THE LIGHT OVER WHALER’S WATCH

JOE BUCKLER

November 17th, 190x

It has been only a few hours since I was dispatched, traveling by stagecoach south along the coast. The roads are quiet and overgrown, the first dustings of snow a grim reminder of my impending isolation from the civilized world, as if every dark cloud that is seen looming over the Atlantic is a threat upon my well-being. We are but two days out from our destination—a half-abandoned village by the name of Ashburn—but for every hour we move closer to winter, there is a dreadful foreboding that lies heavier upon my heart.

My driver is unimpressed, a grizzled seafaring type who, through age or antiquity, has traded his sea legs for those of wood and iron that are the coach’s wheels. He claims that these flurries are of no concern and that his bones would be the first to know if the weather was readying to turn. I am unconvinced.

“Going on to Whaler’s Watch, I reckon,” the driver said once Boston had disappeared from sight.

“The lighthouse, yes? You know it?”

“Ay, I know it. I’ve manned many a vessel that sailed from Ashburn’s docks, be it bark or schooner—fine or otherwise. This was back when the lighthouse was still shining, mind you, when the whales ran so thick you could near walk a path to Africa.”

“A local. You must have heard something of the trouble up there, then?”

“Ay, if’n trouble is what you want to call that devilry. I tried to tell your employer, though you sitting where you are is proof that he didn’t mind me. I’ll tell you what I told him all the same; it’s a fool’s errand you’re on. There ain’t nothing left up there for a God-fearing man except maybe death—or worse.”

Of course, this kind of talk wasn’t new to me. I had read the reports from Ashburn and was aware of the madness that had gripped the townsfolk—talk of ghostly lights, curses, and other nonsense.

“And for men of science?” I asked him. “Are they susceptible to such fates?”

“Ay,” the driver grunted, spitting onto the road, “them too. The Watch don’t pay no mind. I’ll take you as far as Ashburn, as I’ve been paid to, but you’ll go the rest of the way on foot if you’re still determined.”

“I have an appointment with the caretaker,” I said, as if this explained away the warning

This proved to be the last of our conversation for the time being, as well as the first of many hard glances in my direction. Admittedly, I do not keep the company of such men back home, nor would I have a reason to, so I fear my inexperience may have led me to offend his sensibilities—the commoner is such a superstitious breed of Man. But all is fine, there is only a day and a half of hard travel ahead if I hope to arrive in Ashburn by tomorrow’s last light, and I have this diary for company if the need for intelligent conversation overtakes me. That is, of course, assuming the weather doesn’t turn, regardless of what the man’s bones have to say about it.

November 18th, 190x

I am not a credulous man, nor do I believe in hexes or evil omens, but, under the current circumstances, I will admit to curious timing. We are behind schedule, to say the least, and, to my surprise, it was not the weather that proved to be our biggest obstacle, but the state of this long-abandoned road. Having not seen traffic in many years, the driving conditions have grown poor, the way now stippled with mud holes that would bog us down or trip up our horses, and gaping, water-filled crevices that often give way and threaten to swallow the lot of us whole.

Near nightfall, it was the latter of the two that we nearly succumbed to. The driver managed to avoid total tragedy by a narrow margin, but still fractured our front axle in the process. For fear that riding any further would only succeed in breaking the thing entirely, stranding us in this empty landscape, it was decided that it should be properly mended before we dared move another inch, an undertaking that will start at first light and will set us back nearly a day’s ride. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that the thought of spending an additional night on this road in my present company has left me in a state of great impatience and agitation.

If this didn’t prove enough torture, I have been forced to listen to the superstitious ramblings of my driver as he makes camp for the night. Unsurprisingly, he is wholly convinced that this accident is much more than proof of his professional ineptitude, but a sign of some sinister puppet master pulling at strings out of sight, as if the fate of our coach is of such importance that an entire road would need to be destroyed over the span of decades for a warning to be laid out for us.

It’s nonsense, of course, but even the horses seem to be picking up on his hesitation, shying and whinnying at every snapping branch or rustling leaf, even refusing the driver’s hand—quite violently—as he went to put them up for the night. The driver, to little surprise, has taken this as further proof of our doomed enterprise.

“Horses are perceptive creatures,” he told me after he managed to get back control over them. “They know where the road leads, and what waits at the end of it. If only Man had as much sense as beast.”

“Perhaps they only fear that you will lame them in the same way that you have lamed our coach,” I replied, no longer concerned with masking my frustration.

He remained silent for a long moment, leaving me to believe that I might have overstepped. I thought to myself that if he were to come at me with those oversized, work-worn hands, then the only chance I would have would be to lee. Otherwise, I would likely never be found again―buried somewhere beneath an unmarked tree. But to where would I run? And for how long? I could, in detail, explain how a mercury-arc rectifier can more effectively convert alternating current to direct current, but I could not find my way by the stars, or survive a night alone in these forests.

“Won’t be an easy thing fixin’ that,” was all he said, though, gesturing toward the coach with some large, iron tool, “not even in the light of morning. So, unless you plan on walking the rest of the way to Ashburn, I suggest you leave me to ponder it. We wouldn’t want any more accidents.”

Needless to say, I was happy to accommodate him.

November 19th, 190x

I have arrived in Ashburn in one piece, even despite the supposed machinations of fate and an escort who would have liked to see me left dead in a ditch alongside the road. The day is cold and grey, and already this dreary place has seemed to suck the life out of me. I’ve been left to wait in a modest lodging with little more to keep me warm than a small stove and thoughts of home. There is a man who holds the deed to the lighthouse, as well as the keys necessary for its inspection, and he is meant to be here shortly, or so I was told by the less-than-courteous proprietor of this flophouse. With this man’s permission, I hope to be done with my survey before the day is out, and on the road first thing in the morning—with a new escort, if I have any luck at all.

It is safe to say that the feeling of relief at our separation was likely mutual, the driver having jumped from his seat the moment the coach came to a stop and then disappeared into one of the many run-down shacks that line the water’s edge, ghosts of an era when Ashburn’s harbor was one of the most fruitful in all of New England. Today, it has more the look of a graveyard, the smell of salt and death thick in the air, shiftless locals lurking in doorways and alleys like suspicious, stray cats. The sooner I leave this place, the better it will be for all, I have no doubt.

Ah, here comes my man now.

November 19th, 190x continued

My God, I am in shambles! Trembling like autumn’s last leaf! Even here, returned to my lodgings, I feel no comfort—no relief! I may never know safety again, not now, not after what I have seen with my own eyes, heard with my own ears—felt upon my very flesh! Yes, it is true, this man of science has seen beyond the veil and it has shaken him to his very core. If only I could flee this wretched place this very moment, escaping into the forest like a thief in the night, but no, I am stranded until morning’s first light. It cannot come soon enough!

There is a sound, still; I can just hear it—a distant calling that travels through the night, penetrating the crashing waves to land here at my doorstep. It comes from Whaler’s Watch—that cursed obelisk that sits between worlds as comfortably as I sit upon this very chair! It cries out to me, I have no doubt, and as long as I am near enough to hear it, my life shall never be my own. I know now what I must do, though I can barely hold my pen—I must draw courage and record this horrid tale, if not for myself, then for the next man foolish enough to follow in my footsteps.

Maybe these words, once committed to paper, will serve a purpose far greater than I could ever hope to accomplish alone:

The custodian of the Whaler’s Watch lighthouse—a man by the name of Mayfield—arrived at my door with keys in hand. He was modestly built, not quite reaching my shoulder, with a slight hunch and a regrettable speech impediment that made his words roll around in his mouth long before they managed to escape. Though rather queer, he proved gracious enough, wasting no time on useless pleasantries before we set out. He seemed as eager as I was to resolve the matter of the inspection as quickly and painlessly as possible.

With my new acquaintance in the lead, we made our way through the muddy streets of Ashburn and onto a trail at the forest’s edge, not far from where my exasperated driver had let me off. Although I knew it to be close, it wasn’t until a mile into our journey that I spied the lighthouse for the first time, its grey, tapered crown peeking out from the treetops—a ring of squalling seabirds circling high above. Despite being long abandoned, it seemed as if it were well-maintained, no doubt thanks to the faithful attention of the strange fellow who accompanied me.

“It’s quite marvelous,” I added, hoping to gain the favor of my new guide. “Well-preserved, considering.”

“Ay,” he said, eyes locked firmly to the object of his care as it came fully into view. “She’s seen much, and still she stands.”

“The villagers don’t seem to appreciate the fact.”

“The villagers have long feared that which they do not understand.”

“And what do you make of the stories?” I asked. “The haunting?”

“Very little,” he replied.

The lighthouse stood at the edge of a sheer cliff, the immense, open ocean stretched out before it, mingling with a rolling, grey fog. Adjacent to the towering structure, nestled in the treeline, sat a humble cabin that had served as the keeper’s housing back when the lighthouse was still in operation. It had since fallen into disrepair but was clearly still inhabited, judging by the thin trail of smoke that poured from the chimney.

“My word, man,” I said. “Are you living here?”

“Ay,” he replied. “Going on twenty years now.”

“Of course, the people I represent will need to be notified of this.”

The man merely shrugged, opening the door and leading me inside to a wooden table, on which lay the necessary paperwork.

“Well, everything looks in order,” I remarked, after studying the documents, “but I’ll need to finish my inspection before signing. While the company is confident in this property, certain assurances need to be made as to the ease in which it can be upgraded to accommodate electricity.”

“As you say,” he responded, escorting me back out into the yard and handing over the keys. “Take your time, she’s not going anywhere.”

“I dare say, isn’t it exciting to think that modern science may save this lighthouse. It is truly an extraordinary time we live in.”

“Hmm,” he grunted, spitting into the dirt. “As you say.”

Having failed in making another alliance, I decided to put politeness aside and move headfirst into my work, walking down a set of crooked steps that led from the house and ended at a solid, wooden door set deep into the lighthouse’s stonework. At its base, the true height of Whaler’s Watch towered over me, a testament, even in its antiquity, to the power that Man has long wielded over nature. I craned my head back and took it in, all one hundred and thirty-six feet of it, before turning the lock and slipping inside.

What first struck me was the cold, followed soon after by the intensity of the dark. The moment the door had closed, it was as if the outside world had been completely snuffed out, leaving me to paw blindly at my surroundings until my eyes adjusted and a candle could be located. Striking a match, I found myself in a cramped, circular room with oil crates stacked high around me. While I would have sworn to have seen small, open windows from the lawn, the walls inside were smooth and free of any blemishes, not unlike the inside of a cannon.

I soon located a rusted latch above me which, once pulled, revealed a folding staircase to the area above, allowing access to the main tower. With the candle held in front of me, I climbed into it, having to hunch down into a cramped area and squeeze through before the area opened up enough that I could stand at my full height. I found myself in yet another chamber, with a small table and chair on one side and the start of a spiral staircase on the other, wrapping around the wall so tightly that I could not see above me save for its bottom twisting away.

I placed the candle on the table and got my surveyor forms in order, already loathing the idea of having to finish my work under such unsuitable circumstances. It seemed only fair to blame the hunchback who, having spent decades within that rat’s nest, should have forewarned me about the cold, or at least offered me a lamp to help guide the way. It was only as I was readying to leave and tell him so myself, that I found a kerosene lamp leaning at the head of the staircase, which struck me as curious, as I had been facing that direction upon entry, and had failed to notice it.

Nearly frozen, but somewhat encouraged by the glow of my newfound light, I began my inspection in earnest, tracing the structural foundation of the staircase and noting its dimensions. It was then that I heard the sound for the first time—a loud thumping, as if someone were knocking from the outside, which would be somewhat of a feat considering both the thickness of the stone walls as well as the height of the room I occupied. As it is my occupation, I am no stranger to the deceptive noises of an old structure, but, added to the biting cold and my general disposition from the previous two days, I still found it somewhat unnerving.

I decided to mark it as a fluke, or perhaps some poor creature trapped within the stairs, but the knocking did continue—even intensified. What started out as the occasional bang, soon turned into a kind of rhythm, like the beating of tribal drums, lasting several seconds before it would quiet and then start up again in the same order.

“What the devil is that?” I said out loud, taking the first step of the spiral staircase and peering up and around the curve. “Hello? Mayfield?”

The knocking suddenly ceased, though no one returned my call. I leaned over from my place at the head of the stairs, peered uselessly into the darkness, and called out again. There was nothing for a long, breathless moment, until a resounding thump answered, as if the very lighthouse itself had shuddered, and I found myself falling backward into the chair, knocking over the small table and sending my papers to the floor.

“My word!” I exclaimed, flustered, dropping to my knees to retrieve my work.

It was then, stopped dead on the floor, that the first hint of panic began to creep into me. I waited, almost eagerly, for the source of my fright to present itself at the bottom of those long, dark stairs. I could almost feel it, step by step, as it made its way down, just out of sight. But there was nothing, only silence, and, in that calm, it was easier to blame my nerves for getting the better of me. Surely, there was some other, rational explanation for what I had heard—what I had felt.

I would be lying if I said that the stories from the village weren’t racing through my mind in that moment; rumors of a light in the tower that no flame could match, and the shadows that danced within it, unfathomable shapes that twisted and turned into the late hours of the night. Had they spoken of a sound? Of a—vibration? It was difficult to say, sitting there on the floor, surrounded by the lantern’s glow, what had been said and what had been heard. They were only tales, after all, stories told to children to keep them away from the lighthouse and the treacherous cliff it sat upon.

“Mayfield?” I called again, for no reason I could explain, knowing deep down that I was alone in that tower and that there was not a man who could hear me. Still I called. “This is your game then? What is it, afraid to lose your home? I am no backwoods villager, I will not be so easily dissuaded by a few parlor tricks. I will leave this lighthouse gutted, stripped, and brought screaming into the new century if I have to, you deformed rogue, you damned—”

I was interrupted by a sensation unlike anything I had ever felt, as if the air itself had crystallized, penetrating my lungs and gripping my body while the room spun around me, turning like the inside of a giant rock tumbler. I hung there for a moment, feet off the ground, eyes wide as the table and chair fell away beneath me—and then I was falling with them, rolling headfirst along the cold stone wall and landing hard. I looked up, sore and bewildered, and saw it; the hatch from which I had emerged into the room was now looking down upon me—the very floor from which I had stood was now the ceiling!

I know how this must sound. How, up until this moment, the circumstances of my story could be explained away by any rational mind. How the things I claim now are just not possible, not by science or God or anything that lies in between, but this is how it was. It was as real as this pen that I hold in my hand or the very paper that I write upon. Even now, remembering that moment, I can hardly believe what I have seen, but it is true, every word of it. And even that is not where this story ends! Brace yourself!

In a panic, I could think of nothing else to do but to escape, to reach up for the hatch, as if aligning myself with that small piece of earthly comfort would somehow right the world and break the illusion. I could just reach it, stretching as best I could, my fingers grazing the metal lock that held it firm, but before I could throw the bolt, it began to shake violently, straining at the hinges as if some great weight was pushing down upon it. I pulled away, falling back against the door, and watched helplessly as the hatch burst open and a thick, black fog began to flow from it like water, filling the room in an instant.

I am not ashamed to say that I ran, as any man would have done, scientist or not, in my position. The stairs were my only option, inverted though they were, so down them I went, more frightened of what I had seen enter that room than what might await me down in the dark. And dark it was—pitch black—the kind of darkness that would make a moonless night feel like a summer’s day. Still I descended, as fast as I could, one step after another, the booming of my footsteps echoing off the stone walls until it formed a kind of chaotic melody.

Further and further I went, the biting cold of the fog nipping at my heels. The seconds turned to minutes and the minutes felt like hours. In my terror, time became another thing entirely, and I could not tell you how long I fled, or how far, or at what point I first heard a voice rising up from beneath me, calling out. I paused, forgetting myself in the moment, thinking that I heard—no, it could not have been! But I had stopped for too long and the fog was upon me, gripping with my flesh and freezing the very blood in my veins.

I staggered and fell, colliding hard with the stairs and tumbling downward, catching myself only as the staircase finally ended and I landed face-first, sprawled out across a hard, unforgiving floor. Reluctantly, I opened my eyes, and what I saw beneath me I cannot explain, I can barely write—it was the night sky! Or rather a night sky. Stars by the billions swarmed below, as if on the other side of thick glass! Planets! Galaxies! Whole solar systems birthed before me, swarming and undulating and feeding from each other in an infinite, incestuous loop! And, behind it all, set deep within the chaos, an enormous, black sun waited—watching.

A hatch lay not far from me, stuck impossibly among the stars. I crawled toward it as if my very life depended on it. I thrust my weight against it, again and again, praying for the first time since I was a child that I could breach it in time, that I could escape this corrupt place before the black sun took notice and turned its eyeless gaze to me! The hinges groaned, the wood bowed, and finally, the lock gave and the hatch burst open, sending me falling into the aether—down, down, down until there was only darkness.

There it is, every word of it true, and, luck have it, just enough to take me into the dawn. I cannot tell you much more, other than I awoke on the lawn outside Whaler’s Watch bathed in the cool light of the setting sun. I lay there for some time, feeling the grass, watching the lighthouse until long after its shadow had fallen over me. At its top, a pale light flickered to life and soon died away.

“Reckon you heed me now, eh?” came a familiar voice.

Of all the people in the world, it was the carriage driver who appeared above me, grabbing me by the wrists and pulling me to my feet.

“How?” I asked, still in shock, frantically searching for the right words.

“I decided I couldn’t leave ya,” he told me, “forewarned or not, so I come on up. First thing I heard off the trail was you hollering away, and you were mad as a March hare when I pulled you out—going on about lights in the dark. But you passed out the moment your head hit the dirt.”

“And the hunchback?” I asked. “Mayfield?”

“Run off, it seems. Sly bastard saw me coming and fell straight back into the woods—naked as the day he was born, he was. I went in after him, been searching, but no one knows these woods like he does.”

He nodded toward the tree line and spit on the ground.

“The lighthouse,” I started.

“Ay,” he said. “Right devilry, like I said. Time you get back to your room. I’ll be by in the morning to take you back to Boston, but you tell your employers I want three times what I got for bringing ya.”

“Anything,” I said, “but we must leave at once—this cannot wait until the morning.”

“Ay, it’ll have to,” he said. “I have business here. Something should have been done a long time ago.”

Despite my protests, he would not budge on the subject, and all I could do was return here to log my story and wait him out. A task that is now complete. I have no doubt that anyone who dares read this account will consider me a madman, but there is little I can do but offer up the truth, as incredible as it may seem. Even now, as morning’s first light breaks over Ashburn, I can feel that black sun watching me, waiting from across the void. If I look now, toward the east, I think I can almost see it lurking above the treetops, but it is only a column of thick smoke filling the sky—no doubt a result of the driver and his unfinished business.