Turn Out the Light
This story appears in She Walks in Shadows. Purchase the anthology today.
A re-imagining of the life and death of Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft.
“The operation was a success,” the voice said. “Everything was done to ensure her comfort. Then, during the night, her condition deteriorated. I’m sorry, but early this morning, she died.” The telephone line buzzed and clicked mechanically.
He stood, wrapped in his dressing gown, bare feet on the cold linoleum of the rooming house hall. It was late in the May of 1921.
He had been roused by the ringing of the telephone from lucid and horrible dreams. The dreams were forgotten on waking, but the nightmare aura still clung. He could not take the news in. He became convinced that there was no human on the other end of the line. This was an alien voice, something that only pretended to be human, that stole a human face to speak and human hands to feel. Prodigious surgical, biological, chemical, and mechanical skill ….
“Everything that could be done was done. My condolences. You’ll want to see her, of course.”
The voice stopped.
“No, not at all.”
The negation shot out before he could think.
“No.” He shrank back, appalled.
He had never ventured inside the building, not even when she was alive.
“Last night,” he blurted out, “the lights were left on? All the time, as per our instructions?”
“Everything was done to ensure her comfort,” the voice mechanically repeated.
“Of course. Yes. My Aunt Lillian will make the arrangements,” he said.
Afterwards, he went back upstairs to his small room on the first floor. The news sank in at last. His hands shook. They had argued when they last met. He had been angry with her and she had wept. A harsh mechanical voice buzzed in his head. The distance they had struggled with all their lives was now made infinite by death. He took an old, brown and creased paper from his pocket. He hesitated. He examined the childish scrawls. Then he crumpled it and threw it in the bin.
He sat at his desk. He drew pen and paper towards him, and wrote. He wrote as tears blotted paper and blurred ink. He wrote with sudden and desperate furious intensity. He wrote as if words, mere inconsequential scribbles, could bridge the abyss between life and death.
“Supper!” Sarah squinted out the front door. “Come in, son.”
It was a bright, hot day, Summer 1910. The rooming house on Angell Street was far from the green shade of College Hill. The glare outside threatened to bring on one of her headaches.
She glanced at herself in the hall mirror, but was aghast at her reflection. She saw an ageing face with a wan prettiness that was fading fast. Her clothes were dowdy. Her hair was merely neat. Her hands, though, were still long and white. They, at least, were still beautiful. “If only I could have run a little business,” she said to her reflection, “I could have supported us.” A shiver ran down her spine at her own daring. She leant closer. “An interior decoration business,” she breathed. She was an accomplished painter, with an artist’s eye. She could turn any house into a stylish nest. The shiver became a frisson. She retreated in fright from herself.
Her crowning rage, however, was that she was not a man ….
She should have been born a boy. A man’s brain was figured differently. If she were a man, she could have taken charge of her inheritance instead of being sidelined by her sister Lillian. As it was, the money vanished when her father died, like a malignant conjuring trick. It was no use wishing. Lillian would never let her work for a living. She was more frightened of Lillian than dying.
She hesitated at the threshold, shading her eyes against the harsh light outside. A slow throb built behind her temples. What was the boy doing? He had such terrible nightmares when he overexerted himself. She had taken him out of school as study took its toll on his delicate health. If he had gone far in this heat, he would be sleepless for weeks.
Anger had bubbled in her ever since her father died and it was decided that only the sale of the house could give them anything on which to live. Now the knot of anger in her belly twisted tight, as though the boy’s absence were a purposeful insult. There was a straight line drawn between the boy and the grandfather, which gave distance and death equal weight. They had always had an understanding she could not fathom. In her traveling salesman husband’s absence — philanderer, snob, spineless, whore — her father had spoiled his grandson, told him stories, given the boy the black cat, then given it such a vulgar name.
She had never liked that cat. The one blessing out of all that loss was that the rooming house would not let them keep it. She arranged for it to be drowned, although she told her son it ran off.
She had married beneath her and got what she deserved. Her husband was absent to the end, locked away in Butler Hospital with that disgusting disease that she could not name, not even to herself and never to the boy. No, the son was told his father suffered from nervous exhaustion. The traveling salesman reaped the dirt he had sowed. He died a helpless paralytic, his brain tunnelled through and through by disease, as if by worms, the bones of his face crumbling and melting away.
She bit her lips down hard over the scream, shoved it down hard, but it bobbed right up with redoubled force. It threatened to burst from her skin. “Your supper’s getting cold!” she called.
She took a few steps outside. Her son might have gone up to the observatory. The astronomers had made a pet of him. She was so proud. Why, he studied the stars. He told her he was going to be an astronomer when he grew up. He wrote charts and scrawled calculations that made her head ache with their strange patterns. She carefully preserved even the ones he abandoned and crumpled up.
She squinted up and down the street. Some children, walking home from school, looked at her and laughed. The mocking sound swung and skittered in the summer heat. It echoed in her hurting head. A cold chill squeezed her heart.
He hadn’t gone back? Not after she had forbidden him. The thought, the fear, was enough. She snatched up her hat and headed out, turning right. By the time she had walked the length of Angell Street to her father’s house, she was limp, but her fists clenched. She didn’t clench them. The muscular spasm was brought on by something outside herself. She watched as her fine, white fingers gnarled and turned ugly, all of themselves. The knuckles showed red and taut and prominent. She dragged her eyes away. Her head pounded.
This spacious house, raised on a high green terrace, looks down upon grounds which are almost a park, with winding walks, arbours, trees, & a delightful fountain.
The boy was camped out on the front steps of the house, under the shade of the trees. Just as she had feared. He had a paper in his hand and was copying from it onto the front steps with chalk, great circles and scrawls, dark head bent over his work, too intent to hear her approach.
She pounced, snatching up paper and chalk. The paper had circles and diagrams and calculations in her son’s neat hand. Strange meaning oozed from the signs. She crumpled the paper up and thrust it into her pocket. Her head pounded, and dark things crawled and snatched at the edges of her vision. “What have you done?” she whispered, appalled.
His white face looked up at her, the bony length of adulthood already breaking through the childish roundness; deep-set eyes, dark-ringed with lack of sleep, gazed, solemn and intent.
“I returned for the cat,” he said, with his peculiar, particular confidence. “I dreamed he came back and was waiting for me on the steps of our residence.”
“This is not our house,” she said softly, because to speak loudly would jar her head. “We can”t just do what we like here. You have made a dreadful mess. Oh, I’m ashamed.”
“It is Gramps’ abode,” he asserted.
“Do not use the word, ‘Gramps.’ It is common. Call him Grandfather,” she said. She reached out a hand to lift him. He evaded her grasp and ran up to the top of the steps. “Come down at once,” she snapped.
He turned to face the street. He filled his lungs.
“Niggerman!” he bawled.
A colored man was walking below. He snapped around as the boy called. His face was a mask, shadowed under the hat’s brim, concealing his true feelings.
Her son’s vulgarity gave her the impetus to climb the stairs. She dragged him back down.
“No gentleman would use that word,” she hissed. “You just apologize.” She looked up, but the man was gone.
“That was the cat’s name,” she said, too late, to empty air.
“He didn’t mean —”
“Gramps gave the cat that name,” the boy said, unabashed.
“Your grandfather was not a gentleman. He made his own fortune and was never able to shake off his youthful habit of vulgar speech. I expect better from you,” she snapped.
She hauled her son away, walking too fast for him in this breathless heat.
“But Gramps will require his habitation when he returns,” the boy protested.
“Your Grandfather is not coming back. He has passed away. He is with the Lord.”
He gazed at her pityingly. “The idea of a benevolent all-knowing deity is but a pathetic illusion of the rabblement.”
He had taken to using archaic words he read in his grandfather’s 1828 Webster’s Dictionary. It was part of a long game he played at being an 18th-century gentleman. She normally took pride in his game, but now, she was filled with fury at his pedantic speech. She took a fresh grasp on the small, sweating hand and hurried.
That was when she realized she was muttering to herself, fists clenched, eyes staring and mouth square and wide. People took one look at her and crossed the street. She forced herself to calm down. Colors of strange shape and brightness blotched her vision. She forced herself to let go of her son’s hand.
She slowed her step, glanced down at her son, and smiled, willing to pretend there was nothing wrong. Unfortunately, he took her gesture as encouragement.
“Are you recomposed, Mother?” he inquired politely. “Remember I used to climb in the old tree above the family plot in the cemetery? I watched Gramps’ grave. I know Gramps is destitute of life. He is decomposed. That is a jest. He is eaten by worms. They have burrowed into his brain. It is riddled through and through with worms. I watched Father’s grave, too, pretending he was still alive and would try to claw his way out. But he never did. He’s dead, too, I expect. And the cat,” he finished.
Shock swelled in her throat. “I told you that cat ran off. Even a dumb brute had more sense than to stay with poor folk like us.”
“He drowned,” the boy said. “Poor old fellow. He is deceased.”
“Where did you hear that?” Had Lillian told him? Had she talked in her sleep?
“I saw it in my dream,” he said. “But I will bring them both back. With that paper you took. I saw the straight lines between the stars. I worked the calculations. If they follow the lines, they will come back, Gramps and the cat. They will undergo a rejuvenescence.”
She knelt and took his shoulders. “You stop this nonsense,” she said frightened.
“It is not nonsense. It is a real word. It means they will become young again,” the boy said, mistaking the source of her concern.
Now, the first odd thing about Joseph Curwen was that he did not seem to grow much older ….
She put her hand to his forehead. His father had babbled like this before they took him away, babbled in Butler Hospital for years as his brain and face rotted from within, not that she’d ever let the boy visit him.
His brow was hot to the touch and damp. His eyes were too bright, feverish, and sweat shone on his face. “There, look what you’ve done. You’ve brought on one of your nervous fits,” she said.
He couldn’t eat any supper. She put him in his truck bed in the tiny bedroom they shared. His hair was damp and his face shone. His too-bright eyes, unsleeping, bored into the roof overhead. She sat down beside him and watched him, bathing his forehead.
Something crinkled in her dress. It was the crumpled piece of paper with his calculations on it, the circles and scrawls meant to call back his grandfather and his precious cat. She almost threw it away, but instead, she smoothed it out carefully and stored it with the others in the drawer beside her bed.
As she straightened, a lance shot through her head. She clutched her temple and muffled the cry of pain. She sat, quickly. She looked down at her hands, sick and dizzy. Her hands swirled in and out of her sight. She screamed.
“Mother!” the boy called, sitting up.
“Never mind; just sleep,” she managed.
Her hands were not the hands of a lady. They were clawed and knotted and red. She shoved both monstrous paws under the pillow, then collapsed.
They lay, each in their own beds across from one another as the night lengthened. The way they screamed at each other from behind their locked doors was very terrible. A tomb herd rolled across the floor, first one way then the other, and bony hands reached up to claw at each restless dreamer.
It was early Spring in 1919. He had been visiting his grandfather’s grave in Swan Hill Cemetery, although he had grown too old, and too unsure of his dignity, to attempt to again climb the tree above the family plot. He had grown tall and gaunt, and his legs seemed always too long for the modest chambers in which he and his mother lived. The rooms had grown smaller and meaner. His poor health had prevented him from finishing school and the dream of being an astronomer had crumbled to dust. He fancied the dust was gray and brittle, the dust of lost dreams; the essential Saltes of humane Dust. He was only at ease when he was moving. He took great walks out over the New England countryside, visiting cemeteries and ancient places.
He had grown pale and somber, with deep-set eyes, a long face, and a square chin: a tombstone face, he joked with his relations. His mother was proud that he looked like the portraits of his New England ancestors.
“None of your father there,” she said, with satisfaction.
He was heading home from Swan Point along Blackstone Boulevard when the black car swept past in the opposite direction. He knew the car. Aunt Lillian’s doctor. He recognized the profile in the back seat. It was his mother. He could imagine her drawing on her shabby gloves and checking her hat, delighted at this reminder of their old affluence. But why was she travelling down Blackstone Boulevard? There was only one possible destination …. He shouted “Mother!” as the car turned the corner onto Butler Drive.
“No!” he shouted. He ran after her. The gates of Butler Hospital come into view. The car swept through.
“There has been a mistake!” he shouted.
His mother had been staying with Aunt Lillian for a few days. That was all. Her poor health had got the better of her. Aunt Lillian had taken over her care.
His mother had fits, spikes of terror in which she insisted the lights must be left on or They would get in. She’d had a fit during a blackout several nights ago. He was writing when the blackout occurred, so he was able to look at his fob watch, his gentlemanly affectation, and note the time precisely: 2:12 am. He often stayed up all night working on his poetry. It saved bad dreams — the night terrors had never given up. His mother woke screaming for the light and the police were called by a neighbor who was sure they were all being murdered.
“They come out of corners, of course,” she told him when she calmed down. “I am sure you could calculate the angles yourself from the straight lines between the stars. But they only come out when it is dark. I am perfectly safe as long as the lights remain on. Oh, you understand. Can’t you explain to these kind gentleman?”
It was dawn by the time he had soothed her, dismissed the curious neighbors, and reassured the disgruntled police. His night of writing was ruined. He remembered, with a bleak wash of guilt, that he had been glad to hand her over to Aunt Lillian.
He arrived at the gates. They were wrought iron and very grand. Overhead was printed in iron: Butler Hospital for the Insane. The car stopped at the end of the long, white, gravel drive, before the stone steps that led to the wide, glass doors. His mother got out, courteously assisted by the doctor. There had certainly been a mistake. But it was all right. He was here. He could save her.
He tried to leave the gate behind, to go inside the grounds. His feet refused to move.
Butler Hospital was a beautiful red-brick building. Its mellow curves glowed amber and the windows flashed in the weak sunlight. The trees were budding new leaves. A plaque read, For those bereft by God’s providence of their reason.
“She is not mad!” he shouted.
He could not stir. He watched as his mother was helped inside by two white-clad nurses. He could not follow. He clung to the cold stone of the gateposts to prevent falling. He could not take one step inside.
He had a horror of the place since he was a child, since he had overheard the whispers in darkness. Behind the scientific ranks of windows that let the sunshine in, he saw his father lying paralyzed and aware, with worms crawling through his brain.
He rang Aunt Lillian as soon as he reached home. She told him his mother had another fit of terror, at 3:00 am, this time. Aunt Lillian had decided it would be best for Sarah to have a good rest. Thanks to their family name, she was able to secure a room in Butler Hospital for a fortnight.
“But what about the lights? They must be kept on,” he protested.
His aunt’s voice was crisp and decided, yet she evaded a direct answer. He knew she thought he was only humoring his mother.
“She needs a rest and good care,” she reassured him. “Now let me go, dear. I am packing to come over and look after you.”
He could never argue with Aunt Lillian. He carefully put down the receiver.
They walked in the grounds of Butler Hospital on that May morning, 1921, along meandering paths through green lawns. It was too cold, but, as always, he refused to go in. He had to shorten his long stride and stoop over her, and she had to hurry to keep up with him. They looked as if they were locked in an awkward dance.
His eyes were dark hollows. The night terrors never dimmed.
She had been in Butler Hospital two years.
“I am very concerned about this operation,” she said to her son.
“You will be free from all pain once your gall bladder is removed. You will receive the best care,” he replied.
“What about the lights?” she asked.
“The surgeon requires bright lights,” he reassured her.
“But afterwards, when I am still under the influence of the anaesthetic. I won’t be able to wake up. What if the nurses leave me alone in the dark? They will get in. I do wish you would sit with me afterwards,” she appealed.
“You know I cannot,” he said.
“Only for a little while,” she coaxed.
“Mother, you know I cannot go inside,” he snapped. “I’m sorry,” he said at once. “I do apologize for my abruptness. I do not mean to be unkind. But there is no need for you to be concerned.”
“But I am concerned,” she persisted. “The nurses say the lights are left on always when I am sure they turn them off as soon as I am asleep.”
She watched as embarrassment, tinged with disgust, flooded his stiff face. She had seen this look so often of late. It had been an insidious creep, almost unnoticeable at first, this flight from people’s confidence, as loved faces became strangers. She had decided that they were wearing wax masks of familiar features, even though the person behind the mask had changed.
“Have you ever woken in the dark?” he asked.
“The nurses watch me through the spy hole in my door,” she explained. “As soon as they see me stir, they whisk in and turn the lights on, then out again quicker than I can see.”
“Mother! The nurses are wonderful here.”
“Only you can understand,” she pleaded.
She was lost in the dark. The only guide she had was the straight line drawn between the boy and his grandfather, the secret understanding between them that she had never fathomed, that they had celebrated in stories and games and such ungentlemanly nicknames. From all that, she had been excluded. If only she had been a man ….
They arrived back at the entrance to the hospital, the stone stairs to the wide, glass doors.
“Goodbye, Mother,” he said, stiff and embarrassed.
She climbed the steps, then stopped at the door. Her reflection in the glass showed an ugly old woman, ashamed and outraged at her own mortality. She reached out her hand and touched the cool, unyielding surface.
Hot anger, as sharp as ever, pierced through her. She hurried down the steps to face her son. She held out the crumpled paper she had hoarded so long. It was brown with age, and had been folded and refolded so often that the creases were torn.
“If I should die, please mark the symbols on the front steps here as you did for your grandfather — and the cat. I know it is nonsense. Just do this for me, please. I would like to think that I could follow the straight line between the stars and come back.”
He took the paper, smoothed it between careful fingers.
“Mother, don’t tell me you brooded over this all these years? It is a bagatelle of infant fancy.” He laughed ruefully. “I have got the calculations all wrong, anyway. I was an impenitent yahoo, wasn’t I?”
He raised his eyes from the paper at last, awkwardly.
“Mother, you know I will always be here for you,” he said, gently.
“You say that but you aren’t,” she said, bitterly.
She could not repress the anger. She could not hide her weakness. Hot angry tears spurted down her cheeks.
“I will see you tomorrow morning. After the operation.” He turned away.
“Howard!” she shrieked.
He flinched, but he did not turn.
She watched his straight back and his long stride as he left her alone.
She looked up to see two nurses had responded to her scream. One stood at the top of the steps. The other came several steps down to meet her and held out a gloved hand, as if to help.
She raised her hands to wipe away the tears. To her horror, they were not the hands of a lady. They were clawed and knotted and red. She glanced with sick shock at the nurse’s faces. They had waited only for her son to leave. They had swapped themselves. The shapes behind their white wax masks were all wrong.
She knew that as soon as she was unconscious and alone, they would turn out the light.
Penelope Love is an Australian who has written extensively for the tabletop role-playing game Call of Cthulhu, including contributing scenarios to the award-winning Horror on the Orient Express campaign. Her Cthulhu Mythos short stories have been published in Cthulhu’s Dark Cults, Madness on the Orient Express, and Tales of Cthulhu Invictus. Her work also appears in the award-winning anthologies, One Small Step and Belong. Her story “A Small Bad Thing” was first published in Bloodstones and reprinted in The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2013.