Classic Australian SF 2: The Shrieking Pit
by Arthur J Rees (with an Introduction by Sean Williams)
The sea mist drifts over a sleepy little English hamlet. There is silence. A small inn, a few houses, and there over in the distance, the remnants of an ancient forest. And a pit. But there is something else. A white clad lady, the victim of some horror in an age long past, laments her fate as she arises shrieking from the pit. If you only hear her, you may live to tell the tale. But…if you see her…
Here there is fear. Here there is murder. The poor souls who have returned from a distant war have their own horrors to contend with, but in this place there is horror anew. Death awaits the innocent. Madness screams; and myths, legends and old tales stalk the land. But there is also the very real and very horrific world of simple crime as well. Who can the innocents turn to? Who can make sense of this heady mix of the fantastic and the sordid?
What this case needs is some sort of cross between Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.
Enter Colwyn. Erudite, honest, clever, Colwyn. In a world where all is not what it seems someone needs to be able to make sense of it all, and the famous detective is just that man. The Shrieking Pit is a classic tale of theft, murder and intrigue in the traditions of…well just about every English crime writer you can imagine, but it also marks the beginning of a few traditions of its own.
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Colwyn spent the morning in a solitary walk along the marshes, thinking over the events of the night and morning. He returned to the inn for an early lunch, which was served by Ann, who gossiped to him freely of the small events which had constituted the daily life of the village since his previous visit. The principal of these, it seemed, had been the reappearance, after a long period of inaction, of the White Lady of the Shrieking Pit — an apparition which haunted the hut circles on the rise. Colwyn, recalling that Duney and Backlos imagined they had encountered a spectre the night they saw Penreath on the edge of the wood, asked Ann who the ‘White Lady’ was supposed to be. Ann was reticent at first. She admitted that she was a firm believer in the local tradition, which she had imbibed with her mother’s milk, but it was held to be unlucky to talk about the White Lady. However, her feminine desire to impart information soon overcame her fears, and she launched forth into full particulars of the legend.
It appeared that for generations past the deep pit on the rise in which Mr. Glenthorpe’s body had been thrown had been the haunt of a spirit known as the White Lady, who, from time to time, issued from the depths of the pit, clad in a white trailing garment, to wander along the hut circles on the rise, shrieking and sobbing piteously. Whose ghost she was, and why she shrieked, Ann was unable to say. Her appearances were infrequent, with sometimes as long as a year between them, and the timely warning she gave of her coming by shrieking from the depths of the pit before making her appearance, enabled folk to keep indoors and avoid her when she was walking. As long as she wasn’t seen by anybody, not much harm was done, but the sight of her was fatal to the beholder, who was sure to come to a swift and violent end.