As our protagonist descends the dark flight, he passes through thick and sticky tendrils of mist that wrap around him similarly to cobwebs - "Warm and fibrous, and even vibrant, as though it was alive!" He's even able to grab a length in his hands, but then "it wriggled and was gone" as if it were a snake slipping away. Afterward his hands tingle unsettlingly.
It's just a small section from the chapter, only a paragraph and change long, and it doesn't advance the plot in any way. But it's a good little section, something familiar - mist - being presented in an alien way - as cobwebs. It highlights how this chapter will consist of ordinary props like stairs, doors and people that are assembled into something threatening and strange, a nightmare assembled from our everyday lives. It's a moment that subtly wrong, something more effective than any amount of speculation over the number of corpses that might be buried in a plush chair.
Unfortunately... well, let's face it, a lot of our nightmares are considerably lamer than a horror movie or video game assembled by a master of psychological terror. Sometimes our great fear is of being naked during a final exam, and at other times our subconscious decides to pass the time between midnight and dawn with visions of giant, predatory legumes that leave us scratching our heads in befuddlement when we wake up. And thus this chapter steadily becomes less scary and less interesting as it goes on.
Stairway Encounter #1 - Lowry hears an "empty" voice calling "Jim! Jim Lowry!" and he claws through the mist-webs to stumble down the stairs, only to suddenly find himself blinded by a scorching, sourceless light on a great expanse of raw red earth. There's a boy in a straw hat sitting on a nearby rock and whistling badly as he scratches at the dirt, who soon notices Lowry.
"Hello," said Lowry.
“You ain't got any hat on,” said the boy.
"No. So I haven't."
"And your hands are dirty," said the boy, returning to his aimless task.
"What's your name?" said Lowry.
"What's yours?" said the boy.
"That's funny. Mine's Jim, too. Only it's really James, you know."
Dream dialogue, where the people talk about something trivial like a hat rather than addressing the question of where on God's green Earth are they or how a chasm suddenly opened in their front yard. Like I said, it's legitimately dreamy, but not particularly scary.
Boy Jim asks Man Jim if he's looking for something, and so Lowry asks about his hat. The boy admits that he has seen a hat, on his father's head, and laughs like he made a joke. Then he offers to show Lowry something and whips out a rabbit's foot, then there is nothing but the rabbit's foot, and then there's nothing but darkness until Lowry takes another step forward and finds himself back on the stairs. Dream transition, yo.
Lowry briefly wonders why he didn't trek across the red lands until he found the top of the staircase again instead of having to get closer to the bottom, but resolves to keep looking for that door from last time. He also wonders why he didn't ask Boy Jim about his missing hat/four hours, and I'm not sure whether it's the author or the character overlooking that Lowry kind of did just that. Whatever, onward and downward.
Stairway Encounter #2 - Lowry finds the door he saw earlier. It is a Scary Door, with a knocker shaped like Medusa's head, and it makes scary booming sounds that echo up and down the staircase when he uses it. With the sound of many bolts and latches coming undone it opens to unleash the acrid smell of smoke and a pair of bats that whir past Lowry's head.
Inside is a character who comes just short of being a cliched witch doubled over a bubbling cauldron - through bleary eyes Lowry can just make out an impression of "a wasted face and yellow teeth all broken and awry, of tangled colorless hair and eyes like holes in a skull." We can only assume some alchemy is going on in there to make the unnatural fumes, but there's no actual mention of a cauldron. Yet something about this section makes the reader assume there's one bubbling away in the room behind while she stands in the door to talk to Lowry on the stairs.
"Mother, I would like to leave these stairs," said Lowry.
"Mother? Oh, so you are polite tonight, James Lowry. So you'd like to flatter me into thinking you are really going to stand there and try to come in. Hah-hah! No, you don't, James Lowry."
"Wait, mother, I don't know how you know my name, for I have never been here before, but-"
"You've been on these stairs before. I never forget a face. But now you are coming down, and then you were going up, and your name was not James Lowry, and every time you went up another step you would kick away the one below, and when you came here you laughed at me and had me whipped and spat upon my face! I never forget!"
"That is not true!"
"It will do until there's something that is true in this place."
There. If there's one good quote from this book, it's probably that last sentence. Unfortunately, the rest of Lowry and Mother's conversation is much less interesting.
The hag says that a grown man losing his hat is "a very silly thing to do, to do, to do," and of course on top of that she knows he's lost four hours of his life. She asks if he wants her advice no less than five times in three pages. And she refuses to let him come in off the staircase.
"You can't leave them. You walked up them, and now you'll walk down them all the way to the bottom. You must do it, that's all there is to it. You can sag and drag and gag and wag, but you've got to go to the bottom. All the way down. All the way down. All the way, way, way, way, way, way, way down! Down! Down! Down! Want some advice?"
By "advice" she means "old woman mucus," because she asks for his pocket hanky, "violently" blows her nose into it, throws it away for a bat to retrieve, throws it away again for the other bat to retrieve, and eventually stuffs it back into Lowry's coat and straightens his tie. Remember, this is a surreal nightmare sequence (or is it?) so nothing in it has to make sense. She also drops a bombshell so terrible that it must be rendered in all italics, and causes a break in the paragraphs - Lowry shouldn't seek his hat, "Because if you find your hat you'll find your four hours, and if you find your four hours you will surely die!"
Lowry can only blink at this revelation and accept Mother's next offer of advice
"Hats are hats and cats are cats, and when the birds sing there is something awry in the world. Bats are bats and hats are hats, and when it is spring the world is only bracing itself for another death. Rats are rats and hats are hats, and if you can't walk faster then you'll never be a master.
But Lowry wants to be the very best, like no one ever was!
Want some advice?"
"Go on down the stairs and you'll meet a man. If you are bound to die, then ask him where you lost your hat."
"He'll tell me?"
"Maybe he will and maybe he won't. Bats are hats are rats are cats are hats and there is no soup deep enough to drown."
"Drown what, mother?"
"Why, to drown, that's all! You have a kind face, James Lowry."
"Thank you, mother."
Now here's a terrifying thought - what if the guys behind the Elder Scrolls flipped through this book at some point before coming up with Sheogorath? 'cause this sounds awfully similar to Wabbajack.
The hag goes on to explain that Lowry will meet a second man after the first, though of course "they aren't men, either of them. They're ideas." But if Lowry goes all the way down to the bottom of the stairs, he'll most assuredly find the top. After all, "Hats lead to bats, lead to cats, lead to rats. Rats are hungry, James Lowry. Rats will eat you, James Lowry."
Frankly, at this point I'm more annoyed than scared. The surreality has drowned out any horror, and we're dealing with a disgusting old woman who won't give a straight answer and likes to rhyme and repeat herself, herself, herself.
After asking one last time if Lowry really wants to find his hat, and insulting him by looking up "stubborn" in the thesaurus and reading through the synonyms for it twice, she has one last question for him:
"You don't believe in demons and devils?"
"You still don't believe in demons or devils?"
"Then look behind you, James Lowry."
But there was only darkness.
Maybe we can later pick apart the deep symbolism of this scene or discuss how clever it foreshadows the fact that there's a shadow monster living in Lowry's hat, but right now I'm just happy it means the old lady is gone. Next time, Lowry will continue to stumble along the stairs and bump into more weirdos who will talk for a bit before disappearing.
Man, I'm kinda down now. The first little part of the chapter was a lot better than the rest of it, and now it's gone. It's never coming back. And every page will take us further away from it.
Back to Chapter 3, part 1