PseudoPod 725: The Lonesome Place
- Author : August Derleth
- Narrator : Andrew Leman
- Host : Alex Hofelich
- Audio Producer : Marty Perrett
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“The Lonesome Place” was first published in Famous Fantastic Mysteries (February 1948) and collected in Lonesome Places (1962).
Submitted for the Approval of the Midnight Pals: https://gumroad.com/l/UEPhVThe Lonesome Place by August Derleth
You who sit in your houses of nights, you who sit in the theatres, you who are gay at dances and parties—all you who are enclosed by four walls—you have no conception of what goes on outside in the dark. In the lonesome places. And there are so many of them, all over—in the country, in the small towns, in the cities. If you were out in the evenings, in the night, you would know about them, you would pass them and wonder, perhaps, and if you were a small boy you might be frightened . . . frightened the way Johnny Newell and I were frightened, the way thousands of small boys from one end of the country to the other are being frightened when they have to go out alone at night, past lonesome places, dark and lightless, sombre and haunted. . . .
I want you to understand that if it had not been for the lonesome place at the grain elevator, the place with the big old trees and the sheds up close to the sidewalk, and the piles of lumber—if it had not been for that place Johnny Newell and I would never have been guilty of murder. I say it even if there is nothing the law can do about it. They cannot touch us, but it is true, and I know, and Johnny knows, but we never talk about it, we never say anything; it is just something we keep here, behind our eyes, deep in our thoughts where it is a fact which is lost among thousands of others, but no less there, something we know beyond cavil.
It goes back a long way. But as time goes, perhaps it is not long. We were young, we were little boys in a small town. Johnny lived three houses away and across the street from me, and both of us lived in the block west of the grain elevator. We were never afraid to go past the lonesome place together. But we were not often together. Sometimes one of us had to go that way alone, sometimes the other. I went that way most of the time—there was no other, except to go far around, because that was the straight way down town, and I had to walk there, when my father was too tired to go.
In the evenings it would happen like this. My mother would discover that she had no sugar or salt or bologna, and she would say, “Steve, you go down town and get it. Your father’s too tired.”
I would say, “I don’t wanna.”
She would say, “You go.”
I would say, “I can go in the morning before school.”
She would say, “You go now. I don’t want to hear another word out of you. Here’s the money.”
And I would have to go.
Going down was never quite so bad, because most of the time there was still some afterglow in the west, and a kind of pale light lay there, a luminousness, like part of the day lingering there, and all around town you could hear the kids hollering in the last hour they had to play, and you felt somehow not alone, you could go down into that dark place under the trees and you would never think of being lonesome. But when you came back—that was different. When you came back the afterglow was gone; if the stars were out, you could never see them for the trees; and though the streetlights were on—the old fashioned lights arched over the cross-roads—not a ray of them penetrated the lonesome place near the elevator. There it was, half a block long, black as black could be, dark as the deepest night, with the shadows of the trees making it a solid place of darkness, with the faint glow of light where a streetlight pooled at the end of the street, far away it seemed, and that other glow behind, where the other corner light lay.
And when you came that way you walked slower and slower. Behind you lay the brightly-lit stores; all along the way there had been houses, with lights in the windows and music playing and voices of people sitting to talk on their porches—but up there, ahead of you, there was the lonesome place, with no house nearby, and up beyond it the tall, dark grain elevator, gaunt and forbidding, the lonesome place of trees and sheds and lumber, in which anything might be lurking, anything at all, the lonesome place where you were sure that something haunted the darkness waiting for the moment and the hour and the night when you came through to burst forth from its secret place and leap upon you, tearing you and rending you and doing unmentionable things before it had done with you.
That was the lonesome place. By day it was oak and maple trees over a hundred years old, low enough so that you could almost touch the big spreading limbs; it was sheds and lumber piles which were seldom disturbed; it was a sidewalk and long grass, never mowed or kept down until late fall, when somebody burned it off; it was a shady place in the hot summer days where some cool air always lingered. You were never afraid of it by day, but by night it was a different place; for then it was lonesome, away from sight or sound, a place of darkness and strangeness, a place of terror for little boys haunted by a thousand fears.
And every night, coming home from town, it happened like this. I would walk slower and slower, the closer I got to the lonesome place. I would think of every way around it. I would keep hoping somebody would come along, so that I could walk with him, Mr. Newell, maybe, or old Mrs. Potter, who lived farther up the street, or Reverend Bislor, who lived at the end of the block beyond the grain elevator. But nobody ever came. At this hour it was too soon after supper for them to go out, or, already out, too soon for them to return. So I walked slower and slower, until I got to the edge of the lonesome place—and then I ran as fast as I could, sometimes with my eyes closed.
Oh, I knew what was there, all right. I knew there was something in that dark, lonesome place. Perhaps it was the bogey-man. Sometimes my grandmother spoke of him, of how he waited in dark places for bad boys and girls. Perhaps it was an ogre. I knew about ogres in the books of fairy tales. Perhaps it was something else, something worse. I ran. I ran hard. Every blade of grass, every leaf, every twig that touched me was its hand reaching for me. The sound of my footsteps slapping the sidewalk were its steps pursuing. The hard breathing which was my own became its breathing in its frenetic struggle to reach me, to rend and tear me, to imbue my soul with terror.
I would burst out of that place like a flurry of wind, fly past the gaunt elevator, and not pause until I was safe in the yellow glow of the familiar streetlight. And then, in a few steps, I was home.
And mother would say, “For the Lord’s sake, have you been running on a hot night like this?”
I would say, “I hurried.”
“You didn’t have to hurry that much. I don’t need it till breakfast time.”
And I would say, “I could-a got it in the morning. I could-a run down before breakfast. Next time, that’s what I’m gonna do.”
Nobody would pay any attention.
Some nights Johnny had to go down town, too. Things then weren’t the way they are today, when every woman makes a ritual of afternoon shopping and seldom forgets anything; in those days, they didn’t go down town so often, and when they did, they had such lists they usually forgot something. And after Johnny and I had been through the lonesome place on the same night, we compared notes next day.
“Did you see anything?” he would ask.
“No, but I heard it,” I would say.
“I felt it,” he would whisper tensely. “It’s got big, flat clawed feet. You know what’s the ugliest feet around?”
“Sure, one of those stinking yellow softshell turtles.”
“It’s got feet like that. Oh, ugly, and soft, and sharp claws! I saw one out of the corner of my eye,” he would say.
“Did you see its face?” I would ask.
“It ain’t got no face. Cross my heart an’ hope to die, there ain’t no face. That’s worse’n if there was one.”
Oh, it was a horrible beast—not an animal, not a man—that lurked in the lonesome place and came forth predatorily at night, waiting there for us to pass. It grew like this, out of our mutual experiences. We discovered that it had scales, and a great long tail, like a dragon. It breathed from somewhere, hot as fire, but it had no face and no mouth in it, just a horrible opening in its throat. It was as big as an elephant, but it did not look like anything so friendly. It belonged there in the lonesome place; it would never go away; that was its home, and it had to wait for its food to come to it—the unwary boys and girls who had to pass through the lonesome place at night.
How I tried to keep from going near the lonesome place after dark!
“Why can’t Mady go?” I would ask.
“Mady’s too little,” mother would answer.
“I’m not so big.”
“Oh, shush! You’re a big boy now. You’re going to be seven years old. Just think of it.”
“I don’t think seven is old,” I would say. I didn’t, either. Seven wasn’t nearly old enough to stand up against what was in the lonesome place.
“Your Sears-Roebuck pants are long ones,” she would say.
“I don’t care about any old Sears-Roebuck pants. I don’t wanna go.”
“I want you to go. You never get up early enough in the morning.”
“But I will. I promise I will. I promise, Ma!” I would cry out.
“Tomorrow morning it will be a different story. No, you go.”
That was the way it went every time. I had to go. And Mady was the only one who guessed. “Fraidycat,” she would whisper. Even she never really knew. She never had to go through the lonesome place after dark. They kept her at home. She never knew how something could lie up in those old trees, lie right along those old limbs across the sidewalk and drop down without a sound, clawing and tearing, something without a face, with ugly clawed feet like a softshell turtle’s, with scales and a tail like a dragon, something as big as a house, all black, like the darkness in that place.
But Johnny and I knew.
“It almost got me last night,” he would say, his voice low, looking anxiously out of the woodshed where we sat as if it might hear us.
“Gee, I’m glad it didn’t,” I would say. “What was it like?”
“Big and black. Awful black. I looked around when I was running, and all of a sudden there wasn’t any light way back at the other end. Then I knew it was coming. I ran like everything to get out of there. It was almost on me when I got away. Look there!”
And he would show me a rip in his shirt where a claw had come down.
“And you?” he would ask excitedly, big-eyed. “What about you?”
“It was back behind the lumber piles when I came through,” I said. “I could just feel it waiting. I was running, but it got right up—you look, there’s a pile of lumber tipped over there.”
And we would walk down into the lonesome place in midday and look. Sure enough, there would be a pile of lumber tipped over, and we would look to where something had been lying down, the grass all pressed down. Sometimes we would find a handkerchief and wonder whether it had caught somebody; then we would go home and wait to hear if anyone was missing, speculating apprehensively all the way home whether it had got Mady or Christine or Helen, or any one of the girls in our class or Sunday School, or whether maybe it had got Miss Doyle, the young primary grades teacher who had to walk that way sometimes after supper. But no one was ever reported missing, and the mystery grew. Maybe it had got some stranger who happened to be passing by and didn’t know about the Thing that lived there in the lonesome place. We were sure it had got somebody. It scared us, bad, and after something like this I hated all the more to go down town after supper, even for candy or ice-cream.
“Some night I won’t come back, you’ll see,” I would say.
“Oh, don’t be silly,” my mother would say.
“You’ll see. You’ll see. It’ll get me next, you’ll see.”
“What’ll get you?” she would ask offhandedly.
“Whatever it is out there in the dark,” I would say.
“There’s nothing out there but the dark,” she would say.
“What about the bogey-man?” I would protest.
“They caught him,” she would say. “A long time ago. He’s locked up for good.”
But Johnny and I knew better. His parents didn’t know, either. The minute he started to complain, his dad reached for a hickory switch they kept behind the door. He had to go out fast and never mind what was in the lonesome place.
What do grown-up people know about the things boys are afraid of? Oh, hickory switches and such like, they know that. But what about what goes on in their minds when they have to come home alone at night through the lonesome places? What do they know about lonesome places where no light from the street-corner ever comes? What do they know about a place and time when a boy is very small and very alone, and the night is as big as the town, and the darkness is the whole world? When grown-ups are big, old people who cannot understand anything, no matter how plain? A boy looks up and out, but he can’t look very far when the trees bend down over and press close, when the sheds rear up along one side and the trees on the other, when the darkness lies like a cloud along the sidewalk and the arc-lights are far, far away. No wonder then that Things grow in the darkness of lonesome places that way it grew in that dark place near the grain elevator. No wonder a boy runs like the wind until his heartbeats sound like a drum and push up to suffocate him.
“You’re white as a sheet,” mother would say sometimes. “You’ve been running again.”
“Yes,” I would say. “I’ve been running.” But I never said why; I knew they wouldn’t believe me; I knew nothing I could say would convince them about the Thing that lived back there, down the block, down past the grain elevator in that dark, lonesome place.
“You don’t have to run,” my father would say. “Take it easy.”
“I ran,” I would say. But I wanted the worst way to say I had to run and to tell them why I had to; but I knew they wouldn’t believe me any more than Johnny’s parents believed him when he told them, as he did once.
He got a licking with a strap and had to go to bed.
I never got licked. I never told them.
But now it must be told, now it must be set down.
For a long time we forgot about the lonesome place. We grew older and we grew bigger. We went on through school into high school, and somehow we forgot about the Thing in the lonesome place. That place never changed. The trees grew older. Sometimes the lumber piles were bigger or smaller. Once the sheds were painted—red, like blood. Seeing them that way the first time, I remembered. Then I forgot again. We took to playing baseball and basketball and football. We began to swim in the river and to date the girls. We never talked about the Thing in the lonesome place any more, and when we went through there at night it was like something forgotten that lurked back in a corner of the mind. We thought of something we ought to remember, but never could quite remember; that was the way it seemed—like a memory locked away, far away in childhood. We never ran through that place, and sometimes it was even a good place to walk through with a girl, because she always snuggled up close and said how spooky it was there under the overhanging trees. But even then we never lingered there, not exactly lingered; we didn’t run through there, but we walked without faltering or loitering, no matter how pretty a girl she was.
The years went past, and we never thought about the lonesome place again.
We never thought how there would be other little boys going through it at night, running with fast-beating hearts, breathless with terror, anxious for the safety of the arc-light beyond the margin of the shadow which confined the dweller in that place, the light-fearing creature that haunted the dark, like so many terrors dwelling in similar lonesome places in the cities and small towns and countrysides all over the world, waiting to frighten little boys and girls, waiting to invade them with horror and unshakable fear—waiting for something more. . . .
Three nights ago little Bobby Jeffers was killed in the lonesome place. He was all mauled and torn and partly crushed, as if something big had fallen on him. Johnny, who was on the Village Board, went to look at the place, and after he had been there, he telephoned me to go, too, before other people walked there.
I went down and saw the marks, too. It was just as the coroner said, only not an “animal of some kind,” as he put it. Something with a dragging tail, with scales, with great clawed feet—and I knew it had no face.
I knew, too, that Johnny and I were guilty. We had murdered Bobby Jeffers because the thing that killed him was the thing Johnny and I had created out of our childhood fears and left in that lonesome place to wait for some scared little boy at some minute in some hour during some dark night, a little boy who, like fat Bobby Jeffers, couldn’t run as fast as Johnny and I could run.
And the worst is not that there is nothing to do, but that the lonesome place is being changed. The village is cutting down some of the trees now, removing the sheds, and putting up a streetlight in the middle of that place; it will not be dark and lonesome any longer, and the Thing that lives there will have to go somewhere else, where people are unsuspecting, to some other lonesome place in some other small town or city or countryside, where it will wait as it did here, for some frightened little boy or girl to come along, waiting in the dark and the lonesomeness . . .