By Dean Koontz
This book is dedicated to Willo and Dave Roberts
And to Carol and Don McQuinn who have no faults –
Except that they live too far away from us
A dirge for her, the doubly dead, in that she died so young.
– Edgar Allan Poe. “Lenore”
And much of Madness, and more of Sin, And Horror the soul of the plot.
– Edgar Allan Poe, “The Conqueror Worm”
Extreme terror gives us back the gestures of our childhood.
LAURA was in the cellar, doing some spring cleaning and hating every minute of it. She didn’t dislike the work itself; she was by nature an industrious girl who was happiest when she had chores to do. But she was afraid of the cellar.
For one thing, the place was gloomy. The four narrow windows, set high in the walls, were hardly larger than embrasures, and the dust-filmed panes of glass permitted only weak, chalky light to enter. Even brightened by a pair of lamps, the big room held on tenaciously to its shadows, unwilling to be completely disrobed. The flickering amber light from the lamps revealed damp stone walls and a hulking, coal-fired furnace that was cold and unused on this fine, warm May afternoon. On a series of long shelves, row upon row of quart jars reflected splinters of light, but their contents – home-canned fruit and vegetables that had been stored here for the past nine months – remained unilluminated. The corners of the morn were all dark, and the low, open-beamed ceiling was hung with shadows like long banners of funeral crepe.
The cellar always had a mildly unpleasant odor, too. It was musty, rather like a limestone cave. In the spring and summer, when the humidity was high, a mottled gray-green fungus sometimes sprang up in the corners, a disgusting scablike growth, fringed with hundreds of tiny white spores that resembled insect eggs; that grotesquery
added its own thin but nonetheless displeasing fragrance to the cellar air.
However, neither the gloom nor the offending odors nor the fungus gave rise to Laura’s fears; it was the spiders that frightened her. Spiders ruled the cellar. Some of them were small, brown, and quick; others were charcoal gray, a bit bigger than the brown ones, but just as fast-moving as their smaller cousins. There were even a few blue-black giants as large as Laura’s thumb.
As she wiped dust and a few cobwebs from the jars of home-canned food, always alert for the scuttling movement of spiders, Laura grew increasingly angry with her mother. Mama could have let her clean some of the upstairs rooms instead of the cellar Aunt Rachael or Mama herself could have cleaned down here because neither of them worried about spiders. But Mama knew that Laura was afraid of the cellar, and Mama was in the mood to punish her. It was a terrible mood, black as thunderclouds. Laura had seen it before. Too often. It descended over Mama more frequently with every passing year, and when she was in its thrall, she was a different person from the smiling, always singing woman that she was at other times. Although Laura loved her mother, she did not love the short-tempered, mean-spirited woman that her mother sometimes became. She did not love the hateful woman who had sent her down into the cellar with the spiders.
Dusting the jars of peaches, pears, tomatoes, beets, beans, and pickled squash, nervously awaiting the inevitable appearance of a spider, wishing she were grown up and married and on her own, Laura was startled by a sudden, sharp sound that pierced the dank basement air.