Read The Altar Online

Authors: James Arthur Anderson

Tags: #ramsey campbell, #Horror, #dean koontz, #dark fantasy stephen king

The Altar

BOOK: The Altar
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BORGO PRESS BOOKS BY JAMES ARTHUR ANDERSON

The Altar: A Novel of Horror

The Illustrated Ray Bradbury

Out of the Shadows: A Structuralist Approach to Understanding the Fiction of H. P. Lovecraft

COPYRIGHT INFORMATION

Copyright © 2012 by James Arthur Anderson

Published by Wildside Press LLC

www.wildsidebooks.com

DEDICATION

For Lynn Llorye

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Prologue

PART ONE:  PARADISE LOST

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

PART TWO:  PURGATORY

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

PART THREE:  INFERNO

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Epilogue

About the Author

PROLOGUE

JULY, 2002

Bill Johnson let out the decelerator pedal, lowered the blade and rammed the dozer forward through the tangled grove of blackberry bushes and ragweed. The treads squealed in protest as the big blade crushed forward to gather its load of foliage and blackish earth. Johnson puffed contentedly on a Phillips cigar, a leftover from his daughter Marsha’s wedding last weekend. The hot sun scorched his tanned arms, raising up beads of sweat on his forearms as he wrestled with the steering levers to keep his caterpillared beast moving ahead in a straight line.

It was funny, he thought, inhaling the cigar deeply and tasting its fragrance, how this open field of bushes and vines appeared out of nowhere in the middle of acres of thick oaks. It had come as a welcome relief to the construction crew who had spent the past seven weeks cutting and mulching the trees and uprooting the stubborn oak stumps.

Bill guessed that a house probably stood here once, long ago from the looks of it—maybe back as far as Roger Williams’ time for all he knew. The dozer would uncover it, though, or at least what was left of its stone foundation. The dozer would uncover it all and by next summer a road would cut the forest in two. Brand new homes and maybe even a shopping plaza would crop up almost overnight, like maggots on a piece of meat. Who knows, he thought. Maybe it would even be a mall someday. He chuckled at the thought—the Chepachet Mall. The mall would be larger than the town. But why not? Once the road was finished, anything was possible. It would only be a half an hour to Route 95, and from there you could get to anywhere in the state in less than an hour.

He took another puff of his cigar, tilted his yellow hard hat over his graying forehead to stop the glare of the sun, then shifted the dozer into reverse for another run. He smiled as he felt the power of the dozer beneath him. To his friends and his family, he was just a small, quiet guy who liked to do paint-by-numbers and drink a beer or two while watching the Boston Red Sox game on TV. But Monday through Friday, eight in the morning until four-thirty in the afternoon, he was ten feet tall riding high on the seat of his twelve-ton black-and-yellow bulldozer. He could do anything.

Intoxicated by the smell of diesel fuel and exhaust fumes, he dropped the blade down again and edged the machine forward, bringing order and civilization to this tract of wasteland in western Rhode Island. It was weird how this, one of America’s most densely-populated states (at least that’s what they’d taught him at Aldrich Junior High School) still had so much open space that you could lose anything in it. He was thinking about that—and how for all that anybody knew Jimmy Hoffa might be buried right here in this field—when the dozer blade shuddered as it hit something hard. The tractor ground to a halt, the treads going round and round in the earth without moving the machine forward. He frowned as he thought of a turtle flipped over on its back.

“What the hell?”

The cigar popped out of his mouth and fell into the dirt, still only half smoked.

He backed the dozer up, then edged forward again, more carefully this time. He tried to peer into the furrowed earth in front of him as the blade jammed again.

“No old foundation’s gonna stop this baby!” He bragged to no one in particular as he charged the dozer forward.

Still, it wouldn’t budge.

“Shit!” he said as he put the machine in neutral and climbed down from his perch. Cursing fluently, he walked around the front of the blade to examine the problem. “Must be one hell of a boulder.”

He scrambled around the front of the blade and over the wall of dirt he had plowed forward. He looked at the pile of heaped earth and examined the ground carefully, digging into the soft dirt with calloused hands.

It was a rock, all right. But it didn’t seem that big. In fact, it stood straight up, like a tall tombstone with only the top edge poking through the dirt. The dozer should have knocked it over easily. As he felt around the edge of the stone, he realized that the thing was polished smooth. And despite the heat, it was cold, almost icy to the touch.

“I’ll be dipped in shit,” he said, yanking his hand away. It felt as if he had touched something from another world. If it hadn’t been so cold, he would have thought he’d touched the very gates of hell. But everyone knew hell was hotter than...well, hotter than hell.

Hot, cold, or whatever, he had hit something very strange. It was a gravestone, he realized. It had to be. And this open place was—or at least once had been—a graveyard. It all made sense now, this clearing in the middle of the woods. A sudden draft chilled his bones. Though he was a practical man who made fun of ghosts and spooks and vampires, he hissed a final curse and turned back towards the bulldozer. The historical people would want to see this, he rationalized as he climbed up on the tread. Meanwhile, his gut feeling told him to just beat it the hell out of this place, beat it out of here before....

Without warning, the dozer’s tread leaped to life, crawling backward through the mulch with a sudden life of its own. Johnson gasped once and swore in defiance before the tread pulled him down, down, and under....

He felt his legs go first—intense, flaming pain shot through his entire being as the bones broke and twisted like green tree limbs. Then coldness flooded him where the joint had been. A sticky fluid covered him from the waist down. Vaguely, he wondered if it were blood, then he knew it was much worse.

The sun blinded him as he tried to roll over and crawl. Then he saw a shadow moving forward, impossibly forward, as the blade lowed and aimed directly for him....

He heard a laugh that wasn’t his own. In the few seconds he had left he remembered his fallen cigar and, with regret, wished he’d been able to finish it.

PART ONE: PARADISE LOST

JULY, 2003

The glory of the One Who moves all things

Penetrates all the universe, reflecting

In one part more and in another part less.

—Dante

When night darkens the streets, then wander forth the sons

of Belial, flown with insolence and wine.

—John Milton

CHAPTER ONE

-1-

“That’s the last of them,” Erik Hunter said, dropping a cardboard box full of paperback books on the floor.

“Does that mean we’re all moved in, Daddy”

Erik smiled easily at his ten-year-old son, then took a slow, deliberate look around the room—around his room. It didn’t look like much now. The walls were bare, waiting for painting, wallpaper, and pictures. Boxes of books cluttered the floor. The furniture was all against one wall, waiting to be arranged. But in just a couple of days it would be his special place.

Finally, he had a place of his own, a house of his own and his own work space. He and Vickie had already designed the space—he’d call it the “Thoreau Suite” and would design it with a Walden Pond look reminiscent of his favorite author. Vickie had already created the Thoreau collage, which would cover one wall, and the rest would follow—authentic 1840’s antiques, pictures of Walden Pond, and other interesting artifacts. He looked toward the large double window that dominated one wall with a perfect view of the green oak forest that stretched for miles in his backyard, broken only by the small brook that cut the tree line like a knife. Yes, old Henry David would have approved.

It certainly was a far cry from the tiny apartment they’d rented in Providence, and a long way from the gangs, drugs, and violence that plagued any city. Built to his exact specifications, this was his dream house, a perfect place to work and raise a family.

Just then Vickie walked up behind him and slipped her arm around his waist.

“Yeah, Todd, I guess we’re all moved in,” he replied to his son while holding his wife close.

She brushed a stray lock of brown hair from his face and kissed him gently on the lips. Erik stepped back and was once again astonished at her soft, unassuming beauty which was now blossoming with eight and a half months of pregnancy. He loved the sweet but sexy look of her green eyes and the color of her rosy cheeks, framed by the most gorgeous red hair. She reminded him so much of the redhead from the
X Files
he had lusted after for years before he’d met Vickie. Only, this redhead could quote any of the sixteenth-century poets by heart, if she wished. The fact that she wasn’t pretentious about her learning made her even more attractive to him.

“Ok, hot shot,” she teased, pushing a stray lock of hair from her own face. “Now that we’re moved in, how about unpacking all of this stuff?”

“Unpacking? I thought that was your job.”

“Fat chance,” she said, patting her oversized belly.

“I would just love to unpack,” he said. “But I can’t work on an empty stomach.”

“Oh, so I suppose you want a seven course meal?”

“Complete with three kinds of wine.”

Todd, accustomed to his parents playful teasing, grinned at his Dad.

“That’s going to be tough since the refrigerator’s empty and everything in the kitchen is packed into boxes. Would you settle for Domino’s pizza?”

“Pizza!” Todd squealed. “Yeah! With pepperoni.”

“Domino’s Pizza? Way out here?”

“There’s one right up the road at the plaza? And they deliver.”

“Oh boy!” Todd said, jumping up and down.

“So much for living out in the country,” Erik said. Even the real Walden Pond now had a McDonald’s nearby.

“I already called it in and I can’t eat it all by myself. They’ll be here any minute.”

“Goodie,” Todd said, smacking his lips. “I’ll go downstairs and wait for the pizza guy to come.”

Once his son had gone, Erik turned toward his wife and pulled her close.

“Alone at last,” he breathed in her ear.

She giggled like a teenager and kissed him fully on the lips.

“You haven’t changed one bit.”

He furrowed his brows and cocked his head to one side to look at her.

“What do you mean by that?”

“I mean that you’re still crazy.”

“You didn’t expect me to change, did you?” he replied, admiring the way her eyes seemed to dilate when she looked at him. That always caused a shiver of joy to run up his spine.

She caught his look and lowered her eyes as her cheeks flushed.

“Erik...I’m so proud of you. Of all this.”

She hugged him close.

“I’m glad,” he said. “But don’t expect miracles. Once they start filming there’s no telling what they’ll do to my story. The movie might not look anything like the book.”

“I know that. But it’s not just the film. The money’s sure nice,” she added quickly. “But that’s not what I mean, either.”

He put his hand under her chin and turned her face up so he could look into her eyes again. She met his eyes for a long, lingering moment. Then she turned serious.

“I don’t really care about the money. I just want you to be happy. And writing makes you happy, whether you make money or not. I’m just so happy that you can do what you want now and not have to worry about the money. And I’ll be able to stay home and take care of the baby.”

“Well,
The Star Warrior
isn’t exactly Pulitzer Prize material.”

“Maybe not. But it was fun. And it’ll be a fun movie.”

Erik laughed. He’d spent years working on his graduate degree in English and working any menial job he could find while writing “serious” fiction that no publisher would accept. He’d been a steelworker, a book store clerk, a janitor, a private detective, and even a phlebotomist (he still remembered how they’d call him a vampire whenever he told a patient he was there to take blood). The best he’d done was to sell a short story to a tiny university press in Manitoba, Canada that paid him the kingly sum of two dollars and two contributor’s copies. He’d taught public school and Vickie had taught part-time at the Community College, trying to make ends meet.

Then in a whirlwind three months he’d written a hack space opera that was published and was now about to be turned into a feature length film that was expected to gross millions. It didn’t make any sense.

He shrugged. “I guess it was fun,” he said. “At least some people liked it. But the important thing is that I now have the time and money—and space—to work on the kind of book I really want to write. And mostly the time to spend with you and Todd, and soon with Christine, too, when she’s born.”

Although Vickie admired his self-confidence, Erik knew his serious works were not good enough to be published. When he compared himself to “real” writers like Irving and Updike, he fell far short. His first book had made him plenty of money—but it was merely hack work and he knew it. But now he’d have the time and energy to write and not have to worry about publishing. More importantly, he’d be there for his family, and be able to take care of them.

“Mom!” Todd yelled from downstairs. “The pizza guy’s here.”

“Be right there,” Vickie called back.

Arm in arm, like newlyweds, they walked down the stairs and into the kitchen.

-2-

Later, after they’d finished eating, Erik began unpacking the boxes in the living room while Vickie cleaned up the mess. Todd, ever watchful, wanted to help his father out.

“Here, put this empty box over by the door,” Erik told him.

As Todd moved the box against the wall, a black cat slipped soundlessly into the room and jumped into it.

“Faith!” Todd squealed. “Where have you been hiding?”

“She’s probably getting used to the new house,” Erik said as his son stroked the cat’s soft fur.

“Dad, I think she’s hungry”

“I’d better unpack the cat food,” Vickie said from the kitchen. She’d finished with the clean-up and was now unpacking kitchen things.

The doorbell interrupted their work. Vickie walked into the living room as Erik went towards the door.

“That could be Pastor Mark,” she said. “He’s supposed to stop by.”

At first glance, Erik thought the man standing in the doorway was black. Then he recognized the dark features of a Narragansett Indian, whose ancestors occupied Rhode Island before the first white man set foot on the New England shore. Part of Erik’s back yard, in fact, abutted Narragansett tribal land.

The stranger’s wrinkled, leathery skin betrayed a long and weary life of hard work, as did his coarse, paint-stained Wrangler jeans. His eyes, deep and shiny as obsidian, met Erik’s gaze boldly, while his calloused hands clenched a small package wrapped in brown paper.

“Can I help you?” Erik asked.

“Evenin’. My name’s Johnny. Johnny Dovecrest. I live just over the brook. I guess that makes us neighbors.”

Erik quickly noted that the brook was a good half mile away where it crossed the road. Although new houses and even a small strip mall had recently been built to the south, the reservation occupied land to the north, which made Dovecrest his nearest neighbor in that direction.

“Please come in.”

Todd scampered to join his mother, who was drying her hands with a dishtowel.

“My name’s Erik Hunter,” he said, extending his hand. Dovecrest shook it with deceiving strength for what looked to be a frail old man. “And this is my wife Vickie and my son Todd.”

The Indian nodded politely to them both.

“Nice to meet you,” Vickie said.

“Pleasure,” Dovecrest replied. “I’d like to welcome you to Cheponaug.”

“Cheponaug?” Erik asked.

“That’s what my ancestors called this place. The name isn’t used anymore.”

“How interesting,” Vickie said. “Thank you very much for the welcome.”

Erik felt a chill run down his spine as he looked at the stranger. He exchanged glances with his son and noticed that something about the man bothered Todd, too, as the boy stayed unusually close to Vickie.

“I’ve brought you a small gift, a token of welcome,” he said, holding out a small package.

“Thank you,” Erik said.

“It is our custom,” Dovecrest said in a voice that left no room for argument. “Please accept it.”

Erik self-consciously untied the simple white string and unwrapped the brown paper. Inside the package he found a string of broken quahog shells polished to a fine luster and set in a necklace.

“How beautiful!” Vickie said, stepping forward to admire the trinket. The shells contained intricate polished patterns of blue, violet, and white. Then she took it from Erik and held it up to her neck.

“You don’t wear it,” Dovecrest explained. “You hang it over your door for protection. It will keep your home free from evil.”

Erik frowned and caught his wife’s gaze. She obviously thought the old man had been smoking too many peace pipes. He took the trinket back from her.

“Would you like some coffee?” Vickie asked, nervously.

“No. No thank you. I must be going. But please, hang the talisman over your door, the door facing the forest. It will keep away evil spirits.”

Then he turned and was gone before Erik could even say goodbye.

-3-

About an hour after Dovecrest had left, Pastor Mark Brian of the Chepachet Baptist Church paid a visit. Erik and Vicki had met Pastor Mark about a year earlier when he’d filled in for their regular pastor, who was on vacation. Having a good church in the neighborhood was just one more benefit of moving to the country, and Erik felt that it was a lucky coincidence that they’d now be attending Pastor Mark’s church.

“We’re so very happy to have you in the neighborhood,” the pastor said.

“We’re very happy to be here,” Erik replied. “This sure is different from the city. You’re the second member of the welcoming committee so far.”

Mark laughed. “Things are much more personal in the country. I suspect your neighbors will be dropping by, one by one.”

“Yeah,” Erik said. “Johnny Dovecrest stopped by just a short time ago. Do you know him?”

“Old Dovecrest,” Mark said. “Yes. Everyone knows him. Quite the character, that one. There are more rumors about him than you can shake a stick at.”

“What kind of rumors?” Vickie asked.

“Mostly pretty harmless. It seems like he’s lived here forever and never gets older.”

“You’ve got to be kidding. The guy is ancient.”

“That’s what my father said, too. He’s been ancient since I was a boy, and even the old-timers never remember him being young.”

“He gave us this thing to ward away evil spirits,” Vickie said, holding up the talisman. “It...kind of scared us. He said to put it near the back door, by the woods.”

Pastor Mark looked at the object for a moment.

“This is just an old Indian superstition. You don’t need this.”

“Are the woods safe?” Vickie asked.

“Well, I wouldn’t exactly say that. Those woods go on for miles. Part of the land is on the Narragansett reservation, and part of it is state land that’s been put aside and not used. You could easily get lost out there if you didn’t know your way around. I wouldn’t go wandering around out there if I were you.”

“So it
is
dangerous?” Vickie insisted.

“Yes and no. Like I said, you could get lost out there. You wouldn’t want your boy wandering off there by himself. He could get lost very easily. There aren’t any bears or lions or anything, but there is the occasional fox and lots of raccoons. A few years back a moose even wandered in from Maine and had to be tranquilized and brought back when it fell into someone’s swimming pool. But you could get hurt there, just the same. It’s never a good idea to go into the woods alone anyway, especially city folk like you.

“Dovecrest tries to scare people away because he doesn’t want people in the woods—and, honestly, you don’t belong on the reservation anyway. He tells people the place is possessed by evil spirits, and talks about the dogs and cats that disappear there. Most of that’s just for show—even the Indians don’t worship evil spirits anymore. They have their own church. These woods are just a large stretch of oak forest. No more and no less.”

Vickie laughed. “I know it’s silly, but the Indian scared me a little.”

Mark laughed. “There are all kind of rumors in New England. Someone’s pet runs off and gets lost in the woods and the next thing you know the place is overrun with vampires. These woods aren’t any more evil than any other place on this earth.”

“Lord knows, I’ve seen enough evil in the city,” Erik said, but he could tell that all of this talk made Vickie nervous.

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