” Stone said, breathing hard with relief. “I suppose your merry-go-round is all that’s left of the old fairground.”

“The old one? No, this didn’t come from there.”

“I thought the old one must have been taken over.”

“No, it’s still there, what’s left of it,” the man said. ‘‘I don’t know what you’d find there now. Through that exit is the quickest way. You’ll come to the side entrance in five minutes, if it’s still open.”

The moon had risen. It glided along the rooftops as Stone emerged from the back of the funfair and hurried along the terraced street. Its light lingered on the tips of chimneys and the peaks of roofs. Inside the houses, above slivers of earth or stone that passed for front gardens, Stone saw faces silvered by television.

At the end of the terrace, beyond a wider road, he saw an identical street paralleled by an alley. Just keep going. The moon cleared the roofs as he crossed the intersection, and left a whitish patch on his vision. He was trying to blink it away as he reached the street, and so he wasn’t certain if he glimpsed a group of boys emerging from the street he’d just left and running into the alley.

Anxiety hurried him onwards while he wondered if he should turn back. His car was on the promenade; he could reach it in five minutes. They must be the boys he had seen in the pinball arcade, out for revenge. Quite possibly they had knives or broken bottles; no doubt they knew how to use them from the television. His heels clacked in the silence. Dark exits from the alley gaped between the houses. He tried to set his feet down gently as he ran. The boys were making no sound at all, at least none that reached him. If they managed to overbalance him they could smash his bones while he struggled to rise. At his age that could be worse than dangerous. Another exit lurked between the houses, which looked threatening in their weight and impassivity. He must stay on his feet whatever happened. If the boys got hold of his arms he could only shout for help. The houses fell back as the street curved, their opposite numbers loomed closer. In front of him, beyond a wall of corrugated tin, lay the old fairground.

He halted panting, trying to quell his breath before it blotted out any sounds in the alley. Where he had hoped to find a well-lit road to the promenade, both sides of the street ended as if lopped, and the way was blocked by the wall of tin. In the middle, however, the tin had been prised back like a lid, and a jagged entrance yawned among the sharp shadows and moonlit inscriptions. The fairground was closed and deserted.

As he realised that the last exit was back beyond the curve of the street, Stone stepped through the gap in the tin. He stared down the street, which was empty but for scattered fragments of brick and glass. It occurred to him that they might not have been the same boys after all. He pulled the tin to, behind him, and looked around.

The circular booths, the long target galleries, the low roller coaster, the ark and the crazy house draped shadow over each other and merged with the dimness of the paths between. Even the merry-go-round was hooded by darkness hanging from its canopy. Such wood as he could see in the moonlight looked ragged, the paint patchy. But between the silent machines and stalls one ride was faintly illuminated: the Ghost Train.

He walked towards it. Its front was emitting a pale green glow which at first sight looked like moonlight, but which was brighter than the white tinge the moon imparted to the adjoining rides. Stone could see one car on the rails, close to the entrance to the ride. As he approached, he glimpsed from the corner of his eye a group of men, stallholders presumably, talking and gesticulating in the shadows between two stalls. So the fairground wasn’t entirely deserted. They might be about to close, but perhaps they would allow him one ride, seeing that the Ghost Train was still lit. He hoped they hadn’t seen him using the vandals’ entrance.

As he reached the ride and realised that the glow came from a coat of luminous paint, liberally applied but now rather dull and threadbare, he heard a loud clang from the tin wall. It might have been someone throwing a brick, or someone reopening the torn door; the stalls obstructed his view. He glanced quickly about for another exit, but found none. He might run into a dead end. It was best to stay where he was. He couldn’t trust the stallholders; they might live nearby, they might know the boys or even be their parents. As a child he’d once run to someone who had proved to be his attacker’s unhelpful father. He climbed into the Ghost Train car.

Nothing happened. Nobody was attending the ride. Stone strained his ears. Neither the boys, if they were there, nor the attendant seemed to be approaching. If he called out the boys would hear him. Instead, frustrated and furious, he began to kick the metal inside the nose of the car.

Immediately the car trundled forward over the lip of an incline in the track and plunged through the Ghost Train doors into darkness.

As he swung round an unseen clattering curve, surrounded by noise and the dark, Stone felt as if he had suddenly become the victim of delirium. He remembered his storm-racked childhood bed and the teeming darkness pouring into him. Why on earth had he come on this ride? He’d never liked ghost trains as a child, and as he grew up he had instinctively avoided them. He’d allowed his panic to trap him. The boys might be waiting when he emerged. Well, in that case he would appeal to whoever was operating the ride. He sat back, gripping the wooden seat beneath him with both hands, and gave himself up to the straining of metal, the abrupt swoops of the car, and the darkness.

Then, as his anxiety about the outcome of the ride diminished, another impression began to trickle back. As the car had swung around the first curve he’d glimpsed an illuminated shape, two illuminated shapes, withdrawn so swiftly that he’d had no time to glance up at them. He had the impression that they had been the faces of a man and a woman, gazing down at him. At once they had vanished into the darkness or been swept away by it. It seemed to him for some reason very important to remember their expressions.

Before he could pursue this, he saw a greyish glow ahead of him. He felt an unreasoning hope that it would be a window, which might give him an idea of the extent of the darkness. But already he could see that its shape was too irregular. A little closer and he could make it out. It was a large stuffed grey rabbit with huge glass or plastic eyes, squatting upright in an alcove with its front paws extended before it. Not a dead rabbit, of course: a toy. Beneath him the car was clattering and shaking, yet he had the odd notion that this was a deliberate effect, that in fact the car had halted and the rabbit was approaching or growing. Rubbish, he thought. It was a pretty feeble ghost, anyway. Childish. His hands pulled at splinters on the wooden seat beneath him. The rabbit rushed towards him as the track descended a slight slope. One of its eyes was loose, and whitish stuffing hung down its cheek from the hole. The rabbit was at least four feet tall. As the car almost collided with it before whipping away around a curve, the rabbit toppled towards him and the light that illuminated it went out.

Stone gasped and clutched his chest. He’d twisted round to look behind him at the darkness where he judged the rabbit to have been, until a spasm wrenched him frontward again. Light tickling drifted over his face. He shuddered, then relaxed. Of course they always had threads hanging down for cobwebs, his friends had told him that. But no wonder the fairground was deserted, if this was the best they could do. Giant toys lit up, indeed. Not only cheap but liable to give children nightmares.

The car coursed up a slight incline and down again before shaking itself in a frenzy around several curves. Trying to soften you up before the next shock, Stone thought. Not me, thank you very much. He lay back in his seat and sighed loudly with boredom. The sound hung on his ears like muffs. Why did I do that? he wondered. It’s not as if the operator can hear me. Then who can?

Having spent its energy on the curves, the car was slowing. Stone peered ahead, trying to anticipate. Obviously he was meant to relax before the car startled him with a sudden jerk. As he peered, he found his eyes were adjusting to the darkness. At least he could make out a few feet ahead, at the side of the track, a squat and bulky grey shape. He squinted as the car coasted towards it. It was a large armchair.

The car came abreast of it and halted. Stone peered at the chair. In the dim hectic flecked light, which seemed to attract and outline all the restless discs on his eyes, the chair somehow looked larger than he. Perhaps it was farther away than he’d thought. Some clothes thrown over the back of the chair looked diminished by it, but they could be a child’s clothes. If nothing else, Stone thought, it’s instructive to watch my mind working. Now let’s get on.

Then he noticed that the almost invisible light was flickering. Either that, which was possible although he couldn’t determine the source of the light, or the clothes were shifting; very gradually but nonetheless definitely, as if something hidden by them was lifting them to peer out, perhaps preparatory to emerging. Stone leaned towards the chair. Let’s see what it is, let’s get it over with. But the light was far too dim, the chair too distant. Probably he would be unable to see it even when it emerged, the way the light had been allowed to run down, unless he left the car and went closer.

He had one hand on the side of the car when he realised that if the car moved off while he was out of it he would be left to grope his way through the darkness. He slumped back, and as he did so he glimpsed a violent movement among the clothes near the seat of the chair. He glanced towards it. Before his eyes could focus, the dim grey light was extinguished.

Stone sat for a moment, all of him concentrating on the silence, the blind darkness. Then he began to kick frantically at the nose of the car. The car shook a little with his attack, but stayed where it was. By the time it decided to move forward, the pressure of his blood seemed to be turning the darkness red.

When the car nosed its way around the next curve, slowing as if sniffing the track ahead, Stone heard a muted thud and creak of wood above the noise of the wheels. It came from in front of him. The sort of thing you hear in a house at night, he thought. Soon be out now.

Without warning a face came rushing towards him out of the darkness a few feet ahead. It jerked forward as he did. Of course it would, he thought with a grimace, sinking back and watching his face sink briefly into the mirror. Now he could see that he and the car were surrounded by a faint light that extended as far as the wooden frame of the mirror. Must be the end of the ride. They can’t get any more obvious than that. Effective in its way, I suppose.

He watched himself in the mirror as the car followed the curve past. His silhouette loomed on the greyish light, which had fallen behind. Suddenly he frowned. His silhouette was moving independent of the movement of the car. It was beginning to swing out of the limits of the mirror. Then he remembered the wardrobe that had stood at the foot of his childhood bed, and realised what was happening. The mirror was set in a door, which was opening.

Stone pressed himself against the opposite side of the car, which had slowed almost to a halt. No no, he thought, it mustn’t. Don’t. He heard a grinding of gears beneath him; unmeshed metal shrieked. He threw his body forward, against the nose of the car. In the darkness to his left he heard the creak of the door and a soft thud. The car moved a little, then caught the gears and ground forward.

As the light went out behind him, Stone felt a weight fall beside him on the seat.

He cried out. Or tried to, for as he gulped in air it seemed to draw darkness into his lungs, darkness that swelled and poured into his heart and brain. There was a moment in which he knew nothing, as if he’d become darkness and silence and the memory of suffering. Then the car was rattling on, the darkness was sweeping over him and by, and the nose of the car banged open the doors and plunged out into the night.

As the car swung onto the length of track outside the Ghost Train, Stone caught sight of the gap between the stalls where he had thought he’d seen the stallholders. A welling moonlight showed him that between the stalls stood a pile of sacks, nodding and gesticulating in the wind. Then the seat beside him emerged from the shadow, and he looked down.

Next to him on the seat was a shrunken hooded figure. It wore a faded jacket and trousers striped and patched in various colours, indistinguishable in the receding moonlight. The head almost reached his shoulder. Its arms hung slack at its sides, and its feet drummed laxly on the metal beneath the seat. Shrinking away, Stone reached for the front of the car to pull himself to his feet, and the figure’s head fell back.

Stone closed his eyes. When he opened them he saw within the hood an oval of white cloth upon which—black crosses for eyes, a barred crescent for a mouth—a grinning face was stitched.

As he had suddenly realised that the car hadn’t halted nor even slowed before plunging down the incline back into the Ghost Train, Stone did not immediately notice that the figure had taken his hand.

© 1976 by Ramsey Campbell.
Originally published in Frights,
Edited by Kirby McCauley.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey CampbellThe Oxford Companion to English Literature describes Ramsey Campbell as “Britain’s most respected living horror writer.” He has been given more awards than any other writer in the field, including the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Horror Writers Association (HWA), the Grand Master Award of the World Horror Convention, and the Living Legend Award of the International Horror Guild.

Among Ramsey Campbell’s novels are The Face That Must Die, Incarnate, Midnight Sun, The Count of Eleven, Silent Children, The Darkest Part of the Woods, The Overnight, Secret Story, The Grin of the Dark, Thieving Fear, Creatures of the Pool, The Seven Days of Cain, and Ghosts Know. Forthcoming is The Kind Folk. His collections include Waking Nightmares, Alone with the Horrors, Ghosts and Grisly Things, Told by the Dead, and Just Behind You, and his non-fiction is collected as Ramsey Campbell, Probably. His novels The Nameless and Pact of the Fathers have been filmed in Spain. His regular columns appear in Prism, All Hallows, Dead Reckonings, and Video Watchdog. He is the President of the British Fantasy Society and of the Society of Fantastic Films.

Ramsey Campbell lives on Merseyside in the UK with his wife Jenny. His pleasures include classical music, good food and wine, and whatever’s in that pipe. His web site is at ramseycampbell.com.