Et in Sempiternum Pereant

"The many people who have bought The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories since its publication in 1986 may well have been perplexed on reading ‘Et in Sempiternum Pereant’ by Charles Williams, so greatly does it differ in style and content from most of its companions in the anthology. For here is a story in which virtually nothing appears to happen. A retired Lord Chief Justice, out walking in the country, enters a burning empty house and encounters a troubled spirit on its way to Hell. The setting is vague and the material details scanty. Not until it is over does the story have the power to frighten: it gains its effects through implication. The only tale of its kind its author wrote, in its substitution of spiritual for material terror it epitomizes his approach to the writing of supernaturalist fiction." (Glen Cavaliero)

In the room there was no furniture, neither fragment of paper nor broken bit of wood; there was no sign of life, no flame in the grate nor drift of smoke in the air. It was completely and utterly void.

Lord Arglay looked at it. He went back a few steps and looked up again at the chimney. Undoubtedly the chimney was smoking. It was received into a pillar of smoke; there was no clear point where the dark chimney ended and the dark smoke began. House leaned to roof, roof to chimney, chimney to smoke, and smoke went up for ever and ever over those roads where men crawled infinitely through the smallest measurements of time. Arglay returned to the door, crossed the threshold, and stood in the room. Empty of flame, empty of flame's material, holding within its dank air the very opposite of flame, the chill of ancient years, the room lay round him. Lord Arglay contemplated it. 'There's no smoke without fire,' he said aloud. 'Only apparently there is. Thus one lives and learns. Unless indeed this is the place where one lives without learning.'

The phrase, leaving his lips, sounded oddly about the walls and in the corners of the room. He was suddenly revolted by his own chance words--'a place where one lives without learning', where no courtesy or integrity could any more be fined or clarified. The echo daunted him; he made a sharp movement, he took a step aside towards the stairs, and before the movement was complete, was aware of a change. The dank chill became a concentration of dank and deadly heat, pricking at him, entering his nostrils and his mouth. The fantasy of life without knowledge materialized, inimical, in the air, life without knowledge, corrupting life without knowledge, jungle and less than jungle, and though still the walls of the bleak chamber met his eyes, a shell of existence, it seemed that life, withdrawn from all those normal habits of which the useless memory was still drearily sustained by the thin phenomenal fabric, was collecting and corrupting in the atmosphere behind the door he had so rashly passed--outside the other door which swung crookedly at the head of the darker hole within.

Et in Sempiternum Pereant
Charles Williams

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