6 Nov. 1893
For reasons I shall presently make clear, I must urge you in the strongest terms possible to continue reading this letter! It is for the attention of the first person to lay eyes on it, whomever that may be. As I write these words, I cannot tell how long it will be until this letter is discovered - you may be reading it days or years after it was penned, I cannot tell - but no matter how long the interval, you must continue to its end, even if the parchment is curled and crackles with age!
If you would care to indulge me I will describe my predicament, the better that you might help me escape the terrible confinement I am forced to endure. The place in which I am held captive is no ordinary cell, nor even instantly recognisable as a means of imprisonment. The light available to me varies in intensity, and although I have been unable to ascertain its source, it seems always to be close, following me if I choose to move. At any rate, the illumination is never sufficiently bright for me to see more than a dozen yards in any direction. The ground upon which I stand seems to be nothing more than cold mud, and the walls of my prison cannot be described at all, for they do not exist. Instead, a flat plane of the clammy earth extends in all directions for a limited distance before ending abruptly at a precipice. In the dim light I have concluded that my platform must be circular and approximately one hundred yards in diameter. I am quite willing to believe that the fall from the cliff is infinite, for objects thrown over the edge are never heard to strike ground nor water. Above me I can see nothing - I cannot tell whether there is a roof to this place, or whether the stars and clouds have been obscured by other means. When I shout or scream, there is no discernable echo, as from a wall or ceiling; only the memory of a sound already swallowed whole by the darkness.
My captor appears as it pleases him, or perhaps (as I have irrationally begun to believe) when it causes me most terror to behold him, and I have come to quake at the wet, thudding sounds which mark his approach. He provides me with food and water of a kind that beggars would refuse, but I consume it, because to starve (as I have discovered) gnaws terribly not only on the stomach, but on the soul.
I cannot describe to you the tortures that are inflicted upon me by my host. He seems to have endless imagination, for the pain and anguish to which I am subjected is grotesquely inventive. If it takes his fancy, I can be reduced to a whimpering wreck within a few moments. Sometimes I beg him to kill me and have done with it, but he simply reminds me that while I am in his charge, I cannot age nor die. What distresses me most is that he seems to know me better than I know myself, for how else is he able to conjure up fears which lie so deep in my soul that I am barely aware they exist? One might think that I could simply throw myself over the precipice, but contemplating those fathomless depths causes me more fear even than the creature, and I cling to my familiar platform as if it were a well-loved home.
But I have dwelled on my circumstances long enough. In order for you to understand how I came upon such dire misfortune, I must tell another man's story. It is he, ultimately, who has led me here. I shall speak of him dispassionately, though you must already realise that my hatred for him is boundless, and I care not to admit it.
Edward Southerton was a graduate of Oxford University, a learned and respected man who lived in a small but handsome manor house in Surrey. Having come into a small fortune upon the early demise of his father, he was never found in want. However, instead of providing himself with as comfortable a life as one may with such money, he used his considerable resources to fund a thirst for knowledge which had been growing steadily throughout his college years. Not content with confining himself to a single field of study, he read widely and deeply in any subject that took his fancy, and of those there were a great many. If he was to establish himself as an authority of some kind, then he had yet to find the discipline which most engaged him.
It was upon visiting a bookshop tucked away in a cosy alley in Guildford that he happened upon a volume which was to divert his line of enquiry completely. At this time, his major interest was in the study of history, literature, linguistics and archaeology, and the book which drew his attention that day seemed to combine, in a rather peculiar way, some quantity of each. It was a book of the occult, crammed with knowledge, most of which was superstitious nonsense; but there were enough intriguing ideas in those pages to beguile Southerton the moment he began to leaf through them. It was the first of many volumes he was to purchase.
Before long, he found himself devoting all of his time to this subject and no other. Many were the hours he spent after midnight poring over this tome or that, giving such attention to them as to make his previous endeavours at learning feeble by comparison. In short, he became a man obsessed: he had at last found a subject worthy of his complete attention, not least because it required so much effort to discern the factual from the fanciful.
Ordinarily, Edward Southerton was a patient man, but after some months of intensive study (during which time he barely spoke with anyone but his housekeeper) even he could not suppress his excitement. From amongst the reams of superstition and misinformation, he had managed to discern, piece by piece, a number of procedures which professed the most incredible results. Southerton, seduced by his desire to see these wonders either confirmed or disproved, set to work with a number of arcane ingredients, confident that he understood sufficiently the nature of his enterprise.
I do not comprehend even in the slightest the dark arts that Southerton was exploring. You must therefore use your imagination to give you some impression of the events which followed. If I have described this account adequately, you will be aware that Southerton was meddling with knowledge which God intended to hide forever from the prying eyes of man. That he was exposing himself to great danger should be evident, though whether physical, mental or spiritual in nature I shall leave for you to decide.
As far as I understand it, Southerton was attempting to bind a creature from the nether world, so that it might be compelled to do his bidding. What Southerton hoped to achieve by this I know not. I suspect that he tried purely to demonstrate to his own satisfaction that such a summoning could be achieved.
You must already have realised that something went awry, for why else should I want to relate such a tale? Southerton understood - as I now do - that words can act as a channel for power, imbuing ordinary things with an unnatural energy conjured from the ether. It was with words that he attempted his dark summoning. Yet Southerton must have erred somewhere in his incantations; perhaps he mistook the order in which the phrases must be spoken, or simply mispronounced one of the critical passages, but in any case, he failed to properly bind the creature to his will.
When he realised that what he had called forth was no longer confined and was free to do as it pleased, Southerton was filled with the most profound dread. There was no time for him to wonder with irritation which step of the procedure he had uttered incorrectly - the beast was already upon him. Rather than tear him limb from limb (as, perhaps, he expected), the creature spoke to him:
"Edward Southerton," it said, in a voice as deep as the grave, "you have attempted to take me from my rightful place and bend me to your will. Instead of killing you now, as is my instinct, I will visit upon you the shame and suffering that you sought to inflict on me."
Southerton passed out, though whether from fear or by supernatural means, it is impossible to tell. When he woke, in almost total darkness, he lay on a circular platform of cold earth with no sky, and no walls, and an infinite drop on all sides.
At this point, you may have concluded that I myself am Southerton, but you would be mistaken in such an assumption. I am not he, though given my present condition perhaps I wish I was. I would give you my name if I thought it served any purpose, but it is what I represent which should most concern you. But I am getting ahead of myself - first I must finish Southerton's story.
The creature that had escaped his binding saw Southerton frequently in his prison, where he was subjected to whatever tortures the beast saw fit to inflict upon him. Before long he was begging for mercy, and if you think him weak to react in this way then I must assure you that you have no conception of his plight.
"Since you beg," the creature rumbled, "I shall give you a chance not of simple liberation, but of changing your place with another human being. In this way you may consider me to be less than wholly unsympathetic, for if you succeed in luring another of your kind, we will both be satisfied - you will have your freedom, and I shall still have a guest to entertain."
He proceeded to explain the method by which Southerton might cause another to suffer in his stead, and in his desperation to escape, Southerton agreed to the scheme. Thus did he bring me to this foul place: I am the man he fooled into replacing him. If at any time I had met Southerton, and if I had known the damnation to which he was condemning me, then with God as my witness, I would have struck him down in my rage. But alas, his deception was so contrived to ensure that our paths would not cross, and I had no opportunity to vent my anger on him.
Thus you now know both Southerton's story and my own, but here I must confess that the tale is not yet complete. I had spent six days trapped here (judging by my pocket watch) before my tormented mind was able to recall every detail of Southerton's story. In particular, I remembered the fact that he pleaded for a chance to be replaced by another. Yesterday I begged my host to grant me the same favour. I understand that years may pass before I am free - indeed I may die of old age immediately upon my return to the world of men - but any kind of liberation is welcome.
Southerton trapped me by means of a letter which, once written, was deposited by his jailor somewhere in the real world for a hapless soul to find. I was his hapless soul just as you are mine. As I have already mentioned, both Southerton and I learned that words can carry power. Having read my letter this far, your fate is sealed: you and I shall trade places. I owe you my heartfelt thanks for freeing me, and I can only hope that your tenure will be brief.