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Will Styler

Associate Teaching Professor of Linguistics at UC San Diego

Director of UCSD's Computational Social Science Program

The Halls of Madness

This was originally posted on my blog, Notes from a Linguistic Mystic in 2006. See all posts

I lived in the residence halls (dorms) at CU Boulder for 5 years. Some years back (2006, I think), somebody asked what it’s like to be the only upperclassman living on an all-male basement floor of a college dorm. My sentiments lent themselves well to the Gothic Horror genre, and back then, I had time to write, so I did. Enjoy!

Homeless? Homeless?! I may be without home, but I am far more at home living among these great shelves of books than I ever was in that accursed building! Here, I see nobody and nobody sees me. There are no roaming, malevolent hordes searching me out in the darkest corners, there are no corrupt authorities helping only to deliver me into the hands of the staggering mobs.

No, no. This is truly my home. I have known no other since coming to this accursed institution, and I will never more venture across that godforsaken road, past the power station, past the laboratories, and into the Halls of Madness.

Mind you, I was once young and fearless as you are today. Years upon years of seeming order and success at the institution eased my mind, and the thrill of escape from the clutches of my caretakers seduced my soul and blinded me to the horrors that awaited me there.

Leave your accursed tour. Stay, listen, and heed my words well, and perhaps you may leave as more than the hollow shell I am now.

I used to often wonder how good, capable men can descend to these deepest depths of hedonism and moral trespass, treating alike as animals each other and any hapless soul cursed enough to wander the halls in the dark hours of the night. At first, I searched for answers in the stoic, uncaring ruins of the buildings themselves, hoping that some deleterious vapor or dust so suffused them as to bring about such madness. Finding no such cause in the environment, I pored over the old books and tomes of this place to find some hint, some barely intelligible comment scribbled in the margin of old registers, somehow revealing the nature of the curse which I prayed had afflicted those dreadful halls. I remember when the horrid truth first hit me. When the last dusty page of the last register proved barren, I tried to scream aloud, but found my throat paralyzed with dry terror.

The men in those halls were not corrupted by some external force. They were not somehow flawed, somehow afflicted with an evil eye from above. No, no. They were good men. Good, virtuous, intelligent men. But, as any jailer will tell you, when a man is locked away in shadow, forced into a dingy cell deep below the ground, he will first descend into madness, then will be consumed by his rage. If some Divine force holds mercy for him, he will endure this madness for the term of his sentence, thrashing in his tiny cell and awakening drained nearly a year later, walking into the light a hollow shell, but still a man.

Even the Divine, though, does not have mercy for all. Some men, when placed in the halls, will not simply go mad. These men, whether due to some deep stain on their souls, some ancient curse on their name, or the shadow of past transgressions upon their heart, will become not madmen, hiding meekly in their cells, but instead, are transformed into the horrors that torment my sleep to this day.

What horrors, you ask? What horrors?! Child, if I were able to show you even a tenth of the terrible truth, you’d flee this institution and never return. And you want me to tell you what happened? Very well. I will tell you of the Halls of Madness, may God protect your innocent soul.

First walking into the cell that was my own, I felt great pleasure as for the first time in my life, I was free, alone, and on my own. Although it was not a large space, I had a window into a neatly groomed courtyard, a desk, a bed, and a small shelf for the readings I brought, still sitting in a neatly painted trunk by the door. Pleasant faces came by, as I shook hands with my future friends and future tormentors alike, one by one, meeting each and every one of them and parting with a friendly air. I unpacked my sparse belongings, hung several prints from the wall, and sat down to read by the cold, flickering light overhead as night descended over the Hall.

During the initial days, residents and their caretakers buzzed about the building, unloading carriage after carriage of lamps, fans, luxurious fabrics and gleaming metal trinkets. The first nights, I slept in relative peace. Although frequently jostled awake by thumps and clangs from all sides, I was in good spirits, and took it to be the simple personality of the ancient hall.

No, the trouble only truly began when the caretakers left. Once they departed, back to their distant lands, carrying with them the last vestiges of our civilization, the Hall took on a more sinister air.

I kept to myself, for the most part, and did my best to bother nobody, and for a time, everything seemed normal. The constabulary of the Hall, our “advisors”, not much older than I, seemed to keep some semblance of order, and beyond the occasional shriek from the vast courtyards, the halls were quiet.

Then, the shadows began to gather. Once the sun set and the harsh yellow light of the hallways ruled supreme, strange people began to wander the halls, and the constabulary all but disappeared. Dark forms slipped past with only furtive glances into my small cell, and the screams and thumps grew more frequent. The reign of chaos slowly grew, the floor of my sparsely furnished room quickly becoming the domain of the wretched rodents who called that place home, and the nights grew restless. Loud banging on my door would wake me from my slumber, although opening the door would reveal only the light of omnipresent yellowed lamps.

Upon waking, I would find strange symbols etched on my door in a shaking, mindless hand. Although there were whispers of dark gatherings in the hall around me, sinister orgies of flesh and drink, I dismissed such things as rumor, arguing that the constabulary would never allow such a thing to occur, and continued my life in blissful ignorance of the true nature of the place in which I lived.

So, even as the insanity grew around me, I steadfastly ignored it, clinging desperately to an ignorant smile and trying to convince myself through any possible means that the building crescendo of terror was simply an illusion. I continued on, descending slowly into my own insanity of ignorance, the knocks growing more frequent, the aging heaters crying out in the middle of the night as if desperately trying to tear themselves away from the wall and into freedom. Glass and mirrors began to break mysteriously throughout the evening, whatever horror may have broken them leaving too little evidence for the constables to follow, and the screams grew slowly louder, disappearing long before I could find their source in the darkness outside. I began to sleep upright, as if to ward off whatever sorts of evils may approach.

The worst, though, was yet to come. I recall the day now only because its memories still haunt me in my dreams. It was a Friday in late October, and I had gone to see a show with several of my peers. Although the evening was resoundingly pleasant, I noticed a low fog beginning to build around the Halls, and as they left me in front of the ancient building that I now occupied, I felt a nameless dread descend upon me.

Keying the lock and opening the door, I descended slowly to my cell. In the yellow light of the hall, I passed dark figures, whose faces and bloodshot eyes I recognized only with the greatest of straining. They said nothing, simply staring at me as I passed, waiting, a primal hunger in their eyes. Quickening my pace, I rounded the corner, finding the hall dank with the odors of odd incenses and burnt offerings, and nearly sprinted to the door. Fumbling for the key in my pocket, eager for a respite from the sinister halls, I found myself shaking, seized with a nameless terror, as footsteps in the stairwell grew louder.

Finally opening my door and slamming it behind me, I pressed up against it, the room still dark, and gazed through a hole in the door into the hallway. The footfalls grew louder still, heavier, and more foreboding. A shadow crossed the wall, and then a man crossed my path, his body seeming several years older than mine, but his face bearing the wear of millennia of sin and hedonism. On his back was a large sack, and with every step, the rattling of bottles, his pack bulging with cylinders of all shapes and sizes. Just as he was about to pass from my view, my shaking hand bounced off the door, his head darting around to look at me, the cold, serpentine glare of a thousand evil years piercing my very soul. I crumbled away from the hole, sitting, holding my knees and shaking, then, after an eternity, the footsteps began again, and finally faded away.

I crawled to my bed slowly, still too terrified to light the room, and lay there, my head adrift in a sea of terrors. Although the danger seemed to have passed, my thoughts moved quickly to the horrible elixirs that the man bore with him, and the dark figures that hungered for them.

The noises started quietly, as I sat, listening with blinds drawn and lights out. First, the cracks of glass on glass, the infernal toasting of nefarious deeds. Then, the screams began, of men and women alike. Dark laughter rang sharply down the deathly still hall, and doors began to slam. I dared not move or cough, in hopes that they would overlook my presence and conduct whatever horrific acts they may while leaving me in peace.

Then, the glass broke. First once crash, then another. Another sharp crack, accompanied by more evil laughter. The growing crescendo of destruction proceeded down the hallway, growing louder, my thin door rattling against the frame with every blow. The terrible laughter grew and grew, and finally, the thin sliver of yellow light under my door was cast into shadow by the figures which had stopped outside my door.

Leaping against the hinges, the door flexed and shook with every furied slam, their frenzied knocking pounding in my eardrums, their laughter like a hissing jet of sulphur from a steaming gash in the Earth. Paralyzed by terror, I stared at the door, praying that the feeble old hinges would hold through the night. Their laughter only increased, growing louder as they slammed against it, each strike resonating with the sound of bruised flesh against wood. As dust shook from the hinges in torrents, only seconds from failure, the slamming stopped. Slowly, their laughter subsided, and steps echoed slowly down the hall.

My change of fate feeding me a burst of bravery, I stood up and dashed for the door. Unlocking the bolt, I threw it open behind me and dashed to the constable’s cell. A look of terror burned into my face, I pounded on his door, calling his name, praying that his authority could somehow help stop this madness.

Then as I pounded frantically, I felt a cold stare descending upon me. My breath caught in my throat, and I slowly turned around and cried out in terror. Closing my eyes to the horrid sight, I ran down the hall away from them, as quickly as I could. The terrible sound of staggering footsteps pursued me for what seemed an eternity, until finally, I burst out of the building through a disused exit and collapsed in the field across from the dreadful hall. My eyes finally opened, and I looked up. There were the madmen, huddled in the dark, the yellow light of the hall reflected in their dull eyes only feet away, and at their front, bottle in hand and fist bloody with the cuts of broken glass, was the Constable himself.

I still cannot remember the remainder of my escape, as fear has mercifully blinded me to those memories. When I awoke, I was on the couch of a minor acquaintance, nearly on the other side of the city from those horrid halls. My limbs still trembling, my throat too dry for speech, my acquaintance explained that I had come to her house in the middle of the night, my face a visage of pure horror and my body shaking, with no further explanation. After a warm shower, I dutifully thanked my acquaintance, and left.

Never wishing to see the cursed hallway again, I made straight for the building’s administrator. I explained the previous night’s ordeal in painstaking detail, answering her every question in complete truth, but in the end, she would not even entertain the idea of the insanity and corruption of her staff and residents, and dismissed me with nothing more than the information of a disreputable counselor. I walked from her office and out the door, and have never since returned to that accursed place.

So, here I reside. I am amongst my books, and they are all the companionship I need. Few know that I am here, and those few dismiss me as a lunatic, and nothing more.

They will claim reform, they will claim community, safety and security. They will make it sound like home, and seduce your soul with hopes of pleasant companionship. The simple fact remains, though, that in the Halls of Madness, in the darkest hours of the night, good men become animals, demons, or worse, and nobody, not even you, will ever leave those halls intact.