Content Warning: This episode may include themes of death + injury, guns, body horror, blood, kidnapping + abduction, abuse, violence, homophobia, transphobia, religion, sexism, and strangulation.
Intro - The Man Behind the Door
You often lie awake thinking about the door in the basement. Not because it is crooked, or that the basement is damp and dark, but because your husband spends all of his time in that room, and he does not let you see inside. There was a time when you fought the world together—then when the world was gone, you fought each other. Now, he is a phantom in your life, haunting you and the son he left behind. He spends all his time in his study, working on projects from the library. Tonight is different. You hear terrible squeals and growls from the basement stairs, and as you descend, shotgun in hand, you realize that the sound is coming from his little door. You approach, but your hands do not shake. You press your ear to the crackling door, and the awful screams turn into a whisper. It is speaking a language you do not understand, but the words mean “Hello From The Hallowoods.”
Right now I’m inside a wallpaper pattern. Floral motifs conceal the awful darkness and dancing figures in this two-dimensional realm. The girl lying in bed is only just beginning to realize that everything in this library is a doorway—a tipping point into strange and maddening realms. The theme of tonight’s episode is Doors.
Story 1 - Breakfast in the Library
Clara lay awake, watching the walls. The darkness was alive, and the patterns in the wallpaper seemed to move ever so slightly. The silence was broken only by the gentle snores of the ghostly dog. If she had to guess from its kicking motions and excited grunts, it dreamt of a chase. It glowed like a night light in the shadow.
She hated being awake at night. Her mind took her to unforgiving places. She wondered how Riot had died. Certainly she could not have lasted long at the hands of the dread Instrumentalist. The exact kind of death would depend on what the Instrumentalist was—maybe a wild animal that would tear her apart? A spirit that would steal her soul? Or something more like her parents, twisted by years of misery and bad water? She was not sure which was worse. In the end, it did not matter. Riot was gone, and Clara would never see her again, and all that was left was to stare at the wallpaper and ponder the terrible place in which she found herself.
She had scarcely closed her eyes when it was morning, and sunlight gleamed in through the sheer white curtains. She rolled over to find a faceless woman standing in the doorway. Clara shrieked, and tumbled out of bed.
“Good morning, Miss Martin,” the woman said. Her features were wrapped in a static that made her difficult to perceive, as though she was getting interference from a different channel of reality. “Breakfast is ready downstairs. Your presence is required.”
Clara pulled herself to her feet.
“I’ll be down in just a minute, okay?”
The faceless woman smiled and closed the door. Clara pulled on the clothes she’d been given—old-fashioned, but not uncomfortable—and stepped into the hall. The world beyond was a shifting maze of corridors and rooms, and she knew that if she did not focus, she would get lost. The library defied the rules she had come to expect from reality—halls led sometimes to one room and sometimes another. Doors were hidden in paintings and portraits. Strangers walked on the walls or the ceiling, and staircases spiralled into infinite fractals. She wondered if this was what being in a Dreaming Box was like.
On the way to the breakfast hall she passed a painting that looked out on a field of sunflowers. Someone was in the distance, picking them, but they did not turn to reveal their face. She had a momentary urge to put her hands on the frame, but decided to explore later, and crossed through a door of wooden timbers. Immediately she was seated at a long table, a plate of warm waffles and syrup in front of her. Dogsmell pressed against her leg, and reassured her that she was not alone. There were others at the table, wearing old clothes or dresses or robes. Some had faces, some did not, and some were too unsettling for her to look at directly.
She felt the anxiety rising like the steam from her waffles, and she breathed. Three days she had been in Downing Hill, although it felt like three lifetimes.
“How long have you been able to see ghosts?” a voice said. Clara turned to find she was seated next to a severe-looking man. There was no color in his eyes, and his white irises seemed to change like passing clouds.
“Ever since I was little,” Clara said, trying not to seem surprised. “I thought I was going crazy when I found out nobody else could see the people at the park—or in house corners, or in attics. I thought they were just people. Who are you?”
“They are just people,” the man emphasized. “People left adrift. Lining up outside a locked door, begging to be let out. This world is falling apart at the seams, you know. Terrible business.”
“Yeah,” Clara nodded, and ate her waffle.
“In the next few weeks,” the man continued, “we are going to determine if you have potential as a student here, or if you’re as worthless as most of the children they send me. If you have potential, you will survive. If you disappoint me, you will not. Do you understand?”
“What am I supposed to be learning?” Clara asked.
“Only you know that,” he said, and his chair was empty when she next looked over.
“Great,” Clara muttered, and finished her waffle. “One more test.” But deep down, she knew, she was not afraid. She had lost everything else, all her options were gone. And Clara had always been good at tests.
Interlude 1 - Portal Safety
Dreamers, an important safety announcement if you live in the Hallowoods. Unless you are experienced in travel that defies the laws of physics, do not engage in any mode of transportation you believe will bring you to another realm. Interdimensional transit accidents happen every day, and numerous lives are lost due to not practicing portal safety.
Common doorways of this kind include the trails that lead into the Northmost Woods where the Faceless King reigns in his cruel court, the Pits of Lolgmololg at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean, chalk drawings on walls drawn by any witch who has studied complex algebra, the freestanding doors that appear in the fog in the Southern Moormire, The Ward of the Wisps, the interior of the Downing Hill Public Library, and any form of cabinetry that can only be opened with a key of resurrection. Be wary, dreamers, for these keys unlock more than doors, and the realm to which they lead will not leave you unchanged.
We go now to the previous owner of one such key.
Story 2 - Love Your Neighbor
“The book is seventeenth century, although the body of the text was translated from far earlier manuscripts dating back to shortly after the time of Christ. Such writings had been suppressed by the persecutors of the age, of course, or Christianity might have become the fearful and holy power it was supposed to be. Instead the true word was lost, hordes of unchanged sinners were accepted in the houses of god, and Christianity faded into the satanic laughingstock it became in modern times. The various instruments of creation faded into obscurity, known only to select few. True believers dwindled in number, but you cannot extinguish the light. While the churches of my day were making women into pastors and welcoming in homosexuals, I was deep in study, immersing myself in the true teachings of the lord, aided by a pure circle of brothers. His instruments are holy, Oliver, and he reveals his will to me in dreams. He has plans for the sinners in these woods. A plan for redemption. I wonder if you have humbled yourself to his will, or are you rebellious in spirit, Oliver?”
“It’s Olivier.” the child spoke with an authority beyond his size. He held Bezalel’s Record of Golems in his hands, though he probably had no idea of the significance of the text.
“Olivier, yes. Are you a servant of the lord?”
“You do not need to lie,” Solomon said. “Not in my house. You are seeking the lord, yes? He will find you. Perhaps you have been delivered from your so-called tutors at the Library for this very purpose. For what is school? One fallen head teaching another fallen head. You did not grow up with such books?”
“My whole childhood was spent reading,” Olivier said, “but only a few like these. I lived there ever since I was a little kid. I guess I never was exposed to your, ah, perspective.”
Solomon scoffed, and thumbed through a manuscript on the table.
“Your mother, your father? They did not teach the word of God?”
“I don’t know what happened to them. I’ve always lived in the library,” Olivier sat back in the chair, closing the book in his lap. “I doubt they’re still around."
“The lord has a plan for their souls,” Solomon reassured him, “just as he has a plan for yours.”
There was a storm in the boy’s eyes, he thought, that he had not noticed at first. God worked through storms—deluged the earth and drowned sinners in their villages. Solomon thought the antediluvian rains had fallen just as heavily as the black thunderstorms that brought down the empires of America. When the lord opened his floodgates, who could stand in his path?
“How did your daughter die?” Olivier asked.
“She died a long time before she left this world. She was possessed by a demon—got all sorts of strange notions in her head. Wanted to cut her hair off, have us call her by a different name than the one we gave her the day she came into this world. Persephone is a beautiful name. Means bringer of destruction. The armies of satan laid low. That devil is after me, you know, and any good servant of god. I’ll best him yet.”
“And still,” Oliver’s eyes flashed with unnatural blue, “you tied her to a piano?”
“Her mother was a spiteful creature,” Solomon shook his head, feeling for the fife in his breast pocket, felt the angry flicker of life tied to it. “And yet I loved her, I think, as much as any man should love his wife. I trusted her to take care of my daughter while I studied the deep tomes, worked with the church, uncovered truths that had not seen light in centuries. Secrets of keys and doorways passed down through generations, from the ancients to the templar knights to the Church of the Hallowed Name. I lost track of time, and it worsened when the black rains began to fall. When I returned, I found she had locked up Persephone, left her to starve, and taken her own life in the kitchen. The raw materials were left, of course. All I needed was a little bone and the resources I had been given by the church. Long had I studied for such an occasion. Persephone became my first creation, my most beautiful—a grand piano, polished bone sliced so thin for the keys. And a little of her lived on with the instrument—but the demons had not left her. She was still angry, rebellious. The piano was lost on my travels up this way, stolen by marauders. A grand piano is not an easy thing to make off with, but they evaded me for reasons I cannot understand. I thought I would never see her again.”
“You’ll certainly get the chance now,” Olivier said, standing up and stretching.
“The undead monstrosity that has kidnapped her will be a unique challenge, but nothing I…”
Solomon was cut off by a faint shriek from below. He remembered faintly that he had left something there, in the darkness. How absent-minded he had become. His thoughts were much in the heavens these days.
“Do you have someone downstairs?” Olivier quivered like a child.
“I suppose I am entertaining another guest, yes.” Solomon peered at the ceiling.
“Are they okay?”
“Oh yes, certainly. But I should show you the basement, anyways. You will understand the magnitude of my work.”
At Solomon’s gesture, the boy began to walk towards the dark door in the hallway, and stopped hesitantly.
“Well, open it.” Solomon glared.
The blue-haired boy swung it open, and the screams grew louder. Incoherent rambling from a voice like a crow. Zelda. That was her name. Solomon had almost forgotten it. Zelda.
Marketing - Ivy League Conglomerate
Welcome back to Marketing with Lady Ethel Mallory. This message is sponsored by the Ivy League Conglomerate. A good education can help you reach new doors. It will not help you open them, of course. Only wealth and a willingness to step over the bodies of your competition can do that. To succeed in business, really succeed, you need to do whatever it takes. By the end of your four years you will be a different person. A better person. A more efficient person, whose mind has been purified of sadness and distraction, a person who understands that the only thing that matters in this world is power, a person who will do anything to get money to get power.
Start changing your mindset today. Think ‘who can I take advantage of?’ ‘What can I monetize that was previously free?’ Your life will change dramatically when you begin to understand that you are just one more rat scrabbling among the rest for scraps. Do you want to live your ugly little life in the gutter or do you want to watch the sun rise from the ninety-fifth floor?
Ivy League Conglomerate. Open the door to success. Close it on the rest.
Story 2, Continued - Love Your Neighbor
Dreamers, I have always been affected by a desire to learn. About the universe, about the things that live in it, and their little concerns and interests and art. The world around us is fascinating. Learn about it. Learn how to do whatever fills you with passion and a will to live. Learn how to do it well. I do not believe this is a privilege that only some should enjoy. We return now to Solomon Reed.
Solomon loved his neighbors. They smiled at him as he walked by their yards, watching him with white faces and wide smiles. He truly couldn’t ask for a better community, and admired them as they mowed their lawns or watched their children play in the yard. Each one was precious.
“Hello, Mr. Dan,” He smiled joyfully, the sun shining too brightly for his old eyes. “Hello Mr. Kita.”
Mr. Kita waved from his garden bed, watering his daffodils. Solomon tipped his hat as he passed by, a marching cap in splendid reds and golds.
Solomon glanced around his perfect neighborhood, and found it wanting. There was a sound, somewhere, a cawing of an old crow, or a crying baby. It was distinctly wrong. His brows furrowed, and he hastened along the streets of white picket fences, looking for the source. He turned to find an old house looming—he would have recognized it anywhere; his very own home with the big southern-style windows.
The new roof had fallen all to pieces, and the white siding was stained with rot. The door loomed like a hungry pit of lions, and he approached it, wringing his hands. He stepped inside, and found a terrible sight—a woman, withered beyond her years, flesh barely clinging to her thin bones and tethered to the wall with piano wire. His hand leapt to his breast pocket, feeling for his fife. The woman’s eyes rolled in dark sockets as a filthy blue-haired wretch fed her from a bowl.
“Solomon!” she cried, and his neighborhood began to shake and darken, as though a thunderstorm was rolling over the sky.
“Solomon, why did you do this to me?”
Solomon’s smile disappeared and he backed out of the house, running through the streets, but it was all wrong now—the neighbors were white-eyed dead things, peeling apart like chaff, and they reached out to him with malice in their hearts—their bones were instruments, terrible instruments, lining his walls in endless rows. They formed a mass of translucent arms and gnashing teeth, and he held his face in his hands and wept as they accused him of heinous crimes. The sun was gone, and he was left in the dark, and they were straining towards him, eager to pull his soul into pieces. Watching it all was the cabinet, that doorway into heaven and hell, green light flickering in its keyhole like a terrible eye...
“Everything okay there, old man?” Olivier asked.
Solomon blinked, and adjusted his glasses. “Yes. Fine.”
He cleared his throat. Olivier fed soup to a disquieted Zelda—she had just eaten, hadn’t she? Maybe that had been yesterday, or the morning before… it all blurred together.
“As I was saying, this is my workshop,” he gestured to the rows of instruments hanging on the walls, stilled for the moment. “Every single one is handmade. Each an instrument of redemption for a sinner’s soul, turned to the will of god. Isn’t that cause to rejoice?”
Olivier tipped a glass of water to Zelda’s lips, and Solomon watched with disgust as it trickled down her chin and clothes.
“I said isn’t that cause to rejoice?”
“Sure,” Olivier said quickly. “It certainly is. How did you ever learn such an incredible skill?”
“My father was a carpenter,” Solomon said. “He taught me how to work with my hands, attention to detail and craft.”
“Who taught you how to bind ghosts?” There was a glint of blue light in Olivier’s beady eyes.
“No one. I had to teach myself. The church had books, but no one had put them into practice in centuries. It took years of study to master,” Solomon grinned. It was a point of pride. “It required sacrifices, you understand—terrible sacrifices—to obtain the knowledge necessary. But I did. The most important tool is that.”
He pointed to the cabinet on the far side of the room—carved angels and demons warred around a paneled door, seeming to move a little each time one looked away.
“That cabinet is a doorway into heaven, Oliver,” Solomon declared, stepping over to stand in front of it. “The power of the lord rages there with holy fire—and submitting a sinner’s earthly body to him purifies their soul for a new purpose.”
Solomon turned to glare at the boy, who was staring at him slack-jawed. “The cabinet can only be opened by a key, of course. One which you have failed to return to me.”
He tugged on a small length of chain linked inside of a waistcoat pocket, examining the broken link at the end.
“So you see, you are going to help reunite me with my daughter and destroy the mound of dead meat that has kidnapped her. We will retrieve my key and craft a holy instrument from this wretch. When that is done,” Solomon breathed, “we are going to unleash the judgement of the lord upon this accursed forest.”
Interlude 2 - The World Beneath the Window
There is a human expression that when god closes a door, he opens a window. This is false. When god closes a door, he opens a black hole. The doors of what you would call gods are cosmic, empty voids pouring into new universes. The windows of the gods are eternal, nebulas reflecting into glassy infinities. When the gods move, the stars shudder, planets reverse their rotations, and worlds collapse and die. Most of them would not care about you even if they acknowledged the miniscule scale on which you exist. What is a god but an organism too large for you to comprehend? Just as I exist outside the scale of your mortal frames, so do others exist above me, and others above them, in a ladder extending infinitely up and down. Maybe no grand being gave you a bad day with some secretive, cruel purpose. I certainly did not. You just had a bad day. And there will be more bad days in your future, but there will also be more good ones, and in the end you’ll leave this life with a happy average of experiences—and leave your world beneath the window a little better than you found it. We go now to one who vastly overestimates her own place in the universe.
Story 3 - Gossamer, Glamour, Glory
Everything was coming together gorgeously. Every thread plucked, every note of tension strung, and the network activated for results. There were so many variables, of course, but so many opportunities to explore as well.
The Prime Dream was on fire, and it was exhilarating. The girl was cozied up at that fire hazard they called the Scoutpost—the key to a specific set of doors, the catalyst for a chain of events—but no one needed to know that yet. She’d been judicious about who was allowed access to that privy information. Certainly not Oswald. She was diligent in letting her staff know exactly what happened to snitches.
As far as Oswald was concerned, she was working hard to locate the runt, and although his hide was too thick to let a couple of downed Dreaming Boxes trouble him, she knew that he was sweating. Beginning to cook on the inside of his black shiny shell. She was winding his thread around her finger, tightening the noose. One day she would pull it shut, and squeeze until all his eyes bulged and grew dim. What a quarterly milestone that would be!
But not yet.
It was all still a game, and the longer she let the dreams spiral into nightmares, the more Oswald was going to need her, rely on her, appreciate her tireless work. There are perks that come with being appreciated.
She smiled in the darkness, and put her glasses on.
Immediately she tumbled into the victorious expanse of the Prime Dream, a billion thoughts and memories and emotions forming a perfect circle of consumption. She had always known what the box was capable of, and every marketing campaign had been one more panel in a story of success. She landed in the silver city, and made her way straight to the castle. Oswald manifested his ego in everything he touched, and his realm reflected his own grand visions of himself.
She looked down at her hands as she stepped into his platinum kingdom. They were smooth, perfect, with manicured nails, just like in the old days.
She stepped briskly up to the great vault doors, caught her stunning reflection in their glass panels, and pushed. The blur of hallways and elevators brought her quickly to the meeting room. It was much like she remembered from their first meeting, although instead of Los Angeles spread out below them, cosmic galaxies spun on the horizon. At the end of the conference table, Oswald swiveled to face her and grinned. His smile was just too wide for his face, and his milky teeth nestled together like rows of carrion beetles.
“Lady Ethel. To what do I owe the pleasure?” he laughed, gesturing to a chair. It pulled back invitingly, but she knew when statements had to be mad. She lay her fur coat and handbag across the table, and leaned on the edge.
“We’re overdue to catch up. Have you exterminated those awful protestors yet?”
Oswald’s smile did not break. “My people are working on it. There are holes in my Prime Dream—people are slipping through cracks in the sidewalk, lurking in back alleys. Harder to track down a Stonemaid than you’d think. When we pulled the population in here we ended up with a lot of garbage. But that’s the price you pay for progress, and it’s garbage day. Have you found little miss America?”
“Riot? Not yet, but we’re close. We’re concerned that she has outside help—stragglers in the northern forests, early enemies of the corporation. But don’t worry. My reunion organizers are…”
“They’re working on it?” Oswald’s smile weakened, and he ran his hand through his salt-and-pepper hair. “If she turns up dead somewhere, we can use that—but we need this kid, one way or another, Ethel. And if you can’t get me the real deal, well, I’ll manufacture one.”
“What?” Ethel said, trying not to betray surprise. It would have been a mistake in a deadly game. Oswald knew her too well, and she could already see victory in his glance.
“All we need is for Valerie to believe we have her daughter. She makes a nice speech. Face of a new campaign of peace and unity, everybody’s happy again. Cheers. Fourth of july fireworks, god bless America—maybe we get a new hit single out the deal. She fades into obscurity in a month, and once she’s out of the public eye we send her brain to experimental for fun. Problem solved. We control most of the world, you think we can’t find another butch kid with big eyebrows? CGI, dream something up? Heck, we could clone her in the lab. I’ve got teams that could make it happen. Snap. Like that.”
“Valerie would know,” Ethel countered. “It’s her own daughter, Oswald. We need authenticity if we’re going to really own her.”
“Not if we play our cards right. You might be enjoying your Canadian vacation, but I’m still on company time. If you can’t find her quickly, Ethel, we have to explore alternatives. Don’t you forget, I’m not the one who tried to settle a score on live broadcast and set the company on fire.” He picked his perfect teeth with a bone toothpick.
She nodded. There was no point in shifting the blame.
“I’ll have her on your table soon.”
“That’s what I like to hear,” he laughed. “Have fun in the woods now.”
Ethel smiled, and pulled her glasses off, rubbing at her temples in the darkness. Gossamer, glamour, glory, she told herself. It would all be hers. She would simply have to move faster.
Outro - Doors
Doors. Our lives are filled with doorways and opportunities, dreamers—mine a little more cosmic than yours. They open in strange and unexpected moments: a chance meeting with a stranger can begin a lifetime of friendship. A single conversation can change the course of your future. A fragment of a story you heard can save your life. Do not forget that there are doors ahead of you, dreamers, hiding behind other doors. Your life is an endless series of opportunities. If you find yourself in a dismal room, and you hate that it has no windows, reach out and turn the handle. Leave and keep searching for the place you are supposed to be. It is behind the next door. Or the next one. Or the next. Keep yourself open to opportunities, and they will open for you. Peering through every keyhole and lurking outside every window, I am your loyal host, Nikignik, waiting optimistically, for your return to the Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Skeleton Key' and is available on the Hello From The Hallowoods Patreon. Consider joining for access to all the show's bonus stories, behind-the-scenes and more!