The Wintrose Chronicles I: The Desecration of Wintrose Abbey
Herein lies the prologue to my Gothic novelette inspired by a classic Twilight Zone episode. It's tempting to leave it up to you to figure out which one, if it's not immediately obvious to you, but it's even more tempting to come out with it. "The Howling Man" was one of Charles Beaumont's best stories for The Twilight Zone, and I always thought it would be fun to spend more time in the strange European world he created, as a spectator. Well, the world of Brother Wintrose and his associates isn't exactly the world of "The Howling Man," but respects are paid. Enjoy.
He had seen a terrible thing some nights previous, and after jotting down a handful of words, he realized he’d not be freed of the image. But he put it down in ink nonetheless. He’d hoped to cleanse his mind of the sight, hoped writing about it would be a substitute for talking with someone, because that was no longer a possibility. He hadn’t even spoken to himself since it happened, for fear of breaking the silence that ruled every crack and crevice in the decaying edifice. The quiet was unsettling at first, but he’d grown accustomed to it. He could no longer imagine what it would be like to shatter the stillness with a scream, or even a whisper. It would only remind him he was the last living inhabitant of Wintrose Abbey.
He hadn’t always been such a fearful man. Seclusion had altered him. Seclusion and the thing he’d witnessed. Although it haunted his waking thoughts, as well as his dreams, to stare it down and describe it in words was a test of his abilities. He had become not only fearful but superstitious—the worst kind of cowardice. He began to worry that by calling attention to what he’d seen, he risked inviting a similar fate upon myself.
Seeing the man sway in the moonlight, like a cattail in a spring breeze, had been a break in his monotonous existence. It was the lone monk he’d yearned to make contact with since arriving at the abbey, and the sight of him was a kind of glory to his tired old eyes at first, though it soon became obvious that something wasn’t right. Still, the parched mind sometimes puts aside skepticism when faced with an oasis. Here was the man with whom he might finally discuss literature and philosophy. With whom he might joke and laugh, argue and reminisce. He wasn’t eager to question such potential happiness. Here he was with the courage at last to confront the holy man, who for once wasn’t slipping out of sight before he could reach him.
As he neared, however, it became clear the monk was in no condition to converse. His legs had been anchored to the earth with heavy iron contraptions that appeared to be screwed into his calves and shins at about a dozen different points. All around him, driven deep into the ground, was a circle of spikes angled in at him. If his body collapsed in any direction, he would meet the long, sharp points and jerk himself away. This is why the ascetic swayed so preternaturally in the windless cloister.
When our wanderer came around to greet the unlucky soul and offer what help he could, he found that the face had been peeled away, the tongue removed. But the eyes had life enough to see. The holy man’s arms reached out, though the movement only caused him to fall backward onto a cluster of spikes, and to shoot forward once again. Had there ever been a thing as weary in the eyes as this man was? It was those eyes as much as anything that had forced Wintrose Abbey’s newest visitor to slumber during the day. Sleep was an absolute impossibility in the incalculably dark mountain nights that enveloped him for twelve of every twenty-four hours.
He sensed it was only a matter of time before he’d be discovered by whoever had done this unholy work. He had no guess as to who it would be, or what the villain had had against the poor man in the cloister. Out of pity, he’d opened the man’s throat himself and put an end to his suffering, and that, too, haunted him. He prayed for the courage to end his own life before being found, but it wasn’t likely. He was too much of a coward for that. But he would welcome death, in whatever form it adopted, if it brought an end to the images that refused to leave his brain and threatened to drive him mad.
His written account of the event didn’t amount to much, but he sealed the document and hid it, hoping it might prove useful to some future soul—if nothing else, as evidence against whatever monster roamed those lonesome woods with blood on its mind.