An Uncomic Book Horror Story
by Bob Shaw

Frames 1 to 6

Ahdnah crawled from the ruined shell of the escape capsule and took his first look at the world on which he was marooned. His reaction was one of intense disappointment. A sheet of glacial ice stretched from horizon to horizon, and the only movement was that of snow being whipped into flurries by the bitter wind.

There was no life here, and therefore could be no food.

To a creature less superbly equipped for survival, the prospect would have meant certain death—but Ahdnah belonged to a talented and life-hungry species. He spent only a few seconds sorrowing over the fact that he would never again see his nest-mother, then he began to dig.

The surface was hard and unyielding, but he altered his body, redesigning it to cope with the task before him. He transferred the metallic elements in his tissues to the lower side of his slug-like form, creating knife-sharp fins which gouged through the black ice. Ahdnah quickly sank downwards into a well of his own making, and by nightfall had reached the inert soil of the planet itself. Here he discovered remains of vegetation compacted below the ice, and—reassured—continued burrowing to lower levels, far into the rock strata, where there were traces of residual heat.

When his instincts told him he had reached a safe depth he halted and again changed the shape and nature of his body, this time choosing the minimum surface area configuration his people knew as the Sphere of Rest. That done, Ahdnah reduced his metabolism to its absolute minimum, and sank into a mindless, dreamless sleep. The powdered ice in the well above him froze solid once more and was covered with drifting snow.

For a thousand years the glacier continued its march southwards, then the climate relented and the ice sheets began to retreat. They withdrew their sterile presence slowly and reluctantly, taking yet another three thousand years to uncover the entire extent of the plain under which Ahdnah lay buried. As the temperature increased the levels of the seas rose, and the shape of the land was changed. Forests spread everywhere, then were gradually destroyed by the activities of intelligent two-legged beings who arrived from more southerly regions to establish their civilization.

By that time even the tough metals of the survival capsule had surrendered to the forces of corrosion—but Ahdnah still lay in safety, far below the ground, sleeping and waiting …

Frames 7 to 17

On almost any clear night on Ridgeway Street, especially if there was a moon, an open window could be seen at the top of the highest house. People out late sometimes saw a pale blur moving in the oblong of darkness and knew they had caught Willy Lucas watching them. And Willy, his pimply and fuzz-covered face twisted with panic, would lunge back from the window, afraid of being seen.

The women who lived opposite often thought that Willy was trying to spy into their bedrooms, and had had him punished by complaining to his brother. But Willy was not interested in the tight-lipped bleak-eyed housewives of Ridgeway Street, nor in any woman outside those of his imagination. He simply enjoyed looking out across the silent town when all others had gone to sleep. It was as though they had died and left him alone, and there was nobody to shout at him or look at him with exasperation.

For this reason, on the rare occasions when he felt the need for exercise, he would usually go walking in the darkness, feeling contented and at ease in the deserted streets. At night the terraced dwellings seemed to have been drawn and filled in with India ink and the windows, like those in his comic books, glowed a uniform yellow he found pleasing.

One sharp October night, when the moonlight lay in broad frosty swathes across the rooftops, Willy was watching from his window and saw something climb out of the river, near the place where piles were being driven for a new warehouse. It was about the size of a man, but it moved with a curious leaden slowness which seemed inappropriate for someone who might have fallen into the chilly water.

Quivering with excitement, he snatched up his old mother-of-pearl opera glasses—stolen from Cooney’s junk shop on the corner—and focused on the narrow strip of water visible between the houses where Ridgeway Street ran down to the river. The man, or animal, had vanished. He could see nothing but the disturbed surface of the water, each ripple limned with prismatic colour by the damaged optical system of his glasses. Gradually the river returned to its former state of sentiment smoothness, and it was as though nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened.

Willy watched until near dawn, crouched in the freezing darkness of his little attic, then he closed the window and went to bed.

When he woke up and came down for lunch the greengrocery shop at the front of the house was crowded. His two sisters, Ada and Emily, were too busy to come back and prepare a meal for him, so Willy made sandwiches with mashed banana thickly smeared with marmalade. As he munched in silent abstraction he hardly saw the pages of the comic book he was leafing through or heard the sliding rumble of potatoes being weighed in the shop.

He was debating whether or not he should tell anybody about the strange event of the previous night. There was possibly a scandalous explanation for what he had seen—for instance, a neighbour falling into the river while going home drunk—in which case his sisters would have been interested. But, after much consideration, Willy decided not to say anything. There had been the occasion when he had seen a highly respectable old lady from the next street steal a bunch of carrots from the shop. Willy, in an upsurge of family loyalty, had reported the incident to Ada and had been admonished for telling lies. Other similar occurrences had made him wary when it came to communicating with his family.

He mooned around the house all day, going out only once, when he went to the river and wandered through the brambles and long grass half-expecting to find the body of a drowned man. He saw nothing and after a while became uneasy and went home, where his older brother, Jack, gave him an angry lecture about entering the house with muddy feet.

Frames 18 to 26

That night, shortly after midnight, the thing came out of the water again.

It was difficult to see anything down at the water’s edge—even the opera glasses did not help—but from his lofty vantage point Willy made out a segment of utter blackness moving slowly against the background of night. It remained at rest for some time, then moved out of sight behind the end houses. High up in his little room, Willy shivered with excitement.

He waited for a long time, straining his ears, and presently heard a faintly rhythmical thudding sound which had a disturbing familiarity about it. The noise continued for several seconds and then stopped. Shortly afterwards the black shape, still moving with painful slowness, reappeared and slipped down into the water.

When it had vanished, Willy pondered on what he had seen and heard, then went to bed, still unable to place the familiar sound. He dropped into a deep sleep.

Next day the customary bustle of Ridgeway Street was brought to a higher pitch than usual by the news of the disappearance of Des Martin. Martin was a taxi driver, a steady and industrious man, and one who was not likely to run out on his family. When the news reached Willy he recalled that Des Martin’s way home lay along the river bank. He also realized, belatedly, that the noise he had heard had been Martin pounding shut the sagging door of his rented garage.

Remembering the numerous occasions on which he had been thrown out of the taxi just for sitting in it while Des Martin was having a meal, Willy remained silent. Nobody would have paid attention to him anyway, even though Willy—with the alert instincts of one not altogether at home in the normal pattern of existence—knew that Des Martin had met the thing from the river.

Willy’s principal reading matter since the torture of his schooldays had been horror comics. Indeed, he often wished he could live in a cartoon world, one in which all of life’s difficulties could be resolved by the stroke of an artist’s brush; in which everything was flat, simple and brightly coloured; and in which all sources of menace were clearly defined and understandable. He had always had an inner conviction that the night world contained many monsters and he was, therefore, neither surprised nor distressed by his discovery that something alien and dangerous lived in the polluted waters of the river.

But there was one aspect of the affair which puzzled him. How, he wondered, could such a slow-moving creature have got close enough to an active man like Des Martin to … to do whatever it had done? There was not much light down by the water’s edge, yet it seemed strange that Des should have walked straight up to a ravenous beast, like a lamb to the slaughter, and allowed it to devour him.

The lurid, but limited, bestiary of Willy’s imagination was unable to offer an immediate solution. He spent many hours speculating on the exact manner of Des Martin’s death, occasionally chuckling as a particularly satisfying vision crossed his mind.

Frames 27 to 38

Two days had gone by and things were returning to normal when—late at night—Willy saw the dark shape make its next appearance. As before, it emerged from the water with the slowness of a garden slug, remained motionless for several seconds and then passed out of sight.

An hour, then two hours, ticked by in the chilly silence of the attic and Willy began to think that the chances of anybody coming along were remote. Suddenly he heard, from the next street, echoing up through the night-time stillness, the sharp ringing sound of high heels on the pavement. Willy frowned for a moment until his torpid brain, in which were stored detailed timetables for almost everyone in the district, came up with an identification.

The wearer of the noisy shoes had to be Jane Dubois, who worked in the coffee bar up on the main road. She was only a waitress there, but had taken it on herself from time to time to refuse admittance to Willy, even when he had money. The rapid clicking of her heels grew louder, then began to fade away again as Jane went down the hill towards the river.

Quite suddenly her footsteps ceased.

Willy listened carefully, but there was no sound of a front door being dragged shut. And he knew that the thing from the river was feeding.

He continued his vigil until, some time afterwards, the patch of creeping blackness returned to the water. He closed the window and lay down, smiling in the darkness—the taste of revenge had none of the bitterness caused by the guilt of personal participation. The only thing marring his contentment was the nagging curiosity about how the dark horror caught its prey. Jane Dubois was young and agile, yet she had been taken, instantaneously it seemed, in a well-lit street. Was it possible that the monster could make itself invisible?

Willy turned the problem over and over in the dim recesses of his mind until he fell asleep.

Frames 39 to 56

The second disappearance caused a greater commotion than the first, and people began to stay off the streets late at night. Willy did not miss them and, even if he had, there were police patrol cars which swished past the house every now and then to provide him with something to watch. He would have been quite happy if there had been no people on the streets—ever.

On the third night after Jane’s disappearance, Willy’s friend—which was how he was coming to think of the entity in the river—went hungry. It came out of the river around midnight, as usual, and flowed out of Willy’s field of view. The streets were deathly quiet, and Willy sensed at once that no victims would be abroad. A vague unease began to build in his mind. The thing returned to the water just before dawn, and came out earlier that night—only to be disappointed once more. Willy began to worry.

When Willy was absent-minded it reduced him to a state of near-imbecility. Once, while hanging around the shop, he knocked over a basket of tomatoes, and another time dropped a crate of empty Coca-Cola bottles on the tiled floor. Jack came home from work just as Willy was brushing up the broken glass and he shouted for a full five minutes. Willy stared down at his brother’s angry oil-stained face and stocky denim-clad figure. He did not say anything, but he wished that Jack would go for a walk down by the river late at night. He began to wonder if there might be some way to get Jack to go out at the right time and in the right direction.

That night the creature came out earlier than on any previous occasion, and Willy knew it was becoming very hungry. He watched and waited all night, but nobody came, and in the darkness of pre-dawn the thing reappeared on the river’s edge on the way back to its lair. Somehow Willy could feel its anger and disappointment and hunger, as though the creature was a part of himself. He leaned out of the window, straining his eyes, wishing he could think of a way to help his friend. Suddenly he froze.

The shape had paused on the edge of the water and, although he could discern only a black patch in the darkness, he knew it had seen him. In some way, alien to humans, it had become very much aware of Willy—and it dawned on him that the mysterious entity was not his friend at all.

It began to inch its way up Ridgeway Street.

Willy fell back from the window in terror. High up above the street he had imagined himself safe, but he had no idea what powers the thing might have. It might be able to climb a vertical wall. Willy had a vision of a black monster, hideous jaws agape, bursting in through his window. Or it might, like some horrors he had seen in his comics, be able to exert telepathic control over him and make him go down the stairs and out into the street …

All at once there was a burst of sound and a flash of light outside. Willy moaned in panic, then realized it was a police car going by. He returned to the window and looked out. The car had swung off into one of the smaller streets which branched off Ridgeway and, down at the river, only a few ripples catching the first light of dawn showed that anything had ever been there.

Frames 57 to 63

Even in the brightness of morning Willy remained afraid. That one instant of mental contact with the alien horror had burned itself far into his mind, and had changed his whole outlook. He would have to tell somebody what he knew.

This presented a whole series of problems.

The first time he had seen the thing he had decided it would be pointless to try making people believe him—and that had been before the two disappearances. The story he had to tell now was so fantastic that he would receive greater derision, or greater punishment, than ever.

He was brooding on the situation over breakfast when Ada and Emily came into the kitchen with instructions from Jack that he was to spend the day painting the walls of the yard at the back of the shop. Willy shambled out, lay down in the dusty shed where the potato sacks were stored, and thought hard about what he might do. Finally, he decided to write an anonymous letter to the police—that way he would receive more credibility and still remain out of trouble.